Archive for June, 2013

i wish i invented…

As a writer, a creator, an artistic fellow, I admire those creative and inventive things others do as I imagine most people do. A smile, a shake of the head, a chortle, a sigh. Could be in a book or a museum, a movie or some roadside attraction, anything that I stumble onto that makes me see something – no, someone – out there in the world trying to connect and idea with others.

Maybe it’s a sign of weakness, this idea of wishing I had created this or that, rather than using the energy for my own purposes, but the things that get me are the ones that have no creator readily attached to them. Sometimes those things are the ones I really wish I could figure out how to invent.

Like playing cards. Four suits, two colors, face cards representing royalty. I sometimes like to reimagine new suits, a new “standard” that would last hundreds of years, available in every stinking drugstore across the country, with no creator name attached to them. We see them all the time, buy them, use them for games, build houses out of them, use the in magic tricks. They are familiar and accepted and universal. Four strangers with no shared language can break out a deck of cards and have a pretty good time of it. That’s an amazing thing to me.

Then there’s chess. Another royal game with plenty of antecedents. A game with so many possibilities, so simple and yet so intricate, clean and geometric. I really don’t have the fine analytical mind for the game itself, so wishing I’d invented it sort of feels a little false. But what a thing, to come up with a board that can be found all over the world, to create a set of pieces that represent specific moves, a game that stands as a measure for intellect. That would have been cool to have invented.

Or the limerick. Not just any form or poetry, but one with so strong a pull it is instantly recognized both by its meter and its humor. You don’t see much serious limerickry going on, and for good reason” it’s unnatural! A serious limerick is like a knock-knock joke that ends with tears. No, how wonderful it would have been to have devised not only the phrasing but the content for the first limerick so that moving forward only humor would suit the form.

There’s this notion that the creative person is moved by this sense of creating something immortal, something that will outlast them, that will claim their moment in time like a flag planted on the moon. It’s true, there are some people out for the fame and recognition in their lifetimes, but I don’t think that’s the driving force of a true creative. These things I wish I’d invented don’t have names attached to their everyday use, and I wouldn’t want mine attached to them as well. I’d simply like to have had the satisfaction of creating them.

It’s the old “would you rather” question, I guess: notoriety or anonymity, fame or fortune.

How about you? What do you wish you’d invented, or created?

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Sometimes, as a writer, I feel so lost.

That feeling is a type of insecurity borne from trying to speak in one’s true voice while trying to capture the voices of one’s inspirations.

Learning to read, that was a rush like the opening of a door to another land, but once I started to create my own sentences, my own stories, that was the universe opened up. But it was between the ages of eleven and sixteen that I found the books that would, for better or worse, define what appealed to me as a reader and a writer.

Five years of books read with no discernible pattern or goal that shaped, molded, teased and taunted, stretched, delighted, confused, numbed, and ultimately built the foundation of the person in me that I call the Writer.

But what was it about those books? What did I respond so strongly to that I was inspired to imitate their styles or themes?

More importantly, how long has it been since I read them? In some cases, its in the vicinity of forty years ago.

Perhaps its time for a refresher, a reboot of the drive, a chance look back at point A from point B and see what really happened on that journey.

And so, an answer to a question I’d posed for myself over what to read this summer. While I have plenty of new things to read I want to root out some of those old books, the familiar and the obscure, and see what I learn about myself.

I know this is going to have to include the Jerome Beatty kid-from-the-moon Matthew Looney series, and a thorough re-read of Lear’s Complete Book of Nonsense. Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Welcome to the Monkey House along with Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles will be in order. For a variety of reasons best saved for another day, I was traumatized by Saroyan’s My Name is Aram back in seventh grade and feel I need to give it a fair chance. And if — and this is a big if — if I can find the EXACT oversized collection of Little Nemo in Slumberland and the right Whole Earth Catalog then i think I’ll have all the proper ur-texts at hand for deciphering who I am now.

No less important are a handful of books that brought me back to life after some very dark times when I forgot who I was and what I wanted. Pinkwater’s Young Adult Novel is certainly due for a reread probably sooner than the others, and I need to touch down with Block’s Weetzie Bat again. And some books I once was impressed by and have now totally forgotten might be due for resurrection: Maguane’s Panama, Auster’s City of Glass trilogy, and perhaps if I’m really finally serious, I’ve been meaning to finish Zola’s Therese Raquin since 1983.

