Hard Right to Happy
Sorry for the infrequent posting this month: I'm preparing for my art show! More here!
It's a waxing gibbous tonight, yellow, a sense of possibilities from high overhead. I'm done for the night– or almost done, seconds away from putting it in park and shutting off the lights, ready for the sound of the motor cutting into silence, the way the bus seems surprised you'd ever want to shut it down.
I turn the double-length articulated coach onto its lane assignment, the last turn of the night, and why not do it with a little pizzazz, keeping alive the freshness that got me through the day? I even have an audience. There's a colleague, walking the walk of having completed the day. She's coming from one of the buses parked up ahead, further up the line.
Even if you're the last coach to park on a lane, there's still enough room to square it off perfectly, so you're not bleeding over the striping with your back tires. Go a little too deep, as deep as you can before you start the turn, hard right, then you overcorrect left after you're a little too far right, the bus changing its mind, and you're thinking about your middle wheel and turntable now, taking your time. You've got the real estate on your left side to reposition the front, and here's the back wheel sliding in perfectly, straight as an arrow on the last second. Not half bad, you say to yourself, allowing yourself a little hop off the front step, the skip that wants to tap your heels together.
She's caught up to where I am now, and we finish out our walk back to the Base together.
"Were you just drivin' that 7?"
"You know it! Such a great night." I change my voice halfway through, realizing I probably sound like I'm bragging. I'm just happy; the exhilaration of a completed shift.
She says, "when did you start driving that thing?"
Pause. Putting it together. "I first did the 7 in, '09."
"And you just stick to it, huh?"
"Well you know you just find something you like and you kind of get in a rut, you know? In a good way."
"I know tha's right," she grins, with a smile that stops you from calling her middle-aged. "That's how I am with the E. People look at me–"
"Me too! I love the E!"
"And I have a great time out there!"
I look at her. I don't know her, but I do now. Different race, age, gender... never mind all that. I call it kindred spirits. I say, "well probably 'cause you got a great spirit, and people can feel that!"
"'Cause respect has such huge currency out here on the street, and if you put that good energy out there,"
"'Hi,' 'good evening,'"
"People notice that. They appreciate that in a big way."
"Sometimes they'll start doing their little thing," she admits.
"And I'll say something."
"And they'll stop."
"'Cause they know you from before, that goodwill! Sure, it's a couple days out of the year that are pretty tough–"
"But man, all the other days? It's beautiful!"
"And I'm just gonna keep doing it!"
"You and me both, friend!"
I felt the expansion of the moon and stars, a heady exhilaration beating in my chest, the confirmation of common secrets, known and shared. There are a lot of like-minded, positive drivers. I've had variations of this exchange before. What about this conversation made my heart rise with such particular joy?
It was the ready acknowledgement even if our approach doesn't work all the time, that doesn't make it worthless. Because it works ninety-nine times out of a hundred, and usually still helps in the remaining percentile. Your working method isn't dashed if you have one bad trip. It happens. It's okay if things fall apart spectacularly after you've done your best, as they sometimes do. No single approach solves every moment. You work on it, think about what you'll do next time, and breathe. The main thing is, you're getting the overall. You didn't escalate things. Don't beat yourself up, don't question your good-natured outlook just because it fails once or twice.
It's just the world.
In this crazy place, going home happy most every night is something worth celebrating.
Pretty Sure I Don't Deserve This
Note: video of these events will be posted in the near future.
"Congratulations," a friend once told me, after I'd finally gotten a New York literary agent. "Let yourself feel it today, and breathe. You deserve this."
The thing is, I don't know how to do that.
Humility is one of the great human virtues, and maybe the final pit stop on the spectrum of goodness, of right action. I tend to think of kindness as the absolute end-all, but isn't humility what's needed first? The recognition that there are others, that we can learn, serve, listen... it is this frame of mind that allows us to feel joy, to live in a sense of wonder. You can't be excited if you think you know everything. Can't be pleased if you think the world owes you something. Humility. At the very least, it's key. I'm no expert, but I work at it.
And because I work at it, doing my best to normalize it, I have a tendency to shut out compliments and accolades. I'm hugely grateful for every one, but I know that if I were ever to actually start believing all this stuff... well, you know what I mean. I have to turn them around in order to stay sane.
This praise from a passenger is actually just evidence of his own appreciation of kind personality. That award is really a tribute to all of us drivers, filmmakers, or artists– not just me. Or it's a celebration of those who've taught me. Things like that. I've even noticed when reconstructing conversations for blog posts, what I have the most difficulty remembering are the moments when someone's giving me compliments! You understand where I'm coming from here. You have to brush this stuff aside or you'll become intolerable.
