Archive for August, 2009

Postal History Part I

Posted in Autobiographical, Capitol Hill, Senator Ted Kennedy on August 31, 2009 by smpiv
  • syn·chro·nic·i·ty
  • Pronunciation: \ˌsiŋ-krə-ˈni-sə-tē, ˌsin-\
  • Function: noun
  • Inflected Form(s): plural syn·chro·nic·i·ties
  • Date: circa 1889

1 : the quality or fact of being synchronous
2 : the coincidental occurrence of events and especially psychic events (as similar thoughts in widely separated persons or a mental image of an unexpected event before it happens) that seem related but are not explained by conventional mechanisms of causality —used especially in the psychology of C. G. Jung

I love words like this, possibly because of my experience with the Jungian aspect of the psychic aspect of this definition. And, as trite as it may seem, one of my favorite Police albums (I did say album).

The following story, however, has more to do with coincidental occurrences that are more like parallel lines that veer ever so slightly from the infinite point and bump into each other for the briefest of moments to form their own singularity.

I’ll start with myself–

idfixedFor my part I am working on Capitol Hill in the stamp window just off the crypt in the Capitol just in back of the souvenir stand. Both of these locations were demolished to make way for the new Visitors Center.

It’s a position I held for a year-and-a-half while I went to the Corcoran School of Art. It was a patronage position that I backed into several years before and the job I had just before going to Richmond.

It wasn’t a particularly taxing job, in fact, it was downright easy. The hardest part for me was keeping my drawer balanced. I didn’t borrow from my drawer like a number of my associates, but I insisted on doing the math in my head. This was long before the advent of the computer screen you see in post offices now and I’m not sure if we even had a calculator. So I had a tendency to come up short every night.

Other than that our days consisted of selling stamps to tourists, money orders, and answering questions that had nothing to do with the mail. Our most consistent customers were the reporters who covered the Hill. One who had an amazing stammer until he went on camera and another who could barely see over our counter she was so short.

There were two of us to man a position that could easily be handled by one person. So I would come in at 8, then Danny would come in at 9; at 11 I went to lunch, came back at 1 and Danny would leave for his lunch and come back at 3. At 4 I went home, Danny at 5. It was a comfortable schedule to say the least, but the nature of patronage positions.

Our second actor in this cosmic dance is a family from anywhere USA.

They are excited to be in DC and probably for the first time. Awkwardly dressed in clothes that don’t quite go together, topped with the ignominious DC sweatshirt bought from a street vendor, and usually some other bit of garb that sports the logo of the last vacation they went on. Nine times out of ten, Disneyworld.

They are squat and unassuming and their eyes dart about like nervous birds. They are trying to take it all in, trying not to miss a thing. For them this is a pilgrimage that may never be repeated. They know their friends will ask them a hundred questions and they are trying to be ready for them all.duane_hanson_tourists_2[1]

Dad is the bow as he breaks through the crowds, while Mom clucks over the kids to behave and stay close. It’s a brother and sister this time. They are quite reserved, their eyes wide at the wonder of it all and a bit unnerved that their usually very solid and confident father is a bit at sea in this new world.

Our final participant is a Senator who is very well known and unmistakable.

His white main and sturdy frame he carries with a confidence and finesse that belies his position. On this day he is far off his usual route and he is flying solo.

So to review, my position is basically static. I am standing behind my counter, can’t remember if Danny was there or not. Our second actor has either just arrived at the Capitol or perhaps has taken the tour and is ready to send off their postcards to awaiting family and friends. And, finally, the Senator.

Has he voted? Meeting constituents? Don’t know, but he is now standing behind another regular of mine. A little, waifish, bird-like old lady (in fact her name was Miss Sparrow) who came intermittently on day passes from St. E’s looking to sell something for a dollar. It was usually ivy she had ripped out of the ground outside the door. She never looked up, mumbled incoherently and would hand me a note with the price of what she had to offer that day.

Like I said, it was always a dollar, and it was usually ivy. Until this day I had never bought any of her wares. On this day I opened the note to find the recipe for toast–this I bought.

Clutching her dollar and a handful of ivy she mumbled her way past the Senator. Then our second group had just arrived behind the Senator.

“Good afternoon Senator. How can I help you today?”

In his very patrician, Boston accent he asked for a book of stamps. That was it. He paid, turned and left.

As he moved past our family, their eyes darting everywhere, their heads on a swivel, they fanned out in front of my counter. Dad looked at me intently and asked in an undistinguished accent, “Do you ever sell stamps to anyone famous?”

