May 29, 2013
I’m still participating in a 365-day photo challenge, where I’ve committed to taking (and posting to Flickr) at least one photo every day this year. As I mentioned when I first announced this project, the challenge for me isn’t to take a total of 365 photos in single year; instead, the challenge is to take (and share) at least one photo a day.
In a typical year, I take photos in spurts: on a day when J and I watch a parade or go to a Red Sox game or take a walk at a cemetery, I can easily take dozens of photos. But on more mundane days when I’m running errands, doing household chores, or grading papers, finding something photogenic to share can be a challenge. As is true with any sort of challenge, the days when it’s hardest to keep your commitment are the days when that commitment bears the most useful fruit.
Now that I’m almost 150 days into the year, I’ve settled into a photographic routine for days when I’m not planning to go anywhere exciting. Around lunchtime, after I’ve unloading the dishwasher, I take my camera for a short walk around the yard. The sole purpose of this walk is to stalk today’s photo, as if I were a chef checking her garden to find ingredients for tonight’s dinner.
On this short yard-walk, I check to see what is blooming or looming: are the peony buds still tightly closed? Is the spiderwort past its prime? Are there any interesting birds splashing in the birdbath, or any of several baby cottontails willing to be photographed?
As silly as it sounds, simply taking a more-or-less daily stroll around my own yard with a camera has made me much more aware of what’s going on there. Yesterday, for instance, the irises bloomed…
…but the mountain laurels didn’t. How could I have been certain of these two realities unless I myself went outside to see?
One thing that has surprised me this year is how much I miss even when I’m trying to be observant. One day last week, for instance, I shot a picture of some curiously reddened leaves on the shrub that fringes our front sidewalk, but only after I looked at the photo on my laptop did I realized the stem of those leaves was crawling with tiny green insects.
Likewise, while focused on yesterday’s tightly budded mountain laurels, I unwittingly shot a picture of a lacy-winged insect beneath one of them.
Having almost-missed this almost-transparent insect, I now wonder how many silent creatures I pass or tread upon without noticing. How dare I venture into the world at large when I am so ignorant about the goings-on in my own backyard?
The main reason to do a 365-day photo challenge is to force yourself to pay attention, and simply paying attention always bears interesting fruit. As soon start paying attention, one of the first things you notice is how oblivious you normally are. How many years have gone by when I didn’t notice the exact day when the irises bloomed or the almost-invisible insects in my midst?
May 25, 2013
Today my writing partner and I carpooled to Framingham State, where we spent a drizzly Saturday holding our own makeshift writing retreat. We’d done something similar last November, commandeering an empty classroom where we each claimed a spot to spread our laptops, notebooks, and snacks, committed to spending the day writing rather than compulsively checking email, mindlessly surfing the Web, or obsessing over our to-do lists. What we learned then still applies now: all you need to spend the day writing is a little peer pressure, a (relatively) distraction-free workspace, and the courage to carve out a day devoted to nothing but your own creative pursuits.
Last November, my writing partner and I had little trouble finding an empty, unlocked classroom in May Hall, the main academic building at Framingham State. Today, however, we found campus nearly abandoned, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend not being the most popular time for people to study, write, or otherwise work. After realizing the classrooms in May Hall were locked, my office in O’Connor Hall was in the process of being painted, and both the library and student center were closed, my writing partner and I claimed the couches and end tables that transform the hallway outside the English department secretary’s office into a makeshift student lounge. It wasn’t the workplace we’d envisioned, but it served our purposes, there being electrical outlets for our laptops, lots of natural light streaming through tall windows, a proliferation of potted plants, and hours of uninterrupted quiet.
Over lunch, my writing partner and I talked about how some folks think it’s strange that we choose to spend an entire day doing “nothing” but writing: what kind of wasteful, self-indulgent pursuit is that? Neither one of us is a “professional” writer, relying upon day jobs rather than our writing to keep us fed, and both of us struggle with the tension between writing to produce a “product” and writing as a kind of spiritual practice. If you write simply because you enjoy writing—if you write simply because it gives you a creative outlet you can’t find elsewhere—does it matter if you never produce a publishable, praise-winning, pay-earning piece?
