Thursday, March 27, 2008

Do You Know Who You Are?

I mean really. Do you?

Are you smart? Funny? Ethical and principled? Do you grab whatever opportunity floats by and let the consequences fall where they may?

Would you pocket a wallet you saw someone drop? If so would you keep it if the person came back looking for it? Would you lie if asked about it? What would you say now, and what would you say if someone asked next week, or next year?

Do you really know who you are? Maybe, but I bet you're like everyone else and keep changing to fit your environment. Try this sometime.

Meet your friends for pizza and beer. Change the situation around to match your own life. If you don't like pizza and beer, then make it a picnic, or a birthday party for someone's eight year old daughter. Whatever works for you.

Be yourself. Don't try to do anything unusual or out of character. Just remember what happens, how you feel, and what you do. Store the memories away somewhere. Keep them handy.

That's easy enough.

Now walk into your boss's office. If you don't have a boss, then use your bank, your church, or some place that gives you the same kind of feeling, like a dentist's office.

Let's say that it's your boss and today is your performance review. What happens will vary from place to place, from boss to boss and from individual to individual. But it won't be anything like having pizza and beer with your friends.

Are you relaxed? No. Do you feel like all the pressure is off? No. Are you sure that you can say absolutely anything at all and they will get it? No. Do you just walk in and expect things to unfold perfectly? No. Are you sure that whatever happens, you will leave happy and satisfied? No. Are you behaving differently? Yes.

You are a completely different person right now. Who you are depends on where you are and what is expected of you. You may think that you are one distinct person and you just do different things at different times in different places, but that isn't true.

Not at all.

You are a collection of roles and behaviors. You think different thoughts, say different things, experience different perceptions, produce a distinct physical presence depending on where you are and what is expected of you. It isn't so much that you are an actor pulling on a different costume as you are a consciousness waking up inside different stories.

This is a subtle process, a delicate realization, a revelation that may take some thought, but it isn't really too far out. Once you get used to the idea that there is really no one home inside you, no real you, it's pretty simple. You are a bunch of learned responses and some little-used potentials.

That's why you surprise yourself from time to time. Something in "you" comes bubbling to the surface every now and then and you learn a little more about who "you" are and what "you" are capable of. It can be nice, or not.

It can be that you like avocados after all, though you never did before. Or maybe you say something that makes everyone laugh until wine squirts out their nostrils, something that never before crossed your consciousness, or theirs. But there it is, all over the table.

If you're married, would you ever have guessed it would be to THAT person? Really? Or did things unfold, and then one day you finally realized what was going on, and admitted it, and that was OK?

If you're still not too sure about all this, that you're not really in control because you're not really here, then try a few things.

Try regulating your heartbeat. Consciously. You can't.

Lying down and staying very still is allowed, but won't work, nor will running up and down the stairs.

Unless you want to make it really clear. If so, then go ahead and run up and down those stairs for a while, and in the middle of it go ahead and change your heart rate to one beat per minute. Or 10, or 50. All the same. You can't, because you aren't home. "You" are only a visitor.

You are not in charge here. You never have been.

The part of you that you think of as you is only an occasional guest. Your consciousness wakes up from time to time when it's handy, and swirls its fingers around in the soup of thoughts, images, smells, sounds, and emotions that is always cooking, and pretends that it has something to do with them.

Well, it does, but not much.

If you sneeze and shoot goop all over, it's nice to have a hanky already out and in place. You sneeze into it, no one sees the goop, the goop stays in the hanky, you fold the hanky, discretely wipe your nose a couple of times, and put it away. Handy but not a big deal. A tool.

Like consciousness. Or rationality if you prefer. It's handy but not a big deal. It's a small part of you, whomever "you" are anyway.

Still not sure?

You can try some things. You'll probably get bored and give up pretty soon, but that is proof too.


OK. Be rational then. Pick a vegetable or fruit you've never eaten. Read up on it. Make lists. Take notes. Learn everything you can about it, and then decide if it's a good thing to eat.

It will be of course. It's not like they just throw random objects into the bins at supermarkets. Any food you pick will be a good thing to eat, so that's what your conclusion will be. You are allowed to look at photos too, but not to smell, touch or taste your target food ahead of time.

Now for the test.

