American Exceptionalism, Cognitive Dissonance & the Divisions in America

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the divisions of our country. Specifically, I’ve been wondering how divided our country has become? Is it really more divided than ever? I think the internet would tell us that it is. And I think if you look at the right (wrong?) measures you might rightly conclude that it is, but I’m still not sure. My interest in essence of those divisions was piqued when I happened on a podcast about American Exceptionalism. The guest, Mugambi Jouet of Stanford University, pointed out that many people (most notably large numbers of the republican party) are confused by the phrase’s use of the word exceptional. He has written a book about it: Exceptional America: What Divides Americans from the World and from Each Other (University of California Press).

By the way, it’s not only the clueless-right that miss the true meaning of the phrase. This afternoon on The Daily I heard New York Times White House reporter Maggie Haberman use the phrase incorrectly while talking about Donald Trump’s stated willingness talk to strongmen like Kim Jong Un and Rodrigo Duterte. Haberman said, “The United States has long been an idealistic nation; it’s essentially this concept of American Exceptionalism. While it’s been pretty maligned, it’s basically about something being aspirational and the idea of values of freedom of constitutional democracy, and that those are the types of values that this country hopes other countries will aspire to.”

Uh, no, that is not what American Exceptionalism is about.

As I said it’s clear that the phrase can and will continue to cause confusion for people of all political walks of life. The word exceptional is typically used as a synonym for outstanding. But, when Alexis de Tocqueville coined the phrase he used it to identify this country as an exception to other western countries.

de Tocqueville found it exceptional that the very same country that had established so many colleges and universities in such a short time should have such an anti-intellectual propensity. All of the exceptions are interesting, but there’s one that I’m not sure de Tocqueville thought of:

The US is the first country to strive for a government of, for and by the people. Still, most people don’t trust the government. Moreover, I would hazard that the percentage of Americans who don’t trust the government is at an all-time high. If this is true, it could mean that people are more likely to trust a government like Vladimir Putin’s than a government like ours. Is this worrisome? Maybe.

Then again, perhaps there’s a special psychological justification for mistrusting a government of peers. Perhaps knowing with assurance that the people in government think and are motivated just the way we are is enough to give us pause. Also, could the fact that our government occasionally comes clean about its misdeeds lead some to a greater mistrust rather than confidence? We all witness the militarization of urban police forces but for some that makes it easy to harken back to the FBI sending helicopters and snipers after Randy Weaver and his family, killing his son and wife (by being shot in the back of the head) and so a correlation is solidified. Some see good (if fallible) government at work and others see an increasingly emboldened and heavy-handed state.

There’s another even simpler reason for why people find it easy to distrust the government of the United States. We’ve simply done more totally wild shit than any other country. Like what, you say? How about having a functional democracy predicated on a three hundred year old document? How about sending a man to the moon? How about driving countries like Japan and Germany to their knees only to help them become economic powers just a few decades after the end of WWII. Did I mention that we’ve dropped two nuclear bombs on populated cities?

That kind of tension, that cognitive dissonance, is largely OK. I tend to look at all evidence of the work of government as falling in one direction or the other. If a bit of work is apt to make a high percentage of people lose faith in the work of government (like the Fullerton Police’s killing of Kelly Thomas), I see it as bad. If a bit of work (like convicting ex-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca of corruption) makes a high percentage of people gain faith in government, I’m all for it.

I realize that some folks grabbed the popcorn and were rooting for the Fullerton cops sitting on Kelly Thomas’ back while crushing the life out of him. I’m also aware that some folks thought kindly old Lee Baca must have been entrapped by the evildoers from the FBI. Again, that’s just cognitive dissonance playing out on a mass scale. Still, I stand by the work of government that increases faith in government and condemn the acts that undermine that faith.

What about proponents of  gun rights? The guest on the podcast stated that for many American gun owners the primary purpose of their guns was to protect against the government rather than against threats from other citizens. I actually had to play that part of the podcast a second time to make sure I heard him correctly; I had. Now I have to admit that the idea that you better have a 15-shot 9mm on hand because the government is going to come get you is a fairly astounding fear. But, I think fear is the key word. I think the average Trump voter was and is a pretty fearful person, one who felt as though he had been disadvantaged by pretty much everyone and had been rendered helpless by forces both seen and unseen. Not only did they feel disadvantaged by people but those who lived in rural parts of the country even felt disadvantaged by mere geography. It is easy to imagine a group of people who felt a kind of generalized fear of everything and everyone finding solace in guns, and lots of them.

