November 2009


Freshened

Given the fact that I have both a Flickr tag and blog category devoted to cars and trucks, it took me a while to decide what photo to post for today’s Photo Friday theme, Vehicle. With so many options to choose from, I’m faced with an embarrassment of riches.

4x4 bumper with reflected leaves

Rather than recycle an old joke, I decided to share two never-before-blogged photos from earlier this month, both of which feature the leaf-on-vehicle motif. Cars can be shiny status symbols, but they are also ubiquitous, an essential part of the visual backdrop of our lives. Walking down an ordinary street, only automotive aficionados notice parked cars, and then only if those cars are noteworthy collectibles. But our cars say a lot about our selves, considering the amount of time some of us spend in them. They bear our bumper stickers, carry our toys both cute and creepy, and sometimes end up junked in our yards. An image of a windshield covered in fallen leaves or a back bumper reflecting a row of raked ones transports to a place called “autumn” just as surely as a set of wheels can.

This is my contribution for today’s Photo Friday theme, Vehicle.

Monochromatic

These days, my after-work dog-walks happen long after dark, so I rely more and more on illuminated shop windows to light my way downtown and back home again.

Fall fashions

The headless, well-dressed sisters at Miranda’s Verandah serve as a perennial beacon, loyal neighbors who always stand at silent attention as Reggie and I pass by, sniffing and snapping pictures as are our respective pursuits. How many other passersby–both window-shopping pedestrians and harried rush-hour motorists circling the rotary that Keene curiously terms a “Square”–have Miranda’s weird sisters welcomed over the years from their prime downtown vantage point?

Frosted berry

It’s brilliant and bright outside: the kind of chilly day that deceives you with light. Why haven’t we learned over all these years that the brightest days are often the coldest, as if the light refracted through the remnants of a hard frost is even brighter than light unadorned?

Oak leaf

Reggie and I saw a hen pheasant this morning: she was hunkered in the leaves next to a fence skirting one of the factories along the railtrail, and I was stopped taking a photograph while Reggie was sniffing dead leaves. Had the hen not moved, I’d have never seen her, as she was exactly the color of dry leaves. Had we both–Reggie and I–not stopped, I’m guessing this bird would have let us pass, not stirring the slightest to betray her presence. But with both a snooping person and nosy dog in close proximity, the hen first walked and then flew away, wanting to have nothing to do with our impertinence.

Frost-studded

I don’t think I’d ever seen a female pheasant at close range and indeed didn’t recognize it at first, initially thinking we’d stumbled upon a female grouse. But the bird’s pointed tail and stiff, skittering flight were both indicative of pheasant rather than grouse, as was the fact that she flew to a nearby field rather than a neighboring row of trees. But my first startled impression belonged to no particular species: just the sound of leaves rustling, then the startled realization that one particular patch of dry-leaf color was vaguely bird-shaped and moving. In the split second before my mind could apply the category “pheasant” or “grouse” to that moving, bird-shaped patch of dry-leaf color, the only thought I could formulate was “some sort of brown, gallinaceous bird.”

Frost glow

Had I been a Stone Age hunter with a slingshot, that would have been enough for me to toss off a shot or two, as brown gallinaceous birds are tasty, regardless of whether you tag them “pheasant” or “grouse.” Instead, I raised my camera, had the presence of mind to switch the setting from “macro” to “auto,” then snapped several shots in the general direction I knew the bird to be, not being able to see foot nor feather of her on my camera view-screen.

Some of our best shots, I’ve learned, are blind ones, taken with an air of “what the hell?” J recently mentioned he’d like to try his hand at bird photography, and I’ve been slow to stick my birder’s foot in that open door. I think J would enjoying birding, as I do, and I think it would be something fun for us to do together…but I also know how difficult it is to watch birds with nothing but bare eyes and binoculars. Knowing how elusive birds can be, and knowing how challenging it can be spot them in any light much less the prime conditions needed for photography, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be go birding with a camera. As much as I like birding and photography as their own separate pursuits, I’ve always been too lazy to try to combine them.

Frosted fronds

For this reason, whenever J expresses his budding interest in bird photography, I find myself thinking, “Oh, you have no idea what you’re getting into!” But then again, most of us don’t know what we’re getting into on any given day, and we don’t let that stop us. Without having much of a clue but with an air of “what the hell,” we simply point our cameras, aim our slingshots, or stick our feet in doors, trying to have the presence of mind to switch our settings before taking a blind shot.

Click here if you want to play “spot the pheasant,” or here if you want to see a cropped version of the same photo. Enjoy!

