Rise and Fall of the Weird

Following below, you will find an opinion piece I wrote about Portland’s history and its effects on the city, good and not so good. Originally, I wrote it for Facebook (though a local paper that shall not be named bounced it). I think it’s a thoughtful piece that, among other things, modestly suggests ripping out skyscapers at the south end of town to build houses.

Some of it’s serious, some of it’s vaguely tongue-in-cheek, and, for balance, some it’s bonkers. Enjoy (or something along those lines).

Note: If you’re a Portlander and live in a cool old house (at least 100 years old) that you think might photograph well, please tell me about it.

PORTLAND: RISE AND FALL OF THE WEIRD

I’m a playwright and photographer based in Portland, having lived here since 1989. Of late I’ve been working on a photo project called “Survivors” where I photograph Portland houses that have remained standing for over a hundred years, especially those built in the 1880s (and a few rare homes from the 1870s).

Unsurprisingly, the project has taught me a great deal about Portland’s history—both good and the bad. One thing that sticks with me is that when Lovejoy and Pettygrove flipped the famous coin to decide Portland’s name, no Tacoma, Seattle, or Spokane existed. Astoria had been established, but it faced geographic limitations to its growth. Basically, no cities stood between San Francisco and Vancouver, BC, and the question remained open whether the new town even belonged to the U.S. or England. New arrivals built the place anyway.

Things have changed a smidge since then, but this has always been a fractious city, rife with political shenanigans and corruption (and a certain amount of fun) and laced with hope. Cyclically, it has risen and faded.

It has not always treated its citizens well, often squandering its assets. It’s hard to imagine what the city would be today if Harbor Drive, a six-lane freeway, had not taken out some 79 fantastic waterfront buildings and homes in obeisance to the almighty automobile. There’s no Harbor Drive today, and Portland is (to my knowledge) the only American city to have ripped out a freeway and replaced it with a park.

Then there’s the Multnomah Hotel. A truly awe-inspiring building that had long been a centerpiece of Portland’s political and cultural life, it met its demise to be replaced by a parking garage. Eventually, that illustrious facility met its own end to become Pioneer Square, destined to become Portland’s beloved “living room.” What a lot that block has seen.

In the 1960s, wise old men decided that Portland south of the city center had become unsightly; so they used Federal funds to “revitalize” the area, tearing down 83.5 acres, demolishing an entire neighborhood built by Jewish and Italian immigrants, rife with historic homes, mom-and-pop groceries, restaurants, and shops, replacing these with a sea of boxy office buildings. The result has been a human desert where families once thrived. Personally, I’m in favor of ripping out the Bauhaus monstrosities and building houses. We need houses.

On the east side, another vibrant neighborhood of old homes, shops, and scores of jazz clubs was demolished for I-5, the Memorial Coliseum, and, later, the convention center and the Legacy Emanuel Hospital complex. This time, the displaced population was largely Black. Obviously, there’s a pattern here.

In many ways, the city’s saving grace has been its population of cranks: stubborn preservationists, activists, artists, Bohemians, hippies, punks, and other glorious riffraff who embodied an unappreciated facet of the revered pioneers. That is, a lot of the folks who trekked through the forests or risked insanely dangerous sea voyages to get here were plain weirdos who wanted to get away from stultifying normalcy so they could live as they wished.

It’s notable that William Johnson, the first white person to build a log cabin in what became Portland was a British sailor with a Native American wife and a passel of kids who moved on when other settlers showed up. Guess it was all downhill from there.

That’s been the pattern. Eccentrics and regular folks who just want to live their lives build a rich, unique place, and then other people—sometimes well meaning, other times greedy and ruthless—tear it down. We’re forever cursed by our individuality.

