Aug 1, 2019

Take a Seat


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The Cultural Center in Lagos, Portugal, paid homage to the BICA chair last winter by exhibiting three dozen specimens of that classical design reconfigured by local artists. The BICA chair was popularized in the 1950s because of its sturdy construction, rustproofing, and its stacking capabilities. It has become an iconic symbol of Portuguese industrial design.

The diversity of the reconfigured designs at the exhibit was fascinating, from a chair covered in exotic feathers to another displaying 35mm film contact sheets showing coastal scenes from the Algarve region. The chair that I found particularly interesting was painted black; holes had been drilled to allow a grid of bolts of assorted lengths to protrude through the seat and backrest of the chair. Lines of text had been painted between the rows of bolts. Each sentence was separated by a red cross-like motif. My knowledge of Spanish helped me loosely decipher some of the Portuguese text: "Transform into pianists all pessimists and disillusioned" read one line. "Reject the feeling of insufficiency of our time" read another. I felt the push-and-pull of optimism and pessimism, of comfort and discomfort. The piece was brilliantly designed and executed.

For all of the aesthetic value of that particular BICA chair I found it difficult to dismiss its dysfunctionality- that was not a chair you would want to sit in. It was closer to an instrument of torture than a relaxing place to rest your bones. I questioned whether the artist was indeed making a statement regarding the level of comfort that a BICA chair offers. It is worth noting that these chairs are ubiquitous throughout Portugal. They inhabit restaurants, patios and sidewalk cafes everywhere you go. My youngest daughter —who is a restaurateur in Lisbon — told me that the BICA chair had been mandated by municipal bylaws in certain areas of the capital city to give the streets a look of uniformity. That is a shame because in my opinion the BICA chair is not very comfortable. They are cold in the winter, and I would imagine hot in the summer. Also, the top of the backrest cuts across the sixth thoracic vertebra, making it difficult to lean back and relax. According to the chair's manufacturers "ergonomics was a matter of seating workers in the prototypes and then assessing basic features like comfort." It does not sound like a very scientific process.

The modern knockoff of a BICA chair trades iron for aluminum, and replaces the metal seat and back with plastic mesh. The lighter metal makes the chairs flimsier and consequently less stable. The plastic weaving stretches over time; meaning that your bottom and back sink past the frame of the chair causing your sixth thoracic vertebra and the bottom of your thighs to ache. This is not an attempt to fix what was wrong with the original design, except that the weaving is not affected by temperature as much as the solid metal is. This is an attempt to make you get up and leave, which is counter intuitive to what a sidewalk bar or cafe would want you to do. It baffles me that business owners would chose such an uncomfortable chair. It does not take me very long to determine the comfort level of a chair. It is not rocket science; sometimes I just need to look at a chair to know that it is going to be a pain in the back.

The travelers that I've talked to, give the gold medal for the most uncomfortable chairs in the world to (drum roll)...Mexico. I don't know the process by which Mexican industrial designers came up with the prototype for their Instrument of Torture chair, but I'm willing to bet that they didn't even go as far as the Portuguese in their ergonomic assessment. Nobody could have sat in a prototype of that chair and said "This is good, go with it, make a million of them." It seems like they did — because just like the BICA chair in Portugal — the Instrument of Torture chair is everywhere in Mexico. It is configured with a straight wooden back preventing reclining. The ridiculously small seat is made of woven weeds that often sag — consequently the wooden frame cuts the blood circulation in your legs. There is no cross piece in the front to place your feet on, so you can elevate your legs and regain circulation. Pure torture. 

I was visiting a friend in Mexico; he was proudly showing me that he could receive a television signal using only an antenna, and that we could watch American football with Spanish commentary. We sat in plush comfortable recliners and turned on the morning game. By noon the game was a bit lopsided and the Spanish commentary had lost its novelty, so he suggested a walk down to the seaside strip to have lunch at a gringo bar and watch the afternoon game there.  We arrived at the bar and chose a table facing the big television screen. We ordered some food and drinks while we waited for the afternoon game to begin. I was squirming in my seat. I could not get comfortable. I realized that was sitting on an Instrument of Torture chair. A few minutes later a group of gringos showed up to watch the game and I noticed that they had brought their own portable folding chairs with them. They had obviously been to that bar before.

For many years, I purchased my office chairs from Staples — the office supply box store specializing in chairs guaranteed to fall apart soon after the warranty expires. You know the ones...faux leather, plastic legs, plastic wheels, soft foam. Oh, don't forget the "full height adjustment mechanism" designed to leak air, so you slowly sink as you work. When your chin is resting on the keyboard, then it's time to go back up. I do not recall how many of those chairs I recycled. Purchasing a slightly "better" model every couple of years did not seem to make any difference. When you see thin cardboard stapled to the bottom of the seat, then you know that the product has not been manufactured to high standards. Planned obsolescence comes to mind; it is a product designed to break easily and be replaced. 

When I retired, my loving partner gifted me the Cadillac of office chairs. Comfortable, quiet, smooth, adjustable in ways I didn't know you could adjust a chair. Tilt Limiter? That's a new one. What a pleasure to use. The remarkable thing is that after many years of daily use the chair looks and feels brand new. Good things are not cheap and cheap things are no good. I've learned that now!

So if Herman Miller can design a task-specific product that is comfortable and durable, why are there so many terrible chairs still out there in the marketplace? I don't know the answer to my question, but I suspect it has something to do with economics rather than ergonomics. I am encouraged however, by what I see happening at institutions like Humber College in Toronto. They just recently held their 19th annual Industrial Design Chair Show: Redefining the future of work. Students enrolled in the Industrial Design Degree program designed seating solutions to address the changes in today's working environments. It seems like the quest to design functional and comfortable chairs continues unabated. In the private sector, industrial design companies such as Esedra — located in northern Italy — provide support services such as engineering, mechanical solutions, and prototyping to young designers working to prevent the proliferation of instruments of torture.

Before I saw the BICA chair exhibit in Lagos I was completely unaware of the existence of those chairs. I never paid them much attention. After viewing the exhibit, they seemed to be everywhere. I was surprised that they had not registered in my mind as being so mainstream.

It was 1916 when Master Craftsman Gonçalo Rodrigues dos Santos received the first purchase order for his newly designed BICA chair. The original design would go through a number of tweaks through the years. The final shape — balancing comfort and aesthetics — would not appear until the 1950s. Over a century after Master Rodrigues started his design process, industrial designers throughout the world continue to rise to the challenge to give us a perfect place to take a seat.
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Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Mexican chair photo: George Potvin.

White Bica chair: Alice Ming

Jul 2, 2019

Wrong!

