Turning Over a New Leaf. Over and Over and Over.

14 Feb 2015
February 14, 2015
Hundreds of thousands of leaves

Hundreds of Thousands of Leaves

I lost my glasses. No, they weren’t on my forehead. And, yes, I checked all the usual places multiple times. In fact, I knew exactly where I’d lost them. With a dust filter covering my mouth, my glasses kept steaming up as I raced to get our fallen foliage to the curb before the county vacuumed them up. I could hear their trucks coming but I couldn’t see a thing so I put them in my pocket. And, without warning, my tortoise shell glasses were now completely camouflaged in piles of brown debris neatly awaiting removal. To be clear, they were buried under hundreds of thousands of leaves. As the sound of the vacuums grew louder, I yelled for my family to join the search. We raced to find my specs before they ended up as mulch in someone’s spring garden.

The commotion brought the neighborhood out en masse. “Oh, it’s the needle in the haystack,” everyone yelled above the growing din of the vacuum trucks. One came with her rake; another volunteered his metal detector. Every person thought they could, no, they would find those glasses. They stomped amongst the piles, thinking they could will them to appear. The county crew arrived and I begged them to skip our house. The foreman snickered and moved on.

I knew they were there somewhere. I just couldn’t see them —yet. Denial shifted to anger as I retraced my steps again and again. Why did I put them in my pocket? I knew they would fall out. Finally, with my neighbors gathered around, I declared my leaves would not defeat me. “I will find those glasses if I have to look under each and every leaf!” I proclaimed. And that became my plan.

When you lose something really important, you feel like you’ve lost control over your entire life. To counter that, the next morning I got my rake and started turning over every single leaf. Every single leaf! After Hour One my eyes glazed over, overwhelmed by the wide swath of brown before me. The occasional wet leaf brought me back: a reflection of my lenses in the morning sun? I refused to pay for a new pair of glasses.

To the accompaniment of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman, I raked to the cadence of her background riff. I was sure Superman’s X-ray vision would help me find those glasses. At Hour Three I moved into the existential: why did really I lose my glasses? Inevitably, I ended at the resurrection, waiting for them to miraculously rise up and present themselves. God surely must be laughing at me. My neighbor, Carol, came by and asked what I was doing (obviously, the news hadn’t traveled to her part of the street). When I recounted my tale she replied, “Whether you find your glasses or not, you will be enlightened.” Yes, she really said that. So, I convinced myself the act of looking would be my reward. However, any enlightenment my obsessive-compulsive leaf turning yielded lasted only minutes before it —poof— got caught up in a gust of wind and was gone.

At the four-hour mark, my wife came out and asked if I’d found them yet. “Would I be still be raking?” I asked incredulously. I was resolute but getting testy. At Hour Six my neighbor with the metal detector returned. “Found them yet?”

I pictured the find. I imagined yelling: “I found them! I found them!” I would post a sign on that spot and document the discovery with my camera. My neighbors would come running out of their homes to slap me on the back saying, “I knew we could do it!”

It was a team effort in spirit but I was doing all the work. Hour Eight brought me to the final piles. I was nearing the pinnacle of Mt. Everest. Slowly I brushed each leaf to the ground. A branch made me stop. I found albino plants, which, despite the lack of sun, had survived for weeks under my earlier work. But my will was waning. By the middle of the ninth hour I had had it. Completely depleted, I couldn’t stand straight. My body was listing to the left from raking for so long. Utter exhaustion replaced the exhilaration finding them would bring. I simply didn’t have the strength to ruminate, nor did I care.

Years ago I left a ruby ring my father had given me in a faculty washroom. Two hours later I suddenly realized it wasn’t on my finger. I rushed back but it was gone. When I returned to class a student pronounced, “If it’s really yours, it will come back to you.” Yeah, right, I thought. But two weeks later a fellow teacher walked into my classroom and asked, “Is this yours?” My tortoise shell glasses were made just for me. No one else could see out of them. Why didn’t they come back to me? I put away the rake. I hobbled into the house, threw my leaf-encrusted clothes into the washer, and took a hot shower.

The whole neighborhood knows those glasses are still out there. “I’m sure we’ll find them in the spring,” they say. Yeah, right.

Jeff’s Top Ten Photos (+3) for 2014

31 Dec 2014
December 31, 2014

At the end of last year I posted my Top Ten (+6) Photographs from 2013. With a trip to China, I had lots of images to choose from. There were some momentous events this year as well, perhaps not as monumental as taking our girls back to China to see where they came from. But, still they were worth contemplating as the year ends and a new year begins. Like last year, I couldn’t narrow it down to just ten. As last year, choosing my top photographs and putting them in order was a difficult task. I liked each one for various and different reasons. So here are my Top Ten (+3). Click on any image to see it larger.

