Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Camera

So, I 'bought' a new camera, and I just can't decide if I want to keep it.

The item in question is a Sony Digital Single Lens Reflex (or DSLR), model number A300, with a 10.2 megapixel sensor, an 18 to 70 mm zoom lens and a 'live view' lcd image viewer that also tilts up and down for low and high shooting angles. There's a whole slew of specs that I won't list, but it does have the same kind of manual control and superior optics that first led me to enjoy photography now many years ago.

My first real camera--after the Brownie Box and an ancient Kodak Retina--was an Argus SLR with a 50mm lens, and it had no light meter, so I had to carry one separately. With this tool, I learned from my father Bill the art and skill of taking photographs. I learned, first of all, how to judge the light and decide what shutter speed/ aperture combination would be best for the film in the camera. Although he relied on a light meter, Bill taught me how to use my eye and experience to make the correct decision.

In the days of film, it was important to minimize the number of wasted frames, since each frame cost money, and even today, when the digital age has freed me from that constraint, the discipline instilled in those early days helps me understand light and shadow and how they must interrelate in a good photograph. In the days of film, black and white was not only cheaper than color and therefore less 'risky' it was also more artistic in a way, relying on the contrast between lights and darks to form the composition.

Composing the photograph in the frame is another skill that Bill taught me, again as a way to minimize the difficulty and expense of taking good photographs. A well composed photograph does not need to be cropped. These days, cropping is almost too easy, but the discipline of looking carefully at the arrangement of the items in the viewfinder makes the chore of manipulating the image digitally even easier in the end.

All this is to say that when I took this camera out of the box and hung it around my neck for the first time, it brought back this whole flood of images and memories of my father. These were good memories, too, for I always considered Bill to be a good photographer and an even better teacher of the craft. He could be very disapproving of waste and angry with the way I mistreated my equipment, but he taught me how to use the camera and lens to express myself. I lost this ability when I broke the Leica.

While living in Paris in 1976, I begged Bill to allow me to borrow his most precious state-of-the-art 35mm Leica M5, and to my surprise, he relented and let me take it with me. Of course, I was inspired by the street life and people and couldn't wait to use it. I carried it with me everywhere, to my ultimate detriment.

One day, while walking along the street with my bike in one hand and my girlfriend's hand in the other, the camera slipped off my shoulder and crashed to the ground. It was not destroyed, but severely damaged, and when I took it to a camera store to be repaired, discovered that it would cost me every penny of the next three months allowance. It had to be done, so for the three months, I lived on potatoes and bread.

I returned the camera on my next visit home and did not tell him about it. I explained my loss of income by fabricating a story about having my wallet stolen in the Metro, and resolved never to tell him, or my mother the truth. In fact, neither one ever learned what happened to the Leica.

So, as I held a camera again for the first time in thirty years, I realized what I had lost. Since that day till the day I bought my first little digital camera (ironically for a return trip to Paris) I had never considered photography as a creative outlet.

Even these little digital cameras had begun to lose their appeal, because they never took sharp pictures, and never quickly. There is always a shutter lag with the digital camera and the optics just aren't there. The lens was so small, it just never took a sharp image. It makes sense, of course, that good optics are required for good sharp pictures, but it wasn't till I looked at the results from this new camera that it finally hit me.

So, as I try to decide whether or not to keep the Sony A300, here the pros and cons.


It is a real camera, with full exposure controls.
It has real lenses that are interchangeable.
It reminds me of Bill and encourages my creativity.
I love it.


It is expensive ($600).
It is heavy (1.1 lbs).
I already have a digital camera.
I don't need it.

The Good Waitress

Author's Note: On the advice of my erm, editors, I have trimmed a few words from this essay, and corrected the egregious error of misattribution of the lead quote. Thanks David and Henry. Sorry Warren.

I went home with a waitress, like I always do.
How was I to know, she was with the Russians, too?

Warren Zevon

Have you ever had a good waitress? I know, I know, they don't call them 'waitresses' anymore, but if you've ever had the privilege of being served by one, you know what I mean.