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The campus employment office was crowded with students reading job posting descriptions stapled to a massive bulletin board. Spring break was over and Summer job hunting season was in high gear. The notice that caught my attention was not a job per se, but a recruiting campaign presented by the British Columbia Telephone Company (BC Tel) in 1972. They were conducting aptitude tests — which could lead to full time employment — should you prove to have the necessary mechanical skills required to become a phone installer, line technician, or other positions of that nature. I approached the front counter and made some inquiries. I was told that they had an opening to write the test on Saturday morning at 10:00 at the BC Tel Works Yard. I took the offer.

I don't know why I thought that was a good idea. My mechanical skills at the time were probably a solid 3.5 on a scale of 1 to 10. What I did know was that working for BC Tel meant full-time work, union wages, medical benefits, and a pension. The kind of jobs that no longer exist. All that was needed was to pass a test. How hard could that be?

On Saturday morning I woke up earlier than I wanted to, so I could have breakfast and ride my 10-speed bike across town to the BC Tel Works Yard. I arrived in 45 minutes. The Yard was no more than a chain-link fenced parking lot filled with vans and trucks sporting the BC Tel logo, and a single prefab building resembling a portable classroom. I approached the entrance where a cordial woman holding a clipboard asked for my name and identification. She then pointed to an empty desk in the center row of the brightly-lighted classroom. There were about thirty people in the room. Most looked considerably older than me, and some appeared to be trades people, which made me feel a bit insecure.

At precisely 10:00 o'clock the woman with the clip board stood in the front of the classroom and welcomed the participants. She then described the three-part testing procedure. The first part consisted of a questionnaire asking general questions about ourselves, such as education, career goals, and a rather tough query: If employed by BC Tel would you be willing to relocate to any location within the province? I had a difficult time responding YES. The woman collected the papers. She then placed a booklet — the second part of the test — face-down on each desk, and informed the group that we had 30 minutes to complete the task. She told us to begin as she clicked her timer.  It was the technical part of the test —multiple choice style — containing pages and pages filled with diagrams of: gears, belts, pumps, scales, circuits, and switches. I completed the test on time, but some of my answers were pure guesses.

Part three of the test was a single sheet of paper. We were told we could examine the task. The paper was filled with rows of circles about 8 millimeters in diameter — much smaller than a Canadian dime. The task was to place an X in the center of each circle making sure that the X did not touch the outline of the circle. We would have one minute to complete the test. "Make as many Xs as you can. Do not erase anything. Are you ready? 3...2...1... begin." What seemed simple, wasn't. As I worked my way down the page — at the speed of light — my hand did not respond as accurately as I expected. The pencil lead would at times cross the edges of the circles. I would then compensate for that, and make a mess someplace else. By the time I heard "STOP" I had completed more than half of the page. I felt good about that. I considered it a win. I put my pencil down. The guy sitting at the desk next to me tilted his paper up so I could see it. He had finished less than three rows, but they were perfectly formed Xs: all the same size, all at the center of the circles, none touched the edges. "It's not about speed" he told me, "It's about accuracy." I felt deflated, embarrassed, stupid. I had been wrong.

How could I have gone from feeling that I was completely right, to being completely wrong, in the blink of an eye? Well, apparently, humans generally lack the necessary internal clues to know that we are wrong, until it is too late. We tend to assume that we are right, all the time, about pretty much everything. This internal conviction, that we are right, does not always jibe with what is actually going on in the physical world. When we act like we DO know, and dismiss the possibility that we may be wrong... bad things happen: we lose a $125 million Mars probe by using Imperial instead of Metric measurements. We sink a cruise ship with 4200 people on board after hitting a reef off the coast of Italy by navigating by sight; "because I knew those seabeds well" the captain claimed. George W. Bush wasted $1.7 Trillion and killed 461,000 people by starting an eleven-year armed conflict in Iraq based on the possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction by the Iraqi regime. There were none. He was wrong.

Pulitzer Prize recipient Kathryn Schultz in her book Being Wrong convincingly illustrates that "the 'feeling' of being right is misleading." We’ve got to look outward. We need an external aid." NASA should have measured twice and cut once. Captain Schettino should have turn the ship's radar on. George W should have found some WMDs before bombing Iraq.

One of my early lessons in being wrong was rather harsh. When I was ten years old my mother redecorated our living room. She re-purposed the old silver Lamé curtains, and made me a bedspread. I was thrilled to receive such a thoughtful hand-crafted gift. One afternoon, I was sprawled on my bed doing my homework when my fountain pen ran out of ink. I fetched the ink bottle from my desk and set it on the bed. I began the process of refilling the pen. I'm not sure how it happened, but suddenly I see an ink stain, about the size of a golf ball, on the new bedspread. I know what to do I told myself. What takes stains out? "Bleach!" I got a bottle from the kitchen and began to rub the stain with a bleach-soaked rag. To my surprise, instead of lifting the stain, the bleach diluted the ink and the stain expanded to the size of a saucer. The ink stain looked a bit lighter however, so I added more bleach. The stain grew again, and this time the corrosive liquid started to remove the silver color from the fabric. So, there it was: a blue and white stain the size of a dinner plate in the middle of my mom's creation. Stain...bleach...Wrong! The episode was deemed an accident, and the remedy was pegged to ignorance. Phew!

How could I have been so wrong? I felt terrible. Yet being wrong should not be detrimental to our self-worth. Wrongness is a vital part of learning and growing. Being wrong allows us to modify our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.  In fact, to quote Sir Ken Robinson "if you are not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original." Being wrong does not mean that there is something intrinsically wrong with us. We just prefer to be right because it feels better. We feel smart, dependable, honorable, and gratified.

For the most part, being right should not be that surprising; we mostly operate our daily lives pretty successfully. We wake up, cleanse, dress, feed ourselves, and get on with our day without peril. We are right about most things: I don't care what the television said. I don't think it's going to rain, so forget the umbrella. "Look, the sun is out!" We enjoy being right and it doesn't really matter what it is that we feel right about: Rami Malek winning an Oscar, or the outcome of the Brexit vote. When you put a fiver on the nose of a 30 to 1 odds horse named Hoof Hearted because you like the name, and it wins...being right feels pretty good.

An old friend has told me, in more than one occasion, that he doesn't like to be wrong. "I like to be right" he once declared with a tone of assurance and affirmation. It sounded a bit like French playwright Molière who said "It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I'm right."  I don't think that my friend's preference is much different from anyone else's; we all would rather be right than wrong. The difference lies in how we respond when we are wrong.

A few years ago, my dear old friend was sitting in the back seat of the rented SUV as we left the Los Angeles Airport on route to Escondido. He had assumed the role of navigator. He was guiding the foursome to our golfing vacation destination. We merged onto the multi-lane main highway heading South as suggested by the GPS unit. It was Friday afternoon and the rush hour had started, so we were not moving very fast. After a while, our navigator told us that he had found a smaller secondary road that may be moving more freely. He guided the driver to the nearest exit to the alternate route. Everything seemed fine for a while. We started moving a bit faster as there were fewer cars on the road, but then we hit road construction, a multitude of stop lights, and soon traffic was at a standstill. With no way out, we crawled to Escondido. Our guide had been wrong. He took it pretty well for someone who does not like to be wrong. He was able to laugh it off, and joke about his navigating skills. The next morning — as the foursome was getting into the vehicle to head to the golf course — our navigator called out "I know a shortcut..." Needless to say he got an earful.