Right now, we’re living through a destructive period, where a huge influx of people seeking the Promised Land have brought with them the problems they sought to escape. Their money (and the ever-present greedy and ruthless) pushed away the people that they sought to become. The rootless who came here to find a bit of grace underestimated how difficult that task would be, and now they have nowhere to go. And those with the greatest dedication to their fellows, standing up against discrimination, drew the ire of some truly evil people, turning the city into a war zone.

So things aren’t so great right now, and those in pain turn to a past that, honestly, had its terrible aspects alongside fleeting moments of transcendence. I have a certain faith, however, that the stubborn, irascible weirdos will rise again, creating something unique and beautiful before they become drowned out by sensible voices, and the cycle begins all over.

Maybe the task for those of us who have survived Portland’s “good times” is not to become stuck mourning the past but, rather, to support the weirdos to come and to stand against those who will try to exploit them. We may be doomed, beautiful losers, but we have our moments, and we should recognize that we’re the folks who give the city its character and grit and its ability to build anew.

At least for a little while.

The News is a Harsh Mitterest

So, like…yeah, in the news biz, you often have to write things quickly to get the word out, but…but….

But this, from Microsoft News:
Even though there is lots that is still unknown about omicron, the new variant is concerning because of the “large number of mutations” that suggests it could be more transmissible than other variants, Fauci said.

Okay. It’s Saturday morning, and you’ve got one of those hangovers that feel like someone’s smacking the back of your head with a hammer every time you swallow, but people usually go to J-School for a reason. For instance…practicing journalism.

Hows about….
Even though much remains unknown about Omicron, the new variant raises concerns due to the “large number of mutations,” Fauci said, suggesting Omicron could be more transmissible than previous variants.

I’m thinking that took about…four minutes? Maybe three? I realize no one really cares, but it’s kind of like carpentry. You take a few extra steps, and, 100 years from now, people will admire the house you built and pay far too much money for it. Or you wrap up before lunch, and the house falls over when you proudly lean against it to have your picture taken.

That’s how editors earn their way, parasitically preying upon the weakness of others. (Note: Weddings, parties, anything. And bongo jazz a speciality.)

Everyday Terrors

For some reason, the notion of ghosts has followed me from early childhood. I blame my mother. For a good, wholesome Nebraska girl, she sure delighted in telling spooky stories. She’d begin a story told by such-and-such, way-back-when, and subtly shift into an untrustworthy narrator. Just like that. Therapy has helped.

I wrote my first story at age six. An underwater adventure, it could best be called derivative. Perhaps I had a gift for writing, or maybe it was self-defense.

Two to three years later came a stunning development in my supernatural education: some television network broadcast Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting, an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s astounding novel, The Haunting of Hill House. If you’ve never seen the film, it can scare you sideways. Double that for book. (Personally, I find the resemblance between Shirley Jackson and my mother unsettling.)
Though I’m sure that, at some point, I’d been far more frightened by life than by that film, let’s put it this way: I don’t remember those instances. Not to spoil anything, but, during the scene where the door begins breathing, I was in that room, no other reality within reach. The shock and terror and unstoppable, flowing imagery followed me straight to bed, where I was expected to sleep.

Sometime during that long night (which probably involved 15 minutes of waking consciousness), I began to realize that a relatively clever and devious individual could simply make up a story and scare people silly. (I don’t remember if I shared this realization with my mother.) I do, however, recall that the next time that The Haunting came on television, I asked if could tape it with the family tape recorder. I’m not sure how this happened, but my parents said yes. To be perfectly frank, they probably had started worrying about me long before that.
Time passed, and, at a second-hand, paperback bookstore that my family often frequented, I found a book full of true ghost stories. They had to be true—it said so right on the cover. It might have been a Frank Edwards collection. I liked his books quite a lot, and the story of the Romanian girl attacked by an invisible vampire (while the police watched the bite marks appear) truly freaked me the hell out. Hey, it says it’s all true. Right on the cover.

Those books probably provided much inspiration when I finally connected the dots and realized that I could tell ghost stories, and people would completely lose their minds, particularly when those people were my cousins, clustered together in my aunt’s stone fruit cellar. With the door shut. Atmosphere makes such a difference.

