A Little Less Dazed, A Bit Less Confused

Remembrance of technologies past

While the advent of digital photography has changed the way we take photos, it’s changed the way we view them as well.

Today, we’re awash in photos, but not so very long ago their relative scarcity gave rise to traditions that already seem old-fashioned: carrying family photos in a wallet; creating physical photo albums; trading annual school photos with classmates.

Another tradition in my own family involved evenings spent sorting through boxes of unlabeled photos, trying to identify when or where they were taken, while wondering at those unfamiliar people smiling back at us from the past. Occasionally, even uncertainty took on a strange specificity, leading to comments like, “I think that might have been your dad’s best friend’s cousin, who came to stay every summer.” Just as often, no one had a clue about the person’s identity, and the photo was discarded.

Perhaps the strangest experience was failing to recognize myself in a photo. “Who’s this?” I’d ask, only to have the group laugh as someone said, “Why, that’s you. Don’t you remember when you visited our relatives in Albert Lea?” Only then did it begin to come back: the long afternoon, the leafy trees, the lemonade and cakes offered by a woman in an apron decorated with cross-stitched chickens.

In a sense, blog archives resemble those boxes of disorganized photos. After ten years of posting, it’s possible to encounter occasional surprises during a quick browse through my history. Some pieces have been forgotten. Others stir a sense of astonishment — I wrote that? A few revivify emotions felt during the writing process itself.

Re-reading the first post I published here, the feeling I remember is less astonishment than anxiety: particularly, the sort of anxiety I experienced while standing for the first time at the end of the high diving board at our local swimming pool. With a bevy of friends lined up behind me on the ladder, there was no going back.

Theoretically, of course, I could have turned back from blogging, since no one would have known had I decided to forego clicking that button marked “Publish.”  But I would have known, and so I jumped. I laugh now at the “end of the diving board interior monologue” tone of this first post. It amuses me as much as I’m amused by the title I chose: “Dazed and Confused.” Slightly edited for punctuation and grammar, it may evoke some memories for you.

With more years behind me than I care to remember, startled into cyber-sensitivity by a variety of encounters with this brave new world, I stand at the edge of the precipice: leaning; looking; listening for the voice that has lured me to this place.
What do I know of websites; blogs; html; CSS?  Not a thing. At least, I know so little that my friendly five-year-old neighbor could out-navigate me in any cyber-contest. 
When I think of hyperlinks, I hyperventilate.  When I hear the word tag, I think of a children’s game.  When a computer guru begins a sentence with the phrase “All you have to do is…” I’ve already done a mental turn and am running for my life.  They mean well, and so do I.  It’s just that intuitive isn’t a word I associate with computers or their programs.
But I have things to say — words to write, metaphors to build, conclusions to draw, paragraphs to stack, reorder, and rearrange to suit myself, and perhaps others.  Whether I like it or not, the day of depending solely on my No. 2 pencil or the old, clunky Underwood is over. If I am to share my words and my vision, technology must become my friend.
Of course, friendship takes time. Friendship isn’t an afternoon project or a weekend diversion: a passing inclination for those times when nothing else piques interest.  A commitment as well as a delight, friendship requires attentiveness and care, energy and perseverance.
I have far less time than I’d like, and my energy can ebb, but I know  perseverance. Perseverance is setting a goal, then making coffee at 2 a.m. to meet it. Perseverance is changing a title in order to attract more readers, then changing it back to what seems right. Perseverance is continuing to listen for the voice that lures to the edge of the precipice even when that voice falls silent. Perseverance is singing in the night while others sleep, believing that the song will be heard.
Knowing all this, the question no longer is, “Do you want to write?”  For good or for ill, read or unread, poorly scribed or passionately sung, I will write.  At the edge of the precipice, a bit dazed, a good bit confused, I’ve made my commitment.  Let the perseverance begin.

Of course, perseverance alone — even ten years’ worth of perseverance — isn’t enough. There needs to be a little inspiration to help the process along, and finding inspiration can be difficult. Those difficulties certainly were occupying the mind of a blogger named justjosie when he asked this question in the June, 2008 WordPress forums:

Is there any easy way to just find something in a normal day that you can make interesting and into a blog? This may be a stupid question but I just can’t figure out what the Good Blog formula is.

Less than three months had passed since I began publishing The Task at Hand, but I’d already begun developing a formula of my own. Some weeks after sharing it with Josie, I reduced it to this simple graphic.

Today, the formula seems to have stood the test of time. Beyond that, I discovered in the course of reading and re-reading John McPhee’s utterly delightful Draft No. 4 that his approach to writing felt remarkably familiar. Asked about the genesis of his well-known essay on oranges, McPhee said:

What you hope is that some subject will interest you and then you will have to deal with it on its own terms. I get involved with an idea, and then get a little more involved.
I went to Florida to do a very short piece on oranges. This intrigued me because the color of orange juice changes over the course of a winter. I wanted to find out what was going on. I went into an orange grove down there and found 190 Ph.D.’s studying oranges. There was a library nearby with 50,000 items on oranges. “Oranges” ended up about 60,000 words long.