One effect of all this is that I'm not an entitled brat. But another effect is that when I receive truly meaningful, well-intentioned appreciation, I have the hardest time hearing it.
The Wall of Fame is an internal award handed out at the State level. The public doesn't know about it, but it's a big deal in transit. Of the 3,000 operators at Metro, I was the single driver who received the honor. No individual operator here has won it before, in the 45 years since Metro's inception.
There isn't a bone in my body that allows me to think, for one second, that I earned this accolade on merit.
We know the implication that I'm better than all those tens of thousands of operators is categorically absurd. But that isn't what the award means. Something hit me as I sat with my chiefs in the enormous conference room at the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick, where the ceremony was taking place (how big was this room? There were a bunch of buses parked in the back corner. That's how big!). These experienced professionals, my bosses, treating me now as a peer, had somehow deemed, along with a multitude of other transit top brass at King County, that I was an appropriate representative of certain attitudes and skill levels seen throughout the operations workforce. That these attitudes were worth highlighting.
The Secretary of Transportation shook my hand, and excepting his own WSDOT staff, I was the only award winner that night he took a photo with. He briefly interrupted the proceedings to do so. Could it be? I stood under the high ceilings feeling weightless, daring myself to trust their judgment, allow myself to feel it, even if for a blink– letting the size of this hit me. Maybe, just maybe in the smallest way, perhaps.
Perhaps I was a half-decent embodiment of all the best operators who came before me, who work alongside me, the chiefs and teachers and parents and friends and passengers who've mentored me from day one of this strange adventure. It was a sensation of immensity I could hardly grasp– that maybe they were here tonight to support me, rather than the usual versa vice.
What could be more humbling? I stood alone in the hotel room afterward, feeling small in a precious way. Had I really, actually brought something to the table? Not for me to say. There are such remarkable people in my life. I feel mainly like I've been a person gathering– observing their styles and absorbing them like a sponge, combining them into my own flavor. They may not know they're teaching me, but they are.
Brian's prodigious but gentle wisdom, his utter lack of a need to assert himself over others. Paul's generosity of spirit, entirely genuine and without motive. Abiyu's quiet dignity; he and I talking quietly in a corner at the base about children, perspective, life. These guys have no idea how much they inspire me. My chiefs laughing at our table, they who negotiate the bureaucracy and hang on, easily, to their best selves, caring and vivacious and light. My friends and lovers of past and present, each a hive of radiant goodness, their very own, glowing.
The way I've never heard my parents complain about anything. The way they've made certain modes of engagement like arguing, whining and bragging completely foreign to me.
They, who help me think the world is a good place.
Let's forget for a moment that it was me who got this. There were plenty of other ground-level employees celebrated that night– drivers from agencies besides Metro, trailblazers in planning, data, HR; our very own tunnel maintenance team, guys I wave at regularly, getting their due; and John Rochford, a true pioneer in Paratransit services and more than deserving of his recognition.
Global western culture today is dense and loud, polemic. It has the space to swallow everything, and what doesn't get chewed up immediately seems mainly to be that which is most outrageous or extreme. It resists thought. Only in such a bite-sized and overloaded culture would we have the sociopolitical issues we now face, where things as basic as skill and truth get pushed aside.
But these transit workers were not being noticed for being outrageous or sexy or extreme or loud. They were just a few women and men doing important and unglamorous work really, really well.
Now that is worth celebrating.
This is the nice post. For the no-holds-barred skinny on what really happened at Evergreen, click here.
They're closing the last color darkroom. Evergreen College, famous worldwide (not an exaggeration) for its liberal arts programs and unique freeform educational structure, has new management. Uh-oh, you're thinking.
You would be right.
The new management has, in its wisdom, decided to permanently shutter many of their internationally renowned art departments– drama, motion picture film, and others... but most crucially, their color darkroom. Why such a fuss, you ask?
It's basically the last one in the United States. Yes, three others remain on our continent, but they're all either smaller, less well run, harder to gain access to (try Googling them!)... in so many words, Evergreen was always the best, the last holdout of quality analogue color.
We forget that color film is (was?) one of the newest and shortest-lived of art mediums, one of the last invented before the glut of ones and zeros came along and jump-started society's obsession with speed over quality.
For a mere forty-odd years, you could throw a roll of 35mm Color in your inexpensive (and unbreakable) Pentax K1000 and capture light with a vibrance and organic richness digital media still can't compete with. Digital gives you thousands of colors. How adorable. Film gives you millions. Digital is a fine medium and looks lovely... as long as it's the only thing you're looking at.
