Friday, February 24, 2017

Not the Kraken

I have somehow arrived at Thursday evening without a topic. Usually when this happens, something occurs to me if I just look at my screen long enough, but tonight nothing is jumping out at me. I've considered and discarded at least five topics, which is highly unusual. I think part of the problem is that I'm so stunned by what I read in the news every day that I hardly know what to say about anything. We've gone from a situation in which things on the surface seemed unremarkable (i.e., no more dysfunctional than usual)--though there were plenty of signs of unease at a deeper level--to one in which the unease is not only on the surface but growing stronger day by day.

Is this an improvement? It doesn't seem to be. I always hoped that there was a method to the madness behind Mr. Trump's theatrics, but if there is, I don't know what it is. It all seems so incoherent. Is this simply the result of a new administration led by a non-politician trying to find its feet? Is it going to get better? I don't know. I hope so. 

I will say that when the FBI director announced just before the election that new material had been uncovered relating to Hillary Clinton's email case and then announced shortly afterward that nothing noteworthy had been found that I was puzzled along with everyone else but not so inclined as many to condemn what he did. I assumed he must have had a reason for doing it. He didn't strike me as someone who would take such an action, knowing the effect it would have so close to the election, merely to play politics. I see him as a more serious sort of person than that. 

People are rightly questioning what role Russia (or some other entity) may have played in the outcome of the election, though my understanding is that some U.S. officials think it's nothing unusual for interference like this to occur. James Comey, by the same token, was roundly criticized for making an announcement about potential new evidence in the Hillary Clinton case and possibly changing the trajectory of the race. So here's my question: Do people think Director Comey is working with the Russians? Was he just whistling Dixie? Did he do what he did for no good reason? 

I've been unhappy with many of the actions of the new administration, which don't reflect what I think we ought to be doing as a country. Many of the president's Cabinet choices are downright mystifying, even when you try to give them the benefit of the doubt as I sometimes have. I don't follow the president's tweets, because so many of his statements are so odd that they might as well be written in a different language. If there are grown-ups in the house, I would be hard pressed to identify most of them--but in my view, that was also true of the last administration. I'm not sure when the last time was, really, that we had good leadership in the Oval Office. Do you think Donald Trump is the sole cause of all our ills? I don't, because he's only been in office for a month.

Is something slouching towards Bethlehem to be born? Is there no balm in Gilead? Do I dare to eat a peach? I think you'd have to be in a comatose state not to be concerned about what's going on in Washington, but my sense is that it's been building for quite a while, that a cumulation of ills is coming to a head. If Mr. Trump has a remedy, he's showing no signs of it. If someone else does, they're showing no signs of it either. We've gotten used to people doing things in a certain way in Washington, and now we have someone who seems to relish the creation of Chaos.

Hesiod tells of Chaos being the first of the gods, followed by Gaia, the foundation. Chaos gave birth to Night, and Night gave birth to Day, which shows, I suppose, that you can't always judge the end by the beginning. I just hope someone has a better plan than simply, "Release the Kraken." I can't imagine what that would look like in today's world, and I don't want to find out.

Friday, February 17, 2017


I went out for a walk a little later than I'd planned this evening, but it was one of those times when I thought it might have been lucky that I did. I say that because the sunset was really stunning, a fact I would have missed if I had gone out earlier. I was walking along, thinking that I might need to take a shorter walk than usual since it would soon be dark, but the air was mild and it felt like a fine evening, so I kept going. Meanwhile, the fireworks were getting underway behind me.

I was well into the walk when I realized half the sky was on fire over my right shoulder. Unfortunately, I was walking in the other direction, so I kept having to look backwards, but it was a show-stopper all right. The sun had set the clouds ablaze in shades of hot pink, an effect that only increased as the sun slipped further down behind the horizon. The sunset reached so far across the sky and was so intense that it made me think of the Northern Lights, except it was the wrong color and featured no psychedelic undulations, only a breathtaking blaze of color.