Dewy

Several days last week, I was able to blog my morning journal pages, having had some topic or theme in mind during my morning dog-walk, then exploring it in my journal. It’s easy to post to my blog when all I have to do is type up, with minor revisions, whatever I scribbled in my journal that morning. But some mornings my thoughts aren’t that organized–some mornings, I walk the dog without having any one thing On My Mind, so I end up filling my journal pages with scribbled nonsense that’s of interest to no one but me–just the trivial minutiae of this and that.

Green veins

It strikes me that just as I’ve always liked keeping a journal, I’m always interested in reading others’ journals. May Sarton is one of my favorite writers not because I’ve read much of her poetry or fiction; she’s one of my favorite writers because I love her journals. Journaling is a loose, more comfortable genre than sometimes-prissy poetry or the formal rigors of nonfiction. If personal essays are the literary equivalent of jeans and a T-shirt, journal entries are like a well-worn bathrobe and fuzzy slippers. In a writer’s journal, you can see her or his mind at leisure and lounging. What kind of logical leaps does an active mind make when nobody but the trusted page is looking? What kind of thoughts does an insightful thinker harbor before revision has tidied things up?

Pink veins

I often find myself wanting to re-read Sarton’s journals, her prose being so delicious, and on my intellectual bucket list, I’d like to someday read Henry David Thoreau’s and Virginia Woolf’s complete journals cover-to-cover. We read excerpts from Thoreau’s 1851 journal in my Thinking & Writing class, and these snippets always leave me craving more. When I see the way a practiced journal-keeper wraps her or his mind around a sentence, I wonder why the world even needs poetry, the rhythms of prose seeming more than ample enough for anything the mind or heart could ever wish to convey.

Bejeweled

Saturday was rainy, so I spent a good part of my Sunday morning taking pictures of raindrops.

Bejeweled

Raindrops are difficult to photograph with a point-and-shoot camera, as the shiny reflective surfaces that make drops of water so interesting to look at often stymie a digicam’s auto-focus. This is part of the reason, I think, I like to take pictures of raindrops: I appreciate a good challenge.

I also like the way that simply adding water to something makes it look different and even strange, as if this most common of substances is actually a kind of elixir, transforming yesterday’s plain old leaves into this morning’s bejeweled beauties. It’s good every now and again to look at the same old world through different eyes, and if you can’t find new eyes, the distorting lens of an ordinary raindrop will serve a similar purpose.

This morning was sunny and clear, so yesterday’s raindrops have long since evaporated, leaving nothing to commemorate this weekend’s rain except Monday morning mushrooms.

After the rain, the mushrooms

One student's trash...

…is another student’s art project.

One student's trash...

Now that the Fall semester at Keene State is entering its final month, student art projects are starting to appear on campus. Because student artists are typically starving artists, these projects are usually constructed from common, inexpensive materials. One past project, for instance, was constructed entirely from plastic coat hangers, plastic forks, and plastic drinking straws: materials a student could easily (and cheaply) acquire at the neighborhood dollar store. Other past projects have employed tin foil and styrofoam cups, and this year’s projects show a strong preference for chicken wire and papier–mâché.

As much as I enjoy visiting art museums to see installations made by “professional” artists, there’s something inspiring about the ingenuity of these student artists. Given the limitations of a short semester and cash-strapped lifestyles, it’s encouraging to see creativity find its own way to transform a trashcan’s worth of recylables into something far more interesting. Now that I’ve seen this sphere of chicken wire studded with bead-bedecked water bottles, I’m inspired to take another look at my own trashcan and recycle bin, wondering what sort of art-in-the-making I might find therein.

Fallen apples

It’s a question I’ve pondered previously. In a season when summer abundance is cast off and lies in heaping piles underfoot, shouldn’t we feel bad to see such fecundity go to waste?

Apples

Not far from the Keene State College dining commons, there is an apple tree that is currently boasting a bumper crop of fruit. Bushels of apples cluster on limbs high overhead, and buckets of apples cover the ground and sidewalks underneath the tree: some entire, and others crushed. Although I’ve occasionally seen students eating apples while they walk on campus, more commonly they are eating ice cream, chatting on cell phones, or listening to omnipresent iPods. With a dining commons that offers an alluring array of comfort food, the most popular Apples on campus seem to be the laptop kind, not the proverbial Forbidden Fruit.

With so few students eating apples these days–and with a dining commons nearby where students can choose fruit that hasn’t been lying underfoot, crushed or entire–you might worry that this year’s bumper crop of local apples is going to waste, rotting on or under their tree. But as I’ve long suspected, nothing in nature ever goes to waste, there being some campus denizens who don’t have meal plans and thus find their food apart from the dining commons: Keene State’s friendly (and furry) clean-up crew.

An apple a day...

