2007

*** Wednesday, February 7, 2007 ***

Haven’t written here in a while. Been busy at work. What else is new? Work, work work. Phooey. You know, there are some people out there who would like to tell you all about the moral uplift, the psychic good health, that lies in having a steady job. To them I say: piss off. I don’t give a rat’s ass about moral uplift. If I could have one wish in the world you know what it would be? Money not to work and health to last twenty years. That’s all I ask. I don’t need a fortune. Just enough to keep a ratty little one-bedroom or trailer somewhere warm and dry. I would then quit my current morally-uplifting day job and dance for joy, never to seek another. And I’d spend the rest of my life writing songs, poetry, books, and stories; taking photographs; drawing and painting; acting in theatre; writing and producing film projects; and making music. In no particular order. In fact, I’d do exactly what I do right now. Only I’d have more friggin’ *time* to do it.

You know, I can still remember back when I was about twelve or thirteen years old and it first dawned on me that you had to work to make a living in this world. I was thoroughly dismayed. You didn’t just get to live magically for free for the rest of your life? You had to give up eight whopping hours out of every single business day to make enough to get by? I thought, “What the HELL? I can’t hold a JOB. I’ve got stuff to DO.” And the thing is ... I’ve sort of felt that way ever since! I spent the years from age 12 to 42 basically denying, fighting, cursing and trying to end-run around the need-a-job theory of existence. And although I’ve failed miserably to circumvent it, I still haven’t entirely accepted it, either. Which is why, alas, I’ve spent the last five years working at my current job basically to pay off old debts and back taxes. But it is also why, when I have to open yet another blog entry here by saying I “haven’t written in a while” because I’ve been “busy at work,” well, I sometimes just want to scream. I haven’t got time for this I want to shout. Life is slipping away while I piss away the years doing stupid work for a stupid company in a stupid industry that nobody gives a shit about.

It really does feel that way.

Sigh.

At least ... my new camera is fun!

In fact I have been enjoying the hell out of it. Now, about six weeks after Christmas, I’ve not only got the Nikon D200 but I also have the Nikkor VR 18-200 zoom lens to go with it - which is just about the coolest lens on planet earth. To somebody like me, who began taking pictures in the early ‘80s, the idea that a single lens can go from 18mm (wide angle) to 200mm (zoom) is nearly unbelievable. The creative possibilities are simply magnificent. Now, whenever I get spare time I think about going outside on some kind of photo mission, and I carry a working list of places around Saint Paul in my head that I want to visit (and/or revisit). It’s tremendous fun! I feel very vibrantly alive and happy again with my new hobby.*

(* - Technically not entirely new. But it feels new, and that’s what counts.)

As a focus for the pictures I’ve taken, I’ve joined Flickr.com, the website-community based around people who have an interest in photography (the same way that, say, YouTube is based around video and enthusiasts). There are some astonishingly talented people on Flickr, and also some very nice ones. Part of the service is you get to see other people’s comments about your work, and this has been very helpful and a lot of fun. So I’m quite enjoying it.

If you’d like to see my Flickr home page, here it is:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ptrob59/

But I’ll also put some of my favorite photos from the past six weeks here, where it’s easier to talk about them.

Roller Derby Thumb 340204623_1b34cfc07e_m

Roller Derby Thumb 340203855_b999a50ada_m

Roller Derby Thumb 340203175_a5442708fe_m

Roller Derby Thumb 340204422_fafe8ac675_m

Like the set on the right. What the heck is going on here? Well ... it turns out that some of the women where I work are members of a local Roller Derby league called the North Star Roller Girls. They do it for fun and exercise, and are very tongue-in-cheek about their team names (The Violent Femmes, The Killmore Girls) and their ’skating’ names (Cher Noble, Derby Little Secret, Princess Die). Derby fever has even spread into the Merrill training department, where Danielle Nelson (Strawberry Snatchcake) and Eva Schaeffer (Hurry Cane) are on opposing teams (no fistfights in the aisles yet, but we’ll see). I missed a couple of early bouts, but the very day after the Nikon arrived I knew I had a mission. I went that night (a rainy Saturday, December 30) and, camera in hand, took up my strategic position behind the players’ bench. While the Nikon has a pop-up flash and I did a few shots using it, I became enamored of the available light and fast action, so I just blasted away with the flash off. The results - the good ones, anyway - are wonderful: blurry, colorful shots that capture perfectly the giddy speed and excitement. I fell in love when I got home and saw them on my PC. I could have kissed the Nikon then & there.

I knew this was a new hobby that I was going to love.

I learned a lot about the Nikon that night. I learned you can take good photos with a minimum of fuss. I also learned it was easy to take a hell of a lot of shots. I had my first SLR back in the film days, after all - when if you shot three rolls of 36 on a subject you had really covered it. Now three rolls’ worth - 118 shots - is barely getting started. The Compact Flash memory card I bought for the Nikon has 2GB of space; at medium image quality with JPG storage this card will fit over 600 photos. What’s even more scary is, these cards come in 4GB and 8GB versions! Without the hindrance of film - and with a nifty rapid-fire mode on the camera, which I used to track passing skaters - by the night’s end I had taken well over 500 exposures. That may sound excessive but all I could think was one word: fantastic.

Combing through 600 photos on your PC after the fact, looking for the good ones, may sound like a chore but it isn’t. Within a day or two of the bout I ended up picking about a dozen of the best photos for posting on Flickr. I didn’t want to post them all - although Flickr would be happy to have them. Flickr, to me, is about posting your best photos - not posting in bulk. For bulk there are always places like Yahoo photos - which I’m also a member of. On Yahoo I posted 264 photos from the NSRG December bout. If you’d like to see them, send me an email and I’ll send you an invite. Then you can gaze to your heart’s content!

After the Roller Derby I felt ready for anything so I began hauling the camera around with me 24/7. I simply didn’t (and still don’t) leave the house without it. But more than this, I’ve also started taking weekend excursions out into the city with the specific idea of finding photo opportunities. Sometimes this involves just walking down the street; sometimes it means going for a drive. Either way, it’s fun. There’s a sense of adventure about these trips because I never really know where I’m going to end up. I also like it because it feels healthy to be outdoors; my photo trips get me away from the computer screen and out into the fresh air.

My only regret is that I seem to be spending a lot of time with inanimate objects right now. But I suppose that’s because I’m working third shift, so there aren’t many places that are full of people when I’m awake and interested in taking photos. (Right now, for instance, I wouldn’t mind going out to a mall or a park to do some people-watching - but it’s 4:40am.) But that’s okay; buildings and statues have one thing going for them: they don’t complain while I fumble around learning the basics all over again. And boy is there a lot to learn! Not just about the camera, but also about basic photography concepts again. I’ve really been rediscovering the basic photographer’s axioms which state that you have to (a) learn to see, and (b) learn to be patient. Oh, and (c) most of what you take is crap - but you won’t find that out until you’re back home looking at the results.

Indust Park Thumb 348647856_f9ec19fb16_m

Indust Park Thumb 348647787_b5eb8362ff_m

Indust Park Thumb 348647705_02e3472678_m

Indust Park Thumb 348647515_192d634905_m

Indust Park Thumb 352510677_5b57286def_m

My first “photographer’s expedition” was in early January, to an industrial park which I pass on the way to work each day and where I had spotted an odd-looking row of metal cylinders heaped up to make a kind of wall. I parked nearby and began surveying the scene, trying to figure out how to shoot it. I ended up not really finding any one angle that I thought was brilliant; so instead I snapped a lot of different things, some close up, some far away. I figured I’d look at them later and see a photo or two I liked. I did. What I think are the best two from the series are these top two at left.

