where the light is

I noodled around the Des Moines Art Center with some friends a couple of days ago. It had been a while since I’d visited the art center, and I’d forgotten just how visually engaging its architecture is. I’d brought a camera (a real, actual, no-nonsense camera), thinking I might shoot some photos of the artwork. And I did. I shot three frames with the camera — all of the same Calder mobile. I spent far more time shooting quick black-and-white snaps on my cellphone. And very little of that was of the artwork; almost all of the photos I shot were about the building.

Stairs in the Meier wing

The history of the architecture of the Des Moines Art Center is sort of interesting. Well, it’s interesting to me. The original design was the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. He’d won a competition in 1939 to design the Smithsonian Gallery of Art. But Congress being Congress, they decided to deny funding for the construction. Happily, the folks in charge of creating a new art museum in Des Moines saw Saarinen’s plans for the Smithsonian and said, “Dude, slide on over here and build us a museum.” And he did. He cobbled together a structure that was an esoteric combination of Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles. They finished construction in 1948.

What made it unique, though, was the decision NOT to construct a standard museum gallery. Saarinen’s design also included spaces for practice and instruction, making it both an art gallery and a teaching center. And hey, bingo — we had us an art center. Pretty cool idea.

Sunlight through a curtain (with incidental Giacometti bronze)

In the late 1960s, the art center folks decided to expand the building to include a space large enough to hold an auditorium and display really big sculptures. They got I.M. Pei to design it. It’s hard to do better than Pei. But his design revolved around a sort of massive block building that would tower over the existing structure. It was necessary, of course, but the design would have clashed with the low, ground-hugging Saarinen design. So Pei said, “Dudes, not to worry. I’ll sink the block into the landscape, easy peasy, lemon breezy.”  And hey, bingo — we had us a fine addition to the art center.

I.M. Pei window (with incidental Debora Butterfield painted steel horse)

By the 1980s, the art center needed another new extension — a space to house more contemporary works. This time they landed Richard Meier as the architect. Meier is one of those Pritzker Prize geniuses whose work is fairly idiosyncratic. The guy is totally smitten by structures designed around very white geometric patterns. Nothing at all like the designs of Pei or Saarinen. The advantage of being a Pritzker genius is nobody’s going to force you to adapt your aesthetic to fit in with your predecessors.

Meier’s addition to the art center is basically what he’s known for — white geometric patterns. It sort of looks like it was designed by a member of the Borg Collective who’d gone to an architecture school in Minecraft. That sounds more harsh than I mean it to. It’s really a very smart, clever, and very very clean design. Just different from the rest of the art center. But hey, bingo — we have us a space for contemporary artwork.

It speaks to the design, I think, that the only time I felt the need to shoot a photograph in color was in the Meier wing.

Mobile — Calder, Meier wing.

The fact is, I really didn’t make any thoughtful, considered photographs. I just walked around and took quick, square format, b&w snapshots using an app I’ve configured for black-and-white photography. It wasn’t until I got home and looked at the photos (there were only 18 of them) that I realized most of the photos were of the building itself rather than the art it houses. Art figured into some of the photos, but they were accents incidental to the photo rather than the subject of it. If that makes sense.

It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the art; I did. I enjoyed it a lot. In fact, I’d often put on my glasses and get really close and try to figure out exactly how some of the work was done. I mean, how did George Wesley Bellows manage to paint a human face (it is, I’ve decided, humanly impossible — maybe Bellows was an alien)? I looked at the sculptures and admired the sketches and appreciated the paintings and watched a couple of works of video art. By the way,  some of the video art? Incomprehensible and (is there a polite way to say ‘stupid’? — no, I don’t think there is) stupid. But then there was this piece by Michael Najjar. Sublime.

Spacewalk — Michael Najjar

I looked at just about everything and I enjoyed most of it, but in the end the primary reason I’d shoot a photograph had most to do with the way the building interacted with the light. The way the light and the structure worked together seemed to infuse some sort of extra meaning to both. For example, I was very much taken by a chair (based on an Eames design) partly because I mistakenly thought I was in the Saarinen wing (the Eames brothers were students of Saarinen). I was actually in the Pei wing — irony gone awry.

