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.

 

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

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

Taking The De Longpré View

“Pansies in a Pewter Vase” ~ Paul de Longpré

Tough and resilient, pansies bring a welcome touch of color to winter on the Texas coast. Beloved of landscapers and gardeners alike, the flowers tolerate cold, snow, and ice; even after days of freezing temperatures they recover quickly, and will bloom until the rising heat of summer wilts them away.

Some pansies, of course, never fade. Many years ago, I found a Paul de Longpré watercolor, “Pansies In A Pewter Vase,” at an estate sale. Entranced by the combination of pretty flowers and a beautifully constructed wooden frame, I brought the piece home, and hung it near my desk. Eventually, the artful signature led me to wonder: Who was this de Longpré fellow?
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The Margarine Wars

“Mound of Butter” ~ Antoine Vollon, National Gallery of Art

Children of another age, we tickled one another beneath the chin with plump, pollen-heavy dandelions, giggling and asking, “Do you like butter?”

Of course we liked butter. Everyone did. Butter was a double treat, as palatable as ice cream or candy, but never consumed alone. With butter on the table, we knew there would be yeast rolls, or biscuits, or mountainous mashed potatoes surrounding an overflowing, golden lake. On special mornings there would be buttery cinnamon toast: crusty with sugar, and heavy with the scent of spice. When holidays arrived, butter flaked our pastries and lightened the crumbling cookies.
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Santa, Virginia, and Me

Santa Comes to Visit Me  ~ Christmas Eve, c. 1952

From the time I was old enough to recognize him, until well past the time most children would have been done with such things, Santa visited our house on Christmas Eve.

The first present I received from him, a floating rubber bath duck with a hollowed-out back meant to hold soap, both thrilled and terrified me. Delighted by the gift, I feared Santa’s early visit would mean no presents under the tree in the morning. Continue reading

Iesous Ahatonhia: The Huron Carol

“A Huron-Wendat Hunter Calling Moose” ~  Cornelius Krieghoff, 1868

Known as the first North American Christmas carol, “The Huron Carol” was written by Père Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary and accomplished linguist who supervised the preparation of a Huron grammar and dictionary.

After arriving in Quebec from Normandy in 1625,  de Brébeuf (1593-1649) lived and worked among the Huron from 1626 to 1629, and then again from 1634 until his torture and death at the hands of the Iroquois in 1649. Canonized in 1930, de Brébeuf became one of the patron saints of Canada.

Like so many early missionaries, de Brébeuf necessarily became an explorer. After being assigned to Huronia, he found himself crossing the 800 miles that separated Quebec from the Hurons by canoe. It was far from an easy trip, as  the Dictionary of Canadian Biography makes clear:
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