May 2007

Thank you for visiting

Today’s been a catch-up/not-yet-caught-up day. But around dinner time, dog-walking could no longer be denied, so Reggie and I took a stroll at Dillant-Hopkins Airport in Swanzey, NH, where I heard but did not see veeries, hermit thrushes, a scarlet tanager, and at least one elusive bittern.


A set of cherry-pickers and wood-chippers parked in the airport lot were much more cooperative than the goldfinches, yellowthroats, and kingbirds I saw but could not photograph: at least heavy machinery does not flit. I don’t often get the chance to get up close and personal with heavy machinery: usually, this equipment is working, so it would be dangerous (or at least impertinent) to approach too closely. But when heavy machinery is at rest in a parking lot where local folks leave their cars to go dog-walking, it’s possible to shoot some extreme close-ups without bothering any Men at Work. You can see a slideshow of these parked cherry-pickers and wood-chippers here: my way of saying “Thank you for visiting.”

Happy flower, Newton, MA

Although I’m not one to wear my politics, personal philosophy, or sense of humor on my sleeve, much less my car bumper, I do believe our cars say something about our selves. With this in mind, today I spotted two separate cars in Newton, MA that suggest that optimism is alive and well, at least in one upscale Boston-area suburb.

Every breath is a gift, Newton, MA

Thanks to Dave, Leslee, and rr for their “public service announcement” posts directing folks to my new blog-digs. One of the sad outcomes of this week’s sudden blog death is my (current) inability to post any announcement on my still-defunct main site. At some point, I plan to redirect my Hoarded Ordinaries domain to this one, but before I can do that, I need to migrate most of the many photos I’ve blogged over the years, which still “live” on my old host’s server. So until I can do a massive migration to flickr, my old, dead-in-the-water site will live on, if only to house old photos.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying the learning curve of tinkering with this new WordPress site and think I’ll be happy blogging here. As a Buddhist, I know that “impermanence surrounds us,” but sometimes it’s good, I think, to get shocked out of the usual complacency. Blogging is by nature an ephemeral genre: every day, yesterday’s post gets superceded by today’s, which is how days themselves work. The initial panic I felt on Thursday afternoon at the thought of losing any of the entries I’d not saved–and I’d been woefully irregular when it came to making backups–points to an interesting desire for permanence on my part. Blogs are not books: blogs consist of mere electronic blips that can be annihilated at any moment. Although books can burn, their paper-based technology seems so much more lasting than cyber-ephemera, which tells me I should revisit the blog-to-book project I’d begun and then abandoned last year.

In the meantime, I thought I’d offer a different sort of Public Service Announcement, this one displayed not anywhere in Ireland but in my favorite weekend lunch spot in West Newton, MA.

Not good for you

If Guinness is good for you, it must be a sorry state indeed to be Guinnless.

Psychedelic dinnerware

This is what you might call a blast from the past. Something strange is going on with my “old” blog: after over three years of faithful service, the old gray blog went white yesterday afternoon: the proverbial blank page. Over three years of old posts are still there on my host server…but you can’t see them via any browser. I’ve attained, it seems, invisibility, and it isn’t nearly as fun as the super-hero fantasies we all presumably had as children.

While I’m trying to figure out what caused my ancient installation of Movable Type to suddenly go awry, I’m testing the waters here at WordPress. After more than three years of the same old blog template (and an ancient MT installation that took forever to load in IE), I’m thinking a new blog-home might be in the cards. In the meantime, though, I thought I’d resurrect the above image from last week’s trip to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) as my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Futuristic. Below, by way of a flashback, is the original post that accompanied this image: proof that my posts do still exist in cyberspace, albeit invisibly.

Ad infinitum

Sometimes an almost-daily photo-blogger needs a little help looking at the same old world in a new way. I’ve been blogging for over three years, and for most of that time I’ve posted pictures. Now that I’ve walked the streets of Keene, etc. with a camera for over three years, I sometimes wonder where, when, and how I’ll run out of images. As a Zen Buddhist, I truly believe that each moment is new and unique…and yet as a writer/photographer, I sometimes question whether there really is something new to see and say after all this time spent seeing and saying.