Unironic Eames chair

Some of these photographs, I know, probably won’t appeal to anybody but me. Like the chair above. It’s just a chair the guards sit in. Or this view out a window to the street. What’s that about? There was something about the geometry that appealed to me, though I couldn’t say what.

Looking out on Grand

I actually spent more time on this stupid photograph than all the others combined. I wanted to get that tree in the right spot, and the reflection of the window’s crossbar just the right angle. Then I probably stood there, trying to be still and hold that view, for a couple of minutes, waiting for the passing cars to line up properly. Silly, I know, but it seemed worth it at the moment. Still does.

It’s a wee bit embarrassing to visit the art center and return home with nothing but a handful of black-and-white photographs. All that amazing art, and here’s me with some photos of curtains and stairways and chairs and random views out of windows.

Some random curtain

But what can you do? That’s where the light was.

a simple acknowledgment of service

I’m not particularly moved by the U.S. flag. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a patriot. I joined the military and did my four years in uniform. I’ve spent most of my life engaged in some form of public service — prison counselor, criminal defense investigator, teacher. I stand up when they play the national anthem at ball games. But I’m not a flag-waver. The flag just doesn’t move me as a symbol. It’s been brandished too often by too many hypocrites for too many cynical reasons for me to get very emotional about it.

However, there are two exceptions. First, I get weepy every time I see a military funeral. I’m going to guess a lot of you have only seen a military funeral on television or in the movies. Even so, you know there’s a military tradition that involves folding the flag and presenting it to the next of kin. Believe it or not, there wasn’t any actual written protocol for this ceremony until about five or six years ago. There was, however, the awesome weight of tradition, and tradition is a very big deal in the military.

By tradition, when the flag was presented to the next of kin the Casualty Assistance Officer (yeah, they actually have a title for this person; it’s the military) would kneel, offer the flag, and then say some variation of this:

This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation as an expression of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one.

The moment I hear the words a grateful nation I get totally choked up and by the time they get to honorable and faithful service I’ve been known to cry like a fucking baby. Partly because it’s so often a lie. The service was real. I’m not going to judge whether it was honorable or faithful, the fact is that person served. But let’s face it — the nation is rarely very grateful.

The other exception to my flag-related apathy is Memorial Day. This wasn’t always the case. As a holiday, Memorial Day has pretty much lost all meaning. I’ve written about this before. I’ve written about how ‘patriotic’ Republicans treat one of their own on Memorial Day. And three years ago I wrote about accidentally stumbling across a cemetery in a small town in Iowa on Memorial Day.

I went back to Maxwell, Iowa last year and again yesterday. I keep going back because the good people of Maxwell make Memorial Day feel like it’s supposed to feel. The flags they display are large, and they display a lot of them. But what moves me isn’t the number or size of the flags; it’s about the simple act of recognizing and acknowledging service. Maxwell shows appreciation for the inherent sacrifice of serving.

These weren’t necessarily big sacrifices. Very few of the veterans in Maxwell’s cemetery died while in uniform. They weren’t all heroes (when you call everyone a hero you devalue actual heroism). They were just ordinary folks who felt they owed something to their country or their community. The vast majority of the veterans did their time in military harness, came home, got a job, and lived an ordinary life. And each year, on this one day, the town of Maxwell basically says ‘Thank you.’ They don’t just say it to the dead who served in the military, mind you. The town also puts little flags on the graves of volunteer firefighters and police officers — red for firefighters, blue for police. It’s all about service, regardless of its form.

There’s a good chance, if you live in the US, that over the Memorial Day weekend you’ll pass by a cemetery, and you’ll have seen all those little flags scattered amongst the tombstones. Think about this: somebody put those flags there. Somebody walked out into the cemetery with a little chart showing where the bodies of veterans are located, and planted a little flag by each of those graves. In a few days, they’ll collect those flags and everything will go back to normal until next year. The vast majority of veteran’s graves will go unremembered. Nobody will visit their graves, except the persons planting those flags.

That’s probably not true in a small town like Maxwell. In a town of only a few hundred people, there’s a good chance whoever put those small flags by those graves knew the deceased. Or knew his kin. Maybe they learned geography or math from the person, or maybe grew up with the person’s grandson, or maybe bought their used car. There’s a good chance whoever put those flags in place in Maxwell wasn’t a stranger.