“Well I just sold a book of stamps to Senator Kennedy. He was just in front of you in line.”

ted-kennedyHe blinked a couple of times, his family looked at him intently, and he said, “No, that wasn’t Senator Kennedy. I know what Senator Kennedy looks like and that wasn’t him.” They all shook their heads in unison as if to say, Dad knows his Kennedys and that wasn’t one of them.

I could do nothing with that, so I nodded politely and asked them what else I could do for them. Stamps for postcards they said, my usual fare. They paid and left.

There is nothing extraordinary about this event. I have no idea who the tourists were or what Senator Kennedy did with his stamps. Yet for the briefest of moments, two minor parallel lives and one major one stopped looking off into infinity to form a semi-comic singularity. A minor synchronous event that only now how has body, with no causality, but to be reported.

Rest in peace Senator.


Cultural Differences or How to Win Friends and Influence People

Posted in Autobiographical, Culture on August 27, 2009 by smpiv

I have started this post several times and it hasn’t gone well.  It’s a relatively simple premise, but I keep taking the long way around to get there.   For example the following–

s763248152_1104462_5419This story starts like a bad joke–two guys walk into a bar.  Those two guys are brothers, named Mike and Scott.  One has brown hair, the other blond.  One has brown eyes, the other blue eyes.  One thinks the Porsche Targa is an abomination, the other thinks it’s a beautiful thing.  You get the idea, they’re brothers.

They had arrived at different times so by the time the dark one arrived the light one had been in the back bar, hanging by the tree for an hour or so.  These two did not share taste in women either, and when Mike arrived (OK I’m the dark one) in the back bar making his way for his place under the tree, his brother quickly introduced him to a girl he had been talking to.  Then he was gone.

The problem here is that these are differences between two brothers–not that we aren’t cultured, but it’s not what I’m getting at and, as you will see, has little to do with the premise.

Example two is as follows–

I’ve never had a firm grasp on the notion of fortune.  I grew up comfortably, never really wanting for anything.  Our family swirling in the midst of the great middle class–probably bumping into the upper end more than once.  Hard to say.  As a child I was never privy to the state of the families’ finances and talking about money was impolite–it still makes me uncomfortable.

This is getting closer to the mark, but again not exactly it.

So, I begin again and this time I will go right at it.

Margaret_Mead_NYWTSWhen Margaret Mead wrote her seminal tome “Coming of Age in Samoa” in 1928 (ain’t Wikipedia great!) she had lived with Samoans for a time and gone beyond the obvious physical differences, that culturally mark a society, to note a bigger cultural difference that could not be had by simple observation, but through living amongst the natives.  In this case it was the Samoan cultures journey from adolescence to adulthood.

I don’t purport to be making any seminal judgments or study here.  My observation would hardly hold up to any scientific scrutiny, in fact, I was part of the incident in question, so I have already broken the first rule of clinical observation by interjecting myself into the study.  So let’s get in the way back machine and make our way to the early nineties when life was simpler and see what was observed one evening in Cooperstown, New York.

I arrived in Cooperstown for the third or fourth time.  I had been to the Baseball Hall of Fame and been to all of the shops on Main Street.  I had become a “regular” at a local bar where I honed my skill at pool by using the mantra, “Be the ball.  Be the ball.”  I was moving among the natives comfortably and was a favorite at the local bar because I was such an easy mark at pool.  I was gaining their trust.

deborah harryIt helped that my girlfriend at the time was one of the natives and I shamelessly used her as a guide.  I was introduced to friends,  friends of friends, to people who had worked at Deborah Harry’s mom’s gift shop and told endlessly that the Hall of Fame was a blight on the landscape.  I was noting all of this with my own personal backdrop that loved the Hall of Fame and wanted to wander in the woods pretending to be Natty Bumppo.  But I kept that under wraps so as not to tarnish the trust I had garnered.

The introductions continued and my guide would usually preface an introduction with that person’s lineage, where their money came from and how far removed they were from their fortune.  It quickly become apparent that I was in a satellite of Florida–God’s ultimate waiting room, and that these otherwise pleasant people had their finger on the pulse.  Grandma’s pulse, Mom’s pulse, step daddies pulse, all sorts of pulses.  Very wealthy pulses.

The difference here was that this was seriously old money.  I was told how these people came by their fortunes, what their names were, what their grandparents names were, and I was drawing blanks.  The only name I knew was the daughter of a Hollywood director, otherwise these trust fund babies were a mystery to me.

As this began to unfold before me I began to pay closer attention and the dusty veneer began to fall away.  This was money that didn’t need a Potomac, Maryland or Beverly Hills to display itself.  This was money that flowed away from corporations through channels only known to the most wizened old accountant.  This was money that began to accrue on the Mayflower.  The hand me downs these “children” were living with could take up an entire season of Antiques Roadshow–the British version.

