Step By Step

I just spent an hour working on this image.  It’s definitely going into the art show, but I’m pleased with it now.  I’m laboriously working my way through some of the less difficult aspects of image compilation, blending, etc.  So, because it’s Monday, and because I have two essays in the works requiring minute attention to detail, I offer this.  New horizons, indeed.


Saturn Rise, 2015


I’m being terribly tardy keeping up with things since coming back from Pittsburgh.  I have a lot to do and the doing is being difficult.  But I’ve been given a clean bill for my arm, so I’m going back to the gym, but so far that’s the only thing I’ve managed to get on top of.  I need to replace my computers, because they are ancient and deserve rest.  Not to mention I have now gone full time at Left Bank Books.  Not to mention I’m still working on a book (as always), and not to mention…

One thing I did not do was watch the GOP debates.  I have enough crazy in the my life just now, thank you very much, and I can rely on the endless news cycle and friends to keep my apprised on the stupidity on display in what accounts for one of the major political parties.

Which is not in any way the implication of the title of this post.  I’m not going Green Party, not yet.  Rather, I thought I’d put up a new image as place marker and something pleasant for people to gaze upon while I sort through my new schedule and the pile of To Do.

On, and I did shoot this in Pittsburgh.  Just, you know, for your information, as if you need it…


Leaves Aglow, July 2015

Recent Excursions Into Foreign Climes

We took a brief vacation, long overdue, and drove up to Pittsburgh where reside our good friends, Tim and Bernadette.  We hadn’t been up there in several years and this trip in no wise made up for the gap, but it was much needed stress release.  Of course, this is a strange land with exotic fauna and we had to be careful in our wanderings.

Pennsylvania Dino, July 2015

But the monsters were docile, the scenery beautiful, and the sojourn eventfully uneventful.  We spent a lot of time doing not much and enjoying it thoroughly.  I’ll write more about it later, but for now I thought I’d leave you with one of the more pleasant vistas from the trip.


Pennsylvania Farmland, July 2015

I’m Back (and you didn’t even know I’d gone, I bet)

So, yes, we took a long weekend and went to Pittsburgh to see some friends we haven’t seen to relax with in too damn long.  I didn’t tell anyone here because.  I will tell you about the trip soon but not now.  Meanwhile, here’s a placeholder, the last (official) picture I shot from the trip, at our last stop before driving into St. Louis.  Enigmatic, striking, possibly confusing as hell, but interesting (perhaps) for all that.  Hey, I don’t have to make sense allI the time, do I?

Factory at Night, July 2015

Work History, Wages, and Doing The Things

The other day I was taking with friends about that pesky subject, wages. Minimum wage is in the news, a big argument, and the politics are necessarily touchy.  Comparisons were made and my own situation caused a bit of raised eyebrows and “What’s up with that” detours through personal histories.

According to some, among people who have known me a long time, I have always been seriously underpaid throughout my working life.

Before we get into that, though, I would like to reference this article, written by my boss, Jarek Steele, about the current anxiety-laden question of raising the minimum wage.  Go read this, then come back here.

First off, I would like to say that I work at a wonderful place.  Left Bank Books is now family.  As you can tell from the essay, they are thoughtful, concerned people with no small amount of brainpower and good bead on life as it is and a solid moral sense.  I’m lucky to work there.  I’ll come back to that later.

Now. Most of my adult life I have been relatively unconcerned about my wages.  I don’t know where I got this from, but I’ve always felt they were secondary to several more important factors.  Some of this is naïveté, but some of it is a result of early on making a choice between security and fulfillment. For many people, money serves as fulfillment, and for some it genuinely is.  They work to have.  I offer no judgment here, everyone is different, and it’s all a question of degree anyway, because we fall along a spectrum.

For myself, I’ve always worked to Be.