Getting involved with an idea, and then getting a little more involved, certainly has been the story of these past ten years. Now, there are padlocks and bluesmen, rock walls and flounder that continue to intrigue. Whether they’ll deserve the 60,000 words John McPhee devoted to his oranges is unlikely, but it’s hard to say what another ten years will bring.

Comments always are welcome.

 

The Crab Whisperer

Were those white fragments made of paper, styrofoam, or plastic?

As I worked my way along the slough’s edge, bits of scattered trash compelled my attention as much as the grasses and birds surrounding me. Odd and out of place in an environment where signs of human presence are uncommon, their colors suggested packaging of some sort, although the combination of white, blue, and orange didn’t bring a specific fast-food franchise to mind.

Wading out into the water for a closer look, I found the trash wasn’t plastic or paper at all, but remnants of another sort of dinner — not to mention evidence of diners no more inclined than certain humans to clean up after themselves.

Scattered blue crab shells and multitudes of footprints belonging to raccoons and wading birds made clear that I’d stumbled across one of the most popular restaurants in the neighborhood. Some shells might have washed ashore after the completion of their owners’ molting process, but others clearly had been broken and gnawed at by hungry creatures looking for an easy meal.

Claws and shell of the blue crab  ~ Callinectes sapidus
The scientific name means “beautiful, savory swimmer”

Given the number of body parts scattered about, I realized that more crabs surely were hidden away in the shallows. Being able to see one of the savory creatures swimming in its natural environment appealed, but my lack of a chicken neck and a string made even that low-tech way of attracting a crab impossible.

Then, I remembered the old man. Bent over the railing of a rickety dock when I spotted him on a local bayou, he acknowledged my presence without looking up. “Howdy,” he said. Following his gaze down to the water, I saw nothing more than smooth slickness and a hint of current. “Fishing?” I asked. “Naw,” he said. “Crabbing. See the line?”

Then, I saw it. The heavy twine, common as any found in a multitude of garages and storage sheds, hung perfectly straight, as though weighted. “What’s your bait?” I asked. “Chicken,” he said. “Got a neck on there now. Any part’s good. Legs. Liver. Turkey necks, too. Some use fish heads, but they’re better for a trap. For a hand line, I’d say chicken and turkey’s best.”

We stood for several minutes, staring at the line. Clearly, crabbing required patience. “What if you don’t get a bite?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “I might just set a spell in the shade, and then try again.”

Wishing him luck, I turned to leave, but stopped when he called out. “Just remember,” he said, “there’s one trick’ll guarantee you a good catch.” Curious, I waited to hear more. Grinning, he said, “If nothin’ else works, make a noise like a chicken neck.”

Crabbing Central

I’d always thought he was making a joke — perhaps even poking a bit of fun at me — until I sloshed my way back to dry land and stood staring into what I assumed to be crab-infested water. How do you make a noise like a chicken neck?  I thought. Chicken necks don’t make noise.

Then, it occurred to me. Maybe that’s what he meant.

Deciding to test the theory, I sat down on the bank and waited. Silent and still for five minutes; then ten; then fifteen, I heard nothing more than a faint clacking of dried reeds as the riffling of tidal flow moved across the flats.

Then, a stirring of silt and a faint gleam of color caught my eye as a crab emerged from beneath the broken reeds. In the brackish water, its colors were dull and its outline blurred, but there was no question it was heading toward land. Whether it would join me on the bank, I didn’t know.

Soon enough, the question was answered. Both male and female crabs began crawling onto the land: males recognizable by their blue claws, and females by the red-tipped claws that suggest they found the bottle of fingernail polish.

Unmoving, hardly daring to breathe, I watched them settle onto the sun-warmed mud, acting for all the world like vacationers jostling for the best poolside deck chairs.

I had little doubt they were aware of me. Compound eyes on long stalks allow them to see in multiple directions at once, and any movement on my part seemed to freeze them in place. When I stopped moving, all was well, and they returned to whatever it was they were doing before I so rudely interrupted them.

Finally, one of the more courageous females came close, perhaps to assess the strange creature sharing her mudflat. Tired of sitting and needing to stretch, I decided to talk to her.

“You’re darned classy,” I said, “with the prettiest claws in the bunch. I’m glad you crawled up here so I could see you.” No more chatty than the old crabber who’d suggested I imitate a chicken neck, she didn’t say a word. But she posed for another photo, and I swear I saw her smile.