In fact, there was a royal family desperation to some of these stories as some of these “children” meandered into middle age in search of their slice of the family fortune and a throne that seemed ever further away.

And then, what every cultural observer waits for, an invitation–well, to my guide and her date, but I was in.  The Long Hut.

I don’t remember how far out our hostess was from her fortune or how long she had waited or if she needed the death of a Grandparent or one or two parents.  You can see how convoluted this can become and had I taken better (or any) notes I could better report her situation.  In any case she lived in any old farmhouse overlooking Lake Otsego with a bit of quiet desperation permeating the whole situation.

I was introduced to the hostess and given a dismissive look.  I initially thought she may have been on to me, but I later found out that my guide had brought a number of observers over the years to these gatherings.  And, I was warned, in no uncertain terms, not to lean back in the family antique that was strategically placed next to the chips and dip.  Anyone who knows my passion for chips and dip should be able to predict the outcome of this journey, but let’s take it anyway.

I left my guide to make my observations unhindered by any prefaced introductions that would otherwise taint my study.  Down some stairs, out a back door, and straight for the keg–rich or poor, the alcoholic water cooler.  And there they were.  Two dandies, still in uniform.

As I came closer I noticed their blue blazers had school crests on them and that their chinos were pressed and well worn.  Of note was the Choate or Andover give away–penny loafers, with penny, and no socks.  Wow, and in the wild.

howell1When I was a child one of my favorite TV shows was Gilligan’s Island.  One of my favorite characters was Thurston Howell III played by Jim Backus.  It had more to do with Mr. Magoo than Thurston Howell III and with the way he talked–through his teeth.  An easy thing to mimic, and in my mind a completely fictitious vocal mannerism.


As I approached the keg Thurston Howell III was talking excitedly to Thurston Howell III.  I was excited because I love to play TV games at parties–theme songs, remember that episode, whose a bigger babe, Wilma or Betty?  These guys had started without me and I came close to joining in when it dawned on me that these guys were for real–at least a real I had no concept of.  It seems Jim Backus hadn’t made up his vocal mannerism at all, there are people out there that actually talk like that.  This was news to me.

It was also eye-opening and in my head an absolute laugh riot (apologies to John Cusack).  How I managed not to laugh out loud is still a mystery.  Anyway I did a bit of space invasion to get closer to these specimens that could probably buy and sell me a million times over.  They grudgingly gave way to my mass and introduced themselves–let’s just call them Thurston Howell III, because I can’t remember their names anyway.  They were nice enough, but I could tell they were tolerating me like a distant cousin–a necessary social intrusion that  would leave soon enough.

I enjoyed my beer as I watched and listened with fascination as they looked like two animated ventriloquist’s dummies free of their masters hands.  Their mouths never moved and I lost the train of the conversation several times as I marveled at their perfectly annunciated “v”, “f”, “b”, “m” and “p”s that required no pursing of their lips.  Their sidelong glances finally said it was time to move along and I did.

I made a number of interesting observations as I moved among the party goers, but I couldn’t get the Thurstons off my mind, but I had long lost their trail as the party got bigger and bigger, so I made my way for the food.

Exhausted by my studies I went for the chips and dip.  After having eaten enough to feed a village in the sub-Sahara I sat down in the forewarned chair.  I kept myself as still as I could heeding the warning not to lean back and successfully went back to the chips and dip.  Then I forgot myself.

I leaned back, the back of my mind setting off alarms, my momentum taking no heed and the chair blew up.  Really, it blew up–pieces everywhere.  Small pieces as if responding to every pound that had ever touched down on that seat.  A nice little Windsor chair that had tragically met its fate–the Keno twins would have gasped at the loss.   

I managed to catch myself like a gymnast who sticks a landing in a squat and manages to rise without a hop.  The room was totally silent with all eyes on me, the blast zone clear of others but full of shredded wood.  A disjointed voice  rose above the utter silence.  It was one of the Thurstons who intoned, “Who brought the fat man?”, through his clenched teeth.  This was followed by a deafening roar as the entire party laughed as one.

abraham_lincoln_head_on_shoulders_photo_portrait1My guide was mortified and this coupled with several other lesser faux pas ended our relationship.  My entree into this rarified, somewhat vacuous realm had come to an inglorious end.  I had only heard whispers of its existence.  And, then, had only brushed up against its ugly underbelly and as Abraham Lincoln once opined “Too many pigs.  Not enough tits.”  The fat man indeed.

Mike’s Infinitely Fantastic Carrot Cake

Posted in Autobiographical, Cooking, Recipes on August 25, 2009 by smpiv

mimi mike and scott fixI love to cook. I am my families cook. I am a good cook–not fantastic, but quite good.