That moves me. It moves me in a very different way than when I visit the graves of my own family’s veterans. It moves me because what I see in Maxwell isn’t just honoring the dead, they’re honoring of the concept of service. It reminds me that service — the act of doing work for the benefit of the community — works both ways. By honoring service itself, the community of Maxwell makes itself worthy of that service. That’s a lesson for every community — every community across scales: neighborhood, small town, city, state, nation.

If you want a proud professional military, be sure you create a nation worthy of pride. If you want a good police force, make sure the city serves and protects everybody who lives there. If you want good teachers, give them good schools and provide them with the material they need to teach. It’s really very simple. If you want good service, give people a good reason to serve.

I’ll probably go back to Maxwell again next year. It doesn’t make me feel any more patriotic, and it won’t really change how I feel about the flag. But it reminds me that the reasons so many of us put on the uniform are valid. It reminds me service is honorable.

the comments

Don’t read the comments. This may be the most frequently shared piece of internet wisdom. If you value your sanity, do NOT read the comments. The comments aren’t healthy. They’re not safe. They’ll sap your will to live. They’ll shred your already loose grasp on reality. The comments will steal your soul. Whatever you do, do NOT read the damned comments.

The comments — they’re what this generation has instead of Vietnam. It’s where you lose your innocence and youth.

“Never get out of the boat,” Chef says. “I didn’t get out of the goddamned eighth grade for this kind of shit.” Never get out of the boat and don’t read the comments. Sounds like good advice. Or…you can read the comments, ignore the damned boat, abandon your innocence, and explore the heart of darkness.

Last week I wrote something about the Charging Bull and Fearless Girl that generated a metric ton of comments. I didn’t read them all. I couldn’t; who has time to read a metric ton of comments? But I’d set up this blog so new commenters must be approved (I rarely get a lot of comments; an approval process wasn’t expected to be a chore), so I was forced to glance at each comment long enough to determine if it was legit or if it was an opportunity to date Russian models or buy genuine Michael Kors handbags for 80% off.

Now that things have slowed down, I’ve been dipping into the comments. And you know what? Some of them are brilliant. Some — surprisingly few, really — are stupid and/or offensive, but for the most part the comments are composed by folks who sincerely want to express a point of view. There really wasn’t much heart of darkness to be found. It was more like the scapula of darkness, with moments of the raised middle finger of darkness.

But here’s the thing — and I think it’s a wonderful thing: people are arguing about art. I’m going to repeat that very slowly, because it’s not something you hear very often. People. Are arguing. About art.

“The girl must go!” “The girl must stay!” “She is an affront to Capitalism!” “Patriarchy must die!” “Your argument is not valid!” “If YOUR argument was valid, it would be easier to find images of women fighting with swords!” “I have no response to that, but I will continue to argue!” “I shall argue on as well! Have at you, varlet!”

They’re thinking about the purpose of public art, they’re forming opinions about the legitimacy of various forms of artistic expression, they’re debating the pros and cons of commissioned art, they’re arguing about depictions of gender in art, they’re reflecting on how context shapes the meaning of art, they’re having passionate disagreements about the intersection of art and economic systems, they’re fighting about what constitutes appropriation and what qualifies as guerrilla art. People — lots of people — are arguing about art. How cool is that? Very cool, is how cool.

There are a lot of recurring topics in the comments that I’d like to address, but I don’t want to turn this into Greg’s Fearless Girl vs. Charging Bull blog. So I’ll just natter on about two of the more prevalent comments.

Lots of great works of art have been commissioned.

Yes, that’s absolutely true. Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel was often mentioned in the comments. But here’s the difference: Michelangelo’s contract to paint the ceiling specified some of the elements to be included (the 12 apostles, for example), but he insisted on the right to interpret how to present those figures. The Pope, for example, didn’t approve of Michelangelo’s decision to include nude figures, but he painted them the way he wanted to paint them. In contrast, as noted in AdWeek, the design of  Fearless Girl was predominantly market-driven.

We were so meticulous with Kristen about designing the girl’s look. It was super important to us, and to everyone at McCann, that she feel relatable to all kinds of girls and all kinds of women…. Every tiny detail of that pose, and particularly the face, and her tilt and angle, was so carefully designed to articulate a really specific message.

Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with that. Commercial art IS art, and commercial artists have to be exceedingly talented to turn a marketer’s concept into a piece that works as art while still selling a product. That’s not easy. But it’s important to distinguish between a commissioned work of art in which the artists has the agency to interpret the design and a commissioned work in which the design is largely presented to the artist.

Nobody reads the plaque / nobody knows Fearless Girl is/was a marketing tool

The plaque has actually been removed. In fact, it was removed before I wrote my blog article. A new plaque which doesn’t mention SHE is in its place. Here’s the new plaque:

Fearless Girl was placed in New York City’s Financial District, in honor of International Women’s Day 2017, to celebrate the importance of having greater gender diversity in corporate boards and in company leadership positions. She also stands as an inspiration for the next generation of women leaders”—presented by the New York City Department of Transportation Art Program and State Street Global Advisors

It doesn’t mention SHE, but it acknowledges State Street Global Advisors. More, it suggests Fearless Girl was created to honor International Women’s Day. Again, the decision to install the statue on that date appears to be as much of a marketing strategy as anything else.

“[T]here was a lot of discussion with State Street about the timing of this, because it was so important and meaningful. Launching it on the cusp of International Women’s Day really provided so much fodder for people to emotionally react to her.”

Again, there’s nothing wrong with this — aside from the misleading impression that the primary purpose of the statue is to honor International Women’s Day. I do believe the marketing team is sincere about honoring that day; but they’re professionals and they knew the statue would have more impact because of the date it was released. It was a clever, deliberate, calculated decision AND it also promoted a feminist perspective.

It’s also true the great mass of people are unaware that Fearless Girl was a marketing device — but the great mass of people weren’t the target audience. They were targeting the folks who make investment decisions. And hey, it worked. According to Fortune, SHE ‘has received $3.2 million in new inflows since March alone, half of its total inflows in 2017 so far.’

Fearless Girl is a very effective tool for increasing inflows — which I assume means money (I have to acknowledge that I’m a dolt about matters of finance; Fortune also pointed out that SHE is listed on the NYSE ARCA exchange, not the Nasdaq, as I claimed — and while I’m sure the distinction is important, I haven’t a clue what it means).

Let me repeat this one more time: there’s nothing wrong with running a successful marketing campaign. The problem I have is with the repeated suggestion that Fearless Girl was first and foremost a work of art rather than a very clever and rewarding advertisement for financial services.

~

I still love Fearless Girl. And I’m still bothered by her backstory. I still think Arturo Di Modica has a point — that the installation of Fearless Girl has both appropriated his work by making it an essential aspect of the new statue, and it’s altered the original perception of his work. And I still don’t know what should be done about it.

But I know this: people are talking about art. We’re out of the boat. And this is exactly what I got out of the goddamned eighth grade for.

snow, the cat, and some buddha stuff

Snow probably makes me a better Buddhist. I’m not sure I’m happy about that.

I mean, there’s the expected Buddha stuff you’d associate with snow. The stillness. The tranquility. The beauty of falling snow, of drifting snow, of snow whirling in the wind, of the purity of snow. Snowfall can be very contemplative.

all-that-pretty-snow

But eventually there comes the dull, monotonous, tedious, sometimes painful reality of dealing with the snow. Snow has to be moved. It has to be cleared from driveways and sidewalks. That means shoveling. Or — and this is SO much worse — if the snow is too deep to shovel, cranking up the snowblower. A noisy, smelly, hateful, but fairly effective machine. It’s faster and probably more efficient, but I fucking hate the snowblower.

However, I don’t hate shoveling. Okay, that’s a lie. I do hate it. I hate it and I appreciate it. You know that hauling water/chopping wood thing that Buddhists like to talk about? Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. You hear that all the time when you’re first noodling around with Buddhism. What does it mean? It means whether you’re enlightened or not, shit has to get done. A big chunk of Buddhism is about how you approach getting shit done.

Hardly anybody I know has to do much hauling and chopping, but I know a lot of folks who have to deal with snow. Shoveling snow is physical labor. I am not a fan of physical labor. If there was any point at all to having spent four years in military harness, it was to get Uncle Sugar to pay my way through college so I could get a job that didn’t involve sweating, lifting heavy things, or anything approaching actual labor. Shoveling snow is as close as I get to manual labor, for which I am ever so grateful.