What my friend didn't know at the time was that he had been a victim of the psychological principle of naive realism; which according to Social Psychology professor David Dunning means that "even though your belief about the way the world is, just seems so compelling or so self-evident, it does not mean that it really is. Whenever we reach a conclusion, it just seems like it's the right one. In fact, a lot of what we see and conclude about the world is authored by our brains." I think David is implying that we make stuff up in our heads.

My relationship with my wrongness has evolved over time. Want to be wrong decidedly and often? Learn an additional language. Get used to: wrong word, wrong pronunciation, wrong spelling, wrong context, wrong usage, wrong grammar. They pelt you incessantly like Calgary hail. It is perhaps through that experience that I've embraced "I don't know" and "I'm not sure", as two perfectly acceptable responses which help me avoid the Dunning-Kruger Effect — the cognitive bias that could make me believe that I'm smarter and more capable than I really am. 

As a young man I felt devastated by the simple misunderstanding of the intent of a sheet of paper filled with small circles, which had I analyzed correctly, could have been life-changing. I may have spent my working life atop a hydraulic bucket splicing telephone wires together. In retrospect, and considering my fear of heights, I get the feeling that a career in telecommunication would have been, well...wrong.
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Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted. 


Jun 2, 2019

Flakebook




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I was dragged kicking and screaming into the murky world of social media at the end of February, 2010. Someone suggested that since I had family dispersed throughout the world, perhaps Facebook could be a good tool to connect with those distant loved ones. Further encouragement came from someone who thought that the social media site could provide a venue for me to share my photographs. I was reluctant. I did not want to join.  Everything changed on February 27, 2010 when an 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit central Chile as my relatives gathered to celebrate the birth of the family's first great-grand-daughter.

My first Facebook post was a link to a Google Disaster Relief effort to help Chilean families affected by the catastrophic event. At that point in time social media made sense to me. I was able to connect with my distant friends and family and be witness to both significant, and trivial events in their lives.  Keep in mind that Facebook was just six years old at that time; there was still an air of novelty and innocence within the platform. Yet, in the back of my mind I felt somewhat uncomfortable with the entire concept. I did not trust it. The feeling was strong enough for me to choose a pseudonym — as a way to retain some level of privacy and control — when I decided to join the popular social media site.

As it turned out, 2010 was a good year for me to join Facebook. There were many significant events in my life for me to share: My oldest daughter married a lovely young man who I've grown to love and treasure. My partner and I participated — for the first time — in the New West Cultural Crawl; opening our home-studio to hundreds of art lovers who dropped in to view our creations. I wrote the first story for this blog at the end of August of that year. I considered those to be very positive, personal, and rewarding events which I was happy to share with friends and family. In turn, they responded with love and kindness, thus creating the kind of interactions that I was pleased to participate in. To my surprise, Facebook seemed OK... for a while.

My apprehension, reluctance and misgivings about joining Facebook — based on privacy issues —  may have been well founded. On November 29, 2011 (20 months after I joined) the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a statement indicating that "Facebook has agreed to settle FTC charges that it deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public." The extent of the deception was far reaching. Allow me to paraphrase some of the highlights: Without warning or approval, Facebook allowed certain information, which users may have considered private — such as their Friends List — to become public. Facebook allowed advertisers to access personally identifiable information from users who clicked on ads, while maintaining that the company does not share personal data with advertisers. Third-party app developers were given access to nearly all of the user's personal data while claiming that developers would only have access to information needed to operate. To add insult to injury, when you finally had enough and deleted or deactivated your account, Facebook allowed access to your content even though it said it would be inaccessible. Doesn't that just make you feel warm and fuzzy?

Fast forward to today and the privacy scandals plaguing Facebook continue to pile up. The Federal Trade Commission once again started investigating Facebook in 2018 when it learned that Cambridge Analytica — a British political consulting firm — had harvested the personal data of 87 million Facebook users without their consent, and used it for political purposes, including the Donald Trump presidential campaign, and the Brexit referendum. Oh, there is more... Business Insider just revealed that Facebook has been scrapping user's email contact lists since 2016; asking for passwords to "verify" their accounts then taking the data without consent. Does any of this really matter if all you want to do is share a link to your new favourite cat video? Maybe. Maybe not.

I know that my level of engagement, my response, and my feelings towards Facebook have changed over time. The changes have been partly caused by what I perceive to be a massive exodus from Facebook in the past few years. Over a third of my "friends" have left the platform or perhaps just stopped posting content. Some may be lurking in the shadows but are no longer visible users. Recent figures released in a study by Infinite Dial show an 8% decline in FB usage in the USA since 2017 — the first drop in engagement since the platform opened to the general public in 2006. From what I've experienced I think that number is low.

So what has caused the decline in engagement? I don't want to overstate the point but the recent flubs in privacy and accountability have created an environment of mistrust around those who operate the platform. If I cannot trust you, then I am not going to play with you.

If you are a FB user, you may have noticed an increase in discord, antagonism and polarization on your feed, fueled by the political climate created by the 2016 presidential election in the U.S. I believe that the proliferation of that toxic atmosphere has contributed to the decline in FB engagement. If it's not Fake News, or pipelines, or immigration, then people are finding other things to argue about. It is tiring. It is unsavory. It is boring. It is the wrong venue to make your point. It is a social network, remember? Here is an example from my feed: "Friend A" posted a meme... Climate Science Basics: 1. It's Warming, 2. It's Us, 3. We're Sure, 4. It's Bad, 5. We can Fix it. "Friend B" responded: Yeah, you're right, it's so greedy of me to want to heat my home in a Canadian winter or maybe cook some food on my gas stove, maybe drive my kids to hospital, or me to work. And damn those fossil fuel companies for contributing billions to our economy through taxes and jobs, so socialists like you can have a free ride! I know, AOC says we only have 12 years left, and she's a credible source, isn't she? 

Well, well, well, how do you think that conversation ended? Hint: The environmentalist did not become a polluter, and the polluter did not become an environmentalist. End of story. That reinforces my belief that socio/political posts on Facebook are annoying, divisive, and a waste of time. Your clever meme, or link to a late-night TV monologue is not going to change anybody's mind on climate change, impeachment, or gun control. Wanna argue?, Be anti-social?, Spew your load? Then head to Twitter, but remember that up to 48 million Twitter accounts are estimated to be fake, so pick your fight carefully.

