28 March 2008

The best picture ever! A writing challenge

This is a post about photographs, without any posted here.

A few months ago I was having dinner with friends. The conversation drifted to a story involving a deceased friend of theirs, someone I had never met. As soon as someone mentioned their friend, they started telling stories about him. At one point C. asked: "Remember that picture of him & his wife? The one taken at the party?". "It was the best picture ever," she said to me, and then she went on to describe it in detail. I felt that I had a great image of the man that my friends missed.

Later, I started thinking about the memorable photos I have taken. Could I describe them such that someone who had never seen the photograph could understand the scene, the personalities or breathtaking view captured, the nuanced emotion, the untold story? What about the circumstances behind a photo that seems commonplace? I immediately knew what photo I would choose if asked to describe one photo I have taken that I can remember in detail without looking at it.

Here is my story of the photo:

It had rained most of the morning, but I hadn't minded it a bit. I had wanted only to be away from my friends. Too many days together on the trip were taking a toll. I needed solitude.

I had set out on foot with the map in my daypack, and a roll that I had grabbed as I left the hotel's breakfast room. I was 19 and it was my first time in Italy, my first time in a country where I didn't speak the language. Not a word. I didn't have a plan; I only wanted to walk and to see things through the lens of my camera. I had tired of the tourist spots, so I decided to wander through neighborhoods. The map would only come out of the pack when it was time to head back to the hotel.

I spent the morning walking in the drizzle, stopping occassionally to look at store front windows, avoiding the areas where hawkers sold tacky trinkets with images of the new Pope. I aimed my camera at buildings, old men playing bocce, women hanging laundry, flowers, trees, the river. Lunch was a slice of cold pizza bought at a small street market.

Around 1 in the afternoon, the rain had stopped and the sun began to appear from behind the departing clouds. The smell of Springtime was in the air: a combination of budding trees and dirt, worms, and wet stone. I wanted to walk along a foot path near the Tiber, but it was too muddy. Instead, I cross a bridge over the river, stopping along the way to snap some photos. When I had crossed, I found some stone steps leading towards the river. As I descended, I saw one of the many feral cats that wandered throughout Rome. I stopped and quietly opened my camera bag to get my telephoto lens. The tabby stared at me as I aimed.

A month later, I had returned home and started working. The day I received my first pay check, I went to pick up the 12 rolls of film I had shot. I had forgotten about the cat. When I came to that photo, I was stunned by the image.

The stone wall is shades of grey and tan and white, with moss growing between the cracks. Rainwater that had drenched the wall earlier in the day, had dried mostly, with only a few wet trails scattering along the old wall. Evenly spaced along the wall were small openings. Stray plants had taken root in some of them. Dirt, carried by the rain, stained the walls below some of the niches. In the one centered in the frame perched the tabby cat. Sitting regally, enjoying the sun, she seems to blissfully ignore the noise from the street market above the wall, as she yawns. In the next photo, her eyes are closed, her mouth and whiskers stretched into a bored grimace, as if she had just sneezed. The tabby looks like she owns not just her niche in the wall, but the entire wall, the wet bank, and the green river flowing beneath her.

A few weeks later I met with my friends to look at the photos from our trip. As I shuffled through R's photos, I came to a nearly identical photograph of the Queen Cat. "I forgot you were with me that day", I said. "I didn't realize we took the same picture of that cat." And then I remembered that I had been alone. Even though I had wandered without my friends that day, we had been on the same path.

I would post a copy of the picture here if I had it. After nearly 30 years, I don't know if it is in one of the boxes in the basement. But the image is burned in my mind.

Here is my writing the challenge for you:

1. Pick a photo you have taken or were involved with in some way.
2. Describe the photo and explain the backstory.
3. Let your reader imagine the photo. If you want to post it, post it later!
4. Leave a link to your photo description in the comments here.
5. Tag 2 people. I tag: Emily and Bloglily.

25 March 2008

The things I lug around....

Becky recently (inadvertently) started a 'what's in my bag' meme. I wasn't sure that I would admit what is in mine, but I started through my pack (yes, it's a pack!) this evening when someone asked if I knew where any tape was. (I was at a church-committee meeting.) I thought I had some in my backpack. So I looked.

What I found:

Ipod case - where is my ipod?,
headphones to ipod,
the piece of paper to reorder my checks (too late now, I ran out last week),
missing comb,
lighter (I don't smoke),
mysterious cable for my cell phone (may be to phone I lost several months ago),
credit-card sized Manhattan address map (the best map! ever! small enough to look at discreetly without looking like a tourist. Only helps with blocks & cross streets),
not so great map of Midtown (Hotel freebie. Not the kind you want to pull out on the street without looking like clueless tourist),
3 Metro cards (no idea if they have any money left),
a very small mouse (the computer kind!),
4 emergency packs of Ibuprofen,
universal computer adapter,
2nd favorite pen,
another set of headphones (the kind you get from the airlines),
compact mirror,
missing black & crystal necklace,
missing bracelet,
pair of earrings,
metal tag showing that one paid at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ( I haven't visited the museum since last summer),
2 coupons for discount on contact lenses at Lenscrafters,
1 dime,
1 penny,
and, at the very bottom, my ipod.

And that is only in the the smallest compartment of my backpack.

In other roomier compartments you'll find:
passport & new passport photos (I've got to get to the post office to renew the damn thing!),
laptop accessories, various cables,
my trusted moleskin,
notebook for a non-work related project,
makeup bag,
green tea,
hand cream,
3 or 4 books,
several pens, pencils, highlighters,
TSA-approved quart size bags,
Listerine breath strips,
bottles of aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen,
a couple folders & work related papers,
and, at the very bottom, much too late to assist my tape-needing friend: a tiny roll of Scotch tape.