Whenever you’re questioning the Universe’s creative power, it can be helpful to visit a museum, if for no other reason than to play with artsy toys. On Saturday, Leslee, a mutual friend, and I went to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art to enjoy a few mind-altering hours of art. Leslee’s already posted her account of our visit along with some stunning architectural pictures of the ICA’s new waterfront building: a high-brow version of our gallery hop. My perspective on an artful afternoon is much more childlike, focusing (literally) on a series of kaleidoscopic images I shot in the ICA gift-shop with a multi-faceted looking glass–a $8.95 toy intended for children–held over my camera lens.

When you look at the world through an insect’s kaleidoscope eye, what you see is reality refracted and repeated ad infinitum. The umbrellas and handbags I saw in the ICA gift-shop were no different from ones I might browse elsewhere…but when viewed through a multi-faceted lens, these ordinary shopwares seem alien and exotic, something much more exciting than the usual stuff of rainy days and Mondays.

In my writing classes, I try to convince my students that revision is actually the art of re-seeing…so what if they took that language literally, looking at their words and worlds with an eye toward double- and triple-vision? Repeated ad infinitum, literary themes become tiresome and trite…but when even the most ordinary colors and shapes are repeated through a refracting lens, the result seems magical and even life-transforming. Having viewed the world kaleidoscopically, is it possible to view it normally ever again?

If you think of a blog as being a kind of lens, then each almost-daily post can serve as a facet. Over time and under the influence of light, each almost-daily post reflects a shard or sliver of time repeated toward infinity. In more than three years of blogging, how many times have I said roughly the same thing over and over again, varying each incantation of the Same Old Truths only slightly? A Zen Master friend, himself a rehabilitated college professor, once told me that all an academic needs to make a career is one good idea: the rest is just reiteration. Perhaps writing in a blog–like publishing in academe–is like speaking with a stutter, each moment tripping the tongue like a stammered syllable. Like a skipping record, any given writer says the same th-, th-, thing time and again until it rings true: revision ad vertitum.

This issue of peat and repeat–the manner in which time accrues like bog moss, each layer pressing the preceding into a nutrient-rich mass of fertility and decay–is ripe for me because of some literary re-visiting I’ve been doing. In response to the qarrtsiluni theme “Greatest Blog Hits,” I submitted this time-ripened post to the cause. How strange it is to open one’s blog like a time-capsule, re-visiting a particularly poignant moment and viewing it through an aesthetic, art-appreciative lens. The “me” who reads that post today is not the “me” who wrote it: even the many reflections of me, some of them refracted into kaleiscopic shards themselves, no longer look like the “me” I see in my mind’s eye. Can it be that retrospection itself is a distorting lens? Should our backwards-looking Mind’s Eye be inscribed with a warning: events viewed through his mirror may appear larger than they actually are?

As both a writer and photographer, I’m not convinced there’s anything new under the sun…but I try to convince myself that today’s lens on the Same Old Stuff is somehow different from yesterday’s (or last year’s) tired perspective. Sometimes it takes looking through a bug-eyed plastic bubble to re-define your perspective, or sometimes it simply requires looking back. Why take the time to visit and re-visit the gallery of images that is one’s Life: isn’t a single, cursory take enough for the ages? Blogging, like a bug-eyed lens, allows a writer to see the same world anew, today’s refraction being sometimes sharper, sometimes blurrier, than the images preceding it. Over time, an oft-observing eye might come to see the world more clearly and more true; over time, an oft-observing eye might come to appreciate life and its multi-facets ad infinitum.

    Click here for more kaleidoscopic images from inside the ICA gift-shop. Click here for other “Greatest Blog Hits” on qarrtsiluni, an online literary magazine which itself is ripening into its second year of existence. If you’re interested in contributing your own “Greatest Blog Hit” to the qarrtsiluni queue, you can find submission guidelines here. Enjoy!

Is it me, or is there something hugely creepy about a life-size, realistic baby doll crammed and abandoned in the back of a locked car?

This is where the rubber doesn’t hit the road. After years of deliberation and debate, construction on a new Main Street rotary started today here in Keene, meaning one of the most congested interchanges in town–the intersection of Main and Winchester/Marlboro Streets–is closed through September.

This means many of my preferred residential dog-walk routes, including usually quiet Grove Street, have turned into major thoroughfares (or virtual parking lots during rush hour) as traffic is re-routed to and from downtown. Heaven help the folks who live on Grove Street and now have a steady stream of slow-moving traffic in their front yards.