I did end up cutting my walk a little short since the light was fading. I turned down a different street than I usually do; it was tree-lined and stately, and I admired not only the elegant perspective from one end but all the individual houses with their lights turned on for the evening. It was like turning away from a Technicolor explosion into a scene painted by Thomas Kinkade. There was a bracing smell of woodsmoke in the air, and whether or not it was intentional, the street exuded a peaceful, welcoming ambiance. I decided to look at it that way, because sometimes it's better to take a break from the news of the day and just live inside the brightness of a single moment.

I finally turned west and was walking along, thinking, yes, this will probably end up being my blog post, though it doesn't seem like much to say, the idea of living in the moment so that the glow of a sunset doesn't pass you by. Everybody knows that. Of course, now that I was walking in the right direction to have a good view of it, the sunset had shaded into a moodier combination of dark clouds and smoldering pink, as if I were looking at the after effects of a volcanic eruption. I'd had to crane my neck to see the best part of the show, but the somber afterglow was in plain view all the way home, with the evening star shining bright and solitary high above the fray.

I'm reminded of the game I used to play as a kid, when I would sometimes imagine mountain ranges in a mass of clouds, a habit that can alter your view of the landscape dramatically if you hold the picture in your mind long enough. A volcanic eruption isn't something we're likely to see here, so my mind was busy for the rest of the walk in imagining the fiery peak that seemed to be barely hidden behind a bank of clouds. I'll admit, though, that it was nice to get home without encountering either lava flow or rain of fiery ash. Sometimes a thing imagined is better than the reality.

Several hours later, I'm remembering the fire in the sky and how dramatic it was, but the details are already fading. What remains most indelibly is the image of that solitary star, a grace note in a tumultuous evening and a counterpoint to the changing effects of cloud and light below. Now I'm thinking of Keats, which is taking me in a different direction altogether. If I had to choose between being the sunset and being the star, I think I would choose to be the star. What it lacks in drama, it makes up for in steadiness and luminosity.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Watching Jane Austen

The other night, I re-watched my DVD of Joe Wright's 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice (with Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen). I've seen it half a dozen times or more, and the first time I saw it, I found it refreshingly modern, if perhaps a little rough around the edges. I hadn't then seen the famous PBS version starring Colin Firth and had nothing to compare it with except for the novel itself--nor had I much experience at that time in "seeing through" in the Hillmanian sense.

It may be that I'll end up doing revisionist readings of many of the books and films I've read, and this may be inevitable for an educated viewer, but it's sometimes disconcerting, as if a whole other film existed beneath the surface of the one I thought I was watching. It's tiresome, too, because, well--does one ever reach the bottom? I was certainly surprised at some of the details that jumped out at me this time; it's not that I didn't see them before but more that I didn't gloss over them this time in favor of simply following the story.

It's perhaps an unavoidable result of getting older that you also bring more of your own experience to bear on any text and therefore find more points of correspondence between fiction and life. Sometimes I miss being able to approach things more naively because a well-developed critical eye can be such a nuisance. It complicates experience rather than making it more fun and enjoyable--but so be it, I guess. You can't unsee things.

In the film, I noticed such things as gestures--a hand near the mouth or placed on a hip, a foot pointed just so; an expression that seemed at odds with the tenor of a scene; a bit of dialogue that grated; a pinafore worn by a particular character. I noticed the way a few of the characters reminded me of people I know and how scenes brought to mind incidents from my own life. Sometimes it was the smallest things: a character's look of lingering regret, a hand imperceptibly brushing the back of a dress, a handkerchief tossed into a crowd of soldiers, the unnatural pallor of a face. I was startled at the power these things suddenly had to kindle my own associations. I almost felt that someone had opened a window into my own life, with a surprising degree of accuracy.

My regular readers may remember that when I reviewed Peter Jackson's Hobbit films, I followed a sort of polytheistic reading of the characters. That is, I didn't see the characters as one-dimensional and continuous but rather as inhabiting different roles depending on the scene and the other characters with whom they interacted. This was a depth psychological reading based on the idea of the multiplicity of complexes and traits that make up an individual. I found myself doing the same thing with Pride & Prejudice, for it seemed to me that its characters moved in and out of roles in a way I hadn't quite noticed before.