For the most part I learned cooking at my mother and grandmother’s side. In fact for a time I did a number of things in the kitchen left handed. My grandmother, Mimi, really instilled in me a love of cooking and the production–particularly breakfast.

I can still hear the coffee percolating every summer morning at 117A on Edgehill. The smell of coffee jets me back to that crooked kitchen that overlooked the poop deck my Uncle Joe had built years before. The fan smacking at the still air, the Franklin stove now cold from the evening before, the crickets long asleep. The crack of bacon wafts toward the fan; the eggs sit idly by waiting for the bacon to crisp so they can be cooked sunny side up. Their eyes closed by the hot grease.

117a kitchen fixedThe old toaster works diligently toasting English muffins and white bread. The English muffins will hold jam (rarely jelly) while the toast will be hollowed out for “Egg-on-a-Raft”. On special occasions we will have puffs. A simple delicacy made of dough that puffs in hot oil to form a pocket that is then loaded with butter and jam.

Other than cereal, our breakfast menu didn’t vary much–maybe sausage instead of bacon if we were feeling particularly flush that week; Quisp instead of Quake, simple things.

However it played out I am left with a coffee seared memory that makes cooking a pleasurable experience and one I enjoy sharing with others. And to that end I am sharing with you my recipe for Carrot Cake–nothing secret about it and, I know, not breakfast.

It’s a recipe that combines several other recipes and one that sees to an oversight in all of them–a lack of raisins. You of course don’t have to put raisins in, but as I note in the recipe, if you don’t you might as well make spice cake. And, for God’s sake, don’t draw carrots in the icing.

9 Medium carrots hand grated

2 cups all-purpose flour (King Arthurs is the best)

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (be liberal here)

4 eggs, well beaten

1-1/4 cups vegetable oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 box of raisins

Cream Cheese Frosting (too follow)

My belief (true or not) is that the carrots have to be hand grated and unpeeled. Once that is done, combine the carrots and the next six ingredients. Stir in the next three ingredients–eggs, oil , and vanilla (I usually go strong on the vanilla). Add the half box of raisins last (no raisins and you might as well make spice cake).

Pour the batter into two 9″ greased and floured round cakepans. Bake at 350° for 40 minutes. Begin checking at 35 minutes with a toothpick–when it comes out clean the cake is done. Cool in pans for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove cake and put on rack and cool completely.

Cream Cheese Frosting

2 sticks of butter

2 containers of cream cheese

1-1/2 pounds of confectioners’ sugar

liberal dose of vanilla extract

Stir butter and cream cheese together. Add about half the sugar and mix. Add some vanilla and stir together and then add final bit of sugar and a bit more vanilla.

This thing weighs a ton and will make the most hardened anti-cake person weak at the knees. It’s a two helping cake, so slice ’em thin to start.

Two numbers to remember:

    911 (the icing alone will stop your heart)  


The History of Photography Part II–or How Every Picture Tells a Story

Posted in Art, Autobiographical, Photography on August 20, 2009 by smpiv

Picture this–a two lane road winding through rural America passes by one rancher after another.  Interspersed among the ranchers are a few old farm houses, some still lived in, while others sit abandoned.  A barn here, a barn there and, like the houses, in varied states of use and abandonment.  Oh and for a bit of background music, let’s say that John Mellencamp is on the car radio with “Pink Houses” or maybe “Jack and Diane”.

The sun is just going down on those little houses so the picture windows flanked on each side with double hung windows begin to light up in flickering blue as the TV takes hold of the evening.  You peak in–you have to, it would be impolite not too.  After all they’ve spent all day looking out, so why can’t we look in.  So what do we see?

A Mediterranean styled sofa with arm chairs–a Lazi-Boy for the lucky ones–on either side divided by the lamps.  All of this is carefully lined up and centered on the picture window with the TV directly below the window.  Two windows–one to look out the other to look in. 

If we could get inside we would see the rag-looped rug on top of the wall-to-wall carpeting that supports a very sturdy coffee table and doilies.  Doilies everywhere just to lighten the bulk of the furniture  as it just fits in the living room.  But what’s missing, what have we forgotten………..

PCA photo barPhotographs.  They’re above the sofa in no particular order, at varying heights, with a variety of sitters and groups.  They are obviously related, with generations interspersed to prove it.  There’s grandma with her shocking white hair, best house coat and dated glasses, sitting next to a daughter or son of proportions that belie grannies aged shrinking.  And don’t forget pudge-ball, otherwise known as Junior.  What a team.

Look at little closer.  All the backgrounds are backdrops–bright colors, forest scenes, that clever picture in picture thing.  As we pass one window after another we realize that all the family pictures are alike–something akin to Harry Potter, except it’s not the sitter that moves from frame to frame, but the backgrounds.  But what does this have to do with me and why can’t I get “Pink Houses” out of my head.