Because once you've reached your rational conclusion, you have to go eat the food. Let's be generous here, and add a time dimension. A fudge factor. Let's say that you have to eat this new food at every meal for a week, and then once a day for the next month, and then decide.

You won't be able to do it. Probably not. But even if you do, what happens will not be based on your research and your decision. What happens will be based on the animal you inhabit.

It will taste the food, and feel it and smell it, and it will let you know if it wants to take the first bite, finish that, and have so much as one more. There is a really good chance that you won't even get through the second day of your plan. Food is like that. Especially food. Even if you think you like it.

You can eat a new food and gag every time you try it. No thought required. Then one day you have to have it. The same food. It tastes the same but now it's good. Huh. No thought required, and any thought you might have had would not have helped anyway. Your animal decided, along the lines of ancient animal principles, and you go along for the ride.

You like that, do you?

It's even better. What's going on is not "along the lines of ancient animal principles" because there aren't any. Protoplasm and slime and squirming blind things do not have principles. They have something or other but we can't fathom what it is. Not really. It happens. It works. We live with it. We have to.

Still not sure about all this? Try another idea: your body is dark inside. Every thing a millimeter or so beneath the outermost layer of your skin is living in the dark, and has no eyes. It doesn't think, or go for a walk. It has never been to school. You don't know it, yet you are made of it. And it is in charge.

Dark meat.

So you don't want to screw around with strange vegetables or your internals. That's OK. Try something else. Things taken by mouth are especially good since they go straight to the mindless snuffling animal part of us. We relate immediately to taste and smell. We have to. We are exquisitely tuned to accept or reject anything entering the mouth because of billions of years of practice which has taught our blind selves to make snap decisions about what works and what does not.

Or else they die. In ugly ways.

So beer is good to experiment with. Try a Guinness. Better yet, a bottle of Theakston's Old Peculier, "The beer that made Masham famous! A dark, strong beer Old Peculier is justifiably famous for its rich and complete character, its sheer strength. Brewed using the traditional Fuggle hop."

Bet you haven't tried either on of them yet. Bet you won't like either. It took me a dozen or so tries at Guinness until it became tolerable. This was a rare case of rationality working, sort of. It was history what done it.

My boss at one time was an expert on Colonel Custer, and on his post, Fort Abraham Lincoln, south of what is now Mandan, North Dakota. (This is the same guy who is always called General Custer, but he wasn't. That was a brevet rank, in effect for only a few days. He went back to being a colonel very soon, and stayed that way until he died. You know the rest of the story.)

The soldiers at the fort were especially fond of tinned oysters and Guinness, which in the 1870s came to them in clay bottles, and my boss had made a specialty of finding them. The soldiers drank, and then threw the empties over the river bank and a hundred years later Norman dug them up. He even wrote to the Guinness company to identify exact years they had made specific bottles with specific imprints stamped into them.

So I thought I had to like it. Didn't. Like drinking strange yeasty molasses. But if they had liked it so much in the 1870s there must be something there, I thought, and kept at it. After enough effort I started liking it.

So you might say that this invalidates my whole premise here, but it doesn't. The forced drinking was a rational act, but the dislike wasn't, nor was the liking that followed. My animal got used to it and decided to keep it up. All I did was to supply the stuff. If "I" had never acquired a taste for it, "I" would have given up on it. It's pretty nasty after all. Old Peculier is nastier yet but does have a great name. Tastes something like Guinness but more so. More peculiar. The Fuggle hops and all.

Don't like vegetables or beer, go ahead and buy some shoes, or take up mud wrestling. Do something you know "you" won't "like" and see what happens. Either you won't be able to change the thing you think of as your mind or you'll find yourself surprised by what happens, and your mind will go along for the ride.

Either way it will not be the result of dividing a sheet of paper into two columns, labeling one "Pro", the other "Con", and listing ideas. Toting up a score does not make anything work out. Only the animal decides, and it can't count.

You aren't home and there is nothing you can do about it. Other than waking up into a conscious state every now and then and enjoying whatever show is playing on your retinas.

Life is so weird innit?

person: c.1225, from O.Fr. persone "human being" (12c., Fr. personne), from L. persona "human being," originally "character in a drama, mask," possibly borrowed from Etruscan phersu "mask."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Dettmer/Bisbee Slap

Take something so ordinary that you don't even see it. Add imagination. Jolt people into another order of consciousness.