This is where the Buddha stuff comes in. One of the things Buddhism teaches you (or tries to) is that if you do a thing, you do that thing. That’s it. You do that thing and you do it well. You do it mindfully. You don’t cut corners, you don’t do it half-assed, you don’t rush, you don’t complain. You don’t think about what you’re going to have for lunch, or fret about whatever fresh hell Comrade Trump has inflicted on the world, or debate the relative merits of Crazyhead compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You just do the damned thing.

It was still dark out this morning when I began to shovel snow. Dark and cold. I’m talking 16F with 16 mph winds. Miserable weather. But except for the wind, it was quiet. And I shoveled. The driveway. The front walk. The sidewalk. Much of both neighbors’ sidewalks.

As always, when I began shoveling I hated it. But there’s a weird sort of peace that comes from the rhythm of it. It’s pretty easy to slide into a state in which you’re mindful of what you’re doing without being altogether aware of it. If that makes any sense. Shoveling snow becomes a sort of meditation. Except that when you’re done, you’re exhausted, and your knees and back and shoulders hurt like hell, and you’d murder for a cup of hot coffee.

I shoveled for about an hour. The sun was coming up when I finished. Neighbors were beginning to shovel their own drives and sidewalks. Some asshole up the road tried to start his snowblower, but it just roared and coughed a few times, then failed. That pleased me — which is evidence that I’m not a terribly good Buddhist.

cant-say-im-happy-about-this

I put the shovel away, came inside, started the coffee. Fed the cat. Took some Advil. By the time I’d changed clothes, got my coffee, and parked my ass in front of the computer, the cat had finished eating. She decided it was critically important that she sit on my lap. I explained to the cat that my knees were on fire, so I’d prefer not to have a cat on my lap, thank you very much.

So here’s me, typing slowly because it’s awkward to use a keyboard with a cat on your lap. My knees ache, but the coffee is good and the cat is making the odd grunting noise she makes instead purring like a normal cat.

I am strangely contented.

LSotY

I belong to this odd collective of photographers called Utata. I’ve written about the group and some of its projects before, so I won’t bother you with a description again. I mention it because one of our elastic traditions (by elastic I mean sometimes we do it, sometimes we don’t, some of us do it, some of us don’t) is to post the last selfie we took in the year to our Flickr group.

Yesterday was the last day of 2016, so I went searching through my files (I say ‘files’ as if I actually have some sort of organized system of storing photographs, which polite folks would suggest was an exaggeration) for the last selfie I shot. Turns out that was June 20th.

img_20160620_144116

It’s a perfectly acceptable selfie (at least by my fairly low standards), but June 20th was six months ago. And let’s face it, the photo is more about the cat than me. Still, it’s technically a selfie so I figured it would do.

If I had a lick of sense, that would have been it. But no. I decided I should probably take a new photo — a current photo, a photograph that is more clearly a selfie, a photograph with less cat. Did I prepare this in any way? No, I did not. Did I change clothes or shave or even bother to comb my hair? No, I did not. Did I even look in a mirror first? No, I certainly did not. Why didn’t I do any of those things? Because I am, on any number of metrics, a fucking idiot.

Here’s more proof of my idiocy: I picked up my tablet (okay, you’ve almost certainly heard folks say you shouldn’t ever take a photo with a tablet because the cameras suck; turns out that’s true, and it’s even more true when it comes to taking a selfie because the front-facing camera (or is it the rear-facing camera? I don’t know) sucks even more), stepped into the middle of the room where there was the most light, and hey bingo at 5:09 Central time on December 31st, I took a selfie.

dsc_0678-01

It was what you’d call a ‘tactical mistake’. I looked at the photo and thought ‘Lawdy, what the hell was I thinking?‘ It has been pointed out to me on occasion that I often look like a thug in photographs. I think we now have to amend that to ‘an aging thug’. Or maybe ‘a confused, aging thug’. Because, c’mon — just look at that. It looks like I’m concerned the camera is going to eat my soul.

I started to delete the photo, at which point I realized ‘Dude, THIS is the last selfie of the year.’ After a brief moment of horror, I realized I could comb my hair, put on different clothes, find some good light, take a selfie with an actual camera, and then THAT photo would be the LSotY.

But that would be sort of a dick move. Now, I’m perfectly capable of making dick moves. Mostly I make them without thinking. Deliberately making a dick move amplifies its essential dickishness (witness Donald J. Trump’s New Year’s tweet). I couldn’t really do that to Utata, could I. So I was stuck with this photo.

