Lucky for me, I live in a place where masterpieces are literally minutes away from home. Here, at the Norton Simon in Pasadena, Sam Francis' Basel Mural I offers a beautiful, expressive focal point.
Some people meditate for clarity, but I like to stare at something like this to sort out the big questions of life. And, like meditation, staring at artwork often brings surprising revelations.
I've always been partial to Francis, and not just because of his expansive visual style. He belonged to the same era as my father. They were both born in California, both joined the Army Air Corps during World War 2. My father was fortunate enough to serve his time in the Pacific without any physical injuries, but Francis was badly hurt during training maneuvers and spent three years recuperating in bed.
During his recovery, Francis learned to paint. He used his new hobby as an escape as well as an expression. I remember once showing my father a print of a Francis painting. I don't recall if it was the one in today's post, but it was similar in its wild explosions of noisy color. I saw infinite optimism and potential when I looked at it.
"Interesting that he was in the Air Corps," Dad said. "This painting kind of reminds me of what the ground looks like after a bombing mission."
Ever since that conversation I can't look at anything by Sam Francis without thinking of my dad.
In Francis' last years, as he was suffering from cancer and clinging to life, a bad fall took away the use of his right hand. Like so many of his generation, he didn't let the setback stop him from achieving his goals. He simply used his left hand to create a series of brilliant small works.
That also reminded me of Dad. No matter how badly my father's body fell apart during the last years of his life, he was undaunted and without complaint. He might not have painted canvases, but he filled our family's world with great beauty all the same.
When my family and I first visited the Norton Simon a few years ago, I stopped for a while to look at this familiar painting. I was about 15 years older than the last time I saw it. I still found the optimism there that spoke to me in my youth, but I could also imagine the world it brought back to my father.
"What do you think of this one?" I asked my daughter.
"It looks like a map of a sad place," she said. "But it's hopeful too. I'm not sure why."
And right then, I realized how weirdly connected families are ... how my little girl not only saw what I saw in that painting, but also the impressions of her grandfather who died before she was born.
"Or," she said walking away, "Maybe he just liked paint splatters."
Art. It transforms, connects and heals. (And sometimes even makes us laugh.)
After a few years of hanging out at the popular table, blogs seem to have crept back to their isolated, anti-social Livejournal-era spot behind the gym. It’s not that there aren’t great things being written on blogs … I’m sure there are. In fact, we should read one sometime. We can’t be that busy watching YouTube unboxing videos, ordering handmade socks off Etsy or drawing neon glasses on Snapchat selfies.
I realize that the preceding statement will soon sound just as old-timey as the term “reading blogs” because technology evolves at an almost supersonic pace and, thereby, renders its former incarnations obsolete. Hello AOL Instant Message, MySpace, Friendster and (fingers crossed) Facebook!
Blogs seem to be going the way of cable TV and full Brazilian waxes: once ubiquitous, but now kind of dated. But, screw it, I’m going to blog anyway.
I fully acknowledge that I might just be talking to myself, and that’s okay. When I first started my daily photoblog back in 2008, I expected that I would be talking to myself. It never occurred to me that anyone would notice me. Blogging seemed kind of like a message in a bottle. Throw it out there, but don't hold your breath for a reply. A blog was easy to set up and publish, but how would anyone know it was there? It wasn’t like Twitter was a thing yet, and Facebook was just a weird place college kids used to rate girls. Sure, there were message boards — which now seem as old fashioned as actual bulletin boards — but it wasn’t like I really hung out on the LOST usenet . (Much.) And even if I did, it would have been weird to tell anyone there to visit my brand new WEBLOG!
I’m beginning to remind myself of that Simpsons episode when Grandpa Simpson reminisces about wearing an onion for a belt. Stay with me kids.
The thing is: only 8 years ago, even when blogs were hitting their stride, I could have never imagined that mine would get any traffic. That I ended up with an active, friendly readership was a (shock!) joy because for most of my writing career, I had never known or conversed with the people who actually read what I’d written. Then again, most copywriters don’t inspire great discussions from content of a pizza commercial or lingerie catalog. Okay, maybe that’s not true. Pizza and lingerie can be pretty inspiring. Even so, it’s not like the one who writes the stuff ever gets to talk to anyone about it. Print journalism was even more lonely. Unless someone was outraged enough to write a letter to the editor about a story, I could pretty much rest assured that my prose would end up, at best, lining a bird cage. The short stories in those tiny literary magazines didn’t even end up in birdcages.
But blogs. Blogs! I know it seems weird to wax nostalgic about a comment section, but the one on my blog was an active conversation. The coolest part? I always got to choose the topic. I also could make anyone who acted rowdy simply disappear with the touch of my moderator’s delete button. Luckily, trolls didn’t really find my little corner of the blogosphere, and I mostly just made friends, shared ideas and felt like anyone in the entire world could stop by and sit on my virtual front porch.
