Author Archive for: jgates

Meeting My Past Once Again

07 Apr 2001
April 7, 2001

horoscopeLast week two boxes of family artifacts arrived unceremoniously from my father’s wife. I had half been expecting something as my sister had called a few days earlier to say she’d received a package of Dad’s coffee mugs in the mail. We laughed at that. Neither of us had rated these cups on our respective lists of important memories. We both realized how beholden we were to a woman who, while sharing 27 years of our father’s history with us, did so with apprehension. It was she who now filtered our history for us. I was hoping my bar mitzvah photographs were included in the shipment. I valued these above all else my father held over the years. They had been number one on my list.

About 15 years ago I’d asked him for these images and he swiftly declined. His refusal was strong and immediate. On the one hand, I was glad Dad felt so strongly about keeping them. He could be sentimental, but mostly he shared those feelings with no one. But as he grew older and as we grew apart, more and more I felt the desire to gather and protect these aspects of our lives.

When I was 24 and my father married my stepmother he sold our house, the home I grew up in, without ever asking us if we wanted anything from it. Many of my own possessions, let alone things from our family, were thrown away or sold. I was afraid that might happen again.

My wife called me at work to tell me of the boxes’ arrival. I got home early in hopes that I might have some time alone to go through them before the children and chaos returned. When I saw that powder blue padded photo album I felt a sense of relief. I could now protect these memories.

I hadn’t seen these images in years. I remembered them but, seeing them before me now, I was able to view them filtered by recent events and recollections. And things had changed since my last viewing. I had my own family now. And I was older.

Even the most mundane photographs become important when enough time has passed. These images were almost 40 years old. Certainly each held critical importance to me. It was my coming of age and my family. Yet time might also elevate their interest to others as icons of a history growing more distant. Where these two interests intersected might prove fruitful ground for some art.

In addition, I had been focused recently on the rituals of our family, such as they were. I was primarily interested in our familial interactions. These photographs signified a great deal, simulacra, if you will, of relationships, illness, happiness and sadness. I was reading a lot into these pictures as I turned the pages of that album in solitude. The mixture of quiet and memory gave my emotions a chance to surface.

I looked further into the box to see what other feelings it held. There was an envelope with my name written on it in my stepmother’s handwriting. This was the extent of our communication. Inside was a runaway note and a will I had written when I was about 10. I suddenly laughed so loud it startled me, my reaction being so different from just moments before. I can’t remember the exact circumstances of these documents. I don’t think they were related to each other. I was glad my father chose to save them.

There was my mother’s birth certificate, my birth certificate, my parents’ marriage licence and even the receipt for its payment. There was my father’s teaching credential from the 1950s along with his first teaching contract (Dad had loved teaching but couldn’t make a living on what they paid so he went to work for Lockheed). I continued to dig through the boxes. A pocket watch. It looked old but whose was it and what memories did it hold?

The second box contained the tie my father wore at my wedding and a sweater he wore at a photography exhibition I had had in L.A. a few years ago. Did my stepmother know I attached meaning to these things? It’s hard to tell. The tie was one of many ambiguous ones she sent. Along side were various golf trophies, most in a state of disrepair. And, of course, some of his coffee mugs.

All Things are Simulacrums

02 Apr 2001
April 2, 2001

This morning started out as most weekday mornings do: a rush to get us and the kids ready for work and school and a mad dash to the car, making sure everything and everyone is in place. As we pulled out of the driveway, I said “ding dong”. “What does that mean?” my four year old asked. “Ding dong,” I repeated.

My daughter likes to make up games. She especially enjoys making the rules (the province of four year olds). Often, on the way home from school and work she’ll decide to play a guessing game. You know, “it’s green and has spots on it, what is it?” That sort of thing. “If you can’t think of the answer say ding dong, she’ll pronounce. “If you want some extra time, say dong, dong, dong, three times.”