I've just returned from alternate dimensions. Each one is exactly like our own but the meanings of things are completely different.

I have known people who have made a point of expostulating while waving their arms on why art is not important and has no place in their world. This opinion ignores reality.

The last time this happened, my friend and coworker was sitting in a chair. He had a desk, a computer on it, inside a cubicle. The floor was carpeted. His shelf held books. The desk drawer held pens, pencils, paper clips and Post-it notes, among other things.

He had no clue that even the pencil in his hand had undergone several centuries of development and marketing on several continents. (Read "The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance: by Henry Petroski.) True, most of this development was by engineers, scientists, and technical wizards, but the thickness, shape, length, color, and logo placed on the pencil are still under scrutiny.

It's easier to imagine if you take something less common, like a ball point pen. It's less a commodity and more a result of a specific company so you expect one specimen to be a bit different from all others. That comes from art, and art comes from creativity.

There is no formula.

I've just come across the work of two artists, John Bisbee and Brian Dettmer. Each one has a formula, of sorts, but their creative formulas are hidden, and inherent in their identities.

You can say that creativity is taking something familiar and making it unfamiliar. Not necessarily better in any sort of way. Possibly even often worse, even with no regard to utility.

Creativity is simple but hard. And is it scary. Frightening. Shocking. To be shocking is one of its uses. It provides us with some things that we need. One of them is simple novelty.

The human eye likes edges, whether they come from contrast (light against dark or dark against light, one color against another) or from sparkle. Handle a cut diamond or even a piece of broken glass in the sunshine and if you really look at it, you'll barely be able to put it down again. The flash of its reflections has an inherent attraction because it is always new.

Creativity provides edges. It takes us by the consciousness and throws us straight out of our normal world an into another one.

Your exploding breath, your shaking body, your howls, and your tears are all acknowledgment of the unexpected, creativity we call humor. We like that, but maybe we'll say we don't like the shower scene in "Psycho". That is also creativity. It jars, it jolts, and in this case frightens, but it also makes us more alive.

Creativity does that, and it can do it without always being pleasant. It is the kick into a totally different reality, another dimension, that counts.

It keeps us fresh. It reminds us that we don't know it all, and so refreshes a person's humility. It inspires. It picks up our spirits. It resets out own imaginations. It can be a piece of art on a wall, a piece of art that we stick onto an envelope, a horror movie, a roller coaster ride. Any of these and more.

Whichever it is and however encountered, creativity makes us better.

The source? Can't say, but I know that things come to me when they want to. Artists say that sort of thing all the time. Song writers just start hearing the music and words, and write them down as they come. A sculptor can't quite to that but if producing something meaningful from a block of marble is just to remove what isn't the subject, that implies some sort of guiding principle that the artist (the right artist) only has to listen to.

For me, in my simple way, at my limited level of creativity, it seems to be cross-linked connections somewhere. I'm always perceiving juxtapositions that act like a shock from a thick dry carpet.

Take this, not mine, but from a world class comedian: A person gets onto an elevator. Asks the other person already there where they're going. Second person says "Phoenix".

Do a thought experiment.

Go into a store, stop, pick the first thing handy, and see something about it that no one has has ever seen before. Write about it, photograph it, make up a joke or a song, or redesign in a way that will make people gasp.

As stated, it's simple but hard.

Now try that with a box of nails. If you succeed you are John Bisbee. If you succeed with a box of old books you are Brian Dettmer. John Bisbee welds nails together in ways you would have no reason to expect, and Brian Dettmer carves into books to reveal their internals.

Prefer yours in writing? OK, look up comedian Stephen Wright. You can find reams of his quotes online. Or go to Timothy McSweeney internet site and see what it's like to imagine Ernest Hemingway blogging about the top teams in college basketball. Too obvious? How about "Midlife-Crisis Bible Stories"? There's still "Open letters to people or entities who are unlikely to respond", a whole section of the site.

You can find anything you want if you go looking. People all over are full of creativity. If not the ones around you, then maybe you're in the wrong place. You could be somewhere else entirely, if you want. Somewhere more interesting. Like another universe where the books have been autopsied, or the nails snake across the floor.


