Sunday, October 25, 2020

Abstract Thinking

Five years separate these abstract takes on fall at 10,000 feet between the village of Tres Piedras and the Rio Arriba county seat in Tierra Amarilla. US Highway 64 rises steeply out of TP, tops out at the spectacular Brazos overlook and dips into the Chama River Valley. This mountainous 47 mile stretch of US 64 is one of America’s most stunning and is relatively unknown unless you’re blessed to live in northern New Mexico. It’s a marvel in every season and beckons in all seasons including the depth of winter when we snowshoe through the bare aspen stands into broad pastures blanketed with fresh snow.

These experiments with applied motion blur create painterly modern images that sing autumn’s song without pandering to the postcard obvious. The blur has been applied by telescoping my zoom lens rapidly in and out, by panning quickly from side to side and, in one case creating selective blur from an iphone image using my the remarkable Snapseed app.

For months now my posts have told stories and most recently have spoken to my awe of the well written word. The photographs have illustrated the writing. Nothing more. Last week the photograph had nothing whatsoever to do with my appreciation of Christopher Solomon’s prose. It just that posts seem naked without at least one image. 

Today it’s the opposite. The photographs are the story.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Turns of Phrase

A surge of golden finery

I’m gob smacked by turns of phrase that transcend the ordinary and lift a story into the lofty realm of literary non-fiction. It’s so much more than telling the story. It’s turning text into prose. This dawning was prompted by a masterful article entitled In My Mountain Town, We’re Preparing for Dark Times by Christopher Solomon in Sunday’s New York Times. Solomon, a contributing editor for Outside Magazine, crafted something special in his tale of fall’s arrival in tiny Twisp, Washington. I have longed to type the name Twisp, a town of 910 in the Cascade Mountains. 

As I read the article for the third time I began reading aloud from Solomon’s extraordinary piece. Each phrase was a nugget that’s the level of writing to which I aspire. Then I mined my own words to uncover my own jewels if there are any. I want to polish my own words to approach his stratospheric achievement. It’s so so good. 

And I quote: “where winds shake the aspens’ first golden coins to the ground.” I might have described the leaves on our aspens as “golden discs.” This shows the narrow difference between functional and poetic. 

“At the river, the water runs skinny but runs cold again with the return of freezing nights.” Skinny takes it to another level.

“and the fishing is good in the squinting hours around sunrise.” Good God. 

“It is autumn again in the mountains of the West, and what is not gracefully dying is desperate to live.”

Or, “October’s yellow afternoons smell of winter at the edges.” I'd have said “There’s hint of winter on a cold fall morning.” Yawn. 

“The soft ovation of the cottonwoods sends another round of leaves adrift on the water.” Not “the rustle of the cottonwoods.” Ovation. 

And, “We take ridgeline hikes among larch the color of struck matches…" My favorite.

“The woodcutter’s saw screams in the quiet forest.” 

“The fish lurches to the fly.” 

“I stand in the river, ice water girding my hips…” 

“And so, my friends and I fish too long when we should be picking the last frost-sweetened plums.” 

We tear at the days immoderately, like animals, and we wolf them down, hoping to fill a hole we see yawning ahead. Hell, the whole damn passage. 

And finally, “We are laying by memories for winter, as the bear puts on fat,” What a poetic analogy that is. 

As I took stock of my recent writing, I found a handful of phrases that that teased the possibilities. That affirmation drives me to a craft works in which very phrase is a pearl. 

In my latest article for Shadow and Light Magazine, the one called 110 Degrees in the Shade, I wrote: 

“I stood in the rubble beneath a half-missing roof and listened to the wind whistle through cracks in the plywood and tarpaper walls.” 

"The wind howls, the sand drifts through the porous siding. 

“There’s quiet despair in the silence of dashed dreams.”

“…where meals where shared, and love was made.” 

“Then the laughter and anger that happened within these walls disappeared into the creeping sand of the unforgiving Mojave.” 

Christopher Solomon’s miraculous examples and the best of what I’ve written give me a target. And hope. They suggest that I can write at another level. That becomes my dream. 

Long ago I read that if you want to write creatively you need to write daily for at least two hours. The admonition says the you must sequester yourself in your writing space and can’t leave until you’ve written something and that, even if you stare at the screen for the full 120 minutes, you can’t leave your cell. That was years ago, and I’ve done it precisely once. The results from that single effort were promising. And yet nothing since.

Solomon’s superb craftsmanship, or talent, gave me a jolt of energy. Reading his rippling words tells me to weave memorable phrases into meaningful stories. 

There is functional writing that gets the job done, there is craft and there is work with a definable voice. The same is true of making music or making a singular photograph. There is skill, it seems to me, and then there is talent and beyond that something otherworldly. Since high school I’ve been told that I should write. Writing competently is easy for me but I haven’t been moved to polish my skills into something above workmanlike, if indeed that’s possible. The same is true of mastering finger style guitar or mastering anything for that matter. In 1960 I was a competent rhythm guitar player who was satisfied to accompany my vocals. Not only have I not grown as a player, but my entire repertoire is sixty years old. It’s so old that it would be new to an audience today. 

My pipes have descended into a raspy whisper and I now I struggle with the three-finger tremolo I once mastered.  I guess you have to practice. Yet the brain remains facile and overflowing with fodder for a real creative writing push. 