  1. Me and Lily at the Rose Bowl

    The year began in a big way. My daughter, Lily, and I went to the Rose Bowl to see my alma mater, Michigan State, beat Stanford. It was a wonderful time to share with my daughter-who-loves-sports. And a selfie was in order. But, in addition, my return to the Rose Bowl had a much deeper meaning. It was a special homecoming to me.

  2. Pay Phones

    On a college visit trip we stopped at a rest stop in Delaware where I found this tableau. And it got me thinking about the “givens” in my early life that have now become artifacts of a time past. This is what happens when you get old and you realize that you’ve lived in history. We have a past and there’s something comforting about knowing firsthand about this past.

  3. Dealey Plaza, Dallas

    In November I attended a conference in Dallas. And, while there I got to visit part of my history: Dealey Plaza, where President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. I remember that day well. I was in the 9th grade in junior high. At approximately, 11 a.m. we heard the announcement over the school loudspeaker.

    This photograph was taken on the seventh floor of the Texas Book Depository. One floor below, at this spot, Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy on the street below. I took another photo of the exact spots the President was shot but this image resonates with me more. Beautiful, it’s more like a ghost where something bad happened, rather than the document that my other image conveys.

  4. Museum Fans

    Working in a museum, sometimes I come upon a scene that is as beautiful as some of the art in the galleries. I have put together a number of these images in an album on Flickr called “Art World Commentary.” This was taken during my lunch hour in the main interior courtyard of the museum’s building: the Old Patent Office Building, the third oldest federal building in Washington, D.C. It looked like an installation piece. The light and the muted tones of the photo with that stark pink in the middle drew me to take this picture.

  5. Airport Rocking Chair

    Returning from Dallas in November, I sprinted through D.C.’s National Airport, trying to get to the Metro and home as quickly as I could. But I had to stop when I came upon the incongruity of this scene. Airports are not my favorite places. Busy and stressful, my nacent claustrophobia can easily surface. Too many people and too many hoops to jump through. So, I recognized how strange it was to see a woman relaxing in a rocking chair, reading, during the cacophony around her. It took a lot of energy to make myself stop my own frenetic sprint to see the beauty and actually take the picture.

  6. Suicide Sign

    New Year’s Day, Lily and I got up early to take our pre-dawn walk the few miles to the Rose Bowl parade from our friends Jim’s and Mark’s house in Eagle Rock. Twelve hours later, after walking miles and miles from home to parade to the game and then back home, we encountered this sign at the end of the bridge that crosses Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco. It’s a beautiful bridge, far above the bottom of the canyon it traverses. Apparently, this has become a perfect spot for a number of suicides over the years. This sign, a signifer for better things than ending one’s life, also meant a lot to me at the start of a new year.

  7. Cy Twombly at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    In April, we took a trip to take one more look at a college before Lily made her final decision. While there we went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and came upon this scene of Cy Twomblys. My decisive moment came when the guard seemed to be dancing to the lyricism of Twombly paintings.

  8. Lily as a University of Maryland Cheerleader

    Lily made her decision to attend the University of Maryland and, even before she graduated from high school, she tried out for the Maryland cheerleading squad. Short and light, she became a “flyer.” Yes, exactly. She’s the one who is tossed into the air and flips this way or that. So comforting to her parents, but something she loves to do. Susie and I bought season football tickets to see her in action. Our tickets were absolutely perfect for watching the game. On the 22 yard line and high up. But, they weren’t so good for watching our daughter do her stunts. Not even binoculars gave us a good view. So, at least once a game I trekked down two levels and to the very front of the stands to take photos. This was one of my early successes. Her teammates wanted to know who was taking the good pics of the squad. I had to turn down a job as the cheerleaders’ official photographer! Just kidding.

  9. Pontificating on the National Mall

    Every summer the Smithsonian puts on it’s Folklife Festival on the National Mall. Every year a number of cultures are highlighted. This year, China was one of these. This photo was taken in the Chinese pavilion and the body language of the figure, set in front of the Washington Monument, seemed a perfect match for America’s pontificating politicians.

  10. World Cup televised in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Kogod Courtyard

    It’s about time soccer becomes a popular sport here in the States. The World Cup and America’s successes up the ante. And in our game against Belgium, the museum decided to televise the match live in our Kogod Courtyard. I stood at the same spot the entire game waiting for my shot of the gathered fans. I could see the game on the projection system but I was viewing it from the back so everything was reversed. I got my shot.

