Site Meter Peculiar Susceptibility: February 2008

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"a sparrow at night don't mean it's morning."

by Jillian Vento

My parents’ house, the same house in which I grew up, is situated half way up the highest hill in our town. We lived in the midst of a dense deciduous forest. Patrick and I would play in the woods or down the hill in the stream that went beneath (and sometimes flooded above) our driveway.

The driveway itself is an old Town road. Woodland cuts North up through the trees and across the hill on which my house sits, snug amongst the Sugar Maples. The old Woodland continues beyond my house, gets lost and obscured in the woods a bit, and then emerges as an active, if unpaved road several miles out.

When we were young, Pat and I (and, later, Nora) were sent outside a fair amount. We would meander our way through the woods, to the swamp or to the stream. We would wander up the hill to the cliffs. After some time, we would hear it: the simulated owl’s hoot that one parent or other would let out, expecting us to echo back. It was our honing mechanism.

The woods are filled with sounds. It’s a tightly packed euphony: trees that creak in winter under the weight of ice or snow, animals that scamper through last autumn’s dead leaves, wind through trees and over rocks, water carving its way down the hill, and the owls.

Even as a child I was enamored with the owls. When, in Twin Peaks, various characters warn the “the owls are not what they seem,” rather than feeling alarmed by that kind of sylvan scopophilia, I felt comforted by the idea that these birds could be nocturnal sentinels.

One of my father’s favorite tasks is filling the bird feeders in the yard and off the porch. After he’s funneled the feed into the containers – some of them wooden, some of them copper and glass, some plastic and wire mesh – he stands back on the porch and surveys the field. He points out the woodpeckers, the blue jays, the sparrows. He pelts the occasional squirrel with a snowball.

My father protects those precious creatures. I mean precious in the sense Catholics mean it when they talk about the precious body or the precious blood. I mean that material form that takes on the qualities of the miraculous. Birds.

Impossibly crossed feet. Impossibly hollow bones. Impossibly delicate babies.

I suppose part of it started when we lived in the house on Storrs Road, by the lake. It was on the second floor of an early 19th-century farm house that had been converted in the 70s to apartments. We had a small porch and long stairway that we lined with flowers (a magnificent fuchsia that year) and tomatoes and basil. The sparrow built her nest in the eve of the small overhang that covered our doorway. In the mornings and evenings we would avoid opening the door very much at all so as not to scare her off. You would stand in the kitchen and elicit in me peal upon peal of laughter by imitating the babies.

It's still too sad to represent properly. After several days and no plaintive cries from the nest, I asked you to look in, to bury them somewhere. I couldn't even stand to look. And you did it for me.

I'm working up to something, here, but I can't just yet.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Polaroid RIP

I never owned Polaroid camera. We had other things at my parents' house: a cute and dear brownie camera, a nice 35mm Canon, even sundry cheap point and clicks for my siblings and me. But there was something about Polaroids that didn't suit my mother's photographic inclinations. She's never said as much, but I think there was something she considered crass about Polaroids - their indulgence of instant gratification (although, I think what actually happens here is more subtle and complicated...), their room for captions, their smell, even.

But I liked them.
I liked the smell (my mother and I often differed in our olfactory judgments - she wondered how on earth I could possibly like the smell of gasoline, for instance). I liked the tension between quick gratification and delayed pleasure that those moments spent waiting for the image to emerge engendered. I liked the look-shake-look pacing of it all.

And I liked the kinder, more impressionistic image that resulted. This could have had something to do with my poor eyesight. I still remember how alarming it was when I first got glasses (at 7) and the world became sharp. All of it turned promptly from soft and indistinct to sharp - the things I saw and the headaches I had. Trees suddenly had individual leaves; signs had words on them; sounds in the woods had animals dashing. Still, this vividness sometimes seemed to me to be utterly overwhelming. In the woods, I would sometimes take my glasses off and rely on the suggested messages of my poor eyesight, rather than the firm dictations of the world through my glasses. When I could see the disappointed expression of a parent, I would take them off and a furrowed brow would blur. Maybe there was something appealing about the vagueness of Polaroids.

by director Andrei Tarkovsky

There's a lot about Polaroids that make them poignant. In their popular form, they're one-of-a-kind. They're not little gems in the same way Daguerreotypes are, but they are singular. Even when you can peel back the jacket of a Polaroid and press and press and press, it fades a little each time, or you move it as you press and it smudges. Or the paper wrinkles. At any rate, there are endless opportunities for punctum. They change in your hands. They're used as tests for proper photos (I can't help but feel an affinity with anything so used for practice).