Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Good for Henry Allen, a great writer posting for a great magazine, with an artful piece on his grandparents.

"This chronicle may mean little to [the next generations]; history stops at your grandparents. And when my sister and I die, along with a few cousins, there will be no one to remember our 407, no one to honor its tutelary deities, which is to say that there will be no 407 at all by our lights, just an old house in an exhausted city in New Jersey."

 It may mean little to those children now, but a grand piece like this is just what I was talking about ...

Monday, December 30, 2013

Random Thoughts ...

"What have you done for the first time lately?"

The new year and its vows to improve our lives are upon us, and Facebook is full of helpful lists posted by people linking to various blogs and news aggregation sites hoping to make their numbers jump with headlines like: 25 New Year’s Resolutions Every Person Should Actually Make For 2014.

Usually these lists are full of tough-ish love demands to rid yourself of people and things that drag you down, while trying the things you've been putting off because of embarrassment or uncertainty.  (My favorite in the above: "If you hate your job, quit your job. Repeat after me: THE MONEY IS NOT WORTH IT."  Great, I'll jump of the cliff and build the parachute on the way down.  Oh, but wait:  "Food and shelter are clutch though, so make sure you have another job lined up."  So the money's not worth it ... unless you need the money for rent and stuff?  Then I should keep the awful job?)

Lately, I've been looking at not just these lists, but all the various feel-better-about-yourself, do-the-deeply-meaningful-"right"-thing type advice on the internet and posters and bumper stickers and even music.

"Said no more counting dollars
We'll be counting stars"

As I rise every morning at 2 am to do a job I at least consider superior to the vast majority of possible professions (though I wouldn't mind a little more sleep), I begin to think at best with amusement and at worst with disgust on the many little anti-negativity self-challenges these people are offering.

I can't just dispose of people because I feel like they take me down, especially if they're taking me down because they have real, serious problems and could use my help.  Sure, my life would be happier without taking on some of their burden (especially since there seem no real termination date on it), but what about them?  And what if I feel some sense of obligation?  "Sorry, Dad, thanks for all the years of sacrifice and care, but you're old and boring.  Bye."

And what if that thing I think will give me true fulfillment is, well, stupid?  Not embarrassing, like asking the prettiest girl in high school to the prom and getting shot down, but really, really misguided, like quitting my job and abandoning my family to go on a personal journey to awareness?  (I'm looking at you, Eat, Pray, Love.  Honestly, where did the money for that come from?  Couldn't it have been put to better use?  And why wasn't she completely begging-on-the-street broke at the end of that grand, world-circling tour?)

Which comes to the subject of money.  I mean, we all would like to think we're above that, and I think no one will argue that there's a point when one can ask, "Isn't that enough?"  (Though we might, and will, argue over exactly where that point falls.)  But these pursue-your-dreams sentiments are the path to bankruptcy and ruin.  I know.  I did it.  And I'm here to tell you: Nothing sucks the joy out of everything in life quite like having to worry about money.

 "Money can't buy you happiness, but it's more comfortable to cry in a Mercedes than on a bicycle"

But in the end, I guess, my chatter on this -- dreary and workaday, full of envy and greed though it is -- has no more value than theirs.  I think of one of my very favorite quotes in recent years:

"We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true." 


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Remarkable Things

I've been to some exotic places, and covered some interesting and exciting events -- some could be called History, with a capital H -- but there have been a number of sights, little visual marvels squeezed in to the quiet moments, that are truly remarkable.

The sight of a fire truck with all its lights ablaze running down a frontage road, silently from within my car on the main highway, on a foggy night.  It glows like a magical UFO, all reds and yellows and blues and whites, surrounded by a broad, soft halo.

A full moon, setting and huge, hidden by heavy overcast before it slowly pushes through a thin spot, totally visible, then fades away again into the white darkness.

A meteor (a couple of times), bright and sudden in a clear, starry, early morning sky, so quick and there that it actually made me physically jump, as if a stranger had leaped out of the bushes and yelled, "Boo!"  And then it was as quickly gone, only present long enough for me to realize what it was and remember its streaking track against the blackness.