Then (and as I’m beginning to learn, this often happens) I felt that I had exhausted my original subject (or at least run out of ideas for the moment), and so I began looking at the scene around me to see if there was anything else interesting. Turns out there was. A few paces away was a street that led up into a residential neighborhood, full of big old trees and pretty houses. The other way there was an electrical substation of some kind. Both were looking rather cool at the moment in the late-afternoon sun. With hundreds of photos’ worth of space left on the flash card and no apparent end to the D200 battery in sight, I began snapping away again.

The photo of the gate is a crop of one I took of the electrical substation. There was originally more at the top of this image, but this is one of the first times where I’ve really made a photo work by cropping it. Before this, the photo was unbalanced and ordinary. Cropped like this, I think it’s very interesting and has a pleasing design.

As the sun got lower I noticed that some of the trees over my head had these beautiful orange highlights in the branches. I took a lot of photos of this effect - but looking at them later I was generally disappointed. Now I realize it really would have been better if I’d had a telephoto lens, so I could have brought the branches closer. The tree photo here is the best I could do. You can see the effect I’m talking about a little, but it was much more vivid and memorable in person.

Last, I turned my head due West and saw the last photo in the group above - a bunch of crooked telephone poles with the sun setting beyond them, again turning them a kind of lovely orange color. With the light starting to go I did a quick sequence of these poles in a bunch of different ways: tighter, wider, straight, tilted. This angle, that one. When I got home later this is the one I liked best. I love the vivid orange color here, and how it blends into the deepening blue of the sky. I love that the bottom is dark, light twilight is emerging from the ground. I also really like the different angles in the picture: poles tipping one way, road another, skyline yet another. It’s just an all-round fun photograph. I think it’ll always be a favorite.

 

*** Friday, March 3, 2007 ***

flickr thumb 350440624_386b4dce8f_m

flickr thumb 360110252_1948e423b5_m

flickr thumb 365728988_69cc64e05a_m

flickr thumb 369960744_cac968c48f_m

flickr thumb 373388970_89cee8b6e6_m

flickr thumb 376141392_773586c4c9_m

flickr thumb 384044135_03215925c5_m

flickr thumb 387616811_8a6f8ecd1b_m

flickr thumb 388952916_34dc9b000e_m

flickr thumb 393703085_1f896e1748_m

flickr thumb 396513622_711c05e3a0_m

flickr thumb 399311745_b6cae4bcdf_m

flickr thumb 402741258_aab01ec572_m

flickr thumb 406752599_c22ec9f3d5_m

flickr thumb 407376848_8e8d74b6b6_m

flickr thumb 407732503_7838c3df6b_m

flickr thumb 411110432_5efe117762_m

Where was !?

These days going out on photo excursions has become less of an event and more like a way of life. I take the camera with me 24/7. I have it packed in my backpack, together with a spare battery & memory card, lens hood, and remote shutter release. In the car I keep a tripod. I have, while driving along, executed sudden U-turns and other questionable maneuvers because I saw something cool, then hastily parked and gotten out in the freezing cold of dawn to snap away. (The picture of city buildings with clouds of steam around them below was taken that way.)

I’m quite happy!

I’ve even gotten committed to the point where I’ve invested in a new pair of winter boots because my sneakers were on the point of giving up the ghost after too many nights/mornings in the snow and slush. I also needed something with a better tread. While at Mississippi Park, which is a beautiful trail/woodland running along the river, I came upon some rather steep and beautiful trails, and mournfully had to turn back because my smooth-bottomed shoes would never have maintained a grip on those snow- and ice-slick paths. Now I’ve got a pair of Columbias that can handle 40 below zero while clinging to a tilted pane of glass. Bring it ON.

What I’m enjoying about this, like I’ve enjoyed about the Cutty Sark project, is that it’s using some familiar artistic muscles and some new ones. The new ones are always interesting. You really have to learn to see as a photographer; seven-tenths of a good photograph I think is in the brain, not the camera. And you train your brain by taking bad photos that you thought were good, and then asking yourself where you went wrong. And then making an effort - a real effort - to remember next time. I’ve noticed the effect this is having in my everyday life. I’ve started seeing the world in a way I never did before. Now without much prompting, wherever I go I observe where the light is coming from, what it’s color temperature is, what’s in the background. It’s very enjoyable. I feel like I’m seeing the world more vividly than before. Or perhaps more engagedly is a better way to put it. I feel like a semi-dormant sense has been woken up. I feel like my brain is tingling with new experiences.

The other part of a good photo, of course, is good processing after the fact, and it’s been fun these past couple of months to really start applying myself to Adobe Photoshop and see what I can pull out of it. In this sense, Flickr has been a big help because just when you get a little smug and think you’re a pretty creative chap you’ll land on someone’s photostream which simply blows you away. The bar, you then realize, is much higher than you even imagined, and you feel a little foolish and a little inspired and a little daunted all at once. I’ve seen some hair-raisingly creative stuff on Flickr that is simply mind-boggling. But I have to say, if I see a technique I really like, I become hell-bent to learn how it’s done.

Two brand new techniques that I’ve learned so far from Flickr are how to “Ortonize” a photograph and how to use something called HDR. Ortonizing is a kind of gaussian-blur technique that produces very magic-looking photos. It’s a pretty effect, but I haven’t used it so far because the result, to me, always looks like the “Romantic Photo” button has been turned up to 11 in a Hallmark card sort of way. Pretty but also a bit schmaltzy.

HDR, on the other hand, is a very cool effect and I’ve been using it almost constantly since getting the hang of it some weeks ago. HDR stands for “high dynamic range” and it’s basically a way of capturing detail in the shadows and highlights of a scene which a normal exposure, even by the best of cameras, cannot do. Many of the photos you see here - the downtown park at night, the towers of ice, the cemetery - were done with hdr. I find it quite beautiful.

Aside from my brain waking up, I’m also pleased with the way that photography gets me out of the house. I remember at first when I had the Nikon I’d wander around the apartment, snapping this and that. Shoes. The cat. A lamp. I’d look at these creations on the PC and think, Jesus, these are pathetic. The solution now seems obvious but I’m surprised how long it took to arrive: if you want to take interesting photographs you have to go out into the world and find interesting subjects. Unless you happen to live in a museum or Times Square, great photos aren’t going to simply pass you by as you sit there on the couch. This has led me to begin searching out the precincts of Saint Paul and Minneapolis a little more each day, and I’ve found some wonderful things. In fact, often while I’m on the way to one thing that I spotted, I’ll spot another, and make a mental note to come back. Voyaging from my apartment down to the Minnehaha Falls, for instance, took three tries because the first two times I got lost. But who cares? I found other stuff to shoot those days. It’s made living here quite interesting. I literally never know where tomorrow will find me.

Meanwhile, I’m also meeting new people on Flickr and enjoying seeing their work, and seeing their responses to my own. There’s quite a range of people there, and quite a range, I see, of approaches to photography. Some people use photographs as a kind of picture diary. To them, the important part of having a camera seems not to be capturing a single cool image, but rather recording daily minutiae and adding to an aggregate mosaic. Others use Flickr primarily as a social device. Their photos are all about meeting and mingling. I’m not sure how much I really warm up to these two camps. I’ve always been the escape-into-art type when it comes to creativity. I don’t go into the arts to reveal myself. I go there to escape myself.

Or maybe ‘escape’ is too dramatic. It sounds maudlin. Maybe I should say I go into the arts not so I can enjoy the role of being subject matter, but so I can enjoy the role of being a creative spirit, with the world as my subject matter. Observer, not observee. That may seem like a paradox because isn’t acting all about showing yourself? But it’s not, really. In acting you’re not playing yourself, you’re playing someone else. It’s their reality you show, not your own. And while there are lots of days in rehearsal that you spend in thought, ultimately it’s about getting up in front of camera or audience and losing yourself in your art and intuition. Writing can be the same; it’s about feeling - pulling together into sentences and paragraphs all the different dancing mites of an idea that are flitting in the air around your head. Which sounds intellectual, but for me is really an emotional process. In music, again, you transcend the technical issues so that you can pour feelings into sounds. In all these things you quiet the chatter (preparation) of the brain and go into in a nonverbal zone where things happen (execution) without explanation or comment or self-consciousness. Not that I won’t talk about it later (obviously). But for the moment, all is still and decisions are simple. Good. Not good. Good. I like being this way. It’s not the way you want to be every moment of the day. But in the right balance I think it’s just as important to your health as vitamins. Or sleep.