Perhaps a small difference to some, but a huge difference over time. I came out of the box, as it were, with intentions to be a certain kind of person, to do certain things, to make a crater in the world that looks a certain way, and if the pursuit of money got in the way of that, then I ignored the money.  Not consciously, because I always just assumed that somewhere along the way I would have it, mainly as a consequence of having done all the stuff that fulfilled my requirements of Being.

Now, if this all sounds a bit zen and possibly foolish, so be it. I’d be willing to bet many if not most of us have career-type dreams at some point that focus mainly of what we’re doing and not how much money we’re going to make doing it.  But this is America and identity is conflated with owning things, so it becomes very difficult to tease apart the doing from the reward.

Which brings me to my rather jagged career path, which saw me graduate high school intent on a career in photography, which I pursued as an art first and foremost and, in the end, only.  I never figured out how to make it pay.

So I worked for a major photofinishing chain, then a period as an in-house commercial photographer for a marginal advertising company, then as a delivery driver for a custom lab, and finally as the darkroom jockey of one of the best camera stores/black & white labs in town.  That last for 20 years.

I never became the photographer I thought I’d be, at least not commercially.  I did all the things.  Portraits, landscape, art and abstract, architectural.  Occasionally I did them for clients, but mainly I did them because they were cool to do and they produced images I wanted to see.  I was Doing Photography and that was the important thing. I was fulfilled.

All the while I drew my wage from my job, which supported the art and all the other stuff.

Then I picked up the writing again.  Time passed, I learned my craft, started selling stories, and then that 20 year stint of a job ended with the close of the business. Two years later I applied to and got another lab job, at which I worked for 11 years, most of them rather unhappily.

(And here the concerns over money enter in the most annoying way, because money would have been the means by which I would have been able to just write instead of having to work at something I no longer loved in order to eat.)

The story sales never added up to enough for me to quit that job.

But I was getting published.  I was fulfilled, at least in the desire to Do The Thing.

Age does force one to confront certain realities.  Looking back, I realized that I had never pushed for more money.  I never once, in all the years of “working for a living,” asked for a raise.  Somewhere in the back of my head there floated the assumption that good work brought remuneration, so if the people I worked for chose not to give a raise, then it was due to my lack of good work.  I could maintain this attitude largely because, with one exception (that first job right out of high school) I have never worked for a large corporation.  Never.  I have spent my employed life working for small local businesses, the health of which I could see, right in front of me.  They all struggled.  I was part of that struggle, so adding a burden to them was not in my nature.  I never asked for a raise.

Instead, I lived a life that fit with my earnings.  One could do that at one time.  And I did get raises, so it’s not like I’m talking about trying to scrape by on minimum wage.  (Which was, btw, right around two dollars an hour when I graduated high school, and I worked for Fox Photo over a year before they granted me a ten cent an hour raise.)  But I never asked.  I was always grateful when they came, but I never asked.  The people for whom I worked were usually close enough to the ground to show appreciation when they could.  For a while I made a decent living.

Donna and I, however, had no children.  That one fact explains a great deal about how we could opt to work for who we chose (often) and live as we pleased without overly worrying about income.  We were careful.  When we bought a house, we paid it off early.  We carry no balances on our credit cards.  We owe no bank anything.

And we realize how unusual this makes us.

But it also points up the major disconnect many people suffer in their lives in terms of employment and compensation.  I never asked for raises because, by and large, I never had to.  Had we lived a more traditional lifestyle, money would have been the single greatest driver of all our choices.

However, my comment above about being underpaid…

Several years ago an opportunity opened for me to possibly take a job as an editor at a local magazine.  I’m not familiar with the task, but I’ve always been a quick learner, so I had no doubts about my ability to come up to speed, and I could offer myself for a bit less than others might.  I went over the requirements of the position with a friend who had been in this end of the industry.  She remarked as one point that the salary would probably be X, which was low, but in a couple of years I could probably come up to standard.  I laughed and told her I’d never made that much in a year in my life.

She was flabberghasted.  How, she wondered, could someone with my abilities have been so undercompensated?