Let’s think about the anti-intellectual leanings that got de Tocqueville’s attention. I think most anti-intellectual sentiment is pointed at groups of intellectuals who seemingly do no work. I think a classic moniker of the past is apt here; eggheads. These are the guys studying whatever it is you’ve never heard of or anything you don’t understand. Even the most anti-intellectual slack-jawed-yokel is inclined to see a doctor if he gets sick. He may attest to a distrust of the medical profession as a whole, maybe he thinks they’ve even secretly cured cancer, but old Cletus is still very likely to tell you that his own doctor is top-notch. That’s more of a selective anti-intellectual sentiment, one that readily finds an exception in specific people, rather than a blanket distrust of learning itself.

The internet, as always, stands ready to undermine confidence and create doubt, in those who believe differently than you do. And, this applies to both sides of a debate. The internet makes it all too easy to stay in our echo chambers and therefore encourage our divisions. But are we really all that divided? I don’t think so. The divisions we read and hear so much about divisions are largely overstated and driven by the media and the shortsightedness of both of our major political parties. Get actual people, rather than groups answering polls or being fed sound bytes or video clips, into a room and watch the divisions fade. Everyone wants to work, everyone wants to being able to afford health care and everyone wants to attain the educations they believe their chosen lifestyle demands. It’s OK to disagree about the processes and mechanism we use to achieve our goals. It’s not OK to use a politically motivated belief that the divisions are so profound that even dialogue is undesirable.

America is both an exception and exceptional and those very qualities give me the greatest hope for its future. Rather than fret over those exceptions we should celebrate them as badges of honor reflecting our diversity of thought and perspective.

American Exceptionalism, Cognitive Dissonance & the Divisions in America

The trumpets of Lee Morgan (and mine, too)

Last week, my dear friend and fellow jazz-lover, Eric, told me about the movie, I Called Him Morgan. It’s a fascinating film about the short, brilliant life and tragic end of jazz trumpeter, Lee Morgan. It’s an amazing movie full of fantastic music, and interviews along with lovely black & white photographs. Many of the photos clearly showed the trumpets Morgan played at various stages in his career. I recognized a Conn 8B, a French Besson Brevete and what I’m almost positive was a lowly Olds Ambassador. My guess is that the Olds was the lone survivor during Morgan’s hard times when his more valuable instruments likely found their way into the local pawnshop.

It’s always a sad day, especially for such a great musician, to give up a special instrument.

Me? When I was in junior high school I got really lucky when it came to trumpets. When I was in 7th grade our junior high school got a new music director. The outgoing teacher was a local legend and the 8th and 9th graders had come to love and respect him. The 24-year-old newcomer inspired great skepticism from the older kids but I liked him right from the start. It was easy for me to like him because he liked me so much. We had a kind of simpatico especially about music. He taught me a lot about jazz, different recording techniques and the acoustical qualities of concert halls. He had been a successful musician before he decided to become a teacher and he taught as if his students all felt the same as he did, and all had the same ambition to play professionally. But, though his attitude was contagious to me, not everyone caught the passion.

He thought I had talent and told me as much. I can recall his note on my first report card. Talented! Should have private lessons now! Kind of heady stuff for a 13 year old just learning to play the trumpet. I’d been struggling with a school loaner trumpet up until then. Even though I was a beginner I had a sense that the humble Buescher was making things harder than they needed to be. The new music director was horrified by the dismal condition of the school’s instruments. There was no money (has there ever been?) for new instruments so he encouraged students who he thought had talent to coax their parents into buying them a quality instrument. He knew that money was going to be an issue with the average parent so he cultivated a relationship with a local music store called, Zep’s.