And then I thought of Prisma. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an application created by some Russian developer that doesn’t just apply a filter on top of an existing photo; it actually scans the digital data and uses that information to apply a ‘style’ to a photo. I’ve had the app on my tablet for a few months, but never really bothered to play with it. This seemed like a good time to try it.

Prisma - Udnie

Udnie

Prisma must have around thirty different styles (yeah, I could count them, but really, how likely is that?). The style above is based (loosely, I’d say) on Francis Picabia’s painting Udnie (Young American Girl, The Dance). I don’t see it, myself. But hey, it’s an improvement on the original photo.

It’s much easier to see the connection between the Heisenberg style and the famous Heisenberg drawing of Walter White from Breaking Bad. I like this style, although I have to say it’s a wee bit alarming to see that a Breaking Bad-based style makes me look LESS like a thug than in the original photo.

Heisenberg

Heisenberg

Some of the Prisma styles don’t seem to have any relationship to — well, to anything at all. For example, the Colored Sky style has a lot of color, but I don’t see much sky in it. Unless you’re hallucinating. Or maybe on another planet. The shark eyes are sort of cool, though.

Colored Sky

Colored Sky

And the Aviator style? Seriously, what does this have to do with aviation? It should have been called the Braveheart style. It’s got Mel Gibson as William Wallace splashed all over it. Well, except there isn’t an implied claymore in the photo, and there’s no hint at all of consuming “…the English with fireballs from his eyes, and bolts of lightning from his arse.” So okay, maybe less Braveheart and more Pogo the Clown.

Aviator (seriously?)

Aviator (seriously?)

The Urban style doesn’t strike me as particularly ‘urban’ unless you’re defining ‘urban’ as ‘scowling like a motherfucker’. Really, I don’t understand where that scowl comes from. I’m a nice guy. Honest. A harmless guy. I’ve never once been convicted of a felony.

Urban

Urban

I suppose it’s appropriate to end this with the Mononoke style. I’m not sure if Prisma named the style after Princess Mononoke, the 1997 anime film by Miyazaki, or the 2007 Mononoke television series about an itinerant medicine seller, or the Japanese term for a supernatural spirit that can inhabit or possess…well, just about anything, it seems. It’s appropriate to end with this style because that’s sort of what Prisma does. It doesn’t lay a filter ON the photo; it digs down into the photo’s data and sort of inhabits the photograph. This is probably the closest approximation of the original selfie; it transforms the photo while still retaining its essential confused, aging thugness.

Mononoke

Mononoke

In general, I’m not a fan of apps like Prisma. I just can’t take them seriously. I certainly don’t believe Prisma’s claim that their app “transforms your photos and videos into works of art.” That’s fundamentally bullshit. You don’t create art by picking styles off a menu. That’s not making art; that’s shopping.

But you can have fun shopping with Prisma. Watching the transformation is a lot more entertaining than I thought it would be. And that’s the thing about Utata — it’s all about having fun. So I legitimately took my last selfie of the year at 5:09 Central time on December 31st. But I don’t think anybody can fault me for spending maybe twelve minutes on January 1st shopping with Prisma.

all i wanted was a donut

I wanted a donut this morning. I love donuts, but I don’t eat them very often. I don’t eat them often because I work at home, and in order to get a donut you have to get dressed and leave the house and go to a place that sells donuts. That’s not a lot of effort ordinarily, but it’s the middle of December and the temperature is only 20F (with a wind chill factor of 8F), so getting a donut was going to require a certain amount of planning and preparation.

The first step was to figure out the location of the closest donut shop. Easy peasy, on account of the Google is your friend. All I had to do was enter Where is the nearest donut shop? and I’d be able to bundle up and be on my way. But I got as far as Where is and the Google offered a few possible autocompletions:

Where is…
Xur
Allepo
the love
my mind

I know where Allepo is. Love, according to the Troggs (who’ve never lied to me, so far as I know), is all around. My mind is right here, searching for a place to buy a donut. But Xur? Where the fuck is Xur? In fact, what the fuck is Xur?