Fittingly enough, one of the essays I worked on writing today compares Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Life Without Principle” with the Buddhist ideal of Right Livelihood, and I think Thoreau would have something to say on this tension between product and process. Thoreau’s thoughts on living and making a living have fascinated me for years, and the concept of Right Livelihood is one I perpetually struggle with: how do you achieve Right Livelihood when all the things that seem “right” to you don’t earn you a much of a “livelihood”? In re-reading Thoreau’s essay, I chuckled to encounter the following line:
If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.
If I were to spend a rainy day in May Hall grading stacks of student papers, my colleagues would praise (and perhaps marvel at) my productivity, but if I spend the day struggling to write an essay I’m not sure will ever see the eyes of an actual audience, I must be a bit “off.” Who spends hours crafting blog-posts that earn comments but no actual currency, or writing a book that might not ever be finished, much less published?
I have no doubt that Thoreau would have continued his “morning work” of writing in the morning and walking in the afternoon regardless of whether he was published or praised. During his lifetime, Thoreau was largely self-published: what living he earned came mainly from surveying and occasional lecturing, not book sales. But Thoreau kept writing because that’s what Thoreau did, so asking him not to write would be like asking the sparrows outside my window not to sing. Thoreau wrote not because he was pursuing the legitimacy that comes from producing a certain kind of product but because he believed the “aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get ‘a good job,’ but to perform well a certain work.”
I wish we lived in a world where the things that feel “right” to me—writing and teaching and living a sane, balanced life—earned a living wage; I wish we lived in a world where people like Thoreau didn’t seem counter-cultural or curmudgeonly. But at the end of a full day spent writing, I feel more energized, encouraged, and inspired than I do at the end of a full day spent grading. Tenure-track professors engage in research and academic publishing because it presumably keeps their teaching alive and well-informed: how can you be a good, inspiring teacher if you haven’t had an original insight or idea in ages? This, to me, is part of why I write, even though the bloggish, entirely non-academic essays I produce don’t earn me any legitimacy in the academy. I write because at the end of a rainy day spent with my laptop on an almost-empty campus, I feel like it’s been a day well-spent.
May 22, 2013
Yesterday I got an email from Framingham State saying that the wood from Massive Oak, one of the trees that’s going to be cut down to make way for the new science center on campus, will be donated to Plimoth Plantation, where it will be used for the renovation of Mayflower II, a historically accurate replica of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to America. The project requires a very particular kind of wood, and it’s exactly the kind of wood that comes from an enormous, centuries-old white oak tree.
White oak wood, I read, is perfect for shipbuilding because its cellular structure is particularly dense, making it both waterproof and resistant to rot. I knew that in colonial times, tall white pines were reserved for the crown, as they were prized for ships’ masts, but I didn’t know that white oaks were similarly sought after by shipbuilders. (Apparently the USS Constitution—aka Old Ironsides—is built from white oak, and a special grove of oak trees is cultivated for its maintenance.) I don’t think Massive Oak is tall or straight enough for a ship mast: his impressive volume comes from his sprawling circumference more than his towering height. But apparently the renovation of an old, historically significant ship demands large, specifically shaped pieces of white oak, not just any two-by-fours you could find at Home Depot. This means that Massive Oak will be re-purposed, not simply destroyed, his long history as a shade-giver and quiet guardian transformed into something completely different.
The news that Massive Oak will be reborn as a ship reminded me of one of my favorite children’s storybooks, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. The story describes a little boy who has a lifelong friendship with a tree. When the boy is young, he is content to climb the tree, rest in her shade, and eat her apples; as he grows older, however, the boy’s loyalties are divided. In one scene, the boy lounges beneath the tree with a girl, their initials carved into the tree’s trunk; in another scene, the boy sells the tree’s fruit for cash. When the grown man wants to build a house, the tree offers her branches, and when he later wants to build a boat, the tree offers her trunk. In the book’s final scene, the boy has become a tired old man, and all he wants is a place to sit, and the tree offers her stump. “And the tree was happy,” the story concludes with heartrending understatement. It’s not clear whether the boy-turned-man fully understands how thoroughly the giving tree has sacrificed herself to meet his ever-evolving demands; we simply know that the tree gives until she has nothing left.