So for me, photographs are - for now, anyway - about creating finding remarkable sights in the world around us and capturing them for others to see. Creating beauty, sometimes. Or finding fun. The little girl on the sled up above? I think that’s a great photo not because of the frame or the color, but because every time I look at it I either smile or laugh. And I guess that’s where my art-impulse has always lain in this life. To make lovely things for others to have. I have no idea why. It’s a very satisfying feeling.

** Sunday, March 25, 2007 **

March continues and with it, our peak season at work. By now I'm starting to get seriously pooped. I've been setting up, then training, and then mentoring every since Xmas. I really feel like I need a break.

The feeling I have right now reminds me of what it was like back in high school when we'd run cross-country. I loathed cross-country. I liked other track & field stuff, but right from the very first day I hated the idea of trotting for several miles, puffing, sweating, with nothing but the slo-o-ow progress of the landscape to (not) entertain you. In my high school the cross-country course was actually rather picturesque: it led away from the school along a tree-lined ridge, then down into a valley containing a large public park, along the park, back up the ridge again, and back to the school. But you could have lined the route with naked women and I wouldn’t have cared; I found it a mind-numbing hell every time we did it, and I know that whenever cross-country was announced in PE class as the day's activity my voice was among the louder groans.

I've never liked that kind of endurance crap. I don't have the temperament. It's something about prolonged physical discomfort and deferred goals - the worst combination I can imagine. I'm a medium- or short-distance type. In high school my track & field events were (at different times) the triple jump, the long jump, the 400 meter relay, the high jump, and the shot put. My other big sport was hockey. All of these are sports that have an immediate reward which dangles in front of you all the time. There's no time to reflect on the sound of your feet monotonously plodding down the path. You dive in and go like hell, total involvement, total abandonment. Not a chance of getting bored. You don't even notice time passing.

So peak at work is a drag sometimes. When we're inundated with work you might think well, you're busy, so you don't really notice time passing. And it sort of works like that. But being inundated night after night, weeks on end - that's when it starts to wear you down. After a certain point all I want to do when I leave is eat fast food, veg by the TV, then sleep.

Thank *goodness* there's only two more weeks of this.

* * *

I'm worried a little about Howie. He's been barfing a lot lately. I've been doing a bit of net research, and I see that this can be caused by, among other things, switching his brand of food. Sure enough, the barfing started when I ran out of Science Diet and began giving him IAMs instead. So I've switched back to Science Diet. But the barfing continues, though it seems to be letting up. I'll have to see. Apparently if you switch a cat's food it can take them up to a month to adjust. But what about the poor cat in the meantime? Aren't they getting dehydrated from all this puking? Well ... if it goes on much longer I'll take him to a vet. Fortunately this is easy. There's a pet hospital right across the street from where I live.

The other night I had a dream where I hadn't seen Howie for a few days. I finally opened a door and he was standing there and he looked like a wasted mummy of a cat. He was half his normal size, his fur had turned a pale green-white, his eyes were completely clouded with a vivid and revolting milky blue, and he was quivering and making a weird chirping sound. It was absolutely horrible, one of the worst things I've seen in a dream in a long time. Thank God it didn't last very long. I rushed to pick him up to take him to the doctor, but then I woke up. Howie, the real one, furry and cozy, was asleep by my pillow. I gave him a hug. Phew.

I think the macabre details of this dream come from something in real life a few years ago. It starts with my friend Tori, who is one of those people who loves animals to the point of being slightly nuts, if I may say so. What I mean is, Tori is capable of loving animals - a *lot* - that I personally can't get too excited about. Like, a few years ago she had frogs. Frogs. In her Los Angeles apartment. She kept an aquarium with frogs in it, and she would stand by it and coo and gush like they were kittens, shaking food into the water. For God's sake, I'd think, these are amphibians - vaguely slimy and egg-laying, who'll eat their young and are about as cuddly as a moss-covered rock. But Tori made up her mind that a frog would be the perfect pet for me. I'd love it. It would live in a tank and be no trouble at all. How lovely!

Sigh. I gave in. Okay, I'll try keeping a frog. So I bought a tank and gravel and food and a filter. Tori then gave me one of her frogs because it wasn't getting along with the others (hmmm... gee... could this have been the reason that suddenly it was a great idea for me to keep a frog? nah, pure coincidence, right?). I ensconced the frog in the tank. And then ... well ... I looked at it. It's a damn frog. It's not cute. To me frogs are a little creepy. I should have known then that the frog was doomed.

The tank was a pretty good size, but it would get foul pretty fast. In about a week or ten days you had to scoop out the frog, then drain the tank, clean it, and refill it. I hate doing this kind of shit. Especially for a frog. So I would put it off. Tori's schedule was once a week; mine became two. The frog seemed okay. Then two and a half. Then three. And that's when the frog died.

It wasn't really acting weird or anything. It just died overnight. I went to sleep and woke up and the frog was lying on the bottom. The little creeps are always hungry, so when I moved to feed it and it didn't stir, I think right away I knew. But I poked and tapped it a little. Nope. Dead as a doornail.

I didn't clean the tank right away. I wasn't sure how to tackle the job, precisely. And anyway, I was busy at the time. Probably a play, or maybe another peak season. Anyway, a few days passed before I finally went to tackle it. In that time, the frog just sat there, arms and legs spread out like a swimmer, not moving. It turned a kind of ghostly pale white color, and began to get covered with fur (bacteria, I imagine, but I don't really know). The tank didn't smell that bad, so it was easy to ignore. Finally I fished out the frog, then drained the tank and, gratefully, put it away for good. If I never see another frog in my house again it'll be too soon.

* * *

The weather here is changing to spring. Which reminds me that in another month it'll be April, and I will reach my five year anniversary with Merrill. It was five years ago that I was last in a play. I had to truncate my appearance as Pishchik in "The Cherry Orchard" at Circus Theatricals in Los Angeles because I had gotten so poor that it was becoming a matter of no longer being able to sustain my life. I had nowhere to live, no money to eat, and a car that was illegal. If I didn't put some kind of action plan into effect immediately I was going to go completely under. So I took this job, not without some rue but also with a good deal of determination. And now, five years later, what a wonderful boon it's been to my life. I live in a nice place, have money to do fun things, and most of all, I feel in control of my life again.

So yeah, I kvetch a little about Peak. But it's mostly fun. I'm pretty happy.

I got my tax refund a few weeks ago and it was pretty good. It arrived right at the same time as my paycheck, so suddenly I had - and still have - a bit more cash than usual in the bank. Hmmm. What to do? On the desktop of my computer at home I keep a little text file called "To Do and To Get." In it is a list, in rough order of priority, of things I ... well, need to do and get. Up near the top, for instance, are things like "Car - New Tires" and "Warm gloves." Farther down are other things, including "Home Studio - Pro Tools" and "Good video camera."

Obviously some of these things are expensive, some aren't. So some take a bit more patience than others. Probably the most expensive group item on the list is the "Home Studio" section, because to accomplish this I'll need to buy guitars, microphones, percussion instruments, and a PC-friendly recording system. The total could come to $4,000 or $5,000. The most expensive single item is probably the "Good video camera" because I have had an idea for some time now that I want to start making independent films. My eye is on a Canon high-def camera that goes for around $3,000.