One of the things I’ve always liked about Keene is its extreme walkability. I have a five-minute walking commute to and from campus, and I can walk to the bank where I do business, the gym where I take yoga classes, the downtown apothecary where I get prescriptions filled, as well as Keene’s post office, public library, and artsy movie theatre. On weekends, I drive 90+ minutes to go to Zen practice and see my Massachusetts friends, but on weekdays, my car seldom leaves my driveway. Over the next few months, I think I’ll grow increasingly grateful for that fact.

Despite Keene’s walker-friendly design, however, it has always been a vehicularly congested town. Since first coming to teach at the college in 2001, I’ve always wondered how a town of 20,000 could sustain so much traffic: at any given moment, it feels like everyone, their mother, and their dog is driving, separately, on local roads.

In addition to truly local traffic, part of Keene’s seemingly perpetual congestion comes from outlying areas. In addition to folks who drive from surrounding towns to their jobs at the college and various local factories and businesses, a regular stream of emergency vehicles hurries through Keene on their way to and from the only hospital for miles. Heaven help anyone who had a medical emergency this morning and thought they’d zip down Main Street on their way to the hospital.

As a literal dog- and street-walker, I’m used to walking around traffic, relying upon any of a number of pedestrian short-cuts to get to and from pretty much anywhere. But the sheer magnitude of this current project has even me stymied. On any given day, whether on foot or in my car, I normally pass through, by, or along the Main and Winchester/Marlboro intersection at least once during my comings and goings: even my five-minute walk to campus involves this intersection. So today has me studying maps trying to figure out where to walk the dog–and how to get to the post office–without having to navigate a major traffic jam.

To make matters worse, the Main and Winchester/Marlboro rotary is only one of several construction projects happening simultaneously this summer in Keene. There’s also a rotary-in-progress at the intersection of Winchester Street and Route 101: another interchange that was a traffic snafu even before construction began. And on West Street, they’re widening the road, which will be a relief when construction is complete but is another traffic headache in the meantime.

The cumulative effect of all this road construction is a logic problem of daunting proportions: to get into or across town, you first have to figure out how to drive around town. Figuring out how to navigate Detour X to get from Point A to Point B will make this one interesting summer. And as a polite and ever-helpful dog- and street-walker, heaven help me when it comes to giving directions to confused tourists. Maybe I should take as my personal slogan the statement so popular up in Maine: “Ya cahn’t get theyah from heyah!”

This afternoon, contemplating a quick dog-walk to the bank and back, I thought I’d avoid vehicular back-ups by taking the rail-to-trail bikepath that runs through my almost backyard. But wouldn’t you know it, that’s under construction, too. Heaven help us all.

One sure sign of spring here in Keene, NH are the large trash piles left in the wake of departing college students. The house next to mine contains several rental units where countless students have moved in, out, and on during the half-dozen years I’ve lived here. When one batch of students moves in, they bring an assorted pile of stuff that largely stays within their overcrowded apartments…but when that same batch of students leaves, suddenly there’s a proliferation of stuff left over: some of it in dumpsters, some of it in yards, and some of it simply cast off into any available spot.

Feral couch, Keene, NH

It is this latter category of cast-off furniture that runs the risk of becoming feral, inching into empty parking lots and hunkering down on the sides of roads, immovable for the long haul. What use does anyone (apart from one furniture-obsessed blogger) have for an abandoned couch? It’s not likely that a middle-aged married couple will happen upon a badly shredded sofa with several missing seat cushions and say, “Honey, that would look great in our den!” Dens of the middle-aged and married (i.e. dens of the parents of college kids) are where college apartment furniture comes from; it’s not where this furniture goes to die after it’s been spilled, puked, and made-out upon. Salvaging used furniture is one thing; salvaging really used (and abused) furniture is another. Who wants to claim a slightly soggy, seriously shredded sofa from a spot where it almost inevitably smells like trash? Perhaps you’d prefer to sit on the floor.

Abandoned couch, Keene, NH

And yet, there always seems to be someone who claims even the most adventurous feral furniture, and not only when that furniture is in excellent condition like this sofa from last November. The Zen temple where I used to sit in Ann Arbor, MI had a locally famous annual rummage sale which consisted in large part of cast-off furniture from each year’s departing students. At the end of each month, semester, and school year, diligent Zennies would cruise student neighborhoods in a truck, retrieving and then storing in a garage all the wobbly desks, three-legged chairs, scuffed tables, and shredded sofas they could find.