Life rudely drew my attention from ghost stories, but something—a mysterious presence, let us say—remained. I’m not much on horror movies. It’s just not my thing. But a new ghost film, hmm, I might give it a chance. (As with most ghost hunters, I almost always come away disheartened.) I grew up and I calmed down, and, though I tried not to work for the clampdown, I favored blue and brown. By chance, I found one of those true ghost story collections in a favorite bookstore and, on impulse, bought it. I didn’t even know why. Perhaps I was beginning to feel the weight of responsibility and needed a vacation I couldn’t afford to take.

I learned an amazing thing, though. True ghost stories, read right before bed, relaxed me. Maybe they echoed from childhood; maybe they blunted the future. No matter how it worked, reading true ghost stories became my go-to when I wanted to loosen up before sleep. (Not insomnia. That usually required turning to Being and Nothingness.)

So I’ve been reading these damned things for years. It’s gratifying to read the good ones, but I’m not sure that it matters. What matters is the story. I can hold aside hyperbole, credulity, and even grammar for a solid ghost story that brings the chills and fills the shadows with unease. Maybe it feels like home.

Which is a long way to say I’ve written a new, full-length play, and it’s a ghost story. Somehow, I feel like I’ve been writing it for years.

Slowly, the old, weathered door creaks open….

You know, it’s a mess in here. Everything’s covered with cobwebs, and only half of the links work. It’s probably time for some spring cleaning.

That said, I’m alive (if anyone cares), if not well, and I hope I can soon say the same about Splatterverse. Though clearly, Splatterverse is never going to be well.

Gotta’ go put on the hazmat suit. Cheers!

Steve

Forgive me, father, for I have sinned….

That’s kind of what it feels like, cracking open the blog after a protracted absence. “And why is that, son?”

“Uh…I’ve been writing a play?”

Yeah, mostly. The thing’s called “An Actively Unoccupied House,” and it’s a two-act ghost story that I like a lot, and I hope is both funny and spooky. We shall see.

I would address politics, but the thought of it makes me want to slam my head in a dresser drawer. The bottom one. I can’t address the culture because I’ve been AWOL while writing a play. The thing I have been doing, besides scribbling, is taking pictures. Sometimes, I think I’m actually somewhat kinda sorta decent at it, or at least it’s pleasing me. It’s also been something to do while walking the dog (Dooley, our Shetland Sheepdog).

In fact, Deb and I will sometimes pick out part of the city, leash up the dog, and go on an “expedition,” checking out neighborhoods for pictures–in my case, mostly photographing old houses and buildings. (If you have any suggestions, let me know. The period that fascinates me runs from about 1850 to 1910 in Portland. I’ve been shooting a lot on the eastside, not as much in the west, excepting Downtown and Northwest Portland.) In a broad way, I am working on a series addressing Portland’s history, but it’s rather nebulous right now.

Anyway, here’s a picture taken on one of our expeditions. People seem to enjoy when I write about a photo and present it, so I’m going to go with that for awhile. You can see my portfolio, such as it is, a flickr (see the link below). Continue reading

Playwrights West Presents a World Premiere: Claire Willett’s “Dear Galileo”

Dear Galileo thumbnail

On a beautiful August night, come explore the stars with….

Playwrights West—Portland’s professional theatre company composed of nine distinguished local playwrights—in association with CoHo Productions, proudly presents the World Premiere of Dear Galileo, written by Playwrights West’s Claire Willett and directed by Stephanie Mulligan. Dear Galileo opens Saturday, August 8, with a special VIP preview performance on Friday, August 7.

As Claire says, Dear Galileo is “a play about science, religion, fathers and daughters, sex, creationism, and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope.”

What’s It All About?

