shiny things in messy little piles

Category: Special Report (Page 2 of 5)

Letter Home 4 Aug, 2018

Dear­est ones,

I went to a lec­ture last week. Ilya Kamin­sky, a famous Ukrain­ian poet, began by ask­ing “How is life on this shiny plan­et?” I did not know how to answer him. He taped pic­tures by Diego Rivera to the wall and read from Calvino’s  Invis­i­ble Cities. He spoke of how our work is always in con­ver­sa­tion with oth­ers and point­ed to two of my favorite artists. I was, all at the same time, utter­ly chuffed and in com­plete despair.  And I won­dered how am I ever going to find myself in the mid­dle of that con­ver­sa­tion? I remain a child stand­ing at the edge of the room watch­ing the adults play word games in a lan­guage that I am just learning.

Lat­er that after­noon while dri­ving down the hill to town I was over­come by a deep wave of homesickness.

Do you remem­ber the emp­ty lot in down­town? The one that is so deep? There is an apple tree down there. Filled with lit­tle green apples — green apples that are about to ripen, many have red shoul­ders already. Some­how this does not seem hope­ful to me. I must be deranged in some way.

Between all that and the dis­ap­point­ing lemon cake… well you can imag­ine my state of mind.


Yrs affec­tion­ate­ly, L

Being Against the Eternal Now

I have been com­ing to Oax­a­ca for 16 years now. I come for weeks or even months at a time, and yet I am so far unable to mas­ter the lan­guage. In spite of all the time I’ve spent going to din­ner, rid­ing in taxis, and attempt­ing to deci­pher the labels in the gal­leries and muse­ums. Despite months of Span­ish lessons at home, I speak like a stunt­ed tod­dler: in mono­syl­la­bles, two words at a time. I am unable to coher­ent­ly express so much as, “I came from Seat­tle yesterday.”

Here I have no tens­es but the present. I can say “I going out now,” but can­not man­age “I arrived on Tues­day,” or, “I went to the Tole­do muse­um this morn­ing,” or, “I would like to ride the hors­es tomorrow”.

In Mex­i­co I have few futures.  I can man­age a sort of “fur­ther tense” using the present tense of ir (to go) and an infini­tive — loose­ly “I am going to” [do this thing]. Voy a scriber mañana. I am going to write tomor­row. Con­tin­ue reading

Paying Attention

There are things in the woods.


One of a Pair of Coy­otes That Call Our Woods Home

Pay­ing atten­tion is one of the fun­da­men­tal tasks of being human being. Pay­ing atten­tion to what’s around us is a sur­vival skill.  Pay­ing atten­tion keeps us from being eat­en by lions, helps us to find nuts and berries, and keeps track of our mates. But it is more, it is also one of the ways in which we indi­cate what things are impor­tant to us. It sig­nals what we val­ue and what we feel respon­si­ble for, even as pay­ing atten­tion changes our rela­tion­ship with those things.
Late­ly I’ve been think­ing about a par­tic­u­lar­ly local sort of pay­ing atten­tion. The atten­tion that I focus on the bit of the Earth that I feel par­tic­u­lar­ly respon­si­ble for, the small ground of 20 acres of for­est and pas­ture, the house and the busi­ness that make up Black Dog Farm. On any day there are sheep to feed and water, eggs to col­lect from under broody hens, dogs to be exer­cised and trained. Meals must be pre­pared, jobs attend­ed to, and the build­ings main­tained. All of these things and more must be care­ful­ly and mind­ful­ly attend­ed to lest a sick sheep or a clien­t’s dead­line escape our notice. Con­tin­ue reading

It’s Still a Big Damn Country

Recent­ly I was look­ing for this pic­ture of an art­ful­ly rust­ed steam engine that I took dur­ing a cross-country trip in 2009.

not restorable

Por­tion of the Engines for the Wake Robin.