I spent six long months–I did say months–traveling to those rural outposts to take and sell those pictures.  I was a baby photographer.

With my aborted military career a few months behind me and my career in a mall-bound leather shop (Sierra Leather for you old time Annapolitans) in full swing, I decided I needed a change in venue.  My every Sunday was spent gorging on the Sunday Post and finishing it off with a cruise through the want ads.  And there it was–my future, my calling.

PCA (Photo Corporation of America) was looking for ambitious, self-starting , go getters to enter the exciting world of baby photography.   I had none of those qualifications, but I had taken a picture or two, so off went my resume and cover letter.  I carefully cut out the advert and pasted in a notebook next to the other want ads I had carefully cut out in hopes that something would take me out of my retail hell.  They were a mélange of possibilities that all seemed to ask for at least two things that I had never done or aspired too.

Long story short, I got the job with a horrible twist–I was to sell the pictures not take them.  Well my foot was in the door.  Nothing would stop this self-starter and thus begun my spiral into another ring of retail hell reserved for the travelling salesman.

Up to this point every job I had was had through friends and/or with friends.  This was different, very different.  For one it was like being in a travelling circus.  The photographers and sales rats were sent to the same areas, so we stayed as many to a room as we could sneak through the door.  And these people, particularly the veterans, loved to drink, or drug, or gamble, or all of the above.

I was naive–no really.  I hadn’t realized how cocooning those Ol’ Brown Gates were.  My white-bread world was moving head long into a pre-Wal-Mart world I wasn’t familiar with.  And I was doing it in my trusty Ford LTD.  Fully loaded with pictures, clothes, etc,  I looked like an Okie, my car’s ass end dragging down the highway, my peazy little head just above the dashboard.

Again, what does this have to do with photography?  Well after three interminable months–it’s hard to explain how horrible it was so let me tell you a little tale–

I am forgetful at best and when you mix that with a job that sends you three or four hours away from your home base, forgetting things can be problematic.  Several times I forgot the pictures for a particular job, twice I went to the wrong store, and just to jump ahead when I finally made it as a photographer, I forgot my tripod (twice).  However, the incident I am about to relate, sums it all up.

In a typical week we usually went to two different locations.  This particular week I was to be in West Point, Virginia down towards Williamsburg for the first half .  The second half would be spent in South Hill, Virginia, very close to the North Carolina border–probably as far apart as any of my jobs had been. 

So off I went with my schedule securely locked in my head, rolling down  64 making my way for West Point.  With exit 220 looming, literally within sight, I had a funny feeling in my stomach that I was headed for the wrong location.  I pulled over and pulled out my schedule and sure enough it was just the opposite of what I wrote above.  I was 110 miles from where I was supposed to be and I had to get there in an hour if I was to be anywhere close to being on time.

This is where youthful responsibility raised its ugly head.  South Hill needs its pictures and I have to get them there at all cost.  So I wheeled my LTD around,  gunned its trusty 400 ci engine and proceeded to barrel up 64 and then down 85 at over 100 mph (I later found out that my speedometer was ten mph slow) to get to my appointed round.  I made it with 5 minutes to spare.

There it was , a grocery store on the smaller side, with its big picture window overlooking a smallish parking lot.  I was to set up on top of the animal feed at the front of the store and I did.  Slowly, one customer after another made their way in to buy anything but pictures–none of those that should have realized the death defying lengths I had gone to get their pictures there were there.  I was seriously wondering if I had read my schedule wrong twice.

And then, it happened.

A beat up car that made my Okie-mobile look like a Rolls slowly wended its way through the parking lot.  It was healing hard to the driver’s side as it passed one space after another until it finally see-sawed to a stop in a spot very far away from the front door.  It then morphed into a clown car as one child after another piled out the door–eight in all–and then Mama.  Her size was eclipsing, her shadow engulfing her children as she herded them toward the store.  Even without looking at my boxes of pictures, I knew she was my customer.

Through the door they came, shockingly well behaved and moving towards me.  I began to blink from a sting that preceded an odor that then tore at my nose.  As she sat on the folding chair, of several I had put out for viewing, I was afraid she would fall to the floor in a heap of chair pieces (I have experience).  All was well as her children then engulfed her and my floor show began.

It’s all scripted, if you hadn’t guessed, and it’s all built into a pricing matrix that is an elaborate dance in itself.  If you do it well it’s a beautiful thing.  I was on that day–8x10s, 11x14s, wallets, flowed and ebbed, some plucked from there and put over there in a dazzling display of pricing chicanery that solidified my position in the traveling salesmen’s ring of hell.  Out the corner of my eye I noticed another show was working it’s evil magic.

