On Vanished Worlds and Historical Preservation

Hey regular (and new) readers, good to be back. As I said last week, had a minor health setback, but am ready to work once again. Word to the wise, though: avoid swimmers ear if at all possible. Shit is deadly serious. Now I’ve had a kidney stone so I can’t say it’s the worst pain I’ve ever encountered (although that was over in like an hour), but the words “agony”, “torment”, and “suffering” all easily float to the top of the mind.  I’m talking throbbing from neck to temple, the kind of stuff that makes you curl up in the fetal position and pray for death. Conversation was, quite simply, beyond me for a day or two. Real one-star experience, if you know what I mean. F–, would not recommend.

But hey, I’m doing much better today and can actually hear out of that ear, which was a pretty touch-and-go proposition for a few days. Now to ramp my activity back up to pre-pain days.

Anyway, moving on to this week’s (or should I say last week’s) topic, a few words on why I’m so fascinated with the past and historical preservation. One of the prevalent themes in my photography – almost a quest, if you will – is seeking out remnants of the vanished past, bits of detritus and ruins that remain from a long-gone world. This is not necessarily a matter of nostalgia, though that can provide a fun boost to such searches. It’s more about exploration and context and, consequently, what those can mean for your emotional landscape.

Take the photo below as an example. This is a shot of downtown Harrisonburg, Virginia during a holiday season in the late 50s or early 60s. This was an era where “downtown” really meant something, before malls came along and wrecked that paradigm.

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I came along too late for this era, by far; this was the world of my mother’s childhood, one that she’s described in glowing terms but which I couldn’t quite grasp until I saw this photograph. The reality pictured here haunts me as I consider what such a world looked like, felt like, smelled like. By the time I arrived on the scene the department store in the center of the frame had alreayd entered its decline phase, soon to close forever and live only in memory and photographs like this one. I never knew a world with that JOE shop, or the clothing store next to it. My memories of downtown are seedier, more ramshackle, a place that you visited only when you absolutely needed to grab one of the famous Jesses’ Hot Dogs.

Now even that world has vanished, replaced by a movement to attempt to revitalize the downtown area (but which is still falling short due to a combination of short-sightedness and the times having moved on from such mid-00s trifles). Here is a photo of the place from Christmas Day 2014. The big gray building on the right, a public school administrative building, is what remains of the department store above. I can’t say for certain whether the buildings to the left are the remains of those old stores. They don’t appear to be, but much can change in 50 years, including facades.

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This is where context is so important. The place looks sparse and utilitarian, even on Christmas Day, with little more than the modest wreaths to even indicate the season. The photo by itself might not spark much feeling if you didn’t look at that one above, didn’t know that this place once thrummed with its own vibrant sense of life. With that in mind, you can imagine those angels covering the two windows of the school building, of that display in the window above the entrance way. There’s an ache to the place, a bittersweet emotion that’s hard to define.

Historical preservation becomes near and dear to my heart where this emotion crosses with historical relevancy.  It’s about holding on to the floating ties of a vanished world, about offering context to the world around you. I’m continually shocked and amazed to discover strange realities floating just out of our mind’s eye, waiting to spring to life; the home that was once a convenience store, the general store converted to a restaurant. The lives that once intersected at that location matter, and it matters that we are aware of that convergence.

Now you certainly can’t save everything. I’m also a believer in change and progress, and sometimes it’s truly not worth the time or effort to save any hint of, say, a hot dog stand down the street. But we can save photographs from that time and us amateur archaeologists or whatever you want to call us can seek out the remains that may still stand.

This is why I photograph the places that I do. It’s why I think it’s important to photograph the detritus of places like the General Lee Motor Court, so that we can not only revisit places that we might have once known and get that hit of nostalgia, but also to contextualize our ever-evolving world. The ghosts of the past are all around us. We need to not only notice them, but reach out and grab hold of them, even if it’s simply capturing an image. Without that context, we can easily lose sight of just how our own world can vanish at any moment.

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On another note, expect a status update on my woefully-behind-schedule novel on Friday, and next week I’ll be back to talk about our upcoming trip to Culpeper, Virginia and what it means to me to be on the open road. See you again soon.