It turns out it’s not Xur. It’s Xûr. And I’m reliably informed he’s an agent of the Nine. Who and what are the Nine? No idea. But Xûr is a vendor who sells exotic weapons, exotic armor, engrams, and consumables in exchange for Strange Coins and Motes of Light. He appears in different locations in the Tower and Vestian Outpost every weekend from 9:00 AM Friday to 9:00 AM Sunday UTC.

Xûr, Agent of the Nine.

Xur, Agent of the Nine.

Xûr doesn’t appear to sell donuts. Besides, I’m totally out of Strange Coins and Motes of Light, so fuck him. But at that point I was curious about the Google’s autocompletion function. So I typed in:

Why does…
ice float
my cat bite me
my back hurt
my eye twitch

All good questions. Ice floats for the same reason anything floats — because it’s less dense than the fluid it’s sitting in. That’s it; no mystery there — just science. Your cat bites you because it’s a cat, and cats do whatever the fuck they want to do, and trying to understand why cats do anything at all is a mug’s game, so just give it up. Science won’t help you there. Your back hurts because everybody’s back hurts. Why should you be any different? And your eye twitches because you’re probably guilty of something shameful. Aren’t we all? Me, I’m guilty of the sin of curiosity (which may also be the reason cats bite).

Maybe about to bite, maybe not, who knows?

Maybe about to bite, maybe not, who knows?

What’s the point of…
living
the mannequin challenge
instagram
marriage

Again, good questions. The point of living? See, right there, that’s your problem. You’re expecting there MUST be a point, a purpose, a reason, something outside of yourself that you’re supposed to be doing. Let that shit go, dude. It’s clearly making you miserable. If there’s a point, part of it is NOT to make yourself miserable. But if you MUST make yourself miserable, go find a cat, let it bite you, then ask the cat why. The mannequin challenge? No idea. Seems silly, but fun for a lot of folks. That’s probably point enough. The point of Instagram is the same as the point of masturbation: it’s easy, it’s fun, it doesn’t hurt anybody, and it’s something you should probably do in private. And the point of marriage is, and always has been, about property. Getting it, keeping it, securing it, passing it on. I know that’s not very romantic, but there it is. It’s got nothing to do with what the Troggs were singing about.

What is the meaning of…
life
love
christmas
deplorable

Oh, c’mon people, really? You’re asking your computer to explain the meaning of life and love? Okay, skipping over the fact that that’s just sad, what makes you think there’s just one single meaning? Hell, there are dozens of different meanings for the word ‘run’ and that’s a pretty simple word. Here’s an idea: keeping the words love and life in mind, look at photographs of 1) a cat, 2) a wedding, and 3) Aleppo. Does that help? No? Then stop fretting about it. And speaking of Aleppo, let’s talk about deplorable.

We can actually define this. It comes from the Latin prefix de- meaning “entirely” and plorare, meaning “to weep or cry out”. Combined, it became deplorare, meaning “to bewail, lament, give up for lost”. Although now deplorable as an adjective means “very bad, shocking or regrettable”, originally it referred to the regret we feel for people who’ve been given up as lost forever.

dplorable-lives

It’s appropriate to move from the current meaning of ‘deplorable’ to the meaning of Christmas. I should probably admit here that I’m not a Christian, but really this Christmas business isn’t complicated. It’s a lovely story about a poor, pregnant Middle Eastern couple forced to travel maybe 90 miles on a donkey in order to register for a census created by an occupying army to determine tax levies. It’s about an innkeeper who, out of compassion, finds room for this couple to shelter in. The woman gives birth to a baby. Okay, from that point on it’s all angels singing, and wandering kings arriving with esoteric gifts, and animals that bow and speak, but that’s just gravy. The heart of the story is the notion of good will and peace on Earth. Whether you’re Christian or not, peace and good will and hope and love (however you define it) and compassion underlie the meaning of Christmas. And that’s all good stuff

Yes, we still have the horror of Aleppo,. Yes, we still have folks who are proud of their modern deplorableness. And yes, the cat will still bite you. But watch A Charlie Brown Christmas or the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol (start at the two-minute mark), and listen to the Troggs. Get yourself some Strange Coins and Motes of Light.

I had a point when I started this, but I’m damned if I can remember what it was. It was probably a good point. But I still don’t have any donuts.

the humanness of things

“I don’t believe in coincidences.” You’ve heard that line spoken in every detective show that’s ever been on television. It’s ridiculous, of course, because coincidences exist. I mean, that’s why we have a word for it.