But I have to be patient. I've learned that I enjoy my life as it is right now - living in reasonable economic balance, without poverty issues restraining me each day. I'm willing to wait, and save, and wait, and save, to get what I want. And if you sometimes have to take care of more mundane things first, so be it. So I'd love to get a guitar; but I'll probably get new tires for the car first. Music is wonderful. But a reliable car is necessary.

* * *

Got an email a while ago from Allison Foust, who tells me she reads my blog from time to time. Hi Allison! How are you?

When Allison Foust writes to me I glow, I have to say, with pure happiness. She's one of my favorite people in the whole wide world. It's odd because we don't spend a lot of time together. Even when I was in LA and she was just down the street we would only hook up every four or five months or so. It's a shame. I love Allison. L-o-v-e Allison Foust. I'd marry her in a minute, except for the fact that I've come to the conclusion over the years that I'm really not good husband material. I don't even think I'm good dating material. I'm too self-involved, too much of a loner. Allison is such a great person that it'd be a crime to hook her up with me. But - sigh - I can think fondly about it now and then. It's like a nice little daydream.

Allison is also one of the few people I know where I would set aside my own artistic agenda if that would help in advancing hers. That is, if I had to stop writing or making music or acting or taking photographs for a few years in order to support Allison through a period of developing her own creativity, I'd seriously consider doing it, because I think so highly of her talent. Does she know this? (Do you, Allison?) This is a colossal thing for an egoist like me to say. I don't think *anybody's* art is better than mine. Except Allison's. It's a bit as if I were Monet and she were Van Gogh. I'm pretty goddam good, and I'm happy to know that with complete certainty. But Allison - when I see what's she's doing, I get quiet and awed. In my opinion, she has a mind and talent that could change the world, if only it gets the chance.

Add to this the fact that she's beautiful (so pretty my eyes ache) and is there any wonder I'm happy to hear from her? The wonder is I haven't talked about her here before. Wish I had a good picture of her to share with you. I’ll take one sometime.

** Monday, May 1, 2007 **

flickr thumb 475307891_2f61642571_mIt’s right smack in the middle of spring and holy man is it ever pretty here. That's a nice thing about Minnesota: the winters are bracing and lovely and then, just when they get to be a little bit too much, they go away. The trees are covered with buds now and in many cases even baby leaves; the average temperature is in the sixties; the sky is clear or only partly cloudy; and there's rain about once every ten days, which I love. Am I the only person on earth who actually likes rain? Last night there were thunderstorms and I was ecstatic in coziest, house-mousiest possible way. I'd be happy to live somewhere where it rained once or twice a week, if I could find it. Not tropical, though; don't like weather that humid. Seattle maybe?

As you can see I'm still not taking the change of seasons for granted. After 15 years in Los Angeles spring is a simply fabulous experience. I feel like I've been missing out by not having it all these years.

Today is Tuesday May 1st. Happy May Day. Among other things, assuming nothing 'blessed' happened over the weekend, my friend Tori Rice is now about 5 days overdue with her first baby. In her last email she said she had an appointment at the hospital for yesterday to go in and try to induce labor. If that's what's been happening then she of course has better things to do than email me about it, so I can only sit and send good thoughts. Which I do. They know it's a little girl, and they've already named her Sadie. What a *cool* name. So ... come on, Sadie! We're all waiting for you to make your entrance!

I've continued taking photos, but at a slightly slower rate than my first three months. I think part of that is simply being physically exhausted after March Peak at work. I've enjoyed spending April in low gear. But I've still gone out a few days here and there. And there some new photos that I'm very happy with. Click here if you'd like to take look. I'd be delighted to hear what you think.

In the meantime, I've also started taking some baby steps towards rebuilding my home music studio. This is partly because the time is right and partly because I got a tax refund this year, which gave me the cash to jump-start the project. In the past few weeks I've gone on eBay and bought two electric guitars - a Fender Stratocaster and an Epiphone Les Paul copy - plus, from my local Guitar Center, a small Vox amp and a *gorgeous* Boss all-in-one effects pedal. Of course, sadly, my guitar playing is probably at an all-time low right now because I haven't had an instrument in my hands for years. Now suddenly I've got three (I also have a Fender acoustic I bought last fall). But this will all change as the studio begins to take shape. Once I have an outlet and focus for my work, you won't be able to stop me.

The biggest piece of the puzzle will ultimately be buying Pro Tools and setting it up on my home PC. That will take a bit of doing, and also a bit of learning, because I've never used it before. Fortunately I'm not a complete stranger to recording music on a PC: my choice of software for years was Cakewalk Pro Audio, which is a fairly powerful home MIDI multitrack studio. Using Cakewalk and a relatively cheap MIDI keyboard I was able to record much of the music you hear in my Radio Free Paul and Theatre Music pages. But for all its versatility, Cakewalk is a toy compared with Pro Tools, which is the industry standard. We'll see. As I think I've said already in previous blogs, if you work carefully, Pro Tools can give you recordings which sound indistinguishable from what you'd get out of a professional recording studio. My fingers are crossed!

** Tuesday, May 2, 2007 **

Tori's had her baby! I'm so pleased! Ron called me last night when I got home and gave me the good news. (Tori was awake but exhausted in the background, so we let her be.) Sadie LeMae Rice was born on Friday morning at about 5 or 6am. The delivery was spontaneous and, Ron says, pretty easy. Tori felt labor pains late Thursday night, and they went to the hospital together; when she finally hit the delivery room it only took about 30 minutes! Whoosh! That little kid came out like a greased football!

What fantastic news. I'm so happy! A big "thank you" to all those guardian angels out there who've been hovering around my dear friend and her lovely hubby - and now, their beautiful new baby! Sigh. I wish I were there to see it all. And take pictures. And just bask happily. But I think visitors is probably the last thing they need right now.

Ron said: "They just send you out of the hospital with this whole new person in your hands. Nothing to sign, no owner's manual..." I think they're delighted and exhausted and a little awed by the whole thing. What a wonderful time! I think of their little family with the biggest smile possible. My heart goes to them. Must remember to send flowers when I'm done updating this blog.

Woohoo! Welcome Sadie! Welcome! It ain't a perfect world, but there's a lot here that's very, very nice.

** Monday, May 7, 2007 **

No religion has it right. Neither does science. But I respect the way science knows what it knows. And science has many more things right than religion does.

The universe started 16-odd billion years ago with (probably) a big bang. At that time, all of the physical and spiritual stuff that was contained inside the universe (all that we can sense) was created. There may be stuff outside the universe. But we'll probably never know what it is. That’s okay.

Since its beginning, the physical and spiritual stuff of the universe has been evolving. New substances have been forming, new conditions coming into being. New forms of life have formed and evolved, taking advantage of these changing conditions. This is the way things have been and will continue to be long into the future. It’s part of the fabric of nature itself.

I think physical life, then, is only one possible form of life. I think there may be forms we can't readily see - for instance, conscious life that is made out of radio waves, or other cosmic stuff. We may never be able to interact with these forms of life. But they are still there.

When we die, our bodies return to earth and eventually dissolve. I think our electrical-conscious selves (i.e., our souls) persist, leaping from one form of media (our bodies) into another (the universal ether). For a time we have a conscious afterlife where you feel like the person you are right now. Then new experiences happen, new doors open ... and after a while we are so far into our new existence that we find it hard to remember details of the old one. Then we have moved on.