Zep was a somewhat grizzled old reed player who owned a tiny store in Burbank that was stuffed, floor to ceiling, with some of the finest woodwinds and brass instruments available anywhere. One day, the new director drove me to Zep’s after school he had me try a number of different trumpets. Every trumpet I tried was freer-blowing than the old Buescher and every one sounded and felt different. It was quite a revelation. They also cost a lot of money. I didn’t know much, but I knew that a $750 dollar instrument was totally unrealistic for me.

So, I struggled along with the Buescher. Still, I loved to go to Zep’s. I was there when Amy, who would go on to play with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, got her Armstrong flute and when Patricia picked up her beautiful Buffet Crampon clarinet. Both girls were genuinely talented and driven musicians. I loved hearing them try different instruments and hearing the way they described the differences between different brands and models. Sometimes the differences were subtle and other times they were obvious. Our new music director was endlessly patient. We’d often be at Zep’s for hours and he never, ever seemed to be in a hurry.

I was hanging around the music room one Friday when the director asked me what I was doing on Saturday. I told him I had a baseball game at 3 in the afternoon but I wasn’t doing anything until then. He told me he wanted me to go with him to Zep’s; there was a trumpet there he wanted me to try. By then I had played a bunch of professional instruments. There was the ubiquitous Bach Strad which I always found to be a tad stodgy sounding and feeling. Then there was the flashy King Flair with its clever (or so I thought at the time) first-valve trigger. My early favorite was the Benge. It was sleek and smooth both in sound and action. But, it cost even more than the other totally out of reach trumpets. Still, I was very intrigued by what he wanted me to play.

Zep had been expecting us and as we walked toward the counter he went into the back room and emerged with an unmarked, black case. He opened it, exposing the luxurious dark blue drape of the velvet lining. The trumpet beneath was unlike any I had ever seen. It was a silver Schilke B5. I could see that it was used, but it was in perfect condition. At the time, I had never heard of Schilke, but Zep knew all about it. “Schilke’s back in Chicago. He makes pretty much all of Herseth’s trumpets,” Zep said as he took the trumpet out of the case. I took my mouthpiece out of my pocket and vanished into the practice room with the Schilke. It felt light in my hands and the trumpet looked beautiful. The main tuning slide was staggered and the only engraved markings were the words, “Schilke, Chicago USA” on the second valve and the “B5” mark on the lead pipe. Years later I adopted the look of the Schilke’s classic engravings for a putter design I was involved with, but that’s a story for another day. A lot of trumpets had garish engravings on their bells. I never liked the way that looked. The Schilke was sleek and clean from every perspective and it played amazingly well and sounded even better. Still, I couldn’t quite figure out why I was there. Even used, an instrument like that would be far more expensive than anything my family could afford.

The funny thing was that the music director didn’t seem concerned and he never spoke to me about how much it cost. He just watched and listened to me play, finally asking me if I liked it. Who wouldn’t? He then asked me if I wanted to borrow it for a couple weeks. I was so enthralled with the instrument that I said yes without really thinking about it. While we were driving back to North Hollywood in the director’s cool Audi 100LS he told me the story: The Schilke had been owned by a local session player who had just landed a gig that included a Holton contract for the entire trumpet section. So, one day while the player was at Zep’s trying out mouthpieces he asked Zep if he knew of a promising student who might enjoy the Schilke. Zep called our director and there I was riding home with the Schilke. The truth was that my family still had to come up with $150 to buy the case. Believe it or not, even with the amazing value of the trumpet explained, it still wasn’t easy to get my mom and dad to pony up the $150, but they finally did.

Even when I was a kid I had a tendency to write letters to people I didn’t know so a few weeks later I wrote a letter to Schilke at their old address on South Wabash Avenue in Chicago. Little more than a week later I got a handwritten letter back from Renold Schilke, the founder of the company. He confirmed the year my trumpet had been made and its exact specifications. He also wrote some advice about the preferred valve oil needed for an instrument that was built to such tight tolerances. In fact, I had already learned this having tried some standard valve oil only to find the action of the Schilke slowed badly. Having that letter from Schilke bonded me to that trumpet for a long, long time.