Brian Dettmer at Centripetal Notion
Brian Dettmer at Wikipedia
John Bisbee exhibition at Portland_Museum_of_Art
John Bisbee on National Public Radio
John Bisbee at Wikipedia
McSweeney's Internet Tendency

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Wirting. Harder then I thouhgt.

Once upon a time I thought it might be nice to write a book.

In fact I thought it would be a lot more than nice. A career, maybe. An ongoing quest. A mission. A calling. Maybe it is. And maybe it is for me. Sometimes ya gotta do what ya gotta do, all else be damned.

After all, I'm the guy who quit his last job after coming to the realization that he'd rather die than keep working there. So far that's been working out for me. Ain't dead, ain't working there.

Haven't been earning any money legally, but three things are amazing: how much I put away when I was working, how little I need to live, and how much a rising stock market can make up for me being flaky and just walking out of a job that paid a lot more than I needed.

Everyone should be so lucky. And so frugal. Or not. It takes a toll. Even I wake up in the middle of the night and say (out loud, to myself) "Man, you are one weird dude, dude."

So who isn't?

Something I realized a long time ago. Everyone is crazy. Twitchy, jumpy, hopping up and down, bug-eyed mouth-foaming wild-eyed, perversely crazy. It just depends on what you like, personally speaking.

Just cuz you like it don't mean it's right. It means you feel OK with it going off in your pocket. That and not a whisker more. That and nothing else. That is how everyone is. They may be better or worse than you in some subjective or objective sense or some other sense, but it don't make no never mind. Basically we all run on the same rails. Period.

So where was I then? Writing, yes I was.

I wrote a book. A pretty good one, for a faker. I put things together and the words didn't fight except where I wanted them to, and looked pretty in the other places, and the book she was a good one. Not great literature, not scary, not something that would knock you right flat on your whodunit under any circumstances, but it was good, and still is.

Modern publishing made it possible. Because I knew I had a way to make it available, even if no one ever bought it. I could do this without spending a year writing and six months editing and three months making photographs and one month designing the cover and then still have to spend $10,000 at a vanity press because no publisher would touch it with any number of 10-foot poles taped together, even if allowed to wear a gas mask and rubber gloves.

I did it.

And then I had to format it and upload it to

Now the next part is not going to be any more interesting than what you've just read. I'm not going to uncover any seamy creepy stories of hair pulling and corporate malfeasance. Nothing interesting happened at all, in fact, and there is no plot to what I will next write, so be warned.

But it was still ugly.

Luckily I have OpenOffice. I mostly don't have any complaint, except that there is so much there, and so little documentation. I know I could do more with it, it I could figure out how, but slowly, I can, mostly (though the table of contents and indexing features are still mostly opaque).

OpenOffice is actually a joy, compared to Microsoft Office. One of the neatest things is that you can export a document as an Adobe Acrobat (PDF) document. This is so cool. Just do it, and it happens, and it works.

That was the big half. The little half, the part that took 90% of my time for weeks on end, was laying in my text and getting it formatted right. I started out a little wrong and had to keep correcting things I thought I'd already done. Yeah, OK, the learning curve thing, and I kept bending it in ways it didn't want to be bent. I should have learned first how to make styles and a template, and then laid things into that, and the whole process would have gone so much easier.

But of course I didn't, and maybe no one does, so it went on nearly forever, over and over and over again.

This was the hard part, really. For every day I spent formatting my book I probably lost two or three days of writing time. Days I could have used to start on the next book, or to market the first one. I'm a slow learner.

But eventually that got done. Eventually.

Then later I decided I maybe really should buy a distribution plan so that outfits like Amazon could list my book and maybe the first book would then (slowly) generate some (moderate) buzz and I could materialize on the world's radar (a bit at at time).

Except that for some reason OpenOffice isn't good enough to generate PDF files for this. You have to produce them from Adobe Acrobat, which costs something just shy of $1000. And accepts only Microsoft Word documents, not OpenOffice documents. Lucky me.

But accepts Microsoft Word documents, and will generate PDFs on their end, and OpenOffice can output Microsoft Word documents, so I'm OK, right? Yeah, right, as they say.

Several more months of work.

First, I had to learn Google Sketchup, which is a great little program. I wanted to enhance some of the illustrations while I was at it, and Sketchup's 3-D images were great. But this took a while.