For one thing, a good waitress is more likely to call herself just that, instead of the oppressively neutral 'server'. Of course, these days, the young ones always introduce themselves as 'your server today' but take my word for it, that is a clear sign of bad service 'comin right at ya'.

Indeed. The good waitress doesn't tell you her name. Not because she doesn't want you to know. If you want to know, you'll ask. That my-name-is-Steffi-and-I'll-be-taking-care-of-you stuff just gets in the way of good service. It is obvious that she's there to take care of you. She might ask how you are doing, but what she really wants to know is what kind of a mood you are in.

If you are in a bad mood, she'll leave you alone. If you want to talk, she'll make sure to get your order first, and then listen, but she's always serving. Not just you, of course, but usually a whole section full of yous. And, even though they are usually not as good person (and tipper, natch) as you are, she's taking care of them and you all at the same time.

So, first of all, a good waitress is efficient. She is efficient with her time, of course, but she is also efficient with your time as well. The management of the the meal relies on the appropriate timing of the arrival of food and the departure of finished plates, glasses and silverware. Much of this you, the patron, never see. Unless, that is, something goes wrong.

But, for the good waitress, things do not often go wrong. They get the order right every time, deliver it in a timely manner and make sure it is what you ordered. Surely this can't be that difficult.

You won't have to think hard, I am sure, to recall the last time you had bad or even simply mediocre service. At the time, you must have wondered, 'What could be so hard about this?' yet there, before you, was the living proof that some people can take a simple thing and make it difficult by not caring. The good waitress is there because she wants to be. The cynic will say that she is there to make money, of course, but the realist knows that the good waitress is there for the power.

Where many people would find service degrading, and therefore would find themselves stripped of dignity and drained of energy if they were required to wait tables, the good waitress takes control of her tables and the people who sit at them. You might be the CEO of your company, but when you are at her table, she is the one who is in charge. Of course, if you were the CEO of your company, you'd likely already know about this power structure and be perfectly happy with it. In fact, if you are as good a CEO as she is a waitress, you know that you need her more than she needs you (or your tip. remember, you are not her only customer that shift). I call this the inverse power squared rule.

Simply put, the amount you, as client, need good service (ie the good waitress)is the amount of power you possess outside the restaurant inversely squared. Inverse because the more powerful you are, the more you need good service and good servants to remain powerful; squared because the amount of good service you'll actually receive while in power is very small when compared with the total amount you'll actually require to remain there.

The significance of this rule is not to be underestimated.

The good waitress knows when you are ready to go, often even when you don't. If no one at your table has the good sense or courage to tell you that it is time to go, she will. She'll bring the check when it's time for you to leave. This might be later if you are enjoying yourself and are polite about it; it will definitely be sooner if you are acting the fool. The good waitress, like a good friend, will tell you, 'you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.'

Monday, August 25, 2008

Microbe Power

Although this comes off as an "I told you so!", because it is just that, I'll make not claims to the contrary and say, simply, that if you've been reading this journal, you read it here first...sort of.

My idea for harnessing microbes for power is, in fact, being researched.

My point here is really not to claim that I thought of this first (obviously, I didn't), or even that they are one and the same idea (they are not) but it does reinforce my hypothesis that big ideas are within reach of clear thinking, no matter who does it.

In this case, it is at least rewarding for me to think that I have the ability to come up with some interesting and potentially useful ideas on my own. Most interestingly, these ideas come to me without benefit of the data required by a scientist; supported only by paucity of information required by a dilettante such as I am but serving adequately as proof that even an underachieving intellectual can occasionally have a decent thought.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Michigan Summer

Well, though I am back from Michigan already, as always, my heart is still there, resting in the cool instead of steaming in the heat.

This trip was particularly enjoyable, I suppose because the family was limited to just a few. Of course, one of the things that so satisfied me when I first became a part of this family was the size, but this time I found it enjoyable to be in a relatively small group. We are lucky to have such close bonds with our extended family, but at the end of the day, it really is only the members of the immediate family that are really close, and that is as it should be.

We gathered for John's 75th birthday, and his family--Katherine, Chris and his wife Caroline--were in attendance for the first time, so we had the pleasure of introducing them to and watching them indulge in many of the simple joys that summer in Holland has to offer.