Privacy and discord issues have certainly contributed to the decline in FB engagement, but we cannot underestimate the impact of Instagram — the photo-sharing social network — which now has one billion registered users worldwide, and has siphoned off many of FB's younger users. Facebook purchased Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion in cash and stocks, and followed that with the purchase of WhatsApp — the popular cross-platform messaging service — in February of 2014, for the basement bargain price of $19.3 billion. Initially, Facebook's Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg promised plenty of autonomy for those newly acquired companies, but recently he has indicated a desire to integrate the three messaging services by 2020; which has the potential to strengthen Facebook's grip on its users amidst antitrust, privacy, and security concerns. Oh boy...

My daughter convinced me to join Instagram at the end of 2015. She had deleted her Facebook account and migrated to the photo-sharing platform. "You are a visual person, a photographer, an artist" she mentioned, "This is right up your alley. There are no links to political crap on the site. I think you'll enjoy it." she continued. I took her advice. I have to admit that I have enjoyed Instagram. It's visual. It's creative. It ranks low on the annoyance meter. I like the fact that the content is user-generated instead of folks posting links to content that they did not create. I'm interested in what YOU have to say, not what Yahoo!, Digg, or Reddit have to say; that's why we are friends. 

My personal Facebook user-manual clearly states that if you did not create the content you posted, then I will ignore it. No "like" fo' you! I learned that from the mistakes I made in my early days on FB. As a newbie, I used to post links to items of interest to me thinking that sharing them was a good thing. It wasn't. Just because I was interested in the sale of David Hockney's "Imogen + Hermaine" at auction in 2010, that did not mean that others would share my enthusiasm. That post was virtually ignored. My link to an NPR article asking for opinions on what is "The Best Opening Track Ever?" sounded interesting to me. I mean, who doesn't have a favorite? That post was totally ignored. So, over time, I decided to restrict my posts to native content — photos or stories that I personally create. No more links to other people's content. I learned, that because you liked a video on How to Sharpen a Chisel, it does not mean that I will. If I wanted to see a video on how to sharpen a chisel then I would Google "how to sharpen a chisel." Consequently, I have adjusted my behavior. I now resist posting a link to "37 Websites Every Photographer Should be Reading", and instead I just send that information directly to my friends who I know have an interest in photography. I just saved you milliseconds of scrolling.  You're welcome.

Your decision to ignore my post on David Hockney, and my choice to dismiss your chisel video, affect the ranking of those posts and influence the social media algorithms that make that content visible to others. To put it simply, algorithms are the math that computers use to decide stuff. The present algorithm being used by Facebook is designed to prioritize content that is generating active conversations such as: lots of  "comments", "likes", and "shares", as well as what Purpose Fuel Blog describes as, "content published by users who have a history of frequent activity and quality engagement across the platform. Users and pages receive points for things like writing long-form comments and posting native content, and lose points for sharing clickbait and asking people to 'like, comment and share'.” That explains why so many of my "friends" seem to have vanished from Facebook; they've become casualties of the algorithm.

Stephanie Kneissl's Stop the Algorithm project displayed at The Photographers Gallery London, aims to disrupt algorithms by using machines that "scroll through social media feeds — liking and following at random — to boycott the algorithmic process of data generation." Her goal is to disrupt the perceptions of what has value, what is relevant, or important, as presented by social media. Stephanie may want to think about disrupting the Pragmatic Chaos algorithm used by Netflix; designed to crawl inside your head and figure out which movie to recommend for you to watch next. Unbelievably, Pragmatic Code determines 60% of the movies watched on the popular streaming service.

If what I see on social media is no longer determined by what my friends and family want me to see, but instead, the content is being curated by lines of code inside an algorithm designed to benefit the platform, while ignoring the human element, then I have to question: Why am I a part of that?  Perhaps, that is the reason why I have renegotiated my relationship with Facebook. Perhaps, that is the reason why Facebook does not feel as genuine as it once did.

It's not all doom and gloom. Facebook may have issues, yet it remains a convenient tool for peeking into the lives of family and friends who matter to you.  It is also a very effective promotional tool. It can bring together classmates for a Grad Reunion, it can provide support to community groups, or amateur sports. One of my daughters promotes her business using the platform, and does so very successfully. I use its far reaching tentacles to promote art exhibits, and this humble blog. FB can also help in times of distress, grave illness, birth, or death; when urgency beckons and speed is vital. Like when an earthquake hits. 

So, I'm conflicted. I feel like a teenager stuck at a family Thanksgiving dinner. I want to leave but I can't. I want to go and hang out with my friends, but instead, I'm stuck at the dinner table listening to uncle Dick bitch about those darn algorithms.

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Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

May 6, 2019

Pretty Things



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French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was an early adopter of 35mm film photography. He is regarded as a pioneer of candid street photography and modern photojournalism, although he straddled a variety of genres throughout his long career. Cartier-Bresson is quoted as saying that "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." I'm starting to think he may have been right. 

I have crossed the 10,000 shot line. I've been a photographer for fifty years so the negatives, prints, and slides have piled up over time, and now digital files have been added to the collection. My educated guess would be that I reached the 10K number around the turn of the century. I recently faced the dreaded, boring task of scanning the boxes and boxes of prints which have been stored out of sight for years. Digitizing photographs is a tedious, repetitive, slow process, that occasionally rewards you with a fond memory or a totally unexpected surprise. The real reward however, is the freedom to dispose of those photos should you choose to do so.

What I learned from that exercise is that for many years I was not a very good photographer. I wasn't totally surprised by that realization. Photography, like any other pursuit, requires practice in order to reach an acceptable level of proficiency. The photos I produced during my formative years consisted of banal street photography, mediocre portraits, meaningless landscapes, and average nudes. The positive side of the equation is that I spent countless hours in the darkroom where I learned to develop and print black and white photographs. That experience led to some successful experimentation, and also laid a solid foundation of understanding of the basic principles of photography. There is no better place to learn about exposure than in the darkroom.

Leaving the city and the darkroom behind forced me into shooting color film and slides for a few years. The change of environment — from gritty urban streets to the wild coastal forests of Vancouver Island — meant that I was seduced into photographing pretty things: pretty beaches, pretty whales, pretty trees, pretty eagles, pretty sunsets. The problem I discovered was that pretty things are just that: pretty things. They demand nothing of the viewer. It becomes a one-sided conversation,  so consequently they tend to get boring very quickly. A photo of an eagle on a tree, regardless of the flawless composition, the rich colours, and superb sharpness, will always be just that: a photo of an eagle on a tree. The photographic equivalent of a Robert Bateman painting: exquisitely executed and excruciatingly boring. 

