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.

 

Scraps and Reality

(Click to enlarge)

Roger King probably wouldn’t have stopped to untangle this coil of rusty barbed wire, but if a fellow had dragged it into his salvage yard and offered it up, I doubt he would have turned it down. A stroll through the buildings on his property suggested he rarely refused anything. Piles of sheet metal, ceramic insulators, lengths of angle iron and rebar, old appliances, and Mason jars filled with fasteners huddled everywhere. Occasional oddities showed up as well, helping to keep things interesting: an armadillo shell; a set of paisley chair cushions; a bird cage painted green and filled with red plastic geraniums.
Continue reading

Remembering Ismael

Becoming a varnish worker isn’t difficult. With a vehicle to serve as a combined company headquarters, warehouse, and service fleet, about $200 to invest in sandpaper, varnish, and brushes, and a wardrobe of stylish, second-hand tees, you could start today.

Things will go even more smoothly if you already possess some important personal qualities: infinite patience, a tolerance for frustration, and a sense of humor. The humor’s especially important. It helps to keep things in perspective when fresh varnish is ruined by fog, pollen, wind, rain,  insects, or The Yard Crew From Hell: that charming band of brothers given to revving up their leaf blowers just as you’re putting away your brush.  Continue reading

A New Artistic Paradigm

Once upon a time, when journalism was journalism, gossip was gossip, and propaganda was recognized for what it is, aspiring beat writers learned to begin their news stories by answering six basic questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? 

The useful mnemonic device has a history stretching back to Cicero, although early rhetoricians framed the questions differently, and the form evolved over time. Perhaps most famously, Rudyard Kipling, in his well-known Just So Stories (1902), included this bit of verse in a tale he called “The Elephant’s Child.”

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew).
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me, I give them all a rest.

Questions beginning with one of these six famous words are especially useful for information gathering, since none can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.  Anyone hoping to write an informative news story, provide a good interview, understand historical context, or carry on enjoyable dinner conversation with a stranger soon will appreciate the importance of the five W’s and an H”. Continue reading

Shaping Sentences, Choosing Words

Decades ago, I learned to delight in that staple of elementary school education, the vocabulary quiz.  As kindergarten students, we were exempted from its discipline, but once we entered first grade it was expected that we would learn twenty new words each week — not only their meanings, but also their spelling, correct pronunciation, and proper use in a sentence.

As far as I was concerned, forty weekly words would have been acceptable.  Every word turned on my tongue like a key, unlocking a new and unexpected world.  Sometimes, pushing against inexplicable spellings or mysterious definitions, I found words to be like windows, opening to reveal a variety of intriguing vistas.

Words with multiple syllables were my favorites. Tumbling through sentences like grade-schoolers at play, it seemed they could go on forever.  Walking to school in the morning, I’d rehearse them in my mind.  Perspicacity.  Archetype.  Lacuna.  Paraphernalia.  Abnegate. Chrysanthemums. Continue reading

Persistence, Personified

After months of struggle, The Little Essay That Could finally started its engines, cut loose the string of cars that had been carrying the freight of an idea that didn’t belong and began chugging its way up the hill toward publication. It had been left on a siding, bereft and forlorn, condemned to idleness by my own obstinancy, my stubborn insistence that two thematic strands should remain entwined in a single essay.   Only after I pulled them apart, discarding one, was the storyline able to get going and pick up a little steam.

Ironically, just as I began working again on my simplified piece, sighing and moaning to myself that things ought to be progressing more quickly, I came across news of Harper Lee and her former literary agent, Samuel Pinkus. Lee recently filed suit in Manhattan federal court seeking to recover royalties from from the sale of her novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.  According to Associated Press reports, Lee was contending that Pinkus had tricked her into signing over the copyright to her novel while she was recovering from a stroke.  Continue reading

Kaleidoscope Minds

Snow-envy is easy when you’re not the one shoveling a path through five-foot drifts or having to thaw door locks on a car.

Even so, when the photos arrive, sent along by friends determined to gloat or complain about their shimmering worlds, I’m surprised by how quickly I become transfixed. Glinting in the sunlight, piled high along fenceposts and streets, whorled into intricate, complex patterns against window and shed, the still-pristine drifts of freshly-fallen snow dazzle my eyes and my imagination. Always, they make me envious.

My envy is partly nostalgia, the remembered pleasure of snow angels and sledding. But snow also stirs to life a favorite fantasy – the possibility that life might be willing to grant us, if only occasionally, a perfectly clean slate. By reducing the physical world to the twin realities of sunlight and shadow, snow creates an illusion of  purity and simplicity, tempting us to imagine a human world equally free of complication and regrets. Watching snow cover the remains of desiccated autumn with a blanket of perfection, it’s easy to imagine life’s disappointment, pain, conflict and loss blanketed with similar layers of beauty and peace. Continue reading