Thursday, May 20, 2010

the spot on the wall

part one

I told a friend I was having a bit of an identity crisis. I’m not sure what I am—an author, a photographer, a mosaic artist, just another creative Libra with undiag- nosed adult ADD. She asked how I wanted to be known. I don’t even have to think about the answer. I am a writer. It’s like skin on a body; you can’t detach yourself from it without stinging, burning, bleeding out. I stopped writing in 1997, and I didn’t sleep for five years.

It seems I could feel that way about photography, too. I’m never without my camera—sometimes because I want to capture the essence of a thing with words later, but more because I don’t feel like I see as fully without it. Photographs verify and fortify and rectify my vision—even enhance it. (Amazing how much of a bird you can see by zooming in with a 300mm lens.) But take my camera away, and, although I’ll flounder a bit, I’ll still be me to my core. I’ll still sleep.

I rarely go somewhere just for the pictures of an event, but almost every interesting thing I've done in my life is for the writing of it. If you are a writer, you do things—interesting things—things other than playing endless rounds of Bejewelled Blitz and posting status updates. In November, I drove members of Bob Schneider’s band to their hotel and back to the venue, an unglamorous thing for a fan to do, just so I could write about the experience. I went to Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp for a day two summers ago as part of a writing project. I enrolled my daughter in the School of Rock and went to Ladies Rock Camp for three days last summer for the same writing project. It’s why I meet people for coffee. It's why I ask questions. I land a photo shoot for an interesting person, and before we book the session, I’m interviewing my subject, trying to parlay our meeting into a story. I am a dog, and everything outside of myself is, potentially, a bone.

I guess the crisis is less with my own identity than it is with experiences. Photography subjects are endless—flowers in drizzle are always beautiful, my dog Chance is always handsome. But I have nothing to do right now, nowhere to go; I have nothing to say. I’ve been sitting around for the past few dreary, chilly, rainy days wallowing in the miserable sitting. I am a shapeless blob at my kitchen table wondering who I am, staring at a spot on the wall.

From the time I was six years old, I would ask my mother to give me a subject, and she’d say something like, “Write a poem about the dog." And I would. She'd point and say, "Write a poem about that spot on the wall.” And I would.

I’m all grown up, but I still feel like I need someone to tell me what to write. Agents and editors are often unwilling, and my mom isn't much help in that area anymore. Lately, I can't even write a poem on my own; my last five were composed around a bunch of random words donated by my friends on Facebook.

So here I sit, with an open call to the universe, waiting, prepared, ready with all the perfect words, all my soldiers, my children. Here I sit, staring at this spot on the wall. The spot where I’ve recorded my daughter’s height for the last eight years of her life.

Monday, May 10, 2010

oldies are goodies

My mother worked outside the home before any other mother I knew. She was a school teacher when I was little. Later, she took a job with some architects, as a secretary, sure, but she always did more. She made the firm smarter, more grammatical, prettier. When a few of the architects left to start their own businesses, my mother went with one of them. She’s been the other half of her firm for three decades.

My mom taught me the maxim: old is good, new is bad. It fits in so many areas of life. Old houses are better built than new ones. Old appliances were made to last. Old furniture has style and character. Even the methods we use now to make jobs easy tend to complicate life. Mom’s partner, Dick, doesn’t use any kind of CAD system to design houses he’s built for people like Brooks Robinson; he drafts by hand. He prints in draftsman’s block, doesn’t need no stinkin’ font. My mom still has an IBM Selectric typewriter at her office. Nothing beats it for typing an envelope.

I’ve been thinking a lot about old things, and not just because of the new lines on my face, the new grey wires poking from my head. I think we’ve traded a lot of our soul for modern, for fast, for instant gratification. We can get the answers to anything so quickly that we’ve lost our ability to hold a thought, nurture a question. It’s good for the sentence, but it’s not so good for standing in line or for saving up for something special. It does nothing for discipline. We are spoiled.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and I complained, again, that it was a day of cooking and cleaning, rather than a day of pampering. I made two quiches and a cake for brunch at my sister’s; she, in turn, shopped, cleaned, set the table, entertained. Is this the way it’s supposed to be? Where’s my special bouquet, my sterling silver bird skull pendant, my gift certificate for a fabulous tin belt buckle at Studio C? (As Woody Allen declared in an essay on phrase origins, “Where are my bellows and fruit, eh? All I rate is fiddlesticks!”)

I had been led to believe, by the new Mother’s Day Machine, that the second Sunday in May was supposed to bring me a card, a pedicure, some flowers, and a restaurant meal. But that’s not what Appalachian mom Anna Jarvis had in mind when she lobbied presidents for the national holiday. It’s not what her daughter wanted, either; before her death, she admitted regretting that Mother’s Day had become a holiday at all, if it was just going to be a way for florists and greeting card companies and restaurateurs to profit.

