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 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.
Continue reading

Feline Felicitations, Redux

Many of you met Dixie Rose and her Christmas carols some years ago, but newer readers haven’t had the pleasure. She’s an old kitty now, but she still enjoys celebrating, so this repost of  her “Cat Carols” seems in order. Enjoy!

Laugh at the antlers if you must, but laugh at your peril. That business-like look in the eyes of my beautiful calico is very real. Dixie Rose (short for Dixie Rose, Center of the Universe and Queen of All She Surveys) loves Christmas, and she intends to be ready when it arrives. I don’t advise standing in her way. Continue reading

A Season Of Turning

Woodworker, carver, sailor, musician: Gordon Bok is an American treasure. Until several years ago, I’d not heard his name and might have missed his artistry forever, had it not been for the graciousness of a reader.

We’d been exchanging thoughts on music, and in an emailed post-script to our discussion he added, “I can’t think of a better song than Gordon Bok’s Turning Toward the Morning.”  Pointing me toward Albany, New York’s WAMC and their Saturday night broadcasts of the “Hudson River Sampler” he said, “I can almost guarantee you’ll hear something by Bok: if not this Saturday, then next Saturday for sure. And something by Stan Rogers as well. But you’ll also hear songs you’ve never heard before and will want to hear again.” Continue reading

The Serendipitists

Green comet milkweed buds (Asclepias viridiflora)

It wasn’t the sort of news that would entice just anyone to change their weekend plans. Still, as word began to spread that green comet milkweed had been found on the Nash prairie, and that Susan Conaty would lead a prairie walk to see both the milkweed and other late spring beauties, plans began to change.

Susan knows Nash Prairie as well as anyone, and a chance to spend time there in her company wasn’t to be missed. I arrived at the prairie to find Susan had been delayed, but eager milkweed hunters already were comparing notes, trying to pin down the plants’ location with half-remembered bits of information, a few cryptic texts, and entirely wrong assumptions about the plant’s appearance.

As we bumbled about, the search for the milkweed reminded me of my initial search for Nash Prairie itself. On that trip, a goat standing atop a shed and a utility substation served as unmistakable markers. Our flower-finding directions were more vague: turn left from the hay road; scan near the fence; look for the fallen gate; draw an imaginary line to the stand of trees.

Finally, a cry of triumph drew us to plants we had to have passed at least a dozen times, oblivious to their presence. Still in bud and unblemished, the large round clusters of flowers and trailing leaves certainly made the name “green comet” understandable.

With the day’s primary goal achieved, people spread out to explore the prairie: taking photos, identifying unusual plants, and gauging the readiness of seeds to be plucked. Among the plants still in bloom, the unfailingly cheerful black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) bobbed and nodded in the breeze.

A typical black-eyed Susan

I spent some time chasing butterflies among the Rudbeckia, hoping to photograph a black swallowtail at rest. Unsuccessful and ready for a different subject, I scanned a nearby group of flowers and realized I’d found something I never imagined I’d see: an example of fasciation.

A fasciated Black-eyed Susan 

Derived from the Latin word fascia  (“a band, bandage, swathe, ribbon”), fasciation describes an abnormal fusion or flattening of plant stems, flowers, fruit, or foliage. In the case of this black-eyed Susan, fasciation has caused both a broad, flattened stem, and a double, or “twinned” flower. The causes seem to be varied, and somewhat mysterious: viruses, genetic abnormality, insects, or physical damage all have been offered as reasons for the phenomenon.

The flattened and ribbon-like stem

I’d heard that photographing a fasciated plant can be challenging, and so it was. As I contorted myself this way and that, I heard a voice behind me ask, “What have you got there?” I untangled myself, sat up, and said, “It’s a serendipitous Susan.”

Indeed, it was: wholly unexpected, entirely delightful, and odd as odd could be.

Over time, the excitement I’d felt at the discovery abated, although I enjoyed looking back at the photos occasionally. Then Chris Helzer added a new gallery of photos to his site, “The Prairie Ecologist,” and brought the joys of serendipity back into focus.