The eldest daughter, Jane, seemed at times an ingenue blooming with her first experience of love and at other times something more reserved and unknowable, a watchful presence on the edge of things; Lizzie had a similar quality of seeming both to inhabit scenes as a daughter of the household and to stand outside them with an ironic, even supercilious air. The iconic scene of her standing on a rock at the edge of a precipice made her look more like a goddess in some high place, a figurehead on a ship, than a young woman contemplating her future. Even a minor character such as Georgiana, Mr. Darcy's sister, shows characteristics of a fluid personality, seeming to morph from innocent girl to someone with unusual forcefulness of character with one short line of dialogue and change of expression.

I admit I had never before given the film full credit for what seems to me its "coded" quality: of the way in which someone crossing a small bridge can seem to symbolize so much more; the way kisses can suddenly seem less than benign; the way an invisible Shakespeare-like gender shift sometimes seems to occur, transforming the import of a scene; of the way in which two characters difficult to tell apart begin to tug on my attention. (Why did the director choose to make the two youngest Bennet girls so much alike? When they're at rest you can see that they're different, but they are so rarely still that they could be mistaken for twins.) Some of the details are incongruous for no discernible reason. I found my attention drawn to things that seemed awkward and out of place, as if the film were a costume sewn so hurriedly that its uneven thread caught your eye before anything else.

Pride & Prejudice is, of course, a story about the politics and social games of engagement and marriage. A male acquaintance of mine once said he didn't care for Miss Austen because she made relations between the sexes seem so passionless, but this film takes in both the drawing room and the kitchen garden and injects a mood of earthiness into all the flirtations and jockeying for favor. In today's atmosphere of "total freedom" the constraints put on the characters' behavior and the many rules of propriety they're expected to observe may seem quaint to an unacceptable degree. I wonder, though, how much freer many of us are. In my experience, breaking out of a role, choosing freely, or trying to chart my own course has often seemed an exercise in overcoming one obstacle after another. This is much more of a problem now than it was when I was younger, ironically--or perhaps I was just not aware of it then.

Sexism, still as alive and well in the 21st century as it was in the 19th? The difficulty of being independent in a married world? Something to do with personality type? Some other explanation? Search your own heart and your own experience, and consider.

Friday, February 3, 2017

That Stuck Feeling

Alert readers of this blog may be wondering, "Mary, how did you spend your birthday week?" The answer is "very quietly," and when I say that, I mean it quite literally. I make a point of saying this because there seems to be an epidemic of people saying one thing and meaning another, and how this can be good is beyond me. I feel at times that I'm living in 1984, with all the strange utterances that come down the pike via the news each day. This doublespeak may be fashionable, but it's not amusing.

A few years ago, I noticed an acquaintance speaking very strangely, repeating words and throwing in a lot of double negatives, until I wanted to ask him if he was sure he hadn't had a stroke. Then I noticed someone else doing the exact same thing. Watching people on the daily news lately is a near replica of that experience. Surely all of these people can't have had strokes, so there must be another explanation. One longs for someone to simply say what they mean, in plain English. Will we ever see those days again?

I gather that large portions of the public are as confounded as I am by political events. The only comfort I draw from it (and it's not much) is that what has seemed obvious to me for some time, some fissure running through American political life, must now be clear to others. I thought that the air of the surreal that enveloped the law office I used to work in was something merely local, but if the whole country isn't by now aware of something strange at work in the political realm, they aren't seeing the same news I am. I had hoped that with a new administration in Washington, there would be positive change, but so far I haven't seen any evidence of it. In fact, I'm reminded every day by trifling events of how strange everything was shortly before I left the law firm.

Have you ever tried to report to the FBI or the police your sense that there might be some malfeasance taking place without being able to say exactly what it was? I have, and I can tell you that it isn't easy to communicate what the trouble might be when you only have suspicions. I have heard that they don't comment on ongoing investigations, but I still would have expected more interest in what I was telling them than they expressed. The only thing that really got a reaction was when I told them I sometimes had the sense that I was under surveillance and that my movements were being tracked. I'm not sure why, out of everything I said, that that was the thing they seized on, but that seemed to be the case. For me, it's not a vague feeling, but a conviction, and perhaps they did take me seriously on that.