Because it had never occurred to me for a long, long time that I had been.  I’d been Doing The Things, and wasn’t that what mattered?

No.  At least it’s not the only thing.  Money is the means by which we live the kind of lives we wish to.  I want “success”—monetary success—as a writer so that I can do that and nothing else.  But I’m not good at that kind of success. I’ve never been adept at parlaying skills and artistic ability into money.  Whatever it is that allows some people to be skilled at getting compensated, I’ve never been good at it.

And the owners of corporate America know that most people are like that.  They depend on it.  The main reason unions were so important is for that reason and that most people need someone who is good at understanding that game to struggle on their behalf.  But the fact remains, most people take what they can get and then worry about the shortfall.

Because we have consistently misunderstood the relationship between, in the classic terms, labor and management.  As the economy has changed, that misunderstanding is becoming critical, because we are collectively faced with the consequences of our failure to address it.

Business knows average people aren’t either interested or especially adept at Doing Business.  That alone gives business—and I’m talking business at the disembodied corporate level here—an advantage because they take it.  They can shortchange employees because they know how and their employees don’t know they have either any power or can find the means to engage management to worker advantage.  Had we kept abreast of the changes to labor’s benefit these past 30 years when we shifted predominantly from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, then the present strained issue of raising minimum wages would not be so traumatic.  The problem of catching up is putting strain on small to mid-level businesses that they should not have had to bear.  Because we’ve been underwriting cheap product and services for decades by a disproportionate-to-reality compensation formula that treats people like parts.  Read Jarek Steele’s breakdown above.  Numbers, folks, and realities.

Drastic measures become necessary only because of indolence in the system.  As long as the numbers of people receiving poor compensation for work that has become increasingly primary were low, the problem could be ignored.  It’s not even so much that so many are trying to make full livings on minimum wage but that all wages are commensurately constrained by the growing imbalance in consumer ability to pay for what we need and want.

Then there are people like me, who frankly have never known how to care about the money.  Or at least never felt the freedom to demand it, because we keep getting sidetracked by Doing The Things.

Because Taking Care of Business consumes the one thing that art demands—time.  I loved doing photography.  I hated running a business.  I love writing.  Paying attention to marketing and sales is frankly loathesome.  I wish sometimes (lately more than ever) that it were otherwise, that I had that ability to engage promotions and negotiations, but I am who I am and do it only because if I don’t then some day I won’t be able to do the art anymore.

Which, by completely unconscious intent, has caused me to work locally, for people I see everyday and can talk to as friends more than as employers.  I think this is a good business model, but because it is not primary in this country, because people who think very much differently set the parameters of what constitutes “business practice” for so much of the country, this is not the business model that trumps treating people like parts.

We’ve been arguing about this since the founding of the Republic, since the idea of the yeoman farmer and the independent artisan was turned into a romantic myth by the privileging of corporate giants saw a massive culling early on, when it became harder and harder for the independent owner to function in the face of cheaper prices and savage competition that stripped people of their own labor by turning them into wage-slaves.  The argument went on and on, the battle raging for over a century and a half, until finally the Second World War, the Cold War, combined to usher in the era of corporate hegemony that, while not eradicating the small business managed to place the entire economy in thrall to the requirements of giants.*

Hyperbole?  Consider what happens when a large corporation closes a plant or leaves a market and dozens of smaller, local businesses—those that survived the initial arrival of that corporation, at least (mainly by learning to service it)—find their customers drying up because so many of them are unemployed.  Taxes dry up as well, so relief doesn’t stretch as far, and we no longer have an economy that will support a regrowth in a timely manner.  Towns have been abandoned due to this cycle.

Doom and gloom?  No, I think there’s enough latent ability and power in local, small business to still have a good chance at not only holding its own but of succeeding and altering the standard model.  Because there is still value in prizing Doing the Things over Making the Buck, and compensation can flow in those directions.  We’re looking at a crucial time where those kinds of choices are more important than they have been in a long time.