So OK, done.

Next, getting OpenOffice to properly output Microsoft Word documents which it does pretty well, but there are limitations. Two areas specifically, images and web links.

I didn't want to embed any links in the text, but I do have some that I wish to display as text. Hard. Very hard. OpenOffice wants to make them blue, with underlines, if exporting as Microsoft Word documents. Pure hell to get this right. Finally gave up and then tried to get all of them blue and underlined, which was also pure hell undoing behind the scenes confusion inside the document. In the end it all sort of worked, sort of.

But images. Never did get that quite working. They do fine in OpenOffice but not in Microsoft Word documents. For some reason the latter format encourages image to move around inside the document pretty much willy nilly. Captions, too.

I eventually learned that you can put a border on all four sides of an image (no just on one, two, three or all four sides as with pure OpenOffice), and then lock the image in place and then click on the "caption" option which will link the caption to the document, sort of generating a box something like a siamese twin of the image into which you can put text for a caption, keeping them bound together.

And after weeks and weeks of screwing around I got that to work well enough.

Done, save for one last indignity.

And that was that since uploading, I would have to forgo any exotic typefaces that I have installed, and instead use the generic few that has. Which means that I had to drop all my chapter titles and story titles and subheadings and drop caps in Pupcat and use plain old mush, which made the book visually boring.

All this, and was able to print my book just fine the old way, when I generated the PDF from OpenOffice and uploaded that. But there seems to be some secret arcane witchcraft involved when they make the book available to everyone that they say prevents doing just this very same thing. So they say you have to do the other thing, which is where I lost weeks and weeks of my life.


But I got it done.

Had to upload the nine meg document about a dozen times because it just wouldn't format correctly when converted to PDF. That, and then download a 22meg PDF to view it. Around in circles, tail, chasing the.

So finally, done. And then I began playing with Scribus, the desktop publishing program, which looks really good but is about halfway there. Will be magnificent when they get it complete. Pretty solid now, but you have to push hard to make it go. Supposedly it is one of the very best in the world at outputting PDF documents.

I used it on my second book, which is an excerpt of the first, just the few technical chapters at the end. Anyway, it allows me to use Pupcat and solidly place images and precisely align text, and it all stays just where I put it though I have to manually format each and every single paragraph and heading and caption, and that is maddening and maddening and error prone. And it doesn't do automatic hyphenation. If you turn on hyphenation it will ask you three or four questions about each word as it lays them in, and you can't see even a whole line while it's doing this, so hyphenation is almost useless. Or unimaginably error-prone if you decide to continue because it will make you crosseyed and then make you howl.


The story of my life. But at least I finished the second book. It is 83 pages compared to the original book which is 320 pages (after I removed a lot of nice white space -- originally 372 pages).

Then I found a couple of errors in the main book, which I had spent weeks formatting just to make it ugly and acceptable to Microsoft Word format.

So now I don't know what I'm going to do.

I want to get back to writing, but I still have an unformatted book. It would be a huge amount of work to reformat it using Scribus and I don't know if that would ultimately work or not (who knows who these prickly unforgiving printers are anyway). So I may eventually reformat in Scribus and if that doesn't work, drop back to what I have now in Word format (after correcting the typos).

And then again I wonder if I just shouldn't stay with what I have, use OpenOffice, generate PDFs the easy way, sell exclusively through, and put my real effort into marketing.

I keep trying to figure out what I would do if I was smart, and that ain't easy.

Dave's Guides

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Colombia: A New Vision by Santiago Harker

This is a rare book by a rare photographer.

If you are lucky you will see it in front of you one day, unexpectedly, as I did. I always check my library's new book section for anything on photography. One day in the early 1990s I saw this book. "Colombia, a new vision", said the title. So who cares?

But the cover, the cover. So strange somehow. A gray blankness. A wall, and on it a hanging photograph, an ordinary and uninspired grassy, tree-stuffed landscape hinting at a nondescript building hiding in the back there somewhere behind the trees. So what?

But I noticed that this picture had an odd frame, with rough edges, and not square. I looked more closely. My mind defocused and then focused again.


A wall, yes, a wall, but no photograph on it. A wall with an unglazed window, and behind the window a scene, still an ordinary scene but now intriguing and full of wonder.

