Photographic memory

A thread-waisted wasp (Eremnophila aureonotata) on a bloom (2009_09_06_028910)

At one time I fancied myself a pro photographer in the making.  I was, after all, published many times over, licensed to governments and universities and industries far and wide.  And somewhere inside me I felt this meant something, meant I needed to refine my skill, meant I needed to forge from my hobby the discipline and professional finesse that would mark me as a photographer, a real photographer, a paid photographer.

Yet 95% of my photography is unplanned and 99.9% of it is shot from the hip, handheld with only my own body to carry the load and steady the aim.  Which only recently began to tell me something, something about my photography and where it was going as much as about memory, and memories, and remembering.

For we don’t choose our memories, we don’t plan them, we don’t manipulate them such that they are good or great when recorded.  No, very much like my photography, my memories are shot from the hip, only my mind serving to brace the mental camera and steady its sensory aim.

And though I can pick out more than an unfair share of memories that I would consider bad, I would not trade them for the world, for what has come before is what has brought me to this place.  Not so much defining me, for post hoc ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy indeed, but my memories draw the boundaries of my experience, lessons to be learned from, whether good or bad, and moments forever defined in my mental photo gallery.

Ultimately, and not before trying to be a different kind of photographer, I found myself relinquishing control and allowing myself to enjoy the way I like to take photos: from the hip, ad hoc, as life happens.  Like accumulating memories from decades gone by, something about that kind of photography fulfills within me the need to paint a picture that is real—dare I say natural?—and unvarnished by what I hoped for.

Because the world is rarely what we hoped for.  It’s up to us to accept that and make do with what comes our way, good or bad, and relish the memories—the photographs—not because they make us laugh or make us weep or fill our otherwise monotonous days with variety, but instead because they are real, they are ours, and the story they tell is a tale no other may know.  For they are, you see, my photographs, my memories, and they capture not just what was seen by me, but also what I experienced, where I was, when I was, and what I was doing.

So a professional photographer I will never be.  And I’m rather pleased with that.

A widow skimmer (a.k.a. widow; Libellula luctuosa) on a blade of grass (2009_07_07_026195)

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  1. Thread-waisted wasp (Eremnophila aureonotata)
  2. Widow skimmer (a.k.a. widow; Libellula luctuosa)

I have to kill him

Most people think that shadows follow, precede or surround beings or objects.  The truth is that they also surround words, ideas, desires, deeds, impulses and memories.
— Elie Wiesel

A close-up of Kazon, one of my cats, as he looks up at me (2008_12_27_003706)

I wondered when it would come to this.  I didn’t think it would be him.  And even as the mist of denial thinned, eventually cleared, I told myself to hold on, to wait, to “give it time” in that usual male way: ignore something and it might clear up.  That’s why we don’t rush to the doctor even when we’ve lost a limb and are gushing blood.  It might clear up on its own.  Just wait a little bit.  That’s why we don’t ask for directions.  We say we know the way even when we secretly know that we don’t and that we hope we’ll stumble, blind luck in hand, upon the right path.  Just wait.  Give it time and I’ll find the road.  Or so I generalize.  Not all men are like that, you know, and not that those who are realize how stultifying it is, but as they say, if the stereotype fits…

It began with the slightest loss of weight.  Not much, perhaps only a pound, give or take, yet I notice these things.  It immediately connected with something else I’d noticed: a growing self-imposed isolation.  This, too, came with its sidekick: a burgeoning lethargy.  Amazing what we notice but set aside when we don’t want to face the facts.  Or when we’re tucking tidbits away in the file of What Must Be Faced until the folder holds enough contents to warrant action.

When Henry began suffering from acute renal failure, his weight sloughing off quickly, his personality vanishing beneath the constant hiding from the world, Derek asked me if I had noticed, if I realized what his condition was and where it was going.  Of course I had, I told him, and I had.  Only I had also secretly hoped—not prayed as I’m not a religious man, but as near to that as I could come—really, really hoped that it was temporary.  Yet the downfall accelerated and I could see what was coming.  I knew what I had to do.  Yet Henry’s life of twenty-one-plus-change years had been rich and full and rare, and certainly longer than anyone had expected, though Mom and I had imagined it all that time.  He’ll outlive all of us.  That was our mantra when it came to Henry, and he sure as heck gave it his best shot.

In the same light, and certainly with the same symptoms that vociferously yelled “acute renal failure” at me with every breath, Kazon began his headlong plunge only a few weeks ago.  Again, it started with a bit of weight loss, not much, but noticeable to me, the man who knows their every mood, their every idiosyncrasy, their every vocalization.  Me, who knows when something is amiss almost as quickly as the cat knows.  Yes, I saw it coming then and felt betrayed.  Henry was one thing.  More than two decades he had, and he lived them, absolutely and unabashedly lived them for all he was worth.  But Kazon?  He’ll be thirteen in September this year.  Too young.  Too soon.

Nevertheless, and without doubt the first sign of knowing—truly knowing that you have to let go, I denied it, pushed it away, told myself it was the onset of summer, though no such summer before had resulted in these changes.  But even in my momentary denial, I knew.  I knew.  For as I said, I’ve been down this road before.  The signs are familiar.  I can read them before they’re visible around the next bend.  I know this road, and I hate this road.

