20 June 2016

the dinosaur and the cockroach


I grew up on this fantasy that someone from my generation would write the next great American novel. Then it became the all-encompassing album. These structures, these great houses, the traditions I went to school to learn how to build  - they became dinosaurs in a handful of years. Do people still try to pull off this minor miracle, this speaking directly to everyone? Of course they do. There are always survivors - brittle, tough, unyielding die-hards that think this is still possible.

Plenty of catch-phrases make things easier to swallow  - "Three chords and the truth is all you need."  or "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." In truth, these are optiates, soothing pills to lesson the pain. Sometimes it feels like a curse, to be born in-between the end of something  and the beginning of something entirely different. At what point do you abandon ship, and try on a lifejacket? I am not a person who surrenders easily. One more catch-phrase hangs in the air - "No one likes a quitter." 

Maybe reinvention is the greatest obstacle for an artist. Nostalgia is a heavy load to shoulder. We all feel the hot sting of loss at one point in life. How to say goodbye to stories half-told? How to look at the world with fresh eyes? It is like getting a divorce. Everything you poured into that cup, it leaks slowly to the floor, wasted. Lost time, lost money, lost ambition. And then there is that low flame of embarrassment, for the nights you talked in a hushed voice about all you would accomplish, a drink swirling in one hand as the ice slowly melts. 

You choke on what you abandon. 

Of course, you can just keep on going with blinders on. Keep your nose to the stone, hacking away at that pile of dog-eared pages. Jot down lyrics on scraps of paper in the wee small hours of the morning. Yes, stare out the window while you are on a train thinking about the book you will write after this one, if the next collection of photos will be color or black and white, if that film title still works or if you need to cook up a new one. 







13 June 2016

not all seeds grow (please tell me, some precious things)


There was a seed planted six months ago, for today's post. I cannot say more than the fact that it never happened. Not all seeds grow. It was painful, as deep a wound as any. But then I took a walk with N and V and E. I pushed my children on swings. I ate something. I answered questions, and felt useful, needed. No hurt can linger in a house crammed so full with love.

The weekend was lost in catching up on sleep, on staring at trees bending hard in a cold, wet wind. It whistled and howled at the edges of the windows, and I wrapped myself tight in warm blankets. V took a liking to one of my hats, and paraded up and down the hallway with it cocked far back on her little head, or dangling from one hand as she dragged it across the floor. After everyone went to sleep I pulled the guitar to my knee, and found something there as I often do in tough moments. 

                    Don't know if I'm good or bad, 
                    just what you tell me.
                    She had a gift for taking things away
                    so please tell me, some precious things.
                    Like when I was a boy,
                    when I was the new kid.

I walk home with E on Sunday. It is raining and the sun is shining all at the same time, a classic stroke of irony that causes no one here to bat an eye. The news comes in, another shooting back home. The numbers grow, as the details filter in. 

We are sitting at the dinner table, a full seven hours later than Florida and New York. The story unfolds, as sad and pointless as ever. 

All pain is pain. All suffering is suffering.

How to sift through all of this? A child drops an ice cream cone and cries out. They know nothing of the news, of deaths far away, just immediate loss, and a question “why?’ or “why me?” or “why me, today?” 

There is no answer. 



06 June 2016

The end of an epic (finding your way back)



An epic project ends, and I stare at N in the morning suddenly without the latest update to discuss. Nights and weekends for over a month were lost, with everyone staring at the back of my head as I hacked away. V is kicking her feet in the carriage. The sun is splashing around through the leaves and some left over puddles. I shrug my shoulders, standing quietly as we all look at each other for a little while. Kisses on cheeks and they roll off into the neighborhood, to feed stale bits of bread to some ducks, to make their way through a small forest until V takes a nap.

Upstairs, E is still asleep. Her arms stand at odd angles, elbows poking from beneath the covers. I wander the rooms for a little while, listening to the scrape of the soles of my feet on the wood floor. The guitar stands in the corner, more waiting for V to poke at it than for me. But all at once I am tuning it, and the black journal on the table leaps open and there is a good fresh pen and some fragments I scribbled in the middle of one night last winter. Something about love swinging a hammer or maybe not swinging a hammer, which of course sounds forced and foolish either way but most lyrics do that when they stand naked on the page. They cannot share the low mumble they come from, the honest melody, the humble pronunciation.

Sure, let's use the A to the chord that is part of an A, going back and forth. I am prone to verses that use two chords, which is both a good habit and a bad one all at the same time. To add accident to injury, I let the chorus be those same two chords. But that is something many great blues songs do, the delta blues ones especially. Am I writing a blues song? I didn't think so, but maybe all songs are blues songs. Plenty of people have said that. I am trying not to write a Tom Waits song, but that is a losing battle. If it is going to happen, you have to get out of the way, let yourself name some places in it, towns like Unadilla.