In 2013, as he photographed a crab spider on what appears to be a sunflower, an ant unexpectedly appeared. Describing the experience, Chris wrote, “Often, [these] older photos capture a particular moment of serendipity that still evokes strong emotions for me.”

I enjoyed his reference to serendipity as much as I did the photo, and began to ponder how often these serendipitous experiences seem to occur in nature.  We should call ourselves serendipitists, I thought, since we’re always hoping to bump up against some unexpected oddity of life.”

Horace Walpole, the British art historian and man of letters who coined the word serendipity  seems to have been a bit of an oddity himself. In his introduction to Walpole’s Hieroglyphic Tales, Thomas Christensen describes the author and critic as an exemplar of a somewhat peculiar strain of British tradition: one distinguished by “absurdity, ridicule, wordplay, wit, wickedness and just plain madness.”

There’s no question Walpole had a vibrant imagination and a taste for high jinks. When he wasn’t busy shepherding tourists through Strawberry Hill, his home outside London, he wrote volumes of letters  One of his most famous, a 1765 letter to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, written after Rousseau fled persecution in Geneva and took up residence in France, was a fake.

The letter, supposedly written by King Frederick of Prussia, offered Rousseau asylum-with-a-twist. Among other things, the faux King Frederick said, “I will cease to persecute you as soon as you cease to take pride in being persecuted.”

Rousseau first attributed the letter to Voltaire. Later, he suspected his friend David Hume, and the letter played a role in a spectacular falling out between Hume and Rousseau.

When he wasn’t stirring up trouble, Walpole amused himself by renovating Strawberry Hill, his “Gothic mousetrap” of a house.  Like most collectors, he wanted his objects to be ­admired, and Strawberry Hill was the perfect showcase.

Walpole often “gave personal tours to posh visitors, but left his housekeeper to herd the hoi polloi for a guinea a tour.”  Despite producing a guidebook to the place, Walpole eventually wearied of the numbers of guests traipsing through its halls. “Never build yourself a house between London and Hampton Court,” Walpole said. “Everyone will live in it but you.”

Still, he loved his home, with all of its “papier-mâché friezes, Gothic-themed wallpaper, fireplaces copied from medieval tombs, Holbein chambers evoking the court of Henry VIII, Dutch blue and white floor tiles, modern oil paintings, china and carpets.”  It seems reasonable to assume Walpole created Strawberry Hill as a concrete analogue to his writing. As he said,

­Visions have always been my pasture. Old castles, old pictures, old histories and the babble of old ­people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint.

Michael Snodin, ­curator of the Walpole exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, suggests Walpole’s cultural legacy was “to pioneer a kind of imaginative self–expression in building, furnishing and collecting,” but his  fixation on the house and its furnishings didn’t exclude other interests. Much of Walpole’s “imaginative self-expression” was centered on language. Today, his extraordinarily useful word serendipity  has become familiar to nearly everyone, and he surely would be pleased by the increased use of the word and its derivatives.

Writing to Horace Mann in 1754, Walpole first defined the word as “a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something else.” He said he’d derived the word from the title of a Persian fairy tale titled The Three Princes of Serendip, a story in which the heroes “always were making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

As John Barthes notes in his retelling of the Sinbad saga, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, “You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere, and lose your bearings in the process.”

In that sense, my discovery of a fasciated black-eyed Susan on a day meant to be focused on milkweed surely was serendipitous. But it’s worth noting that Walpole’s serendipity is more than accidental discovery or happy coincidence. For Walpole, sagacity — the ability to link apparently unrelated, innocuous or irrelevant facts — was  equally important if previously unsuspected pathways for exploration and delight were to open.

Someday, a more sagacious serendipitist may stumble across another fasciated flower and make the intuitive leap to the unrelated, innocuous, or seemingly irrelevant facts that finally explain the phenomenon. If — or perhaps when — that happens, it surely will be fascinating.

Comments always are welcome.

 

 

Storms, Survival, and Stories

Houston’s Buffalo Bayou after  Hurricane Harvey

Matt Lanza, forecast meteorologist for Houston’s Cheniere Energy, shares responsibilities with Eric Berger for Space City Weather, a blog dedicated to providing the greater Houston area with what Matt and Eric like to call “accurate, hype-free forecasts.”