It's moments like these that make one pause and wait, hoping for another even as you know that they are random little gifts, not to be expected or predicted.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

All I Want for Christmas ...

It's a plea that sometimes is played for humor ("... is my two front teeth") and sometimes for heartwarming pathos ("... is my Daddy home from war"), but sometimes it's a bit of a palate cleaner in the bacchanalic greedfest that Christmas can become.  And sometimes it is something that you just can't get out of your head.

All I want for Christmas is my camera and lens back.

Some time ago, a very nice man -- a retired professor of biology here in Lexington -- stopped by to show me a camera he had bought new some years ago.  He knew of my book, and had seen me carrying, now infallibly, a Leica as I went about life in town.  He had an M4-2 that he had bought when it was new in the 70s and wondered if I would like to buy it from him along with a 135mm f/2.8 lens.  The offer took my breath away.

The M4-2 and its mate, the M4-P were unusual (perhaps unique -- though I think that word overused, and I guess if there are two they can hardly be unique) cameras in the Leica inventory.  When they were built, Leica's leadership had seen the writing on the wall.  Nikon and Canon were rising out of the ashes of post-war Japan, and had begun to totally command the camera market with single lens reflex cameras (SLRs), having switched to them in the late 1950s and early 1960s after a decade of producing Leica M imitations.  Leica decided to change with the times, disposing with the iconic (another overused word) M rangefinders to concentrate on the R-series SLRs.  (Also, the disasterous M5, the most unloved Leica M this side of the M8, didn't help their attitude any.)

Walter Kluck, the Leica executive in charge of its Canada facilities (where some lenses were produced) thought stopping the M line was an incredibly bad idea, and asked to be allowed to make Ms in Canada.  Leica reluctantly agreed, and it can be argued that not only the M but Leica itself was saved.  The M4-2 and M4-P were the cameras Kluck's factory produced.

Anyway, I did some quick EBay research and told my new friend that he deserved at least $1000 for his camera and lens, if not significantly more (the lens, for example, was still in its box).  I didn't have $1000.  Not by a long shot.  I might, for four years, send him $20 a month to get near that amount, but he could do significantly better on EBay.

He wasn't concerned, he said.  $20 a month was okay.  He was happy to know I loved the camera, and I did.  I loyally sent him my money -- sometimes a month or more late, with a $40 or more check, to make up the difference, but he was never cross.  Sainthood is made by such as he.

Then came a rainy evening, when I climbed out of our minivan.  I had the camera with me as usual -- it made many a great picture -- with a Zeiss 21 f/2.8 lens on it.  The lens was my wife's last extravagant Christmas gift before our total financial collapse, a thing of beauty that made images with gray values beyond belief.  It produced pictures the way I saw life; it was no accident that I was traveling with that combination.

But what happened as I got our of the car was an accident: the shoulder strap -- itself a thing of beauty, a soft, black, leather strap produced by Luigi Crescenzi of Leicatime -- caught on my knee, and in one of those moments when reality seems to drop into slow motion, I watched the camera arc past me and onto the hard pavement of our driveway, landing with a painful smack.

Leicas are tough cameras -- when the M4-2 was made, they were commonly carried by war photographers into Vietnam and other rough, dangerous places -- but they can only take so much.  Both the body and lens were damaged.  

I did some internet research, where I was depressingly told at one point to just throw the M4-2 away -- it would cost more to fix it than to just find another -- until I came to the legendary Sherry Krauter, beloved of Leica enthusiasts everywhere.  Sure, she could fix it, she said, but it might take a while.  She was busy.  I told her that was okay, as it would take me a while to find the money to pay her.  Little did either of us know ...

Dance rehearsal, shot with the M4-2 and Zeiss 21

She took the poor camera and lens in, and I put my mind to rest.  I had told her to take her time, and thought surely the money would come in one way or another.  But when she called to say it was ready, I wasn't.  I sent a portion of the bill, assuring her that Christmas bonuses were coming, and she was again more than patient.  That was roughly three years ago.  How's that for patient?

