Back after a long absence (blamed entirely on the pandemic!)

This is my first post since February, so hello! The details behind my long absence don’t really matter, because, really,  haven’t we all been dealing with the same troubles for months now?

But basically, long story short: I teach college, and as soon as the coronavirus started to be a thing (ugly, accursed thing; we collectively spit on you!), my teaching and administrative responsibilities exploded. It has been grueling and nonstop since then. But finally . . . a breather. I just finished teaching my summer class and I start up again in two weeks with a pre-academic year program and then will ease back into the fall term, at which point I hope that somehow things will be slightly more under control. We’re changing from Blackboard to Canvas, and I think faculty are also due to get new computers, which is always a little disruptive. But I’ve now learned how to use Microsoft Teams and Vidgrid and have become familiar with many other new skills and platforms that I wasn’t good at when this whole online teaching thing began. So at least I feel fairly well prepared to handle my classes this fall.

And before I go any further, I should also add how grateful I am to be employed. Truly, with so many people’s livelihoods shattered by this virus and its fallout, I am very aware of how fortunate I am to have a stable job. (Currently, at least. As we’ve seen far too often in the past several months, things can fall apart completely overnight.)

Plus, so far no one in my family or immediate circle of friends has contracted COVID-19. (*superstitiously knocks on wood*)

So here I am again, back to my blog. Without ceremony and practically without explanation. Mostly because once my MS Teams meetings were over today, I went through my email and stumbled across something I ordinarily (pre-COVID-19) would have wanted to share on my blog. This has happened to me often over the past several months. I’ve even taken photos that I intended to share. But I never felt I could justify the half hour of time it would take away from work to write a blog post. And you know how once you’re away from something you feel like you can’t resume it without some sort of explanation? After radio silence for weeks, then months, it felt too awkward popping in here to post a photo as if only a few days had gone by.

Anyway . . .

Today I just found this really cool website, thanks to a daily email I subscribe to, “The Download” from MIT Technology Review. The site is called “WindowSwap.” And it’s nothing more than a series of windows. That is, from the website you can click to open someone else’s window on the world. Literally. Your screen will show the view from someone’s else’s window. I’ve just looked down on an alley in Shanghai, a sunny backyard garden in Germany, a plant-filled balcony/porch strip with two dogs in India, a rainy day in NYC, a cat overlooking a sun-drenched cityscape in Qatar, an enclosed patio with a waterfall in Singapore, a sunset over dusky hillsides in San Francisco, and sloping, green pastures amid mountains in Switzerland.

Don’t like the view? No worries. There’s bound to be something more appealing just a click or two away. How generous people have been to open up this little part of their homes and outside world to us.

You even have the option to share your own window.

The webiste is window-swap.com.

Give it a try!  Here’s screenshot of the view from a window in Switzerland.

WindowSwap is a really perfect momentary distraction—often with the ambient sounds of traffic or breezes and birdsong, and sometimes the sounds of children playing, if the windows are open. Sort of like looking out your own window to experience a brief respite, except you have the added novelty of seeing an entirely different world outside, allowing you to (re)gain perspective in an entirely new way.

For example, after clicking through several windows today, I realized what a tremendous difference flowers made in my feelings toward a view. And once I realized that, I found myself mentally remaking all the unappealing views I encountered to see how they might be redeemed if only some pots of flowers were added to the windowsill or porches or walls. Those imaginary splashes of color completely turned things around. Funny, I’ve always been somewhat indifferent to flowers, like they’re a nice extra but not particularly worthy of attention when money and time are tight.

I’m rethinking that now.

Especially now, when we need uplifting more than ever.

And maybe my best parting words today would be these: Thank you to all the bloggers who kept on posting during the past few months. Some days when my news and social media feeds were bursting with negativity, just opening my WordPress app and seeing you continue to show up every day with your food blogs and art blogs and music blogs and history blogs and your poetry and diaries of ordinary life—all of that normality gave me the positive boost I needed to suck it up and get on with my own daily tasks.

