autumn capture.

The same coworker I read with is also a film major. As a result, he’s both fond of and knowledgeable of cameras, and after work today we convened, found a bench several blocks west on Spruce, and he began teaching me the preliminaries. He’d brought a beautiful Nikon with an 18-55mm lens for me to use, one he shares with a friend. I’ve been dying to learn more of the technical elements of photography and practice on a high resolution camera for as long as I can remember — my budget has constrained me to point-and-shoots, and while they’re impressive for what they are, there isn’t the same manual level of technique involved, or ability to capture the minutest details.

Since it was my first lesson, we mostly kept to adjusting the f-stop feature and focus. Both were decently new for me, though, and gave me plenty to experiment with for a first shoot. By the third minute I was seeing in a new way — highly sensitive to tricks of the light, the way it reflects off surfaces like glass and water and brings more images into sight, the way it can overtake one side of a scene and leave the other untouched. Adjusting the focus, I began to make mundane things the centerpiece of the scene, or maybe let something in the background take the stage.

We talked about the way photography forces you to think differently — it’s a slower, more deliberate, more creative, calmer way of seeing the world. The manual setting gives you more control and more decisions to make, which I worried might be taxing but was in fact more relaxing and intuitive. The more decisions you have to make, the slower and more creative you become.

I could have walked around for several hours, and would have, had the battery not died after the first couple. I took enough pictures to notice a pattern in my (newly born) technique and the things that pique my interest. Apart from interesting reflections and tricks of the light, I found myself oddly drawn to trash, cast aside. Spills, discarded coffee cups on ledges. I also find humor much more obvious if I’m paying attention to the images around me: faces in inanimate objects, ironic signs or symbols. Some of this I knew about myself, but using a more advanced camera allowed me to explore it more fully.

Of all the images, far fewer than a third were worth saving or commenting on, but I did get a few good ones. Nothing to write home about, but compared to past photos, I feel like I’ve learned something and progressed a bit.

Mostly I was struck by developing a sense of awareness. I rarely look at things; usually I just look through them, caught in a looping pattern of generally negative or anxious thoughts, which is neither productive nor creative. The camera quieted these thoughts. It made me want to capture things that actually exist, right in front of me. This general theme isn’t a revelation really (how many times have people driven home some version of this point?), but it did surprise me today, and remind me how restorative the process of making art can be.

It also reminded me how damn badly I want one of those cameras.

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Two videos that illustrate..

..my intense love for Chicago.

(1) 

About half of these locations were frequent haunts for me. The 6th is Promontory Point, where we went swimming in the summers, although technically, you weren’t supposed to swim on the rocky side, only on the beach further south. Sometimes the police would drive through the park and harass people to get out of the water, but then they’d just leave and we’d all get back in.

(2) 

I interviewed Chicago-based Canasta in the summer of 2009 — or rather, the violinist. I was separated from the city that summer and in preparing for the interview I listened to this album several times. This song really hit home with me. “This town, it breathes on its own/with or without me/the skyline wakes up whether or not I get out of bed.”

That’s the thing about Chicago, or any big city, really — when you wake up it’s already up, and when you go to bed it’ll stay up past you. Other things I miss: rickety old three-story apartment buildings with worn wooden floors, occasional bay windows, and loud radiators; free but crappy wifi everywhere (no wait, I don’t miss this, I just remember it); runners along the lakeshore; Devon Avenue, Chinatown, and Greektown; the sound of el trains rushing past.

I love cities, but Chicago has such significance for me: it lays claim to so many of my experiences. It truly feels like more of my hometown than my actual hometown, where I spent my first 18 years.

I miss you, crazy old speakeasy city. I’ll see you soon.

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He’s my Brandy Alexander, always gets me into trouble.

Every book should conclude, and be discussed with, a drink.

Maybe it’s something I’ve only just noticed, but almost every work of literature usually finds a way to tie in some form of alcoholic drink, and more often than not it seems to stand in for the work as a whole. I recently read Heliopolis, which takes place erratically among Sao Paulo’s upper and lower classes. The characters in the book revisit again and again a lush-sounding Brazilian cocktail, whose name escapes me now. Hygiene and the Assassin, my current reading project (I gave up on Rondo), features a brilliant but misanthropic and hugely obese French author who continuously guzzles, or brings the conversation back to, Brandy Alexanders.