Dear Galileo opens with a young girl asking big questions about the universe as she writes letters in her diary to one of history’s greatest scientists, Galileo Galilei. So begins a dialogue that bridges faith and science, wonder and doubt, and present and past, as three very different women in three different eras grapple with the legacies of their famous fathers:

  • In a small town in Texas, creationist author and TV pundit Robert Snow is at a loss when ten-year-old Haley’s newfound passion for science begins to pull her from the Biblical teachings of her upbringing.
  • In Swift Trail Junction, Arizona, home of the Vatican Observatory’s U.S. outpost, pregnant New York sculptor Cassie Willows arrives to find her estranged father, world-renowned astrophysicist Jasper Willows, is missing.
  • And in Renaissance Italy, Celeste Galilei lives under house arrest with her elderly father Galileo—the disgraced astronomer imprisoned for defying the Pope…and facing down the Inquisition by publishing one last book.

As the three stories weave towards convergence, each family’s destiny becomes inextricably bound with the others, linked across time by love, loss, faith, the search for identity, and the mysteries of the stars.

How Do We Get There?

Dear Galileo opens Saturday, August 8, at CoHo Theatre (2257 NW Raleigh St), and plays Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 7:30, and Sunday afternoons at 2:00, through August 29. Friday through Sunday tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students/educators/seniors. All tickets on “Thrifty Thursdays” are $15, and Thursday performances include post-show talkbacks, featuring some of Portland’s most innovative theatre artists.

When Do We Really Begin?

Playwrights West invites you to join us on Friday, August 7, for Dear Galileo’s VIP Preview Performance/Gala, where a $40 ticket offers a you-are-there seat to Portland theatre history and includes a post-show talkback, a gracious reception, and some terrific company.

Where Do We Find the Answers?

For more information and tickets, go to Playwrights West or contact CoHo Productions Box Office: 503-220-2646).

You Have More Questions? Keep Reading

Who Are We?

Dear Galileo features actors Nathan Dunkin, Kate Mura, Agatha Olson, Walter Petryk, Chris Porter, Gary Powell, and Nena Salazar. The production team includes Sarah Kindler (Scenic & Properties Designer), JD Sandifer (Lighting Designer), Ashton Grace Hull (Costume Designer), Annalise Albright Woods (Sound Designer), and Nicole Gladwin (Stage Manager).

Who Are The Creators?

Claire Willett is a proud member of Playwrights West and a founding artist of the Fertile Ground Festival. She was a finalist for the 2015 Jerome Fellowship at The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis and was the 2011 Oregon Literary Fellow for Drama. Her other works include: Carter Hall (in development with Nashville songwriter Sarah Hart, thanks to a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council); Upon Waking; How the Light Gets In; That Was the River, This Is the Sea (co-written with Gilberto Martin del Campo); The Witch of the Iron Wood (co-written with local composer Evan Lewis); an original adaptation of W.H. Auden’s 1942 poetic oratorio For the Time Being; and The Demons Down Under the Sea, an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee,” produced in October 2014 as part of Shaking the Tree’s production of The Masque of the Red Death (a collection of Poe shorts by the writers of Playwrights West).

Ms. Willett her first novel, The Rewind Files—a time-travel, science fiction adventure about Watergate, has just been released by Retrofit Publishing in Los Angeles. Ms. Willett is also a popular, widely read blogger at: It’s Kind of a Long Story. Like Dear Galileo, her blog is the voice of a fiercely intelligent, compassionate, and spiritually attuned writer, unafraid to take on big ideas.