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Renold Schilke

I wasn’t the only kid who got lucky when it came to trumpets. One of my close friends was a nice little guy with a sharp crew cut named, Harris. We started out together in kindergarten and we soon learned that we lived right next door to each other. He and his family had come to the US from Israel a couple years after he was born. His father was an electrician who loved exploring California’s great deserts and searching for what Harris liked to call Thunder-Eggs. All through elementary school Harris would bring in beautiful geodes for Show & Tell. He and his father would search out the rough looking stones in the desert and bring them home before cutting them in half to reveal the hard, colorful crystals within. All these years later I’ve come to enjoy the desert in many of the same ways Harris and his father did nearly 50 years ago.

Like me, Harris had been saddled with a nearly unplayable school trumpet. His father had a different solution; pawn shops. He and Harris scoured the many pawn shops on Van Nuys Boulevard until one day he showed up at school with a beautiful instrument made by Calicchio in Hollywood. It was a beautiful trumpet, heavier than my Schilke, and with a slightly darker sound and a smaller bell. The Calicchio was older than my Schilke and the valves were a touch slow and the third slide was sticky. Harris wanted to take the bus down to have his trumpet looked at by the folks at Calicchio in Hollywood.

One Saturday we planned out our trip and headed south. I think it took three RTD buses to get from North Hollywood down to Calicchio’s near Hollywood & Highland. Calicchio’s shop looked like an old house. The only evidence we had actually found the right place was one of those old black signs you might see in a deli that showed the hours. The sign on the door said simply, Calicchio. We walked into a dimly lit room with a wooden counter on one side. In the corner was a simple glass case with a trumpet inside. A few minutes later an old man walked up to the counter. Harris put his case on the counter and started to explain about the valves and the third slide. The old man put his hands out, indicating that Harris should hand him his trumpet, which he did. The old man held the trumpet up, checking a couple of the braces. Then, he took a cigarette out from under the counter. He looked at both of us gravely and said, “Not for smoke…” We didn’t get what he meant right away but then we did. He didn’t want us to think that he was going to smoke. Instead, he took a quick drag and blew the smoke into the trumpet and then he depressed the troublesome third valve. He vanished for a few minutes and came back out with a brazing rod, a small torch, a tiny leather mallet and a small hammer. For the next 15 minutes we watched as he repaired a brace and tapped a tiny indentation out of the third slide. He showed Harris the evidence of the braze. It was almost unnoticeable. Anyway, Harris had intended to have the trumpet re-plated so the repair would be invisible once it was done. Harris tried the third valve slide that then happily held any position yet moved freely and he smiled at the old man. Then Harris pulled out his wallet and unfolded a check signed by his father made out to Calicchio. The old man bowed his head slightly and turned it slowly from side to side. Then, he shook hands with each of us as he smiled for the first time. As he shook our hands he said, “I am Calicchio.”

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Domenick Calicchio

“I thought he was only the repair guy, ” Harris said once we got outside. “So did I!” All the way home we wondered out loud how old Calicchio was and whether there was anyone back there to help him build the trumpets (there wasn’t) and whether he lived in that little house (he didn’t). No matter our petty questions, I believe we both had a sense of how special our brief encounter had been. We were only 13 going on 14 but we knew without really knowing why that we had been around someone who possessed an enduring connection to the instruments he created and that somehow that had connected him to my friend in a precious and unique way.

I lost track off Harris after high school. I think about him from time to time and I miss his smile and good nature. Neither of us ever got any good at playing trumpet, but we kept trying right on through high school and, in my case, college. Of course, Renold Schilke and Domenick Calicchio are now long dead. Trumpets emblazoned with the names Calicchio & Schilke are still made today, and I’m certain they are fine instruments. But, none of those trumpets have ever been held in the hands of anyone who shares their name. I find it sad that the Calicchio website doesn’t even have a biography of the great and humble man behind the name. The website has a section called tradition but virtually nothing about the man who made the Calicchio name relevant to musicians while he lived and the continuance of his name, as a brand, viable now that he’s gone.

Still, I’m grateful that in 1974 my friend Harris and I owned and played instruments that were true extensions of the men who had designed and built them. That kind of connection seems all too rare these days. I don’t know where Harris is, or whether he still plays his Calicchio. But, I’m certain he would recall that day as clearly as I do and likely still revels in the bond created by a simple handshake and his own connection to a master trumpet builder.