This ether could also be called “spirit stuff.” I don’t know what it is. Dark matter? Some kind of universal field like gravity? Whatever it is, I think we are all made out of spirit-stuff. But this spirit stuff has to be shaped in order to become life forms. The shaping happens via the life cycles of everything we see around us (and everything people on other planets see around them). Primal spirit-stuff, whatever it is, is first turned into life-spirit-stuff on Earth by little one-celled organisms and plankton. When they die, the spirit-stuff they’ve manufactured is released into the ether. There it combines with other stuff, and is eventually reborn in the form of basic flora. Then, after a long time, basic fauna. Over time, spirit-stuff, like molecules, clumps together to form more and more complex entities. And with it, consciousness. So two or three sunflowers die and their stuff combines to become a krill. Thousands of krill die and come back as worms. Worms combine to form snails. Snails become butterflies. Butterflies make lizards. Lizards make a chipmunks. Chipmunks make cats. Don't pin me down on exactly how this works - I don't know. I just feel like it does. We are made today of all the people and animals we have been in the past, over millions of years. It's a great continuous river of life.

The creatures which are above us already exist. But we can’t see them. They’re all-spirit. That’s where we’re headed.

* * *

In politics I’d have to say I’m a liberal. I don’t much like politics. But I believe the government needs to interfere or you will get terrible social injustices happening. The kind that a free market can’t cure.

You want an economy free of government interference? We already had one. It was the late 19th century. Factories roared, railroads huffed, Western democracies churned out steel and coal by the ton. And people worked 6 1/2 day weeks, had no health care, lived in sordid conditions, worked in danger of losing life and limb, and remained poor all their lives. The only thing that 'trickled down' to the workers from management was black lung disease and firing slips. An unfettered economy isn’t something we should dream for. It’s a nightmare we should all hope never happens again.

But ... it won’t. I know it won’t. Fortunately the general trend of history in every society in the world is towards, not away from, liberal values. There may be a backlash here and there of conservatism now and then, but these fade with time. The trend of history is towards openness, peace, love and tolerance. I'm content.

Some people think you need to be politically active to be politically relevant. I don't believe this. I think politics and activism are just two ways to change the world. I also think there are many others. Being an artist, I like to think that I'm sending spiritual messages to people. When they see the play I'm in, or hear the song I wrote, I hope I’m whispering to their souls. If I get it right, their politics will follow.

Liberal doesn’t mean pacifist. Where does that notion come from? I’m not pacifist. But I’m also not a nitwit miltarist. I say this: If a man or a woman or a group or a nation threatens us with harm, stop them. But once they are stopped, we must befriend them. If we do the latter meaningfully and with a kind heart, one day we will wake up to find that no one wishes us harm anymore. There's my foreign policy in a nutshell.

** Saturday, May 12, 2007 **

Bright and sunny outside today. Hardly a cloud in the sky. I could be in Los Angeles on a day like this. But the difference from LA is ... in three or four days from now we’ll get a nice rainfall to clean and wash everything.

I’m at a slow point in the rebuilding of my home music studio. I need to get Pro Tools, but the unit I want is $2,337.00 at Guitar Center (I went and asked them for the full price + tax). I’m about halfway there in saving the amount, so I have to be patient. Interestingly, as the days pass I’m noticing a kind of low-level excited tingly feeling ... which reminds me of way-y-y back when I was 24 years old and living with Linda in New York and saving money to buy my first real recording gizmo, a Tascam 244 Portastudio. It was one of the first (and best) home 4-track recorders, designed to work on cassette tape, and it cost somewhere around $1,800. It took weeks to save for it, and during that time I was in a kind of semi-delighted dream of anticipation. I haven’t felt that way in years, but I feel it now again. It’s a lovely sensation.

Pro Tools 003 Factory 003_angle_thmb_12827Things have changed a lot from 1985, however. The Pro Tools setup I’m going to get allows me to make recordings that are every bit as good as a professional studio. The tabletop mixer plugs straight into your computer and uses the hard drive as a recording medium (digital, of course). The mixer plus your computer screen allow you to see what the heck is going on (which can be a challenge sometimes when you have songs with 30 tracks). You can add professional-level effects, including post-production cleanup magic like pitch fixing (good for someone like me whose voice has a tendency to wobble at certain pitches; also good if your acoustic guitar is a little out of tune but you just recorded a great performance on it). This is home recording at a level that I’ve never remotely approached before. Is it any wonder I’m excited? It’s like upgrading your household transportation from a Ford Escort to a Bugatti Veyron. Yeee-ha! Look out ‘cause here I come!

Getting the Pro Tools hardware won’t be the end of it, though. My plans for the home setup extend well into this coming fall. I’ll need to get a good software synthesizer, for instance, so I can go back to what I was doing before ... using samples to create realistic MIDI music tracks. I’d like to get some percussion instruments that I can play live (tambourine, wood blocks, etc.). I have a six-string acoustic guitar, but I’d also like to get a nylon-string (i.e. classical) guitar, which has a lovely but distinctly different sound. And maybe some other acoustic instruments too (just went to see Loreena McKennitt in concert a week ago and I’m inspired). And of course, to capture all this I’ll need some good microphones, which is something I’ve never, ever had in my whole life. All those fun recordings I made back in the ‘80s with Steve and Rosie were done using all-purpose stage microphones - which was the best I could afford at the time. They provided solid service, no question, but they also had at best fair-to-moderate sensitivity. Fortunately Steve and Rosie both have great singing voices, so you don’t notice the limitations too much. But this time around I’d like to really get microphones that don’t compromise. Well ... not too much. Like all things technological, you can go crazy with microphones and spend thousands of dollars if you want to. I don’t think I need anything that good. But I’m certainly willing to consider, say, an AKG C 414 ... if I can find one on sale somewhere.

Fortunately there’s a guy at work who’s studying to be a recording engineer at a local college. (How’s that for a happy coincidence?) So I’m able to ask his advice on things like this. I’m a real neophyte when it comes to microphones. I’m fairly comfortable with all the other stuff.

*Happy sigh.* I love this stuff. I’m such a gadget geek.

Chatted with my pal Brian Van Norman last night. He and his wife Susie went to Africa about two months ago and he took lots of pictures, which he’s been sending me. Many of them are simply wonderful. And his stories are quite interesting too. They spent some time in Johannesburg, and apparently the biggest issue there on a day-to-day basis is crime. You have to think about crime all the time. When people go out, about 2/3 of them have guns. When they go home, their houses are gated and barred and have spikes on top of the walls. I have to admit I’ve never really thought much about Johannesburg before, but I was surprised to hear this. I suppose I’d pictured a prosperous mid-sized African city whose most interesting traits might be a mixture of tribal and Western cultures in unpredictable proportions. To hear that the most memorable thing about it is that you probably need armed guards half the time is striking. And kind of sad.

anancientmuseI mentioned to Brian that I had gone to see Loreena McKennitt here last week (on Thursday night, May 3). Brian actually knows Loreena because back in the nineties he lived with a woman named Betty Recchia who was (and is) Loreena’s manager. Betty and Loreena are close, and so Brian inevitably got to know Loreena fairly well too. It was fun hearing him talk about this, fitting his stories in with my impressions of Loreena from her concert. He said she’s very passionate and outspoken, which I feel like I could see from her manner onstage. He also said she’s a perfectionist, which makes sense, since the standard of musicianship in the show was absolutely top-notch. He also told me a story I didn’t know: that Loreena apparently retired from making music for several years (in the late ‘90s) after a very sad accident in which her boyfriend (together with his brother) drowned in Georgian Bay. Apparently this latest album of hers (“An Ancient Muse”), plus the current tour, is her first since that tragedy. I told Brian she looked very happy on the stage, and he was pleased to hear it. You can tell he still has a lot of affection for her.

I also told him I was tempted to go to the stage door and introduce myself except that I wasn’t precisely sure what the reaction would be. Betty and Brian did break up, after all - so who knows what Loreena thinks of him now? She might have greeted me with a smile - or bashed me over the head with a guitar. So in the end I decided on caution over valor, and stayed away!

