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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Bible

Recently a student told me that the best selling work of non-fiction was not The Diary of Anne Frank as I had suggested, but was in fact, The Bible. Hmm, I thought. What should I not say or say? Here I was in a public school classroom in front of 25 students who were waiting with baited breath to see how I might respond.

Some years ago I tried to finish The Book of J by Harold Bloom. I'm an armchair quasi-biblical, more ancient history kind of scholar (Second Temple period specifically), but it is definitely a hobby not a serious academic pursuit, so I had some well-informed thoughts about this young man's assertion. The Book of J is a somewhat scholarly tome that maintains that certain parts of the Pentateuch (the first five books -- or the Hebrew hit parade known as Torah) were actually written by a woman living at the time of the Solomon’s Court or the time of the first Temple, as a piece of literature. Bloom is referring in particular to the first strands in Genesis, Exodus and Numbers. From what I was able to gather, he and his translator reinterpreted much of the writing to support this claim.

Bloom goes on to demonstrate rather compellingly how there were at least four authors who contributed and how you can tell who was responsible for what by the dramatic changes in the writing styles. For me, this was a new and interesting take on a piece of literature that has somehow survived all of the tragedies and plagues known to man. Clearly there was something to be said for its endurance record.

But, I wondered if it might be appropriate to clarify a bit of confusion about what "The Bible" actually is; doing so had gotten me into big and extremely unpleasant trouble once before.

For the record, the Hebrew Bible should not be confused with the Christian Bible. The scriptures by which Jews practice include three parts: Torah or the Five Books of Moses, Nevi' 'im or The Prophets (my personal favorite) and Kethvvim or The Writings.

Christians and other non-Jews and even some Jews refer to the Hebrew Bible as The Old Testament thereby making a connection to and having it superceded by The New Testament. We could split hairs here and say in fact that it is the Original Testament and what Christian’s call The Old Testament is in fact a revised draft, facilitating the arrival of you know who. The first five books of the Christian Old Testament do appear in the same order but have different names and varied text and beyond those first five books, what is considered “The Bible” have even less in common.

The term Bible comes from the Greek, "La Biblia" which literally translates as the books – and as all these thoughts and more ran through my brain while looking at the pimply face of my challenger, I decided to nip it in the bud. This young man claiming The Bible as best seller was clearly not prepared or interested in the complex response that I was prepared to elucidate and I certainly did not want to broach so perilous a perch in my temporary public school classroom.

I might add that all this has nothing to do with what I believe in or don't believe. This is all historical information examined from a literary perspective. The Hebrew Bible was compiled long after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the compilation committee functioning much like American Idol, chose not to include a variety of texts known as the Apocrypha. To confuse holy matters even more, some of these rejected texts are considered holy by other religions, and are actually a part of their Bible.

For example, why is the story of Queen Esther of Purim fame celebrated

in Jewish lore and not the story of Judith, another super heroine who seduced and then cut off the head of General Holofernes to save her people?


Catholics accept the book of Judith as a narrative of facts, but the Book of Judith does not exist in the Hebrew Bible, and is consequently excluded from the Protestant Canon of Holy Scripture. The Catholic Church has always maintained its canonicity, which is a very nice word for sacred writing and sounds like an album by the Police.

What is not nice, is how religion can create a great deal of noise and conflict between people that is nothing like Synchronicity.

About twenty some odd years ago, I was working for a large media corporation in the South, which sold merchandise on your television and was run by two larger than life personalities. Both had become billionaires in short order and the only thing larger than my slave-to-fashion shoulder pads were their egos. The president was a born-again freakishly tall Laurel and the chairman of the board was Hardy with a deep southern drawl and lascivious attitude.

They had just returned from a business trip to Denver on Delta Airlines and the president came into my office with a small card that came with his meal. It was a Thanksgiving greeting “from your family at Delta Airlines”. He said that he wanted us to do something just like it for the upcoming holidays for everyone who made a purchase from the company.

I ran all creative services for the corporation and called a quick meeting with some members of my team. I also reached out to operations to determine how many packages we would be shipping between December 12 and January 12, as well as the dimensions of the smallest box we used. The company anticipated shipping twelve million units in that time and based on the design and size of the card, it would cost $18,000 to produce.

