burying the brother

I’ll be leaving in a couple of hours to go bury the brother. It’s a weird, dissociative feeling—like when you wake up inexplicably in the middle of the night and you get out of bed and go get a drink of water and nothing in your house looks quite right—as if everything in the house has been removed and replaced with nearly perfect replicas. That’s sort of how I feel. Just a wee bit distant from myself and everything in the material world.

Soon I’ll be surrounded by grieving and sympathetic people, who will say shit like “He’s in heaven now” or “He’s probably looking down on us now and smiling” and I’ll be nice about it and maybe nod in agreement. Almost everybody there will be some brand of Christian and they’re going to talk a lot about God. “We don’t understand God’s plan,” and “He works in mysterious ways.” If they find comfort in that notion, who am I to disagree? But I don’t believe it.

This is what I believe. My brother lived a moderately good life—and that was about the only thing he ever did in moderation. He was a firefighter and he was given to all the sins and graces of firefighters. He sometimes drank too much, he took too many risks, he never quite grew up, and he gave the best parts of himself to the job—sometimes to the detriment of his wives and children. But he also saved some lives and he mitigated some disasters and he spent most of his life putting himself at risk to help strangers. He could have been a better person, but—and this, I think, is what matters—he was the best person he could be.

I’m going to miss him. I miss him already.

ongoing conversations with the curb

There’s an empty lot I like to visit. There used to be a supermarket at that location. I don’t know quite when it was torn down, but nature is slowly having its way with the lot. People once bought Cheerios and pork chops and dish-washing detergent here. Now it’s home to field mice and garter snakes, to rabbits and hawks, to crows and the occasional deer.

I find that oddly appealing.

As I wandered around the empty lot back in November I noticed somebody had tied a length of red PVC-coated wire around a chunk of broken asphalt curbing–presumably to make it easier to carry. I’ve no idea why anybody would want to carry a chunk of broken asphalt curbing anywhere, but apparently somebody did–and wanted to make the chore less onerous (although, in truth, the bit of curbing couldn’t have weight more than a couple of pounds). In any event, somebody had toted the curbing some twenty yards from its original position and then set it down.

Why? Why move the chunk of curbing? Why move it only twenty yards? Why weave a curb-carrying net for the task?

I didn’t understand it. I still don’t understand it. I’m completely baffled by it. But I find it inordinately cool.

Every time I passed that empty lot I’d stop and check on the bit of curbing. I’m not sure what drew me–what continues to draw me. I suppose it was as much a ritual as anything else. Nothing changed. The curbing stayed exactly where it always was (what else would a bit of curbing do?) and remained an enigma. The world just moved on around it.

Last winter I noticed a heron had passed by without stopping to ponder the larger meaning of a bit of asphalt curbing wrapped round with a length of red PVC-coated wire. I suppose herons have their own things to consider.

Winter became spring, and I continued to stop by and visit the bit of curbing whenever I passed by the empty lot. I didn’t go there just for the curbing. The lot itself has charms of its own. There’s usually a contingent of shy crows making a fuss in the distance. Fog and mist seem to linger there longer than in the surrounding areas. On occasion somebody from the nearby apartments will wander through, taking a short cut to the nearest bus stop.

I think of those people as trespassers. They’ve no interest in the lot itself, let alone in the chunk of curbing. They have no relationship with the lot. They’re just passing through. Which is perfectly okay with me.

The empty lot might have its own unique attractions, but the curbing–that’s a mystery. It’s the chunk of asphalt curbing that pulls me with tidal regularity. I might visit the empty lot and not pay any attention to this or that particular aspect, but I invariably make my way to the curbing.

I’ve told other people about it–about my fascination for the lot and the curbing. And for the most part, they smile and nod with a sort of kindhearted patience–but it’s clear they see the whole thing as ‘another of Greg’s eccentricities.’ And I suppose they’re right. But how could they not be curious about it? Somebody tied red PVC-coated wire around a chunk of asphalt curbing and toted it a distance of twenty yards–and then just set it down. How can that fail to fascinate?

Then one day I visited the former supermarket and the bit of asphalt curbing was gone.

Except, of course, it wasn’t really gone. It had merely been moved. Somebody had picked it up–presumably by the red PVC-coated wire carrying net–and toted it another twenty or thirty feet. I’d sort of expected something like that might happen. I’d felt the desire to pick it up and move it myself. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was inevitable that somebody at some point would take hold of the chunk of asphalt curbing and carry it off–even if only for a few feet.

The curbing-mover might have moved it farther, except the wire handle had snapped. The curbing was abandoned where it fell. I suppose there’s no reason to move the curbing at all if you can’t carry  it by the handle.

And there it sat. Through the spring and into the summer, there it sat all by itself, unmoving and unmoved. Until now.

Now it’s been tipped over. Somebody saw the chunk of curbing and, for whatever bizarre reasons, decided to fuss with it. But that’s not the most peculiar thing.

