Monthly Archives: September 2013

When the room spins

I was young, but not so young as to not remember, perhaps 8. It was early evening, but felt like dawn. I clung for dear life, at the edge of my bed, as the room spinned and spiraled around me. Slowly, methodically, I made my way through ice cubes, mouthing one after another, willing the room to stand still. Sometime minutes or hours later, mother opened the door to check my fever – clearly still going strong. I beg her to make the room stop spinning. I cry in confusion, unable to grasp the edge of the bed strong enough to put the world back in place. Mother frowns at another thermometer read over 100 degrees, and tells me I need some rest. She explains the spinning room in terms of fevered dreams, while gently prying my rigid hands from the top of the box spring. She says “See the night light in the corner? Focus your eyes on that little light, and the room will stop.”

It was christmas break, 1999. My girlfriend and I were high school seniors, the so-called class of the 2000. Every waking hour of our better-than-the-rest education had always assured us both that we would somehow change the world, because we were born in the right time, at the right place. Right on the cusp of being grown ups, the world was changing – the year 2000 was mere days away, and christmas had been intense, more-so than previous years. We decided to see a film. We watched as Jim Carrey’s rendition of Andy Kaufman saw his world fade from practical joke to self-parody, with a witch doctor delivering the final irony – new age cancer curing surgery without a single cut. Kaufman sees a bit of chicken in the doctor’s hand before the surgery begins, and begins to laugh – it’s all a joke. Seeing this, I grip my chair, as the room begins to spin. It had been the first in a series of somber christmas breaks, mother’s terminal cancer had just been discovered.

Fall semester, junior year of college – just going through the motions. The girlfriend and I broke with a nasty split a bit before summer, and I had skipped the usual summer family trip – unable to spend a week bouncing off the walls watching our deteriorating mother on what we knew would be her last family vacation. I return from yet another Burden Brothers show, cross the room, and see a message on the answering machine. As I press play, my shitty hand-me-down living room furniture starts to ebb and flow, wiggling in place in the corner of my eye. “Jason, it’s dad. Something bad happened today with Carol, don’t worry, she’s okay, but you need to call me.” I dial, he picks up and the wiggling furniture starts to march. I grab the corner of my computer desk as my knees give way.

Christmas Break, 2003. I walk into her bedroom, and pet my brother’s cat, Sable. The cat had not left her side since the event from September, when mother finally let go. I ask her if she’d like to watch a new movie, promising she will enjoy it. She asks what it’s about. “It’s about a fish who’s lost his son, and lost control of his life.” She does not have the strength to object. As we watch the movie, she smiles an awful lot – much more than she ever did before the event, perhaps more than she had in many years. She’s enraptured, and I just sit and stare, gripping my chair for dear life. The movie finishes, she loves it – like a child. I do not have the heart to tell her it is the fifth time she and I have watched it together.

Three years into my career, I am on top of the world – though I would have preferred it not to spin. There was an engagement ring hidden on the upper shelves of my bedroom closet, and a bucket of ice near me on the bed. 20 years had elapsed since mother told me to focus on the night light, but this time there would be no need. The world around me, though spinning, was understood, simplified, and easy. The moment would pass soon enough, and before I knew it we’d be married, and then, and then, and then. I hastily push my fevered dreams into words on paper, for inclusion in an album my buddy John and I had been working on for a good while.

The lights were dimmed, and the slideshow began. A steady march of images synced to Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism for our first dance. As the song crescendos the images start to wiggle, flashing faster in reverse. As images flicker, they paint her dress, her face. Our family and friends, our world, spins around us and I tighten my grip. Later, my father will hand me a card, a card mother picked for this day, years ago, before she died. Later, I will read my father’s word’s in the card and that night will return in a flash – just keep breathing, keep staring at that little night light, don’t stop staring, just ignore the dancing furniture, ignore the ebb and flow, focus on the light. We spin, the room spins, our friends, our family, the flicker of the projector, the swirling music, until finally, the end. I dip her, and hold onto her for dear life, we kiss and the projector stops on a single image – it paints us in golden light.

I look up from the kiss, and all I see is a bright light in darkness. In a flash, I am 8 years old, bewildered by fevered dreams and staring at a night light. I blink and I’m in the theatre unable to stop the tears. I inhale deeply and I’m with my childlike broken mother, days before she would pass. I pause, staring into the light, and hold my breath for just a moment. I exhale, and look away from the light. I hold her tighter, soaking in her shimmering golden aura, I hold her for dear life, and the world falls in place.

Sept 23, 2013 – 3.45a
Music: Matthew Good – Avalanche (the song)

It doesn’t matter.

