camera obscura

[Day 6 of a 30-day non-poetry experiment. – Owen]

When the room is darkest, and only the smallest amount of light can get in, we sometimes see things most clearly, albeit upside down.

This is the principle of the camera obscura, the ancient “dark room” (which is what “camera obscura” means, literally) where a lens and pinpoint hole for light would project an entire panorama of the outside world onto the wall, only upside down. The original photographic cameras used the same principle to project light onto a light sensitive plate (later film).

People still view eclipses using a form of this method. There are also artists who work with camera obscura as a medium.

Our own eyes are a form of this, as well, which is why physiologists say the images our eyes see are actually upside down in the eyes, and our brains turn them rightside up.

The principle has applicability in many situations, and it’s worth noting it’s features.

The room is dark. In order to see something clearly, we have to turn the brightness on everything else down.

Only a pinpoint of light gets in. The truth must come in small, pure, and concentrated doses.

The light must go through a lens. It is only through focus that we truly see.

The entire panorama can then be seen. All that is truly out there – the good, the scary, all of it – can be visible this way.

It will, however, be upside down. Even the purest focus brings in some form of distortion we have to think through and correct for. What we seek is not in people or things or events, it is in how we interact with those people and things and events through our minds and hearts, in bringing a well-focused view of everything we can see into right balance.

It probably wouldn’t hurt a lot of us to clear away distractions, and to refocus our attention and minds periodically on what matters in our worlds. To look into the eyes of the people we love, free of electronic and other diversions, and provide our hearts with more images of the moments that we truly love the best.

And so theirs will be the faces we see when our rooms are at their darkest.


[Day 5 of 30 days of prose. – Owen]

“When you can express yourself with your body, you don’t need words,” he said.

“And vice-versa,” I answered.

At twenty-two years old, we went to the traveling carnival: my best friend and I, at twilight on an early summer day, amid a swirling crowd, because two girls we knew were going to be there, and we were going to find them. He was on the lookout for Vonnie, with her shoulder length blonde hair and blue eyes; while I searched the throng for Alisa, with her short brown hair and green eyes.

The two of them were always laughing, and lots of boys came around to try to get in on the joke – mostly unsuccessfully. But we were undaunted.

By the time we caught up to them, all the lights were on and the night surrounding the carnival had swallowed up the rest of the world. For the next six and one-half hours, it was just the four of us, there in the spotlight.

“Look how dark the woods look,” she said, pointing.

“I really can’t see anything past the edge of the fairgrounds, except a few cars over in the other direction.”

We were on top of the Ferris Wheel, and for some reason, we were holding each other’s hand. Vonnie and Garrett, in the next car, appeared to be getting along pretty well.

I looked at her. We were very close together, and the lights made her face seem to be many colors at once. She was looking straight at me, and I knew what I was supposed to do, but my mind was overloading. So she took over.

An hour or so later, we had bought food and drinks and were leaning up against a makeshift fence so as to better enjoy our dining. The girls were laughing about something.

“Do you want to go into the dance tent next?” Vonnie asked.

“Sure,” we two guys said.

The girls went back to whispering to each other, and Garrett said quietly to me, “The dance tent will be perfect. When you can express yourself with your body, you don’t need words.”

“And vice-versa,” I responded glumly.

“What’s up with you? Things seem to be going great.”

“Yeah. They are.”

“But what? You’ve been after her for months.”

I had no answer. Something felt wrong, but I couldn’t say what it was. Several things felt right, too, and those were more easily identified.

“It’s all good,” I responded laughing. “Let’s see how the dance tent goes.”

“Now what are you two laughing about?” Alisa said, suddenly.

“Oh, you know, just boy talk,” Garrett said, innocently.

The girls stopped to get face paint before we went on. Vonnie’s was fairly subtle, but Alisa got a complete makeover. I was, if anything, even more entranced. This whole thing was such a dream-come-true, that part of me kept thinking I was going to wake up suddenly, and it would all be gone.

We paid the extra charge to get into the tent from which loud music was issuing, and walked into a strobe-lighted dance floor, where hundreds of couples were dancing. These were the days before epilepsy hit me.

We danced, and danced, and those two girls looked like they were having the time of their lives. When a slow song came on, and I held her close to me, I felt something I had never really felt before: like the two of us, she and I, had invented human attraction, a thing that was completely new, and that only we knew of.

I was completely taken over by the feeling.

The carnival closed at 1:00 AM; since they both had college classes in the morning, we had to say goodnight out by the cars. I had ridden with Garrett and Alisa had ridden with Vonnie, so tons of privacy wasn’t really an option: in addition, we were all, in spite of everything, trying hard to be good people, as we understood those words.

At 2:30 AM, we watched the lights of Vonnie’s Oldsmobile drive down the winding fairground road, and we headed back to my house. In the car, Garrett (who was the quietest of all my friends) said, “That was fun.”

“Yeah, it was,” I said. “So — did you two make any future plans?”

“Yeah, I’m supposed to call her Thursday and we will set up something for Friday night. You?”