Even more peculiar is the fact that there’s now a second chunk of asphalt curbing beside the first. A second chunk of curbing without any red PVC-coated wire carrying web. A chunk of curbing that doesn’t seem to have come from the same location as its predecessor. A chunk of curbing that was apparently just minding its own business when it was commandeered and carried–apparently by hand–to this new spot.

 And now I’m left, once again, to wonder why. Not just why somebody tied red PVC-coated wire around the original chunk of curbing and carried it for twenty yards. And not just why somebody (presumably a different person), several months later, carried it a tad farther. But why somebody (I’m assuming a third unrelated person) would carry a second chunk of asphalt curbing and set it in the vicinity of the original. Why?

It makes no sense. None at all. It is absolutely bat-shit crazy. The ambiguity is killing me.

I hope it continues.

dnr

My brother died this morning. He was pronounced dead at 2:20 a.m. It was exactly a year and a day after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

It’s been a long, strange 366 days. I’ve taken several photographs of him in that time. Photos taken during mushroom hunts, photos shot while taking walks, photos of him in his garage. Many of those photos are sitting quietly on my computer, where they’ll probably remain for a while. Eventually I’ll delete most of them. They’re just photographs.

But every day of this last month I brought my camera with me to the hospice. Most days it stayed in the bag. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph him with the naso-gastric tube; it made him look so frail. He wouldn’t want to be seen that way. Three or four times I pulled the camera out of the bag with the intent of photographing his hands, and each time I put the camera back without taking the lens cap off. Except this one frame, shot three days ago when the sun filtered in softly and he seemed calm and quiet and comfortable. One frame is all I could manage—one shaky frame, and it sort of creeps me out that I shot it.

It’s not a good photograph, and ordinarily I’d hit the delete button. But I told myself it was the last photo ever taken of my brother. As I write this, though, it seems to me that this really isn’t a photograph of my brother at all. Not really. This is just a photo of the failing container that held him.

(I’ve deleted four earlier drafts of this. I felt the need to say something about my brother, but each of the earlier drafts turned into a soppy eulogy. He’d have hated that. He’d prefer, I think, to see something in which I’ve creeped myself out. That would have made him laugh.)

in which i give a critique disguised as discourse

Over the last couple of years I’ve been slowly banging away at a series of photos centering on traffic signals. A few months ago an acquaintance told me he liked the series and wanted to know if I’d object if he started a similar series.

How could I object? I don’t own traffic signals. So I told him to have at it. Recently he asked me to look at his series and give my thoughts. As a general rule, that’s my cue to run and hide and avoid that person for a few weeks. I tried to distract him with an amusing anecdote about an Irishman, a Jew and a Martian who walked into a bar, but he wasn’t having any of it. So I looked at the photos. I mean, how bad could it be?

Pretty fucking bad, is how bad. He’d jammed about 70 or 80 photos together, of which maybe half a dozen were good (in my opinion, which is a matter of taste, of course). But it wasn’t just a matter of good/bad photographs; he didn’t seem to understand that a series needs to work as a unit, not just as individual images. He didn’t know how to edit them so they worked together.

So I found myself thinking about what makes a series work, and here’s what I think: what makes a series work is its ability to communicate an idea or a mood. It’s not just a collection of photographs of the same thing–coffee cups, the dog, decaying houses, sports equipment, traffic signals. A successful series, I think, finds meaning in the subject, or brings meaning to the subject, or explores relationships between the subject and other stuff, or conveys a specific unifying mood. But it’s not just photos that feature the same thing.

And that’s where this guy failed, in my opinion. They were just random pictures of random traffic signals shot for no other reason than there was a traffic signal in the frame, then clumped together without any editorial thought. If this guy (who, I hope, will be reading this) would only decide why he’s shooting the photos of traffic signals, then cull the images that don’t fit with his intent, he’d have a good beginning for a series.

stubborn

I don’t normally like to photograph kids after they reach the age where they’re aware of the camera and what it does. They tend to respond too much to the camera. Too much or too little.

This is a fairly controlled smile. This is the face she was determined to present to the camera, and nothing I could do or say could crack that control. She’s a smart kid, stubborn as can be. But she wasn’t being stubborn out of mule-headed intransigence. She was being stubborn because it amused her. She made stubborn seem charming.

thorn

You learn something new every day. Today I learned about this: þ. This is the letter ‘thorn,’ which I didn’t even know was a letter. And in a way, it’s not–at least not in modern English. It was used in Old English, Old Norse and is apparently still in use in the Icelandic alphabet. It’s pronounced like the digraph ‘th’ (as in either ‘theory’ or ‘then’).

Now, why is this cool? I’ll tell you why. Because over time þ began to be written as Ƿ, which eventually became indistinguishable from the letter ‘Y’.

Okay, it’s still not clear why that’s cool, is it. It becomes more clear when you see the letter thorn in use. As in ‘Ƿe Olde Pickle Shoppe.’ Which is now generally written as ‘Ye Olde Pickle Shoppe.’ And which is always pronounced ‘Yee’ when it should, in fact, be pronounced ‘The’.

All right, then–maybe it’s not all that cool. But hey, I learned something new.