Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My Friend Roy


I have this friend. I met him the first year I lived in Alaska. I was in a mall, selling cheap color nature photographs at an art fair and noticed a flash going off in a shop behind my booth. During a break I wandered in and introduced myself. Turns out he had just opened his own photography business, "Visual Sensitivity Unlimited." We were the same age and he was, to be honest, a little wilder and crazier than I was - but not by much! We hit it off, and back then I had no idea what a huge, positive influence he was to have upon my life.

As I think back, our friendship grew as he took me under his wing and taught me more and more about the craft I would come to love and spend my life doing. I knew a little about photography in those days, and next to nothing about the studio or darkroom. Like me, Roy was self-taught but was learning fast. I had a small darkroom available to me in the school where I was teaching, but the more I tried, the more I struggled with it. I mentioned my frustration to him and he quickly offered to teach me. "Tell you what," he said as he passed me a joint one night, also one of our favorite pastimes, "if you're willing to do my black-and-white work, I'll teach you, and you can use the darkroom any time you want." I jumped at the offer.

He taught me how to mix chemicals, how to use his Beseler 4x5 enlarger, how to develop film consistently, how to use contrast filters when printing. But mostly he taught me how to see the tiny little spots of white that pieces of dust on the negative leave on the print! There were many nights I went in and printed his work, only to have him reprint it the next day, before the client would show up. I would check in to see how he liked the work, and he would have saved the spotty prints for me, showing me each and every piece of evidence that I had not yet figured this out. Though he never said it, I knew I was driving him crazy, and began learning to pay attention to the small details. I just kept trying harder each time. Eventually I got it, but I'm sure it cost him a small fortune in paper, and many mornings of frustration.

Years later, in the middle of the winter of 1979, he asked, "Want to go to a photo workshop in Yosemite, California this coming June?" He had heard about the Ansel Adams Workshops and how they were becoming world-famous for their quality of instruction in fine-art photography. It seemed like a far-off dream to actually consider going off and studying under a master. But once he said it, it somehow became a real possibility. "Sure!" I said, and we wrote away for applications from the school. I eagerly filled mine out, but Roy, busy as always, let it slip and never sent his in. I was accepted, and early June found me actually standing next to Ansel himself and learning what photography could be. That workshop, and Roy's fateful question about going, changed the arc of my life forever. I came away from that workshop changed, convinced that I would indeed, somehow, be a photographer. A year later I landed a job the next year teaching photography at the high school - and I have taught photography from then until now, 30 years later.

Over the years - my 23 years in Alaska anyway - Roy and I took many photo trips together. We'd load up the car with junk food and head out to the mountains or seashore - where didn't seem to matter as much as who was in the car - always looking for shots, but mostly enjoying each other's company; laughing, talking about art, talking about life, telling stories and making our own new ones. Once we did a workshop together in California, and though we barely survived because of our antics, had a blast. In all, Roy was one of my best friends for the many years we lived in Alaska.

Once we moved to Olympia, though, things changed. With all the distance between us, we didn't see each other anywhere near enough. I called him when I needed photo advice ("Roy, how do I set up lights to do portraits in a tiny room?" "Shoot through the back instead of bouncing off the front of the umbrella."); he came down and stayed with us for four days so I could tutor him in Photoshop as he moved his studio into the digital world; he even arranged for me to interview his dad when I returned to Alaska one summer to collect video footage of old-timers for my Masters degree, a session that was a highlight of the experience. Even so, many months passed without contact other than through email. And that, I believe, became the problem.

To understand this next bit, you need to realize who I am politically. I would classify myself as a liberal environmentalist, and even that might not be strong enough. I care deeply about the policies of this country. During the years I was in Alaska I was in a tiny, tiny minority among some of the most blatant right-wing folks I have ever met. If that seems an exaggeration, remember, it was Alaskan voters who elected Sarah Palin! So when I landed in Olympia, Washington, a veritable hotbed of left-wing liberalism, and as I lived through the George W. Bush years, I became, like many of the people of this country today, even more uncompromising in my beliefs. It was a few short years into this transition, after arguing with an equally rabid right-wing colleague, that I recall asking myself, "When did tolerance (of other points of view) become a bad thing?" Somewhere along the line, things had changed.

They had changed me too, apparently. Roy, on the other hand, and my relationship with him, had always been amazingly apolitical. What he did always have, however, was a sense of humor. So when I received jokes from him that he had forwarded from his sister who was decidedly on the other end of the political spectrum from me, I reacted. Insulted by the political humor that made fun of my beliefs, I asked that I not be included on the mailing list for such jokes. But when another arrived that I found particularly offensive, I went off the deep end. I don't recall the exact joke, nor do I recall what my specific response was, other than the emotion of the moment. I "Replied to All," and basically 'went off' on the humor and what I believed was the mindset that inspired it. I wasn't particularly nice or kind, or thoughtful. I was offended and angry, and I lashed out...not only at Roy, but at his sister, too. I didn't care. I was mad. I basically said, "If you can't stop sending these, don't send anything!"

The forwarded emails between us stopped abruptly. In fact, all emails stopped. All contact stopped. Completely. Thousands of miles away, I told myself that it was probably no big deal - that he had just gotten the message. What I didn't realize was that I had been as offensive in my own way as I was by those I was offended by. And what I REALLY failed to do was to treat my lifelong friend with the respect or love he deserved and that I truly feel for him regardless of politics.

Years went by. I made a few attempts at reconnecting, but each time I was met with little response and no interest. Calls and conversation were short and abrupt, and emails weren't replied to. I'm slow, but on some level I got the message. A few years ago I went to Alaska but didn't call or even let him know I was there. I didn't like how it felt, but I didn't know how to fix it. But this last August I went back again for a visit, and thought I'd give it one more try. To my surprise he agreed to meet me for lunch.