Well, back to my birthday. It was a strange one, for sure. The evening before, I was out walking in the neighborhood as usual and became aware on at least three occasions that someone was walking close behind me. When that happens, I usually stop and wait for the person to pass. I was over on a quiet street not far from where I live when I heard footsteps, turned to look, and saw someone in a hooded coat trailing along behind me. I stopped to see what this person would do, and he/she (it appeared to be a woman) turned away from me onto a dead-end street and stopped, seemingly stymied by the lack of an outlet before turning around and going back the way she had come. I also noticed a car following along behind this person that stopped when I turned around. I wish I could tell you this was the first time something like this had happened, but it isn't. It was almost a replay of something that happened on the same street last summer.

I've seen so many of these unusual experiences that it's hard to know what's a real threat and what isn't, but the fact is that having people follow you down the street can't be good, no matter what the explanation is. I remember driving back from Cincinnati one Saturday, lo, these seven years ago now, and being startled by a sudden swerve of a pickup truck as we entered a shadowy area under an overpass. I went into work on Monday in disbelief and told several people that someone had tried to run me off the road, for I was sure that that is what had happened. One of the attorneys, uncharacteristically uncomfortable, it seemed to me, merely said that the same thing had happened to his wife recently. And that's the answer, that being nearly run off the road "just happens"? Is this the new normal? Apparently so, because it was merely the prelude to a whole sequence of odd events and disquieting experiences. Life hasn't been the same since.

I would have been glad to spend my birthday in a normal way, with friends, if I could be sure of knowing who they are, but the fact is that many people I know haven't seemed like themselves since all of the strangeness started. It's sad to say this, but it's true. I often get the sense that people know something of the problems I've been having without coming out and saying so--but no one is ever direct about anything. People don't always express disbelief when I tell them about some of the things that have occurred, but no one ever seems to know quite what to do about it. I have never been able to decide whether moving would make things better or worse, since I've had strange experiences away from home, too.

If this post makes you uncomfortable, I'm not surprised, but all I can say is, "welcome to my world." As a consolation for sticking with me through this unpleasantness, I'll tell you about one of my happiest birthdays, back when life was still normal and I didn't feel that I had to be looking over my shoulder all the time. I believe it was actually my 40th, and due to circumstances I won't go into, I ended up spending the evening alone. I wanted to make it special somehow, so I went to see a movie about a woman who was a writer and taking tango lessons--it was kind of offbeat but harmless as far as I know. I also went to the mall and tried on a couple of outfits that were different from what I would normally buy. I may have eaten out, too--I can't remember. It wasn't much, but somehow the conscious decision to be slightly adventurous--not absurdly so, but just a little--imbued the evening with a sense of possibility that was missing from some of my other birthday celebrations.

This year wasn't like that. Starbucks was filled with strange people that afternoon; I even saw someone who looked remarkably like California Governor Jerry Brown in the parking lot as I was leaving (I don't know what he'd be doing in Lexington, but famous faces are seen here from time to time). I couldn't sleep that night when I came home, as the building seemed too quiet except for some scuffling in the hallway in the wee hours. Once the oppressive feeling got to be too much, I got dressed and went out, thinking of waffles or an early cup of coffee, but in the end I really didn't want anything and just came back home.

Will next year's birthday be more normal? Only time will tell, but I hope so. It would be wonderful to feel safe and sound again.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Lightning Hits the Living Room

My winter cleaning project has turned out to be more all-encompassing than I thought--and that's an understatement. If you had told me a week ago that I'd be clearing out some of the items I've parted with, I wouldn't have believed you. Some of these things have been with me for quite a while, but once I started taking a closer look at them, I began to wonder why that was so. Was my regard for these items justified, outmoded, based on ideas I no longer believed in--or simply uninformed?

In some cases, I decided that objects I really didn't want any more were just taking up space, the way you do sometimes with impulse buys you later regret. In other cases, I had books and music that I had never read or listened to; when I started looking at it, I realized that some of it I would simply never get around to and some of it seemed to be different than what I had thought I was getting. That happens sometimes when you're researching a topic and cast a wide net, but it was also the case with items that were suggested to me by others or that I bought for class. I guess the result of developing a more discerning mythic eye is that you really do start to "see through" things; I could have saved myself some money by leaving those items in the store.

