Sunday, January 28, 2018

My Daughters, and the Theory of Relativity

I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge yesterday, for the first time since May 22, 2011.

How do I know it was May 22, 2011?

Because that's the date in the metadata of this photo of me and my youngest daughter:

Maddy was on the verge of graduating from high school, and we both thought it would be a grand adventure. We had a great time that day, and I have the photos to prove it.

Yesterday, I walked across the bridge alone. I had started out at a photo meetup, but I raced ahead of the rest of the group, driven by cosmic forces. Literally.

The proof? Here's a photo Maddy took of me on May 22, 2011:

And here's a photo a stranger took of me on January 27, 2018:

Same hat, same hoodie, same me... just older.

In 2018, I have learned to appreciate the theory of relativity, the space-time continuum, and the love fathers feel for their daughters.

A book I listened to this past week ("Light Falls: Space, Time, and an Obsession of Einstein," by Brian Greene)... a book I didn't particularly like... reminded me that massive objects cause a distortion in space and time.

Simply put: the black hole of Maddy not being there yesterday caused time to fold in on itself, and I posed in the same place, nearly seven years later... the time it take for all the cells in our bodies to replace themselves... because I was drawn by cosmic forces back to when she stood at my side.

When the orbits of our lives and busy schedules align, we'll walk the Brooklyn Bridge together some other Saturday, I am sure.

Until then, I reread my diary from nearly seven years ago. I wrote about a family dinner the night before Maddy left for college. It was at an Edgewater, N.J., restaurant called Vespa's (no longer there) -- and I was in such a cranky mood that I downed Peroni after Peroni.

I was dreading the drive back that night with just the four of us -- my wife, both daughters and me -- heading, as one, to the same "home" for perhaps the last time in our lives.

My wife did the driving, and I kept asking her to drive slower and slower. If she could drive slow enough, I said, time would reverse itself and Maddy could stay with us a little longer.

I know... I know... I can't keep her by my side forever.

Still, I texted her last night to let her know I had been on the Brooklyn Bridge again, and that I was thinking of her.

She responded right away: "Cool! Did you take any good pictures?"

I sent her this panorama of Manhattan, from the perspective of Brooklyn:

This morning I'm wondering if this photo is a metaphor for my perspective on the lives of both of my daughters.

I love New York. It's unique in all the universe. Sometimes, from where I now stand, it seems beyond my reach.

And yet, there's a bridge that will get me there. I know it will always lead to another grand adventure.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Day at the Museum, Photography Not Included

I'm a traitor to photography.

Don't get me wrong. I love to take photos, and I greatly admire amateur and professional photographers. I'm also happy to contribute to the nearly 100 million photos uploaded daily to Instagram.

It's just that I have zero interest in learning to control the technical aspects of cameras.

I take no joy in adjusting shutter speeds, apertures, ISOs or white balance. Which is strange because I seem to own every electronic gadget imaginable and have spent many a blissful hour fine-tuning computer and cellphone settings.

I own a camera that can do all that photography stuff, but I'd generally rather use whatever cell phone I have at hand. When I do use a digital camera, I trust the automatic mode to calculate all those settings on the fly.

While this doesn't make me a bad person, I can see where this makes me a traitor to many of the photographers I admire. Photographers who are steeped in the technical aspects of their craft are amazing. It's like watching magicians to see them at work -- and they actually know how to use all those accessories that came with the kit I received from my family when they gave me my camera.

I enjoy going to photography meetups (where, to conceal my dark secret, I carry my camera as a beard and take most photos with my phone) to explore and socialize (or "parallel play," as my wife likes to describe it) and hopefully come back with an image or two I can manipulate and enhance with Snapseed filters.