I’m never had a Brandy Alexander — in fact, I didn’t know it was a drink until I started reading this book. And yet I find myself following along, smiling at the the fictional author’s dialogue, and wishing I was nursing a cocktail I didn’t know existed moments before. A little research has revealed that a Brandy Alexander is a mix of brandy, dark crème de cacao, heavy cream, and nutmeg… exactly the indulgent, fatty sort of drink the main character would represent himself by.

Brandy Alexander, you are clearly delicious.

Hemingway did the same thing with grappa in A Farewell to Arms — the protagonist was often clouded in a grappa fog, and it was of course unsurprising to learn that grappa is a potent, Italian pseudo-wine. When my roommate was sent a bottle as a birthday gift from his parents, soon after I’d finished the book, it seemed fortuitous and we had a toast. I downed a shot and thought of Hemingway. And, appropriately, tumbled into tipsiness on short order.

The more I think about it, the more books I can think of that associated themselves with one or another drink. A Handmaid’s Tale was dry as a Mormon wedding — at least for the main character — but that made sense with the book as a whole. Deliverance was cheap cans of beer, the manly, woodsy beverage of choice.

It makes absolute sense that literature and drinking would be so intimately connected. Stories need to go places, and I bet the number of drunken first kisses in the world between a pair rival the number of sober ones. We’re a little too constrained, too wise without a drink in us. How else would we spill secrets, initiate an awkward romance, confront an offending party? If literature had no drinking, there would be a lot of exasperatingly inactive characters. “KISS HER!” We’d scream, but Character X would just stand there until things got weird, and then walk away. Fictional people need courage too.

So! At the conclusion of Hygiene and the Assassin, I will find a Brandy Alexander to toast to all the characters, fictional and non, moving their lives forward with a tipsy confession or action. And to all those who are brave enough to do so without a cocktail. And to finally knowing what this song is about:

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Noteworthy things to know about the exclamation point.

Source is wikipedia, ‘cuz when is it not, at midnight.

  • The exclamation mark was introduced into English printing in the 15th century, and was called the “sign of admiration or exclamation” or the “note of admiration” until the mid-17th century.
  • One study has shown that women use exclamation marks more than men do.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald had this to say on the matter: “Cut out all those exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.”
My ex-boyfriend used to always put a space between his words and exclamation points. Wow ! So crazy ! — it would drive me mad. For a while I thought it was his own quirk, but then I realized the French write that way as standard practice, as if the exclamation point needs room to breathe. It never stopped bothering me, though. 
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gin headache.

Spent the night watching LA Confidential and asking the person next to me many, many questions. Also, thinking the Kevin Spacey character and the Russell Crowe character were the same for like, half the movie. I am not fun to watch complicated crime movies with.

 

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The habit of inhabiting new habits.

I am a creature of habit.

One of my habits is not keeping habits. Or, keeping only my worst habits. Every single time I clean my room, things end up back in their improper places by the end of the week. I could diagram it for you — piles of dirty clothes go (1) on the bathroom floor, (2) beside the bed, or (3) in the doorway to the closet (towels especially, here). Book towers inevitably form on the nightstand. If laundry has been done, it is still in its basket (six days later), where I select outfits from it like I’m suitcase-living on vacation. Outdated newspapers accumulate near the doorway, for whatever reason. I never descend into filth (you will NOT find moldy food or dishes anywhere in my room) but I have a set of patterns conforming to my daily routines. Clothes and papers go in piles, books stack into towers.

A brief sampling of habits I have tried to create that have yet to become a daily trend: taking my vitamins, reading the newspaper, taking the bus (in lieu of the car), checking the mail, flossing, keeping constant track of my money, applying to [X#] jobs, [etc].