 

Comments always are welcome. Click here for more information about blue crabs, provided by Texas Parks and Wildlife.

 

The Poets’ Birds: Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird  (Mimus polyglottos) on Galveston Island

My mother noticed the sound first, drawing my attention to it with a question. “How do you suppose a duck got up on the roof?”

Surprised, I looked around. “Duck? Where do you see a duck?”  “I don’t see a duck,” she said. “I hear a duck.” Listening, I realized she was right. The duck’s quacking, loud and insistent, seemed to be coming from above — if not from the roof, then from one of the overhanging trees.

Of course ducks fly, but we lived among mallards, and I’d never seen one perch higher than ground-level. Intrigued, I followed the sound. Caught up in a racket of its own making, the bird never moved, making it easy to spot. “Look at this,” I said. “Someone’s been hanging out around the water.”

It was a mockingbird on a corner of the roof, engaged in a pitch-perfect imitation of our local mallards. Rather than changing its song from time to time, as mockingbirds do, it simply quacked on, perhaps so delighted with its new ability it couldn’t bring itself to stop.

 
Eventually our amusement faded, but in the coming weeks and months I found myself listening to mockingbirds more closely, picking out snippets of other birds’ calls and songs from their repertoire.

Then, three years ago, a particularly enthusiastic singer moved into my neighborhood. He sang at dawn, and he sang at sunset; he sang at noon and, rather remarkably, he sang at midnight. I thought his night-singing an anomaly until I read this, in the Audubon Field Guide:


 This bird’s famous song, with its varied repetitions and artful imitations, is heard all day during nesting season (and often all night as well).

There’s no way to prove that the same bird has been singing outside my window for three years, but it can’t be denied that he always chooses the same palm tree, and no matter how much singing he’s done, he always begins again between 3 and 4 a.m.

Because of the way the buildings are placed, they seem to amplify his sound, increasing the volume to such a degree that even closed windows are no defense.

After recently being sung awake three nights in a row with no practical way to silence the bird — or any real desire to do so — I decided to add the mockingbird to my series of poets’ birds. This time, I wrote the poem, smiling all the while.

Pleased
to trill
in darkness,
mocking heron
and mallard alike,
the impudent singer
stretches and preens for a still
unseen mate: improvised warbles,
chirrups, and peeps enticing the world
to his sweet-feathered, palm-hidden presence.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.

Ten Years On The Road

“Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been” ~ the Grateful Dead

Despite being aware that April 14 would be my ten-year anniversary with WordPress, the nice, congratulatory posting in my notifications tab took me by surprise.

In the past, these anniversaries have come and gone with little more than a glance, a moment of reflection, and recommitment to another year of writing. But ten years is ten years, and something more in the way of acknowledgment seemed appropriate.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to republish three of my favorite posts, interspered with new material. This one, slightly revised from 2013, describes how the title of my blog — The Task At Hand — came to be.
Continue reading

Those Almost-Photographic Plates

In a world still characterized by four-digit telephone numbers, 78 rpm records, and vacuum tubes that had to be carried to the hardware store for testing when the radio or television wouldn’t work, my first camera fit right in.

A Christmas gift, it was a simple Kodak Brownie — perhaps the Brownie Holiday, but more probably the slightly newer Model 127. Of course it required film, carefully loaded into the camera one precious roll at a time. There were knobs to turn, holes to match with tiny, mechanical teeth, and a certain amount of ruined film that went along with the learning process, since childish excitement often meant forgetting the first rule listed in the Brownie 127 instruction manual: “Take the camera into the shade.”  Continue reading

The Brief Resurrection Of Dale T

Lydia Ann Channel Lighthouse ~ Port Aransas, Texas

None of the roustabouts, deck hands, or dock workers along the middle and upper Texas coast seemed to know how Dirty Dale got his nickname, and Dale wasn’t telling.

Gracie, who’d given up life on an oil rig to put her cooking talents to work in a land-locked café, served him breakfast every morning. She insisted his name came from his good-natured willingness to pursue every female in sight. Certainly, no matter how oblivious, uninterested, or irritated the object of his attentions, Dale’s confidence was absolute. Sliding into a seat next to an unaccompanied woman, he’d murmur, “Hey, darlin’. I’m here to improve your life.” Most didn’t feel the need for improvement, but he remained willing to try.
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A Celtic Legacy

The widow Mackinnon and Mrs. Neil Ferguson ~ St. Kilda, 1909

From Oban to Skye, from the Outer Hebrides to St. Kilda they traveled: two Aberdeen photographers intent on capturing and preserving the life of a remarkable people.  The beautifully colored lantern slides of  George Washington Wilson and Norman Macleod,  an iconic collection put into book form by Mark Butterworth, were produced in the late 1880s, fifty years before color photography came to Scotland. Continue reading