Inkjet and laser prints give you black ink; again, how cute. Photo paper gives you silver halide crystals burned by light. Does anyone really think black ink has something over on burned silver crystals? Put the two next to each other, and you'll see what deep blacks are supposed to look like.
Or try scanning a cross-processed negative, and look at how the computer tries to grasp the subtle aberrations of the tone curve. You'll start to chuckle, realizing your high-end scanner doesn't have the faintest idea how many colors green is. The same with your $3,000 Canon, which can't get the range of skin tones your $50 film camera and $5 roll can in its sleep.
We know this isn't anomalous in materials manufacturing. Ask your grandpa what they used nylon for during the Great War. Ever notice how his shoes last forever too? How the zipper on your grandma's coat slides more smoothly than your three-year old Columbia jacket? The way your grade-school backpack lasted longer than the one you use now. We’ve grown to accept poor quality in most of the products we’re invited to repeatedly consume. Take your ancestors to the shelving section of IKEA, and try telling them any of the items are “sturdy bookcases.” You know they would dissolve in peals of laughter.
This isn't nostalgia. It's common sense. Film yields a better image. Yes, you need skill. You need patience. Yes, it requires more infrastructure. But who would expect quality without such a price?
You're probably thinking Evergreen is cutting their program for the same reason many other schools and art centers have over the years: money. Black and white darkroom is cheap and easy. It isn't going anywhere. Color is unique, toxic, requires a different skill set. You don't work under a red light; the prints have to made in pitch-black darkness. You can't touch the chemistry. The processor (above, center image) is the size of a small car.
But Color isn’t a major expenditure when your processor, equipment, and other infrastructure are already in place. Evergreen’s lab is by far the best-running, most organized, most kept-up of any lab in the US (again, not an exaggeration– we’re discussing a pretty special place here). Compared to some of their other programs, it's not very expensive. The photo director just retired; find another. There are knowledgeable people out there who are willing to teach. They are having budget issues, but cutting Color isn’t a major savings at all. Plus, everyone knows what you do if you’re a school in need of money; cut your science, medical, and business programs, and watch new funding flow in a year later. No, money isn't the reason. They'll try to tell you it is, but it isn't. They have the money for this.
Among the new management team is a woman who says "color photography is a joke." She's said that and similar remarks to artists. To students. To staff. The administration could expend the effort to hire staff to teach a practice that's been taught for decades, during a time when film is gradually regaining popularity, when a large and loyal majority of staff and students embrace these arts, when an entire community has grown out of the surrounding cities who use the darkroom... but they'd rather ignore these facts and kill their darlings. I don't believe I'm being unfair here. They could've consulted with the professors, or asked the students what was important to them. But they were lazy. (Click here for even more dirt on what went down.)
I have friends who've traveled from Germany to study at Evergreen because of its unique offerings. I've traveled down there myself countless times because, well, it's the only color darkroom. Others come from Portland, Poulsbo, Vancouver and more for the same. I doubt the administration has a clue. In ditching the very golden geese that made their institution so praised in so many cultured circles, they reveal they've forgotten something fundamental:
Art is the only profession that explores the act of what it means to be alive.
Everything else is secondary.
Several years ago I was told that stewardship would be the new buzzword of our time, that young people would care about culture, about helping each other and bettering society through thoughtful expression. Actions like that of Evergreen's new administration are why this hasn't happened. When a culture doesn't have art, it stops being a culture.
But: enough moping!
What do you do when the end is near? Learn how to say goodbye. Through the good graces of several key players, I've been able to print like crazy this last week. This last color darkroom closes forever on the 30th, and I've been making every minute count.
My photography practice, ever since graduating UW a decade ago, has centered around analogue color photography. I've put black and white printing aside because I knew this day would come earlier. We would lose color first. Now it's happening. And I'm ready.
They say it takes about an hour to test, print and finalize one picture in the color darkroom; I can make 100 prints in eight hours. I mention community above, and I do value the wonderful people I print with, but you won't catch me making much small talk. I keep my head down and churn out as much as I can. Time is short. It's like passing the bar and then learning the profession of lawyers is being eliminated. I got a degree centered on how to do something that won't exist next month. I don’t regret it.
This is our time.
We came in at the end, but we were still here. Very soon it will be impossible to make an analogue color image. People will forget what they look like. They'll lose the sensation of looking at an original– that feeling you get when viewing a painting– when they see a color picture. Paintings are precious because they can only be made once; shortly color photo won't even be able to be made at all. As though they disallowed paint and brushes.
I have a solo show on the second Saturday in October, at ArtForma in Georgetown. It will last for only one evening, and given what I'll be showing there I find that fitting. The large-scale portraits you'll see on display will forever be the last, and therefore permanently the newest, analogue color prints you're likely to ever see.