So, when I, all-of-a-sudden, blurted out those words (I can’t be held totally responsible for things like this at such an early hour!), she was understandably confused. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked again. “That’s a simulacrum, sweetheart,” I said, again not knowing how that came out of my mouth.

horoscopeBut the door was open and she wanted to know more: “A sim…what?” “A simulacrum is a sign [where will this end, I thought]. Ummm, let’s see…a photograph of a person isn’t THE person, but a representation of that person,” I started. I struggled to find an example a little bit more on her level. “The drawings I make for you of ponies and unicorns aren’t really the animals but pictures of the animals. That’s a simulacrum.” By this time we were on the subway and well on our way downtown. She continued to repeat the word and, by the time we took the elevator up to the surface, she pretty well had it and its definition down.

As we got to the foot of the school stairway she provided me with one more surprise: “Daddy, all things are simulacrums,” she announced. I laughed a huge nervous laugh. “You are so right, my dear. They are!”

Roland Barthes would have been proud. Her postmodernist daddy was amazed but thinks he’ll save the plural for simulacrum for another day. Art criticism may be in her future—her near future!

Looking for a Needle with My Head Between My Knees

26 Mar 2001
March 26, 2001

horoscopeGot up early and took the Metro to the Library of Congress today to start looking for my mother’s episode of It Could Be You. The Reference Librarian pulled the microfiche rolls of NBC’s master scheduling list for the dates they had. Each roll contains 3 or 4 days worth of daily schedules, timed program scripts plus transcripts for each show.

I was amazed to be viewing this history. Transcripts of early Today show episodes with Dave Garroway and company reveal a great slice into that time. I was less amazed by the effect scrolling a microfilm reader has on my stomach. Watching pages and pages zoom by at a fast pace can get to you after a while.

When the librarian discovered I would have to go through multiple rolls she said “Oh no! Your task is daunting!” I knew it would take some time but couldn’t quite understand her reaction. After a couple of hours I had to put my head between my knees and take numerous breaks. As I packed up for the day I sheepishly asked her if anyone ever complained of nausea. “All the time,” she stated. That’s why I said your task would be daunting.” I guess I will have to research this in short spurts.

It Could Be You aired nationally from 1956 until 1961. One of the reference books on the subject says the first show was in June 1956 but we found a copy from April. I have no idea when her program aired so I had to try and recall anything that might help pinpoint my search. I remember that my mother’s club acted as “spies” for the program, gathering information they could use to highlight her life.

I was sick and home from school one day when her friends (the spies) came over for coffee. The local tax assessor was due to come to the house to reassess my parents’ property tax. I don’t know when they stopped doing this. Today it would be a bureaucratic nightmare to have individual agents come to each house to check on new purchases, but that’s what they did back then. My mother’s friends were told not to tell the assessor about our new lamp. Of course, that made it on national television, much to her chagrin. Was my mother a Reality TV pioneer?!

How my parents met was also part of the show. On their first date, they exchanged walnuts with their names written on each. I remember the real nuts were disintegrating and were only being held together with rubber bands. She received a pair of candle holders with nut replicants encased in plastic as one of her parting gifts.

So, I was about 7 or 8 at the time. Since I was sick, perhaps it was Fall or Winter. Maybe it was March. I’m having a hard time separating facts and memories from wishful thinking.

The Library of Congress doesn’t have every episode but does have just about every master schedule. So, even though they may not have my mother’s I am hoping to, at least, find her transcript. Reading others is intriguing and gives some insight into contemporary television’s “evolution” for finding the best hook to gain market share. Take a look at this transcript from one of the shows (the names and important dates have been changed to protect their anonymity).

Unearthing Family Assets

19 Mar 2001
March 19, 2001

In the last couple of months I’ve been unearthing some family assets. Since my father’s death last October, I have been writing profusely about our relationship. He was a secretive man and found a place in an equally secretive job, as part of the legendary Skunkworks at Lockheed. So conducting family archeology or sleuthing (each apt metaphors for the process) has taken up a good deal of my free time of late.

In the five months since his death, I have been piecing together his and our family’s lives. Dad never talked about his early years. It was up to my sister and me to figure these things out, based more on how he lived than on any storytelling on his part. Every so often, we’d receive clues during chance encounters with relatives.