No wonder he asked me if I'd ever been on Let's Make a Deal!

You wouldn't believe what I carry in my purse!

19 March 2008

To Form A More Perfect Union - Washington & Obama

I've been mulling over writing a post about tolerance and about how so much of what one hears or reads in the media seems determined to separate and segment different segments of our society into monolithic voting blocks. I wanted to write about how because race and gender are important in our world, they are important in this election as well. But, we are not just our race. We are not only our gender. We are not defined by one characteristic, be that race, or gender, or sexual preference or creed or political party.

But, instead of my words, I offer you instead these words, one a letter from a founding father, the other a speech from one, who, whether he wins the election or not, is one of today's leaders.

The letter from George Washington in response to Moses Seixas

To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.


While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington


From the Barack Obama's speech, "A More Perfect Union"

In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.”
I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation – the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.

B. Obama, 3/18/08

The persistence of intolerance is a sad part of our history, but tolerance is part of our American heritage. Reclaim it!

See Obama's entire speech here. Read the text of the speech here or here.

To learn more about the history of Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI, the oldest synagogues in America and one of our oldest symbols of religious freedom, click here.

15 March 2008

Dipped in Raspberry Juice: Some musings on metaphors

About a week ago, Bloglily wrote a post titled "It was Like, You Know", about figurative language. As an example, she included, from her story "The Centerfold Club", this bit describing a pole dancer as "a rotisserie chicken, all heated, bronzed, exposed skin, rotating around them both, for as long as the green light stayed on".

In her post, Lily wrote about a literary agent who decreed that one should never have more than two metaphors or similes in an entire literary work. As you might expect, many of Lily's readers offered their opinions in the comments, disagreeing with the literary agent. Write without metaphor? You must be joking! I don't think I can converse without metaphor or simile.

Lily writes:

I think writers use simile and metaphor because thinking up a good simile/metaphor is just plain fun. Wit, as I recall, has to do with combining dissimilar things, in a way that gives the reader (and the writer) pleasure.

I agree with Lily that metaphor works similarly to wit. And both are good fun. But, the writerly pleasure of crafting a great metaphor is the aftereffect of achiving one's purpose in writing: to communicate with your reader. If humor is the recognition of the intersection of two incongruent thoughts, certainly metaphor is also.

As I wrote in the comments on Lily's blog, I like to think of metaphor as like a Venn diagram. Each vector in the diagram is disparate, but where they overlap, in the unexpected, not previously explored, region is where the writer uses figurative language to clarify something for the reader in a new and exciting way.

Although seemingly a simplistic way to describe a complex thought process, I see it like this:

What I know and what you know may be different, but if I am trying to convey an idea to you, I should start on common ground. I take two things that you have knowledge of and link those concepts together so that you can understand what I want to convey. F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited with saying that "[T]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." What a writer does with metaphor is to stretch that common ground in unexpected ways to broaden the reader's understanding by purposely forcing the reader to not only hold those two disparate ideas, but at the same time to merge them into a new concept.

The speaker of The Red Red Rose, to use Robert Burns' poem as an example, says "My love is like a red, red, rose". The reader thinks: "okay, she's like a flower. A pretty, red flower". The poet and the reader both understand love, and roses, and now they both understand that the speaker of the poem sees his love like a beautiful rose. The poem continues: "That's newly sprung in June". Now the reader understands more -- it is a fresh, just blossoming flower. But Burns doesn't stop there: O my love's like the melody/That's sweetly played in tune. Now the reader can move on to another image of the lover's sweetheart; his understanding is deepened by the second metaphor. The overlapping area of the diagram expands in yet another unexpected way.

But, you might say, the image of a lover as a red rose -- or any kind of rose, perhaps even a sickly one as Blake used (see "The Sick Rose") -- is cliche. And you would be right. But when it was first used, it was not cliche; it was unexpected. The same could be said for Homer's description of 'rosy-fingered dawn'. But, the lasting power of these images is due to their effectiveness.

But metaphor and simile aren't only used in poetry. Anytime something needs to be described, metaphor is the tool to have at hand. Take this passage from Howard Nemerov's essay "On Metaphor":

While I'm thinking about metaphor, a flock of purple finches arrives on the lawn. Since I haven't seen these birds for some years, I am only fairly sure of their being in fact purple finches, so I get down Peterson's Field Guide and read his description: "Male: About the size of House Sparrow, rosy-red, brightest on head and rump." That checks quite well, but his next remark -- "a sparrow dipped in raspberry juice" -- is decisive: it fits. I look out the window again and now I know that I am seeing purple finches." (A Howard Nemerov Reader, pp223)

I first read this essay of Nemerov's many years ago and I used it to describe metaphor to a classroom of bored teenagers. They may not have understood Burns or Blake on the whole, but they understood what Nemerov was writing about when he described his recognition of the birds dipped in raspberry juice.

Whether the metaphor is describing dawn, a beloved, a unfamiliar bird, or a pole dancer, each of these examples uses the common knowledge of the dissimilar to communicate precisely what the writer wants the reader to understand. Perhaps it is the cliched use of figurative language that the uncredited literary agent was referring to. I would agree that the cliched should be avoided. But using metaphor to convey an image by comparing unlike things that are known to the reader -- like comparing the exotic dancer to a rotisserie chicken -- is a tool that all writers use. It is basic to communication. That region in the Venn diagrams of our minds where two unlike ideas come together is where our limited vocabularies and mere words on the page are used to stretch our imaginations and to make something perfectly clear.

04 March 2008

When a tree limb falls in the icy woods...

and it hits you in the head -- it hurts! Nevertheless, Cam, the intripid photographer, risked life and (human) limb to wander underneath the trees at the start of the icestorm. I hope there aren't too many branches that fall during the night! (P.S.: only twigs and small branches were falling as the sunset.)