The concert was fun, but Loreena’s version of Celtic music is a very Western, romantic version of the stuff, and so her songs tend to visit the same territory again and again. You get either mid-paced romantic tales with lush fiddle, cello, hurdy-gurdy, guitar work, etc., or you get a slow romantic ballad with lush fiddle, cello, hurdy-gurdy, etc., etc. After a while it begins to sound the same - and in fact, it is the same. Early in the show I was watching the guitar player at one point using a certain pedal effect to produce a certain sound ... and I saw him return to this effect about six or seven more times throughout the show. Twice (or was it three times?) songs ended with the fiddle and cello playing a figure that slowed down and then finally came to rest on a lingering chord. Loreena’s voice, a low alto with a bit of sand in it when she spoke, went to that same romantic Loreena McKennitt place on virtually every song. By the second half I had to fight sometimes not to look at my watch; and I kept thinking that I wished Loreena was part of a band, where others might do some of the songwriting and singing sometimes, to give the ear a break. Not to mention providing chances for vocal harmonies, which are such a lovely part of her CDs and were completely absent from the live show.

I suppose Loreena’s fans loved this stuff. The people from work who put together our little outing, for instance, were in seventh heaven. As far as they were concerned the show could have been twice as long and they would have hung on every note. But I have to say, I was a little bored. None of it was terribly original. I feel like you could write a whole album of this kind of stuff an afternoon and still have time left over for tea.

(I never feel comfortable bashing another artist. And I don’t want to give the impression that I hated the show. I had a pleasant time. It’s just not music that I feel I can make a meal of.)

What do I like? Well, I have two answers. There are some people who I’d say I like but what I really mean is I like this song or that one, not whole albums. Then there are others who’ve put together an entire CD - or more - that I think are simply great from start to finish.

Here’s some (but only some) CDs that I think are fantastic:

The Pretenders - Learning to Crawl  Shawn Colvin - A Few Small Repairs  Arvo Part - Tabula Rasa  10cc - Sheet Music  Annie Lennox - Diva  Art Garfunkel - Breakaway  The Beatles - Please Please Me, A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, The White Album, Let It Be, Abbey Road  Bob Marley & the Wailers - Live (at the Lyceum)  Enigma - MCMXC AD  David Bowie - Diamond Dogs  Paul McCartney - Band on the Run  Gentle Giant - Free Hand  Elton John - Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road  Emerson Lake & Palmer - Trilogy  Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway  Jane Siberry - No Borders Here  Jeff Beck - Blow by Blow  Led Zeppelin - IV, Houses of the Holy and In Through the Out Door  Lighthouse - Live  Mimi - Soak  Newsboys - Going Public  Randy Weeks - Madeline  Rick Wakeman - Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Myths & Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table  The Rolling Stones - Black & Blue, Some Girls and Hot Rocks  Roxy Music - Siren, Flesh and Blood and Avalon  Strawbs - Hero and Heroine  Supertramp - Crime of the Century  Suzanne Vega - Solitude Standing  Talking Heads - Remain in Light  They Might Be Giants - Flood  John Lennon - Imagine and Shaved Fish  Yes - Fragile, The Yes Album and Close to the Edge

I’m not sure, but I think the connecting thread here is that I like people who write good songs, produce them with originality, and retain a rock sensibility in there somewhere. At least, when we’re talking about rock/pop albums (obviously I’m not expecting Arvo Part to start using a drum machine anytime soon). I like experiment, but if the music gets too crazy then I lose patience and switch it off. What’s the point? If anything goes then there’s no tension. That’s probably why I never cared much for the more difficult forms of jazz. I like music that has a tight arrangement - but also seems to be straining against the barriers at little. It makes for exciting tension. And it’s harder to write that kind of stuff than you may think.

In fact, I’d say it’s quite possibly harder to write four-minute pop songs that are original and inventive on a consistent basis than to write almost anything else in music. You have to make your statement so quickly, and introduce variations so fast, that it’s hard not to fall back on clichés (often without even knowing it). I take my hat off in a kind of awe to people who do it well. It’s an amazing gift.

** Tuesday, May 15, 2007 **

Jerry Falwell has died.

Good. Fucking. Riddance.

Falwell’s life is just more evidence that, if there is a God, he takes absolutely no part in the affairs of man. Seldom has the world seen a bigger nitwit, or one responsible for more polarizing harm, yet was he visited by the good-sized lightning bolt he so richly deserved? No. Conclusion: either God doesn’t exist, or he has way more patience for fools than I do.

Mourn the man if you like, but not me. Here’s a man who spent his years in the national limelight being loudly anti-gay, anti-liberal, anti-women, anti-choice, and anti-tolerance; who blamed 9/11 on essentially every non-fundamentalist in America; and whose only dubious legacy to the nation and the world is that he organized packs of ignorant, intolerant, superstitious church potatoes and gave them a voice that the rest of us are still praying daily will go away. Dead, you say? I say, good riddance, Jerry Falwell. For all the harm you’ve done your death couldn’t have come soon enough. I only wish you could, as they say, “take it with you.” Then we could tip the whole “moral majority” edifice of your life down into your grave and bury it too. An obscurity that couldn’t come too soon.

At least there’s been some good national news lately.

** Saturday, May 26, 2007 **

This past week got off to a terrible start. Monday morning I got out of bed and turned on the computer and made my coffee and then was horrified to read on CNN.com that the Cutty Sark had burned in England. As most of you know I’m very attached to that ship. I’ve been building a model of her for well over a year now, and in that time I’ve come to know and love her very much. Reading that she’d gone up in a fire was a bit like reading a relative had gone down in a plane crash. Surreal and horrible.

For those who don’t know: the Cutty Sark is the last surviving classic clipper ship from the late 1800’s, preserved now in a dry dock in Greenwich (London) and considered an English national treasure. She also happens to be one of the fastest and most beautiful ships of her type ever built. To hear me gush more about her, and hear the tale of my building a model of her, go visit “The Shipyard” and read my Building the Cutty Sark weblog.

cutty-sark-fire-thmSo Monday morning I was depressed. I mean, look at this photo here ... there were dozens like it on the web. Masts gone, superstructure gone, a flat hull roaring with yellow flames. My God. The bottom fell out of my stomach. I haven’t felt this bad since hearing John Lennon was shot. I just wanted to lie down and cry.

So what a relief, then, to find out it’s not as bad as it looks! Turns out, with incredibly lucky timing, the Cutty Sark had recently been systematically stripped of her fittings and deck structures so that workers could carry out a year-long restoration. The ship’s boats, wheel, cabins, furniture, sail lockers, etc., etc., are all safe. The only things that burned, then, were her hull, bulwarks, decks, struts, and stairways. This is great news! The Cutty Sark’s deck planking, while vintage, was also pretty generic. You didn’t walk along her decks marveling at the boards under your feet. It was all the other stuff that made the ship so wonderful; the deck machinery, and carved figureheads, and hand-wrought lamps, and beautiful wooden deckhouses. Most of which is safe, which means the ship is nearly 100% capable of being restored.

Hooray! Thank heaven! I’m incredibly relieved! It may take time, and it will certainly take a lot of money, but one day the Cutty Sark will be back in Greenwich, charming tourists and looking as sharp and beautiful as ever. Fantastic. I’ll finally get to visit her, like I’ve been dreaming of doing for years now.

Today is Saturday, Memorial Day weekend here in the USA. That’s one of the country’s two military holidays: Memorial Day (for dead soldiers) and Veterans’ Day (for living ones). Although I’m Canadian, I love the U.S. very much and I’m a complete sucker for patriotic Americana. Wave the flag and crank up the band and I’ll get a lump in my throat fast as anybody. So I expect to be out with my camera the next few days, looking for Memorial Day photo ops.