In 1971 the American conceptual artist John Baldessari made a famous announcement: "I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art." Just a year earlier John had made the unorthodox decision to cremate every painting he had made between 1953 and 1966. After he had burnt all of his early works, and placed the ashes in an urn shaped like a book, John began painting text on canvas and he called it ART. He also took photographs with intentional bad composition and he called them WRONG. In a 2010 interview by Calvin Tomkins — for The New Yorker magazine — Baldessari talks about his work of the late sixties and discloses that "So much of my thinking at that time was trying to figure out just what I thought art was." That is an interesting question for someone who taught art for three decades: in schools, colleges and universities. That thought is reflected in his painting titled "What This Painting Aims To Do, 1967", which I have appropriated and replaced the word "painting" with the word "photograph". It looks like this: 


I only became aware of John Baldessari about a year ago. It was through a fantastic six-minute video titled "A brief History of John Baldessari" narrated by musician Tom Waits. I was a bit surprised that he had fallen through the cracks of my awareness, as he is such a monumental (literally) and influential figure in the art world. I am somewhat glad that I came late to the party. On one hand, by the time I started to investigate his collection, Baldessari had silenced his early critics who persistently tried to dismiss him as a one-dimensional artist. On the other hand, I missed the opportunity to see his retrospective exhibition "Pure Beauty" at the MET in 2010.

My Baldessari moment — as it relates to the ideas expressed in "What This Painting Aims To Do, 1967" — happened around 1980; roughly a dozen years after I started my life as a photographer. I got bored with pretty things as I realized that my photographs lacked impact. They were too ordinary. I started to bend the rules and invent imagery. I freed myself from conventional thinking and got started on my way towards being a creative artist. I felt super-charged, energized, free. The years that followed were some of the most productive and creative times of my life. I gave myself permission to color outside the lines, and I loved what it did. I started making photographs to please myself, and no one else. No compromise.

I have learned that there is no guarantee that someone will like the art you make, so you might as well create things that you enjoy. Just because I find Robert Bateman's wildlife paintings kitschy and boring it does not mean others agree. The man has sold over a million prints of his work over his career. That makes him one of the most commercially successful painters in Canada, yet you will not find any of his paintings in any of the county's major public galleries. The Art Gallery of Ontario "would not touch me with a ten foot pole" Bateman quipped. That reinforces my belief that taste is subjective, shunned by some, loved by others.

Popularity is not necessarily the best indicator of quality, and if it were, can you guess which restaurant would be considered the best in the world? You got it, the one with the clown. By the same token, the best photographs in the world would be: sunsets, baby animals or decorated coffee foam. Spend any time on social media and you'll see what I mean. So, who gets to decide what is a good photograph? In my estimation I would say that... you do. If an image of a sunset speaks to you, and makes you stop and look again, so you are moved by its beauty, and you perceive it as an effective execution of a good idea, then you have elevated that photo to a place of distinction in your mind. To you, it becomes a good photo, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

In a parallel way, the process that I go through while creating an image is not that different from what a viewer may experience when looking at a photograph. I strive for a dialogue, for sufficient intrigue to make me look again, and I certainly aim for an effective execution of the idea. My photographic trek has been long and fruitful: from beginner, to amateur, to enthusiast, to semi-pro, to professional, to starving artist. From the thousands of images I've shot — a few have have found their place on walls — whether it's in private homes or commercial galleries, which always surprises me a bit, as I've remained true to myself and very selfishly I only make photographs that please me. I do what I do regardless of its commercial value, regardless of expectations, and regardless of fashionable trends. I strive to not censor myself in content or expression.

Perhaps Henri Cartier-Bresson was right, once again, when he said that "It is an illusion that photos are made with a camera... they are made with the eye, heart and head." So I guess the advice from the Master would be: look, think, and follow your heart. So... if you enjoy photographing pretty things, fill your boots.

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Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Apr 1, 2019

Paint Chips


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I found myself standing inside the paint department of a home improvement mega store. It was not by choice, it was by necessity. The clerk greeted me and asked if she could help me. She was a tall blonde woman with an eighties hairstyle. I was distracted by the anachronism because you just don't see big hair like that anymore. I handed her the paint chip and she asked me "Do you have a note?" "A note... What do you mean?" I asked. "A note from your wife. We don't sell paint to unaccompanied men unless they can prove that the color has been approved by their partner," she responded. I was still mesmerized by her hair therefore I failed to notice her tongue firmly planted in her cheek. I finally caught a glimpse of her smile and got the joke. She shook her head, making her hair quiver, and she then retreated to fill my order.

I needed the paint to finish repainting the living room of our new house. Larry, the previous owner, had painted the entire house dark grey with "Barbie Dream Camper" pink trim. How do I know what Barbie Dream Camper pink looks like, you ask? I bought one of those precious toys once, under extreme pressure and against my will. I will blame Santa - he made me do it!

The pink trim around the doors and baseboards of the house looked hideous. The grey walls made the place look dark and dingy. I suspect that Larry did not "choose" those colors, but instead he got the paint from the "rejected color match" shelf; you know the one, where improperly mixed paint ends up, at a discount. He was not a big spender. I learned that very quickly after moving into the old house.

Our Westcoast climate does not encourage the use of grey for interior walls - we get plenty of those tones from the sky. It's a pity because I like grey — as you can tell by looking at this blog. However, when sunlight is at a premium, it is not the wisest interior wall colour choice. So we chose what everyone else in this part of the world seems to choose: we painted the walls white. The white paint gave our home a brighter look, so we enjoyed the extra light for a while. Soon however, we noticed that the white walls and oak flooring made the rooms look as antiseptic as a GAP store. It was time to bring color back into our lives. No Barbie pink however. We also resisted the colour that the women's section of the British newspaper The Telegraph referred to as "Speculum, a wince-inducing grey by Dulux." I find that paint name perplexing - was "Dental Extractor" already taken?

Choosing paint colours is second on the list of Life's Most Difficult Tasks, right below naming your child. Every one will have an opinion, usually substantially different from your own. So if your home has white walls, and you like them, my opinion, or anyone else's for that matter, means nothing. I have always liked the name Abigail, so if I have another daughter or get to name a paint colour, "Abigail...Abigail Yellow" would sound good to me. By the way, I have never met a person named Abigail, therefore I'm sure it does not make the list of Most Popular Baby Names. Oops, I was wrong! I just checked and it is #17 on the list, up from #157 in 1981 when my daughter was born. I was ahead of the curve, as it looks like the name is trending upwards. Even though Abigail means "a father's joy" — talk about a lovely coincidence — my name suggestion was rejected by my partner. I once suggested that we paint our living room "Photo Gray", a grey-green colour part of the Dulux Perfect Palette Collection, but I was also rejected. In my opinion, it had the perfect paint name AND "it pairs with off-white and contemporary furnishings of metals and glass finishes" the description claimed. It sounded like supercilious wine-tasting notes, but the colour was lovely.

My partner is an artist. She can generate a million colors from three tubes of oil paint. Her bright and colorful canvases can make a paint colour sample brochure seem dull. Yet when it comes to home decor she prefers gentle neutral tones. After seemingly endless consideration — to the point where it was difficult to discern the greenish-brown from the brownish-green — we agreed on a choice of colour for the living room walls. It was a mixture of sand and algae tones, so I named it "Secluded Beach." By the time the paint had dried, the colour was much different than the paint chip, and much darker than we thought. It had morphed into "Secluded Beach at Dusk." We put up with it for a few years.