  11. Interior Beach, Atlantic City

    This year was one of my “special” birthdays. As we were at the New Jersey shore, my wife made special plans at a spectacular restaurent on the beach at Atlantic City. The resort may be in a steep decline, with casinos and hotels closing, but the Buddakan restaurant was quite alive (and beautiful). And the food was amazing. As we were leaving, I saw this scene: an interior beach with Adirondack chairs for relaxing and watching the shore in air conditioned comfort. This photo is reminiscent of the photo above I took at National Airport: both full of contradictory elements.

  12. Lily at Sunset on Santa Monica Beach

    A photo that sums up much about our family’s year, this is a photo of Lily doing a toe touch at sunset on Santa Monica Beach the day after New Year’s. It was our last day in California. And I had promised my daughter a trip to the beach. In fact, when we were planning our trip, she came into the bedroom wearing the bikini she was going to bring. I laughed, warning her that the Pacific was quite cold in January. We settled for a walk on the beach and as the sun began to set, Lily wanted me to document her gymnastic prowess.

  13. My daughters on the Cape May ferry over the years

    So, we come to my number one photo for 2014. In reality this isn’t one photo, nor were most (except for the last one) taken this year. But it was the most meaningful to me in so many ways. Every year I take photos of my girls on the deck of the Cape May Ferry. And this past July was no exception. Yet, this time, we were interrupted by a man who was concerned that I might be exploiting these beautiful young women. I wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post on our experiences and it went viral. Over 2400 people left comments on the online version, I received hundreds of emails, it was posted in Reddit and reprinted in publications around the world. Interestingly, just a couple days ago, The Post resurrected the piece and put it on its Opinion section front page once more. Suddenly, it was deja-vu all over again. More comments and more emails.

    The comments ran the gamut from angry epithets to those who thanked me for bringing up the issues of race. Many felt I should be grateful that a stranger was willing to help my daughters. In turn, I explained that before passing judgement, I wanted to find out more about why this man interceded in our lives. Even though I was warned by many who have had lots of experience in these public forums not to engage these commenters, I often did. I was an early proponent of the Internet in the mid 1990s, because I saw the possibility for meeting others (some leading very different lives from my own), as well as enlarging dialogue about many important issues. I knew full well the territory I was entering but it was important for me to be an active part of the dialogue.

    While many took the piece to be about the dangers human trafficking, it really was about our willingness to look at our biases before we rushed to judge. Ferguson, New York City and other racial incidents this year mirrored the issues I was grappling with and wanted to share. If nothing else, I felt it was important to be reflective when dealing with our complicated social issues, rather than reactive. And this was my way of doing it. I have written a short follow-up that goes over some of these points and what I learned as a result. But this morning I received an email from a reader and I’d like to end this list and this year with a short quote by a young person from a biracial family:

    Many times people don’t believe I belong to my family. I love them and want the world to know they’re mine. And while this email may never meet your eyes, your article meant a great deal to me because it shows what I and many others go through on a daily basis; too many assumptions are made.

    I wrote him to say that, indeed, his words met my eyes. And my heart.

Happy New Year, everyone. The best to all of you and thanks for coming this way.

It Came From the National Enquirer

28 Dec 2014
December 28, 2014
John Carpenter and Adrienne Barbeau

John Carpenter and Adrienne Barbeau at the Playboy Mansion, early 1980s. © Jeff Gates

I don’t know what happened to Antonio Bay tonight. Something came out of the fog and tried to destroy us. In one moment, it vanished. But if this has been anything but a nightmare, and if we don’t wake up to find ourselves safe in our beds, it could come again. To the ships at sea who can hear my voice, look across the water, into the darkness. Look for the fog.

—John Carpenter’s The Fog

I’ve had two careers in my life: teacher and federal web wonk. But, I’ve had many, many jobs. McDonald’s garbage man and french fry maker, mailman, wedding photographer — you know, the jobs that often filled in the space and my pockets while I was trying to make a go of it. One of the more interesting fillers was photographing for the National Enquirer. Yes, that National Enquirer.

It was the 1980s. My friend, Donna, a writer who, like myself, was trying to forge her own career (she went on to become a well-respected writer) wrote for the Enquirer. It paid well and kept her on her toes. She often enlisted our group of friends to help out on her inquiring adventures. Oh, there was the rumor that President Reagan’s son, Ron, was a ballet dancer (and, with it, the 1980s innuendo that he must be gay). Perfect fodder for the Enquirer (the first part was true; the second not).