The card used a very nice stock photograph of a Christmas tree next to a fireplace hung with stockings with care. It had that kind of cheesy diffused lighting that made everything glow just a bit too much and I knew the President would love it. The copywriter had drafted a bit of seasonal prose closing with Happy Holidays from your family at Insert Company name here.

So I now called our very hands-on President with the news. He asked that I come down to his office and show him the work. We were located at that time on a sprawling 400-acre campus built just for us. My office was in the same building and around the corner from the president and chairman through a series of wide hallways with locked doors that required using a coded identification badge to open. Each doorway has a unique code so the corporate caste system could be easily enforced. Everything, the carpet and walls, was a shade of blue except the money they were minting by selling boatloads of crap to transfixed viewers.

I was announced and walked into his office. I showed him the materials we had prepared. He loved the photograph. After reading the copy, he looked up at me and said, “ The card should read Merry Christmas. Do I need to give you a bible?”

Hmmm.

“No,” I said. “I have my own thank you. I understand you work with that rough second draft.”

Yeah, I lacked a certain self control at times.

Then he said, “ This is not NBC or CBS or ABC and the day the Jews own this company is the day that card will say Happy Holidays. Do I make myself clear? “

Gulp.

“You do indeed. But where should I expense the $18,000 that we do not have in the marketing budget?”

“Go ask Hardy.”

“Shall I do that now?”

“Yes!”

So I left Laurel’s office, shaking and angry and walked down the hallway to Chairman Hardy’s office.

“Why come on in little lady. What can I do for you today?” He crooned.

I went on to explain that I had this photograph and copy for the card they had requested , we needed to print 12 million of them, but that Laurel felt the card should say Merry Christmas.

“Why, I think the card should say Happy Holidays.”

I told him I agreed with him but the other issue was that the card was going to cost $18,000 to produce, money we had not allocated in the Marketing budget, where did he want me to post the expense.

He blinked and thought for a moment. Smiling he said, “ I would be just as happy to wish them Happy Holidays over the air.”

“Ok,” I smiled, “ Shall I tell Laurel that?”

“Yes please do.”

So I left Hardy’s office eager to kill the whole thing, headed back to you know where.

“I’m back and have been instructed to tell you that Mr. Hardy says he would be just as happy to wish them Happy Holidays over the air.”

“What!!” He stood up and grabbed the materials I was holding out of my hands. “ Follow me” he commanded.

Barging in to the Chairman’s office he seethed, “ Did we or did we not decide on the flight back from Denver that we were going to do this for our club members who made a purchase over the holidays?”

The red faced chairman replied, “Well, uh, yes. But I think the card should say Happy Holidays. “

Our president turned around facing me. Pointing a finger at me and speaking with clenched jaws he hissed, “ Did she get to you? This is not ABC or NBC or CBS. This is a Christian company and the day the Jews own it is the day that card will say Happy Holidays.”

At this point, I just wanted to get the hell out of there. So I said, “ Why don’t you let me know what you decide?” and backed slowly out the door.

Under my breath I muttered, “ For the record, this is a public company” and fled.


As I walked back to my office, through the coded doors with my hands shaking as I used the coded ID to get back to where I could collapse, I kept repeating to myself, “ They can’t kill you, they can only fire you. They can’t kill you, they can only fire you.”

It was the only time in my life that I could see the movement of my heart pounding in my chest.

I got back to my office and my secretary came in. She asked how the meeting went. I was speechless. The phone rang. It was Laurel.


Maniacally he articulated, “The card should say MERRY CHRISTMAS!”

Trembling, I replied, “ I don’t care what the card says, where should I post the expense?”

“I don’t care!” He hollered and hung up.

So the 12 million cards said Merry Christmas but I posted the expense to his executive expenses account.

The Bible can be a dangerous book. I wasn’t going back there.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

1984

George Orwell had it right. 1984 was the year of my subjugation. It began for me in the dead of winter stuck smack dab in Hell’s Kitchen. I was working for the former Programming VP at the Television business I had worked for since 1978. I was designing the packaging and writing promotional materials to launch two new lines of Home Video.