Ha! Honestly, that makes me sound like a paparazzo. I sometimes think that’s what I’m becoming. The other day there was a car accident in front of our offices at work ... and I took my camera out to get pictures! It felt a little weird, I have to say. But they were all unhurt. And I was sensitive to their feelings. I tried to position myself behind trees, etc., so the people involved couldn’t see me snapping away. Hmmm. Then again, was that sensitivity? Or was I just ashamed of myself for being a voyeur? A little of both maybe? But you know ... the people are fine, the car is gone, it’s all over now and nobody is hurt. And I have some very cool pictures that are unique. The moment is captured. So was it worth it? Maybe so. I don’t know. I’m figuring that out still.

This makes me think of a wonderful documentary I saw some years ago called War Photographer, which is about the life of photojournalist James Nachtwey. The director, Christian Frei, is a friend of Nachtwey, and so he had permission to follow him at work and at home. In the film we see Nachtwey go on different assignments around the world. He’s a famous man now, so he doesn’t always need to go where some news agency sends him. He’s made a huge reputation shooting war-torn zones throughout Africa. But he’s also interested in poverty and economic injustice, which means he spends a lot of time traveling to India, Asia, and South America.

nachtweyWhat struck me in the film was how Nachtwey disappears into his work when he arrives at a scene and begins taking photographs. It’s eerie; almost as if he thinks of himself as an invisible man. He brings the camera to his eye and often leaves it there for minutes at a time ... while walking through, say, a refugee camp, or a bomb-blasted town. As he does, his head-and-camera turn, float up, then down, the shutter periodically clicking. Otherwise he says nothing. It’s fascinating. There’s one time when he’s in some camp full of starving people in Africa somewhere and he comes up to a mother and a few children under a tree. The camera comes up to the eye, and he begins to hover around them, wordless, camera softly clicking. The woman looks at this strange new visitor with curiosity and a little wary self-consciousness, but eventually she decides he’s harmless and returns to her children. It’s an amazing few minutes of documentary film for me ... because I would find that sort of thing incredibly difficult. I’d be wanting to ease the woman’s discomfort ... say hello to her, or talk a little, or at least smile to let her know not to worry. But Nachtwey does none of this. And I have to wonder ... if I did it my way ... stepped out of my invisible-eyeness for a moment to show her kindness ... would I get pictures as good as Nachtwey’s? (Assuming our talent was otherwise the same.) Possibly. But probably not.

nachtwey_01And that’s sobering, because his photos are amazing and I would dearly like to be able to make images just as good. Look at this one. I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire life. These scars are the result of a man being attacked with machetes and left for dead. He’s telling the story of his attack as Nachtwey photographs him. I would have difficulty doing that. I’d want to lower the camera and show sympathy with my eyes and voice. But I’m so glad Nachtwey didn’t! This is an amazing photograph. And valuable; for here is the evidence, unblinking, recorded for all time. In taking this photo, Nachtwey may or may not have made the man feel briefly uncomfortable - but he has absolutely done the world a tremendous service. This is one of the greatest, most stark, most harrowing cries for justice and peace that I have ever seen. It is an entire testament to the brutality of conflict without a single word being spoken. It hits you like a ball-peen hammer. While being as eloquent as a poem.

I’m no James Nachtwey - but I am an actor with an instinct for mimicry. So I’ve tried his walking-around-with-the-camera-up-to-my-eye technique ... and it’s amazing. It may sound crashingly obvious, but the eye and lens really do see a scene in very different ways. Ways that aren’t obvious until you glue the viewfinder to your eyeball and leave it there. So I’m very grateful to James Nachtwey. He’s made me a better photographer just by my watching him at work.

But I’m not sure if I’ll ever be comfortable ‘disappearing’ into ‘invisible eye’ mode with people around. I suppose that’s partly the actor in me as well. I can’t come face to face with people without wanting to engage with them in some way. I find people’s stories very interesting, and I want to hear them. Don’t get me wrong - I’d dearly love to photograph them too while they’re talking. But a lot of the time a lens makes people self-conscious, so I don’t. Hmmm. I’ll have to think about this some more. There has to be some way around it.

Yesterday I was down at the National Veterans’ cemetery near Fort Snelling. It’s one of those classic cemeteries of the type we’ve all seen photos of, with those long, long rows of white headstones stretching off in orderly ranks until they seem to reach the horizon. While I was there I saw an elderly man ... maybe 75 or so ... pull up in a car and get out. He was carrying a bunch of flowers. How poignant, I thought. He’s bringing Memorial Day flowers to some old war buddy. I watched him walk among the stones, going this way and that. I thought to myself, I’ll wait until he stops and then see if I can get a picture. But he didn’t stop. After a few minutes it was clear to me that he was having trouble finding the exact grave. He’d go over here, then over there, holding his little bouquet, looking at the names, not finding the one. At one point he stopped and looked over the sea stones, a lost, forlorn figure. My God! I was dying to take his picture, but I was also terribly self-conscious about breaking into his privacy. So I didn’t.

And now I’m so annoyed with myself. I could have used a bit of inner Nachtwey at that moment. The nerve to just walk up to a respectful distance and openly take his picture a few times. He might have looked at me, or he might not. He might have wondered what I was doing. Or he might not have cared. Maybe we would have talked, or maybe not. I probably would have made him feel at the very least a bit awkward. But what does it matter? He’d probably have forgotten all about it ten minutes later. And now, rather than describing the scene to you, I could have shown it. I regret that.

An artist’s retelling of a scene they have witnessed may be very heartfelt and truthful. But sometimes, for all that, an image is best.

** Wednesday, September 19, 2007 **

September weather has arrived. It's as if someone threw a switch, actually. Suddenly it's gotten cooler, windier, and rainier. I'm beginning to think September is one of my favorite months of the year though. There's still that glow of summer in the air, but not the relentless sunshine. I was never a big sunshine person. I like twilight, sunset, sunrise, night, fog ... anything but high noon and a cloudless sky. I guess I'd make a great troll. And a rotten surfer dude.

I have so much email to answer these days it isn't funny. I don't know why it takes me so long. Maybe it's because writing is, for me, a focused exercise, and when it's after work and I'm sitting at home I simply don't want all that hard work. I just want to screw around, play a game, watch a movie. So I put it off. And off. Fortunately my best friends get to know this about me and don't mind. I have several pals who I write to once every 6-8 months. It must be what getting mail was like in the 1800s! But honestly, do I really need to pour out what's happening each and every day? Maybe there are windows of insight and intimacy that open no other way, but to me it just seems like a load of self-centered crap. "I'm feeling a little blue today. Is it life, or the rain falling softly outside my window? Maybe a new poem will help." BARF. Give me a break. It's the same reason I don't write here all the time. If something cool is up, I'll talk about it. But if it's same old same old, I'd rather spare us both.

I went to Sauble Beach this past August, like last year, on a road trip to visit Mom. Drove there via Chicago, Michigan, Ontario. Took longer than I’d hoped for, mostly because Chicago is a complete traffic black hole right now. There's freeway construction for miles and miles on the I-90, so there's no good way to zip through the city, you wind up crawling along for hours. Rather than making it to Sauble early on Saturday morning, it was more like late Saturday afternoon. But it was still nice. Hadley and Ann and Mary and Mom were all there, and we had a delightful little birthday party for both Mary and me. I was given all sorts of nice presents, and - sigh - as usual I was broke and didn't have anything for Mary. I promised her gifts from Amazon, but I'm *still* too broke to get them. Sigh again. I'll try to send something soon. I actually really like getting people presents. It's a shame I'm often poor. I'd be one of the world's great present-givers if I were rich.