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Trees Like Cotton

Yesterday’s snow was so pretty, laying itself down thick and heavy on the tree branches. Everything was drenched in white. Then today in the sunshine all that snow started falling off in globs, leaving behind these odd clusters of “cotton” on the branches.

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Abstraction in Snowy Branches

I guess we’ll be shoveling later tonight, but meanwhile the snow is beautiful ❤️

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Caterpillars Don’t Become Butterflies!

A blogger I follow published a link to this older post today, which he said has become the most-visited/read post on his blog. I can see why. Number one, I’ve never heard this about caterpillars. And number two, the metaphor for our own lives is pretty deep to ponder. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

With thanks to Mitch Teemley . . .

via Caterpillars Don’t Become Butterflies!

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Brutalism Softened

One of the Juneau Village Towers apartment buildings, photographed in the soft haze of our misty “wintry mix” today.

With their Brutalist looks, the towers of this apartment complex have always reminded me of the old Soviet Bloc style housing. Ugly, utilitarian, and possibly even slightly menacing. But the mist hanging over downtown Milwaukee today softens the concrete structure’s hard edges.

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Snow in Repose

Just a photo I took of a bench outside the Starbucks at Red Arrow Park. Winter can be pretty and even peaceful.

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Seen walking back from the dentist

It had been raining on the walk over from my office, but the sun was out by the time I left the dentist to start walking back. It’s only about a 15-minute walk, and I like to swing through Red Arrow Park—more specifically, the Red Arrow Starbucks 🙂 —on my way back.

I liked this reflection of City Hall in the glass walls of the new BMO Tower mirrored side by side with the real thing. This image may owe its striking good looks to the rainwashed air and backdrop of gray clouds in contrast with the bright sunlight shining down on the building itself.

When I got over to Red Arrow Park, I was happy to notice that although the wooden cross and flowers and candle of an unofficial memorial to Dontre Hamilton four years ago had been removed, presumably by county parks workers, the rock itself had been allowed to remain. Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed black Milwaukeean struggling with mental illness, had been sleeping on a bench in Red Arrow Park shortly before he was shot by a police officer. Horrifying and tragic.

Here is what the memorial looked like when I wrote about it four years ago. (You can see my November 2015 post here).

And here is what the rock looked like yesterday. The faint remains of “Dontre” still linger on the surface.

Below you can see the rock in its larger context. That’s it right next to the sidewalk below the bush that has a red-covered planter behind it.

Nice. It’s good to see Dontre Hamilton’s rock there near the other memorial stones and that the county workers left it alone when they removed the rest of the tribute. Very classy move on their part. What happened here needs to be remembered.

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Balanced, calm composition (veering slightly toward hysteria)

I was instantly struck by this four-quadrant checkerboard pattern of vertical and horizontal lines and areas of shadow and light when I walked into my office around 1:00 this afternoon after teaching my freshman report-writing class.

I fooled around with my iPhone’s editing filters and had planned to use one of my black-and-white versions in today’s post. That made sense because of the picture’s emphasis on light and dark contrasts. Wouldn’t those contrasts be enhanced by limiting visual elements to the grayscale spectrum?

Yet once I saw the edited photos, I decided I liked the original image best. It wasn’t the patterns of light and shadow that were calling to me, I realized. It was more the sense of calm I felt emanating from the balanced composition of vertical and horizontal lines and planes and blocks of color.

My zen office corner 🙂

Only the original photo’s muted colors and soft contrasts truly captured what I felt when I walked into the room.

I’m posting all versions here so you can see what I mean. Maybe you’ll feel that one of the other versions creates a better photo.

When I first started fooling around with the filters, I initially thought I’d go with the “Mono” filter. I even originally titled this post “Arrangement in Black and White No. 2,” which would have been a nice follow-up link to my earlier “Arrangement in Black and White No. 1.” Here’s the “Mono” version.

Then I tried another b/w filter, “Silvertone,” seen below. I liked the warmth and richness that one seemed to add. But you couldn’t really understand what was going on with the black and white vertical lines atop the cabinet. There was so much contrast that it was hard to see that these were shadowed set-back areas of the corner.

Finally, to really heighten the contrasts and make the lights lighter and darks darker, I went with “Noir.” But this one seemed flatter and suddenly only about the black and white. 