In what would prove to be an example of the physics of improbability my large patron began to pick at her nose.  No matter, I would continue, like I said, I was on.  My hand danced from one picture to the next as they balanced on any number of Purina products.  I had a wonderful rhythm going and out the corner of my eye I caught act two.

A chubby finger was disappearing deep into her nostril.  No matter,  the salesman’s art knows no bounds as I danced across the front of that store.  If anyone else had been there they may have wondered at my dexterity and my nimble verbal dance, but it was only me, eight children, and her.  And then it was gone.

Her finger, so far up her nose that I wondered if it were possible.  And then it came out.  Thank God for my youth, that I could continue with my own dance while being fully involved with hers out the corner of my eye.  She began to roll the object of her desire and for the briefest of moments glanced at her work and then dutifully at the pictures.

Oh, if only this story had stopped there, it may have been touching–touching, hah!  Bad pre-pun.

It didn’t and here’s where it goes in slow motion.  I am moving studiously, fluidly, to make my next point with a flourish of my hand, while my enrapt patron is making a move of her own.

edgerton_milkdropLet’s now go into super slo-mo–if you’ve seen the images of Howard Edgerton think of it that way, as my patron finishes rolling her own and arcs it off to its improbable destiny.  Yes my hand moves inexorably and parallel to the pictures on the feed bags as our patrons’ nasal product forms a beautiful parabola perpendicular to the images on the feed bag.  Not to drag it out any further, it hit solidly in the middle of my outstretched palm.

I quivered and I shook on the inside as I, in one swift move, deposited the offending offal onto some pour animals feed bag.  I landed like Kerri Suggs with a hop, but never has there been such a brave performance in the face of such adversity.  My patron paid for my performance by buying every picture there was of her children as she cooed and wondered over each of her progeny not ever wondering why I had such a strange and crooked smile on my face.

I quit that day, but was drawn back into the fold with the promise that I could train as a photographer.  Three months later I would quit for good when I literally could not get out of my car and walk into the store on my schedule.  It was apropos when I found out later that I would have walked into the wrong store anyway.    

I often think of the absurdity of that moment, but then I drive past one of those pink houses.  I see the pictures on the wall, and think of my very large patron thinking of the nice young man who sold her photographs of her beautiful family on a beautiful spring day in South Hill, Virginia.

Lincoln Logs

Posted in Architecture, Autobiographical on August 16, 2009 by smpiv

Somewhere in the legend and myth that is Frank Lloyd Wright is the story of his mother knowing from an early age that FLW would be an architect.  To further her belief she was said to have given him Lincoln Logs to move him in the right direction.  This story has always been clouded by misinterpreted truth–it has been repeated so many times with little or no attribution that it resembles an Oliver Stone movie.

Whether the story is true or not to is not important here.  What is important is that most architects know exactly when they heard the calling;  where the burning bush made its appearance; or exactly who influenced them.  I know my moment, but let’s wait a bit.

I wanted to be a pilot.  A fighter pilot and ultimately a test pilot.  Why?  Simple, my dad was one. 


My early reading consisted of Redbook, McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal, Aviation Week and Proceedings.  I obviously read everything and anything, but Av Week and Proceedings were my bibles.  I had notebooks full of clipped articles with aircraft performance and specs.  Don’t get me started about movies that have the stars taking off in a 727 and landing in a 747.  I still look up at the slightest flying sound.

So what happened?  Nature.  I think my sister can tell me what gene in my parental/grandparental scheme, be it recessive or not, that gave me thinning hair and color blindness.  I can’t.  I do remember finding out and initially thinking, wow, how interesting. 

Elementary school, the mid-60s, Poway, California.  The dot test that most everyone is familiar with.  Everyone else sees seven and I see sixty four.  At the time I thought, how cool, look at me, I’m special.  Well, not special enough.

The military has a special attachment to their equipment and if they can remove a variable that may put that piece of equipment in jeopardy, they will.  For aircraft it’s color blindness–disqualified right off the bat.  For the Navy it’s the meatball system that tells a pilot landing on a carrier if they are too high, too low, or just right on their approach.  It’s a system of lights that relies on red, white, and green.  For me when red or green get close to the light end of the spectrum I see white.  I think you can see the problem.

For years I lived with this knowledge, but was sure it would all work out.  It didn’t although I did end up in the Navy for an inglorious eight days, but that’s another story.

Following my honorable discharge I ran head long into an uncertain future.  For once in my short life I had made a decision–a decision with consequences.  I knew what I didn’t want to do and had no idea what I did want to do.  A classic conundrum. 

Fast forward eighteen years.  I’m sitting in a studio space at Catholic one summer, an “old man” of thirty eight, listening to one young person after another telling their “when did you know it was architecture” stories. 