Recently, in a Facebook post, a fellow member of the great Black Glass Gallery photography group (whose moderator makes a point of being inclusive to people who take photos with their phones), made me feel a little better about things. She wrote:
"I am taking a master class online with Annie Leibovitz, and her words were so strong to me as I struggle with never having the perfect lens, camera, etc. 'It has nothing to do with technology,' she said. 'Well, it does and it doesn't. That is the last thing to worry about. You can have the best equipment, but it doesn't help if you can not see.' I just love this. I know I struggle with never having the right stuff and sometimes it gets in my way. I love to just get out and shoot and the feeling I get it something I can't quite describe. I just love the feeling I have when my camera is in my hands."
Similarly, the legendary British fashion photographer Nick Knight has also proclaimed that "photography is dead." He said:
"I think photography stopped years ago and we shouldn’t try and hold back a new medium by defining it with old terms. For 150 years (photographers) did the same thing. Then something else comes along at the end of the 1980s and you could do things you could never do before. And now we’re much further down the line than that. Now I can take an iPhone and form a sculpture. And some people are still calling it photography. …I call it image-making — please could someone get a better description of it — because that’s what I do. Because that can take in sound and movement and 3D, which I think are really part of this new art form. So it’s based on image. That gets away from the thing of truth. Photography has been saddled as the medium of truth for so many years."

The world around us is so beautiful and evocative. There are so many stories to tell, so many wonders to see, so many people who care.

And yet, truth is illusive. The images we modify are just as valid as the images we capture; manipulated images are no different than manipulated words. Creation is self-expression, and self-expression is an invitation to connect, and even parallel connections are better than no connections.

I went to a photography class at the Museum of Natural History last weekend. The instructor was top-notch. He buried us all in our camera settings, and we all took the same images of the same exhibits.

Everyone else was happy, and the class was fine. But after a long half hour, and as inconspicuously as possible, I wandered off on my own.

It was Saturday, I was in New York, and I realized that I didn't have the desire to learn the technical knowledge of a dying technology. I simply wanted to go out and play.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

January Reviews: Fortune Smiles and Slouching Towards Bethlehem

My goal this year is to read or listen to 25 books, and I started 2018 with two interesting collections. One was disappointing, and the other served a reminder that you shouldn't ever take any moment for granted in real life. It also gave me a reason to re-post this photo of Lake Harriet in Minnesota.

Fortune SmilesFortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the reviews, was impressed by the author's bio and awards... and I wanted to hear stories that were different, eclectic and thought-provoking... and yet... I came away with mixed feelings about this book. Which is polite-speak for, "I really didn't like it."

I had asked the Reading Genie for three wishes, was granted them all, and then was left unsatisfied. It's not you, Adam, it's me.

I can't rate this any lower because, hell, I gave four stars to Alec Baldwin's book. Also, be forewarned, some of the endings here aren't really endings at all. Not (and I'm sighing as I write this) that there's anything wrong with that.

Slouching Towards BethlehemSlouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Any book that takes its title from Yeats has a lot to live up to. But, personally, I’ve set the bar even higher for this collection of early essays by Joan Didion.

First, let’s get this out of the way: this is an extraordinary author, and this review is by no means a criticism of this book or her impressive career. The essay here about Haight-Ashbury is amazing, and it’s all a great time-capsule of the 1960s.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t read this book, I listened to it… the production narrated a few years ago by Diane Keaton.

The actress’ measured cadence is so articulate and clear, you can speed up the playback by half, and it’s still perfectly understandable. This is an almost magical way to experience this book. The words come at you in a crazy jumble of images that on some intellectual level make sense — but then they don’t seem coherent, the center doesn’t hold.

Personally, it reminds me of one of my dearest friends. She can do the same thing… extemporaneously, guilelessly. You go for a walk with her — say, around one of the many lakes in Minnesota — and you find yourself transported to another world of seemingly incongruous observations and one-liners and literate confessional narrative.

My friend will stop suddenly during that walk, turn to lock eyes with you, then break into a wide smile and ask, “What the hell am I talking about, anyway?” She’ll laugh at herself. And that’s when you fall in love with her.

Joan Didion, in this book, writes the way my friend talks. My criticism is that, unlike my friend, this great writer never stops, looks you in the eye and laughs at herself or admits that she doesn’t know any better than you.