Our new offices were located in a former animal hospital built in the 1920s in the bowels of the west side of New York City. The building was about eleven treacherous blocks from Port Authority, so it provided the added bonus of a winter workout as I ran back in terror every evening to catch my bus home to Hoboken. It was 4 narrow stories tall with 2 cavernous rooms on each floor and a tiny elevator, capacity 2.5 people, noisily grinding between them. Sometime in the late 70’s they had air-conditioned each floor by installing ceiling units in the hallway by the elevator. This meant that in order to derive any cooling benefit, the doors to both rooms needed to remain open.


Two entrepreneurial childhood friends from Long Island founded the company I worked for. They had pooled their bar mitzvah money and as a lark, bought a porno movie theater in New York City in the early 70’s. They quickly learned that the Pornography movie theater business was very profitable and they parlayed these earnings into the burgeoning Home Video rental business. They opened the country’s very first home video rental store and by 1985 had over 15 outlets. They also owned 4 porno theaters in New York City.


Our two entrepreneurs eventually realized that the real money came from creating software, i.e. the videos themselves. They didn’t fool themselves into believing they were the second coming of Samuel Goldwyn and friends. They stuck with what they knew and started producing adult films both for their theaters as well as for the newly exploding adult home video market. In my own defense, I knew none of this when I signed on to work in their new “legit” division, I just knew about the video stores.

At our new headquarters, as I said, we were charged with creating an identity for and marketing one new to home video label and actually producing and marketing the second label. The first was a collection of rather fine, though somewhat dated films from England from the J. Arthur Rank Studios. The titles included Carol Reed’s Odd Man out starring a very handsome young James Mason; a brilliant and heartbreaking rendition of the D.H.Lawrence short story, The Rocking Horse Winner; and Victim, a controversial film from 1951 about the blackmail of homosexual member of Parliament portrayed by one of my personal gods, Dirk Bogart. All appeared on the up and up, as I set about designing and writing about a group of very respectable films from a studio with an extraordinary history.


The other label we were creating from scratch, sort of. We had a contract with the WWF, yes, the infamous Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation. We were to take the Television productions and convert them into home video productions with judicious editing, adding some interviews and creating some behind the scenes footage.


In 1984 professional wrestling was incredibly popular. Tickets to the annual Wrestlemania events at Madison Square Garden sold out months in advance. Hulk Hogan, Captain Lou Albano, and Andre the Giant were the headliners. Coming up were Rowdy Roddy Piper and Kumala the warrior and my personal favorite, The Sheik. Each of these personalities were created by the marketing team at the WWF and Linda McMahon, wife of Vince.

As part of my marketing research, I went to a big match at the Garden and had ringside seats with my boss. Let me say first of all, that by the end of that evening I was completely beer soaked and not from drinking any. Secondly, the person sitting in front of us was the size of a small apartment building and I couldn’t see over him unless I stood up. I remember that my boss asked him if he wouldn’t mind taking off his shoulder so I could see.


I also visited the WWF headquarters in Connecticut and interviewed some of the up and coming young wrestlers to put together an illustrated guide to professional wrestling moves to include in the video packaging. I learned about how they hid razor blades in their wristbands to cut themselves as part of the show, how identities were created and abandoned as they rose and fell in popularity and how they carefully choreographed each match trying to control the severity of injuries.

This was completely new territory for me. I had no real interest whatsoever in this spectacle, but began to embrace it by conceiving of it as some form of extreme theater, tragically predestined characters facing evil, facing the inevitable. It was completely ridiculous.


I did enjoy having a big open space to work in with a great picture window that provided an unobstructed view of the daytime muggings on West 52nd Street. I had never had so much personal workspace in New York City. The room had a cement floor that sloped in the middle into a drain. This room had apparently been the operating theater of the animal hospital. I didn’t say it was glamorous, just big.