As a photographer, blogging was a great way to share images with other amazing photographers, as well as people who just loved the art of photography. I’m old enough to remember when forcing people to look at your vacation pictures was considered rude. Blogging made it cool! Fellow shutterbugs pushed the limits of the digital sensor, shared tricks and techniques, recommended cameras, and made me a better photographer. As technology advanced, we had a place to congregate, play Show & Tell, and eventually all admit that many amazing, unbelievable shots were actually taken with an iPhone.
Now, in a world of ice-bucket challenges (wait, that’s already as passe as blogs) and Instagram, I know that my blog’s soundtrack is the ceaseless drone of crickets. People are too busy livestreaming on Periscope to bother with anything as mid-2000s as visiting a blog. There are personal websites, but they mostly just have links to social media. In fact, the word “blog” is to social media what the phrase “world wide web” is to the internet. I get it. Blogs are middle aged. They’re no longer fresh. When blogs were in vogue, you still had to say “www” before the web address. The world has moved on, man! A blog is a big, annoying Gen-Xer asking for merlot at a millennial’s Moscow Mule party!
But there’s something liberating about middle age. You can enjoy that merlot. You get to a point where you just don’t give a crap if you’re wearing last year’s skinny jeans in a season of kick flares. Trying to be on point in the digital age is almost like an act of Sisyphus, anyway.
It doesn't really matter, though. Eventually everything finds its way back to itself — hint: those kick flare jeans ARE REALLY JUST BELL BOTTOMS — so if you wait long enough, you might just come around again. Blogs may end up like vinyl records or martinis or horn rimmed glasses or, I dunno, actual paper books. At some point, when everyone is tired of trying to curate a Facebook page that is appropriate for both clients and friends of your grandmother; at some point when the noise on Twitter really does sound like the clamor of birds; at some point when the word “hashtag” is filed next to “groovy,’ when the kick flares have been put away for the new season’s skinny jeans … maybe quaint little old blogs will seem new again. How positively meta.
When I was a freshman in high school back in Austin, Texas, I fell madly in love with the boy who sat behind me in my English class. His name was Tim. He had dark brown hair that fell across his forehead and dark blue eyes that sparkled every time I turned around to tell him to stop kicking my chair. He wore a beat-up, 40s-era bomber jacket and could make archaic slang words like "swell" sound effortlessly new. If someone insulted him -- you know, with one of those classic high school put-downs that usually involved unspeakable acts with farm animals or insinuations about inbreeding -- Tim would pause, slowly nod his head, smile and say, "oh yeah?" He was ridiculously handsome, even at 15, and managed to carry it off with a goodhearted sheepishness that made teachers look the other way when he ambled into class late -- and convinced me (to the depths of my very soul!) that he was the most exceptional creature on planet earth and if I lived to be a hundred I'd never be able to express the extent of my feelings for him.
Instead, I played it cool. We talked about Shakespeare and The Clash when we bumped into each other at our lockers. I tried not to stutter when we split a beer together at a party -- the one where he confessed that he believed in fate and that was why he didn't worry about things. I told him that I thought fate needed a good kick in the ass most of the time. He laughed and said it was more fun to go with the flow than to fight.
In fact, the only time I ever saw Tim get into a fight was when one of the football players picked on a nerdy drama kid at an outdoor concert in the park. I wish I could say Tim pummelled the bully in a scene worthy of Clint Eastwood. It wasn't quite like that. But after an inelegant scuffle of a few thudding punches, Tim walked away with the grace of a triumphant samurai.
Tim and I never became real sweethearts, but we remained good friends throughout high school. Whenever my boyfriend broke my heart, Tim let me cry on his shoulder and flirted with me just enough to make my boyfriend jealous. At graduation, Tim was the first person I hugged. Tim was also the last person I ever expected to tell me he was joining the Marines.
"I'll see the world and do some good," he said. And then he laughed and said, "Or knowing me, maybe I'll just get in all kinds of trouble."
He was killed the following year in the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. He was 19.
It's Memorial Day here in the United States. A time for most people to sleep late and linger over coffee before applying sunscreen, stocking the cooler and tossing the steaks on the grill. Those are all good things. In fact, they're the kind of good things that most of the members of our armed forces think about when they're stationed around the planet seeing the world, doing some good and, too often, getting in all kinds of trouble.
Lets take a moment to remember the ones who never made it home.
Want an easy ticket to a real winter wonderland? Just hop aboard the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and in a stunning 15 minute ride you'll be almost 9000 feet up on top of beautiful Mt. San Jacinto which, during most of the winter, looks a lot like it does in the above video. (Not sure? Just check the current weather right here.)
No snow chains required, and you can go swimming in Palm Springs when you get back down. And people wonder why I love Southern California so much...