Author Archive for: Jeff

Searching for a Needle in a Snowbank

20 Feb 2010
February 20, 2010
Searching for the downspout

I was digging myself into a large hole. Where was that downspout? Click on photo for larger image.

Imagine living through the DC blizzard of “aught ten” (I know that’s not grammatically correct but it sounds good). Then imagine your arthritic back survived the post-storm shoveling of your paths, your driveway, and your car. And you managed not to fall and break your hip as melted snow refroze every night. All the while, you enjoyed watching the longest stalactites ever form off your roof as the temperature rose and slowly, but surely the heavy snow receded. Wouldn’t you want to help it along?

Neighbors were reporting ice dams were causing water to seep into their homes, their frozen gutters unable to deal with the runoff. What would you do? Why dig your downspouts out so they could get rid of the water. Right?

That’s exactly what I attempted to do this morning. Three feet of snow had turned into two feet of snow ten days after the storm. And I wanted to shovel out the area around our downspouts to help nature take its course and to save our home sweet home. Now where was that downspout anyway?

I followed the line of the gutter as it left the house and I positioned myself where I thought the end came up to the surface. After all, I’d been mowing over that exposed PVC pipe for years. I should know where exactly it was. And I was sure I knew. X marked the spot and I began to shovel.

But when I got to the ground it wasn’t there. One of our neighbors stopped by to ask what I was doing. “Searching for a needle in a snowbank,” I replied. And so it went. When that spot yielded no downspout I surveyed the front yard, imagining myself with our mower. Wait, it should be a bit to the left. Where was my GPS-enabled downspout finder when I needed it the most?

More neighbors passed by as I first dug out here and then there. Eventually, I ended up with a big hole about ten by fifteen feet. I had shoveled out 300 cubic feet of snow and for what? Out of breath and concerned about my back, I gave up. When I got into the house and reported on my search my wife said, “Oh, the spout comes out directly in line with the edge of the house.” “Listen,” I replied, I’ve been mowing that lawn for almost 17 years. I should know where that thing surfaces.”

But obviously I didn’t. I can’t believe I don’t know my own front yard.

I Hate Late Winter and I Hate Late Abstract Expressionism

10 Feb 2010
February 10, 2010
Scene of a snow covered car with text: When I turned 35 I could say two things: I hate late winter and I hate late Abstract Expressionism.

Jeff Gates, From a Series of One Acts… #7, 1987. Click on image for larger view.

Before moving to the DC area I spent a year teaching art in Minnesota. I learned to drive in the snow that winter and am proud to have survived a week of -90F (-68C) windchill. But that pales by comparison to what the Mid Atlantic is going through right now (okay, what I’m going through right now). It’s a blizzard out there and believe it or not, I think this storm is worse than the snowpocalypse that inundated us this past weekend.

We’ve been off of work since Friday afternoon. As managing editor of our museum’s blog, Eye Level it’s my job to keep the blog posts on schedule. But, like everything DC, all activity has come to a standstill. So this morning I decided it was time for an art-related snow story. I did a search of our collection and found a beautiful image from Robert Singletary called Snow on the Chesapeake Bay and wrote a post on it. But in looking through the 196 search results for “snow,” I suddenly came upon the photograph above. I’d forgotten it was in American Art’s collection. And how appropriate for today. More importantly it still resonated for me.

I hate late winter. And, actually, after this season I think I’m on pretty solid ground when I say I just hate winter altogether. As for late Abstract Expressionism, the energy of its predecessor was no longer there. Like late winter it had lost its attraction.

I was young when I made that image. Thirty-five to be exact. So it’s nice to see I still feel strongly about the weather. Oh, and about my art too.

Did Somebody Say Snow?

08 Feb 2010
February 8, 2010

blizzard 2

Top: Panorama of the entrance to the park across the street from our house taken during the blizzard (part of a series of photographs I’ve been taking). Bottom: Our street as I struggled to get back inside (our house is at the extreme left). Click on either image for a larger view.

We knew it was coming. They had been warning us for days. The good people of the nation’s capital thought we were seasoned winter citizens after the last big snow in December. But at the last minute we all panicked and cleared grocery stores of anything that was edible (it was good to hear the veggie and fruit aisles were barren for even when we panic we seem to be a healthy lot).

I don’t mind being snowed in, but only if I’m comfortably ensconced in a Swiss chalet with waiters to bring me food and drink and resort tractors to clear the walks for my afternoon stroll. Yes, it’s nice to look out my window at the gently falling stuff. But I can never forget what I am about to face once the precipitation ends. Waiter, would you be so kind and bring me my ergonomic snow shovel?