 

 

The trumpets of Lee Morgan (and mine, too)

Rejecting the Global Golf Uniform in favor of Style & Comfort

Here’s a boredom-driven multipart question. Yes, in fact, multipart questions are the only kinds of questions I ask.

  • What’s your preferred golf uniform? Do you always or usually wear purpose-made golf shirts, slacks and shorts?
  • Do you change the style of what you wear to where you play? In other words, do you wear better looking clothes when you play better (read: more expensive) courses or do you pretty much wear the same kind of threads no matter where you play?
  • Has you golf attire changed over the last few years?

I ask the last question because I’m starting to make a big change. I’m rejecting what I see as the Global Golf Uniform. Pretty much every male tour player the world over wears it. You know the look. I don’t have to detail it here. I don’t know why but it’s especially loathsome when I see this getup worn by skinny 10 year olds and fat guys over 50. The mere sight makes me want to take up bowling.

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Rors looking fit & dapper in his Nike GGU

One last question: Has your choice in headwear changed? Me? I’m getting ready to dump the ubiquitous baseball style hat (who ever found that style of hat functionally suited to golf anyway?) in favor of something befitting the dignity of my rapidly advancing years.

Yes, I’m thinking bucket hat.

A few years back I wore this uniform: Shorts year round and irrespective of the weather. Hey, I live in Los Angeles; it’s easy. The shorts are Patagonia and I have pairs in medium tan and medium gray. They’re just standard cotton shorts not golf shorts. Last year I started wearing dark gray Kuhl shorts because of the slimmer fit and the very clever phone pocket it has.

I used to prefer Travis Mathews and Adidas golf shirts and an occasional Nike (they always seem to have good, simple back shirts).

I have come to hate fully 90% of the paper-thin synthetic crap that pretty much every golf shirt company is peddling these days. Not only do they look like crap on nearly everyone they also have a hyper-synthetic feel to their coal-based or polymer-based fabrics.

No, I’m not pining for the days where every tour player wore pleated Docker-styled slacks and wildly oversized cotton polo shirts (usually made by Ashworth back in the day).

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Our 45th president out on the links in high rise, pleated slacks. Thumbs up to you, Donald!
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Woods & Garcia back when cotton was king and the polos were huge.

This is where I’m really bucking the system. Where doable, I’m ditching the golf shirt. I have a great collection of non-collard casual shirts that I’ve come to prefer over the scads of black, blue and red golf shirts I’ve worn when out hacking in the past. The change has brought a palpable relief to my psyche and sense of style. I’ve hated the me-too formulary of the golf uniform for long enough.

If a course requires a collared shirt, and I really want to play there, I’ve got it covered. But, the fact is that I may end up asking myself if I really want to play a course that requires me to wear something I don’t like wearing.

Yup, I’m swimming upstream on this one while I’m still walking the golf course and carrying my sticks on my back. Life’s too short to wear polos and a baseball hat every time I play golf.

It’s gonna take some guts to actually put that bucket hat on…I admit it.

Rejecting the Global Golf Uniform in favor of Style & Comfort

My Fond Memory of Brooks Berdan

Originally published in an old blog of mine way back in 2013

I have a lot of fond memories of my old friend, Brooks Berdan. In my early days as a reviewer, he was always kind enough to loan me gear for review that would have been difficult if not impossible to get my hands on otherwise.

Later, when I consulted to Music Reference and Muse Electronics I learned what a truly fantastic dealer Brooks was and how hard he worked for his customers. Brooks was a very unusual dealer. He had a national reputation, but did virtually no business over the phone (let alone over the internet). Brooks was the rare dealer who wanted and, even needed, to know his customers before he would do business with them, let alone separate them from their money.

Brooks loved tube gear and faithfully represented Music Reference and RAM Tubes like no other dealer in the US. His loyalty had its perks. Very often, I would hand deliver his orders directly all the way from Santa Barbara, especially when he was ordering a lot of tubes or a one-off product like a hand-made RM-9 Special Edition.