I have to admit I was anxious about meeting. Turns out he was too. We spent time catching up during lunch, then went back to his house & studio. He showed me the changes he had made, and his new work. We continued to visit and at one point I mentioned that he was welcome to visit anytime he was in the area, and his face got serious. He took a deep breath and said, "There's no way to do this easily, so I'll just say it. Remember that email you sent years ago?" And he reminded me of them and how they had caught him completely off-guard - and how surprised and hurt he was at the vehemence of my response. And that I had also sent my reply to his sister. We talked about it for a long time. He said he doesn't send political emails out any more at all. In turn, I apologized for my rabid response. We both agreed that the price wasn't worth it - that our friendship was far more important than any political misunderstanding or disagreement. Over the past couple of months our emails have been full of testimonies to the joy we feel now that we are friends again.

I believe two things got in our way:

1. Politics and how divisive it can be, and is these days.

2. "Communication" in the techno-era, whether it's via Facebook, texting or email, isn't as effective, intimate or valuable as face-to-face contact. The hug we ended our visit with felt better to me than all the emails I have ever received combined.

Luckily for me, and from all I can tell, for Roy, I have my friend back. I don't intend on letting politics or anything else get in the way of that again. He means too much to me.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Fallout

We need to respond to what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico with all the creative energy we can bring to bear. This is so huge in such a negative way, if you are someone who is disturbed by what is slowly smothering us day by day, then let's rise up and DO something about it. Join together. Create. Write songs, poems, stories real and imagined; paint, draw, photograph, sculpt, carve. Create a body of work as vast in scope and size as this ever-growing spill, and let the oil companies and politicians know how many people all over the world are being affected by this catastrophe!

Send examples of your creations or post them on the new Facebook Page: "Artists Respond to the Gulf Oil Spill."
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Artists-Respond-to-the-Gulf-Oil-Spill/122378651135559

Here's one from me, written 21 years ago, after the Exxon Valdez disaster:

Fallout

Innocence in your eyes,

you ask,

"Daddy, we will be safe from the oil?"

I swallow hard.

How can I say to you,

"No! One day it or something like it

something we have created

something I have given my blessing to

(if only by my silence)

will kill us all."

instead I lie,

"Yes, punkin. We'll be safe."

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Boxing up the Classroom

I have been boxing up my room at school recently, in anticipation of my impending retirement; bringing home the personal items accumulated over the past ten years. After teaching in Alaska 23 years then coming to Washington state, it is amazing to me that a decade has gone by so quickly. I have packed boxes of books, photos of students and cards and letters from them - all contributing to the illustration that I did indeed have an impact. I know that, but these boxes are tangible evidence that I was here. Sort of like writing "Kilroy" on the wall. Or "Brooks was here." I used to write my name and the years on the rafters of the cannery warehouse where I fished in Alaska - evidence, however impermanent, that I was really there, then. The lives we touch as teachers go on. What we do here ends, and so do we. The world continues to turn in circles and more circles.

I never expected to become a teacher. Some people know from the start what they want to do and plan for who they want to become. Not me. I've never been much of a planner. I arrived at teaching in 1973. Had my certificate, even had a job teaching in inner-city Louisville at the Henry Clay School for the Trainable Mentally Handicapped. My first day in my first classroom was hot. Brutally hot and humid - and I was sweating through my shirts as I put up paper on a bulletin board in my first classroom. I was squatting down and finishing the stapling when a thought ran over me like a truck: I'M A TEACHER!" It literally knocked me off my feet and onto my butt on the floor. "Oh my God," I thought. "How did this happen? How did I get here?"

And for the longest moment I replayed the events that led me here: how all I ever wanted to do was write. How I took a wrong turn among many wrong turns in college and ended up as an English instead of Creative Writing major. How I flunked out of school my sophomore year because of all the alcohol and drugs. How I got back in and avoided the draft and Viet Nam by acing two correspondence courses in writing. How Special Education was where the jobs were my junior year, and when it became an option for a major, I jumped at it. How I ended up a student teacher at this school a year before, and fell in love with the kids and the job. How here I was, now.

I thought about my experience as a student in high school: on my own with an alcoholic mother and domineering father, I was one of the "bad kids" - the troublemakers. I ran away from home in high school - twice. I drank, raced cars, smoked cigarettes, skipped classes. Anything to escape the rules and regulations. The second time I ran away I broke into the school with unsuccessful hopes of trashing the administration's records and stealing some cash. I hated school. And five short years later, here I was - sitting on the floor of my very own classroom in the sweltering Louisville heat - a teacher.

I was stunned. I knew the facts of how I had gotten here, but how had I gotten here?!

"What do I do now?" I wondered, suddenly filled again with the existential angst I carried with me most of my adolescence. I briefly considered leaving - just getting up and walking out the door, like I'd done before, but I knew that was the wrong solution. I stared at the blank bulletin board and knew I needed to fill it up before I walked away. The only answer that made any sense to me (and still does) came when I thought of crossing paths with the kids who were just like me in high school. How I could treat them differently - with understanding - when I saw the look in their eyes that I carried in mine during those years. How I needed to do that, for them, certainly, but also for me. For the me that was still there, hating school, hating the rules, hating authority.

"You have to be the best damn teacher you can be, then," I said - out loud. "You have to be there - for them."

I pulled myself to my feet, finished stapling that bulletin board, and for the past 33 years, have tried to do just that. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but I have - most of the time, anyway - tried. That kid inside me that didn't like the rules? He still doesn't. But that's a different story.