With the living room completed, we moved onto the dinning room and kitchen area. We were seduced by a line of paint created by American designer Ralph Lauren. What made his paints different — other than the inflated cost — was their texture. Once applied, the surface looked and felt as though tiny grains of colored sand had been mixed with the paint, giving a sense of depth to the colour. The shade named "Writer's Parchment" was lovely to look at, but a nightmare to apply evenly due to the texture. By the time the paint had dried, the colour was much different than the paint chip, and much darker than we thought. "Writer's Parchment" had morphed into "Cardboard Box." We put up with it for a few years. 

Why am I sharing this? Well, we are about to move our bedroom to where our home office is currently located. The last time the office was painted was when it was our daughter's bedroom. She painted it "Undercooked  Yolk", a rich shade of yellow. We've put up with it for a few years; well, more than a decade really. Now we are about to face the hellish task of choosing another paint colour. It is going to be more difficult than ever because according to Joa Strudholme: "today's most stylish homeowners... are embracing brighter, warmer colours." By the way, Joa is the colour curator for the high-end British paint company Farrow & Ball. (Think pretentious, overpriced, over-hyped, status symbol, home improvement product). And that's not all; to make our choice a total nightmare, Elle Decor magazine has just announced on its cover "Bye, bye, Beige! COLOR IS THE ANSWER."

If colour is the answer then a peek at a Farrow & Ball paint store could make our task somewhat simpler. F&B specializes in rich, deep hues - just what the decorator ordered. The best part of this paint company is that they only make 132 colours. That is not a typo. Choosing amongst 132 hues is a lot easier and faster than browsing through the over 1,700 colors that Dulux offers. I can see why F&B paint costs three times more than Dulux - it should only take five minutes to choose ONE color out of 132, so you would save hours of precious time, and time is money some people say. If you decide that you want to paint your bathroom pink you have four choices: Pink Ground is warmer than Calamine, Middleton Pink is lighter than all of the others, and Nancy's Blushes is the darkest. Take your pick. Done? Congratulations! Would you like a roller with that?

I am starting to think that if we want to rub elbows with "today's most stylish homeowners", who as you now know, "are embracing brighter, warmer colours", we could just leave the walls "Undercooked Yolk" yellow. It looks like our daughter was ahead of the curve when she chose such a lovely uplifting colour. I'm dreaming, of course. By the time we rearrange the furniture and change the art work, the walls will show the holes, bumps and scratches of the past decade, and they will need some TLC. So I have a plan...

I am going to suggest to my partner that we go with F&B's Ball Green: "It is an old distemper colour with a more sober, established feel than..." Farrow!, Ball!, STOP IT! Nobody wants to listen to your pompous drivel. Actually F&B's Ball Green looks identical to Photo Gray from the Dulux Perfect Palette Collection, so there is a small chance that this time my colour choice may not get rejected. The shift away from neutrals will continue this year, according to F&B, who have just released two new must-have colours for 2019, "as we embrace rich and dramatic hues to cocoon us from a troubling world." All I can say about that is obviously Farrow & Ball must have their knickers in a knot over Brexit.

So, who knows what our bedroom walls will look like in the end. My partner will ignore the trends and choose a gentle neutral tone, because that's who she is. In the meantime I will have fun making up paint names: "Blonde Frizz" is a nice yellow. "Defibrillator" is a light blue. "Gravy Stain" is kind of neutral.

I have never been much of an entrepreneur - it is not in my DNA. However, based on what I've learned from researching this story, I am beginning to get inspired to start my own paint company, targeting the Westcoast market. It will offer only white paint, in 42 different shades, such as: Miami Loafers, Dandruff, Lactose Intolerance, Writer's Block, Double Double, Surrender, Bechamel, Cuticle, Home Team Jersey, Polar Vortex, and Casper. The brand will require a double-barrel name to compete with Farrow & Ball, so I think I'll go with Norfolk and Way.

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Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Rainbow photo: Z.Nguyen

Dining room photo: Z.Nguyen

Mar 1, 2019

Stage right


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The lights came on slowly, allowing the eyes to adjust from darkness to the brightly lighted set: the bachelor apartment of the neurotic, recently-divorced writer Allan Felix. I am alone on the stage. I have acted that scene dozens of times, but at that particular moment my mind is completely blank. I cannot remember what my line is. I make my way to the back of the stage, towards a low credenza, and begin to open drawers as if I'm looking for something. What I'm really looking for is help. Maybe somebody is standing in the wings holding a script and can give me a clue. There is no one. Panic is setting in. Then, from an elevated dark cubicle I hear Humphrey Bogart say "Why don't you get some candles?". Although that was not a line in the play, it was the hint I needed. From there on, everything was smooth like a lake.

The 1972 film Play it Again Sam was written by, and starred Woody Allen. It was based on a Broadway play of the same name, which our local community theater group (PHADS) decided would be fun to produce. What made the production not just fun, but incredibly challenging, was that the main character identified himself with the movie Casablanca and more specifically Humphrey Bogart, therefore the play was dotted with clips from the movie and ghost-like appearances by Bogart himself.

The Casablanca scenes were filmed by my friend Michael who used a video camera the size of a case of beer, and recorded the scenes onto half-inch reel-to-reel videotape. State of the art equipment in 1980. The edited scenes were then shown on the television set inside Allan's apartment, with the stage lights dimmed and the actors frozen in time. It was a very effective technique that required precision timing both from the technical and performance sides of the crew. I am no Woody Allen but I loved playing his role in that production, and I consider it the high water mark of my involvement in community theater. It was so much fun. I recently had a peek at a souvenir copy of the program for that production and was shocked to learn that half of the cast in that play are still some of my dearest closest friends, even though almost forty years have elapsed since then.

The beauty of community theater, especially in a small town, is that it draws on the talent that exists within the community. There is always something you can contribute to a production should you choose to get involved. No need to be an actor or director. There are sets to design and build, costumes to sew, programs to layout, lights to set-up, music to edit, make-up to apply, tickets to collect, and someone has to run the bar on performance nights. It was that inclusive, communal feeling, that kept me involved in theater for over a decade.

My introduction to acting came via a co-worker. Vivien and I worked together in a Special Education class at an elementary school on Vancouver Island. She was the teacher and I was her assistant. Vivien is a smart, energetic woman with a delightful British accent. We spent 35 hours a week working together in the same room, so we became good friends. One day she approached me with a proposal. She asked me if I'd be interested in taking the role of Guildenstern in a play she was directing. "Who?" I asked. "Guildenstern" she repeated. "Larry has already agreed to play Rosencrantz". "Who?" "Rosencrantz, you know... from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the comedy by Tom Stoppard." I was unfamiliar with the play, so I declined with thanks. Vivien would not accept my rejection. She said that I'd be perfect for the role. I had the right energy, the right look, I would enjoy working with Larry, and it would be great fun. "Take the script home for the weekend, read it, think about it, and then we'll talk next week". She gently nudged the script towards me and left the room.