From Farmer's Market (where I could not resist taking pictures of the colorful produce and flowers), to the cool granite beach sand (that squeaks when you walk on it), and the tangy taste of blueberries (right off the bush), there are some things I have discovered in Holland that I've had nowhere else.

For example, unlike on even the best golf course Austin (where I've played but once), in Holland, I enjoyed the intense pleasure of hitting a golf ball off a lush green fairway, and then, the concomittent semi-pleasure of hitting a golf ball out of the first cut of rough along the same fairway--and then, of course, hitting out of the deep rough off the same damn fairway...but no more about that here! I got play with my favorite playing partner, Chris, and the best part was that there was no wait and no one playing in behind us. Steve joined us one day and was a delightful addition to our routine. He is a good player but also relaxed and always funny! A leisure sport, the way it was supposed to be.

I enjoyed some wonderful early morning walks on the beach with Valery. She is the perfect person to walk with in the morning. She is energetic but quiet. She is the most beautiful creature I have ever known, and the vision I had of her in the light on the beach as the sun comes up confirms this fact.

Another wonderful aspect of this trip was that Maddie was able to join us, thanks to the generosity of her grandparents and her own ability to navigate from her apartment in Portland to the airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It's an understatement to say that it was a delight to see her, especially since this is the longest I've ever been away from her (or is it the other way round?) and I must say, she looked really good.

First of all, she cut her hair short again, and dyed it blue-black (sort of like Superman) so she looks very chic and, as someone said, very 'west coast'. Second, she has lost a lot of weight. And it's not like she's just dropped a few pounds overall, but she has slimmed down and her body has been re-shaped.

To be sure, she is still 'curvy' (her words) but the baby fat is gone and what's left is a beautiful young woman. She still hides the body because she has yet to have anyone appreciate it, but that will come. She's obviously in no rush to find someone, nor am I anxious to see her 'found'. I would love to see someone love her for who she is, but that's not up to me, now is it? It all goes so fast; I need only turn round and things will have changed.

Speaking of change, I can't let this entry pass without noting the profound change that took place in our family during this trip. It's like the proverbial 500-pound gorilla in the room; you can't ignore it but you don't want to let it take over, so here goes.

Billie is not well. This is my beloved mother-in-law who is more mother to me than my own; she is the woman who gave to the world and thence to me the greatest gift I have ever received: her daughter Valery. From this love has flowed everything I have known and loved for the past twenty five years. I do not know how I shall manage without it. I'll not dwell on that here, though, as there is much still to be done and much still to be said yet. Now is not the time for tears.

Change is always with us. We are change embodied, and for better or worse, we must always embrace it.

Failure and Success

What is failure? What is success?

Is there any effort so useless and unprofitable as to be called an unqualified failure?

Is there any success that is not qualified in some way?

Or, in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence that tells us, time and time again, that no experience is ever--indeed can ever be--wasted, are we required to modify our definition of the terms, 'success' and 'failure'; and, more importantly, moderate our response to these two extremes of human effort?

Of course we do, but we just don't like to acknowledge it. At one end, it seems obvious. We can easily admit that there is no human effort so flawless in design and execution that we must acknowledge it as perfect and thus never again need repeat it. It makes common sense to conclude that nothing we humans have ever done--indeed, nothing that anyone has ever done (or will do!) can ever be perfect. It also makes sense that the reverse is true, but we rarely look at it that way. There really cannot be a human effort so vain and counterproductive that there is absolutely no benefit accrued from it. Even the most horrible and disastrous of events has some elements of success, even if that is but a change in direction.

Discarding the two extremes, we find ourselves in familiar territory. it is, however, but one end of the spectrum we are most familiar with. We 'try, try again' because we never, never seem to get it right. No athlete, no artist is ever satisfied with their performance. Who doesn't want to get better, doesn't.

Failure is as elusive as success. Even in our dreams we know we will wake, and even in our most miserable waking moment, we dream. Always and forever, relentlessly toward the center we fall, our best efforts to crawl up and out of the pit notwithstanding.