Stephanie Mulligan is a stage director in both the professional and educational arenas. Her favorite recent shows include The Seven Wonders of Ballyknock, Almost Home, The Outgoing Tide, Jesus Saves, The Guys, Little Women: the Broadway Musical, The Music Man, Nickel and Dimed, The Wizard of Oz, Murder Is My Business, Love’s Labor’s Lost, The Laramie Project, and The Comedy of Errors. Stephanie has worked with (and learned from) such notable American directors as James Edmondson, Penny Metropulos, John Dillon, Aaron Posner, and Nancy Keystone. She has participated in international programming, collaborating with India’s Mahesh Dattani and Lillette Dubey, Vietnam’s Do Doan Chau and Dang Tu Mai, and Australia’s Cate Blanchette, Robyn Nevin, and Andrew Upton. Ms. Mulligan’s work with many fine local companies includes Portland Center Stage, Lakewood Theatre, triangle productions!, Coho Productions, Artists Rep, Broadway Rose, and Portland Civic Theatre Guild.

Playwrights West, a professional theatre company founded in 2009 and composed of nine Portland playwrights known for the high quality of their work, focuses on presenting top-level productions of its members’ plays and supports the development of original work in Portland. The nine member playwrights are: Karin Magaldi, Ellen Margolis, Aleks Merilo, Steve Patterson, Andrea Stolowitz, Andrew Wardenaar, Claire Willett, Patrick Wohlmut, and Matthew B. Zrebski. Drawing upon a growing national movement of playwrights taking the reins for productions of their work, Playwrights West introduces Portland audiences to compelling, innovative theatrical experiences, presenting vital new plays by gifted local authors.

Why Are We Here?

  • In 2011, Dear Galileo was a finalist for the Fox Valley Collider Project, a Chicago-area initiative to support original works of theatre about math and science, and was developed with the support of a 2011 Career Opportunity Grant from the Oregon Arts Commission, a 2011 Oregon Literary Fellowship from Literary Arts, and a month-long artists residency at I-Park Artists’ Colony in East Haddam, CT.
  • In 2012, the play was produced as a staged reading in the Fertile Ground Festival by Artists Repertory Theatre, directed by Stephanie Mulligan, where the cast included Chris Porter (who returns in the role of Galileo).
  • In March 2013, Dear Galileo received a staged reading at Pasadena Playhouse in California as part of the Hothouse New Play Development Workshop Series, directed by Literary Manager Courtney Harper, with a cast that featured noted actors Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager) as Jasper Willows and Lawrence Pressman (Doogie Howser M.D., American Pie, Transparent) as Galileo.
  • In Summer 2014, Willamette University in Salem—launching its new on-campus company, Theatre 33, with a summer of readings by Portland playwrights—selected Dear Galileo as their inaugural project.

Has Anything Like This Ever Happened Before?

Dear Galileo marks Playwrights West fourth full production in association with CoHo Productions, a premier supporter of new plays and original work.

Can Any One Person Explain It All?

No. But if you have questions, contact Steve Patterson.

 

 

 

 

Wind: 40 Years After the Fall of Saigon

Fall of Vietnam HelicopterThe empty streets. Stunned faces. The last helicopter swings over the trees. And Saigon, for a moment, stops. A city that never stills. The Americans have gone, taking but a few Vietnamese with them. Left behind, men and women who had worked with and lived among and fought with and fought against and loved and hated the Americans. That ends, leaving a space between waves…running over sand. Drawing patterns that last but an instant.

What was that like? That stillness? The wreckage, the debris. People wandering. Stealing things they couldn’t possibly use, just to have something left. And the North Vietnamese, rumbled along the city perimeter. Not everyone was sorry to hear them. Others were beyond terrified.

April 29, 2975. Forty years ago today, and Saigon was no more. It would become Ho Chi Mihn City. The streets got new names—as did some people. Hotels and bars and restaurant took on new owners. But, in truth, Saigon never ends. You can no more snuff it out than you can Paris or Cairo. Only the Americans had gone.

In the weeks, months, years to come, America would turn away. Turn inward. Deep. It would take years before we turned back again. Oh, within a few years the films began—marvelous, harrowing films: The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Coming Home. Really though, they focused on the height of the American war, during the mid to late Sixties, and some of that was already a decade ago. But displacement, bewilderment, loss: for some time, those things would be too painful to revisit. Except for some determined to rewrite history. Sad news for them: history would not change, and new wars would not refute the old.