Across the hall on my floor was the editing suite. All of the films this company made were shot in Europe. Then the “auteur” flew back to the United States with the uncut film footage to be edited. Uncut footage carries a much lower import tariff than a completed movie coming into the United States. All the editing was done on a moviola, which is a large machine used to splice the actual film stock together. It allows the editor to actually view individual frames to precisely select the best edit cut-point and align the appropriate audio. The moviola itself was a huge stainless steel flatbed unit, somewhat similar to a reel-to-reel audio splicer that was located near the door to keep it cool. Metal film spools canisters filled the shelves in the room surrounding it.


My space included a huge drafting table near the door where I spent most of my time and 3 large industrial desks with one typewriter around the perimeter of the room. Spacious, with a cement floor sloping toward the center and all very gloomy grey.


It wasn’t until the weather began to turn warmer that I got a real sense of what was going into the Moviola. I was working on the packaging design for a Terry Thomas movie about a group of bungling crooks. Terry Thomas had that distinctive gap toothed smile, a nasal veddy British diction and a silliness that surely influenced Benny Hill and Monty Python. The packaging design for this veddy silly film needed to capture that attitude.

From my left through the hallway I heard the whirling of the Moviola. The machine itself made a low clacking noise as the film feed into the machine. Stanley, our wizened and slightly deaf editor, was syncing the audio as well today. I heard the moans. Moans going forward and moans rewinding. Moans going forward and moans rewinding. Uhhh. Ummm. Uhhh. Ummm. Oh Oh Oh. Then backwards again and forward again. Uhhh. Ummm. Uhh. Ummm. This continued for over an hour and while it wasn’t completely unpleasant, it was really distracting.

I didn’t want to interrupt Stanley and I certainly didn’t want to see what he was working on. The moaning, just audible over the air conditioning, continued for the next three days and I was really beginning to lose it. Just take a moment and imagine hearing sounds of pleasure for hours on end.


I went to meet a friend for lunch just to get out of the office. I couldn’t share this with anyone; I was too embarrassed. It wasn’t like I was actually involved in the business of pornography; I just sat across the hall from it, in 1984, subjugated by the sounds from the room across the hall.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Optimism -- Living a Life Half-full

I have the distinction of sharing a birthday with Anne Frank, author of the best selling work of non-fiction in the world so my bar is set rather high on the successful writer meter. I'd like to think that Anne and I share more than birthdays, that we share an unchanging belief in the inherent goodness of people, in spite of the raw deals we may have been dealt; hers certainly more catastrophic than my own.

There is somehow a great responsibility levied with this common link and I am not alone in considering the birth date of June 12 as somehow significant.

Phillip Roth's life-long obsession with Ms. Frank was in some measure what drove his pursuit of Claire Bloom, another June 12 Jewess. Surely she, in spite of Mr. Roth's brilliantly documented proclivity to fester in the dark side, must have believed that underneath his embittered vowels and Jewish self-loathing; must be a spark of the joy that is life. Surely she was an optimist, like Anne, in spite of the mountains of evidence to the contrary.

If I examine my life on the world stage I am challenged to remain hopeful and positive. The relentless 24 hour News feed is enough to crush the spirits of the most blindly optimistic. Even reduced down to the small village raising my child, I have moments of despair. And yet in spite of those moments I chose to bring a child into this world.

I made this decision as a full-fledged adult of 40 in spite of not having the best role models (but who does?), to prepare me for this never-ending responsibility. This life-affirming step requires a belief in some kind of future, in some kind of ever after.

Whether it is science or religion, Einstein famously opined that these two things were connected; each requiring a leap of faith, a leap into the unknowable. I would have included Parenthood.

In choosing to become a parent are we not conveying a necessary optimism, a belief that our world is worth entering --- in spite of the mountains of evidence to the contrary?


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Happy Fathers Day -- or why there should be no tenure

Part One

“Kodomo no tame ni,” which means, “for the sake of the children,” is a value ingrained in Japanese culture that we would be well advised to adopt here. I’m referring of course to all of hullabaloo about public school teachers and the chaos created by a system that should have been changed 30 years ago. For the sake of the children, can’t we figure out how to fix this mess?

I have just spent the past year substitute teaching in New Jersey. While my experience is anecdotal, I can tell you that in the two districts where I spent my time, in one case a district with a stellar reputation and the other, at one of a rare breed of so called “Schools to Watch” in New Jersey; public education needs lots of help.