It can be said that I will feel the impending gloom and loss just as weighty with any of The Kids when their time finally comes.  Such a statement would strike me as obvious, as if one had said summer is hot, or playing in the rain is worth catching cold, or you either prefer jelly or jam once you stop to notice the difference.  Obvious.  Truisms all.  Some of life’s little axioms.  And equally true though it might be that the emotional impact of seeing one of The Kids stepping through their final days would hit me hard, would steal from me something that could never be regained, each is a different loss, hence Kazon brings to bear its own singular lassitude of heart and mind, its own lachrymose goal that is both unavoidable and dismaying.

Doctors tell only what is already known.  Acute.  Not responsive.  Not long.  And though I am thankful for the inherent finality that says no more suffering, I am left with the pugilistic instinct to avoid what comes next, to deny it, as though denying such a thing can be done, can be successful, can result in anything more than unnecessary suffering.  Which I can’t allow.

As I sat thinking in that way I did so long ago when I set my mind to the task of ending Henry’s life, I sat today quarreling with the aspects of me who each had an opinion about when, how, what comes first, and so on.  Surprisingly, the voice that won out was the logical one, the one who stopped us at the words “put to sleep” and said with the steely voice of logic, “You mean ‘kill.'”  My breath caught in my chest, held still by a weight I could not bear.  My eyes darted to and fro in a vain effort to avoid the mirror of my mind.  He was right, I knew, in that cold, calculating, unfeeling way he was known for.  But that was the logical part of me, the one who could cut through the crap and see right to the point, apolitical, stoic, unmoving and unflinching.  He was right.

What tattered and threadbare blankets we throw over that word—kill—all to make ourselves feel better for what we’re about to do.  Translucent, they are, none of them of sufficient substance to hide the crimson writ beneath their thin veils.  The word remains, the result the same, and only our vulpine ability to deceive ourselves makes it seem otherwise.

We butcher a cow or a pig on the farm, and saying ‘butcher’ helps us put the act in context, the context of putting food on the table, of providing sustenance so that life can go on even while it’s ending.  For that’s the essence of life, isn’t it?  Something has to die in order for something else to live?

We say “put to death” when capital punishment is carried out.  We feel the offense warrants death, but we don’t want to admit we’re killing someone, and we know it sends the wrong signal when we tell our kids that killing is wrong whilst all the while we do it in the dank and dark recesses of our prisons.  But since they deserve it, their crime being so terrible and all, we say “put to death” so we can avoid the paradox: If killing is wrong, and if revenge killing is even worse…

We charge someone with manslaughter when they cause the death of someone else in a way that doesn’t quite warrant the murder moniker.  This lessens the blow to the jury, lets them ponder the situation with a softer edge than would otherwise be possible, and we throw the full weight of the law behind the new name for killing so it takes on an air of officialism, of rightness.

We “pull the plug” when we remove a loved one from artificial life support and allow them to die naturally.  Perhaps their living will stated this clearly, perhaps their spouse or responsible party said this is what they wanted, that they never wanted to be a living vegetable.  No matter the reason, we know the end result but can’t tell ourselves that we are killing somebody, so we quietly pull the plug and weep alligator tears to wash away our guilt.

We “put down” or “put to sleep” an ailing animal when we know the future holds only suffering, only prolonged death stretched like bubblegum from Death’s naked teeth.  They were a good horse, a faithful companion of a dog, the most loving cat, a bird so affectionate you wouldn’t believe…  In our feeling turmoil, the idea of killing them offends us so deeply that we can’t fathom giving time to the thought, so we put them down or put them to sleep instead.

And here is where Logical Me chimed in originally.  The emotional me, the caring me, held Kazon in my lap where he has spent so much of these past almost-thirteen years, and I spoke through my own tears the words “put to sleep” only to be corrected in my mind: “You mean ‘kill.'”  And after brief anger passed, I realized that was precisely what I meant: I have to kill him.

There are things I want to say about Kazon before the tide of this terror abates, before it washes back out into the ocean of existence and waits for the next pull, the next ending, the next killing.  There are stories I want to tell, photos I want to share.  I hope you’ll indulge me in this.  Or at least ignore me as I get through it as best I can.

I’ve never liked killing.  I especially never liked killing a loved one.  But I like the alternatives even less.  Perhaps what follows is catharsis of some kind, an attempt to reach that ludicrous and never-gained state of closure, something only doors and eyelids and windows really ever achieve.  Or maybe it’s my way of coping with loss, the coming loss, then the loss behind me on the trail, the scar of which only time can smooth down to just a trace of its once crimson self.

Change only happens when the pain of holding on becomes greater than the fear of letting go.

Your social networking skills suck!

You’re on Facebook.  You’re on Twitter.  Maybe you’re on Tumblr or Posterous or Orkutz or any number of other places.  Perhaps you have a blog.  You even had a MySpace account before the tumbleweeds accumulated so high that you could no longer see the login box.  You feel social, connected, important.