“I’m supposed to call her in the morning and make sure she’s up in time for class.”

“Will you even be awake?” he laughed.

“I doubt I will have gone to sleep,” I answered back, laughing.

Five years later, and I am sitting on the edge of a bed in a small dark room, exactly o.67 miles from the entrance to the fairgrounds.

Vonnie is a emergency room nurse, living in Orlando.

Garrett is an IT programmer, working out of Chicago.

Alisa is clerking for a Federal judge in Atlanta, having graduated 4.0 from Duke Law School.

I am in the mental health wing of our local hospital, having been ravaged for two years by physical illness and depression.

The room is gray and almost empty: they don’t want objects we might hurt ourselves with in here. My roommate is asleep, but he’s on Thorazine, so that’s pretty much all he does. I am struggling to bring up the memory of that night, trying to remember what it was like to feel… anything.

… there were colors on her face, for some reason? is that right?

… i think i remember those lights shining in her eyes, we were on, like, a ferris wheel, right? yeah, that part’s right …

… and she and the other one got their faces painted? and maybe we danced? that can’t be right, i never dance …

… she touched me… i forgot anybody ever did that …

… yeah, we were laughing and touching each other …

… i was like a real human once …

… maybe?

A Little Empathy

“The brevity of life, which is so constantly lamented, may in fact be the best quality it possesses.”

– Arthur Schopenhauer, The World As Will and Idea

I observe children, and I realize that the difficulties of life are there from the beginning, and that every age is hard. There is almost no problem we might have that we haven’t had some form of from day one.

As adults, our tendency is to dismiss the problems of the young. Memory often fools us, usually in the same way a misleading news story might: that is, by what it leaves out. We no longer remember what teething felt like, or what it feels like to have no say in where you go or what you do, or what it felt like not to be able to reach what we want or adequately express our desires, so we fail to empathize. Instead, we pine for the fictitious “easy days of childhood”, and talk about how much easier still kids have it these days.

They don’t have it easy, and neither did you. Nor do you now, no doubt.

Life starts over with every new birth, and every experience must be gone through anew: the good, the bad, and the indifferent, as they say. And bad is still bad, even if we have forgotten how it felt. In fact, bad is sometimes made worse by experiencing it around people with little-to-no empathy.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: life is difficult for everybody, and if it doesn’t seem that way for somebody, you just don’t know that person well enough. In certain moods (like the one Schopenhauer, quoted at the top this essay, was always in) life can seem pretty depressing in its difficulty. There are frustrations and limitations, heartaches and losses, duplicities and disappointments in everyone’s life. But, like a child trying to learn a skill for the first time, we have to keep trying; there is no other way to get where we’re going.

And hopefully, we will have picked up a little empathy for others along the way.

“… More An Art Than A Science”

[It’s day 3 of my 30 days of writing prose essays. – Owen]

We Americans seem to love “how-to” manuals. I suspect that this same tendency is true many places.

Give us a diet, an exercise plan, a routine for childcare, a recipe, or even instructions on how to run a blog, and we’re happy. We have directions. We are ready to do whatever it is exactly the same way many others are doing it.

We view these things, therefore, much like high school chemistry lab: we have ingredients, we have instructions, and (presumably) if we follow the ingredients exactly according to the instructions, everything will be perfect.

Except — it often isn’t.

The best of depiction of the frustrations of a high school chemistry laboratory that I know of is found in the Potions class descriptions of the Harry Potter series. There, various students attempt to follow the same set of instructions, with incredibly varied results. In addition, as the series advances, you find that the truly gifted students seem to vary from the recipes in seemingly random ways that somehow yield better results. Which is much like life is.

Technique, following instructions, doing things according to recipe — these only get you so far. However, we still look for guides to follow to make everything come out right: fool-proofs, panaceas, and utopias. Even pick-up lines fall in this category.

Interestingly, when transferred into the business world, this concept goes by the name “best practices”, which is a cleverly misleading term for “what other people do, whether it makes sense or not”. This attribution often contains a type of survivorship bias: the other company has survived, so, it must be doing something right. Often, however, companies that have not survived were following these same “best practices”, but we ignore those.

We want the so-called “magic bullet”. Just do x, y, and z, and you will win. Even the smallest amount of reflection tells us that all the others who we compete with can also do x, y, and z. So it’s what is different about us that will ultimately determine the winners, not what’s the same.

That and luck, which we never want to admit.

Having said all of that, there is nothing wrong, and in fact much right, with solving particular difficulties we face using solutions worked out by others as our starting point. Diet and exercise regimes, to go back to my original set of examples, are often perfect for this. What people usually find, however, is that, in the long run, each of these must in some way be adapted to their particular circumstances in order to be either optimal, sustainable, or both.

When you learn an art form, you spend the early years just learning the technique. At some point, however, if you are going to advance, you have to break away from what you’ve learned by following instructions or imitating others and discover what “your” art is.