One day, she needed someone to photograph the actress Cindy Williams (of Laverne & Shirley fame) in Cleveland Amory‘s room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Amory, a writer as well as a critic for TV Guide, was also an animal rights advocate. And my friend wanted me to photograph Williams and Amory for a publicity shot for Amory’s Fund for Animals. I was nervous and excited. As an art photographer I wasn’t used to the pressure of getting a good shot for publication. In fact, my artistic sensibility had recently gotten me fired as a photo printer for Joe Weider‘s Muscle magazine in the late 1970s. The images, I was told, were too good and not fit to print.

I got the shot and an Enquirer stringer picked up the undeveloped rolls of film. That was it, except for getting a fat check for an hour’s work. I was hooked. After the shoot, my friend and I went to lunch at a Hollywood eatery. There sitting next to us was actor David Soul. You might remember Soul for his 1976 number one hit “Don’t Give Up on Us.” What!? You weren’t even born yet? Well, maybe you might have seen him on TV Land, starring in that 1970s series Starsky & Hutch.

The Enquirer had just written a story about Soul’s arrest for beating his seven month pregnant wife and my friend leaned over to me and said, “If I can get a statement from him, I won’t have to work for a year!” She walked up to him and asked. Let the record show he declined, albeit with a salty profanity thrown in for good measure. She quietly backed away as she came to terms with having to work the rest of the year.

A few months later, Donna called and said she was going to a party at the Playboy Mansion and did I want to come along. It was work for her and I brought my camera. This is where we came to meet slasher king John Carpenter and his first wife Adrienne Barbeau, star of his horror film (and now cult classic) The Fog. I don’t know why the Enquirer never needed my photos (more than likely, there was no story there). And, going over some of my old negatives yesterday I spied this one of Carpenter and Barbeau. I had never printed it before.

Soon thereafter, my time with the National Enquirer started to fade. They asked me to photograph Sally Struthers (from All in the Family) in front of her personalized license plate that said “Tacky” (because she thought personalized plates were, well, tacky). But, they told me I would have to say I was from some other publication because Struthers hated the Enquirer. I refused. Even as a young turk, I had my ethics. So instead, they told me to go to a pre-school and take photos of children making funny faces. Well, that seemed within my ethical boundaries. I found a Montesori school in upper class Santa Monica but when I realized I was going to have to get permission from every parent, I wondered just how successful I would be. After all, it was the National Enquirer. What parent was going to allow their child to be photographed by that rag? Every parent signed. And, after that job, I called it quits.

I was born in Hollywood and this is my true Hollywood story: not quite film noire nor sensationalist like The Black Dahlia murder mystery. But the fog engulfing my own Hollywood years has lifted.

I Talk to Strangers in Elevators

21 Aug 2014
August 21, 2014
People in elevator

I talk to strangers in elevators. But not just to any stranger. I pick and choose, depending on the elevator, the mix of people, and, of course, if I have anything to say. Our time together is short and there must be some connection to our shared experience riding up or down. Not quite an elevator pitch, but a close relative. Timing is everything.

It might be Monday morning. No eager beavers on Monday morning. “Thank God it’s Friday,” I might say. I’m often the warm up act for the week. And, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a chuckle. Out of complete strangers. Friday afternoons, it’s a virtual party as office after office empties out for the weekend. Everyone is jovial, anticipating two days off, and talk is cheap.

Yesterday, after getting my morning coffee, I was standing in our office lobby waiting to be whisked upstairs. Another woman and I waited as the elevator door opened. Out walked a coworker of mine. As she walked passed me she smiled and asked, in that perfunctory fashion, “Hi, how’s it going?” Of course, my answer was preordained, no matter how I felt. I replied, “Great.”

The two of us, the stranger and I, got on the elevator: me to the 3rd floor and she to the 5th. As we began our assent, I turned to her and said, “I’m really not great. But this is the ‘Truth Elevator.’ You must tell the truth in this, and only this elevator.”

She laughed, but had nothing to say.

A Family Photograph

08 Jun 2014
June 8, 2014
Jeff Gates' family

My great uncles and aunts in Russia.

Like many Eastern European Jews, my paternal grandparents emigrated from the Russia in the early 20th century. But not all of my family left for the States. And, I suppose you could say they were saved from the atrocities of the Nazis because they lived under the atrocities of Stalin.

But, interestingly, my great Uncle Louie (“Unkie”) went back for a visit around 1931, when this photo of him and some of his brothers and his sister was taken (my grandmother Bessie, Louie’s sister, and another sister, Margaret stayed here).

