Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Frozen in Time

Old photos stare at me, challenging memory.

Yesterday I found an old snapshot of three friends: Kathy, Mary and Sandy. They are holding up a Trivial Pursuit game.

Mary never liked games, Kathy played the lute and gave it up when she met someone who played golf and didn't understand Baroque music, Sandy moved away when she started climbing the corporate ladder. Mary, the Civil War buff, attended enactments in Virginia. In the photo we all didn't know about tomorrow. I helped pack up Sandy's apartment a year later; I cried with Mary when the lump in her breast was malignant and I watched Kathy lose herself. Only the photo remains intact.

Old photo albums stacked one on top of another fill up a shelf of a bookcase. Some contain specific captions: people, place, date and comments. Others rely on memory. I see myself on top of Mt. Katahdin, the wind and cold obvious even in the photo. Gail, my climbing partner, fell on the way down and sprained her ankle. We both ran out of water an hour before we came to the end and then conjured up images of popsicles and Italian frozen ice.

Faith Moosand collects old photo albums. "I rescued them from the nastiness of not being wanted." What happened to the album? Why wasn't it passed down within a family? Perhaps there was no relative. What will happen to all the albums on my shelf? Will someone remove only the photos they want to save and consign the album to the trash or send it out to the marketplace? Faith wrote a book: Futile Gestures: Photo Albums and the Ecology of Memory. She's found scrapbooks of photos where a number of the pages have missing photos or pages are torn out or parts of pages have been cut away. Why? "The destruction,” she says, “may have been carried out by the creator of the album...censorship may have played a role."

Synchronicity: it's out there in the universe and ready to display itself even if you're not seeking connections. I found a book on the new bookshelf in a local library: a book about the history of the photobooth. I recall taking some photos in a booth in Manhattan.

Two seated friends pull the curtains, smile, and wait for the strip of snaps.

Were we pleased with the results? How did we divide the pictures? What happened to those photos? Have they been collected by a stranger or consigned to some waste basket?

When Joseph Anato invented the photobooth he hoped for success, but did he envision the long lines forming to use the photobooth in Times Square? Soldiers shipping out to World War II took photos to send home. How many soldiers returned? Did they look the same?

It cost .25 in 1925 to obtain a strip of eight different photos. Andy Warhol used the photobooth for the creation of art. In 1986 Bern Boyle created a year long project of taking one photobooth picture a day. He called it his "response to the AIDS epidemic...documenting my life became an obsession."

Sawado Tomoko took one photo a day to "create an army of me". The New York Times reported, "She spent weeks changing her physical appearance and dress to invent a total of four hundred different identities." Then there's Herman Costa who spends afternoons in photobooths creating photocompositions. The Museum of Modern Art owns one of his works.

The digital camera makes it easier to document a life. The Photoblog encourages strangers to post photos, to challenge themselves with a posting everyday for a year, with responding to people all over the world. I posted a photo or more a day for over a year and then posted several times a week. At the end of the year I created DVDs of all the photos and eradicated most of them from my hard drive. Some I saved. There are no albums to look at. What will eventually happen to the DVDs? Will anyone be interested in fifteen photos of brussels sprouts or endless photos of a polypore?

What happens to the photos when scrapbooks disappear? In the 1860s scapebooks stored tintypes. Everything changes.

Friday, December 19, 2008


You know that you’re a denizen of the library when the librarian not only suggests a book, but also orders it from another library—before you ask.

I’m an eclectic reader, quick to glom onto something and then be off and running to learn more, to pirouette to another book. Last week I waded into The Secret Life of the National History Museum by Richard Fortey. I immediately liked him. How could I resist someone who wrote this description about the museum’s floor plan— “a warren of corridors…” I became an acolyte and I trailed him through the collections—stopping to jot down the names of women scientists or collectors.

“Mary Anning is credited with finding the first specimen of Ichthyosaurus acknowledged by the Geological Society in London. She also discovered the first nearly complete example of the Plesiosaurus; the first British Pterodactylus macronyx, a fossil flying reptile; the Squaloraja fossil fish, a transitional link between sharks and rays; and finally the Plesiosaurus macrocephalus.” Some say she was the greatest of the fossilists.

My son loved dinosaurs at five. At six he wanted to be a paleontologist. At seven he spread his collection of plastic dinosaurs throughout the house, behind a no longer used hobby horse, on the widow sill, in the bathtub,and on a blue mat that served as water for the Brachiosaurus. Dinosaur books filled a shelf. You can’t have a dinosaur from one era engaged in a battle with dinosaur not yet born and it was necessary to know the meat eaters from the vegetarians. We visited the Museum of Natural History where he picked up important bits of information.

“Do you know the heaviest dinosaur?” And then without waiting he’d say “Argentinosaurus.”

Mary Anning died of breast cancer March 9, 1847. “In 2005, a Mary Anning 'facsimile' was created at the Natural History Museum as one of a number of notable gallery characters to patrol its displays”—or perhaps to perambulate down the “…warren of corridors.”

Jumping from a repository of 70 million specimens in the fields of Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy, Paleontology and Zoology to libraries as repositories of books was a fluid move. I picked up The Library at Night by Alberto Manquel. Not only did Manquel start his peregrinations with the Library of Alexandria, but he extended an invitation to his readers to enter his own library and peruse a book. Because I am fascinated by the marginalia found in books I wrapped myself in his description of used books: “If the book is second hand, I leave all its markings intact, the spoor of previous readers…”

He reminds us of Seneca’s use of the Greek word euthymia as the “well-being of the soul” or “tranquility”. That is what he seeks in his private reading time. I have usually referred to those times when a book is a passage, a portal to the stories of the world as a conversation with the universe.