They were all so relatively young and so certain about that moment.  “I built sand castles on the beach when I was three and I knew I had to study the ephemeral nature of design”.  “I built extensively with Legos  as a youth and spent my summers in Denmark as a master builder at Legoland”.  “My father is an architect and some poor slob, who thinks he’ll make partner, is keeping my seat warm”.  “My wife and mother-in-law made me”.

model 1 coffee shop

The last one, that’s me.  I was happily wearing out my body as a carpenter and making intermittent money because the economy was in a bit of a slump.  That didn’t sit well with Lisa, so she and her mother did a “What Color is Your Parachute”  intervention.  Like most things Lisa does, the table was set beautifully and all my favorite foods and drink were there.  I was suspicious, but food is my anchor so I didn’t run.

“We’ve looked over your education and work history and decided you will be going to architecture school’.  Really?  This thought had never crossed my mind and, truthfully, I really didn’t know what architects did.  As a carpenter the arrival of the architect was always with a bit of bemusement.  There were two kinds of architects that showed up on a job site–the blow hard, know it all, very clean finger nail type.   The other, more dangerous kind, was the one who had put on a tool belt for a summer and felt he was your Kodie dippin’ buddy.

model 2 coffee shop

I wasn’t sure this is what I wanted to do.  So the summer class was an inexpensive way to dip my toe in the water.  The design aspect was great, my new, young classmates were great, but what really caught my attention was model building.  When I was about eleven or twelve I had helped my sister decorate and furnish her doll house, but what I really wanted to do was to build the house itself.  Whenever I was in Michaels I would slip off to the dollhouse section and look at all the miniature materials–siding, flooring, doors and windows.

greek model

It was this entree that kept me there and ultimately made me fall in love with a profession I’m am still learning about more than ten years later.  So maybe I had the architectural gene after all.  Thank you Lisa and Margaret.   Oh, and if I’m ever worthy of biography, it wasn’t Lincoln Logs for me, but basswood.

macintosh 1

The Self Portrait

Posted in Art, Autobiographical, Photography, Self Portrait on August 12, 2009 by smpiv

Like anyone who has wielded a brush, a camera, or a crayon I have made effort at the self-portrait.  They have to be some of the more dishonest visual explorations going.

Like any portraitist we are making an effort to define ourselves; to give others a look at the surface–a quick look, maybe a peek, but heaven forbid not a long look.  Take a good hard look at any self-portrait and you’ll notice confrontation, almost a dare–so you think you know me?

This is easily flipped around and could read–so you think you know yourself?  We do, well don’t we?

We know our history well.  We know the high points, we know the low points and everything in-between.  Some moments have more clarity than others and oddly some of our most ringing moments are those attached to societal, cultural and world changing event s like sneak attacks, aircraft blowing up and towers falling. 

But let’s be honest our history books are just that, ever heavier tomes that only skim the surface and give us dates, times, and highlights.  Gone is the wind, the heat or cold, and smells that completes any memory.  It isn’t for nothing that other sensory stimuli conjure memories for us, and quite often in a jolting way that just thinking could never do.

Having said all this I will visit with two of my own self portraits done close to ten years apart.  One is loaded with memories.  Some of the moment, some secondary and some tertiary.  The other is an image that I have long used to define myself.  Unlike the first image, other than where I took it, the camera I took it with and approximately when I took it, it conjures up nothing.

welsh self portrait cropped







The first image is of a young man–eighteen, maybe just nineteen years old, as unformed as a baby.  Unknown to me then was that this sophomore year in Wales would be the highlight of my undergraduate education.  By far my most successful grade-wise.  Even more so would it define how I thought and how I best learned.

I had quite a mop of hair at the time.  Thick and wavy set over top of curls beneath.  A closer look will show a face just cleared of acne and blemishes.  I look at that face now and still see those blemishes, the ones that made me avoid eye contact as a high school student.  A cleft chin that seems to be rather prominent.  I think most would see my mother in this image, while today when I visit family at ever widening time periods, gasp at the visage of my father.  One family friend looks at me longingly as I suspect she looked longingly at my uncle.

The blue down sweater–yep sweater.  It was meant to go beneath an anorak and in combination beat the rain and cold.  It did work and I had that sweater for years.  Beneath the jacket was my Bowie t-shirt, atop a pair of bell bottomed jeans and a pair of Vasque Hiker IIs.  How do I know this?  I just do.

I was in my dorm room in a converted Victorian mansion about a mile from Trinity College in Carmarthen.  It was somewhat of an isle of the misfits–a hardy mix of yanks, Dutch, and Brits who came late to their educational decision.  The other head is Frank–last name long gone–an American from Minnesota who I was certain was gay.  He would dispel me of this thought one very late night in the tower of Llanstefan Castle over looking Scott’s Bay.  In fact if you look closely you will realize that Frank actually pushed the shutter release.  My job was to say “Now.”

