Monday, June 15, 2009

Freeze the Moment With a Flash

I lean against the black chain-link fence of a walkway skirting the banks of the Thames and stare out at the water. The hazy, blue river water laps against the concrete foundation of the walkway some fifteen feet below. It reflects the shining gold sunlight that momentarily breaks through the clouds on an otherwise overcast day. The Tower Bridge stands to my left, with its gold crosses glittering and contrasting with the gray and cool, ice blue of the bridge’s spires and supports. 

Courtesy of Ryan Parkhurst

A presence to my right disrupts my contemplation and, as I turn in that direction, I see my professor’s big, black camera in my face. Caught off guard, I give him a glaring death stare (according to him) and turn back to my musings.


As my travel companions quickly realized, I’m not a huge fan of having my picture taken. Perhaps it’s my reserved personality, 15 years of embarrassing school portraits or my journalistic tendencies to record — and not participate in — the action, but I definitely prefer to be behind the camera.


That might explain why I have very few pictures of myself out of the more than 2,600 photos I took over the span of three weeks in London and Scotland. I certainly had my camera with me for almost every moment of my trip; I just had my eye to the lens.

However, I question my inclination for having my camera practically glued to my hand.


There have been billions of pictures taken of St. Paul’s Cathedral, for instance. Many of these are of a much better quality than what my amateur photography skills were able to produce. In fact, I found a good deal for one — on a postcard costing 20 pence at a souvenir shop on Portobello Road in Notting Hill. Still, I have upwards of 75 pictures of St. Paul’s, and that’s just of the outside.


And yet, none of those photos compare to what can be seen and felt inside of the cathedral, where no photography is allowed. The glowing-faced cherubs and pious saints depicted on the mosaics of the Quire are permanently seared into my brain. The golds, reds, blues and purples meld together forming Biblical scenes. The Dome reaches up so high, as if linking earth with the heavens above, until the paintings are just blurry images beyond my power of sight.


The juxtaposition of the minute and the colossal engulf me. There’s both an uneasiness associated with the feeling that I’m just a miniscule blip on the cosmic radar and a peacefulness thinking that there’s more to the world than my petty concerns. A camera can’t capture those feelings. It can’t capture that smell of incense and candles or those chills from being in a place of sanctity, silence and reverence.


So, perhaps my camera is not so significant.


It might make more sense to snap a few photos and then spend the rest of the time taking in the scene without being separated from it by a box of metal, plastic and glass. My eyes can do much better justice to a sight than a 1-by-1.5-inch viewing screen.


Plus, I can always Google a picture later.


Now that I’m home, everyone I run into asks me the same question: “How was your trip?”


To describe my trip in just a few words seems impossible and inadequate. I spent three weeks in two different countries encountering experiences and sights new — and literally foreign — to me every day. Where could I possibly start? I usually just reply, “It was amazing. I loved it there.”


Silence follows — like you-can-hear-crickets-chirping-in-the-background silence — accompanied by a half-puzzled, half-annoyed look signaling the question, “Michelle, is that really all you’re going to give me?”


“Go online, read my blog and look at my pictures,” I want to demand. “Then, come back with a list of specific questions. I will answer those.”


In a Facebook nation, however, where the longevity of the average American’s attention span lasts only a few seconds, no one is going to view my 21 photo albums comprising 2,672 photos. No one is going to spend hours sifting through my shots of vistas, monuments, castles and landscapes.


They want stories.


They want to hear about what I liked and what I disliked. They want to hear about what inspired me. They want to hear about my adventures.


They want to hear about how I got lost in London at midnight trying to find a nightclub

… how I ate a delicious crepe bigger than my head

… how I got my jeans ripped by a middle-aged Scottish man

… how I unsuccessfully tried to summon Nessie from the depths of Loch Ness

… how I earned the nickname Clumsiness

… how I fed Hamish, the hairy coo.


Yes, they want stories. They want proof that I was there, in the flesh, living life and not just taking touristy photos of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. They want to know what I was doing when I neglected to pull my camera out of my bag. My pictures won’t mean much to them, because they weren’t there to experience those moments in the first place.


Of course, those pictures mean a lot to me, in that, 20 years from now, I hope they’ll help me remember some of those moments. Yet, those three weeks changed my thoughts, my goals and my life. They want to know why, and my pictures can’t tell that story for me.


Upon returning to London from Edinburgh, I lean, weighed down by my florescent orange camping backpack, against the Plexiglas wall separating the seating from the standing room on the tube. I feel a light poke against my arm, so I look to my left.


A man, about 35 years of age, sits in the seat next to where I’m standing. He wears blue jeans and an eggshell-colored sweater that complements his tan skin tone. He has slick, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail — Antonio Banderas style. A little blond girl — the culprit — with striking blue eyes stands on his lap. Dressed in pink pants and a light pink, floral shirt, the toddler waves and says, “Hi.”


I smile and wave back. She’s precious. Every time the tube car stops, she waves and says goodbye to those getting off, to those staying on and, really, to anyone and everyone. The two get off at the station before mine, and she waves over her father’s shoulder to the remaining passengers as he carries her out in his arms.


This is such a moment in which one’s camera is useless. Firstly, one could justifiably be arrested for pulling out a camera and unwarrantedly shooting photos of this little girl. Secondly, this moment isn’t composed of a building or landmark one can freeze in a frame. It’s a scene — a little intricacy of life — that only can be stored away within the confines of my memory until the next time I’m in need of an endearing anecdote.


That’s what my family and friends are looking for.


Happily, I can give it to them.