Equally important, but less so for rereading would be the Amphigorey books and the Kliban cat cartoon collections.

I’ll check back in one month from now (or so, vacation and all might make it more like five weeks) and then a month after than, and we’ll see what’s what. I suspect even just a handful of these books will be more than enough to show me the after-image of the lightning that supercharged my writerly stirring all those years ago.

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Growing up we had one camera in our family, a Kodak Brownie Starmite, a blue and white piece of molded plastic with a silver disk for the flash bulb. Whenever there was a social occasion the camera would be dug out of the closet, a few pictures would be taken, and the camera put away. It could be MONTHS before the roll of 24 snapshots would be ready to be removed and developed, and a returned envelope of prints was like a mini time capsule of events full of surprise images – some flawed, some sad, some goofy, some tragic – but all of them undeniably historical for the memories they rekindled and the stories they told.

Eventually newer cameras and easier-to-load film formats emerged and suddenly we had multiple cameras in the house. I don’t remember whether we got the Polaroid Instamatic or the Kodak 110 Pocket Instamatic, or where the X-15 Instamatic fell in among these, but with cartridge loading and instant imagery came the idea that photos could be both easier to take and provide more instant gratification. The film cameras still needed to be taken in for developing but the cartridges were easy and guaranteed fewer lost and fogged rolls. But the Polaroid, that was a game changer.

Now when you took a picture you could peel off the backing paper to expose the chemical to the air for development (before you simply shook it until the image emerged) and if for some reason it didn’t look right, someone blinked or the lighting was bad, you could “correct” the memory on the spot. Instead of reliving a moment from the past we now gathered around and shared a moment from a few moments earlier. It was a sweet novelty but the cost of instant film was prohibitive enough that it, too, would only be trotted out to perform on special occasions. For really important moments both a film camera and the Polaroid would be pressed into service, just to make sure the event was well-preserved.

Jump ahead. Jump beyond the camcorder revolution, beyond the point-and-shoots, beyond early digital cameras of 2 megapixel, 4 megapixel, 10 megapixel, into the lap of the smartphone with its built-in digital camera. it’s an old story now, even now, that we have these cameras with us all the time and we can take a picture or video at a moment’s notice. We no longer wait for the special occasion, we capture every moment no matter how small. We review it instantly and decide whether to keep it store in memory or dump it to the digital netherworld. We no longer capture representations of moments for the future we capture the now, send it out to the world in the now, and move one to the next.

We no longer look at photos as moments in a memory, we remember the moments we recorded. The document has replaced the memory.

But a funny thing happened. For her fifteenth birthday J wanted to go out for a “tradition” of taking her elementary school friends out to ice cream. I brought a camera, my little Canon Powershot digital, and dashed off some candids while the kids ate and goofed around outside afterward. Then at home I hooked up the camera to the computer and realized that since I got my new laptop at the beginning of the year I hadn’t bothered setting up any of my photo uploading, editing, or sharing apps. And because the old computer was wonky and out-of-sorts I hadn’t dared load any pictures for some time. Almost ten months in fact, and it was as if I had just developed a roll of film from the old Brownie camera.

There was a combined birthday back in September that included a pig roast, a bouncy house for kids (and some grandparents), first-day-of-school pictures of the girls, a Thanksgiving trip to Chicago, Christmas with the in-laws and extended family, and finally this birthday trip. Other events during that time had been captured via the phone, given various processing and treatments and posted via social media or sent instantly via wi-fi networks to recipients. The photos in the camera, taken as a whole, were like an envelope of mystery snaps fresh from the drugstore. Having not seen some of them since they were taken, I was suddenly awash in memories and stories. Out of sight, out of mind, perhaps, but also absence makes the memory grow stronger.

While uploading these “lost” photos I came across a handful that I decided I wanted to have printed. Such a quaint old notion, to actually make prints of photos that I can always access via a phone or a computer, but with an entirely different message. To record a moment is to say “this happened” but to move beyond that, beyond adding the photo to social media or texting them to friends and family, to print a photo says “this is important, this moment in time, and it deserves more than a digital flit.”

I wonder sometimes, will this younger generation be satisfied to live in a world without these physically printed totems?  Has the 20th century’s reign of photographic memory-keeping come to an end in favor of the instant-constant documentation of daily life?

And does it make me a nostalgic old man for even caring?

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