I’ve booked my office for the prime 9 to11am time slot today. Visitors Prohibited.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

My end of the story

West Janssen and a frosty Dr. Pepper outside Williams, AZ,

I don’t know where to start. The Deaf Drummer’s last week was a whipsaw of events. First, I learned that West Janssen was embarking on a farewell tour. His plan was to walk to Chicago from Arizona and play his drums for donations in towns across America’s heartland. I encouraged him to wait till spring and avoid the frigid upper Midwest winter. Then I found out he had already started, was robbed of everything including his prized drum kit in Des Moines, was helped out by a church and locals who put him up in a hotel and bought him a bus ticket to Denver where he may be now. That’s one hell of a week. Presumably, the thieving driver picked him up by the side of Highway 64 above Williams, AZ, drove him as far as Des Moines, took all his worldly possessions and left him stranded. That’s one step shy of tragic. But he’s safe for now as far as I know, and I assume he’ll continue is some fashion to Chicago. I have no idea really.

I learned from comments made to West’s Facebook Messenger report of the stolen drum kit that it’s not the first time his he’s drums have been purloined. The country musician who bought the latest kit for him offered her condolences.

Both of us have had visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads. We each harbored the dream of telling West’s incredible life story. Maybe West saw me as a typist. He’s not fond of keyboards. I have zero interest in being a typist or stenographer for somebody else’s words. That, it seems to me, leaves us at cross-purposes and seemingly at the end of our nascent writing partnership. When West suggested that I pay him for the rights to his story the T’s were crossed, the I’s dotted and that’s the end of it.

“Well now is a good time about you wanting to buy my story or something like that? Could use the money.” he wrote.  Or earlier, “I’m sorry I don’t understand your offer. Can you explain how this work? Buy a piece of my story. etc. I have no clue what you’re saying…..” 

I don’t have a clue either West. Just feeling my way through uncharted waters like you.

West and I had different ideas about our possible collaboration. At some point he told me that he wanted somebody to help tell his story. I took that to mean that I’d interview him, edit his words, and weave a cohesive biography. I was excited to do so.

Sunday, I told West, “I’m not prepared to pay you for your story. Even if I wanted to tell your story it would be in my voice, it would be subject to my interpretation and possibly not true to your recollections or dreams. I am, as I told you after my first Deaf Drummer post, not a slave to factual accuracy. I’ll let the story lead me. I’ll slice and dice that sucker till it pleases an audience of one. I hope I haven’t misled you. I never considered paying for your story. I lose money on my writing and photography. My audience is small. I do it because it’s what I do. When you have a mailing address, I will send you some money to help out.       

So, I’m withdrawing my offer to tell or interpret your story. I may do a post about your fateful week but that will be the end of it. If I write a lengthier story and I get it published I will share the proceeds with you. But don’t expect it. Usually I don’t follow through.”

Rudy Mauldin at his ranch near Cline's Corner, NM.

Luis Ocejo in Llano San Juan, NM.

For 650 straight weeks I have told a story in my blog. The blog is a collection of stories. Some of the best were prompted by a chance meeting like mine with West. These are the stories I like best, the ones where I synthesize what I hear, what I see and what I feel in a few minutes. Sometimes the result is a robust picture of the subject. It’s been my experience that folks tell you what’s most important to them in their first few sentences. It happened with West who told me how he sat down at a drum kit in church when he was a child and knew how to play from the get-go. Or a year ago when cowboy and rancher Rudy Mauldin told me about being bullied in high school on the Pojoaque Pueblo and his years as a BLM detective bringing looters of Native American artifacts to justice. And Luis Ocejo standing in front of the church in Llano San Juan after Sunday services and telling me, “There’s nothing tougher than a Viet Nam combat veteran.” He wore that pride on his sleeve. It oozed from the man. It was clearly the most important thing in his life.

My byline in Shadow and Light magazine is called Telling Stories. It’s apt since that’s what I want to do. Nothing exhilarates me more than meeting a stranger, listening to what they say about themselves and forming an understanding of who they are. West is a riddle that I didn’t solve. His story in his words seems part real and part mystical. The episodes he recounts are fantastical yet believable. I hope he’s able to share his story with a larger audience.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Let's be better humans

I was photographing an abandoned homestead off Highway 180 near Valle, AZ when a woman in a blue pickup truck pulled up beside me. She asked, “What are doing?”

Slightly nervous I responded,” Am I trespassing? Is this private property?”

She said, “Heavens no. This is a public road.”

I told her that this was my kind of subject; forlorn and forgotten.

She told me “If you like this. Go back to the highway, hang a left and turn right at the next dirt road and you’ll a graveyard of old cars.

We fell into an easy conversation and I learned that she and her partner had recently settled near Valle. She told me that they moved from Bar Harbor, Maine. That’s where she was born and raised. I told her we had lived in New England for 30 years and that Maine was one of our favorite places. In fact, I continued, if we didn’t live in New Mexico it could easily be Maine. And I have a buddy in South Thomaston near Rockland.

I asked, “Jessie, can I take your picture?

She said, “Sure,” but seemed surprised when I used her name.  She quickly covered up the name tag on her Standard Oil jersey and gave me a nervous smile. I took half a dozen shots and Jessie left the scene.

She said they had spent one Maine winter in a Class C RV that wasn’t insulated, and they almost froze to death. Then they looked west and found an affordable patch of scrub nearby and settled in Valle. She said the place was a boomtown. That’s not precisely what I’d call it. Valle may be cheap, but Valle is Godforsaken and every residence is a trailer. The desert between Williams and the Grand Canyon is the ugliest in North America. I do not see the appeal.

Before stopping to photograph the dilapidated house I had stopped to photograph the remains of a barnlike structure a few miles back. I’d seen it on my way to Flagstaff on Highway 180 earlier that day. After buying my Wranglers Retro jeans at the Boot Barn in Flag I headed back on 180 to Grand Canyon with a stop to shoot the abandoned barn. 

The interior of the fallow edifice told stories on its graffitied walls and in the detritus of the squatters who once filled the emptiness. The stenciled message on the concrete floor was an unexpected counterpoint to the desperation that haunts it.