The technical details briefly mentioned above are fun, but ultimately unimportant; it's about what we feel, looking at the images. The organic, handmade object, like ourselves; an original, slightly different from all the rest, ephemeral and delicate and sensitive; strong and vibrant, but most notable for its subtleties.
Doesn't that describe your favorite person, the best parts of life?
It won't be the best show, nor the worst. But there'll never be another like it. You owe it to yourself to stop by.
See you there.
ArtForma Visual Art Space is located at:
6007 12th Ave S, Fl Second
Seattle, Washington 98108
Saturday, October 13
The show will last from approximately 5pm-9. Look for further details forthcoming.
The Perspicacious Hairdresser
The accent. I knew him from before. The vowels drawled out in between clipped consonant edges, a straining against the upper mouth, little enthusiasms in every double vowel. Did he stem from a country of one? Who else sounds like this? Black hair spiked up, flaxen gold skin, leather, sunglasses that didn't frown, the sharp teeth grinning besides. He was a hairdresser, and there was no one else like him.
How could I forget his first words to me, years ago? The friendly and unknowable voice, loudly. The proclaiming voice. "You shoul' be driver of da yeeeeah, man! Not of duh month. Of duh yeeeeah!!"
Today I watched him transform into sunshine upon seeing me, alignments of posture and expression reborn, the body coming together now, no longer a tired man after a long workday. Sure, it's just an acquaintance seeing an acquaintance, but that can be enough to rejuvenate you, your best self now without even trying. The power of a consistent smile.
"My friend!" I exclaimed.
"It's duh best number 7 bus driver ever!" Eb-buh.
I laughed, appreciating his glow. "How's life?"
"Life in 2018?"
"Yeah man, tell me!"
"Just another story," he replied. "Sad story, happy story, it doesn't matter. It's just another story."
The thick accent, the sunglasses and spiky hair; the tilting roadway, dilapidated in the crossfade of light and gently turning time. How can a line be artless and artful in the same breath, too brief to be profound and yet too concise, too all-encompassing to be anything else? The best sages turn a book into a single sentence.
I drift sometimes. We all do, especially these days. Despair is just around the corner, and it's addictive. When you've "been through some stuff," as they like to say out here, the reminder that life is a system of peaks and valleys carries with it particular comfort. His line put me back into perspective. To acknowledge the struggle as we comment on the intrinsically beautiful texture of existence allows us– allows me– all the more, to believe. Sometimes it's glorious, life is, and sometimes it's terrible.
We take it in stride.
Take things as they come, and make the best of them. "Yeah," I nodded. "Just another story!"
"Jus' another story!"
How I Live Now
UPDATE: the upcoming one-day solo show indicated below has been rescheduled for October 13th. Details anon!
This post is in response to all the wonderful people I haven't been able to keep up with this past year. I really do adore you. Here's what my world consists of these days, and why your mother was right when she told you to never, ever marry an artist:
Yes, I know time is a construct. It's something we can all agree on... until we can't. Death proves the existence of time, and we eventually learn that it doesn't matter if time is a construct or not. It is incontrovertibly how we process existence, and it is thus, for us, as real as the things that really are real.
My homeless friends living on the street face a dilemma I simply cannot relate to. Theirs is the problem of having too much time. For my adult life, my issue has been the opposite. It's beyond being unable to remember the last time I was bored; I have trouble recalling when I last relaxed. I don't know when I last came home, pulled a book off the shelf, and stared out the window with a bliss untarnished by the rumblings of impending obligation.
I dreamt of graduating from school because I couldn't wait to have control over my own schedule. I waited twenty-odd years for the moment to come, and now, nearly a decade after walking out the University's art school doors for the last time, that control– that freedom– remains elusive, or at least feels like it does. Of course, all of us has all the time in the world (we just choose how we fill it up, as the saying goes); I've been careful to protect mine, but I've loaded it such that there's no room to breathe. I always feel like I'm getting close to breaking free, but I never get there. It feels like a prison, all the harder to escape because it is a claustrophobia not of space but of time. No matter which direction I reach, I can't find what I'm looking for, and it's my own passions that are in the way. Do you know what I mean?
You might say I have two full-time jobs. The first eight hours of the day I spend on art.
9 A.M. to 5 P.M.:
Every day I attempt to progress at least incrementally on all of the following:
Don't get me wrong. I love all of it. I surround myself with the best artists I know, and then struggle to keep up. I'm aware there are worse life problems, believe me; I see them up close nightly. I'm thankful for these incredible opportunities. But that doesn't stop them from being exhausting. I love each so much that I can't cut anything out. The problem isn't that I hate what I'm doing; it's that I love everything I'm doing.
