a blind flaneur curating an archaeology of attention 2009-12-26T18:00:06Z WordPress http://blindflaneur.com/?feed=atom Mark Willis http://blindflaneur.com/ <![CDATA[Building a Log Cabin in One Man’s Wilderness]]> http://blindflaneur.com/?p=2588 2009-12-26T18:00:06Z 2009-12-26T17:56:06Z

The memory of Dick Proenneke has been  a welcome presence this Christmas. I gave Brendan a copy of One Man’s Wilderness, and on Christmas Eve, Ms. M and I watched the PBS documentary based on the book and Dick’s vintage film footage. I’m fascinated by the solo process he developed for documenting his cabin-building in the Alaskan wilderness. Remember, this was forty years ago, long before YouTube enabled anyone with a cell phone camera to become DYI documentarians.

Dick’s footage of brown bears, caribou, and a wolverine triggered stories of my own youthful journey in the Brooks Range, a year after the book was published, before the first road was built across the mountains. That’s where I encountered a wolverine for the first and only time. It was excavating a steep stream bank on an unnamed tributary of the Glacier River, looking for a lunch of  lemmings. The wolverine cared not a wit for three curious hikers, even though one carried a 30.40 rifle.

As the video below attests, Dick Proenneke’s cabin still stands in Lake Clark National Park. It’s a simple wilderness shrine to which I someday want to journey.

Mark Willis http://blindflaneur.com/ <![CDATA[Noel: Notre Dame de Paris]]> http://blindflaneur.com/?p=157 2009-12-24T19:57:46Z 2009-12-25T04:05:54Z Notre Dame de Paris shimmers on a December night.

Notre Dame de Paris shimmers on a December night. [Photo by  M. Bob] And so do the radiant voices of the Anonymous 4 [Miracles of Compostela: Congaudeant Catholici]

Mark Willis http://blindflaneur.com/ <![CDATA[Praying for a Piano Player]]> http://blindflaneur.com/?p=156 2009-12-24T19:53:26Z 2009-12-24T18:00:25Z Every family with an oral tradition has a story that is told and re-told at Christmas until it acquires the power of myth. This is mine. It tells how my grandmother, Ona Willis, joined the Salvation Army.

It was a rainy night in Columbus, Ohio on Christmas Eve in 1944. All three of Ona’s sons were fighting overseas in the war. The news was full of stories about the German counter-offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge. Ona knew my dad was somewhere in northern France, and she feared the worst.

Anxious and depressed, Ona walked aimlessly along the streets of her neighborhood that night. She stopped in front of a Salvation Army Hall when she heard people singing. She listened a long time in the rain before mustering the resolve to go in. She stood meekly just inside the door, ready to slip back into the night. When the hymn ended, the Salvation Army Captain at the front of the hall noticed her standing there, wet and frazzled .

“Lady,” he said in a booming, radiant voice, ‘do you know how to play the piano?”

She did.

“Praise the Lord! We’ve been praying for a piano player, and here you are!”

The Salvation Army gave Ona refuge that Christmas Eve, and she made music for them every Wednesday night and Sunday morning for the next 30 years. She played all the stalwart hymns. She wrote several hymns herself, but the scores are lost to the world. What I remember now - I can still hear it - is her jubilation as she marched through the major chords until she made them swing.

I can see Ona now sitting at the piano, a cigarette dangling from her lip, a cold cup of coffee perched somewhere in arm’s reach. Conjure Hoagy Carmichael in a floral print house dress and you get the picture. See the four-year-old boy snuggled next to her on the piano bench? That’s me, mesmerized by her deft hands making such an effortless stream of music. She played it all by ear. Ona and my dad read and wrote music on paper, but they really cut loose when they played without a score. From them I began to learn what it means to listen, remember, and improvise this way. None of us knew then how I would need that knowledge — playing by ear — throughout a life of letting go of sight.

Originally posted December 24, 2007.

Mark Willis http://blindflaneur.com/ <![CDATA[A Cacophony of Cranes Made Me a True Believer]]> http://blindflaneur.com/?p=2545 2009-12-13T16:22:39Z 2009-12-13T15:33:00Z About the image: Sandhill cranes fly over the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. [Photo by Kristen Westlake]

Every December a  dark moment comes when I tell myself that I’m too old for cutting, splitting, and stacking firewood.  This moment arrives with the first ice storm of winter, when I need to work outside in marginal conditions with cold, wet hands to do something that should have been finished two months sooner. That’s the voice of my inner Calvinist speaking, sanctimonious and severe. Fortunately, I don’t listen long to him.