I know. Bah humbug. Mother's Day detractors are just like those decrying the commercialization of Christmas. But every time I heard from or delivered to someone a "Happy Mother's Day" greeting, I couldn't help but recall the movie Brazil, in which it's always Christmas, and everyone has some fancy-wrapped gift at the ready.

But is there anything I don’t have that I truly need or want or have room to store? And what could be a better gift than my daughter having learned “I Love Playing With Fire,” by the Runaways, just because I was a fan? Every day, my house is full of the music I love played by the people I love. Did I really need a new belt? I have a dozen that fit around my old, smaller waist.

After typing my husband’s school work and begging my daughter to wear something nice and take the ponytail out of her hair, after baking my grandmother’s sour cream cake, after wolfing down food I shouldn’t ought to have et (but which was delicious), and listening to the kids in my life play old Beatles and Doors songs together, my not-yet-three-year-old nephew, Marcus, on air drums with two plastic forks, I did what any old mother might appreciate. I went to Target for some hair dye, sunless tanner, and Slim Fast. I came home to my old house, drank a beer, dyed my hair, and slathered my dry skin with moisturizing sunless tanner, mentally preparing myself for a couple weeks of dietary discipline so that I may take advantage of a fabulous and too-long-neglected wardrobe.

I do believe, at least in the philosophic sense, that old *is better than new,** but it can use a facelift or a tuneup or a fresh coat of paint every now and again.

*not too old
**not necessarily where technology is concerned

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

of machines and men

I squint at the six open DIY check stands at Home Despot (I call it that in honor of my Peepop, who once said “depot” when he meant “despot” during the annual reading of the Hagaddah). I had cash. I didn’t know whether the machines could handle cash, and I didn’t want to find out. I spied a guy and asked if he would do me the pleasure of ringing me up, and he was delighted.

“I hate those machines,” I tell him. “I feel like they take jobs from people.” I do.

“I can’t comment on that, so I will just say thank you very much.” He smiles.

He’s a decorated employee. By that, I mean his many tattoos, a sign of his loyalties, are visible. A still-scabbing tat shows Woody Guthrie with his guitar and the famous slogan from it: “This machine kills fascists.”

“Did you see this one?” he asks, proudly showing off the asterisk on his left arm, with “and so it goes” beneath it. Of course. My friend Dave and I both know it—Kurt Vonnegut, from Breakfast of Champions (and everything else).

I get permission to take his photo and am wrestling with my camera as a line forms. Here are like-minded people—regular folks who probably have mastered a Google search—lined up to be checked out by a real person.

I don’t want a drum machine or a phone router or an ATM. I want someone to pump my gas. And even if I had to choose between a robot or the nasty witch at the post office who can never manage a smile and will actually rear up and ask, “What did you just say?” if she thinks you might have called her on her bitchness, or the crazy old bat at Burlington Coat Factory who grumbles and complains about everything and slams your shit down if it doesn’t have a price and asks you why you couldn’t get the one with the tag on it—I’d probably still choose the real people.

Or maybe companies can hire more people like the Home Depot guy or the two ladies at Family Dollar on Harford Road. Yesterday, while hanging our 3 Hipstateers* show with Dave Pugh and Steve Parke, Steve and I stopped in to get some long nails; we didn’t have the right ones to hang our photographs. A woman asked, “Can I help you find something?” I told her I was looking for nails. She said, “Oh, they’re in the front of the store, just past those two young ladies.”

I looked at the two people up the aisle—a middle-aged woman and her mother—and I turned to tell the woman how sweet she was. She smiled. But I was lost when I got to the front of the store and didn’t find any hardware. Why, this is all—fingernails! I shared a good, emotional belly laugh with the woman who sent me to the nails that most of the women in our area would have meant.

At the cash register, our checker gave us the once over. “You two are rockin’ the superhero shirts.” Steve and I didn't really understand her at first, but we looked down. Not only were we both wearing t-shirts with superheroes on them, but we had the same four superheros on our shirts. “Ya’all didn’t know that?” she asked, surprised that we hadn't consulted on our outfits that morning.

You don’t get any good stories from an ATM. Your computer does nothing delightful. No DIY checker will ever tell you that you're rockin' a superhero shirt. And no robot is going to love you like I do.

- - - - -

*Please join the 3 Hipstateers—me, Steve Parke, and Dave Pugh—for a show of photos taken exclusively with our iPhones (a machine that can't do anything without a person at the controls), Thursday, 6-8, at Clementine Fine Foods, 5402 Harford Road.