Ros and Guil turned out to be a classical existentialist comedy/drama in which two rather minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet become the main actors. The verbal gymnastics of Stoppard's writing coupled with the absurdist nature of the events, made me think that I was NOT the right person for the role. A Shakespearean character with a slight Spanish accent? It would be like Cheech and Chong playing Macbeth. I told Vivien that I did not think I'd be suited for the role. Vivien responded like a pitbull, she would not let go. She insisted, she pleaded, and then, like Vito Corleone in The Godfather she made me an offer I could not refuse: "Play the role and you can design the set." Tapping into my artistic tendencies did the trick, and I reluctantly agreed to help her and take the role.

I enjoyed designing the set and seeing it come to life under the theater lights, but I internally struggled with my role as an actor. I felt that I never "became" Guilderstern. I delivered the lines and tried to infused them with energy and passion but ultimately I felt that I had failed. I had been right all along, I was NOT the right person for that role. I lacked the skill and experience to pull it off. However, it could not have been as bad as I thought because a couple of years later —after I had gained some experience on stage —  Vivien directed Play it Again Sam, and once again she offered me the principal role. The two of us collaborated in designing the set.

PHADS produced two or three plays each year, which often included well-known crowd-pleasers such as the hilarious, farcical, black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace or the clever play-within-a-play thriller Deathtrap. Those productions were well received by the community and consistently sold out, yet PHADS would at times take creative risks by offering lesser known plays or efforts from home-grown talent. At the top of that list was the dark comedy Second Time Around written and performed by my friend Don. Quite the accomplishment for a local, first-time playwright. If I remember correctly however, as the production deadline loomed, he had to sequester himself in an out-of-town hotel room for a few days to polish the final edits in the script. He made the deadline, and the play opened as scheduled.

When my friend Chris decided to produce The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (HG2G) he had finished the final edits to the original script. His main problem was: how to create the sets needed to represent the multitude of environments involved in this intergalactic travel adventure; on a relatively small stage. HG2G is a science fiction/comedy series written by British author Douglas Adams. It has been produced as a radio series, a novel, a play, a television series, a computer game and a film. It follows the adventures of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect who are the last survivors after the Earth is destroyed by a Vogon construction fleet. They are rescued, and proceed to explore the galaxy by hitchhiking aboard a Vogon spacecraft. So, the production would need eight different sets, from the inside of a spaceship to The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. They would be virtually impossible to create considering their complexity and the resources required. Too big a bite for a small theater group. Chris devised a brilliant alternate plan.

The set to HG2G consisted of two six-feet (1.8m) tall Rubik's cubes set in a black stage. The cubes were constructed in sections — a total of nine 6X2 feet plywood rectangular boxes stacked three high constituted one Rubik's cube. The square color stickers that define the popular toy were painted on the wood. At the end of each scene, designated cast members would deconstruct the cubes and reconfigure them into whatever the next scene required. Need a spaceship?, No problem we can build that! A restaurant you say? Coming up!. The rearrangement of the boxes was done in the dark, and believe me, those plywood sections were not light. I played the role of Zaphod Beeblebrox —the President of the Galaxy— in the production, and even though I was in full costume and not the strongest member of the cast, I was scheduled to set-up a number of scenes. We had to rehearse the set changes as much as the play itself in order to gain speed and accuracy, without bumping into each other or dropping one of the boxes. Chris displayed great creativity and imagination in making HG2G a tremendous success. The idea that we had an intelligent audience who could transpose a group of plywood boxes into a spaceship or whatever else, made the production possible. I was impressed.    

I worked with many directors over the years and they were kind to me even though I always struggled to learn my lines. As time went on I started to opt for supporting roles which gave me the opportunity to play some fun characters without the pressure of learning endless streams of dialogue. Herb, the abstruse father in Summertree was a man of few words. Dr.Einstein, the alcoholic plastic surgeon in Arsenic and Old Lace said little, and the lawyer in Deathtrap appeared in a single scene. Not too many lines there. Woodstock, the little bird in You are a Good Man Charlie Brown had no lines at all. The role was mimed. I loved it.

Over the years PHADS gave me many opportunities to contribute off the stage. My friend Don asked me if I would direct him in Samuel Beckett's one-act play Krapp's Last Tape. As directorial debuts go, Don didn't need a lot of directing, he could pretty much fly solo through that complex comedic drama. If I left a mark at all in that production, it was in the set design, which was unique in the sense that everything on the stage was painted grey: walls, windows, furniture, lamps, nick-nacks, clothing, everything. It focused the attention on the sad old man's face as he listened to himself through tape recordings he'd made since his youth. As a one-off experience I think directing was worthwhile, but it did not leave me wanting to do it again. I loved contributing as Lighting Director however, and I often volunteered for that task. I think it tapped into my interest in photography. The concept of painting with light. I enjoyed sitting in the darkened control room adjusting the sliders and switches of the lighting panel: emphasizing a particular part of the stage, or influencing a mood by subtlety controlling light.

All good things come to an end, so when I left the Island community I also left my theater life behind. Many people have asked me why I did not continue to be involved in theater after my relocation. The reason was simple, for almost twenty years my work schedule conflicted with the times when community theater groups usually gather: evenings and weekends. The city allowed me to shift perspective: instead of producing theater, I converted to a consumer. I became a season ticket holder and frequent supporter of professional theater groups. My affinity for live theater did not disappear.

Nowadays as a retired citizen I have been able to return to theater as a volunteer set builder. My friend Karl, who introduced me to theater while in high school some fifty years ago, invited me to join him to help build sets for the Vagabond Theater group in New Westminster. We helped build the set for Bye Bye Birdie while in Grade 12, so here we go again, still crazy after all these years. I hope that I can continue to volunteer in the future because working with friends on a community theater project still brings me joy.

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Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
Original newspaper photo 1: Bruce Winfield
Original newspaper photo 2: Gretchen Harlow
Second Time Around: Nancy Standerwick
Zaphod Beeblebrox: Brenda Wilson
Lawyer: Michael Agrios
Stage crew: Warren Johnson

Feb 6, 2019

American dream

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There was a time in my life when I thought that the United States of America was The Best Country in the World. The criteria I used to arrive at that conclusion had nothing to do with gross domestic product, immigration policy, health care, or human rights issues. I was just a kid, not quite a teenager yet. I lived 9,000 kilometers south of sunny California. My opinion had been shaped by glossy magazines and Hollywood movies, which offered a curated portrait of America. Kids had bigger and better toys, everyone had a car and a television set, people seemed glamorous, and their bright modern homes had a yard. Often two: front and back!