First, let me say that there are some good teachers out there and that good teachers are born and are not the product of experience. These teachers possess a gift for the art of teaching, a burning intellectual fever for learning, and an incredible amount of patience and compassion for their students. They are called to the job of teaching and are always working on becoming a better teacher.

Second let me say that there is nothing worse than bad parents and there are many, many more bad parents than there are bad teachers. This is worth repeating for those who are not paying attention --- many, many more bad parents.

There are the parents in denial who make excuses for their child’s emotional problems, or sometimes just plain laziness.

There are parents who don’t want to accept that their child has learning disabilities and might need help from what I believe is the flooding basement of public education, Special Ed. It is painful to learn that your child has special needs but it is not about you. Get over it and get them what they need to succeed.

Then there are parents who neglect their children and don’t provide appropriate role models and their children come to school not understanding what it means to show respect, not knowing why school matters and not realizing that the children sitting near them, hate them for wasting so much of their teacher’s time.

There are even parents who just don’t understand the value of education, in spite of the fact that a global market dictates that to have more than a minimum wage job, you must at least possess the literacy skills of a first year college student.

To all of these parents I say, you haven’t earned your parent tenure. These parents need to go back to school and attend a program that explains what it really means to be a parent. You have to pass proficiency tests, the results of which will be made public.

If parents are not proficient and don’t straighten up in three years, they lose their parenting rights and the tax deduction. The state claims the children and the parents have to pay the state to raise them. Instead of basing real estate values on good school districts, we’ll start to look for good parent districts because we all know that we learn more from our peers than from our folks.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Bucket List

I'm not sure why it requires reaching a particular age to merit the compilation of a bucket list. It seems to me that making decisions about what you want to do before you kick it, is already the ongoing sport of my life. What are we here for but to make choices and evaluate and judge the opportunities that come our way. We choose almost as frequently as we breathe. Aren't we all filling our buckets everyday just by living?

I suppose that looking at life as finite, as fitting into a bucket or any other small container, is the problem -- especially when we're young and invincible. When I look back at some of the extremely stupid dangerous and careless choices I made as a young person, I shake my head and marvel at how I'm still here and functioning, although how well is a day to day matter.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Because nothing is funnier or stranger than LIFE

“Oh no, there’s a gopher in our backyard.”

To a committed suburban weekend gardener and his loyal family, them’s fighting words. The vegetable garden must prevail and so I found myself at my own back door staring down by at a wire metal rectangle labeled “The Happy Trapper”. My master gardener husband had brought it home. It was about 3 feet long and 18 inches square and I was told, just the right size to hold your unwanted suburban backyard varmint.

The idea was that this contraption would capture the intruder safely and easily without harm, hence “The Happy Trapper” and all you had to do was call your local pest control bureau to take it away. My husband and son were excited about the prospect of snaring a wild beast in the backyard since living in the suburbs of New Jersey doesn’t generally provide too many opportunities for humane wild game hunting.

So the boys set it up near the garden two nights ago taking their cues from Caddyshack’s Carl Spackler, the man-with-a-plan. Who could forget Bill Murray’s crooked mouth slur "in the immortal words of Jean Paul Sartre, 'Au revoir, gopher.' “

The next morning I left at my usual 7 a.m., my husband dashed off to Manhattan and my son stumbled off to high school. Nobody bothered to check “The Trapper”.

I arrived home from work that afternoon at about 4pm and my son excitedly told me that the trapper had actually worked, unfortunately on a squirrel.

“ What should we do?” he asked.

My husband wasn’t going to be home until after midnight and I certainly wasn’t going to try or let my son try to release a rodent, even one with a fuzzy tail. So we attended to dinner and our untroubled sleep. Once again, we all got up and out of the house early, completely forgetting about poor mister squirrel. This time when I got home, my son was ready to explode.