There is more—Manquel, in an essay, writes about a book he’s recently read by Ross Eckler: Making the Alphabet Dance: Recreational Wordplay.

Another direction to explore.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008



Too many people climbed a high sand dune between Truro and Provincetown —so the Park Service prohibited walking on the dune. I climbed to the top before it was proscribed. It was my first time. When you grow up in the Bronx the closest you get to sand is a long subway ride to Coney Island or a car ride to Jones Beach. My first blistering sunburn was at Jones Beach. The slope of the Provincetown dune created the illusion of scaling a formidable hill. My sneakers filled with sand as my feet sank— sending small avalanches rolling down the slope.A strong wind left sand arms reaching down to the hem of the dune.

To find the world’s tallest sand dunes head to the world’s oldest desert—Namib Desert in Namibia. The desert stretches over 1200 miles.

I watched my footprints disappear. I walked a few paces and then turned around and realized that everything about my recent steps was obliterated. It was as if my corporeal body exerted a weightless presence on the dune. Walking became trudging and my legs gained weight. The Oregon dunes were heavier and more capricious than the dunes I encountered in the Northeast. Judging how high or far one undulating dune was from another jarred reality. When my friend walked ahead I waited until she reached the crest of a dune to gain a perspective of height and distance. Only by keeping the ocean on our right and not following the allure of the next mound were we able to avoid the siren call of the dunes. On the way back we clung to the view of the ocean —always aware of our desire to reach the dunes in the distance.

The sand mounds of the world conceal footprints. The sand shifts, alters shapes, creates depressions that swallow seekers or create avalanches of sand particles when disturbed.


“A medieval mosque's minaret sticks out from a sand dune on the Egyptian Mediterranean coast near the coastal town of Al Burullus . The minaret that was discovered by an Egyptian archaeological team in 1998 is believed to belong to a mosque, which was built in the 9th century and dedicated to a Moroccan holy man named Sidi Mohamed Al Kheshoey who settled in the area 1,300 years ago.”


Some sand sings. I went to Singing Beach in Manchester-By-the -Sea to hear the song. When I walked I heard nothing, but as soon as I scuffled, dragged my feet, I heard the sonorous tones.

Some sand dunes sing. When Marco Polo heard the low frequency hum he suspected evil spirits. Scientists identified thirty locations worldwide where sand dunes sing or moan and each has its own note. Imagine a recording of this music—a low drone of the earth’s voice.

''In some places,'' Dr. Goldsack said, ''the noise booms like thunder when a sand dune starts to slide. In other places, the dunes sing or chirp. On Kauai, it barks. That's how Barking Sands Missile Range got its name.''


They found that grains of the singing sand varied widely in composition, but all were heavily coated with a silicon compound called silica gel.


I think that I prefer spirits—elfin spirits humming— a choir of sand dunes.

Thursday, December 04, 2008


"It wasn't a sensible thing to do,
but it was a courageous thing to do,
a daredevil thing to do."

Ellen Nelson
Cape Ann Historical Museum

Choices—instead of the width of the ocean the possibilities constrict to a narrow passage through an isthmus.

This happens imperceptibly.

Unaware of the limits, people precede as usual until confronted by an individual without the accouterments, unencumbered by the stones accrued in settling down.

Alfred Johnson, according to stories, was playing cards with friends—men who went to sea for their livelihood or worked on the docks of Gloucester Harbor. They knew the ocean, its beauty and its colossal power. Looking beyond their harbor to the horizon, which stretched ahead, they knew that it flirted with sailors. The thin horizon line withdrew as they sailed—coquettishly luring them further away from any shores.

Who first asked the question?
Could a sailor sail by himself across the ocean?
Alfred, not yet twenty, said he could do it in a dory.
He could sail from Gloucester right to England.
Alfred announced that he would “sail smack into England.”

Before he weighed the dangers or thought of his comment as impetuous, he set off to outfit a special dory--twenty feet long on deck and equipped with three water tight compartments. He settled on the necessities--a canvas mainsail, a sea anchor, chart, compass, a lantern, sixty gallons of water, canned meats, condensed milk, hard bread, tea and coffee, an awning to catch rainwater.

June 15, 1876 Alfred set off from the Higgins & Gifford Wharf. He arrived at Abercastle in Wales on August tenth or twelfth so weak that sailors carried him to an inn to rest. On August twenty-first he sailed into Liverpool Harbor.

Alfred returned to fishing. His pride centered in never having lost a man in twenty-seven years as a captain.

Decades after the trip, a reporter asked if he ever thought about attempting such a journey again. He said that "...nothing on earth would tempt him to repeat the voyage."

I know you will say that what I am calling stones are really precious gems. So let's call them gems: good job, decent shelter, family, friends, intellect, money enough for baubles. Stones may be of great value, luminous, decorative, and treasured. But they also confine choices. That and age.

An old man in a coffee shop told me that he always wanted to be an archeologist--"It's too late now," he said. "I content myself with reading. Besides my legs are too stiff."

What made me think of the narrowing of choices? And doesn't it differ for everyone? Aren't some people still making or creating new paths even with the stones or baubles or ornaments? Yes. But even after I acknowledge that truth —time and ornaments impose limits.

With that said--should I think about traveling somewhere I've never been, attempting a feat beyond my comfort zone?

Push back those waters--widen that expanse--