This is an incredible photograph. What possessed the Bieber siblings (could I be related to Justin??) to pose in this way? It’s wonderfully theatrical, though no one was in the theater. From left to right in the back: my Great Uncles Yuri, Grisha, and Louie. In front are Zena, wife of Grisha (who, my grandmother’s daughter —my Aunt Selma— noted on the back of the photo, were later divorced) and my Great Aunt Fira.

In the 1950s my family was told not to contact the family in the USSR. It was too dangerous for them. I only know what happened to Uncle Louie. He saved his sister, my grandmother Bessie, from a destructive marriage by buying her a small piece of property in Los Angeles: something she could use to make some money to live. The lot, on the corner of Century and Airport Boulevards, ended up right next to LAX (and I see it every time I return home). My grandmother rented it to Union Oil where a gas station sat for decades making it possible to live a decent life after years of difficulties. It was an act of love by Unkie that saved her.

I remember him but I was just three years old when he committed suicide. He left no note and no one knows why he killed himself, although we have our 21st century suspicions. Just before my father’s funeral in 2000, I started to go into a private room to view his open casket, but suddenly stopped. I had decided I’d rather remember my father as he was when he was living. His sister, my Aunt Selma, pulled me aside as we stood outside of that room and told me the story of Uncle Louie’s funeral. Another open casket but they had conveniently covered the gunshot hole in his head with a yarmulke. Selma laughed. “Unkie would have been furious if he knew he was buried wearing a yarmulke.”

Wading My Stream of Consciousness

12 May 2014
May 12, 2014

Two seemingly unrelated events:

2014 Rose Bowl Game

Esquire backs me up on this one and even provides a simple way to remember which button to button.

A funny thing happened in the elevator at work the other day. I had just gotten my coffee from the Starbucks across the street and was taking the lift up to my office. I shared the elevator with another guy and we were getting off on the same floor. Suddenly, he asked “Jeff, you seem the right person to ask. Is it one button or two?” as he demonstrated on his sport coat.

I hesitated for a moment. Thinking. Thinking. “Do I know you?” I replied. I’m usually not so blunt when a stranger asks me a question out of the blue but everything seemed so odd: the elevator, the timing, and, of course, the question. I simply couldn’t think of any other way to respond. He apologized for being so familiar. He was an art history fellow here at the museum and he reminded me we had talked in the men’s room about our identical water bottles. Now, that would be quite a normal interaction for me. I have no qualms about breaking the usual bathroom silence. I remembered. I’d noticed his chartreuse water bottle and felt compelled to say tell that stranger that I had the same, to the color! “Too familiar? Not a problem,” I replied (how could I say anything but?). And as we exited the elevator I said, “One. Definitely one.” My reputation as a fashion icon seems to be growing beyond my control.

Later that day I saw him entering the building and asked “How’d it go? Was I right?” “Perfect,” was his reply.

• • •

Yesterday, while shopping at Trader Joe’s I stopped to try some of the samples they’re always offering. There’s always a crew member behind the counter preparing and dishing them out (all TJ’s employees are “crew members” and the manager is always the “captain”). The freebie for the day was their cookie dough peanut butter on an apple slice. I had always wanted to taste that so I took one of the small paper cups they put them in.

“Oooh, it sweet. Too sweet for me.” I have a lot of trouble with many of Trader Joe’s seasonings. They over-salt most of their prepared foods and you’ll often find me commenting about it to any crew member who will listen. I’ve got to give them credit. Their answers are always consistent. Obviously, they’ve held numerous training sessions on how to respond to my comments. “We use salt as a preservative instead of chemicals.” And that shuts me up. What can I say? Too much salt or too many preservatives? Not a great choice either way.

So, as I downed my cookie dough peanut buttered apple I looked at the label while spouting one of my cynical comments about the sugar —natural cane sugar of course (everyone is so nice there, these comments seem to just effortlessly slide off of them). Suddenly the server started to laugh. As she did, she accidentally spit her own apple into the bowl of samples. I was embarrassed for her so I said “Don’t worry, I do that all the time.” (No I don’t. I’ve never worked at TJ’s and I’ve never spit out my apple slice after uncontrollable laughter. However, to balance the rest of my TJ karma, it just seemed the right thing to say.) In the first grade, while on a sleepover at my best friend Ron’s house I did snort milk when we couldn’t stop laughing. But, honestly, that was it.

I don’t even remember what I said that was so funny. But I could write a book about my weekly interactions at TJs.

It was a crazy week. Good crazy.

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