Of course, just hanging out with Brooks was a special pleasure. We could talk music, or gear, or motorcycles, or the challenges of making a marriage work, for hours at a time, and we often did. Back in 2003, when I was going through my divorce, I dropped by Brooks’ shop one afternoon. I was giving him the summary version of where things were and mentioned, in passing, that it had become tough to write reviews since I hadn’t taken my analog rig when I had moved out of the house. Brooks looked up from what he was doing and asked me what I needed. I told him I could get along fine with a simple set up and that the Kuzma Stabi Reference and Dynavector XL that was back in Valencia were loaners from the distributor anyway.

Without a word, Brooks vanished into his storeroom and emerged with a boxed REGA P3 under his arm. Brooks asked me if I liked Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO. I told him I’d never been a huge fan of the original but had never heard the naked EVO version. “Well,” Brooks said, “try it. It’s a lot better than the old one. If you don’t like it you can always try something else.”

Up until that point, I figured Brooks was setting up the REGA for a customer, or as a demo, but then I realized he was building it for me.

“You know, Brooks, cash is a little tight right now; this whole divorce thing doesn’t come cheap.”

Brooks shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, pay me when you can.”

For the next hour, Brooks lovingly set up the REGA and the Sumiko. He did his work with a level of care that would seldom be afforded to such modest gear, but that was Brooks. For him, it didn’t matter if he was setting up an SPj La Luce or a REGA.

Brooks always took his work very seriously.

When he was done I said, “Thank you, Brooksy; what do I owe you?”

“Don’t worry about it, just send me what you can when you can.”

“Brooks, come on, I’m not that hard up, what do I owe you?”

Grudgingly, he got out his price sheets (on paper, of course) and said, “OK, my cost on this is like $600, so mail me a check for $500 when you can. Make the check for more than that and I won’t cash it.” Then, Brooks looked at the REGA and said, “Divorce is hard. You know what I’d like to ask my ex? Was I really that bad?”

I don’t have a guess about what Brooks was like as a husband, but I know he was much more than a business associate to me. On that day, I had no intention of asking Brooks to help me out. It turned out that I didn’t need to, Brooks was the kind of man to recognize a friend in need and would simply do what he could to to help.

The other day, I was thinking about that now-aged REGA, and how the decade had just flown by me as if it were a breeze. I miss not playing very many records these days. I listen to music every day, usually on my iPhone, occasionally on my small system at home. But, it has become the rare day when I have the time to play an LP and I miss the sound, the life and the pure joy of it. I’m sure the suspension on that old Sumiko has gotten a little dry and hard, but it still sounds great.

Someday I may have to replace that cartridge but I really don’t want to…

It was set up by the all-time master of analog, Brooks Berdan, and I’m proud to say that he was a friend of mine.

My Fond Memory of Brooks Berdan

One strap, one bag; Crumpler & BBB

Man, talk about bored. Bored is the only possible motivation to write about a camera bag and a camera strap.

There you have it; I’m bored.

First the strap. You all know the Crumpler name. You know the make nice stuff, especially their somewhat unusual bags. But, did you know they made a nice strap, too?

No, not their lackluster and bulky Industry Disgrace. Today I’m talking about their very lightweight (and somewhat light duty?) Popular Disgrace. This 2.5 centimeter strap is da bomb for a lightweight camera like my aged Fuji X100. Its magic resides in its simplicity, and also the perfectly textured neoprene that covers the conventional strap material.

I hike a lot with the X100 so it spends a lot of time slung across my back. The neoprene has just the right about of traction and just the right amount of slip (dare we call it, perfect coefficient of drag). The strap material underneath is quite stout. It would be totally suitable for a larger and heavier camera, if the neoprene section were a tad wider.

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Me? I don’t like heavy cameras. My old Nikon D300 is as heavy as I can stand. That’s what keeps the X100 nearby so often. If you have an X100 or any other lightweight camera you might want to check out the Popular Disgrace, if you can find one.

In case you’re one of those folks who find camera bags slightly less dull than camera straps, I have a good one for you. The Bare Bones Bag (BBB hereinafter). I’m being kinda charitable to the folks at Figital Revolution. They’re not really the ones who’ve done the heavy lifting (stitching?) in the creation of the BBB. The real work was done by the hard-core, hard-asses at CourierWare.