Pierce vs. Durant

As a die-hard Celtics fan, the first thing I thought of when I saw today’s Photo Friday theme, Three, was Boston’s so-called Big Three: the championship-winning combination of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. I don’t have any pictures of the Big Three together, unless you count this team photo from the 2008 NBA Finals, a picture I snapped from an oversize, illuminated version on display at the Boston Sports Museum. Although I clearly remember the 2008 NBA Finals, I watched the game on TV at home, not at the Garden with the Big Boys.

Nobody can guard KG

The Big Three play three different positions, so it’s rare to capture all of them in a single frame. And looking back on the various Celtics photos I’ve taken, we’ve often gone to games where one of the Big Three hasn’t been playing due to injury. So in the spirit of today’s Photo Friday theme, I’ll have to show you three separate pictures of the Big Three in action, and I’ll leave it to you to connect the dots.

Tonight J and I have tickets to see the Celtics play the Atlanta Hawks: our only Celtics game of the season. Judging from the number of Bruins and Revolution pictures I post, you’d probably guess that hockey and soccer are my two favorite sports, but actually basketball is my far and away favorite. In high school gym class, basketball was the only game I didn’t completely stink at. When I was a kid, my mom used to shoot baskets at the neighborhood playground while I played on the swings and jungle gym, and whenever my dad would come with us, he too would shoot hoops. Once when I was probably around 10 or 11, my dad asked if I wanted to join them, and I remarked that I was too short to play basketball. My dad immediately explained that you don’t have to be tall to shoot a decent basket, as long as you know the rudiments…and he then showed me how to hold, shoot, and follow-through with a basic free-throw shot. Once you know how to make a basic shot, he explained, the rest is just finesse.

Ray Allen shoots a T

Although I never had enough “game” to play in high school much less college or the WNBA, basketball is the only sport I can watch and imagine myself playing. When I see a precision shooter like Ray Allen take a free-throw, I always notice the basics my dad taught me: a balanced, grounded stance; a solid hold on the ball; a limp-wristed follow-through. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a playground with a basketball, but I’m sure I’d remember the rudiments once I worked off the rust. Even though my “game” is limited to shooting some occasional baskets with my parents at the local playground, my muscle-memory recalls those moves and revisits them when I watch the pros play, as if I could borrow their bodies simply by watching.

Earlier this week, I watched video footage of injured veterans from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center playing wheelchair basketball at the White House. It seems my dad was right about basketball. It doesn’t matter how tall you are; it’s a matter of remembering the rudiments.

This is my contribution for today’s Photo Friday theme, Three.

Branch & sky

One of the things I like about this month’s commitment to post every day is the way it forces me to look on the literal bright side. When I announced that I’d be participating in this November’s National Blog Posting Month, I knew that finding something to say everyday wouldn’t be the problem, for words appear regardless of the weather. The challenge for daily posting in a darkening month is finding enough light to take pictures. On any given day, it’s not difficult to find something to tell you, but some day’s it’s a challenge to find something to show you.

Crumpled

In sunny months when I post every day or so, I usually rely on a daily intake of photos: whatever I blog today is illustrated with whatever I’ve just recently photographed. In November, however, there days like today when I literally don’t see much light of day. It was dark when I walked Reggie in the morning, it was dark when I got home to walk him again tonight, and I spent most of my in-between hours inside classrooms and my underground office, and neither of these places offers a great setting for digital photographs.

Point-and-shoot digital cameras need a lot of light to take decent pictures: that’s why most of the photos I post on-blog are taken outdoors. Outside on a sunny day, it’s difficult not to take good pictures, because the sunlight shows everything in its best light. But on dim days, even otherwise lovely things look drab and shabby. With less light to work with these days, scrounging a daily dose of bloggable pictures can be a challenge.

Pearls

I’m learning this month to look at my sunny day dog-walks as my chance to stockpile photographic provisions for the rest of the week. Just as folks who go to the grocery store only once a week learn to make a list so they buy enough ingredients for an entire week’s worth of meals, I know that on my daylight dog-walks, I have to snap more than one day’s worth of bloggable pictures. I’m also learning that it’s good to have a well-stocked photographic larder in case of emergency. By posting all of my day-to-day pictures to Flickr–not just the ones I have immediate plans to blog–I know I have a pantry of non-perishables to fall back upon when my blog-cupboard is bare.

When you’ve made a commitment to post daily, you also approach each day with a different, more optimistic attitude. In addition to looking on the literal bright side, you also look on the proverbial one, viewing your day with an eye for the interesting, inspiring, or otherwise remarkable. On most days of a dimly lit, mid-semester month, there’s not much exciting happening in my life: prepping classes, walking the dog, doing chores, and reading piles upon piles of student papers isn’t exactly stuff to write home (or blog) about. But into each life a little sun must fall, and even the dullest days have their bright moments if you train yourself to spot them. A commitment to daily posting can provide that training if you make a concomitant commitment to keep your water-cooler whining to a minimum, deciding to post about the things you like about your life versus the usual complaints about the daily grind.