I don’t know if Massive Oak is happy to help renovate a ship: I don’t know if Massive Oak has any say in the matter. In The Maine Woods, Henry David Thoreau speculated on the highest use of pine trees, and he concluded that “A pine cut down, a dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass is a man.” Both pines and oaks, Thoreau suggested, achieve their highest worth when allowed to flourish in their natural entirety, not when they are chopped down and divvied into commodities. Thoreau in particular lamented the harvesting of pine trees to make matchsticks: “Think how stood the white-pine tree on the shore of Chesuncook,” he wrote, “its branches soughing with the four winds, and every individual needle trembling in the sunlight,—think how it stands with it now,—sold, perchance, to the New England Friction-Match Company!” Turning a towering pine tree into match sticks, Thoreau suggests, is a perversion of a tree’s true nature.
But Thoreau’s own family manufactured pencils, which are made from wood, and Thoreau himself worked as a surveyor, a job that required him to measure and calculate how many cords of wood a given lot could yield. Thoreau knew (even if he was hesitant to admit) that even our most frugal economies involve the transformation and even destruction of life. Whether or not Massive Oak’s bones are transformed into a ship, he’s destined to be chopped down; if a tree falls on a campus with no one to make use of his trunk, will that felling make any less of a sound?
I’m planning to be on campus this weekend, and I’m bracing myself for what I might see there. Now that commencement is over, construction of that new science center is slated to begin, and Massive Oak needs to be dismantled before the project moves forward. I don’t know whether Massive Oak will have been felled, dismantled, or completely removed by the time I visit the spot where he used to stand, but I know that spot will never be exactly the same. Despite all our attempts to restore and renovate our histories, the past is a ship that has already sailed on.
May 20, 2013
This weekend I read an article about Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and his recent return to earth after spending five months aboard the International Space Station. Hadfield is an Internet celebrity because of the Twitter account he maintained while in space, and he became a virtual rock star after sharing on YouTube a video of himself performing a version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in zero-gravity. What I found most interesting about the article describing Hadfield’s homecoming, however, was his description of the intensive rehabilitation he and other returning astronauts have to undergo upon re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere, their bodies having become unaccustomed to the incessant pull of gravity:
“Right after I landed I could feel the weight of my lips and tongue … I hadn’t realized that I had learned to talk with a weightless tongue,” he said.
He is suffering overall body soreness, particularly in his neck and back which are again having to support his head after months in weightlessness.
These details about an otherwise healthy man having to relearn the basic mechanics of life on earth—like how to shower without fainting or how to walk on feet that are no longer toughened with protective calluses—is fascinating enough, but I found them even more interesting since I’m still reading Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, which also provides fascinating insight into life after zero-gravity. (If Roach’s book sounds familiar, it might be because I blogged it back in April.) What is it like to return to the familiar weighted existence of “home” after having floated rootless in space for so long?
I’ve previously used the term “Re-entry” to describe my own experience of coming back to my mundane life at the end of the academic year, after having spent too much time buckled down and focused on the minutiae of end-term grading. In many ways, my experience feels like the opposite of Hadfield’s: all those paper-piles and an accumulation of end-term tasks were oppressively weighty, and now I’ve been freed to float in the relative tranquility of summer, with “only” my online classes to tether me to earth.
But even so, the end of every academic year requires more than a bit of rehabilitation. While I was laden with papers and projects, I fell behind with other obligations and am now slowly digging my way out, taking my car for a long-overdue oil change on Friday, for instance, while slowly re-introducing myself to friends who don’t see much of me during the school year. I still need a haircut, which is something I never seem to find time for during a busy academic term; I still need to clean the bathroom. The dusty bookshelves and piles of unsorted junk in the basement—tasks I’d optimistically thought I’d tackle over winter break—are still staring me in the face, silently asking me “If not now, when?”
Before I devote myself to such weighty projects, however, I want to take a few days to enjoy the (relative) weightlessness of summer; before I devote myself to my summer checklist of projects, I want to spend some time doing as close to “nothing” as I can get away with. A couple times this past week, for instance, I found myself puttering around our backyard with a camera, simply content to spend time enjoying the scenery. Chris Hadfield has also been enjoying the earthly (and entirely grounding) art of puttering, noting that he and his NASA colleague Thomas Marshburn have been “sort of tottering around like two old duffers in an old folks home” while rehabilitating in Houston. It sounds like re-entry is the same regardless of where you’re returning from.
Click here for more photos of rain-bejeweled greenery, shot during this morning’s stint of backyard-puttering. Enjoy!
May 16, 2013
I submitted the last of my spring semester grades on Sunday night, which means I’ve spent much of this week catching up with things that fell by the wayside while I was grading, like keeping track of who’s been spending time in our backyard.