Hadley is now officially entering her teens. She turns 13 this month. Holy cow, what an age. A 50-50 blend of young adult and little kid. Sometimes she was all a-gush about what games we were going to play; other times she was, I noticed for the first time, embarrassed about or sarcastic towards her mom, my sister Ann. Oh boy, I thought, here comes puberty. I bet Ann will handle it great though. She and her husband Jeff are truly one of the brightest, nicest, coolest couples I know. I predict they will endure Hadley's next few years as they've always done, with (to me amazing) patience and grace. Their parenting is something mom and I often talk about. How wonderfully good it is.

flickr thumb 1347370719_4b75ae2138_m

Here’s an HDR image I took of the playhouse behind our family cottage at Sauble Beach.

I took my camera along on the trip and had a ball taking photos of everything in sight. I've never been at Sauble Beach before with a good camera of my own so I went a little nuts with pent-up creativity. I had my laptop along too, so when I filled up the camera's flash memory card (4GB) I would just dump the photos onto the laptop's HD and then carry on. I wound up taking nearly 4,000 exposures by the end of the vacation. But it's not as bad as it sounds. There's a digital photo technique called HDR where you take multiple shots of the same image at different exposure settings - typically, one normal shot, and then two or three underexposed and two or three overexposed. Later on you combine these on the computer (I use Photomatix software) and the result is images which have more highlight and shadow detail than would otherwise be possible with a normal exposure. I did a lot of 5-exposure HDR images in and around Sauble, so 4,000 images really probably translates into 1,500 photographs. Hmmm ... I guess that's still a lot. Ah, what the hell. It's digital, so it doesn't cost anything. What a luxury!

It was fun hanging out with Mom. Her sister Tish was with us part of the time too, which was nice. Tish is a good egg and fun to talk to. And when I wanted to go out and take pictures I knew Mom wasn't stuck home alone.

Driving around, I couldn't help thinking that Sauble is a funny place now. I'm not sure I like it anymore. It's changing from an easygoing, dirt-road, wood-frame cottage kind of place to a paved-road, built-up, more crowded kind of place. The (loathsome) McMansion effect is everywhere; people building size ten houses on size six lots, completely robbing the scene of anything like charm. And the beach in general just seemed more built-up and full of people than in the past. I noticed a lot of cottages, for instance, on the north side of the Sauble River that weren't there before. And what were once empty lots are now in many places inhabited by all kinds of new homes, most of them cookie-cutter and plain ugly. Honestly, if I were to retire to Canada tomorrow and pick a dream place by Lake Huron to live, I don't think Sauble would be my choice anymore. In spite of all the good memories, Sauble today kind of breaks my heart. I'd probably choose to live in Oliphant instead. Or someplace even less traveled.

flickr thumb 1376171619_4563ee2b95_m

Sunset off Stony Point, at the southern tip of Sauble Beach.

But there's still plenty of beauty in the area, make no doubt. On slow days I'd go driving for an hour or two (or three) and explore various old haunts, or find new ones. I visited Wiarton. I went to Sauble Falls, and had fun taking pictures of three teenage guys doing cannonballs off the rocks. Another day I drove on one of the back roads between Oliphant and Wiarton and found a beautiful marsh connecting two lakes. It was a wide, green delta full of reeds and rushes. The water must have risen a few years ago, because all around there were dead trees, still standing, no branches or bark anymore, bleached snowy white. They looked like ghostly flagpoles. It was an astonishingly eerie and beautiful thing to see, and the day I stopped the sky above was clear and blue, the sun was bright, and the water like lapis. It was one of the most lovely places I've ever been, and I took photo after photo of it.

(I haven’t posted any of these on Flickr.com yet, so I have no thumbnail to put here. But I’ll add one soon.)

The big finale of my vacation was supposed to be me driving home via the northern shore of Lake Superior, but in the end I had to abandon the idea. My tires were simply too worn out, and on the day I was to leave one of them gave up the ghost and went completely flat. This not being Los Angeles or Saint Paul, but semi-rural Ontario, it took a whole day to get myself to a garage in Owen Sound and have all of my tires replaced (turned out they were all worn out). $600 later I was ready to go, but it was too late for me to make the ferry to Manitoulin Island, which meant that the whole day was shot. I thought about it for a few minutes and decided to cut my losses and go home the same way I'd come, via Chicago. Except that I swung farther south to avoid metropolitan Chicago proper. This turned out to be a good idea, as the scenery was quite nice. I took secondary highways through northern Indiana, which is very green and full of charming-looking little farms and towns.

Pro Tools 003 Factory 003_angle_thmb_12827Now that I'm home, my fall project is pressing forward with my home studio. I now have Pro Tools set up (Digi 003 Factory). I've even made a few recordings, which have turned out quite encouragingly. But the whole installation needs a re-think. The main problem is that my home desktop PC is simply too loaded with other stuff - games, movies, utilities, networking, Photoshop, etc., etc. - and has too little RAM to really be effective. Loading Pro Tools software plus various effects and virtual synthesizers quickly saps the memory until the PC slows to a crawl. Fortunately I'm not completely stuck. I have a second computer, my laptop, which is only 2 years old and I specifically bought to be a fast multimedia machine. And I only have a few games loaded on it, so it's not burdened with a lot of junk. But ... a laptop? Would that really work? I went and talked to the guys at Guitar Center (where I bought my Digi) and it turns out that using Pro Tools on a laptop is perfectly fine - in fact, quite common. So I'm going to make the switch. The only thing I'm waiting for is an external hard drive I've ordered from CompUSA. I need it because the laptop's hard drive isn't big enough for the Pro Tools software plus all the plugins and sound libraries that go with it.

Pro Tools, I have to say, is pretty awesome. For all its power it's very intuitive and easy to use. (I watched a tutorial DVD about 1/4 of the way through and was able to start recording.) And there's a *ton* of awesome software plugins out there that can make your music sound fantastic. In fact because Pro Tools is the industry standard, there probably isn't an amplifier, effect pedal or synthesizer on planet Earth that doesn't have a Pro Tools plugin equivalent. The result is that you can plug your guitar straight into the 003 Factory's jack and then on the screen choose an amplifier, effects, and even room ambiance. A moment later you’re no longer lamely twanging a naked guitar in your living room; you sound instead like Jimi Hendrix playing through a Leslie at Electric Lady studios. It's pretty darn awesome.

Another cool plugin I tried is even a little scary. Made by a company called Waves, the program is named Tune and what it does is correct the pitch of your singing voice. So if you have a good vocal sound but you sang a few notes a little flat or sharp, Tune will step in and lock them back onto the correct pitch. It's one of those things that, when I tried it, seemed like black magic. Amazing.

Aside from Pro Tools, things at work are busy. We’re teaching a lot of new employees at the moment, so there are a lot of training classes going on. I’ve just been an assistant in a 2-week course, and now I’m going to lead two consecutive 2-week courses. The first is being taught - get this - from midnight-to-8am starting next week, for graveyard shifters. Then I (magically) flip back to the day shift, fly to Chicago, and teach another class there. Phew. It’s a good thing I’m only 28 years old. If I was 48 I don’t think I could take it.

Besides the classes, I’m enjoying the arrival of fall. Right now it’s 11:30pm and I’m sitting here in my living room with the balcony door open (screen closed). Outside it’s crisp and cool, and I hear leaves gently rustling in nearby trees. I love this time of year, I know I already said that today, but I really do. I guess I’m a hopeless romantic. Something about fall weather, rain, girls in long coats and high boots, leaves changing color ... it’s always been redolent for me of romance and nostalgic times long ago. It’s as if the upcoming seasons of Thanksgiving and Christmas meant traveling back in time, to another, simpler age. You know ... that simpler age that never really existed but who gives a damn, it’s fun to think of it anyway. Right now I can feel it coming. I can go to my balcony door and smell the tangy damp of grass and trees in the air, feel the nip of cold on my feet. These are its whispering voice, the sounds of its steps. They are beautiful things. How I shall miss them when I’m dead and gone someday. It’s one of the finest things for me about being alive. This season when Nature puts away its summer games, pulls a blanket around itself, and sits down to huddle by a warm little fire.