The helicopters. That soft whop-whop-whop. It still catches the ear. Such an indelible sound from the time. Coppola used it so evocatively in Apocalypse. So tied to the era. In a way, they wrote the final chapter, fading from the Vietnamese skies and arriving in swarms, commandeered by terrified South Vietnamese pilots, who crammed them full of their families and flew out over the ocean. Not even certain where the fleet sailed: they just flew west until the fuel ran out. Some found the ships (some certainly did not), landing where and how they could. The flight decks grew so crowded with aircraft that sailors had to shove choppers over the edge of the aircraft carriers. They would hang for second, rotors turning as through trying to catch air, before they fell, hit the water, and vanished.

I watched it. Not even knowing what I was looking at. Me and my dad—a World War II vet. He was a journalist, I was one in training. We couldn’t look away from the television, except to briefly glance at one another. I’m sure my face was stunned; my father’s was stone. My mom stayed away, working in the garden—her way of dealing with grief. I didn’t know enough to even feel the loss. To me, it was a fantastic news story. History, right in front of you. I felt something, but I didn’t know what. I think I’ve spent much of life trying to figure it out. Years later, as a writer, I dove into it—maybe too deep for my own good, at times. Some things, learned, cannot be revoked. Hell, I still don’t know anything. I read some books, talked to some vets (always a gift), and did some heavy imagining with some incredibly gifted artists, who gave me a lot more than I ever gave them. But, in context, with those who were there, it’s nothing. I haven’t even lived. Even if I had, Vietnam’s a moving target: it not only changes with each person—it changes as each person does.

Doesn’t everyone have a war story? Whether they’ve served or not. War enwraps us, becomes a touchstone: a clue as to where we are, who we are. Age divides us. Young men and women who served—or remembered—World War II looked at that war in a very different context than those who nervously watched their draft numbers—or those of their husbands, brothers, sons—during the Sixties. If you were below 30 (or thereabouts), you learned you couldn’t believe things. What you heard, saw, felt. You not only began to question the government—not a difficult stretch, after a certain point—but you began to doubt your parents, relatives, and their friends. All the people who, for so long, had been mentors, trusted advisors. Who had loved us. Now, you’re weren’t so certain they did. And the reverse was true.

Some who lived through World War II spoke movingly of the era’s camaraderie, even if they wouldn’t discuss the ghastly reasons for rearranging their lives. Those who lived through the crucible of Vietnam spoke of a different camaraderie: a dividing into tribes—for or against, served or ducked or protested, saw combat or a desk. And those were not static categories. The young man jacked for war by movies and fantasies could well come home to stand with protestors. Like that was easy.

When it was over—for America—the tribes never really came together again. There’s always been a split here between left and right, for reasons that fill thousands of books, and it might take another generation or more to as least partially repair that rupture, if indeed it can be bridged. Maybe World War II was the anomaly and division has been the actual nature of those supposedly united. For a country that worships liberty, we’ve spent a good part of our history throwing chains around one another.

Now, we’re farther away from the fall of Saigon than our fathers were from their war when the first Marines shipped off for Da Nang. Beards and ponytails have a lot of gray in them. Once overwhelming new singles, flashing with brilliant, fresh sounds and ideas—they’re oldies. Crazy books people fought over are standard fare in college. People look upon peace signs and doves as quaint artifacts, not as a button that once could get you worked beaten to hell. Wars get old too, the rough edges get sanded down, sanitized. Unless you’re in select company. Get in the right space with the right people, and the blood’s still fresh. It’ll never dry.

And in Saigon—forever Saigon—the girls in ao dais still ride their bicycles up the wide boulevards, and they smile behind their hands at old men who cock their heads and pause whenever they hear a helicopter.