Which leaves me back at where I started, admitting to a kind of aphasia when it comes to this money thing and by and large, as inconvenient as it is, still not much interested in changing who I am in order to meet some mogul’s notion of success.  I work where I work and do what I do because I can decide that “career” is not a synonym for sheer acquisitiveness.

I am lucky, as I say, and do not in any way offer my life as an example of how to do this.  I might well have ended up in much worse places.  But it’s the people around me who have made the difference.  They all ought to be better off, but we’re all Doing The Things and making the world, at least around us, better off.  Meantime, I am grateful.  I can still Do The Things.

It would be good if more of us remembered or realized that that is why we work so hard.


* Consider further the completely bass ackwards relationship between large corporations and local communities wherein the community is required by circumstance to bride the corporation to set up shop—a bribe done with tax money, which means the community starts off impoverishing itself for the “privilege” of hosting an entity that will then extract profits from that community to distribute among people who do not live there.  And when the latent wealth of that community has fallen sufficiently that the profits to the corporation are less than deemed desirable, they then close up shop and leave, the community having grown dependent to such a degree that, scaffolding removed, the local economy collapses, partially or completely.  What should be the case is the corporation ought to pay the community for the privilege and the relationship should be one where the community as host is a primary shareholder and gets compensated first.  Unworkable someone in the back says?  Not so.  Alaska did this will the oil companies decades ago and every Alaskan since gets a stipend from Big Oil.  Or did till recently.

Passing of Giants

I cannot adequately tell you how I feel right now.  My insides are being roiled by a gigantic spoon.

Chris Squire, bass player, co-founder of in my estimate one of the greatest musical groups to ever grace a stage, has died.

A brief report of the particulars can be read here.

I have been listening to, following, collecting, and appreciating YES since I first heard them late one night on my first stereo, a track being played as representative of an “underappreciated” band.  That status did not last long.  A year or two later, they were a major force in what has been called Progressive Rock, a label with some degree of oxymoronicalness in that, not a decade before their advent, all rock was progressive.

Rather it was transgressive and altered the landscape of popular music.  By the time YES came along, divisions, subdivisions, turf wars of various arcane dimensions had become part and parcel of the scene, and there were those who found YES and others like them a transgression to some presumed “purity” of rock music that seemed to require simplistic chord progressions, banal lyrics, and sub par instrumental prowess.  As Tom Petty once said, “Well, it was never supposed to be good.

Well, I and many of my friends and millions of others, across generations, thought that was bullshit, and embraced their deep musicality, classical influences, and superb craftsmanship. They were a revelation of what could be done with four instruments and a superior compositional approach and as far as I’m concerned, Punk, which began as an intentional repudiation of actual musical ability, was a desecration of the possibilities in the form.

Chris Squire and Jon Anderson met and created a group that has since become an institution, with many alumni, that challenged the tendency of rock to feed a lowest-common-denominator machine.  Nothing they did was common, expected, or dull.  Some of it failed, most of it elevated the form, and all of it filled my life with magic.

The ache felt by many at the loss of George Harrison is the ache I now feel at the loss of Chris Squire.  He was brilliant.

There may be more later, but for now, here is an old piece I wrote about YES.

A Few Words About Unpleasant Realities

First off, I would like to say that I work with some amazing people.  I will address just how amazing they are in a different post.  The reason I mention it here is that this morning I attended a meeting wherein we all discussed an extremely delicate, profoundly important issue in order to establish a protocol for a specific event and it was one of the most trenchant and moving experiences in which I’ve been involved.

In mid-July, Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set A Watchman, will be released.  That I am working at a bookstore when this is happening is incredible.  That I am working at a bookstore with the commitment to social justice and awareness that Left Bank Books brings to the table is doubly so, and one of the reasons I feel privileged is the discussion we engaged this morning.

It concerned a particular word and its use, both in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird and in the larger community of which we are all a part. Necessarily, it was about racism.