Wisdom of the Ages: How Time Changes

Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day to those of us in the States. I realize a lot of (white) people view this as just another holiday from work, but I’ve always seen it as something more. I can’t recall if I’ve mentioned it here, but I received exposure to racism at a very early age; I had the audacity to befriend an African American boy who moved into the neighborhood that year, and we both ended up paying a price for it. I didn’t even really see him as different – our family had moved to a new neighborhood from one that had a decent amount of minorities. My best friend to that point had been a Mexican boy. You can imagine my shock and surprise at the whole thing, not to mention my anger at the unfairness of it all.

 

I thought the kid – his name is long lost to the mists of time as the family moved not long after – would be a great fit in the neighborhood, as he liked a lot of the same things that the rest of us liked. Now granted, this would have been 1981; the Civil Rights Act was only 17 years old and we were in the rural south, but STILL. These were other kids, not adults. I just did not and could not understand the mentality. Seeing that ugliness in action formed the genesis of my lifelong dedication to equality in this country, and it’s something that I remember every MLK Jr. Day. I would take this day off in honor of the man and the principles for which he stood, regardless of whether my job gave it to me or not.

 

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Now that trip down memory lane is just the starting point for something that struck me in the shower this morning. I often think about how much time has passed between a certain event and the present day; just this morning I was ruminating on the fact that over 30 years have passed since those incidents, and realized that 30 years prior to that it was 1951 and America was a very different place. I’ve felt some distress at the fact that 1981 doesn’t seem that long ago when 1951 felt impossibly ancient in 1981. I know part of that is just being a kid and having less of a frame of reference for the passage of time, but it’s only part of it – or rather, that’s all of it, but it’s not inclusive of why that is the way it is and what it means.

 

I know that we perceive time as faster once we get older, because a year is so much less of a percentage of our lives to that point. A year to a four-year-old is a quarter of his or her life, where nine years is a quarter of my life, making a year to them equivalent to nine years for me. That seems about right on the scale of things, but it also points out an extreme difference in the perception of time and our realization of it. My dismay came from a desire to cling to that old reference level – clearly I was losing touch with reality and becoming “one of them” by seeing time in this way, but I think the reality is more that the older a person gets, they develop an even better feel for time. Yes, Einstein taught us that time is relative, and perception is everything, but on some level there is an “absolute” time as there is an “absolute” space, and I believe that we get a little closer to that “absolute” time as we age, understanding just how brief our time on Earth really is.

 

That’s the rub of my own realization this morning, not that I’m somehow becoming an old fart, or whatever the young mind thinks of older people, rather that I’m becoming more attuned to the true scale of time in our universe. It seems like a fine point, but it kind of blew my mind. I couldn’t say whether that ties into the wisdom that folks are supposed to gain as they age, but it certainly seems to be the case.

 

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Something to think about if you’re my age (or even older), in 1983:

 

  • Reagan introduced Star Wars (not the movie).
  • Motown turned 25 and Michael Jackson introduced us to the Moonwalk.
  • The Beirut Embassy bombing killed 63 people.
  • Sally Ride became the first woman in space.
  • Return of the Jedi released.
  • Vanessa Williams became the first African-American Miss America.
  • Kiss lost the makeup.
  • MLK Jr Day is officially mandated; the first celebration will be the following year.

 

So, yes, some interesting things to look back upon. In some ways this feels like yesterday; in others it feels like forever. Anyone else have memories of 83 that they’d like to share?

 

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Ambition In An Age of War

Image Courtesy CandyN @ Flickr

Now here’s something funny – life can take such unexpected paths. This post had its genesis in an idea more than a month ago, when I grappled with understanding my place in the literary world. I had intended it as an examination of the “outsider artist” accepting lackluster sales. I wanted to understand why I’ll never be a best-selling author and come to some level of acceptance, even if I didn’t care for the idea. Then something funny happened; no, I didn’t suddenly become a blockbuster author, so dispel any notions of that.

My perspective changed, not my situation, and I think that’s a far more meaningful piece of progress. Allow me to explain myself, and I apologize in advance if this post gets a little heavy and depressing. I am going somewhere positive with all of this.