This book's real title, in Spanish, is "Colombia inedita". I think that might be "Unknown Colombia", "Colombia Discovered", or maybe "The Unexpected Colombia". Inedita seems to refer to money. Maybe it's "The Undervalued Colombia". This is a book of unexpectedness, of startlements, one after another, from beginning to end.

An excerpt from the first edition photographer's note: "The word reality is most often used as if there were only one reality, as if we all perceived it the same way, as if reality did not stand for an endless succession of moments in continuous flux, out of which we choose those that mean most to us. In one of Colombia's highest regions, where the wind holds sway, a river of light is born -- the Luz. The photographs in this book are of places and towns along the lower reaches of the Luz, a river in unending search of the crystal sea, whose depths are a looking glass that tells no lies and mirrors only the deepest truths."

I can't say if this is literally true because available maps show me no Rio Luz. And the images in this book seem to come from everywhere in Colombia, not just one region, but they are all close relatives of one another. That is true. They are a family. Some inspire wonder. Some make one ache with unresolved emotion. Some bake in summer heat. Some bear the smell of muddy riverbanks and spilled motor oil. But they are a family. They belong.

Harker has created a work of mastery not by collecting another hundred and fifty-odd pretty travelogue images from an unfamiliar land but by setting among a collection of great images some blinding gems of startling surprise. First the cover caught me and then the book held me, has held me, my thoughts, for over 15 years. I am still startled by this book. I am. Startled.

It is a bright day. I see silhouetted an old man shuffling out of the frame. Behind him is a shimmering whitewashed wall, and above it a tile roof. But as I continue scanning upward my mind stops working. The sky is filled with hedged green fields. Somehow. As with the cover, several long seconds fight to reshape my mind. Oh!

I understand.

This is three images in one, layered vertically. First the old man with his cane, then the building behind, and above the clay roof, then the hillside fields beyond, higher still. It is a genius of a telephoto shot, without telltale clues. No depth. All together. One. Harker does this over and over. He is not a lens jockey. He is a seer.

Pages of semi-abstract street scenes. People. Daily life. Coming and going or pensive standing. Then a street view through an open doorway into a building, but there is no inside beyond the doorway. Through the door I see distant hills. Are we inside or out? Was this a building once, or has it always been a painted wall with one door and one shuttered window and no inside or outside? And how can it make sense?

Another street, another day. Foreground: packed red earth road. Background: a stone and concrete sidewalk then a stone and stucco wall. Frame right: four large baskets against the wall, precisely placed at the photo's point of interest. An abstract. Interesting but...

Oh! The feet!

A small woman is now hurrying out of the image, one foot blurred by her movement. Her skirts flip. Hidden behind the huge woven baskets she bears she is on her way elsewhere. This is no longer a still life but one moment of a real person's real day.

An odd, almost photo-realistic mural. Like a doorway somehow, vertical and narrow. A plank leads up to it and then stops. The mural shows a propeller and engine cowling, one pontoon, a section of wing, muddy water. Oh! It is a real doorway in yet another wall. One reality on this side, another on that side. A tethered float plane waits patiently opposite the doorless doorway and this is not a mural. The plane is outside. Are we inside something? Too bright. It is not decided.

Near the end of this book, in the back, among the seaside images, there is "Wayuu woman, Manaure, Guajira". Leaning her back against a crooked post, she is lithe in a dress of purest flowing blue. Her black hair hides beneath a plain red cloth. I will never know more of her than the curve of her cheek, the quiet grace of her dark brown arm, lifted to touch her forehead, because she looks away. But she is perfect just so. Just exactly so, this goddess.

There is magic here, and much more of it than I can put words to. To try would only prove how inept I really am, and how feeble my words. Find this book. See it with your eyes. Be startled. If not today then when you can. It will wait for you to come. And it will not disappoint you.

Colombia: A New Vision by Santiago Harker
English edition at Amazon.
Spanish edition at Amazon.

List Price: $55.00
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Villegas Editores; Second edition edition (April 1, 2005)
Language: Spanish
Language Notes: Text: English (translation)
ISBN-10: 9588156556
ISBN-13: 978-9588156552
Product Dimensions: 12.2 x 9.3 x 0.9 inches