25 cents

A Christian minister once told me that the grass is always greener where it’s watered, and a Zen teacher once told me that whatever you pay attention to grows. If you spend a thirty-day month counting your complaints, you’ll realize by month’s end how rotten your life is. If you greet each November day with an attitude of optimistic expectation, wondering what sort of blog-worthy moments of insight or inspiration will dawn today, you’ll never be disappointed.

“You make, you get.” This is a simple Zen truism, but it points to the same wisdom of the Christian motto, “Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find.” If you approach any November morning with an expectant attitude of “What interesting or inspiring thing will happen today,” that request will be answered. If you greet every November day with expectation, every November day will provide you with something of insight or interest. And if you prodigally post today the ingredients you’d intended for later in the week, you’ll somehow find that you still have plenty, your pantry filling with the miraculous manna of daily inspiration.

Berries

Wednesdays are precious because I can sleep without an alarm clock, waking and then walking whenever the sun stirs me. On teaching days, Reggie and I walk in the dim-lit morning or after-dark evening, but on Wednesdays, we can visit in full daylight the various neighborhood landmarks we see only faintly on other days.

Stop both the wars

Reggie and I do very little exploring these days, tending to choose the same streets and sidewalks day after day: our usual route. It’s as if the purpose of our twice-daily dog-walks isn’t to explore new places but to discover what is different about the old ones: a process of getting re-acquainted with a long-familiar place.

They’re building two new houses at the end of the street, clearing the weedy field that Reggie and I occasionally use as a shortcut, leaving a narrow fringe of scrubby trees that still shelters our resident Cooper’s hawk. Losing yet another shortcut is just the latest change to our usual dog-walk route, the first being the fencing (and then the demolition) of the old abandoned factory on Water Street, where this morning a boring crew was working with a tall drill, preparing this lot for whatever its next incarnation will be.

Spire with foliage and flag

Land is too valuable for prime real estate to remain weedy and abandoned for long. The bike path Reggie and I have walked so many times on our way to or from downtown has been re-routed due to construction, the topography of its gentle slope–the low banks of an old railroad bed–taking on a new, unrecognizable shape. I can’t count the number of buildings that have sprung up–and are still arising–around Depot Square, with the new Moving Company mural pointing to the way Railroad Street has radically changed over the years I’ve lived in Keene.

Already, I have a difficult time remembering what the now-demolished portions of the warehouses at Beaver Mills looked like, their still-functional remnant being the only thing that remains. The old mill that was converted into retirement housing is finished and looks like it’s been here forever. Even the local basketball courts, whose construction necessitated the clearing of a row of birch saplings that felt like yet another loss when it happened in the months after my separation, now seem like they’ve been forever planted here, even acquiring their own fringing row of new birch saplings, narrow neighbors to replace the ones that were lost.

Facade with foliage

For every thing that passes, something arises in its place: this is the rule of both life and impermanence, the subtle and inextricable link between passing and continuance. The law of the living is that all things die; the law of the dead is that life goes on after you’re gone. Last night after dark, students in my Frontier in American Literature class sat discussing the string of deaths chronicled in Annie Dillard’s novel The Living, noting with quiet sadness the way that Ada Fishburn, one of the early-generation Puget Sound pioneers whose story the novel recounts, barely seems to mourn the sudden passing of her husband, Rooney.

Years before, en route to the Pacific Northwest, Ada’s young son, Charley, had died, crushed under the family’s own wagon wheels, and Ada and Rooney had quickly buried the child under a cottonwood tree in soil studded with the bones of previous emigrants. Soon after the burial, Ada, Rooney, and their surviving son had to move on, following their wagon train to the coastal frontier where Ada would bear two more children, lose one, then lose her husband in a well-digging accident: a numbing string of loss that leaves her resigned and reserved.

Fruit and foliage

My students are young: they think that death is a tragedy that slams your life to a grinding halt. Older folks know the wagon train always moves on, with new things replacing the things we’ve lost: death is a tragedy, but its stoppage of time is merely temporary. Once they’ve read further, my students will learn that Ada Fishburn remarries and becomes Ada Tawes; my students will probably think she never loved her first husband, given she’s able to replace him. But I know that life is simply a series of replacements, this present thing being a consolation for that past one: every day, not just this one, is precious, with each one replacing its predecessor. The shocking realization isn’t that death happens but that life goes on, inexorably, the river of time continuing to flow whether you’re on the bank, watching, or slipped into the stream, afloat. All we ever have is time: time that is fresh and virginal when we’re young and seasoned with the ritual of replacement once we’re older.

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