27 February 2006

Perfect

It is one of those memories that sticks in one's mind, a snapshot of a brief moment in time, meaningless in its triviality, yet it hangs about like a stranger who looks slightly suspicious, a tiny bit menacing, but who also never does anything to support those fears or allay them. So this morning, in the depths of one of my ‘episodes’, after a night of restless sleeping, it pops into consciousness once again, leaving both an unsecured longing and a spark of joy.

When we were children, under the age where one could leave us safely at home, we always went shopping with Mommy. She did not drive, never drove in my recollection, except that one fateful evening when she propelled the neighbour’s car up our driveway, into my father’s Buick, our garage and any number of framed Kaiser shade window screens, leaning against the walls so their framing’s new coat of paint could dry. Oddly enough, I do not recall taking the bus to town, nor returning home on it; I recall only waiting for it after a day’s shopping.

I recall rituals involved in all things with my mother – the way she cut bananas onto breakfast cereal; her preparation of 24-hour fruit salad, without which no holiday meal was complete; her sitting at the dining room table in the late afternoon to work the evening newspaper crossword puzzle, her diamond engagement ring refracting the setting sun’s light into dozens of rainbows that danced along the walls whilst she carefully printed each answer to each clue; Japanese nurse, O-M-A-H, essential oil or perfume from flowers, A-T-T-A-R, harmful often in a subtle or unexpected way, D-E-L-E-T-E-R-I-O-U-S. There was the ritual of things – the stacked cup, teapot and creamer decorated with ducks in the built-in china cupboard. This kept company with her prized milk glass, the silver salt and pepper shakers that were birds, perched on a silver limb and the clear Fostoria candy dish. So too, did we observe rituals during shopping. Most of our shopping expeditions are a blur, vanished into obscurity. But there was the traditional trip to the local bakery, warmed from the sun streaming through the front windows and the ovens in the back, redolent in the smells of just-baked things, displayed resplendently in cases on three sides of the little shop. “Don’t touch the glass; don’t touch the glass.” There Mommy greeted women who I recognised but could not call by name. Eventually one would come out with a giant sugar cookie for each of us, obtained from somewhere secret in the kitchen, still warm and sweet-smelling, bigger than my hand, half-wrapped in a tidy square of waxed paper. This meant we had been good; this was our reward.

Another regular stop was the Green Mill restaurant. We often visited there with Daddy. But when we went there with him, we had supper – open-faced roast turkey or roast beef sandwiches with gravy and mashed potatoes, simple Midwestern cookery; none of this focaccia or corn-fed free-range critter on whole grain chunks of stuff that is good for you. No, this was thin, even slices of whatever was available locally (which was probably “free-range” anyway) on gooey white bread with old-fashioned gravy and mashed potatoes without a lump to be found. Daddy greeted the waitresses jovially. They knew about his weird eating habits, no vegetables, no bread, no salad but lettuce, two cups of coffee after the supper dishes had been cleared, so there was no discomfort, no need to be embarrassed. They accepted his strange food predilections just as we did. But when we went to the Green Mill with Mommy, I do not know if we even ate. All I remember is hot chocolate in the winter, so hot you could not drink it, so you just watched the miniature marshmallows slowly dissolving into a sugary, foamy layer. In warm weather, we would get the restaurant’s signature fountain drink, a Green River, made with some sort of green syrup mixed with soda water dispensed from a real soda fountain. We would sit in the sparkling clean vinyl booth, taking care not to put our elbows on the equally clean Formica table top while we sipped our Green Rivers through clear plastic straws that came wrapped in thin paper – the kind you could tear off one end of the paper tube holding the straw, blow into the exposed straw and shoot the paper covering at your sister (and get in trouble for). I do not recall what we talked about, if we talked. I do not recall if there was music playing. I recall only sitting in the booth with Mommy and my sister, sipping Green Rivers and being ecstatically happy. Finally, the drink would be gone, but we would draw upon the straw for the liquid’s last drops, hidden amongst the crushed ice, making rude sucking straw noises (and getting in trouble).