After the dark moment passes, propelled by foul swearing to ward off the Calvinist, there comes a moment of simple, unexpected joy that I could call an epiphany. It’s  something wondrous that I would not have experienced but for the necessity of working outside. Two years ago a whiff of pinyon smoke on the wind led me back into the memory of hearing a mountain lion’s yowl in New Mexico. Last year the heft and thud of a quarry bar reminded me of chopping ice in the mill race to fetch a bucket of water. Yesterday a cacophony  of cranes stirred my sluggish blood.

Brendan and I were framing end walls for a  makeshift woodshed when we heard them. At first I thought the sounds  came from pigeons in the eaves. Then I imagined pigeons on steroids or LSD. Brendan looked up and said, “Oh, my god!” Then I recognized what I was hearing.  A flock of 50 or 60 sandhill cranes   crossed the clear, blue sky above us. They made a wide circle over the village at about 1,000 feet elevation, then veered southwest toward the afternoon sun. We dropped our hammers and jumped up and down with something like a barbaric yawp, or maybe it was a crude imitation of the cranes’ nuptial dance. Then a second flock of stragglers flew over in V formation, low enough for me to see the distinct pattern of their flight – not the birds themselves, but their motion across the field of my peripheral vision.

In a lifetime of birding, I’ve seen sandhill cranes only twice in Ohio. I’ve encountered them more often along migratory flyways on the Great Lakes, particularly at Whitefish Bay. The sight and sound of these huge birds, so gawky on the ground and so magisterial in flight, was thrilling every time. Several years ago, when I heard a local naturalist say that early December was sandhill migration time around here, I was skeptical. In your dreams, I thought. Then my friend John Whitmore told me about a flock he saw last December while working outside his woodshed. Now that I’ve witnessed the migration for myself, with  my son’s corroboration, I’m a true believer.  I worked in the wood yard until an hour after sunset in hopes of hearing  that wild cacophony  again.

About the image (above): Sandhill cranes fly over the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. [Photo by Kristen Westlake; you can order her prints here]

Thanks also to Kristen Westlake for this photo montage with squawking sandhills on the soundtrack. That’s what I heard in my own backyard. Ms. Modigliani and I have a dream of someday witnessing the spring crane migration   in Nebraska, where hundreds of thousands flock on the Platte River.

Ever since childhood, Whooping cranes have animated for me a personal mythology of freedom and wildness endangered. Read my essay, Whooping Cranes, Family Values, and the First Amendment.

Mark Willis http://blindflaneur.com/ <![CDATA[Cranking Up Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine]]> http://blindflaneur.com/?p=2537 2009-12-10T21:51:37Z 2009-12-10T21:29:39Z Some years back when I read The Difference Engine, the “alternate history” novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, I thought Charles Babbage was just a fanciful blip in the authors’ metaverse. Later I learned that Babbage was the real deal, an iconoclastic prophet of modern computer science. The novel’s computing machine chugged and clanked like a steam-powered tractor threshing wheat. Babbage never raised enough money to build it himself, but like Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter, it’s been realized in a later century by dedicated geek fans with a mission. Listen to Difference Engine #2’s precise click and whirr in this video from the Computer History Museum in California.

NPR’s Laura Sydell tells how Ada Lovelace had a hand in another Babbage invention, the Analytical Engine. Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, the apotheosis of Romanticism. Talk about a generation gap!

Lovelace… met Babbage at one of his London soirees, which were attended by intellectual luminaries of the time, such as Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens. Lovelace also had a passion for mathematics.

Lovelace helped Babbage put his ideas in writing. She often understood the implications of his work better than he did… [read more]

Mark Willis http://blindflaneur.com/ <![CDATA[The King Is Dead. Long Live The Herons!]]> http://blindflaneur.com/?p=2531 2009-12-10T17:34:36Z 2009-12-10T00:16:43Z La Tour d'Argent restaurant in Paris[Photo by David Queen/Wikipedia]The statistics are staggering for the wine auction at La Tour d’Argent, the venerable Left Bank restaurant with a 27-room wine cellar [left; photo by David Queen/Wikipedia]. The auction fetched more than a million euros, according to AFP. A bottle of Vieux Cognac Le Clos Griffier  sold for €25,000, according to the Globe and Mail. The cognac was dated 1788, only five years before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads. When La Tour d’Argent opened in 1582, according to NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley, Henry III would stop there after a royal hunt for some heron pâté. For the birds’ sake, let’s hope that feasting on their chopped liver was jettisoned long ago with the monarchy.

Mark Willis http://blindflaneur.com/ <![CDATA[To Kiki the Lascivious Tortoise, Adieu]]> http://blindflaneur.com/?p=2509 2009-12-08T15:43:06Z 2009-12-08T11:29:30Z Kiki's long lust for life lasted 146 years. [Photo by F-G Grandin/AFP/guardian.com] Kiki's long lust for life lasted 146 years. [Photo by F-G Grandin/AFP/guardian.com]

From Kiki of Montparnasse to Kiki of the Jardin des Plantes… sad news comes from Paris via Lizzy Davis at guardian.com:

France was in mourning today for one of its oldest and best-loved lotharios, a giant tortoise named Kiki, who died at the age of 146.