The original notes for this post present something of a moody affair, and while this is still kind of a moody post, the tone is very different. I’ll stop short of saying the original concept was pretentious, but I did plan to discuss things like artist prerogative and posterity. That’s not to say that those things aren’t still valid; if you don’t think an artist has the prerogative to decide what he or she will write, then prepare to FIGHT ME. The events of the past weekend changed my perspective a bit, however.

Image courtesy Sacks08 @ Flickr

Saturday morning I felt somewhat despondent. As loathe as I am to toot my own horn, I’m well aware that I’ve been turning out some pretty good work on a consistent basis for well over a year, and while blog readership has grown, my sales have not really followed suit, and I became well aware of the issue that morning. In short, I fell into what my buddy Aniko Carmean calls “the ambition room”, which affected my mood for most of the day.

Things began to change when I stumbled upon an article about the ongoing Syrian conflict (if you need to know more, start on Google News, and prepare to be horrified). I followed the insanity of that particular war down its long, twisted rabbit hole, finding myself in a very dark, depressing place. That place had a common nature with the themes that have been expressing themselves in my writing of late: the true nature of our time on Earth, the nastiness and cruelty on display in everyday life, and looming death. Continue reading

Building a Mystery: Crafting an Ancient World, Part 1

It’s hard to say where, exactly, my fascination with the ancient world began. My earliest memories of this fascination lie in my repeated readings of Greek mythology during my childhood, which would put it somewhere around age 7 or 8, but something tells me that it predates even that. I wish I could recall. But somewhere in there, I became enthralled with both the ancient world as it truly existed and an ancient world created entirely in my head. Today I know that so much of what fascinates me is the world that exists in the gaps of our data – for example, what did humanity lose when the Library of Alexandria underwent its decline? What did the life of Archimedes really look like? Did humanity really undergo a singular flood that contributes to the many myths of the ancient world (I believe so, based on some geological evidence)?

Those are the kinds of questions that really fire up my imagination, and lay the groundwork for what I feel are interesting stories. It’s almost a butterfly effect: if, for example, the flood really referred to an ancient war between two angelic races that ended in the destruction of much of the antediluvian world – then what? Where do we go from there? The answer began to build itself up as I brainstormed The Corridors of the Dead and the rest of the Among the Dead trilogy.  Continue reading

Your Own Private Field of Dreams: Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella

Baseball is an important sport to me. I’m not sure if I’m like other people and see poetry when I watch it, though. There are plenty of bad players, bad plays, and just crap in general that make it really hard for me to see the poetry of the whole thing. But I also see it as a lot more than robots playing out a series of numbers (that argument, and saber metrics, are a whole other topic that doesn’t belong on this page). But I can respect how much baseball evokes that passionate nostalgia in people. I know there are plenty of fans of other sports who have these same feelings about their respective sports – I mean, just ask a hockey fan to wax rhapsodic, they can go on and on – but something feels just a little bit different about baseball, and the mythology of it.

The writer side of me appreciates just about any topic that can evoke that kind of emotional response. That’s what I like about baseball as a writer. What I like about baseball as just your normal person is the way that it’s a single-player game disguised as a team sport. I think that’s part of what invites that poetic nonsense, as people have to jump through some mental hoops to see it as a team sport. It definitely encourages a sense of whimsy and delusion.

Without a doubt, I also have strong nostalgia about baseball. I could go on for hours (and I have, if you’ve seen my Nationals baseball card blog) about my own formative era in baseball, namely the late 80s and early 90s. I played for awhile, and enjoyed the hell out of it. There are days I still wish that I could play. So I understand where the impulse arises from, and find it interesting that there is so much baseball fiction. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of football (1378 titles on Amazon, not counting children’s books) and basketball fiction (roughly 730 titles on Amazon, again excluding children’s books)…including, uh, the greatest book cover of all time:

Seriously, just gaze upon that.


Respectable, no doubt. But baseball? 2399. And the gap between the others and baseball in children’s fiction is even greater. That’s just a very cursory glance, too. I’m sure there’s more (on all sides).

All of this brings us around to the fact that I was very intrigued when my fiance told me that the movie Field of Dreams was based on a book, Shoeless Joe. And that the book was on sale in the Kindle store. So I went ahead and picked it up and, thus, we’re going to talk about Shoeless Joe.