For those of you who are even more bored than I am (come on,  you’re reading this aren’t you?) feel free to check out my review of yet another CourierWare bag here.

No, you cannot stuff a lot of shit into the BBB.

And, no, the BBB is not possessed of a great deal of padding. Heck, my version of the bag doesn’t even have a velcro closure for the top.

And, yes, the BBB may be able to pass as a purse, assuming that the woman who’s carrying it is good looking enough.

Still, for me it’s just dandy for carrying the (wait for it) Fuji X100. It holds that, my beater Panasonic LX3, both their chargers and spare batteries, my faithful Benchmade knife and a lot (but not too much) other crap. There’s a touch of padding in the bottom of the bag but the rest of the bag is just plain (if very high quality) waterproof 1000 denier Codura nylon.

If you’ve been living under a rock you may not be aware that CourierWare makes a superb bag. They are light yet totally bombproof and guaranteed for life. The care and quality of the stitching is beyond reproach. Now, the truth is that I’m not even sure that you can buy the damn thing. I got mine used and you’re never getting mine, believe me.

But, if you have a load that’s the right size for it, and if you can find one, the BBB cannot be beat. If you value function and give not one shit about style, it may be the bag for you. If you need a larger bag, check out the CourierWare website. CourierWare’s owners, Diana & Eric, are amazing, salt of the earth kind of folks and they’ll make the bag of your dreams.

 

 

One strap, one bag; Crumpler & BBB

Change of Seasons: California Oaks

Southern California is a place of slow and subtle shifts. Traffic moves slowly and the differences of our seasons can sometimes be hard to discern, especially for people from non-Mediterranean climates.

I’ve spent all my life here and can tell the different seasons by a number of different clues. I can see the how the light differs on a clear summer day and a clear day in winter. I can also smell the seasons, especially the spring & summer. As winter glides into spring I started to think about another seasonal clue.

Oaks.

We have no fewer than twenty different varieties of Oaks in California. Even in our vast urban and suburban sprawl, Oaks are common and for the most part venerated. We even like naming communities after them like Sherman Oaks, Thousand Oaks, Oak Park, Oak Hill and of course, Oakland.

The Santa Monica Mountains is home to scores of oaks and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy does a marvelous job of preserving the hills and valleys where the oaks thrive, often times surrounded by upscale housing developments.

I thought it would be fun to capture the transition of some of our oaks from winter to spring, from cold to warm, from brown to green.

Allow me to start with a short poem.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

– Robert Frost / 1923

Oak 8
Oak 8
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Oak 7
Oak 6
Oak 6
Oak 5
Oak 5
Oak 4
Oak 4
Oak 3
Oak 3
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Oak 2
Oak 1
Oak 1
Change of Seasons: California Oaks

Prior Recognition & Landscape Photography

Of late, I’ve been thinking a great deal about landscape photography. It’s not just because spring is drawing closer every day. In fact, the prime motivation is the fact that after eight years of using Flickr, I’ve struck up a couple of very interesting internet friendships. It happened quite out of the blue but soon I found myself exchanging emails on subjects that had previously been confined to the hollow space between my ears. To top it off, there were actually discussions about our actual photographs; imagine that.

Of course, there was a bit of the old, does my photography matter and a touch of is photography art sorts of questions. These are old and tiresome points of discussion yet somehow they can seem (briefly) new when bandied about by hopeful folks who simply love the potential of their photography. Anyway, one of the Flickrites offered the idea of his landscape photography as a kind of visual recollective of the places he’s been. I’ll admit that I cringed slightly at this idea. I thought of the millions who had come before him and the thousands of images they recorded, the vast majority possessed with the very same humble intent and I thought to myself, what is the point of that?

Now it’s true that far too much of my own landscape photography has been similarly simplistic and banal. If you have a camera, you tend to use it. If you’re standing before beauty, you record it. But, the problem, the point of a disconnect for me anyway, is the lack of the photographer’s own collective vision and intentionality effectively mating with the images that are in front of him.