Even though — I know, I know — she probably does.


Related, and highly recommended, is the 2017 documentary about the author, directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, and currently available on Netflix.

View all my Goodreads reviews

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Life in a Minor Key

Page from grandfather's notebook

Ok, so... now that I've publicly committed to writing more in 2018, it's time to offer up what I wrote creatively in 2017. Which isn't much...

One sonnet:
I have encased my soul in tempered glass,
Displayed it on the mantel in our home.
The frame collects the dust beside the vase
Of silk flowers embed in styrofoam. 
Beneath this centerpiece, a raging fire,
Timer-controlled, heats wood that doesn't burn.
The warmth is real, and I am safe. Desire
Consumed, I wait alone for love's return. 
Then in you walk... Alarms trip. Cats take flight
And lose several lives. A fake church bell sounds.
You flip the light. Night is day; day is night.
Hamlet, without doubt; Ophelia, undrowned. 
My kingdom would be bound in a nutshell,
Had not your flame engulfed suburban hell.

One cold-weather rant:
A Tale of Suburbia 
I summon you tonight, Evangeline.
As I behold the passage of time
In the breath of the bone-chilling cold. 
My old black dog.
Cloudy-eyed, shedding,
Struggles to his feet and
Shuffles to my side. 
I scratch his dry nose,
And open the back porch door,
Exposing the darkness.
The crack in my bones. 
Come, Evangeline,
Hear the scuttling of time.
The claws of the moments we lost.
My words in the bone-chilling cold. 
I long for the warmth of our souls.
I mourn for the warmth of our souls. 

And three haikus, with photos:

Casting sheets of clouds
Over a muddy river
Ohio, as a ghost

Captured, brown and green
We hold hands in bright colors
And head for the light

Rain at dusk in Queens
Exploding sky to the west
Gatsby in New York


All seem a bit sad -- which actually doesn't mirror my real, outer life... or the spirit of my grandfather, who I loved very much and who used to collect jokes, whimsical thoughts and fragments of poetry in his schoolboy notebook.

Our inner lives are more complicated than our outer lives, though -- and that's not a bad thing. I think our inner life is more fragile than what we let the outside world perceive.

I was reminded of this while reading Entertainment Weekly this week. Check out this story about how Nivana's "Teen Spirit" sounds so very different in a major key, and listen to each version. The original is much more powerful.

Artistic expression in a minor key mirrors real life more than real life itself.

Ok, so... that said, look for me to post something here each Sunday in 2018. That's my goal. And if there's a hint of sadness in what I write, don't worry, it only means I'm trying to scratch beneath the surface of my ordinary life.

Meanwhile, I've posted a photo from one page of my grandfather's notebook. I used to think "A Vegetarian Romance" was original, but a quick Internet search confirms that this was printed at least as early as April 1926 in Brooklyn Life. It was probably around before then, given that my grandfather's notebook predates The Great Depression.

The text also appears in Milton Berle's book, "Private Joke File," published in 1992, without any attribution. So if Milton Berle can steal it, so can my grandfather.

A Vegetarian Romance (source unknown)
"Will your celery keep two?" asked she.
"With carrot will do, and I think, dear,
Something better will turnip," said he.
She replied, slightly radish from blushing,
(Though her rouge was parsley the fault).
"I've always bean true, and I'll still be,
Though your kale may not keep us in salt."
So off to old Pars'n Ipp's cottage
Onion road, the wedding to stage,
They spud, and it took but a second
In this modern taxi-cabbage.
But you can't beet a taxi-cab meter;
Appeasing the bill left him broke,
Caused a lump to sprout in his thorax,
And nearly made poor Artichoke.
However, they were not cress'fallen;
To the house on the corner they went,
Woke the Pars'n Ipp from his slumber,
On the greensward held the event.
Of a Cole 8 he made her a present,
And they now take a spinach night —
And this is the endive my story
For there isn't mushroom left to write.