There are stores we visited, although I do not remember Mommy buying anything or trying clothes on. We visited Damon’s, the local department store, and Osco Drug with the forest green marble tiling on the outside of the building. If my sister and I needed shoes, we went to Odd Lot, where Mommy could get school shoes and Sunday shoes for us at a bargain, but about which Daddy would always complain they cost too much. There was also the department store, Yonkers, where Mommy worked after the divorce. And in later years, Bergo’s, which was much too expensive but fun to look through. If we had to go to the dentist, he was housed in the Brick & Tile Building, and we got to take the elevator. There was the time my sister had to have work done at the dentist, and after, Mommy took us to the Green Mill for hot chocolate, but Betty’s mouth was still numb from the novocaine, so hot chocolate drooled down her chin as she drank, messing up her dress.

At the end of a day’s shopping, we went to the bus stop on the corner, just down from the shop where my mother always got her hair fixed. We sat on the stoop of a side entrance to a building that nearly burned down years later. And this is that odd little memory that keeps haunting me. It was a summer’s day – had to be because Mommy was wearing sandals with no hosiery. I was sitting next to her on the step, folded in half the way only children are able, with my upper body lying flat along my thighs, arms hanging down, staring at the ground, at passing ants, or the contours of the concrete, when my gaze went to Mommy’s tiny little feet – size 5AA, she always said – tiny little feet, with carefully manicured and painted toenails, wrapped perfectly in supple, brown leather sandals. In the midst of all this perfection, I saw some stray detritus, some bit of something - that - should - not - be - there on Mommy’s toe, and so I reached down to pull it off. She yelled at me, shattering the moment, the summer’s day, the memory that creeps into my head. “That was a hair!” she complains and stands up in a huff, very angry with me. “That hurt!” I try to explain that I was only trying to help, only trying to keep her perfect in the perfect summer sun at the end of a perfect day of sugar cookies and Green Rivers and Osco Drug’s beautiful green marble fa├žade. But she is angry with me now, and the bus ride home will be very long, indeed.

23 February 2006

Imponderables

I am presently reading a book by Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything. It’s too bad I didn’t have this book in primary and secondary school. It answers many questions I have had about science since then. It also draws connections that would have made my life (and learning) a lot simpler. Oh well, I have the book now, and that is sufficient. So what if Sister Mary Frances will die thinking I am an idiot?

However, there are other questions and conundrums I have that swirl about in my head from time to time, or pop up uninvited to distract me from something I’m supposed to be doing, like defrosting the refrigerator. I used to know a woman in Virginia Beach, Virginia, who was very religious. When confronted with a mystery or question she could not answer, she would respond by saying, “That’s one of the first things I’m going to ask God when I get to heaven.” I always thought it terribly presumptuous of her to expect that she would ever get an audience to enquire about things like, ‘does the fridge light really go out when you close the door’ or an explanation of the concept of the space-time continuum. On the other hand, this kind of attitude requires the ability to accept delayed gratification, something I’ve never been very good at. The one thing I have always hated about Christmas is that it means 364 more days until Christmas. [I also have issues with ‘living in the moment’. For example, for me, Friday’s arrival means just two more days until Monday. But that’s perhaps a topic best saved for another day.]

I accept there are some questions and mysteries that may never be resolved. I accept it, but I don’t have to like it. Recently, I decided to keep a record of some of my imponderables, just in case I ever meet a wise person, or in case that woman in Virginia is right. By the way, if she is, would one of my surviving relatives please locate this list and bury it with me? I don’t expect that I’ll be able to remember it all, and I have a feeling that after my first audience with the Almighty, I might not get another.

Have you ever wondered:
  1. Why brilliant scientists always have such bad hair?

  2. How many Loch Ness Monsters there really are? (I mean, it can’t be just one – if so, it would be incredibly old.)

  3. Why, no matter where you park, when you return to your car there is always some great honking huge four-wheel drive vehicle blocking your view parked next to you?

  4. Why those who most often get fleeced by con men/women (at least according to Australian television’s ‘A Current Affair’) are always immigrants (this includes immigrants from English-speaking countries like the UK or New Zealand, but seemingly not Canada or the US)?

  5. Why Kirstie Alley never exercises in those Jenny Craig© commercials, but she is usually eating?

  6. Why conspiracy theorists aren’t ever the targets of the evil empires they are tracking?

  7. That if aliens are visiting our planet, what they make of us continually going to our houses with lots of parcels and shopping bags (unbeknownst to them, our shopping) and then leaving our homes, stuffing the same or other bags into rubbish bins, which strangers come, empty and take away?

  8. Why pets are afraid of the vacuum cleaner?

  9. If Fido can understand ‘go for a ride’, ‘walkies’, ‘dog food’, ‘sic ‘em’ (or in Australia, ‘skitch ‘em’) and many other words and phrases, but he can’t understand ‘don’t bark’?