Somehow, amongst all this, are the chores we all do, like
Then I go to Metro-Land.
5 P.M. to 1 A.M.:
You can understand why I find driving buses relaxing. For eight hours, I only have to think about bus stuff. How fabulous. Who needs a therapist, when you can just putt-putt along to the rhythms of the road, practicing patience and listening to other people? The perspective, distraction, reorientation... all invaluable. It forces me to pay attention to my physical health, reminds me how much more there is than my little quibbles, and allows me to touch the glorious and irreplaceable feeling of reaching other people– reaching them without an agenda, and among all walks of life.
Art made by an artist who does not also live life is not interesting. Driving the bus forces me out of artmaking and back to where it all matters.
Then I rush home and sleep, because I guess we're supposed to, before waking up to do it all over again.
1 A.M. to... 1:05 A.M.??
I haven't mentioned any space in the day where I might engage in some of my favorite activities: reading and watching films. When there's a break between Korean classes, reading becomes possible. Most recently was Tom Hardy's 1874 Far From the Madding Crowd. It's quite good. Example excerpt:
Her philosophy was her conduct, and she seldom thought practisable was she did not practise. She was the stuff of which great men's mothers are made. She was indespensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises.
Now, I'm working on Kundera's 1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It's even better. Example excerpt:
What is unique about the "I" hides itself exactly in what is unimaginable about a person. All we are able to imagine is what makes everyone like everyone else, what people have in common. The individual "I" is what differs from the common stock, that is, what cannot be guessed at or calculated.
Then there's the matter of finding time to watch films. It's important. Not enough young filmmakers know the canon, and when the oldest movie you've seen is Pulp Fiction, it shows in your work. Plus, I love the medium. So potent, watching someone else's dream....
Most recently rewatched at home: Michael Mann's Heat (1995), a somber epic of interiority and self-awareness, and a favorite. Playtime (1974), Jacques Tati's near-silent comedy of modern motion; Antonioni's La Notte (1961), in which I particularly noted the hard lighting and intriguing staging of figures in space; and Bergman's Persona (1966), wherein I reflected on the effect of being shown the final monologue twice from two different angles.
Most recently at the cinema: Eighth Grade, as bruising, intimate, personal and anxious as the grade itself. Magnificent. Blindspotting– not as engaging, tonally consistent or artistically daring as the other American independent film by a first-time director about black life in Oakland currently in theatres(!), Sorry to Bother You, but still worthwhile with its two hugely likable leads, several great dialogue exchanges and a strong third act. I have a soft spot for films about friendships; they're less common than you think.
Other Actual Humans
Speaking of friends. I generally don't get time to read or watch films. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is barely 300 pages, and I've been "reading" it for over two months. What about the humans I love even more than my beloved passengers? When there's a show to hang, another show to prep, a secret project to perfect, Korean to practice, a film to complete?
As a child I had a habit of starting projects– an illustrated bird book, a painting series– and abandoning them. I've since learned that artists who accomplish a lot of projects– the same ones you see giving speeches at parties and clowning at socials– spend most of their time sitting in rooms working their buns off. Now I finish my projects. But at what cost?
Most of us love most what we cannot find; for me it is peace. Calm. I can almost touch it, it is so close. But it is not here. I really do love my friends, my family. I want to say yes to your every invite: to lunch, to films, to picnics, dinners, parties, plays, performances, hikes, walks, dates. An afternoon with friends; the beach at night. Of course I want to do those things, and with you.
But there is an urgency that drives me. Various philosophical schools postulate that the motivating factor for all human action is loneliness; love; death. For me it is time. The urgent and pressing lack of it.
Milan Kundera wrote, in his book Immortality, that humans desire to assert their existence on earth in a way that will outlast them. The primal and psychological urge to defy time. Many people do that by having children. I do it by making art. It is not a desire for me. It is a need. I turned twenty-five and something clicked inside me; I turned thirty, and it clicked again. It was only a whisper, but I hear it every day:
There is not a lot of time.
My active life is half over. I've got work to do. I believe human connection is the most important treasure, and it may not seem like I value my friendships as much as I say; but I'm working on figuring it all out, learning how to balance what I feel urgency toward, and what is truly important. I'm thankful for every second of it. I will get there one day. The cacophonic fallacy of accomplishment will have died down, and you and I will be leaning back in our chairs– in a cafe, at home, at the base, under a tree, under an umbrella– and in the delicate silence between words we'll pause, and smile, gently. We will know its name without having to say it.