Well, that’s the surface–a whole lotta “Now.”  But what lies beneath.  The hard part no doubt.  Not necessarily though. 

I often think of my life as a skipping stone.  The instances when the stone alights on the water as the conscious, alive and aware moments that will define the arc until it hits again.  My Welsh sojourn was a stone to water instance.  One I touch on again and again to understand and right myself when other complexities look to tip my delicate cart.  I can move through these memories like they were yesterday.  I’m so sure of them that when my ancient mind starts to wander, this is where I will come and my non sequitors will have root here.  “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as Dylan Thomas would put it.

mamyia self portrait 1985

My second image was taken in about 1985 or ’86 with a Mamyia C3 camera in back of 117A across from Gerard Fleury’s house at 102A, both on Edgehill.  That’s it.  That’s all I can remember.  Was it an image in response to an assignment?  Don’t know.  What was I wearing?  Don’t know.  Was I hungry?  Probably, but I’m always hungry.

So why do I continue to use this as my avatar.  It’s empty.  It has no definition. other than I know it’s me.  When I processed the image I burned out the tree so my shadow was that was left with bark–I am the vessel, I am the life.  It is my life.

I think that best describes it, a vessel.  I never age in this image, yet I am always of that age, and of the next.  I think it is best summed up in the final panel of a triptych I made when I was thirty.  The panel titled “Exitus”.  Beneath the image it reads–

When will I die, How will I die

Why will I die, Where will I die, Will I die?

The facts please.

The History of Photography–Part I

Posted in Autobiographical, Photography on August 9, 2009 by smpiv

For those of you expecting an attack or retelling of Beaumont Newhall’s history of photography, I apologize, this is none of that. I will not tell of the importance of the camera obscura; the importance of Henry Fox Talbot; or even the importance of Deguerre.

Perhaps had I been born in my father’s time I might expound on the importance of the Brownie to the democratizing of photography. However, like most sons, I had to be born later and that put me in the midst of the era of 35mm camera. For me it is the importance of the Pentax K-1000, a robust Japanese camera that led many into the wonders and to some, the art of photography.

This is what I’ll tell you.

This history begins in 1977 when I was eighteen and ready to spend a year abroad in Wales for my sophomore year in college. My mother bought me a Pentax K-1000 to record my time there. I can’t remember the circumstance of its purchase; why hadn’t I simply taken something more akin to a point-and-shoot? My finances were those of a student, so what made me think one roll of film after another would fit into my budget. I can’t say.

Up to this point I wouldn’t call myself a shutterbug. In fact I was rarely behind the camera, I was the one being recorded. Recorded in those wonderful kodak-moments that had little to do with composition or light, but everything to do with the moment. Nothing to do with Cartier-Bresson, but with a grandmother, a mother, a father or an aunt or uncle. Wonderful artifacts so clouded with memories that it’s impossible to make them any more precise than their physical being and verbal retelling.

dad and mike b

And so it began.

My initial taste in film was for Kodachrome. A luscious slide film that has only recently met its demise that was dye based and long lasting. It was also expensive to buy and even more to process. I quickly moved to Agfachromes and some Eastern European slide films that were easily had in Britain and Europe and far less dear than Kodachrome. By the time my year abroad was up I had accumulated hundreds of slides all tucked away in their precious boxes.

My first hard editorial eye was tilted toward this hoard of boxes. I’d love to say based on what remained that, perhaps, I had disposed of some gems, forever lost to the viewing public. However, again, based on what remained I would be surprised if that were true.

The first image I had enlarged was of a Welsh country manor house, whose name escapes me. It had everything to do with the symmetry of the composition and not much else. It still remains a favorite–probably because it is the first I felt worthy of being enlarged and, also, because of its part in the pantheon of my visual travelogue. My lengthy bow to the kodak moment.

 castle wales

Others that would make the cut are a collection of compositions that are all very successful, but terribly uninspiring. Some are heavy in color, others with balance within the frame, or mood, but they wouldn’t be recognized for anything more than the efforts of a tyro.

And tyro it would be for some time. Before I made my way to the Corcoran I took my camera with me everywhere taking pictures of my friends, rarely my family, and the world that surrounded my limited being. I look at those images now and wonder what made me think I had any talent at all–or anyone else. I have my favorites and there are some that are truly outstanding, but so few and far between that, again, I wonder what made me think to pursue it.

I’ll leave this chapter in my personal photographic history with one of those more successful images. An image that made me think that perhaps I had something more to say beyond the travelogue.