  10. Finally, a bit of philosophy (and something a bit deeper than the previous items). Given that the atoms in your body get replaced over each seven-year period and that your mind both develops and forgets old data, how can you define identity? Are you really the same person, you were yesterday? (See Locke’s Socks conundrum and Heraclitus’s view "no man crosses the same river twice, for both the man has changed and the river has changed”.)
Now that I’ve given you something to think about, [warning – shameless self-promotion ahead] I’ll be off to visit my fellow Flickrites. See my photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/jocksinoz/. And consider staying long enough to view other talented photographers like sailor5116 (see below).

RADAR


RADAR
Originally uploaded by sailor5116.
From one of my contacts, sailor5116, who makes these incredible circles with Adobe Photoshop, and this is one of my favourites. Check out his other photos, and those of my other contacts, too.

17 February 2006

Mini Camel Caravan

During the time I lived in Eucla, Western Australia (population: 40-something; 1429 km from Perth; 1222 km from Adelaide), I edited a little newsletter, The Eucla Telegraph, with a distribution between Nullarbor, SA, and Perth. I often included a feature story on a local resident, event or happening. One day, after having worked at the Eucla Motor Hotel from 6 AM to 1 PM, I was at home when someone phoned saying a chap with four camels and a dog had just arrived at the roadhouse. I picked up my pen, notebook and camera and headed over there—just a few 100 metres. This story, which has been edited for inclusion here, is what appeared in the June 2001 newsletter.

Chris Richards has been trekking the past three months through the Western Australian outback, ‘learning heaps’, raising a little money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and heading toward Fowler’s Bay. There, he hopes to acquire more camels and begin a trek up to and along the Dog Fence with paying customers who want to see the land in a unique way. [The Dog Fence was finalised to its current single-line form in 1946 to keep feral animals, especially dingoes, away from sheep stations. It runs from the Great Australian Bight north to the Bunya Mountains in southeast Queensland, a distance of about 5400 km—two and a half times longer than the Great Wall of China.]

From Perth he travelled along the water pipeline to Kalgoorlie, making about 20-30 km per day. Then he followed the rail line from Kalgoorlie to Rawlinna and Forrest. He intended to continue east along the train line, but was advised by Andrew and Mandy Forte (owners of the operation at Forrest, which includes the only sealed airstrip in the area) to head south to Eucla, as the road east that had already caused him and his camels much trouble would just get worse. In addition, there are larger numbers of bull camels in that direction, and three of his camels are females, just beginning to come into season with the cooler weather. “I’d hate to have to shoot a [wild] camel just because he was messing with my camels”, Chris said.

Camels were introduced to Australia in the 1800s to provide transportation in its hot, dry central deserts. With the completion of rail lines east and west, north and south and the introduction of petrol-powered transportation, camels were no longer a convenient means of transporting goods, so many herds were either destroyed or turned loose. Australia’s feral camel herds now are among the last remaining wild herds on earth. It is estimated that feral camels in Australia may number up to about 500,000. An adult camel can weigh 250-680 kg and grow to more than 2 metres tall. They can live up to 50 years and breed actively for about 30 of those years.

While well adapted to desert living and able to eat salt bush or plants with thorns and even high toxic content that native species cannot eat; they can go without water when vegetation is plentiful, but represent a danger to native species when they damage water holes. Because they are able to reach about 3.5 metres for vegetation, they can destroy native trees. They also destroy fences and are susceptible to tuberculosis and brucellosis, making them an infection danger to domestic livestock. However, their padded feet do less damage to soil and ground cover than livestock, and they do not represent a danger of feeding intensely in one area because they are always on the move. They represent the biggest problem when their numbers are large.

Chris purchased his camels from some friends who had a herd of about 15. The big, dark brown male is blind, and “will try to kill you, or at least bite you” if you’re not careful. The smallest of the four camels tries to kick him all the time. The largest female is blind in her right eye, and number four is just noisy. Camels are very intelligent, Chris noted, but stubborn. And after a pause, as if he were deciding if he should say, he admitted, “And camel is very good eating”.

“Do you threaten them with that when they’re giving you a hard time”, I asked. He admitted he’d thought of it, but “if I ate one, and another one got sick, then I’d be down to two camels. And I’m not carrying all that gear myself!”