E wakes up, passing me on the way to the bathroom. She does not pause, or bat an eye.

"There's a part in this for you." I tell her, when she returns. "This echo part and then harmony on the chorus."
She shrugs her shoulders, and goes to make a bowl of cereal.

This is how I find my way back.










30 May 2016

windows and goodbyes


I am on the number 34 bus, going to get E from school for the last time this year. Sitting halfway back on the right, there is a perfect diagonal view of the space next to the windows where there are no seats. People often stand there, both hands clenching the green rail as they look out the window or poke at their phones. I took a picture in this exact spot last winter, of a young woman, her head wrapped in a scarf, the street a pale bright light of snow and grit, the streaky windows covered in salt and grime. Her hands were so graceful, so hopeful, so sad. Now a man stands in the exact same spot. The window is cracked open and traffic streams around us. There is diesel smoke, the smell of freshly cut grass. His profile looks noble, staring intently at the road churning past us. I marvel at these coincidences, these recognized moments, their irony, their gesture at a collective soul, their humble beauty. I pull off one frame and then move forwards to a seat closer to him, the camera poised and then I do get a better shot before he turns abruptly and gets off at Sparrow Hill.

A satisfied breath turns inside me. One hand rests across the lens, holding the camera as it jumps on my belly. The bus wheezes towards the final stop.

Walking with N and V on a lost Saturday evening, we make our way west towards a set of apartments built in a circle with a round courtyard inside them. They were supposed to be seen from above for some former Olympics, the city itself creating those  inter-locking rings when seen from the sky. They never finished all of them.

There are a group of sheds here, odd slabs of concrete and sheet metal leaning against each other. They look like open square mouths yawning open where little old cars can hide when it rains. I took a handful of pictures of them in the Spring. There was a collection of birdhouses around them for some reason. Now, I see they are suddenly gone. There is a pile of rebar and concrete under some trees. Two men are sparking an acetylene torch and slicing into the last roof. Sparks are cascading to the dry earth. They heave and pull, arguing about how to accomplish this. Then it breaks in half, all at once. They step back, realizing it could have fallen on them.

A boy stands in some tall grass, waiting for someone.

On the way to the film lab, we always stop for a cupcake and some lemonade at the Magnolia cafe. It is another outpost from New York, transplanted here with pretty bags, the smell of butter and sugar, glass windows where you can oggle the workers slathering frosting on everything. It has become an unspoken tradition, each time E goes with me. Sometimes she has the cupcake first, sometimes after we drop things off. Today, we are sweaty and tired from the cramped metro and craving that lemonade. At the front door, we stop cold. The sign is gone. The windows are draped in black plastic. I can still smell the fresh batter, the perfume of strawberries from a crack in the door. We wander around the windows. They are indeed closed, gone, the same as those slabs of concrete. Someone wanders out, and we see coffee machines and our conditioners lined up on the floor. Another absence, another unexpected goodbye.

Sometimes I wonder what will be left here.



A follow-up note about the image from this week's post. This is from a successfully exposed roll of Svema 125 Color Negative, the Soviet-era film I have been wrestling with.



23 May 2016

where (part 4)


The package arrived on a shitty day, and somehow nothing else seemed to matter. Here were five rolls of Soviet film, carefully spooled into canisters by kind people in New Jersey, shipped to an address in Moscow and then into my hands. They seemed to glow a little, as I peeked into the envelope. I loaded a roll, the camera empty for days waiting for this moment.

There was a girl with a pink umbrella on wet streets that were bright as the sun poked from behind some clouds. There was a handful of street characters that were burning a fire in a lost corner of a park, behind a little pocket of trees the police would never see past. They shouted something at me that sounded like "paparazzo" or "photoapparat". I only took two shots through the bent and sagging fence that separated us. Better to keep moving.

There were two men digging a hole, one watching more than working. There were people behind a collection of dirty windows, making their way through a metro station. There was a foot bridge that crossed the railroad tracks where I could shoot straight down, at a lone worker in an orange suit.

It was all there, waiting for me.

Work was crazy, and I could not find a window of time to get to the lab. And then Friday came and I thought  - to hell with everything - and went with E as soon as I got her from school. We were in the metro and I thought to stop being greedy, just roll the film back up and have it ready. I was just passing 36 exposures and then I felt no resistance. Maybe they had put 40 in there, something generous - something I would definitely do in their position. And then, I pull on the rewind and it is just spinning, as if the film is ripped and all on the take-up side. My heart falls. I am swearing on the long escalator going down into the station. E cringes, then gives me a pat on the hand.
"Don't worry, Pop.' She says quietly.