I cleared out a lot of albums and CDs, too, some of which I still listened to, and the story on that is a bit more complicated. I liked some of the music a lot but in the end it seemed to be taking up way too much oxygen. I looked at the cover art of some of my CDs and started to see a story that I had no idea was there before. Again, I've probably looked at those CDs dozens of times without really seeing them and was truly shocked when I started to see that what had seemed fairly inconsequential actually had an unnoticed layer of meaning. Some of the items went from being well-regarded and familiar to something that seemed quite alien in less than 30 seconds. I couldn't keep them anymore, and the sad thing is that I wondered why I had held onto them for so long.

The same thing happened with some family pictures, believe it or not. I saw some photos that my brother had posted on the Internet, and I suppose you would have to know him as well as I do, but I saw into them, or thought I did, with an acuity that was painful. It was like he was trying to tell me something. OK, mission accomplished. After that, I put away some family photos that I had out--it was probably time to do that anyway.

It's very difficult to admit that you just didn't see things, and this is especially true when you're an information professional who's used to assessing and judging things. It's easy to misjudge, though, when you only have partial information and no guidance other than your own understanding. If you're in the dark about things, you will make mistakes. I've often had the feeling that others know much more than I do (or believe they do) about things that concern me closely, which angers and distresses me more than I can say.

So it has been a week of clearing out space, both physical and psychic. When I went to bed on the evening of the day I had thrown out so much, I could hardly breathe. I literally felt that I was suffocating and wanted to go outside and run around in circles, though I doubted it would help. It felt like someone had just died--that overpowering feeling you have when something is lost that can't be recovered. I recently read a scene in a book in which a character's husband of many years died unexpectedly, leaving her to pick up the pieces. I hurried through that part because it was so painful, and here I was going through something not altogether different myself.

I often think that the first thoughts I have after waking up in the morning are probably the truest, and my immediate thought the next morning was that I had done the right thing and wouldn't regret it, no matter how empty my shelves and my desk seemed when I looked at them. They still look that way, several days later, but I have begun rearranging things to take up some of the empty space; I've let go of so many other things that I'm starting to get used to it. I was complaining in a previous post about having too much furniture in my living room, so maybe the desk will be the next thing to go now that it's almost bare. I always liked the living room better before it was here anyway.

I hope the room I'm making in my life will be filled with better things than have come my way recently. Even an optimist likes to have a little return on the faith now and then. I'll say further that some things are forgivable, but others are not--and I think anyone who's honest will agree with me.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Rainy Day in a Small Town

Last weekend I took a trip to my hometown on a misty, drizzly morning. I wanted to pay a visit to a family member and make perhaps one or two other stops, and it was impromptu, so no one knew I was on the way. I don't know about you, but I usually have an indescribable mix of feelings when I see the outskirts of my hometown come into view. It almost seems like another lifetime since I lived there, and it's been a long time since it really felt like home. I can remember, as a young teen, watching the sunset warm the brick facade of the church down the street with an alluring glow as I looked longingly toward the west and wanted to be elsewhere.

I spent a lot of time imagining elsewhere back then, and it seemed to me that life wouldn't really begin until I could get out of that little town and on to bigger things. Not too different from the way many young people think, although I gather many adults my age look back on their early years and realize they didn't know how good they had it until it was gone. I don't quite look at it that way, but I was surprised to find mild feelings of nostalgia coming up as I was driving around in the rain, looking at places I remembered, many of which remained mostly unchanged, at least to look at.

I didn't find my aunt at home and decided to continue driving around, so I went down the street my grandparents used to live on (and that street has changed--the house is no longer there). I had a clear memory of doing laundry with my mother in the small Laundromat near the end of the block while we were visiting my grandparents on vacation; I can still remember the smell of the place and the peppery taste of the locally-brewed soft drink that we drank ice cold out of the machine. I remember the African violets my grandmother had in her kitchen window, the uphill pitch of the backyard, the squeak of the glider as my grandfather rested there, chatting with whoever stopped by, and the trees we used to climb in the yard. Many of those are happy memories.