His six-month old kelpie-cross dog, Bungee, “is mad as a cut snake”, Chris says, chasing rabbits, kangaroos of all sizes, and some very large feral cats. Once in the chase, he doesn’t hear Chris calling him. Just that morning, he'd been taught "a nearly nasty lesson by a very large red kangaroo male". A large kangaroo, although ordinarily timid, is dangerous when at bay, able to pummel its attacker with its forepaws and slash with its powerful hind legs. But so far, Bungee is enjoying the trip, and even helps nip a camel or two when they are misbehaving. Bungee wears a wire muzzle to keep him from eating fox baits. “He wouldn’t like it much in the city,” I suggest. “No”, Chris agreed. “He’d be eating tyres and chasing buses, I reckon”. Then he added, after a bit of thought, “I’ll try to keep him away from places like that.”

When I left them, Chris was enjoying his second cigarette, after a refreshing shower. “I haven’t had one of these for a month,” he announced, as he opened a newly purchased pack after finishing off a hamburger with the lot (cheese, salad, egg, pineapple and bacon). “No, that’s a lie”, he admitted. “I had one after dinner up at Forrest the other day”. I suggested that it might be a good time to quit, and he admitted that it might be true. But he just wasn’t going to do that right now.

“How far is the ocean from here” he asked me at one point. When I pointed out that it was just four kilometres from the roadhouse, he thought for a moment and then decided he’d wait to see the ocean until they got to Fowler’s Bay (about another 150 km). “I’m really looking forward to seeing the ocean”. I told him that he could see the view, at least, at the back to the Eucla Motor Hotel. But he was holding out for Fowler’s Bay. He gave Bungee a nudge with the toe of his well-worn athletic shoe and said, “I’ll take ol’ Bung’ for a swim when we get to Fowler’s Bay”.

He gave me his mother’s address in Geelong, Victoria, so I could send him a copy of the Telegraph with this story in it. He planned to head east, to South Australia, soon after he finished that second cigarette. Without thinking, I warned him, “You’ll lose 45 minutes when you cross the border.” Then I thought better of it. “I don’t guess 45 minutes makes much difference to you, does it?”

“No”, he admitted. “We get up when it’s light and go to sleep when it’s dark.”

13 February 2006

tiny swimmer feet


tiny swimmer feet
Originally uploaded by Shutterhugs.

Flickr Community

I referred in my last blog entry about a photography site called Flickr. I don’t exactly recall how I first encountered Flickr (I have slept since then), but I suspect I stumbled across it (literally, through Firefox’s extension, Stumble, which is a neat little tool for systematically wandering the Internet, directed by preferences you can change at will). Now two years old, Flickr is one of the newest internet communities. At first blush, it looks like a good place to store prized photographs off-site. It is also a chance to share photography tips and issues with like-minded photographers – there are amateur and professional photographers alike there. However, it has grown into its own little community, as it has its own blog and various ‘pools’ sorted according to the latest computer sorting scheme using ‘tags’ and people’s interests – Pink Think, Picturing the Male, Your Dog Nose, I Love My Cat (with nearly 3500 members!), Purple Flowers, Anything and Everything, to name just a few.

Each of these pools often has its own discussions going on, some of which include sniping at a group that the pool’s creator just left because of some small artistic or aesthetic difference. One recent example of this splintering resulted in a pool called First Thoughts Fewer Rules (
FTFR). This pool is a splinter from the group First Thoughts (FT), as the FTFR creator thought the rules of FT too complex. There has been some heated (but relatively civil) debate going in the discussion threads of both pools concerning why one is better than the other. The truth is that both pools are great; as it was explained by one person, splintering happens all the time in Flickr, and that is a good thing because it reduces the pool membership and therefore gives everyone a better chance that other photographers will see their photos. You know, like religion.

That is another reason for posting to Flickr. The site keeps track of how many times people (other than you) view your photo. Visitors to your photo pool may leave comments if they wish. Most comments are very general: “Nice capture!” “Wow!” or “I love the colours!” Some are slightly more technical, mentioning suggestions for improving composition, contrast, etc. Some pools exist primarily for critical appraisal, such as “Fix My Pic” or “Grade Me”. Some pools are just for fun. Recalling the FT and FTFR pools mentioned before, the idea is to view a certain number of photos and leave your first thought upon seeing the photo – critiques are not necessary nor generally encouraged. TAG pools exist to provide a certain number of ‘tags’ (as in the game, not the sorting method) until you’re out of the pool. Another way for someone to show their admiration is to add your photo as a ‘fav’, that is, a favourite. The viewer can keep thumbnail links to these photos in one place. If the photographer allows it, the photo can even be downloaded to use as desktop wallpaper.