Dad’s motivations often seemed incongruous and any questioning on our part was met with deflection. I was to discover that death has a way of releasing the energy it’s taken in life to hold on to these secrets. As puzzle pieces are being put in their proper place I am reminded of a Yiddish proverb which proclaims “a son wants to know what a father wants to forget.”

horoscopeA month or so ago an article appeared in the Washington Post on a collection of 1950s and 1960s television shows now being housed at the Library of Congress (LOC). I contacted the curator mentioned in the article to see if they might have copies of a program called It Could Be You. This was sort of a “this is your life” of the unknown set. Sometime during its run my mother was a featured guest.

I have no idea why she was chosen. She was President of the Pacoima Jr. Women’s Club and I have a photograph of her and her fellow club members standing in front of the program stage set with host Bill Leyden. The LOC has about a year’s worth of negative kinoscopes, none of which are catalogued. I’m going there next week to see if, by matching a master NBC schedule list, I can find my mother’s episode. Does anyone remember this show?

Last week I was in Seattle for the Museums and the Web Conference. Coincidently, my first cousins (my father’s sister’s children) now live there and we got a chance to become reacquainted. It was interesting to see how the family legacy handed down from the stetls of Russia and the Ukraine came to us. While we only got together maybe twice as a family during our childhoods, the similarities of our upbringing were prominent.

My cousin Avery invited me over to view “home movies” my great uncle took in the early 1930s. The scratched black and white film revealed my father as an eleven year old. The physical similarity between he and I was striking. It’s one thing to see a photograph of a parent early in his life. It’s another to see him move and breathe. Of course, my father never mentioned these films.

I saw my grandparents as young adults. They looked much older and sterner than everyone around them, perhaps a reflection of their failed marriage. I saw their trip back to Russia to see the family in 1934. And my great grandparents and other family members standing around in what I call “moving stills,” reminiscent of that scene of Las Vegas waitresses in Koyaanisqatsi where you think you are looking at a photograph only to realize that everyone is standing almost perfectly still. If you look carefully you can see their eyes blink and their bodies move to the rhythms of their hearts.

My family is talking to the unseen cameraman. What are they saying? What were they thinking? I’m immediately reminded of my friend Lisa Lewenz’s film about her family, A Letter Without Words. Lisa’s grandmother was a film maker in Germany in the 1930s. A Jewish film maker. In researching her piece, Lisa hired a German lip reader to decipher her great grandmother’s silently filmed words. I want to find a Russian lip reader to do the same. Anyone know of one?

Lisa and I have often laughed about how our lives seem to run parallel to each other: both artists, often busy with teaching and then unemployed at identical times. How interesting to discover that both our families documented their lives in the early 20th century. Of course, the most interesting part is what these slices reveal and how we interpret them. It’s a little more story than my father would feel comfortable telling. I just don’t want to forget it.

Speaking of Superhighways

05 Mar 2001
March 5, 2001

I was invited to speak on New Media to the Trustees and senior staff at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts this past weekend. They’re looking to introduce technology within the museum and wanted to explore the area. I was one of three speakers.

horoscopeWhile I work at a museum, I was asked to represent the new media artist’s point-of-view. Oliver Knowlton, from Sports Illustrated spoke from the business end and Susan Delson, from museumgoer.com, talked about museums and distance learning. I’m always open to speaking to people who will let me get my digital foot in their door. Especially, when I’m invited. And, it gave me the opportunity to to revisit my thoughts on the development of the medium.

This also gave my wife and me a one-night vacation from parenting. I think this was the first time we’d both been away together since we entered this realm. She picked me up from work and we tooled down I-95 for the two hour plus ride to Richmond. I’ve decided my next car will be full of safety features. Eighteen wheelers following you from 3 feet back are just too scary to think otherwise (I almost made good use of my cell phone, calling the Indiana number written on the side of that truck to let them know how well their driver was driving!).

The museum put us up in a nice hotel. We loved the suite (with kids, I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the single room plan of days yore). A quick stop at the hotel’s happy hour hors d’oeuvre table and bar, then off to Millie’s Diner, a recommendation from friends, and now one from me as well.