May 14, 2013
On Sunday, J and I went to Waltham to check out the Watch City Festival, an annual celebration of steampunk culture.
Before Sunday, neither J nor I was hugely familiar with steampunk, which is a curious blend of Victorian-era style and industrial-age gadgetry: picture men in top hats and aviator goggles, women in long skirts and leather corsets, or members of both sexes wearing prosthetic limbs fashioned out of pistons. Despite our general unfamiliarity with the genre, however, J and I were curious to see what kind of steampunkery might erupt in a town with a long industrial history, and we figured (quite rightly) that the festival and its attendees would make for lots of interesting photos.
Waltham sits on the banks of the Charles River, and it once was a factory town, the site of an enormous textile mill established by Francis Cabot Lowell as well as a clock factory that inspired the nickname “Watch City.” The Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation now sits on the site of Lowell’s textile mill, and they organize the annual Watch City Festival as a way of celebrating the city’s industrial heritage while attracting folks of all ages to come to Waltham, either to show off their steampunk costumes or to gawk and take photos of same.
Although neither J nor I was very familiar with steampunk culture, we’d read enough about it to want to learn more. Steampunk is a bookish genre, inspired by both sci-fi and the fantastical fiction of classic authors such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Although I’m not an expert in Victorian literature, science fiction, or fantasy, I’ve had plenty of colleagues over the years who are, so the aesthetic and cultural sensibilities of the era aren’t entirely foreign to me. J first heard the term “steampunk” on an episode of “Oddities,” which is one of our favorite TV shows, and when he researched the term, he realized that one of his favorite childhood TV shows, “The Wild Wild West, is considered by many to be a prototypical example of steampunk culture with its curious coupling of Western adventure and fantastical gadgetry.
You might say, in other words, that both J and I were primed to be steampunk’d.
Walking around a historical mill town in the company of people wearing Victorian-era costumes is more than a bit surreal…and I say that in a good way. Watching men in silk vests and top hats strolling with women in full skirts and tailored shirtwaists felt a bit like being transported into an antique postcard showing gentlemen and ladies taking a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park, as urban Victorians were wont to do.
More than anything, J and I were impressed by the ingenuity of the various costumes and creations we saw, which obviously entailed hours of planning, antique-shopping, assembly, and upkeep. How exactly, for instance, did one fellow’s top hat feature moving gears and puffs of steam…
…or where exactly did another chap find not just one but two enormous, industrial-sized wrenches (one on his shoulder, and another on his tool-belt) to accessorize his working-man’s outfit?
In addition to wearable art, J and I admired the steampunk gadgetry of a Victorian-inspired (and fully functional) computer fashioned out of an antique typewriter, desk, and picture frame…
…and who wouldn’t adore an otherwise ordinary pooch who had been transformed into a high-flying steampup with wings, jetpack, and goggles?
J and I had so much fun admiring the creative costumes and gadgets we saw, we decided to attend the Watch City Festival next year, and already we’re wondering whether we’re brave enough to cobble together some costumes of our own between now and then.
Although I can’t imagine being entirely comfortable squeezing myself into in full steampunk regalia…
…it might be fun to experiment with odd accessories.
What would happen, for instance, if J tricked out one of his cameras with gears and pistons to transform himself into a steampunk photographer, or if I coupled a khaki safari dress with antique brass binoculars to transform myself into a Victorian ornithologist? With a full year between now and the next Watch City Festival, you never know what curious combinations we might devise.
Click here for more photos from this year’s Watch City Festival. Enjoy!
May 12, 2013
Every April-into-May while I’m preoccupied with the long, uphill push that invariably marks the end of the semester, something sly and subtle happens. While I’m busy with paper-piles and end-term grading, Spring somehow slips into Summer.
I know that the summer solstice doesn’t come until June, but I’m never fooled by what the calendar says. Something has shifted in the last week or so, with spring-green leaves ripening into a darker summer hue. The nights are warm rather than chilly now, and we sleep with the windows open. Already the leaves on our backyard hostas are tattered where rabbits have nibbled them, and our backyard tulips have dropped their petals, spent.
Already, in an instant, the neighborhood wisteria are hanging heavy with an abundance of blossoms, and the year no longer feels like a coil that is tightly wound, ready to spring. Instead, the season has sprung, and only a ripening of days stands between us and the fullness of summer: a transition so subtle, you’ll miss it if you blink.
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