Is it any wonder, then, that we do not easily accept defeat nor readily rest on our achievements? Neither condition is truly acceptable for us; neither is human, yet both are only that.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fired Up!

This video is my latest attempt to document what goes on behind-the-scenes at Hudson's on the Bend Restaurant in Austin Texas. Of course, it is just a four and a half minute peek into that world, and as such it hardly constitutes a 'documentary'.

But it does consist of just about every picture I've taken at Hudson's during the four years since I purchased my first digital camera. And, as the good people of Hudson's will tell you, I've had that damn camera out in my hand just about every day I've worked in those four years.

This has had at least two effects. First, the people have gotten used to me taking pictures, and so, with notable exceptions, no longer even look at the camera much, let alone pose for it as they were inclined to do in the early days.

Second, and more important, though, has been the fact that despite the sheer number of images I've accumulated in that time with no clear idea of how I was going to use them, I actually used just about all of them while making this video!

I did use many of them in my first video, "It's Saturday Night" so I made an attempt not to duplicate them, in as much as was possible without outright abandoning my first set of images. I never did actually count them all, but suffice it to say that there are several hundred images crammed into this video at the very least, and all of them were edited pretty much by hand.

I had some serious technical difficulties while finishing this work. It seems that even though my effort was rather modest (it's not the Titantic, right?)it was more than my video program or computer (or combination of the two) could handle, so at the very end, with 99% "in the can" so to speak, I got stuck. I will not be able to burn this to a DVD for those still-not-well-understood reasons, but no matter.

The intent, originally, was to post it on YouTube so Jeff and Sara could see it while they were in China, but of course, they've been back for three weeks now and I've just posted it today!

Ok, enough complaining. I really did enjoy making this video, mostly because I enjoyed taking all the pictures and finally having something to do with them!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Comments Allowed

Greetings gentle readers. I have just a brief announcement today. You can now leave comments without having to sign in. Previously, you had to have a Blogger account to comment, but no more.

Now, while I don't expect a lengthy reply from all readers, it would be nice, and encouraging for me ;-), if you'd leave me a comment from time to time. It's free, easy and o-so-fun!

While I have the chance, I want to thank all of you for reading. I do get lots of feedback through email, etc., and it is one of the main reasons I write. Thanks again!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Happy Birthday Mom!

I've been thinking a lot about Lynda lately, and it is no coincidence. Today would have been her 91st birthday. Birthdays being what they are, especially as one gets older, the day itself isn't so important as the accomplishment. Now with nothing to claim but her absence, I find myself in an empty place trying to fill it with words.

I miss Lynda more than I can effectively relate here with these words. Because we had such a long and intimate relationship, the feeling of absence isn't a heartache, as it still is for Pierre. What I feel is a longing, a subtle tug in my heart, a desire.

It's selfish, really. I would, if I could, continue the dialog we began now fifty years ago. The fact that our conversation is ended doesn't mean that I do not continue to receive her counsel and support. I need only look in the mirror or hear myself talk to recall that she is part of me, irreducible and elemental in ways that are not always visible but which define me nonetheless.

Others have come to define themselves similarly, not from genetic markers but social and artistic ones. Many people sought her counsel, about life, love and, above all, art. She used art as the metaphor it is to serve the interests of artists. She encouraged, cajoled, teased and supported artists of every type, generation and sex. Her door was literally always open, a symbol of her open mind and willing heart. In this world of lifters and leaners, she was a lifter, and many are the souls who were uplifted by her strength of character.

Her art, no less than her personality, forced people to think. Being with her was an exercise in stamina, for she always had more places to go and people to see than there were hours in the day and days in the year. She never stopped pushing herself nor those around her.

When I was younger I understood this drive as the means by which she sustained our family, literally with food on the table. Later I came to understand that her drive was more than physical; it was intellectual and spiritual. It was the fire of creativity that burned brightly in her eyes, words and art. That flame has kindled many others and, in the process, singed more than a few unsuspecting bystanders. If you are going to stand near the flame, prepare to be burned.

My sign is the sun and fire is who and what I am. My flame burns nowhere nearly so bright as Lynda's but it is to her that I owe my spark.

Happy Birthday, Mom!