Rather than dig through the many thou­sands of pho­tographs on the back-up serv­er, I searched through the series of blog entries titled It’s a Big Dam Coun­try that I wrote while on that road trip. When I began that trip I was run­ning very hard, and very fast, and very much away. I was run­ning from myself and my itch­ing demons. I was run­ning on pro­fes­sion­al advice. I was mak­ing no progress while stand­ing in the mid­dle of the smok­ing crater that I had made of my life. My ther­a­pist — against all the rules of ther­a­py — actu­al­ly sug­gest­ed that I go ahead and run for a while, to see what it felt like to move again. So I did. I packed up my lit­tle blue car with a hand­ful of road snacks, my spe­cial pil­low, and every scrap of cam­era gear that I owned, then set out on the finest fool’s errand I could con­jure: To attend the grad­u­a­tion par­ty of my old­est niece two weeks hence in the city of Pitts­burgh and along the way to take as many pic­tures of as many dams as I could find. Con­tin­ue reading

Nuke and Pave…

… is an old com­put­er term for remov­ing all of the soft­ware from the hard­ware and start­ing over again. Back when we could rm ‑rf we would occa­sion­al­ly find that a sys­tem had got itself into a non-recoverable state and need to be rebuilt from the ground up in order to func­tion again. Or on a hap­pi­er note when a project fin­ished we often wiped the soft­ware off of the hard­ware and repur­posed it for the next project.
While sys­tems have become much more resilient than they used to be, and rm ‑rf is rarely avail­able to the aver­age user, a com­pete wipe down of the bug­gy sys­tem using rm ‑rf’s new­er rel­a­tive, reset to fac­to­ry set­tings, is still the only solu­tion to cer­tain prob­lems. My iPhone got into one of those states recent­ly. Slow to load apps and data for sev­er­al weeks it final­ly reached the point of being unable to load the App Store for updates.
Google has as many solu­tions for these sorts of prob­lems as there are ways of cre­at­ing them. Every­thing from killing the run­ning apps to ful­ly eras­ing the phone’s mem­o­ry and rebuild­ing it from “like new.” It’s a fraught process. There is a fris­son of dread and hope. You will def­i­nite­ly start with the sim­plest least destruc­tive options but there’s always the ques­tion: What if you have to go all the way?
I found and tried a num­ber of folk reme­dies. Kill all the run­ning apps and then restart the phone. Tap any but­ton at the bot­tom of the App Store app 10 times to clear the cache — that worked for about 10 min­utes. Remove all of your net­work set­tings and reboot your WAP — okay so the WAP was lit­tle wedged, etc. In the end none of these worked. The last non destruc­tive option was a full back­up and restore. And easy but lengthy process that could  leave the phone in exact­ly the same bare­ly func­tion­ing state that I had start­ed in. An hour and half lat­er that’s exact­ly what happened.
So there I was — faced with the option of last resort. The nuke and pave. Leav­ing me with a blank phone with­out a sin­gle bit of the per­son­al­i­ty that I’d giv­en it over the last two years. That at once won­der­ful and fright­en­ing prospect of a new start. There is dread. It’s a colos­sal has­sle. You lose every­thing. Every set­ting, every App, every bit of data. Your con­tacts, your text mes­sages, your fit­ness band data, your pho­tos of the dog act­ing idi­ot­ic. All of it. It’s like los­ing your phone only with­out the cost of new hard­ware. A total PITA.
And yet, and yet. It is also an excit­ing prospect. The new, vir­gin ter­rain. All of the mis­cel­la­neous cruft and crap and use­less apps and pass­words for wi-fi points in air­ports you’ll nev­er vis­it again, and oop­sie pic­tures of your feet are gone. You get to start again with a sim­pler, clean­er, less over­whelm­ing device. You will also spend the next week adding back the apps, pass­words, and data that it turns out you were using but had for­got­ten about. You will lose all of your deeply ingrained kinet­ic mem­o­ry, the auto­mat­ic fin­ger press­es and unthink­ing scrolling though the pages to reach the thing that you need.
Still.. new ter­rain. As an adult how often do you get enter new ter­rain for such a small price? Sure you can change jobs, change hous­es, change spous­es, all of which take up a lot more than a lazy Sun­day after­noon babysit­ting a hard­ware reset and a cou­ple of hours of soft­ware updates and restor­ing data and pass­words. And so I did it. Set­tings -> Gen­er­al -> Reset -> Reset All Set­tings and pressed the many pop-up but­tons that con­firmed that I did indeed intend to remake my phone into a pris­tine ver­sion of its now non-functioning self.
We all love the oppor­tu­ni­ty to rein­vent our­selves. Even if it’s only in terms of lit­tle bit of pris­tine elec­tron­ic wilder­ness that we can remake to suit our now two years old­er and wis­er self. New phone wall­pa­per, a clean slate of wi-fi set­tings, and some nifty new apps. — Even if you end up reim­port­ing all of the depress­ing fit­ness band data.

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