We get to the lab and I just drop off some old rolls, from a different type of film and camera. Of course this film makes my head spin too, but it is not the new and special stuff, the shiny bright thing in my mind. On the way home, I ask myself - maybe it is a 24 exposure roll? Could it be? Did I really miss that? And then of course, I know that I missed that. Lost in that desperate excitement, lost in that stolen moment, the only type of creative moment I am familiar with, I lost track of the simplest things. I would probably forget my own name in this situation. I admit to E that I am a mess. She nods. I have taught her that I am not perfect, sometimes very imperfect. Somehow I think there will be no surprises later in life this way.

At home, I pull the camera into a light-tight changing bag, along with an empty canister. I shove my arms into the two holes that are ringed with elastic. Staring at the wall, I feel everything, navigating the rewind, opening the bottom of the camera, putting the bottom plate to the left. I wiggle my pinky inside. The film is all rewound, back in the canister already. Nothing on the take-up side. I feel around, checking and double-checking.

A long sigh.

The bag is unzipped, the film tucked into a special pocket in my bag. I load another roll in the Leica. Yes, it says 24 exposures on the side.

I think of those shots I thought I had, those three second love affairs, those marriages that went wrong. They are gone, a lie, a trick I played on myself, an unmarked grave.







16 May 2016

the wall



I am still unsure about how one foot follows another, about how there can be a roof over our head. There was that time when I was just treading water, chin at the surface as I measured the weeks until rent was due again. Then, the slow climb to a life lived with the minor comforts and I dared not look down, knowing the vertigo that waited for me if I did. The years unfold, little check marks on an invisible bedpost. My stomach still turns when I look too far backwards. They say nostalgia is a dangerous mirror, but I have no sweet longing for those lost years. I simply cannot turn my head.

The days are full now. I know what happens, but I don't take account of things until my head hits the pillow. There is so much to do, and I still feel like I am just scratching the surface somehow still treading water - a different water at least.  There are needs and wants and headaches upon headaches. There are rushed wishes, and long waits for replies. Living here, we feel unknown and forgotten half of the time. Out of sight, out of mind. But maybe the whole world has evolved to that, and we are in good company. The face in the mirror is mine still, that I know. It stares back at me, sad and quiet.

The kids break me out of these moments. V is on the verge of words, her face a mixture of recognition and thought, lips pursed and ideas bubbling to the surface. She is all about taking your hand and dragging you from room to room of the apartment, pointing "aaah!" and then "ahhh!". Some secret often makes her want to laugh, and she fights it for a moment, which of course makes it even funnier. And E is taping band names to her bedroom door, now closed. She is obsessed with music and which album is better the first one or the third one and "Can I buy this EP?" is her first question on most days.

I imagine cracks forming in some giant wall. It is smooth and white, almost shiny. The cracks are there under the surface. I can hear them if I rest one of my ears there.

Maybe something big is coming.




09 May 2016

where (part 3)


There are parades today. Jets screaming overhead in formation, tanks rolling across cobblestones. The embassy sends out alerts, suggesting to Americans that they should stay inside on holidays like this There was a moment when I thought to try to stand in the crowd, saying not a word, my camera tucked under my arm sneaking pictures of faces and children, of soldiers and militia, the crisp lines of uniforms, the cheeks shaved smooth. 

But that is not what happened. I stayed at home. 

On friday I got to E's school on the early side, and wandered around behind it. Here, the river snakes through the city. The White House is just across from this spot, a bridge arcing across the water with flags snapping in the wind. I go to the left, as a party boat cruises past, no music pumping, no people bouncing on the upper deck. It is too early in the day for that. At one point an old man ambles past me, his medals clinking on a tattered jacket, ribbons and gold discs making a little song as they slap against each other. I take one picture as he passes, pretending to be looking at the White House and the water. He smirks, nods his head after I click. He is carrying a pink plastic bag that flaps around in the wind. 

I go back the other way, towards the little gas station that perches behind a hotel. A young woman is walking towards me in a black leather miniskirt, black shirt, black stilettos, black purse with a chunky gold chain on it. Her hair is more puffy balloon than anything else. I see her cotton candy pink lipstick, the big hoop earrings. Something tells me she is going to try to ask me something, that she is a prostitute. I am wrong. She says nothing, chin tucked towards her chest as she passes. I have pulled off two frames before this, with one of the gas pumpers smoking a cigarette in the background. I see her face, it looks too young for the clothing she wears as she cautiously clicks down the sidewalk. Later she will turn back, asking questions from men getting out of their cars as they pay for gas. Maybe she is lost. Maybe she needs to borrow a cel phone. I see them talking her for some time, and then driving away. 

I camp out across the street from the gas station. One guy is wearing no shirt, just overalls and he reminds me of a character in an early Wenders film - Kings of the Road.  The sun goes behind a cloud. I check the meter, framing up the empty street, the red and white smokestacks in the distance. The girl in the miniskirt is still making her way up and down the sidewalk. 

I go back to the school, where children are running with jackets twisted around their waists, where E appears, her face lighting up when she sees me.