Which is why, when I think (constantly) I’m going to start writing every day, I feel a sort of predisposed disappointment. I love to do it — it’s like fun work! — but without accountability, I have begun a trend of imagining grand things, imagining really grand things, getting incredibly excited, getting incredibly scared, slumping back, and inventing a “back burner” on to which many ideas are inevitably shelved to be forgotten, or remembered with a blow of excessive shame.

The key here is “without accountability.” I never quit jobs, or refuse to follow through on professional projects. But the erratic nature of the “job hunt” means I don’t live day-to-day, mentally. Instead, I inhabit this expansive space that encompasses the past and pending. Everything is speculative. I can invest in hours of work on applications, which I am supposed to do, and which I have seen result in barely any returns. Or, I could invest slightly less time in applications and set aside some time to invest in something personal (writing), which will always pay back. It is mystifying to me that I have not been doing this. Also mystifying that I feel a shiver of fear when I think about it.

I may go back to the self-helpy, yet oh-so-effective Pomodoro technique, which I used for a few weeks of blissful success in college (before habitually dumping a habit). My self-discipline is newly out of hibernation. Its legs are tingly with a lack of circulation.

And so, second post in a row, here’s to one more attempt at establishing a habit.

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The Merits of Giving Up.

A friend from work and I recently embarked on a project, at my cajoling: we would read one book a week together and discuss it. This came about because I want to read more, and he reads like all the books in the world will be consumed in a bonfire tomorrow. Since he already goes through several books a week, compromising on one with me wouldn’t be a big deal (and he’d have someone to discuss it with), and I would be given a measure of accountability. Win-win.

The first week was wonderfully successful — we happened to pick a vibrant, delicious, funny book (Heliopolis), and I relished in it. After finishing the book, I basked in its satisfying afterglow for hours. After work we headed over to Mountain Sun and sang its praises over a pitcher of IPA (a wicked pitcher of IPA, as I discovered the next morning), and I felt that the inaugural meeting of our intense little book club was setting us off to auspicious start.

Then we picked the next book.

A brief interlude: Heliopolis was published by Europa Editions, a small publishing group associated with Penguin that specializes in literary fiction, particularly English translations of international titles. It’s a classy dame in a miasma of celebrity memoirs and one-a-month formulaic mysteries. Europa has its own shelf just after you walk into the bookstore, and it dares you not to judge the books by their covers. Enthralled as I was with Heliopolis, I insisted we continue our Europa trend. Obviously, these people know literature. That’s how we ended up with Rondo.

My coworker picked it. I don’t blame him, really: from the book jacket, it sounds fabulous. World War II Poland, a torrid love affair, secret societies, the theater scene. Blurbs on the back obliquely praise the work as “masterful” and “impossible to forget.”

Then we started reading it. Hm, I thought. It’s a little slow, but that’s alright. Fifty pages in, I was completely zoning out. I checked in on his progress and texted a worried, “Is it picking up?” “I don’t think it’s a picking up kind of book, more building up,” he responded diplomatically. Some books are like this: they make you work for a while, bob along serenely at the top of the water before they reel you in. We were holding out, soldiering on.

Then things started happening: sex, death, apparently love, the beginning of a war. Still I was being kept at arm’s length, the story providing all the emotional pull of an instruction manual. I am one hundred pages in, a war is setting in, and if the narrator abruptly killed himself, I would feel relieved at no longer having to read his brittle, lifeless story.

I approached my offending coworker. “I feel nothing,” I admitted. “They slept together. Things are happening! And I feel nothing!” He nodded sympathetically. “Nothing,” he agreed.

“It’s bad. We have to read it, and then talk about why it’s so bad,” he said, giving the terrible book a purpose, but also committing us, a sentence, an act of discipline.

But oh, this book. So unengaging. It’s an unspooling of events, a description without a story, a narrative stripped of narrative power.

Reading this sort of book is a bit like climbing a mountain, demanding one’s tenacity and an ability to power through exhaustion. If we quit now, we’d be only part-way up the mountain. Maybe “impossible to forget” is only earned in the home stretch — it’s the view from the top. And yet, as of now, the book feels more like a plateau. It continues to be unengaging, the view stays the same.

To finish or not to finish? What are the merits of giving up? How many pages before an author betrays your trust with an unworthy work?

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