Before and during Hurricane Harvey, their blog and social media postings served as excellent sources of information, making a complex system understandable even as they refused to engage in histrionics.

Only after the hurricane’s departure did the toll of providing that information become clear. Writing for Space City Weather, Matt included these comments in a post titled “My Harvey Story”:

Weather models constantly indicated risks for 30, 40, or 50 inches of rain in high confidence fashion somewhere between Beaumont and Victoria. I couldn’t comprehend that amount of water in such a short time. How do you reconcile a patently absurd forecast with the reality that it’s probably going to verify?
We’d see messages from people wondering if they should just leave. I got emails from co-workers, worried about losing their homes on the coast near Port Aransas. What do you tell people? How do you express this?
As the event unfolded it got harder and harder to do. Seeing pictures of devastation, getting text messages from family who live nowhere near a bayou and still took water into their home, getting messages from friends who worried about water coming into their apartments, I came close to breaking down on Sunday morning, completely.
I’ve never felt so heartsick and helpless in my life. Disasters which had, for all my life to this point, been mostly impersonal, finally became real, raw, and very personal.

Matt and his wife Denise were fortunate. Their home didn’t flood, and their property losses were minimal. But for Matt, haunted by other, less tangible losses, the struggles continued:

Somewhere along the line [Hurricane] Gloria ignited a passion for meteorology… As I sit here 32 years later, I openly wonder if a rain-laden hurricane in Texas is what extinguishes it.
Do I still love weather? I guess so, but if we’re really being honest here, I don’t know right now. I honestly think I’m not going to be able to sleep now when it’s raining. There’s no rain gentle enough that will allow me to drift off to sleep in peace. Maybe that “fear” of rain will disappear with time… But I do wonder where my passion for weather goes from here.

And then, tucked into the middle of his reflective paragraphs, there is the simple statement: “I have survivor’s guilt.”

I understand Matt’s feelings. After Hurricane Ike in 2008, I produced a few blog entries, but the joy of writing, the sense of unfettered creativity, the easy flow of words, disappeared. Ideas came to mind, but nothing seemed worth the sustained effort a coherent piece of writing requires.

Like the Lanzas, I had emerged from a terrible storm unbelievably blessed, with my home and business secure. Even the stray kitty I worried over had survived, and a camphor tree I’d planted lost hardly a leaf.

With my possessions intact, no permanent financial losses, and power restored, Hurricane Ike had left me essentially free of problems.

And that, in the end, became the problem.

Despite the sheetrock I knocked out, the supplies I furnished, and the contributions I made, every time I sat down to write, paralysis overtook me.

It seemed selfish to be sitting at a desk while only five miles away ice, water, and food were being handed out. There seemed no way to justify spending hours engrossed in reading and thought while others struggled to find showers or a job. What good could come, I wondered, from a story, an essay,  or a poem for people left with nothing but a tent, a cot and a void in their soul so deep it seemed impossible to fill?

The paralysis lingered.

In the end, it was a friend’s quite different experience that helped me untie the knots. Scheduled to be in New York City on September 11, 2001, he had remained at home because of a cancelled meeting. As he put it:

I never felt relief, or gratitude for having been unbelievably lucky.  I was consumed with guilt, feeling consigned to live forever in the shadow of those who died, unable to make amends.

As he later learned, his sense of isolation, numbness, and helplessness is common to people who escape a disaster which seriously affects others. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 are only one example. Train wrecks, building fires, robbery attempts, refinery explosions, mass murders, or natural disasters of every sort can trigger the same reaction. 

The arbitrary nature of such events makes survivors especially vulnerable to stunned disbelief and guilt. One house survives, while a neighbor’s does not.  A concertgoer survives, but his friends do not. Asking, “Why?” is natural, but there are no answers.

While survivor’s guilt isn’t identical to clinical depression, many of the same remedies are proposed by those familiar with the syndrome. They advise talking about the event, nurturing a sense of safety and stability, and returning to usual routines as soon as possible.

Challenging irrational thoughts is especially important, as is focusing on personal strengths, and taking action wherever possible.