Now let me tell you why your social networking skills suck.

If you’re worried about who stopped following you on Twitter just so you can stop following them, you’re following people for the wrong reasons.

If you think every ‘like’ and comment on Facebook—or anywhere else for that matter—deserves a response, you’re ‘liking’ and commenting for all the wrong reasons.

If you think you should be thanked every single time you retweet something on Twitter, you’re retweeting for all the wrong reasons.

If you measure a connection’s worth by how many times a person has ‘lilked’ or commented or otherwise acknowledged something you did, you’re making those connections for all the wrong reasons.

If you stop following someone’s blog or stop commenting there—when you once did so regularly—simply because that person stopped following you or stopped commenting at your blog, then you’re following blogs and commenting on them for all the wrong reasons.  Hell, for that matter you’re blogging for all the wrong reasons.

If you post a photo and feel let down when the praise and adulation doesn’t measure up to your expectations, you’re sharing your photography for all the wrong reasons.

If you wonder or try to investigate who’s gone every time your ‘friend’ count drops on Facebook, you’re sending or accepting friend requests for all the wrong reasons.

If you’re worried about who’s been viewing your profile, you have a profile for all the wrong reasons.

Now let me tell you why I know these things and why you should listen to me.

I’ve been around the internet far longer than most of you have.  I remember when Mosaic was the only browser in town.  Most of you have never heard of Mosaic and even fewer have ever seen or used it.

I remember when having an internet e-mail address was a privilege, when mostly no one even knew what an internet e-mail address was, much less what it might be worth.

I remember ARPANET before “internet” was even a word.

I remember when HTTP wasn’t a protocol and TCP/IP was highly unusual except in very specific circumstances.

I remember when the thought of stealing a photograph from a book and claiming it was your own or using it as if it was your own would have horrified and disgusted all reasonable and moral people.

I remember when Facebook was private.

I remember when you had to own your words and take responsibility for them.

I remember a year ago when I was quite active online, but then my circumstances changed dramatically, hence I was given a chance to stand back from the fray and watch it through my forced unpredictable and often extended absences.  I came to see it as unimportant, a neat plaything, an ongoing conversation one could walk away from and reenter at will without feeling obligated in any way.

And that’s the point: The only obligation in the online world is to be yourself, not to measure worth by ‘likes’ and comments, not to quid pro quo every follow and every ‘unfollow’ and to seek acknowledgement for every little thing you do.

That’s right: your social networking skills suck, so either shape up or ship out.  Nobody owes you anything.  You’re not entitled.  Get over yourself.

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This rant brought to you by the letter ‘a’—as in asshole—because I saw a comment on Facebook recently where someone said it pissed them off when they ‘liked’ a photo and subsequently received no gratitude from the person who posted the photo.  Shame on you!

Even a rodent

A nutria (a.k.a. coypu; Myocaster coypus) standing on the shore of White Rock Lake (2009_04_10_014804)

I’ve often called sunrise and sunset “sweetlight time” when it comes to photography.  The low, angular light filtered through the atmosphere draws out rich colors and textures, and a sense of longing seems to rise up from elongated shadows that stretch away in silent accompaniment, the tall friend who never leaves your side.

In this light, even a rodent as lowly as the introduced nutria (a.k.a. coypu; Myocaster coypus) presents an air of finely tailored raiment fit for a night on the town.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends…

A male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched on a photinia leaf (20080621_07153)

It’s that time of year again, poppets.  The first ten days of June.  The time frame during which eastern cicada-killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus) make their first appearance.  The brief snippet from the year when my insect obsession bares its teeth.

And right on schedule, the first female showed up in the last few days, buzzing me several times as I stood on the patio.  Always a female first, a leviathan who generates such a baritone hum as she flies that one would think a low-flying airplane was nearby.

Last year my nearest neighbors had only just moved in, and they faced this phenomenon with not too small a bit of obvious trepidation.  I seem to remember some shrieking and running at first…

But experience and my own explanations have prepared them for it this year.  They understand that, despite the menacing size and appearance of these wasps, the insects pose no threat.  Their busying to and fro belies a gentle nature that borders on unbelievable, making these giants a dichotomy unto themselves.

All the local colonies have suffered an ongoing collapse these past four years.  Where once a cloud of them surrounded my home, last year only a handful could be seen at any one time.  But last year offered a rebounded cicada population lacking before.  Did that help?  Will the wasp colonies have recovered some of their previous gigantism?  Only time will tell.

Though male cicadas began singing many weeks ago, their numbers this year remain low, at least thus far.  This does not bode well for the emerging cicada killers.  I watch with bated breath as more wasps emerge, the colonies reaching their maximum population in the next two weeks, after which a slow falling until, six weeks from now, they will be but a memory, a “remember when…” for this year and a subterranean hope for next year.

I will do my best to spend as much time as possible with them while they are around.  I don’t know what it is about this species that so entrances me, so enamors me, but its undeniable machinations once again call me to observe, to enjoy, to study.

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Quite obviously: the title is a quote from Henry V by William Shakespeare.

Photo is of a male eastern cicada-killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus) perched in the photinia bushes that surround my patio.