Staff at the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris announced that its veteran resident had succumbed last week to an infection.

They paid tribute to the zoo’s “doyen”, whose distinctive personality and “demonstrative lovemaking” had made him a favourite with the French public.

“We are rather upset to have lost Kiki. He had been here for such a long time …that we had kind of thought of him as eternal,” said Michel Saint Jalme, the deputy director of the Ménagerie. “He had a kind of charisma … a certain personality.”

Kiki, who arrived in the French capital as an exotic newcomer from the Seychelles in 1923, when his species was on the brink of extinction, was never slow to use that charisma to full effect.

According to Marie-Claude Bomsel, a vet at the zoo, he was so vigorous in his pursuit of female tortoises that his grunts could be heard from the other end of the zoo and the Jardin des Plantes.

“To be honest, from time to time I even saw him go after a wheelbarrow. You see what we were dealing with,” Bomsel told French radio. “That was one of his characteristics. We all loved him.”

Hmm… I had nights like that in my misspent youth. Kiki gives me courage for the golden years.

Frédéric Lewino, a science writer at Le Point magazine, wrote that, though advanced in age, Kiki remained “fresh” to the end.

Kiki weighed 250kg and had to be moved about using a forklift.

“However crushed they were by his 250kg, the females suffered his assaults without any complaint,” he remarked.

The oldest and largest of five giant tortoises at the Ménagerie, Kiki’s remains are to be preserved and exhibited at France’s Natural History Museum.

His fellow creatures are among the world’s longest living.

Harriet the Galápagos tortoise was reported to be 175 years old when she died in 2006 in Australia, while Tu’i Malila, a tortoise who died in 1965 in Tonga, lived to 188.

Mark Willis http://blindflaneur.com/ <![CDATA[Looking Back (Demurely) Over A Quarter Million Page Views]]> http://blindflaneur.com/?p=2498 2009-12-08T21:29:48Z 2009-12-06T19:45:19Z Man Ray. Le violin de Ingres. 1924.

This site crossed a quantitative threshold last night when it surpassed 250,000 page views. It was almost two years to the day when I installed the WordPress.com stat counter to measure Internet traffic here, and a little more than seven months since the count reached 100,000. On that occasion I reposted Degas’s Spartan Girls Provoking Boys, which remains the most viewed page on the site (18,718 and counting. I’m celebrating today with the legendary Kiki of Montparnasse, who posed for Man Ray’s iconic 1924 photo montage, Le Violin de Ingres. This image was first posted on February 6, 2008; with 14,982  page views, it’s giving Spartan Girls a run for the money.

I harbor no illusions about what all this means. It’s a nice round number, but 250,000 page views are not 250,000 pages read. The lion’s share of these page views were images such as Spartan Girls and Le Violin de Ingres that turned up in Google Image search results. In that respect, Google has been good to me. Very little of the vast and sundry things  I choose to write about would ever make it to the first page of web search results without an image.

No one ever questioned why or how a blind flaneur  could produce web pages showcasing such images. It didn’t happen by accident or irony. It doesn’t represent “leakage”  in some categorical  imperative separating sight and blindness, as a scholar of visual culture once suggested to me. I’ve done a lot of photo editing throughout a forty-year media career, and the Internet continues to expand my ability to pursue the work even as I lose sight. It could be that this blog  is documenting a process of perception and attention that will culminate someday  in a final image, the last one I manage to see. But, honestly, I intend it to document a different process, an evolution into another understanding of what an image is and can be. Take a look at this blog’s very first post: Walter Benjamin pointed the way in his essay “The Return of the Flaneur” when he spoke of the flaneur as curator of  images and the genius loci.

Those of you who have followed the blog may have noticed that its appearance has changed significantly in recent months. My posting has become erratic, too. This happened as the result of a WordPress security problem that began last July, which I have been fighting ever since. The hacking shows up as hidden code that’s aimed at scamming the Googlebot. Fortunately, my readers haven’t seen it unless they examine source code. I had to drop the outdated and vulnerable  Moonlight theme that once graced the site’s design, even though it enabled me to better view the images. Fighting the hack has consumed much of the creative time and energy that otherwise would have gone into new content. There have been times when I was so discouraged that I thought I might just take the site down, but its web traffic has continued to grow despite the hack, and 250,000 hits tell me to hang on. Something is working right.

Mark Willis http://blindflaneur.com/ <![CDATA[Is An Audiobook Really a Book?]]> http://blindflaneur.com/?p=2490 2009-12-03T11:39:05Z 2009-12-02T00:58:03Z I see red whenever I run into the pompous assertion that reading by listening to a book read aloud is not really reading. Then I ask (loudly, of course, to anyone who will listen), how did I read Ulysses (three times in as many decades) and Finnegans Wake (not quite once, completely)? How did I read À la recherche du temps perdu, Gravity’s Rainbow, and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions? Was I deluding myself, or merely faking it?