After Ike, I heard that final piece of perfectly reasonable advice as a bit of an accusation. Having been raised to believe that actions speak louder than words, the aphorism’s truth appeared self-evident.

Words weren’t going to patch a roof, or feed a child.  Metaphors couldn’t produce ice or water, and cooking up pithy paragraphs certainly wouldn’t transform a single MRE into a gourmet meal. Similes don’t scrape sand off roads, and even the most well-written chapter rarely captures the chaos of utter destruction.

Entangled in these thoughts and exhausted by the struggle to escape their pull, I found release in the form of a quotation from the author Ingrid Bengis:

 Words are a form of action, capable of producing change.

Thinking more clearly than I had for days, I asked myself, “What can words do?” Somewhat astonished, I watched my list grow as I reminded myself that words can console and hearten; strengthen a spirit; clarify  vision, and enliven hope. When necessary, words challenge or confront, describing  realities we prefer to ignore with sharpness and clarity.

Words can sting a conscience, or soothe a heart.  Words help to create community in the midst of chaos.  Most importantly, words humanize, breaking down barriers that inevitably arise between the lucky and the unlucky, between victims and survivors.

Eventually, I heard a powerful plea on behalf of words from a true storm survivor: a man living in his truck and tent on a Galveston beach. Like others who chose that way of coping, he had his reasons. When I asked why he hadn’t gone to a shelter, he said,

“You’re never sure what you can do and what you can’t do.  And it’s depressing, being shoved into a place with a bunch of people you don’t know,  having to look at that mess all the time.”

Out here, I got the waves, and the moon and the stars are pretty, and there ain’t nobody to bother me. At night, it’s real peaceful. I just lay here, and kind of think. If I get real bored or lonesome or nervous, I tell myself stories.”

So it is. Despite our slightly naive trust in the permanence of our homes, our friends, our jobs, and our health, each of us lives as a sojourner: strangers in a strange land, creatures destined to be stripped by time and fate of youth, power, and pride as surely as natural events strip communities of structures and possessions.

When that time comes, we need words. We need stories to sketch a vision of the future, and poems to hold the scattered remnants of the past. We need blankets of words to wrap around cherished memories, and baskets of seed-words to sow for hope.

There always will be people convinced words don’t matter, just as there are people who believe writing is frivolous — rather like origami, or learning to make puff pastry.

But writers and storytellers, playwrights and poets know a deeper truth. Human beings are creatures of language, and crafters of words. Words give birth to our hopes and attend the death of our dreams. Words lead us through the mazes of life, and sanctify our struggles. When the world we know is destroyed, words help us reclaim our humanity, even as we rebuild our lives.

Words are a form of action, but they are far more than a tool, capable of producing change. They are a wellspring of life.

To speak, to write, to dare to utter a word in the shimmering, moonstruck darkness is human. And when the darkness is complete; when the moon has set and the stars have gone; when there is only the silence and waves of loneliness and grief, the world needs its writers, its wordsmiths, and its ordinary speakers to tell their stories — offering them as gifts for those whose own words have been silenced by the vicissitudes of life.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Benton Harbor: A Man For Our Time

Steamship “City of Benton Harbor” Near St. Joseph/Benton Harbor, Michigan Lighthouse

For nearly two centuries, the legacy of Missouri’s Benton family has continued to spread.

Maecenas Benton, United States Attorney (1885-1889) and Congressional Representative from Missouri (1897-1905) happened to be the father of Thomas Hart Benton, American regionalist painter and muralist.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which houses many of his paintings, is located in Bentonville, Arkansas, a town named in honor of his great-great-uncle Thomas Hart Benton, a five-term Missouri senator whose efforts on behalf of Arkansas statehood were substantial.  After the first county in Arkansas was named “Benton” as a tribute to the Senator, the site designated as the county seat became known as Bentonville.

Arkansas wasn’t the only state that profited from Senator Benton’s attentions. Only six months after Arkansas’s [¹] 1836 admittance to the Union, Michigan became the next state to join.  Benton Township was established there on March 11, 1837, and in 1865, one of the first towns in the area, Brunson Harbor, became Benton Harbor: also in tribute to the Missouri Senator who helped Michigan achieve statehood. Continue reading