Each year -- each month of each year -- I look at payments for extra work, windfalls from jobs that come my way, and that eagerly anticipated Christmas bonus, thinking: This is it.  Now I can pay Sherry.  And every time, like the cruel torture when a prisoner is told he will be released, then sent back to his cell at the last minute, the money has to go to something else.  I'm sure she gumbles under her breath, and she should.

So what do I want for Christmas?  I could list a lot of little things: Some film, some random fascinations of late, even the money to process the film I've already shot.  And, mind you, I'm not losing sight of the big things: I'm happy that my family is housed and fed and more or less healthy.  It's not by chance that my money gets allocated to things before it comes to my camera.  But really the thing I want -- the self-indulgent gift I'd automatically ask for if you asked me without warning -- is my camera and lens back.

Maybe next month ...

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What Fragile, Short-Lived Things Are Humans

In 1938, on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, they had a reunion of surviving veterans on the battlefield ...

All I can think of as I watch this is: Imagine, meeting living people with active memories of the Civil War.

It's sort of like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game or the equivalent in life (more or less debunked since, as best articulated by Malcolm Gladwell in his fascinating book The Tipping Point, where he explains that the whole small world aspect of it is ruined by the fact that a certain, smallish number of people create nodes by knowing A LOT of people), the idea of being just one step away from the actual experience of the Civil War.  Or maybe the Gettysburg Address:

But then it makes me think: Something like the Civil War or the American Revolution seem so distant and out of reach at 150 or 200-some-odd years away, but it's really not that far.  My father could have had a conversation with those men when he was nearly an adult (he was 16 in 1938), and now he is older, at 91, than many of them were at that reunion.

Which leads to a second thought: This coming June (2014) is the 70th anniversary of D-Day.  Our World War II veterans (my father served in the Army Air Corps after being drafted) are as old now as those men were then.  World War II, though something I didn't experience, is still something with which I am familiar, the last Big War, the thing that all my friends' parents and grandparents talked about.  It was still close enough to touch.

Is that how my parents saw the Civil War?  I mean, James Thurber, for example, often references his grandfather as a Civil War vet, but I took that sort of distantly -- I read Thurber's work as an artifact itself from the 30s, and it was after all his grandfather, and old man in a past time.  But this makes it all much more immediate, like I walked into a room just after the old guy stepped out.

The scene from Thurber's story about "The Day the Dam Broke."

And here's the thing: we haven't been around that long.  Put simply, it's only been about 200,000 years.  Yeah, that's a pretty big number, but considering the earth itself is about 4.5 billion years old ... well not much.  I mean, the dinosaurs were here for over 100 million years.  That's about five-hundred times longer than we've been so far.  And we can reach back with any reasonable certainty only, what, about 3,000 or 4,000 years?  What's that: a millisecond relatively?

Now in human terms, it's an eternity.  Figuring the Biblical three-score ten as an easy lifespan, that's around 43 generations, laid end to end.  (Probably twice that, if you figure reproduction between 20 and 35 years old for each one, but one could expect to be able to talk directly to one's grandparents, so this seems a simple way to do the math.)  Michael Barone figures that you can divide US history at least into 76-year increments, as a friend pointed out in his blog.  "We are as far away in time today from passage of the Social Security in 1935," Barone explains, "as Americans then were from the launching of post-Civil War Reconstruction."  Each 76-year period, he says, represents the development of a mode of governing or approaching societal organization, its effective use, and then its dissolution.

Forty-three generations then, and we lose contact with actual experience in around four generations (can you summon up the experiences of your great grandfather?) and start to lose any information about things not long after (in around 300 years or so?)  We have archeologists to figure out what the Egyptians did because we forgot, and no one asked grandpa.

Which brings me back to the idea of being able to actually converse with a veteran of the Civil War, and how that compares with our veterans today.  I often tell people that they need to save their stories, and they dismiss the thought by saying they're "nobody," but that's the very thing.  Letting these simple stories go, losing the actual experience is how we forget what a time was like ...