I drove past the church and the school I attended and the earliest house I remember living in. I decided to stop and see a friend, though I didn't have much confidence she'd be home, and while I turned down the wrong street initially (funny to get lost in so small a town), I realized my mistake and found the right turn eventually. I didn't find her at home, but I left a message with her mother and continued on my way, out past the high school and into the parking lot of the little shopping center next door. I was thinking about the many times fellow students skipping out must have patronized the businesses in that little mall, the only one of which I remember clearly was a Dairy Queen (now gone). I felt what I might describe as a moment of sympathetic nostalgia on behalf of the other students (I wasn't a skipper) before I turned my attention to the running track, where I did a few turns in gym class back in the day. I didn't particularly like gym or track & field, but it's funny how benign a sight it seemed that morning, a touchtone to a shared past. I spent four years of my life in that school along with my classmates, and although I was happy to move on, when I looked at the building all I felt was a pleasant sense of seeing a piece of the past.

I remembered visiting the homes of friends and classmates and tried to locate some of them, although that was more difficult with all the time that's elapsed, and I felt sure most of their families had moved on long since. I had lunch and decided a trip to the library was in order to get my uncle's address. Since my aunt died this year, I wanted to stop and say hello. I didn't find him at home, either, and that's when I decided to drop by the church, which his family also attended. I wasn't expecting to see him or anyone I knew there, but it was about time for the Saturday evening service, and it had been so many years since I'd been inside that I wanted to see the place again.

Everyone's familiar with that feeling of going back to a childhood place and finding how much smaller it seems, but I was surprised at just how much the dimensions of the place seemed to have shrunk. I assume this happened because I had so few other churches to compare it to back then, but still, I was surprised--I remember it as being bigger by at least half. I do have pleasant memories of services there, especially around Christmas, and I still found it to be as pretty a church as I remembered.

I recognized my uncle a few pews ahead of me, and after church we talked for a few minutes, a conversation in which the names of many family members came up and a sense of the passage of time was very strong. He encouraged me to stop by my aunt's house again on my way out of town, saying she was bound to be home on a Saturday, so I did that but still didn't find her at home. I was a little concerned but knew that there were other family members nearby and figured it was a case of bad timing--it was such a drizzly day that she may have gotten cabin fever and decided on a day out with a friend. Then it was back on the road west, back to Lexington . . . where all these many years later, I can say life did change once I left my hometown, and that many of the things I dreamed of did come true, although I didn't anticipate how challenging life could be at times. I don't think you ever do.

It's hard for me to imagine living in my hometown again, and yet to be honest there has always seemed to be some quality missing in Lexington, something that I can't put my finger on that has to do with the pace of life and the security of knowing many of the people around you. I may have said this before, but I think I've always wanted to combine that sense of belonging and the aesthetic appeal of small town life with some of the diversions and opportunities of a larger city. I've never figured out quite how to do this.

The imprint of small town life remains with me; when I've traveled, I've sometimes come across places that reminded me of where I grew up, and it's a little surprising how pleasant that is. I think it has to do with the human scale of things, the ease of getting from place to place, the likelihood of seeing a familiar face. It used to be nice to be able to walk down the street for an ice cream cone or to see a movie, things I have to get in my car and drive some distance to do now. I don't want to romanticize small town life in any way, because it has its drawbacks--but it also has charms that are lost in the noise and hustle of a city. Maybe it is true that you can't go home again, but I think it's also true that you always carry some of it around with you, no matter where you go.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Do I Dare to Take a Selfie?

This morning I was trying to take a selfie to update my Facebook profile, a seemingly simple act that shouldn't really require much thought. I mean, I did get dressed, brush my hair, and put on a little makeup. After all, you want to put your best food forward even if you're just taking your own picture. Then I had to put the batteries in the camera, charge up the flash, figure out where to put myself, and actually take the picture--the hardest part. I see that other people take selfies all the time with apparent ease, so I guess it's easier if your cell phone has a camera, but I have a camera camera, if that hasn't become an anachronism, and can't see what I look like when I'm taking the picture.