Which is why identity itself is more an art than a science. We all, regardless of location or age or gender or any other arbitrary determinant, must choose who we will be. We cannot be the best us by copying others or following some recipe, no matter how well it seems to have worked out for someone else.

So, to all of you liberal arts majors out there: next time someone asks you what value the arts have, tell them “exactly as much as humanity has.”


[Day 2 of my 30 days of essays. – Owen]

My wife sometimes likes to read books or watch TV shows or movies that she describes as “fluff”.

“Not really anything to them,” she’ll say.

This is something I can totally appreciate. Among the choices that the entertainment world has to offer, I have a great fondness for all things fluffy.

Bubblegum pop music. Young adult novels of the genre variety. 1940’s westerns. Old “B” movies of all kinds. Colorful designs. Situation comedies. Children’s mystery stories. Dated science fiction. I’ve spent wonderful times with each of these.

Fluff does not mean lack of craftsmanship, nor should we derogate it’s practitioners or audience. It has a different goal in mind, is all.

Fluff may not demand great mental exertion, but neither does running through a sprinkler — it’s just fun.

Years ago, when I first read “The Sound and The Fury” (which is as unfluffy as a novel gets) I struggled with the narrative style, and had to reread long bits before I got it. As a coincidence, the day I finished reading it, I saw Romancing The Stone with a date. That required no thought whatsoever, it was just a good time.

Very unlike the date itself was, now that I think of it.

(Although at that age, I had the “no thought whatsoever” part DOWN. But I digress.)

A steady diet of nothing but fluff can be problematic. Everyone is different, though: our stuff-to-fluff ratios will vary, as will our judgments as to what belongs in which category. One person’s fluff can be another one’s stuff.

As I write this, I stop to listen to the dialogue of the TV series my wife is watching. I peek into the next room, where she sits. She doesn’t see me. She works hard, all day and many nights, tending to other people, and this silly show, with its shallow intrigues and byzantine dalliances, eases her mind, and makes her happy. So I love it.

Because I love her.

And there’s nothing fluffy about that.

Why Do We Write?

[I’ve decided to take a 30 day break from writing poetry and write essays instead. It probably will become evident why I write poetry, but, there it is. – Owen]

Why do we write?

The most common answer is some form of “writers write, because that’s what they do”. This answer avoids the question, of course, but does it in service of an important reason: namely, that time spent worrying about the purpose of our writing takes away from time spent actually writing.

“Writers write” contains the kernel of another important truth, however: namely, that the creative impulse has no real ground, and we who have it are going to have it regardless of whether we ever have an audience or not. “Writers write” in the same way children play, birds sing, and rain falls.

Unless there is some activity in life that we do for its own reason, there is no purpose in ever doing anything. Most of us remember a time in our lives where we played, laughed, loved, and created for no reason but the sheer joy of doing so, and when we were not primarily focused on measures of social success. Don’t get me wrong: the joy of sharing can be a big part of why we write, but there is a difference in sharing with people we know, and counting up buys or likes from people we don’t know — a huge difference, and one we too-often conflate.

The difference might be described as that between the writer’s instinct, and the performer’s instinct: the former’s joy is mostly in the act of creation; the latter’s is primarily in the reaction they garner. Almost all of us have some admixture of both, but where we lie on the spectrum can make a big difference. In a way, the difference is very close to that between introverts and extroverts, in terms of where their energy is derived, from within or without.

Other answers to the original question are valid: we may write to earn a living, or to entertain, or to inform, or to persuade, i.e., in an attempt to effect changes in behavior we think are important. I usually write poetry (I’m taking 30 days to write prose as an exercise, of which this is day 1) and I do so because I have thoughts I want to turn into music, and poetry is the most direct way.

For many writers, joy is within reach so long as we do not place the judgments of others between us and our writing. It’s really that simple.

Critics may fairly be viewed as parasites that feed off of the host organism. We all (as readers) can, through blogs, go straight to the source, and not get our views of people filtered through third parties — which is something like a miracle, when you consider how most news works in the current age. I can read what YOU think, how YOU feel, what YOUR dreams are — something I can’t really ever get from anyone but you.

That’s right, you.

So another possible answer as to “why we write” is that nobody else can do it for us.

In Circles

“So why do you obsess about
What you cannot control?
You can’t foresee the future,
Cannot peer into a soul —
Why do you keep worrying
With nothing left to do?
What is it that
Just so takes hold of you?”

And she said

“Yes, I go in circles,
I surround the ones I love;
I’m there to ward off danger,
From below or from above —
My heart, it stays in circles,
Like the ripples on a pond,
To everyone I’ve ever loved,
And some who’ve gone

The pattern of a life might be
The shape of who we touch;
And if that’s true, there’s more to you
Than very, very much —
I wish you knew the way I did
The music you contain;
My ears may fail, but still that tune
And lyrics will remain —

“Yes, I go in circles,
I surround the ones I love;
I’m there to ward off danger,
From below or from above —
My heart, it stays in circles,
Like the ripples on a pond,
To everyone I’ve ever loved,
And some who’ve gone