“Mom, mom. Oh my god. You know how I told you about the squirrel in the trap? Well now the only thing in the trap is the squirrel’s head and a piece of his fuzzy tail. Something dragged the cage across the yard and that’s all that left. It was attacked in the cage! “

I mean, oh my god, that is so incredibly gross. I was not prepared or raised to tend to any eviscerated animal. Once again, my husband was working late in the city and I certainly was going nowhere near a squirrel head, even in a Happy Trapper. This was not moving forward on my watch.

My son did discuss what happened today with his biology teacher who suggested that the culprit was a local fox. Apparently they are notorious carnivores. I don’t know how the boys are going to handle this one and frankly, I’m not sure I want to know.

Life's Shutter

The farmhouse was at the end of an unpaved mile long driveway that twisted through the woods into a clearing. It was a simple brown two-story building you entered through the mudroom into the unadorned kitchen. Two large bedrooms and a full bath were upstairs with an open walkway between them that ran the length of the house and overlooked the great room downstairs fronted by a huge picture window which opened to a large slate patio and trees beyond.
The property was 150 acres of fine Pennsylvanian farmland with freshly mowed undulating fields, animal-filled wooden glades and four-acre private pond with a small dock and boathouse. You could walk around the property in any direction and find a distinct neighborhood. It was a little over three hours out of New York City and our weekend escape. It was where I fell in love with my husband. It was where we shared blissfully quiet hours side by side pursuing our individual passions interrupted only by nightfall when we shared mutual passion.
On the sunniest mornings we hiked over to the pond and climbed into our rowboat. I always had a book or two and he his camera. I would read aloud and do all of the characters voices. I remember reading LeCarre’s A Perfect Spy aloud and laughing like a jackal. It was so brilliantly clever and fun to read. We would float in the lazy heat across the water to a cluster of fallen trees that were the homes of our new turtle friends. We called it Turtleland and greeted each one by name. We baked and blinked in the sun with them.
One particular morning I went out alone early to bring some food and drink in a cooler to the dock to enjoy later in the day. To get to the pond required walking through a field of grasses that were about waist high until you came to a little gurgling waterfall that drained the pond down through a small stream. It was already heating up and I wanted to hurry back to the house to get more things. I strode purposefully forward and was confronted by a very loud screaming wild turkey. I screamed back. I don’t think I have ever been so startled in my life. I dropped everything and ran back to the house like a woman on fire. I had apparently gotten too close to her nest. I ‘m not sure which of us was more upset by the encounter, the turkey or me.
Another morning, just at first light, I was walking back to the bedroom from the bathroom along the long open hallway upstairs. I could see something sitting on the patio outside. It was an animal of some sort but one I had never seen before. I could only see its back. I tiptoed to get binoculars. I focused and adjusted the lens and still couldn’t figure out what this creature was. It appeared to be at least three feet tall, shaped like a fat fireplug and dark. It wasn’t covered in fur but it I could not believe that something that size and shape might have feathers. It was massive. The upper torso rotated to profile and I realized it was a giant owl. It had a snake in its mouth and was slurping up its nether half. I fell down in shock.
At sunset one evening we were sitting and enjoying the last light of the day on the patio. All at once the sky directly above us was pitch black and filled with an incredibly raucous flapping sound. It was unbearably loud and a sound I had never heard before. The darkness and noise remained above us a few very long moments and moved away to our left, over to the pond and the sky immediately went back to its quiet hazy twilight. Curious, we decided to explore. We went inside to get flashlights since nightfall was upon us and shuffled quietly through the tall grass. We climbed up through the stream and peeked through a cluster of trees to the pond. We could hear something rustling on the water. We turned on our flashlights and shone them across the water’s surface. Hundreds of wild geese were posed peacefully on the pond. Our lights startled them and they lifted off the water en masse headed to their next resting place on their journey south. It was both sad to see them leave and majestic to witness.
Many mornings we would leave at first light with backpacks stuffed for our journey. My husband carried a large format wooden antique camera on his back, which used precious individual 8x10 sheets of film, and I had my pencils and pads. We set out each day in search of new mystical and magical spaces. We christened them and held them apart. Nature was where we found peace and solace. God’s remarkable handiwork was proof of his existence.