Yesterday on NPR, I heard novelist Neil Gaiman ask, is an audiobook really a book? He paraphrased Harold Bloom on behalf of the naysayers: “You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.”

Gaiman followed Bloom’s judgment with his own: “I find that astonishingly unconvincing. I think you can have a close and perfectly valid relationship with the text when you hear it.”

Then audio book director Rick Harris insisted that he wants the experience to be different:

It is not a book. An audiobook is a separate entity. A novel can be seen as many things, and one of the things it can be seen as is a script for an audio performance. But it is another thing; it is an audiobook that has its own validity, its own limitations, its own strengths. The human voice is unquestionably the most expressive musical instrument there is. Combine those two and you get an audiobook.

To my great surprise, I found myself nodding at this like a Bobble-head. I think commercial audiobooks are something different, not just from printed books, but also from the books I read that were recorded for the National Library Service for the Blind. The production values that commercial publishers foist onto “audio performances” are, well, cheesy. The abridgments, the musical interludes with 101 strings, the histrionic characterizations by overwrought actors — such dramaturgy imposes interpretations on the text that cut the reader out of it.

So the litmus test for determining when a book is a book isn’t whether you see or listen. It’s whether your “relationship” with the text is really yours.

[See Listening to the Literacy Events of a Blind Rader for an academic perspective on how I read Thomas Kuhn’s  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.]

Mark Willis http://blindflaneur.com/ <![CDATA[Giving Thanks: One Reader Is A Miracle]]> http://blindflaneur.com/?p=112 2009-11-26T14:23:18Z 2009-11-26T10:00:40Z All the talk about slow food and  slow blogging reminds me of this story from the Left Bank. I published it first in September 2007, near the beginning of this blog. It remains one of the most satisfying pieces of new writing that I’ve done here. I was sad the day it dropped off the bottom of the home page, which held 20 posts then. Maybe no one would ever find or read the story again. So I re-posted it that Thanksgiving, and now I claim it as a family tradition. On this day meant to give thanks it gives me pleasure to read and publish it again to affirm how I am blessed that Ms. Modigliani is my first reader.

The title here comes from Walter Lowenfels, the poet and labor organizer whom Henry Miller immortalized as Jabberwhorl Cronstadt in Black Spring. “One reader is a miracle,” Walter said. “Two readers are a movement.”

[Photo by Ms. Modigliani]

I remember the book I held in my hands that day. I remember the feel of its time-warped, water-stained pages. I remember its murky, moldy river smell, call it the book’s bouquet, suggesting years of storage on the banks of the Seine. Had I bought it then, I could feel and smell it now and know it from a thousand other books in my studio. Its touch and bouquet would transport me into the midst of its terroir, several blocks of the Latin Quarter only a stone’s throw from the river, where it was printed and published, sold and re-sold, read and debated, discarded and read again in other hands — for three centuries. Like the fish that got away, it looms ever larger and more mysterious just below the surface of my memory.

It was a 1745 edition of Voltaire. The price was 45 euros. I had as much cash in my pocket, but that seemed exorbitant for a book slowly composting like leaf-mold. Voltaire never meant that much to me. I was hoping to stumble upon an affordable antiquarian volume of Rabelais. Still, 1745 was 1745, and I liked the smell of leaf-mold…

“You don’t need to buy books,” Ms. Modigliani said after snapping the photo. “You don’t need to read them. Just touching books is what you really want.”

She was right. Until then, she’d always been a little dubious about my passion for collecting books. Charitably, she overlooked the impracticality, the apparent futility of a blind man acquiring (and housing) countless printed volumes he could never read. Patiently and generously, she read to me more than a few obscure books over the years. As we made our way through the bookstalls along the Seine, she gamely surveyed the titles for me, translating snippets of this text or that. She almost succumbed to the passion herself as she haggled with bouquinistes on my behalf. Nonetheless, she couldn’t ignore the incongruity that I might pay more for a musty old book than she would spend for chic new shoes. It seemed, well, profligate.

So it was a moment of deep insight and acceptance when Ms. Modigliani said, “Just touching books is what you really want.” I felt understood then, and loved. How could buying any mere physical object compare with that?

I didn’t buy the book. We walked down Quai des Grands-Augustins to the Institut de France, then turned left onto Rue de Seine. There was Voltaire! Chancing upon his statue unexpectedly must have been an omen. I took a picture as if to prove to myself that I truly was a free agent in this situation. Then I heard a cold marble voice mocking me. Maybe it was an oracle from the terroir. “You should have bought the book.”

[Photo by a blind flaneur]