 

Put Down the Weston, and No One Gets Hurt

SometimEmpty Buildinges, before a photo shoot, I’ll grab something like B&W Magazine and just look at the photographs: randomly turn the pages and let my gaze float. Away from the house, I might arrive a little early and look through photo.net on the phone. It’s kind of like a runner doing stretches or a musician playing scales. I sometimes think of it as “tuning up the eye.” I start seeing regular life as images. Maybe it lights up the brain’s photo neuron pathways.

For one thing, you start seeing the world in shapes—a triangle here, a rectangle there—and the relationships between them. The empty space becomes a shape of its own. Like Miles Davis, you start playing the space between the notes. And you start to see tones. You look at scenes to spot that 18% gray for the camera’s meter to latch onto—especially important if you’re using a spotmeter. (I find that my Canons read more like 12% gray.) A frame begins drawing itself around the everyday. Once you begin seeing that way, it’s sometimes hard to shake.

In almost any art, it’s vital to experience the work of others. If you write plays, read plays (or reread favorites). Play guitar? Listen, even if the guitarist works in a form that leaves you a bit cold. The country Telecaster picker can teach the Ibanez-wielding shredder a few things and vice versa. Take photographs? Look at pictures. Lots of pictures. All the time.

A point comes, however, to put down the book or magazine or close the website. Obviously, if everything you shoot comes out looking a bit too much like your favorites, it’s at least best to look at someone else’s work. Sometimes, though, it’s best not to look at anyone at all. The tank fills. In fact, particularly if you’re feeling stuck, it’s best not only to put away the big Weston collection but to stop looking at photographs altogether. Just for a stretch. Do something else. Anything else. Maybe not go to the movies (as they’re moving photographs), but go for a drive. Listen to music. Dig in the garden. Go for a walk and leave the camera home. Let the photo brain take a rest. The same goes for whatever art you’re engaged in.

A few art forms lead themselves to this. One of the things I like about writing for theatre is that it takes two forms. The first comes when you’re composing, whether that means conducting research or actually putting down words. The second comes when you have a production or reading, and you collaborate with a director and actors. You get the introvert and extrovert time. Even so, really making a concerted effort to stop thinking about your form, much less practicing it, not only can make you happy—it can keep you sane.

That is, we kind of get locked into our art. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, especially when you’re facing a deadline. Other times, it’s a symptom of the artist’s obsessive side. People often ask me how I can write every morning before work. They praise my discipline, but, really, it’s a mixture of habit and bloody-mindedness: I can’t think of anything else. And my brain’s become so conditioned that it starts coughing up ideas around 6:00 and won’t let go until I shake some words loose. (It’s worth noting that some of those dedicated writing hours are spent staring into space and sipping coffee to kick the brain into working order; other mornings, I just give up and read something: the brain’s hung up its gone fishing sign.)

This won’t necessarily be easy, especially if you’re locked in deep. If you practice multiple arts, whether professionally or as a hobby, working in another form can distract the mind—shiny, shiny!—and give your overworked gray areas a breather without going into total withdrawals.

Strangely enough, the tension you may feel not working on your chosen art may be a good thing. It’s a sign that your unconscious mind is throwing its weight around, churning under the surface. Because, realistically, you’ll never stop working. It’s just not going to happen. You’ll start dreaming about it. You’ll experience intrusive thoughts that will make you want to run to the pen or the camera. But if you can get to the point, where you’re not in acute discomfort and you’re enjoying something else…like life…finally returning to your form can bring more than relief. You might find that you’ve improved. That you’ve been able to do something that, previously, you could not, whether it’s automatically spotting that 18% gray or playing a guitar riff that’s been eluding you.

Though a seeming paradox, sometimes you have stop to progress. You have to give your unconscious time to run. Often, it’ll surprise you. If nothing else, you’ve had a break, a little vacation from the Effort That Never Ends. And that’s never a bad thing.