That is probably an important point to make, for the 23 of you out there who haven’t visited Flickr yet. Photographers who upload their photos can restrict viewers’ ability to blog, download, print, and leave notes on their photos. One can even restrict viewing to a named list of family and friends, or permit the public to view some or all of his or her photos. So if you want to post photos of Nanna’s 98th birthday party at the nursing home for your family to see (particularly if they live all over the world), but you know the photos would be a crashing bore for anyone else, you can restrict their viewing to family and/or friends, while still allowing other Flickr members to see the rest of your photostream.

The point, for many Flickrites, however, is getting exposure. This is because one method of looking at photos – other than admiring your own photostream, visiting pools you have joined, checking out your contacts’ latest contributions or looking at photos that have been recently uploaded – is through Flickr’s Explore option. Explore is based on a mysterious, vague and seemingly arbitrary selection process that may or may not take number of views, number of favourites and number of comments into consideration in ranking photos 1 to 500. The top 10, more or less, are displayed daily with the
Explore link, therefore giving these photographers specialised and maximum exposure. If all of this seems rather egotistical and self-absorbed, you must remember that artists (and that term probably applies to at least 90% of all Flickr members – the other 10% are posting photos of Nanna’s birthday party) need exposure. Sure, they create their art because they have the inner drive, but ultimately, they are not unlike the small child, standing on the diving board ready to do the greatest cannonball into the pool, screaming, “Mum! Mum! Lookit me, mum! Lookit me!!”

There is much discussion, often heated about how arbitrary this concept of ‘interestingness’ can be – photos often drop in and out of the Top 500 for no reason. Some make it all the way to the Top 10 when others, with similar numbers of comments, favs and views never do. Visitors are cautioned that paying to much attention to interestingness can be bad for one’s health. But Flickr, in general, and interestingness, specifically, are hard habits to break. One uploads a few hundred photos, and then needs to increase the dose by going “pro” – unlimited uploads (2GB a month) for a yearly subscription of $US24.95. The photographer finds that he or she has joined a huge number of pools, sometimes just so one photo can be displayed. You check how many photos you have in the Top 500 and think that will be okay, but 30 minutes later (or less!), you have to check again. And if one is not well-disciplined, Flickr is like many Internet communities where the member spends many hours uploading, viewing, discussing and, of course, checking one’s position regarding interestingness.

However, on the positive side, friendships are created. Recently, a woman had her kitten spayed. Arny Johanns’ contacts already knew Sunna from her many photos, posted since she joined the household. Arny posted a photo of
Sunna sleeping, complete with the plastic collar that the vet puts on so the animal won’t worry her stitches. People who were their contacts as well as complete strangers saw that photo and were touched by it. So later, she posted a photo in which Sunna was awake – still a ‘bucket head’, as Ratbag would call it – but looking a lot brighter. Because Flickr has been around for two years, people watch other people’s kids grow up; they share birthday photos of their kids, their cats, their dogs, their spouses and partners. Photographers of amazing talent share their travel photos. People who own Ragdoll cats, Greyhounds, Maine Coon Cats, Great Danes, parrots and cockatiels, iguanas – you name it – share their pet photos and their interest in that species of animal. One of my favourite pet photos is one of jan2eke’s dogs, Moos and Shanny. Possibly my favourite photo on Flickr would have to belong to a woman who takes wonderful photos, Shutterhugs. She uploaded this photo of her baby’s little feet (Tiny Swimmer Feet - see above, but go to Flickr to see the full size photo).

So it is a community; what goes on there just happens in the Ethernet. There are frequent ‘meet-ups’ for members who live in the same area; even people who are now couples ‘met’ on Flickr. It is a community complete with all human emotions, interests, hobbies, joys, sorrows and idiosyncrasies that the ‘real’ world holds – with the common thread of photography. If this sounds like something you might be interested in, visit
Flickr. If you want to see my photos, click on the link in the right column of this blog (where you see all the pretty pictures!). If you’re an amateur, avid or professional photographer, and have some spare time, join us at Flickr (if you haven’t already). See you in the Top 500!