I’ve written about my experiences with racism previously. One of the startling and dismaying aspects of the present is the resurgence of arguments which some may believe were engaged decades ago and settled but which we can now see have simply gone subterranean.  At least for many people.  For others, obviously nothing has gone underground, their daily lives are exercises in rehashing the same old debates over and over again.  Lately it has been all over the news and it feels like Freedom Summer all over again when for a large part of the country the images of what actually went on in so many communities, events that had gone on out of sight until television news crews went to Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia and the images ended up in everyone’s living rooms often enough to prick the conscience of the majority culture and cause Something To Be Done.

What was done was tremendous.  That an old Southerner like Lyndon Johnson would be the one to sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law is one of the mind-bending facts of our history that denies any attempt to reduce that history to simple, sound-bite-size capsules and forces reconsideration, assessment, and studied understanding that reality is never homogeneous, simplistic, or, more importantly, finished.

It became unacceptable for the culture to overtly treat minorities as inferior and allocate special conditions for their continued existence among us.

Those who objected to reform almost immediately began a counternarrative that the legal and social reforms were themselves the “special conditions” which were supposed to be done away with, conveniently forgetting that the level playing field such objections implied had never existed and that the “special conditions” that should have been done away with were the apartheid style separations and isolations these new laws were intended to end and redress.  Pretending that you have not stepped on someone for so long that they no longer know how to walk and then claiming that they are getting unwarranted special treatment when you provide a wheelchair is about as disingenuous and self-serving as one can get, even before the active attempt to deny access to the very things that will allow that person to walk again.

Some of this was ignorance. Documentary films of southern high school students angry that blacks would be coming into their schools when they had schools “just as good as ours” can only be seen as ignorance.  Spoon fed and willingly swallowed, certainly, but the cultural reinforcements were powerful.  The idea that a white teenager and his or her friends might have gone to black neighborhoods to see for themselves whether or not things were “just as good” would have been virtually unthinkable back then.  Not just peer pressure and adult censure would have come in play but the civic machinery might, had their intentions been discovered, have actively prevented the expedition.

But it is ignorance that is required to reinforce stereotypes and assert privilege where it ought not exist.

Bringing us to the present day, where one may quite honestly say that things have improved.  That African-Americans are better off than they could have been in 1964.  That for many so much has changed in two generations that it is possible for both sides to look at certain things and say, “hey, this is way better!”

Which prompts some to say—and believe—that the fight is over.

And the fact that it is not and that the arguments continue prompts some to believe it is a war and that the purpose of at least one side is hegemony over the other.

Which leads to events like that in Charleston and Dylann Roof’s savage attack.  He’s fighting a war.

The fact that so many people have leapt to excuse his behavior demonstrates that the struggle is ongoing.  I say excuse rather than defend, because with a few fringe exceptions I don’t see anybody hastening to defend his actions.  What I see, though, are people taking pains to explain his actions in contexts that mitigate the simple hatred in evidence.  For once, though, that has proven impossible because of Roof’s own words.  He was very clear as to why he was doing what he did.

He is terrified of black people.

Irrational? Certainly. Does that mean he is mentally ill?  Not in any legal sense.  He has strong beliefs.  Unless we’re willing to say strong beliefs per se are indicative of mental illness, that’s insufficient.  That he is operating out of a model of reality not supported by the larger reality…?

Now we get into dicey areas.  Because now we’re talking about what is or is not intrinsic to our culture.

Without re-examining a host of examples and arguments that go to one side or the other of this proposition, let me just bring up one aspect of this that came out of our morning staff meeting and the discussions around a particular word.

After the Sixties, it became unacceptable in the majority culture to use racial epithets, especially what we now refer to as The N Word.  We’ve enforced social restrictions sufficient to make most of us uncomfortable in its use.  In what one might term Polite Society it is not heard and we take steps to avoid it and render it unspoken most of the time.