The snow started Friday evening. And by Saturday morning it was once again a winter wonderland. Of course, it was my artistic duty to immediately go outside to take a few photographs. I bundled up, put on my heavy duty snow boots and brought a soft wipe to gently clear my lens of the morning’s cold dew. It was coming down pretty heavy and when I took my first step off our porch and I immediately sunk to my knees in that dew. For a moment I felt like I was going to drown. It was a funny reaction don’t you think?

I had to first get to what I thought might be the street. It was hard to tell where our property ended and the road began. I waded through the snow, thinking this must be what wading through molasses was like –or better yet, the La Brea Tar Pits. I could feel that mammoth’s fear of entrapment. I slowly made my way to the park’s entrance about 50 feet away. Once I got there I decided I’d make a panorama rather than the single shots I had been taking on previous sessions. Using a stitching software I’d come back to the warmth of my computer monitor and put them together. It was cold and the wind was starting to pick up. I took my photos, doing a few additional exposures for good measure and started my trek back.

My survival instinct under control, as I got closer to the house I looked down the street and saw the second scene. Brown and white all over, with just a touch of bright yellow. Perfect.

Creative energy expended, I opened the front door with my photographic booty where my daughters were waiting with a nice hot cup of coffee. Who needs a Swiss chalet?

A Story in Three Tweets: Mr. OCD

12 Jan 2010
January 12, 2010

Twitter allows you to send missives to your followers in 140 character bursts. For a storyteller these are often exercises in learning to be economical with one’s words with the greatest amount of impact. Today I tried but a story unfolded in the subway that begged for just a little bit more. This required three successive tweets. Sometimes a tale demands just a little bit more. Here is my 376 character Twitter trilogy.

Mr OCD’s on subway. How do I know? He told me last time. He’s nice & strikes up chat w/ everyone. He’s talking 2 lady next 2 him now…

…But Mr OCD has a mean anger streak. How do I know? I saw him yell @ 2 boisterous teens way on the other side of subway platform. Way far.

Mr OCD’s still chatting it up with that girl as we make our way up to the surface. See ya next time.

Avatar:a Reflection of Human Nature
When Will Homo Sapiens Stop Making Movies Like Avatar

03 Jan 2010
January 3, 2010

Glenn Beck as our species savior?

Annalee Newitz recently posed this question: “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like ‘Avatar’?” And she followed it up with some interesting ideas on race and film making in America. While I would agree that Avatar and District 9 are Hollywood’s metaphors for racial relations, by limiting her piece to just race she missed a larger issue: the broad scope and brutal reality of human nature reflected in these films.

Avatar is James Cameron’s epic about the Na’vi of the moon Pandora. Humans are so interested in obtaining the element Unobtainium (talk about transparent Hollywood story development) they are willing to destroy the Na’vi’s habitat in order to do so. In District 9, the more straightforward racial metaphor of the two, non-humans have been strategically and brutality segregated from the population of Johannesburg. In both cases, as Newitz points out, white males are the saviors of these aliens. And I do agree with her to a point.

But I would go farther by saying that greed and fear, both prime motivators here, are human traits that go beyond America’s racial history. Earth has a long and sad history of intra-racial and sectarian genocide. The wars between Rwanda’s Tutsis and Hutu, the Sunni and Sh’ia, the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland, and between Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, Albanians, and the Romani, are just a few recent tragic examples. In addition, as we’ve seen in the last year, the quest for riches right here on Wall Street have destroyed millions. This is not just a racial issue but a human malady.

Sadly, there are those, like Glenn Beck, who make it their business and their livelihood to foment these differences. According to a recent Gallup poll Americans admire Beck more than they admire the Pope, Billy Graham, Bill Gates, and Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. Bush. Hollywood isn’t the only industry willing to oversimplify our human condition for big bucks.

In another recent film, Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character is a good example of the disconnect we often feel for one another. In his case, compassion would have destroyed his life and robbed him of his precious frequent flyer miles. The redeeming part of this film is that it doesn’t convey a simplistic character development (like other Hollywood fare and Beck himself) but let’s us complete the picture of a human forced to reconsider and redefine his being. Things are not black and white here nor in the world, but filled with shades of gray.

“The Other” is a human construct. If it’s not race it’s something else. All of these are important parts of the discussion. And should we ever come in contact with real sentient non-humans we will feel the same fear, difference, and loathing we do now for those humans we see as different. And “speciest” will be able to sit comfortably next to “racist” in our human lexicon.

A Related Conversation: at David Weinberger’s JOHO the Blog.

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