I was an urban child. My childhood homes were spacious European-style apartments in big cities, and they never had a yard. From the time I started grade school until I left Chile at the age of sixteen, my world consisted of one city block. It was located in the bustling Providencia Avenue, which connects the downtown core with the upscale suburbs north-east of the city. Our top floor apartment, in a three-story building, was located on the same block as our family restaurant, which was directly across the street from my school. That compact microcosm was enhanced by a movie theater around the corner from our apartment, conveniently located next to an ice cream parlour. A pinball arcade, a deli, and a combination toy/book store were all situated just steps away from where I lived. Pretty much anything a kid may want was right there. No need to venture far.

The icing on the cake was that my cousin Richard, who was the same age as me, lived one floor below me in the same building. Our apartments were identical. We were inseparable — we went to school together and played together. Most of the time we would shoot hoops or play one-on-one soccer in a gated, tiled courtyard across the street from our homes; until one of our parents would call our names from one of the balconies. It was a safe, eclectic, lively city block. I liked my neighborhood. As I grew older my boundaries expanded. I would walk three blocks up the avenue to the local bakery to buy the daily bread. When Richard got his first bicycle we would ride down the avenue to a nearby park which was the closest green space to our homes. It was the best place to fly kites, so street vendors would often set up shop at the entrance to the park. The expansive lawns and water features were a welcome reprieve from the hard surfaces of concrete, tile and stone.

My sister Maria Angelica was the first person from my nuclear family to have a house with a yard. It was located in Vitacura, a fashionable suburb located a half-hour bus ride from my home. When I became old enough to take public transit I would often go to visit her, hang out with her daughters, and enjoy her suburban lifestyle. Her yard wasn't huge but it had plenty of color, including a lemon tree that offered an endless supply of the tangy fruit. The most remarkable aspect of that space was the silence. There was no traffic noise - you could even hear birds chirping. The three-block walk from where the bus dropped me off, to my sister's front door, was a meditative experience. With each step the environmental noise was reduced, as if the volume knob on a radio was slowly being turned to the off position. The homes I passed by were mostly hidden behind mature hedges or tall walls. Wrought-iron gates allowed entrance to the affluent properties. Traces of manicured, established gardens, could be seen through peepholes in the shrubbery or gates. The tree-lined streets provided shade and the sound of leaves rustling in the breeze. I liked the feeling of the suburbs, perhaps just simply because it was different from what I was used to.

My awareness of suburban life was influenced by two unconnected experiences. I recall seeing a couple of news reels at a movie theater which showed the accelerated growth of suburban neighbourhoods in the United States following World War II. The demand for affordable homes for returning veterans, coupled with the subsequent Baby Boom, had given birth to massive housing developments away from city centers. The aspect of suburbia that intrigued me the most was the social and cultural references to "The American Dream". The dream consisted of an individualized, single-family-home, with 2.3 kids and a two-car garage which seemed to symbolize "The Good Life". The homes were located in neighbourhoods that were purely residential, middle-class, spacious, clean, safe, stable and green.

That American ideal was reinforced by a color advertisement I saw inside the back cover of a magazine. The image remains crystal clear. It depicted a station wagon parked in the upwardly sloping driveway of a suburban bungalow. A man, presumably the father, is seen walking towards the home holding a briefcase. Two children are running on the massive front lawn to greet him. Their outstretched arms and smiles show delight. A woman, presumably the mother, stands at the entrance of the house. She is elegantly dressed but wearing an apron, suggesting that dinner is being prepared. Although it was only a rendering, it touched me in a strange way. The scene — although slightly different from the photo you see here — evoked a similar warm feeling: the security of a stable, affluent, happy family life surrounded by the modern comforts of the times. I was seduced into wanting that life. I imagined that all of that was easily available, to anyone, in the United States of America, The Best Country in the World.

As the 50s turned into the 60s the case for the USA being top dog was further reinforced in 1961 by the election of President John F. Kennedy. His youthful persona, his boyish good looks and his glamorous wife made the frumpy and cranky old men of Chilean politics seem out of step with modern times. Looking at photographs of the Kennedy family sailing on their yacht Manitou convinced me that I lived in a completely different world.

I was walking home from school the day Kennedy was killed. I was listening to my transistor radio when the news was announced. I was so distraught that I walked into a tree and began bleeding from a tear in my right ear. The tragic end of such vibrant life was almost incomprehensible to me at the time. It saddened me. It also tainted the image of a country that I had mentally elevated to a place of distinction.

Things have changed. I have now lived for fifty years just north of the United States border. I have gotten to know my southern neighbours a little bit better. I have traversed the country from Washington to Florida. I've visited some of its great cities. I have family and friends who live there. My opinion of America is no longer shaped by Hollywood or by glossy magazines. I now consider the racial intolerance, the endless violence, the polarized political climate, the inept health care system, the crushing personal debt, the climate change denial, they all  lead me to question: what happened to The American Dream?

From what I've learned, I can tell you that I no longer see the Divided States of America as the best country in the world. Far from it. It doesn't help that the current president lacks the integrity, charisma and intelligence of past leaders such as John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama. "American Presidents used to set the agenda at the United Nations General Assembly" — The Washing Post reported — "Now Trump gets laughed at".  Ouch! That can't be good.

Now I am not going to kick a country while it is down. The United States is resilient; after all, it recovered from the dreadful George W. Bush presidency. So, will America be great again? Perhaps. However, as Matt Berninger wrote "Don’t waste your life wishing everything was how it was," The New American Dream will need reshaping. Maybe it will include a smaller house, but more energy efficient. The station wagon may be replaced by an electric sedan. The daily commute may give way to telecommuting. Children won't be gunned down in schools. Families will receive affordable health care and seniors will be able to retire comfortably. University grads won't be crushed by student debt. Renewable energy will be the norm. Immigrants will feel welcomed. Taxation will be fair and equitable. Those who want it, will have a yard, even a lawn, as long as it is small, drought-resistant and free of chemicals. Far fetched? Not really. You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. The next generation of voters differs vastly from the  current Powers That Be in every conceivable important issue: climate change, immigration, health care, gender equality, racial imbalance, sexual identity, economic inequality, and presidential disapproval. So...change is coming.

I was 32 years old when I first owned a suburban house with a yard. In a way it symbolized attaining my childhood American Dream, only in Canada. 35 years have passed since that first home. Today I sat on our deck cooling off after trimming some ornamental grasses and a tall Juniper tree in our front yard. I sat motionless, bathed in the late summer sunshine, staring at the river and watching the neighbourhood below me. I saw the latchkey kid across the street return home from school. A pair of young friends walked by playing with their puppy. An elderly couple shuffled back home from their afternoon walk. I chatted with a neighbour. A couple of cars drove by. I felt at peace, perched on the hill, in the best country in the world.

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Photo credits: All photos by the author unless otherwise noted. 

Ford ad:  Shown in fair use context. Image is © by the original company or artist.

Cousins: Lanta Meng