To what extent, however, have we failed to point out that this does not mean you or I are not racists.  Just because we never and would never use that word, does that mean we’ve conquered that beast in ourselves or in our culture?

Because we can point to everything from incarceration rates all the way up to how President Obama is treated to show the opposite.  But because “race” is never the main cause, we claim these things have nothing to do with it.  We have arranged things, or allowed them to be so arranged, that we can conduct discriminatory behavior on several other bases without ever conceding to racism, and yet have much the same effect.

Because in populist media we have focused so heavily on That Word and its immediate social improprieties, we have allowed many people to assume, perhaps, because they’ve signed on to that program that they have matriculated out of their own racism and by extension have created a non-racist community.

That’s one problem, the blindness of a convenient excuse.  Put a label on something then agree that label represents everything bad about the subject, then agree to stop using the label, and presto change-o, the problem is gone.  Like sympathetic magic.  Except, deep down, we know it’s not so.

The deeper problem, I think, comes out of the commitment, made decades ago, to try to achieve a so-called “colorblind society.”  I know what was meant, it was the desire to exclude race as a factor in what ought to be merit-based judgments.  No such consideration should be present in education, jobs, where to live, where to shop.  We are all Americans and essentially the same amalgamated shade of red, white, and blue.  (Or, a bit crasser, what Jesse Jackson once said, that no one in America is black or white, we’re all Green, i.e. all classifications are based on money. He was wrong.)

While there is a certain naïve appeal to the idea, it was a wrongheaded approach for a number of reasons, chief of which it tended to negate lived experience.  Because on the street, in homes, people live their heritage, their family, their history, and if those things are based, positively or negatively, on color, then to say that as a society we should pretend color does not exist is to erase a substantial part of identity.

But worse than that, it offers another dodge, a way for people who have no intention (or ability) of getting over their bigotry to construct matters in such a way that all the barriers can still be put in place but based on factors which avoid race and hence appear “neutral.”

Demographics, income level, residence, occupation, education…all these can be used to excuse discriminatory behaviors as judgments based on presumably objective standards.

This has allowed for the problem to remain, for many people, unaddressed, and to fester.  It’s the drug war, not the race war.  It’s a problem with the educational system, not a cultural divide.  Crime stats have nothing to do with color.  Given a good rhetorician, we can talk around this for hours, days, years and avoid ever discussing the issue which Mr. Roof just dumped into our living rooms in the one color we all share without any possibility of quibbling—red.

We’ve had a century or more of practice dissembling over a related issue which is also now getting an airing that is long overdue.  The Confederate flag.  And likewise there are those trying to excuse it—that there never was a single flag for the entire Confederacy is in no way the issue, because generations of Lost Cause romantics thought there was and acted as if that were the case, using Lee’s battleflag to represent their conception of the South and the whole Gone With The Wind æsthetic.  We’ve been exercising that issue in our history since it happened, with even people who thought the North was right bowing the sophistry that the Civil War was not about slavery.

Lincoln steadfastly refused to accept a retributive agenda because he knew, must have known, that punishment would only entrench the very thing the country had to be done with. He did not live to see his convictions survive the reality of Reconstruction.

So we entered this discussion about the use of a word and its power to hurt and its place in art.  My own personal belief is that art, to be worthwhile at all, must be the place where the unsayable can be said, the unthinkable broached, the unpalatable examined, and the unseeable shown.  People who strive for the word under consideration to be expunged from a book, like, say, Huckleberry Finn, misunderstand this essential function of art.

For the word to lose valence in society, in public, in interactions both personal and political, it is not enough to simply ban it from use.  The reasons it has what potency it does must be worked through and our own selves examined for the nerves so jangled by its utterance.  That requires something many of us seem either unwilling or unable to do—reassess our inner selves, continually.  Examine what makes us respond to the world.  Socrates’ charge to live a life worth living is not a mere academic exercise but a radical act of self-reconstruction, sometimes on a daily basis.

Which requires that we pay attention and stop making excuses for the things we just don’t want to deal with.