When I looked back at my original, I decided I liked the muted colors after all. But since the “Vivid” filter was right next door to the original version, I gave it a try. And I actually did like the way “Vivid” (below) brightened up the colors and heightened the contrast. But the tan-colored walls were a bit too bright now. And I was rapidly approaching my insight that this picture was less about contrast than it was about balance.

So in the end, the muted colors of the original came closest to capturing what I saw when  I spotted the photograph “in the wild,” as it were.

Sometimes the simple truth of an unedited photo is best. In fact, that’s almost always my approach. If I see a “picture,” I try to capture an image in camera that best approximates the flash of “sight” (insight?) that created the photo in my mind’s eye. And I try to do it upfront instead of via editing as often as possible. For me there’s an authentic integrity in that simplicity.

Kind of an Occam’s razor approach to photography 🙂

Someone once told me that photography was not art. Pointing a camera and clicking the shutter is not at all in the same realm as sculpture or painting. Because there was skill involved, they conceded, photography might be considered a “craft.” Then they also modified their position and went so far as to say that possibly an edited (i.e., “painted”) photograph might be considered art. But an unedited photo was definitely not a work of art.

Obviously, that person’s mind would be difficult to change. Where even to begin? The art-versus-craft debate is somewhat pointless and therefore particularly vehement. (Reminds me a bit of that saying about how campus politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low.)

But to counter the idea that photograph cannot be “art,” I think that “seeing” is an art, number one. Perception. Art is not “art” until it has meaning, so if no one sees meaning in a work of “art,” then it’s not art. To create art requires seeing and technical skill. That’s my number two, by the way: “technical skill” and the ability to employ it effectively to create the work that captures your vision.

The “seeing” works on both ends of the creative process. To create art requires seeing and technical skill. To recognize art requires seeing and vocabulary or similar conceptual frameworks. Vacabulary and other symbolic tools open your eyes and allow you to see what was previously invisible.

The first time I taught film studies I asked my students at the beginning of the term to list their favorite movies and say what made them special. Almost without exception everyone cited “acting” as the thing that made a movie great. But it wasn’t really the acting, I realized when I asked them to say more. Students cited acting only because they didn’t yet have the vocabulary or conceptual framework to “see” anything else. As they learned about camera lenses and composition, about lighting, production, and sound design, etc., over the course of the term, they also developed an ablity to recognize elements of true art in cinema when they encountered them. Including acting, but now with an ability to discern what made an actor’s performance a work of art.

Sorry to get all preachy 🙂

While not every photograph is art, photography itself is an art. Agreed? Okay! 🙂

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Castoffs

Photo taken today on the south side of Wisconsin Avenue, somewhere between 35th and 12th Streets; can’t recall exactly where.

This struck me as an interesting assortment of “forgotten” things, so I took the picture while stopped at a traffic light.

I haven’t seen a pay phone in a long time. Nor a phone number like the one in the faded “FOOD MARKET” sign on the wall bearing an old alphanumeric exchange, “WEST 4520.”

And even that wall itself manages to show off some history in the old Cream City brick—made in Milwaukee and the source of our town’s “Cream City” monicker—displayed here in all its variety of appearance: black where it was exposed to weather over the years, grayish beige where it was painted over and thus partially protected by the “ghost sign” 50+ years ago, and creamy yellow where it somehow remained completely protected from the elements.

At the time I took the picture, I didn’t notice the discarded “ROAD WORK AHEAD” sign leaning against the wall. But looking at the photo now, I can see that it fits right in with the other relics here.

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Corner offices, late afternoon in mid-December

We’re getting to that time of year when darkness falls in Milwaukee well before it’s time to leave work for the day. I took this photo yesterday at 4:17 pm.

And guess what? Little did I know, that was the exact time of yesterday’s sunset!

Anyway, as I crossed the street I noticed all the contrasts between light and dark, and also the geometry of the different lighting configurations, so I stood at the corner once I’d arrived and took the picture.

And I just noticed the security camera at the bottom center of my photo taking a picture of me back! I guess we’re even now 🙂

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