Over the course of the summer, those diligent (and religiously frugal) Zennies would fix the furniture they found in time to hold a huge back-to-school yard sale where returning students would buy recycled, refurbished versions of the same goods they’d trashed months before. In a perfect illustration of the incessant cycle of samsara, the same Zennies would sometimes find themselves fixing, re-fixing, and re-fixing again the same desks, chairs, tables, and sofas, each time garnering a temple “donation” from the students (and students’ parents) who were willing to re-buy the same recycled furniture every year.

Furniture, especially sofas, wanted, Keene, NH

Given the recent abundance of abandoned furniture here in Keene, it’s curious to note that one downtown thrift shop is virtually begging folks to sell their old furniture on consignment, with used sofas being in particular demand. I guess Good Fortune isn’t in the market for the really ragged wares found on the sides of roads and abandoned in the middle of parking lots these days: if you’re choosy, a good sofa is much harder to find than the rough-around-the-edges feral kind.

As for me, my approximately ten-year-old, dog-fur-upholstered sofa is perfectly suitable for my somewhat post-college, somewhat pre-middled-aged lifestyle. So I suspect you won’t find any of my furniture At Large in the big, bad, outside world anytime soon.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Large.

Yesterday I started The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s memoir of the emotional aftermath following the death of her husband and the life-threatening illness of her daughter. I’ve not read much Didion apart from a few essays anthologized in various freshman composition textbooks I’ve assigned over the years, but what I’ve read, I’ve liked. In the essays I’ve read, Didion demonstrates a ruthless, unflinching refusal to turn from grim and difficult scenes. A “pretty cool customer” is how a hospital social worker describes Didion when hospital workers approach her in the Emergency Room waiting room to inform her of her husband’s death, and this “cool customer” tone resonates throughout the book as Didion recounts the experience of losing her husband while worrying about her comatose daughter.

As a writer, I relate to this “cool customer” aspect of Didion’s prose. I believe that when you’re writing about something emotionally charged, you have to separate the emotion from the words, allowing language itself to act like a twitch–a clamp attached to a horse’s lip to distract it during veterinary procedures–so you aren’t fixating directly on your own pain. If you’re worrying in your author’s mind about a particular turn of phrase or the peculiar echo of a repeated image, you’re less likely to be sucked under by the pull of pure emotion. Instead of writing about your own pain, which is an entirely subjective subject, your writer’s mind considers pain as an abstracted, almost Platonic thing: what universal elements of Pain does my experience point to, and how can I share that accurately with any feeling heart?

When you write about pain–particularly your own–the words serve as a sort of lifeline, something to cling to in the maelstrom of contradictory feelings and remembrances. As Didion’s memoir vividly illustrates, in the face of tragedy you can’t control your feelings, the tidal ebb and flow of grief, but you can control the words with which you describe your own emotional tsunami. When you write about your own pain, the act of crafting language becomes one way of making sense out of the senseless, a written version of Freud’s talking cure. Because Didion has such a long, illustrious history of being a “pretty cool customer” in her essays and fiction, her sights were honed to razor-sharp acuity when tragedy struck, every wife and mother’s worst nightmare happening while she stood with eyes wide open.

I’ve borrowed the title of today’s post from another classic memoir of grief, the journal C.S. Lewis kept after the death of his young wife. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction: husbands die at the dinner table, daughters lie in comas caused by hospital-contracted infections, and wives die before their older husbands. There’s no sense to be made of any of these inexplicable realities: sickness and death defy the narrative arc of “happily ever after.” But as long as a writer’s eye remains open to her or his experience, even tragedy can be transformed into art, a pretty cool customer finding the kernel of truth behind events most mortals prefer to ignore.

Hello, my name is...

If your name is Jared and you work at Pizza Hut, I know where you can find your missing name-tag. Either that, or Pizza Hut has taken to hiring trees as waitstaff.