At any rate, I took a whole series of photos and kept looking for one that seemed good enough, sitting first here and then there, deciding the bookcase would be a nice backdrop and then trying to get the lighting and angle right. Now, here's where it started to get unexpectedly complicated.

I've written several times about the way a person who has studied myth (or literature or art history or other things) often sees several layers of meaning simultaneously in an object or an event. Training in these areas teaches you to look beyond the merely literal; paint on canvas or words on a page are more than just the sum of their parts, just as a person is more than a collection of cells. It's possible to take this process too far. Just as you can overlook the true significance of things by not looking deeply enough, you can also imbue things with meanings they don't have. No one would argue that all interpretations are equally convincing, and if you say tomato and I say tomahto, as the song goes, who's right? Sometimes a cigar really is a cigar (even if Freud didn't really say it, it's true). But not always.

I'm taking a long way to get back to the selfie. The point is, I suddenly started noticing all the items on the bookshelf behind me that were ending up in the pictures and that had no real relevance except that they just happened to be there: a statue of Ganesha, a diploma from school, a book on symbols. I suddenly started to wonder how someone else seeing my selfie might view those items--could they take over the picture in a way I didn't intend? That may seem silly, like the kind of thing no one but an English major would think of, but I still wondered. After all, those items are on the shelf because they tell part of the story of my life, and it's natural they should be there. But I noticed recently while watching a movie I've seen multiple times how distracting it was when the design of the bedspread in one scene jumped out at me in a way I hadn't noticed before. I didn't know what the filmmaker intended, and the decision to have a striped bedspread could have meant any number of things. I assume that artists usually make choices very intentionally, but did it mean the same thing to me that it meant to the filmmaker?

Well, you can really go down a rabbit hole with this type of thing. The best I could say is that when I looked at that scene and for some reason noticed the bedspread had stripes, it suddenly made me think of a flag-draped coffin, such as a solider would be buried in, which was rather jarring in that particular context. For all I know, the filmmaker put that detail in not because he thought it looked like a flag but because he was trying to re-create the bedroom he lived in when he was a little boy, or perhaps the resemblance to a coffin was intentional, and it was a tribute to a friend who had died.

The end result of my selfie adventure was that I took some of the objects out of the background so that the photos would just be headshots of me, not a work by a Flemish master full of potential hidden meanings, and selected the best-looking one. The process began again when I started sorting through some outdoor photos for an updated cover picture. Again, I started wondering if people would ask why I had selected this one or that one, when really I was just in a hurry to finish updating my profile. I finally picked one of a blue sky that I liked and that seemed about the blandest of all of them. When I looked at the end result, though, I noticed rays of light that I hadn't seen in the photo until it was enlarged, and both photos together seemed to me to tell a story that I hadn't intended to tell--but it ended up that way by accident. After all my efforts to come up with a neutral photo set, I realized I still had something that potentially told a story, and that my attempts not to tell a story were all for naught.

After that line of thought, I was almost too self-conscious to go for a walk, but I went anyway. As for the clothes I had on, I suppose there was a story in them, but it was this: I wore the top I was wearing because it was unusually warm today, and I don't get to wear that shirt, which has a flattering neckline, that often. I wore jeans because I'd been wearing cords a lot and wanted a change. I wore my cream-colored fleece (which was almost too warm for today) because I thought I needed an extra layer but not a heavy one. I carried my smaller umbrella because I had a mishap with the larger one the other night while carrying in groceries and decided it wasn't raining hard enough to merit the trouble. I thought everything matched and that I wouldn't look silly while walking down the street. That was it.

At this point, you're probably thinking, "You needed a whole essay to describe what people do in the normal course of things? Most people aren't trying to imitate the Flemish masters when they go out everyday. They just want to look presentable and possibly attractive." I used to think so, too, but I'm constantly noticing how many people I encounter in the course of a day who seem determined to draw attention to themselves. It's an epidemic of exhibitionism, if you ask me, and though I may be describing a trend, I didn't start it.

So if you do see my picture on Facebook, this is the Official Artist's Statement of how that particular photo essay came to be: I was trying to take a neutral but flattering photo. But if you think every picture tells a story, you may still be right.