I haven’t been taking many photographs recently.

When I analyze it, the story goes: I started sorting through years of photos, trimming the fat, collecting the better bits into something worthwhile. Sorting years of photos proved such a daunting task that at one point early on I was able to calculate how long it would take to finish this personal project. I determined it would take a long time – too long, really. So, why shoot more? Why bother?

My grandfather was a photographer too. Always with the camera. Every family get together, several photos a day. He always promised us that if we made a funny face, the photo would be printed at 8×10 size. I saw dozens of hilarious/embarassing 8x10s of various relatives over the years.

I’m halfway decent at photography – that is, I’m good enough to know it would take a whole lot of money and time I don’t have to buy equipment and learn about lighting and photoshop curves, and tweak tweak tweak tweak tweak.

I bought a DSLR a few years back, a Nikon D90 and some cheap lenses. Putting a piece of hardware like that in your hand teaches you *real* fast that you have no idea what you’re doing. The D90 practically killed my interest in expanding my photographic ability, until a few years later .. when the iPod touch had a little camera in it.

My grandfather was really a pretty amazing photographer. When he passed away around the turn of 2004, I had the opportunity to flip through tens of thousands of old photographs he took. For a while there I told myself I’d select the very best thousand or so and scan them for future-proofing. I had more than a few photo albums of his and diligently scanned and scanned for a while.

Problem was, there weren’t 1,000 good photos, there were tens of thousands. For every photo that meant something to me, there were 100 I’d skip on by that my father or an aunt would consider precious – snapshots of moments foreign and meaningless to me.

Photography’s a funny thing, as they say, beauty’s in the eye of the beholder. A photo may hold a lot of sentimental value to you and have a hold on your heart that will never let go. The very same photo may mean nothing to anyone else, hell, some of your favorite photos of your spouse will never be their favorites of themselves.

Once in a very long while you’ll shoot something and know in that very moment that you’ve captured something eternal – some little moment that transcends the family reunion you’re standing in.

I didn’t start shooting until digital cameras became affordable. I never had to wait 3 days for a batch of exposures to come back and teach me. I’ve almost never had to wonder if I got the shot or not. Further, I’m able to shoot 1,000 photos in an afternoon without paying a cent for any of them.

I don’t think I’ve ever shot 1,000 photos in a day, but I could.

We had two photographers at our wedding. A few weeks after the event, we received 8 dvds with 5000+ raw images on them. Scrolling through the photos was more like watching a bit of a movie in slow motion than looking at a collection of photos. Several minutes worth of burst shots, 3 takes of the same shot – trying to get the one person to stop blinking.

Rewind to my grandfather in the 60s or 70s, or my father in the 80s waiting for the exact right moment to take some of those timeless, perfect, shots of a child or a bit of landscape. I sometimes wonder if my grandfather was experienced enough with his film-based camera to know he got the shot – could he tell he had captured something eternal?

If he could, is he the sucker, having to wait 3 days for that print to come back, or am I? Did he rush to open his envelope photos and have a second little transcendent moment when he confirmed he really did, indeed, get the shot?

There was a time in my life when I didn’t want to participate, and the camera became a weird extension of myself. In an odd way, it felt like the photographs would prove that I was living, after the moment had faded and passed.

There were more than a few moments where the camera got in the way of the experience. I’ve got great photos to show anyone who’d care to see – at the expense of missing more than a few ‘eternal moments’.

Every time I look through my photos of the past, a million memories flood in, many seemingly long forgotten. My photos remind me of scanning my grandfather’s photos in my shitty post-college apartment, wasting days and days of time. They remind me of the time the dog found a bag of powdered sugar and behaved like a high addict for a number of hours. The time I kept the shutter on long-exposure while my wife drove us home in a thunderstorm at night. The times I spent a whole summer walking our family dogs around the park with my father.

My photos, like my grandfathers, will fade. I know this, and you should too. At times it seems to take a monumental amount of effort to pick yourself up off the floor, and just keep on going – and photography, for me, occasionally feels very similar.

But, the photos remind me, when the timing’s right, that life’s for living – rather than archiving or proving something. This is why I continue shooting.

I never once asked my grandfather why he took photos – that was just who he was, what he did. I wonder if photography was both timeless and secretly tragic in his mind, as it is in mine. I wonder what he thought would happen to those ten thousand slides of random landscapes and buildings, I wonder if he cared.

Time is both finite and infinite. It’s finite for you and I, but infinite going forward. I think, – I think it takes equal parts courage and crazy to snap the shutter to capture that eternal moment that you know will fade.