Yesterday wasn’t the first time I’d stopped at the Park ‘n’ Ride off Route 93 in Penacook, NH to cross the old railroad trestle onto the island where an all-but-forgotten monument to Hannah Dustin stands. But given that I’d never taken photographs of said monument–and given the fact that I’d driven to nearby Concord, NH to meet with a student who’s doing a senior capstone project on captivity narratives by Asian American descendents of Korean comfort women–it made sense to pay a second visit to old stone Hannah.

Hannah Dustin monument, Penacook, NH

In a previous lifetime, I wrote a paper about American Indian captivity narratives: stories written by white settlers who had been taken hostage during Indian raids, were later redeemed from captivity, and subsequently told their stories of capture and redemption. Hannah Dustin, however, never wrote a captivity narrative, which is a shame since her story is so vivid.

According to historical accounts, Dustin and her neighbor Mary Neff were taken captive by Abenaki Indians during a 1697 raid on Haverill, MA. Dustin had recently given birth, and during the forced march from Haverill, her Abenaki captors killed her infant by smashing its skull against a tree. After her forced removal from Haverill to an island in the Merrimack River near what is now Penacook, NH, Dustin conspired with Neff and Samuel Lennardson, a white teenager who was also being held hostage, to kill their captors. Lennardson nonchalantly asked one of his captors to show him how he would kill and scalp a man, then Dustin applied this knowledge after the Abenaki family they were traveling with had fallen asleep.

Front inscription, Hannah Dustin monument, Penacook, NH

It is here that Dustin’s story gets complicated. Popular versions of Dustin’s story–such as the text on the highway marker on the road to Penacook, NH–simply say that Dustin, a victim of an Indian raid, killed ten Indians before escaping to freedom: a clear act of self-defense. Of the ten Indians that Dustin and her compatriots killed, however, only two were grown men: also killed were two women and six children.

If Dustin and her fellows were acting only in self-defense, why was it necessary to kill children? Presumably, the captives didn’t want survivors to flee and fetch other Abenakis; as chance would have it, one badly injured woman and an Abenaki child did indeed escape to tell the tale. But if Dustin and her fellow captives were motivated purely by self-preservation, why did Dustin stop after they’d begun their escape down the Merrimack River, return to the Abenakis they’d killed, and scalp their dead bodies?

Axe and scalps, Penacook, NH

The larger-than-life statue of Hannah Dustin in Penacook, NH shows her carrying an axe in one hand and a cluster of scalps in the other. Presumably, Dustin returned to scalp her captors as “proof” of her and her co-captives’ story…but why? What did Dustin want to prove, and to whom? Did she think her husband and neighbors in Haverill, MA wouldn’t believe that she, a woman, had escaped from captivity by her own hands? Did she feel a need to prove where she, a woman, had been during the several weeks she’d been away from her family? Or did Hannah Dustin, a woman who had seen her newborn infant murdered at the hands of people she considered “savages,” feel a need to show bloody proof of the horrors of guerilla warfare? Revenge is a dish best served cold and bloody, and Hannah Dustin’s “bouquet” of Indian scalps shows just how brutal an otherwise mild-mannered mother of twelve can be when things turn ugly.

Hannah Dustan with scalps, Penacook, NH

As a woman, I can’t say I blame Hannah Dustin for taking vengeance into her own hands, but as a human being I’m still troubled by those bloody scalps. Yesterday as I walked under partly cloudy skies from the Park ‘n’ Ride to the isolated spot where Dustin’s monument stands, I was mindful of the headline on the newspaper I’d picked up from my porch before leaving Keene: “Woman victim of sex attack.” If it’s no longer safe for women to walk the night-time streets of Small Town, NH without protective male escort, what was I doing walking in an isolated spot along the side of the road to Penacook, NH without a dog, bodyguard, or axe of my own?

Had some savage leapt from the bushes intending to do me harm as I walked under partly cloudy skies yesterday, would you have blamed me for defending myself by any means available? At the same time, having vanquished and even killed my attacker, would you raise an eyebrow had I gone one step further, returning to that attacker to glean trophies as “proof” from his subjugated body?

I don’t know if Hannah Dustin was a “hero” as her historical marker proclaims…but she’s definitely a survivor, and I suppose that deserves its own kind of commemoration. It’s a cold, cruel, and bloody world out there, and sometimes only the ugliest bouquet, clutched to one’s breast like a handbag, can serve as proof to that sad, inevitable fact.

Click here for more photos of New Hampshire’s Hannah Dustin monument.

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