For example, about a week ago I was shooting a photograph of some yellow bollards at the very back of a massive and nearly empty parking area of a big box store. I was using an old Polaroid Spectra 2 camera, trying to get a feel for what the camera could do, using Impossible Project color film, trying to get a feel for what the film could do. In other words, I was experimenting.

family-of-bollards

Before I took the shot, however, a car pulled up and the driver rolled down his window. He was an old guy (and as I say that I realize he was probably around my age — maybe even a bit younger), and he grinned at me and my Polaroid camera and asked “How do you use your camera?”

I’d had a similar question from a police officer a couple of weeks earlier (there’s a coincidence for you — and coincidentally, one of the photos I shot before the arrival of the police officer was of a yellow bollard). With that encounter in mind I launched into an explanation of how I used the camera as a descriptive tool, a device designed to record a small but precise rectangle of the reality in front of the lens. I was prepared to elaborate on that idea — to spell out how the decisions of what to include in the frame and what to exclude from the frame were expressive decisions, and so even if the final image seemed mundane — like, say, a group of yellow bollards — there were still aesthetic aspects to be considered, as well as the notion that mundane objects and structures can be interpreted as a manifestation of humanness. In other words, my decision of what to include in the frame is, in part, a reflection of some other person’s past decision to…

“No,” the old guy interrupted. He said, “No, I mean, the camera. The camera. How do you use that camera? I thought they stopped making Polaroid film.” So I told him about the Impossible Project. Then I shot the photo.

That photo, coincidentally, sparked a brief discussion on Facebook because apparently relatively few people were aware those posts are called bollards. And coincidentally, this morning on Facebook I learned that William Christenberry had died.

Just over a decade ago I admitted that although I’d been shooting photographs for years and I knew how to operate a camera, I was pretty ignorant about the history of the craft. I had only the barest notion of what had been done in photography in the past, or who had done it, or what they were thinking when they did it. So I decided to educate myself, and I decided to share my education with a group of friends in a Flickr group called Utata. I’d pick a photographer, do some research, write a short article based on the research, and we’d discuss it in the group. We called it the Sunday Salon.

christenberry1

One of the first photographers I picked for the Sunday Salon was William Christenberry. Why? Because I came across his name somewhere and liked it. I didn’t know anything about his photography, and when I began to look at his photographs, they didn’t make a lick of sense to me. I saw an old black-and while photo of a dilapidated juke joint somewhere in Alabama. Then I saw a photo of the same building, only this time it was in color. Then another photo of the same place, and another and another — all of the same building.

I began to get it. This guy wasn’t just photographing the building; he was photographing the history of the building. Christenberry wasn’t trying to make art — at least not at first. He was just creating a document, a description of how particular structures evolved and devolved. He went back to the same places year after year to record how things change.

christenberry2

A building may be static, but the world around it is dynamic. What happens in the world is reflecting by the changes to a building. Wind and rain have an effect, the settling of the structure into the soil has an effect. Paint fades, shutters have to be replaced, buildings begin to tilt. Humans very obviously have an effect; they do the painting, they replace the shutters, they repair the damage.

Over time, Christenberry’s simple documentation process became deliberate, thoughtful art. His first photographs were shot using an old Brownie camera given to him when he was young, but as the project progressed, so did his use of technology. He eventually began to shoot with a Deardorff 8×10 view camera. Christenberry even began to take measurements of some of the buildings and recreated them as sculptures.

christenberry3

“What I really feel very strongly about,” Christenberry once said, “and I hope reflects in all aspects of my work, is the human touch, the humanness of things, the positive and sometimes the negative and sometimes the sad.”

There it is. The humanness of things. Those half-dozen yellow bollards? Somebody deliberately put them there. Somebody designed the shape of that small area, somebody chose to plant a tree in the middle of it, somebody decided what type of tree to plant. Somebody designed that parking lot. The humanness of things is always there.

I believe in coincidence. I love coincidence. I enjoy the weird, improbable chain that links an encounter with the police to an old guy in a parking lot asking about an old camera to a discussion on the etymology of the term bollard to the work of William Christenberry to a photograph of yellow bollards. I believe in coincidence and I believe in the humanness of things, and wouldn’t the world be terribly dull and uninteresting without them.