Monday, June 8, 2009

I Can Sleep When I'm Dead

My 5-year-old bare feet are planted on the golden-yellow tiles of the kitchen floor. My right hand holds the phone to my ear, and my left hand twirls the spiraling phone cord. My grandmother is on the other end of the line — asking me about my sleeping habits.


When I was a child, I never wanted to sleep. Sometimes I would sneak into the living room at dawn to watch episodes of “Shining Time Station” or “Pappyland” on television. When I would hear my dad getting ready for work, I would rush back to bed to feign sleep or hide under a side table with a floor-length covering in the hallway until he left.


My one condition in choosing a preschool was that it must not have naptime. I hated naps. I struck a deal with my mom before I was in school: I could skip napping if I pretended to sleep until my younger brother actually did fall asleep; then, I could go to my room and pass the time as I pleased.


So my grandmother asks me, “Michelle, why do you never want to sleep?”


I answer that I don’t want to miss anything.


At 5 years old, I didn’t understand the concept of unconsciousness, but I realized life passed by while I slept — and I wanted to witness as much of that life as possible. Basically, I considered myself dead while I slept, which I believed was not conducive to experiencing life.


After a two-week visit to London, I’m tired. All I want is sleep. However, that’s also the last thing I’ll allow myself. Starting off on my Haggis Adventures Tour of Scotland, I promise myself I’ll take advantage of every opportunity the Highlands present me with — even if I have to be sleep deprived.


On night one, I sit perched on a brown leather ottoman, double shot of Smirnoff vodka mixed with cranberry juice in hand, in a dimly lit common room surrounded by a circle of newly met travel companions. They drift in and out, replenishing their drinks and socializing with others in the bar. They occupy other ottomans, a squishy black sofa, navy beanbag chairs and a wooden piano bench with a woven, green seat, all of which line the walls. We’re shooting the bull — telling stories about the first day and our past experiences.


I realize I don’t have much to contribute. I haven’t drunkenly scampered through the forest with my friends in the middle of the night. I haven’t kept watch as my family attempts to dig up pickle jars full of money in the backyard. I haven’t had my body parts almost chopped off by a sword-wielding man in a kilt. So much for not missing anything …


Still, however, I’m sitting in a room with these people with whom I hope I am making a connection. We are a community — if only for a mere five days — and I want to establish a rapport that will allow me to gain the kind of stories I’m convinced I’m lacking. So, as I tiptoe around my dark hostel room, giggling with one of my roommates and trying not to wake the others, I deem the 3 a.m. bedtime entirely worth it.

For night two, a 21st-birthday celebration for another of my roommates begins at midnight. Five others join me in my room, counting down to 12 a.m. after being taken hostage in our water-less hostel by the 11:30 p.m. curfew. A middle-aged Scottish man named Brian crashes the party — and contributes the beer.


He also contributes to the hole in the knee of my jeans, tearing the blue denim fabric three inches above and below the hole instead of across the knee. He tells me to connect the fabric with huge, inch-and-a-half-long safety pins — like ones once used to secure babies’ diapers, I picture — to make it look cool. He also says I should tell people I got the hole falling from rocks giving out beneath my feet while climbing a mountain. Actually, I earned the hole from distractedly tripping off a curb earlier that day.


He offers his torn jeans as an example, with the tear received during the running of the bulls in Barcelona … or drunkenly falling while stumbling back from a Spanish pub in the wee hours of the morning. I’m not sure the running of the bulls is even performed in Barcelona — the most famous version of the event takes place in Pamplona, Spain, at the San Fermin Festival.


I suppose I now have story to tell.


The following night, we continue the birthday celebration at full force. A group of about fifteen of us crowd our chairs around a long wooden table in Saucy Mary’s Bar, which has an all-too-appropriate name. We’re overseen by Drunkenness — a tacky, green stuffed animal whose name is coined from the Nessie fame of Loch Ness. Drunkenness turns out to be a bad influence, as the alcohol flows generously, especially with a £2.50 deal for double-shot mixed drinks.


We decide to give ourselves “-ness” nicknames in the spirit of Drunkenness. I miss this conversation for a bathroom break and return as Clumsiness. Apparently I’m queen of the klutzes — the validity of which I tend to secure daily, as per my torn jeans. Sheep-ness, Neva-neva-ness, Gayness, Love-ness and Hairiness are among our newfound monikers.


A trio plays Celtic music across the room. We have no idea how to dance to Celtic music, so we improvise. We form a group-wide huddle with our arms wrapped around one another for balance and run around in a circle, kicking our feet inward and cheering until we’re overcome with dizziness.


Then, we engage in a game of “Never Have I Ever.” Looking back, I don’t think I understood the goal, since I ended up drinking whenever it was my turn to confess something I had never done — thus, saying I had done it, which isn’t supposed to be the objective. However, everyone cheers for me when I say I have never been drunk before, so I find myself providing entertaining admissions, at least.


At closing time, we depart the pub. Two Aussies and another American join me on the trek to the rooms. We sit in the stairwell, discussing who-knows-what but enjoying the company. Eventually, one Aussie leaves, and I consider how much I need sleep before our 8:45 a.m. departure. Then I think of how I’m sitting in a stairwell in Saucy Mary’s Lodge on the Isle of Skye in Scotland with two interesting travel companions who are more my acquaintances than friends. After the trip, I’ll probably never hear from them again; but the point is that, by some twist of fate, our paths have crossed for five days, and I’d be a fool to give up time with them in lieu of a extra hour of sleep. This is sufficient in eradicating the argument for sleep from my mind, prolonging our stay in the stairwell for a bit longer.


Hostel beds don’t lend themselves to particularly restful nights of sleep, anyway.