There was a plot of land unlike any other part of the property that we were drawn to, especially on the hottest days of summer. The towering fir trees were over thirty feet tall and planted so closely together that sunlight could not penetrate and reach the ground. All of the branches at the base of the trees were bare. The floor was thickly strewn with dry pine needles and upon entering; the temperature dropped a perceptible 15 degrees. Looking up at the umbrella created by sheltering pine branches you couldn’t help but inhale the sweetest natural scents. It took several moments for your eyes to adjust to the diminished light. The softly diffused light peaking through created pinpricks of diaphanous light that moved as you moved. It was possible to believe in fairies here.
The family that owned the farm in the 1940’s intended to use it for a Christmas tree farm. They had planted several acres of baby fir trees to harvest for sale but the sons were drafted in the war and never came home. The trees were left to themselves as a monument to their loss. No one ever had such glorious headstones.
My husband spent time deciding where to place the camera, looking through the back and popping in and out of the black and silver blackout drape that I called his nun’s habit and adjusting the bellows. The camera was set up on an elegantly designed wooden tripod, the sheet of film placed in a slender metal frame and inserted into the camera, and then the shutter needed to be held open manually for the duration of the exposure to capture the limited light. Once he had finalized the position, he let me poke my head under the blackout cape that draped over the frosted glass back of the camera. The image was upside down and difficult to see and I had to move my head around to pick out pieces of forest in front of us. The camera firmly set, the shutter could be opened. We remained still and silent as the camera soaked in the beauty, barely risking breathing during the twenty-minute plus exposures. Nature was permitting us to capture a sacred moment. The silence was broken only by the sweet chitter surrounding us. It was indeed a holy place.
The power of camera shutters to control light and exposure are fascinating. They both limit and permit the subject to be captured, defined, and transformed. The shutter controls what we can see, how we see it, and alters reality for the viewer. Consider the stop motion work of photographer and scientist Edweard Muybridge. Using multiple cameras synced to capture images within pieces of seconds, Muybridge showed the trotting horse in flight, that moment when all four hooves left the ground and the animal magically flew. By constricting our vision, Muybridge expanded our sight.
Other artists have endeavored to capture the moment, most memorably the French Impressionists. Standing in front of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral Series at a wonderful exhibit in Atlanta, Georgia many years ago, I still remember thinking how incredible it was that a single subject could be reinterpreted and captured over thirty times. Each canvas was a different impression of the fa├žade capturing the mass and structure as well as the light and atmosphere of the time of day. Each painting captured that moment, that instantaneous opening and closing of our natural shutters. Each canvas was a testimony to the magical prism of light.
Last week I went to the Met to see the Francis Bacon exhibit with my son. He’s only 14 so we make deals when we go to museums. We look at what he’s interested in first and then Mom gets her choice. So this visit began in the munitions exhibit, guns and swords and crossbows galore. This being the Met, there are no bad exhibits and it was fascinating to observe the craftsmanship and handiwork that went into adorning guns that couldn’t shoot straight from the sixteenth century in Germany. The silver and pearl encrusted French dueling pistols in their satin lined cases were remarkable. The ornamentation on the swords was as delicate as filigree on the finest jewels. As a person who is both frightened and repelled by guns and any sort of weapon, these were works of art that appeared harmless. They were too pretty, belying their intent.
The Francis Bacon canvases on the other hand are violent raw images that assault your senses and are much more aggressive. He too manipulates time in his work. It is as if his eyes were a shutter providing multiple exposures of his lover’s face. There are some canvases that show his subject posed on a platform performing multiple contortions all at once and others, which peel back and open the flesh to carcass. They are more than a response to the horror of his time; they are a breathing, living, moving response to the pain of intimacy. The rhythm and movement is enforced by his astonishing sense of color. His juxtaposition of colors, his palette, lingered long after we left the exhibit and reappeared in my dreams.
Standing in front of a portrait triptych of his lover George Dyer, I asked my son what he saw in the paintings. He said, “ Hey buddy, I ‘m painting your picture and then he kicked the guy in the balls.”
Wow. I might not have expressed it in those words but yeah, that’s what they looked like. And with that I smiled and was back on earth with a quick click of my own life’s shutter.