The next morning, we checked out (the museum would have put us up for a second glorious night but lack of childcare prevented us from prolonging this joy) and found our way to the museum’s educational building. With name tag in place and a quick discussion with Elizabeth Wong, the head of IT to make sure computer and net connection was a go, I sat back and waited for my turn to speak.

They laughed! They really laughed! No, all kidding aside, I like to use humor whenever I talk about technology. Speaking as if I’m in a one-to-one, casual conversation with someone is my way of calming myself down when speaking publicly. Sort of like thinking everyone’s naked (but not the same of course). And, it makes people forget how tense they are about the subject. When attempting to sell technology, I like to remember its use and acceptance are dependent on a set of social interactions. They may excommunicate me from geekdom for saying this, but the technology will work only when people want it to work. So, making it palatable is a plus.

After all of us spoke, it was mid afternoon. We had were also invited to a special dinner in the museum galleries for Martin Puryear, but that didn’t start until 6. So, we perused Richmond’s vintage stores on Carey Street (I’m an avid collector of 1940s neckties).

There were actually three vintage stores within walking distance of each other. The first had the best selection but, after collecting for so long, I’m a little discerning in my tastes. I’m “rounding out” collection, you could say, so finding something good is getting harder. When the owner quizzed me on whether I’d found anything to my liking, she seemed genuinely miffed when I told her I hadn’t. “You mean, you found nothing? I’ve got a pretty good selection!” she said. I had to think fast. “Well, there were a couple of beauties,” I replied. “But I already have them.” I really enjoyed how into vintage she was.

Since we’d checked out of the hotel, we didn’t have any place to go after our hunt, so we walked back to the car and just relaxed. Promptly at 6, we went into the gallery. We were early, but it gave us a chance to see Puryear’s show. Then we headed for the atrium, where the bar and musical accompaniment beckoned and where I found the best peanuts I’d ever eaten. They were a cross between dry roasted and the normal oily. And big. Were these the Virginia peanuts I’d assumed I’d been eating all my life?! This wasn’t the ordinary “I’m really hungry and anything would taste like great at this point” event. No matter how many times I quizzed myself, I had to say these were genuinely the best peanuts I’d ever eaten.

A little wine, some more nuts, a perfunctory handshake from former Virginia Governor Wilder, and we were ready for dinner. More wine. Nice people, good food, and conversation. And at 8:45 we bid farewell to our hosts and rushed out like Cinderellas at midnight (with a quick stop at the dessert table around the corner to stock up on sweets for the trip home).

It was a nice day. I met some interesting people, got to talk about my love, ate well, and didn’t have to ask my kids to use their words instead of whining once all day! Just perfect.

Celebrating Equinox Day

01 Mar 2001
March 1, 2001

horoscopeYesterday was my Personal Equinox Day. That’s the day when the sun is shining both when I leave for work and when I return home. This celestial event changes every year, depending on my schedule. This time it was later than usual, since I’ve been staying later at work. It’s an uplifting moment to realize you no longer have to rely on flickering mercury vapor street lamps to find your way home.

Spring is my favorite season. I never had this feeling, growing up in L.A. We had seasons but the changes were more subtle than the extremes of winter and summer here in D.C. I never knew the sight of a daffodil rising above a bed of dead leaves could make me feel so good!

Fall is my least favorite time of the year. I have to rake millions of leaves (I never had to do that in L.A., just a few palm fronds every now and then), suntan lotion commercials are replaced by cold remedy commercials on TV, and you can no longer wear white shoes and belts! As the sun sets earlier and earlier, I get, well, ok, I’ll admit it, I get a little depressed. The extra hour of sleep you get with the end of daylight savings time is not enough to offset the bleakness awaiting you when you awake.

I thought I might have SAD a few years ago so I borrowed a special bank of lights from a friend. I would sit in front of it for 15 minutes every morning, while I ate my breakfast, but to no avail. Coffee, alone, did a much better job of lightening my spirits.

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074