Photographica: Storm Edge


Storm Light 2
Shot on the cusp of a massive wind and rain storm. Birds wheeling in massive flocks, trying to find stable trees to land on. The barometer dropping and dropping. That weird ozone feel to the air, like you haven’t entirely awakened…and you know it. The air takes on a slight metallic taste. At this point, the wind hasn’t really started, but it’s on the way. Shortly.

I ride the bus most workdays, but I seldom shoot from the windows. People become uneasy when you take out a camera on public transportation—it’s an artificially private zone, and a camera violates that anonymity (no matter how great Walker Evans is). This, however, I couldn’t pass up. Storms may be massively destructive—and this one did its damage—but the skies…the skies become stunning. To my eye, the thick, dirty bus windows and reflections seemed to add to that feeling of unreality. It feels like a cross between a dream memory and a frame from a Wim Wenders film—low, fast-moving clouds and the magic hour.

There’s a lot wrong with the image. A second earlier or later might have made it a better composition. The exposure’s off. But it kind of works because it’s wrong. It’s close to what my eyes saw, as they saw it. And the image has not been tweaked, other than some sharpening and clarity applied.

I’ve been through worse storms (including a couple of hurricanes), but, still, I knew I’d never see this view the same way, and I pass it five days per week: exhilarating, with just a hint of fear. Where the best pics come from.

[Shot with a Canon 70D, with a 18mm – 55mm Canon zoom.]

 

Photographica: Late Afternoon and into the Past

Late Afternoon, Modish Building, Portland, Oregon

Late Afternoon, Modish Building, Portland, Oregon

A late winter afternoon–after a stretch of rain, the air still thick. Winter in the Pacific Northwest often limits you to shooting detail, given the long overcast stretches. But, when it clears, it gives you this full, rich light and color more akin to the semi-tropics, plus long shadows. Maybe the moisture content in the air; it somehow bends the light.

Here we have the golden hour plus: the warm light tinged with winter blues. The photo’s seem some post-production work, mostly to render it the way I saw it. Or at least how I remembered it. There’s no telling how far that can stray. Memory’s it’s own kind of filter.

The site–the Modish Building in downtown Portland–holds a special meaning for me. My first play–Controlled Burn–was produced on the fourth floor, in a sort of underground art gallery, with the artists squatting on site…not us, we came in as guests. Very punk, man! Kind of. They did throw some great parties. They also had limited gear available. The sound system was fantastic, and there must have been 50 cues, but our lights consisted of slide projectors and flashlights with colored gels over the lenses (and a silver plastic balloon that served to create a very cool watery effect). We took our set up in a rickety industrial elevator than ran so slow that you could reach out and touch the wall as it passed. We called if the David Lynch Memorial Elevator. We had to bring audiences up to the fourth floor in batches of ten. Luckily, the fire inspector never visited us.

With time, you learn. Back then, I had no idea. I remember Kyle Evans (who helped found Pavement Productions) and I attended PATA auditions when looking for actors. We knew nobody in the theatre community, nobody knew us, but they treated us as equals, and we ended up working with some very cool people like Sherilyn Lawson, Marty Ryan, and Catherine Egan (as a shamanistic dancer).

That’ll be 25 years ago this coming September. First play. Birth of Pavement Productions (I certainly had no idea that would last for 18 years). And my first review–the Oregonian compared me to a young Sam Shepard. They also said the play was kind of a mess–really, it was more performance art–and dubbed it “Uncontrolled Burn.” And thus the pattern: the critic give, and critic taketh away. Still, they couldn’t have made me happier unless they’d compared me to Beckett or Ionesco.

Funny that the piece really was a series of interconnected monologues, and I’m currently playing with a series of interconnected narrative poems–which could be performed as a series of monologues. I don’t know whether that means the circle comes round or I just have a limited number of ideas.

(Shot with a Canon 70D, 18-55mm zoom lens, processed in Adobe Lightroom.)

P.S.: This marks my blog’s 500th post.