For those few who haven’t seen the movie or read the book, the concept is basically that a ghostly voice tells a guy to build a baseball field in the middle of his farm. He builds a cursory field and tends to left field first. Shoeless Joe shows up in left field and tells the main character, Ray Kinsella, to finish the field. As he does so, the remains of the Chicago Black Sox team appear, one at each position. Once this is done, Kinsella is sent to find JD Salinger (in the book)/James Earl Jones (in the movie) and take him to find a player named Moonlight Graham, a real baseball player who played one inning in major league baseball in 1905, without ever coming to bat.

Wackiness ensues, and…well, spoiler alert here, Kinsella ends up meeting his father, who is back as a young man playing for this version of the White Sox.

There’s also a subplot that becomes the main plot wherein Kinsella’s brother-in-law and business partner are pressing Kinsella with his unpaid mortgage. The mortgage has gone unpaid because he’s not much of a farmer, and these two are looking to create a giant corporate farming company. You never really get a sense that the farm is in danger, though. At least, not until the “climax”, which brings me to my main issue with the book: the plot meanders. Badly.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the book. It took me a little while to get hooked, but once I did, I burned through it. But the plot just kind of wanders its way along. I was willing to accept the conceit of the voice telling him to do certain things – that’s not such a problem, even though it’s never explained. If you need a disembodied voice to send someone from the middle of the country to the East Coast on a crazy mission, that’s fine, especially within the context. But…well, plot threads pick up, and the resolutions are very “meh”. You never see the resolution of his relationship with his brother. You never learn what happens with the “rapture” of JD Salinger. The resolution to the problem of paying the mortgage, while addressed, is nowhere near as clear-cut as in the movie. Salinger predicts the solution, as James Earl Jones does in the movie, but we don’t actually see it happen.

The climax itself is pretty flat, too. I wasn’t sure how much to give away, but it’s nearly 30 years old, so I’m going to go with it. In the climax, the brother-in-law and his partner come to claim the farm, interrupting one of the ghostly encounters. During the showdown, Kinsella goes to get a gun from his car (one that was placed there earlier in the novel, kudos for following that up). He fires it into the air, which causes his daughter to trip and fall on the bleachers and start choking to death. The afore-mentioned Moonlight Graham, who had become a doctor later in life, transforms into his older self and saves the girl’s life.

Emotionally, it’s kind of all over the place, even just describing. First you have the tension of “will they claim the farm”? Then there’s the gun – will he hurt one of the business partners? Will he end up being arrested for this? What happens to the farm then? etc. Then the daughter falls. Will she die? But what about all those other unanswered questions?

Well, that’s the thing – her falling and choking takes all the wind out of the sails of the encounter with the business partners. Suddenly the mortgage doesn’t matter. The gun doesn’t matter. Everyone forgives one another as they’re racing to save this girl. Once the doctor appears and saves her, everyone is reminded of their mortality, and everything that happened before is erased. The mortgage problem is also conveniently solved at this point.

There is no consequence, and that contributes to this feeling of meandering. You never feel like you get a satisfying resolution to all of these high-stakes situations. It just kind of putters along, then stops.

The book is gorgeously written, though. Here’s a sample of passages that I saved for later:

“Suddenly I thrust my hands wrist-deep into the snuffy-black earth. The air was pure. All around me the clean smell of earth and water. Keeping my hands buried I stirred the earth with my fingers and knew I loved Iowa as much as a man could love a piece of earth.”

“It was near noon on a gentle Sunday when I walked out to that garden. The soil was soft and my shoes disappeared as I plodded until I was near the center. There I knelt, the soil cool on my knees.”

“The feathered droplet on the ground looked so small; it shivered like an old woman’s hand as I picked it up.”

“Grit crunches underfoot on the unswept sidewalks. Unshaven men with sunken eyes dog my steps. I look at handguns, all heavier than I anticipate, cold as fish, smelling blue and oily.”

Overall, I ended up giving the book four stars on Goodreads. It possibly could have gotten five if the climax had been better. As it is, it probably would have been a three-star book if not for the excellent writing.

The author, W.P. Kinsella, has a very interesting story himself. We’ll look at that tomorrow, along with what was going on in the publishing industry from the early 80s to the mid-90s.