Last December, I attended an exhibition of a guy I know from a local golf course. I knew the exhibit photos were from Namibia, a place I had never been. So, obviously, I was curious about the visual elements of the landscapes of Namibia. But I was wondering if I would see something more. The photographer’s name is Ding Kalis. I’d seen some of his work online but somehow that did not fully prepare me to see the richness and depth of his Namibia photographs up close and personal. Then on a cool December night, I stood gazing at this:

Ding 2
The Elements Collide © 2016 Ding Kalis

I realized at that moment that one rare element of landscape photography is the ability to see something, or even imagining if something can be seen, before a scene is witnessed. Of course, Ding knew these borders, these separations, existed before he climbed into the Cessna. This scarce and precious element of landscape photography is a kind of prior recognition that can show something that is entirely common in what is likely a wholly unexpected way. The end result is that the viewer is given a gift; the gift in seeing something new, or at least in a new way. The fact that the photo was taken tens of thousands of miles away is secondary to the novelty of the photographer’s vision. This could well have been taken on the coast of southern Oregon, or here in California, and it would still stir my imagination in the same way. It’s the way Ding saw the scene that mattered, far more than the exotic nature of the location.

Here’s another one of Ding’s photographs from the same exhibit:

Ding 1
Three Degrees © Ding Kalis 2016

Again, Ding had to have had the separations, the boundaries, between these dunes keenly in his mind before he actually witnessed and captured them. This is a huge part of good landscape photography and maybe the element with the potential to nudge this kind of photography toward art. It is, as I said before, the art of prior recognition. The scene may unfold before all of us in the very same way. But, when we have the ability to see what’s there in a way we recognize a priori, or maybe even expect before we see it, we have a fleeting chance to capture something of meaning, to ourselves at least, if possibly no one else.

I liken this to a writer settling down to write some verse. For his verse to be true, he must think before he writes. He must know what he needs to say while still striving for the best mechanism to convey it using the crude code of words. I dare say he must plan before he writes if he’s to have any chance of saying something of meaning. He cannot merely react to feelings or recollections no matter how strong they live in his consciousness. He must at once look to the future and into the past to have any chance of choosing his words in a way that matters to whoever reads them. Mere recitations of recollections, in either poetry or photography, no matter how well-crafted, simply cannot be possessed of relevance.

So this is the hurdle I see for the aspiring landscape photographer (and that includes me). He must learn to see before he sees and then, confronted with the vision he wishes to capture, must strive to recognize the relationships that were in his mind before he raises his camera and releases the shutter. If not, all of what’s regarded as the good landscape of the future will be captured by drones, hovering overhead with ideal perspectives, 24 hours a day, clicking away and recording images with perfect exposure and massive dynamic range. And, all of them will mean the same thing to those who see them. Nothing.

So now spring draws nearer still and with it comes opportunity for me to capture images of meaning and relevance. I want to thank Ding for the unspoken lessons that his Namibia photographs have instilled in me. I’m not sure the results will be visible in the images I capture this year, but I am hopeful.

Note: I sent a draft of this article to Ding and he was kind enough to add some thoughts of his own. I’m pleased & grateful to give him the last word:

Ansel Adams talked about “previsualization” though for him it meant seeing the final print in your mind’s eye and exposing for the result you had foreseen.

 I believe what you talk about is somewhat akin…but to achieve either, one needs to be very ready to grasp the image as it presents itself. The more time spent looking at everything, framing every scene, imagining every light, looking for connections, for graphics within an image, boundaries and how and where the edges of things are, the better prepared one is as a photographer to find ways of expressing the meaning one searches for …

 …This stuff starts to sound like “arty gibberish” until one finds oneself on the Cessna. 

 For me, that two hour ride was one of the more intense creative moments of a lifetime. In a short two hours I captured some fifteen images that were good. 

 That was only possible as a distillation of everything photographic that came before. No time to think about framing the image, no way to go back the next morning and get a different light. No time really to understand, just grab the image as it flies (literally) by and hope to recognize something afterwards. 

 Not to stretch a metaphor too far, but, to stretch a metaphor too far…There is no time to think of all the learning and practice that go into a golf swing between teeing up a ball and hitting it, the thing needs to be instinctive…so with photography…

 

 

 

Prior Recognition & Landscape Photography