Sunday, October 23, 2011

What Auggie Wren Wrought...


"For a long time, I didn't give much thought to Auggie Wren. He was the strange little man who wore a hooded blue sweatshirt and sold me cigars and magazines, the impish, wisecracking character who always had something funny to say about the weather, the Mets or the politicians in Washington, and that was the extent of it.

But then one day several years ago he happened to be looking through a magazine in the store, and he stumbled across a review of one of my books. He knew it was me because a photograph accompanied the review, and after that things changed between us. I was no longer just another customer to Auggie, I had become a distinguished person. Most people couldn't care less about books and writers, but it turned out that Auggie considered himself an artist. Now that he had cracked the secret of who I was, he embraced me as an ally, a confidant, a brother-in-arms. To tell the truth, I found it rather embarrassing. Then, almost inevitably, a moment came when he asked if I would be willing to look at his photographs. Given his enthusiasm and goodwill, there didn't seem any way I could turn him down.

God knows what I was expecting. At the very least, it wasn't what Auggie showed me the next day. In a small, windowless room at the back of the store, he opened a cardboard box and pulled out twelve identical photo albums. This was his life's work, he said, and it didn't take him more than five minutes a day to do it. Every morning for the past twelve years, he had stood on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Clinton Street at precisely seven o'clock and had taken a single color photograph of precisely the same view. The project now ran to more than four thousand photographs. Each album represented a different year, and all the pictures were laid out in sequence, from January 1 to December 31, with the dates carefully recorded under each one....

....Once I got to know the (people in the pictures), I began to study their postures, the way they carried themselves from one morning to the next, trying to discover their moods from these surface indications, as if I could imagine stories for them, as if I could penetrate the invisible dramas locked inside their bodies. I picked up another album. I was no longer bored, no longer puzzled as I had been at first. Auggie was photographing time, I realized, both natural time and human time, and he was doing it by planting himself in one tiny corner of the world and willing it to be his own, by standing guard in the space he had chosen for himself. As he watched me pore over his work, Auggie continued to smile with pleasure. Then, almost as if he'd been reading my thoughts, he began to recite a line from Shakespeare. "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow," he muttered under his breath, "time creeps on its petty pace." I understood then that he knew exactly what he was doing..."

A few years ago, we were over in Victoria for the Christmas season....

Which is the norm for us given that both C. and my parents, as well as a big whack of both our families, still live there.

In fact, we quite often go over on Christmas Day, wrapping presents with all the other folks on the Ferry who have also missed the Christmas Eve crowds on purpose, and then stay for the next few days.

The particular year in question I decided I'd like to get a new camera during the post-Christmas sales* madness.

Not a good camera, but instead a crappy camera.

Because I actually like 'em crappy for reasons I will try my best to explain below.


When I was a post-doc a long time ago I got a little Ricoh box with a fixed focus and not much else.

This was the year before our oldest kid was born.

It was also the time when we were switching over to digital imaging on the 'scopes in the lab (back when one laser scanning confocal image filled an entire box full of 3.5 inch floppy disks).


Because of the switch, the lab darkroom, not to mention rolls and rolls and rolls of suddenly superfluous high contrast B&W film, was pretty much always free.

Which meant that I could go in there and develop stuff taken on the Ricoh whenever I wanted.


I pointed and shot a whole bunch of pictures on the Ricoh, often without looking, on real film, taken on quick weekend trips around Northern California that I dragged C. to so that we could both sight-see and watch Single A baseball games at the drop of a hat.

Two of my favourite places to watch a game were the tiny ballpark in Visalia and Salinas.

A visit to Salinas was particularly enjoyable for at least two reasons...First, Salinas was then, and still is, deep within Steinbeck country...And, second, the 1992 Salinas Spurs may have been the worst professional baseball team of all time for all kinds of reasons, not least of which was the fact that they were actually some sort of weird, quasi-independent outfit that brought unsigned kids over from the Far-East in an attempt to showcase them before they tried to sell them off to real big league-backed organizations. As such, the rest of the Salinas roster was filled out by North American scrubs that nobody else wanted and guys on the way, way downward side of former phenom-hood that were barely hanging on.

In the summer of 1992, which was also the summer I started working feverishly on a project in the lab about how biophysical and biochemical signals downstream of extracellular matrix-binding cell adhesion molecules regulate mammary epithelial cell differentiation**, I ended up writing a fictional account of how one of the real-life Spurs, a pitcher named Dave Trautwein who had topped out at Triple-A in the Mets organization, may have celebrated after one last outing where he actually pitched pretty well on pure guile and a constantly-changing arm angle that he then employed given that, clearly, his best stuff was long, long gone.


Back then I didn't write in pixels.

Instead, I sent stuff to my editor up in Vancouver, by mojo-wire.

He then published it on real dead-tree paper for the folks high up in the Bleachers of Nat Bailey Stadium to read (and/or to wipe their fingers on when they got too much mustard on them from their hot dogs).

Weirdly, my editor has been showing up here a little recently, blowing my mind once again with his staccato narratives that evoke non-statistical stories for the ages about all that might be baseball, or not, that no Canadian has any business knowing whatsoever.

All of which is just my way of letting you know that I am sucker for any story that is both hard-headed and life affirming but, at its core, has nothing whatsoever to do with either statistics or syrup.

Which is why I, perhaps, I like cheap cameras that put slightly fuzzy, ambiguous edges on hard little nuggets of reality and why Paul Auster's Christmas Story is by far and away my most favourite one ever.



Getting back to that Christmas in Victoria a few short years ago....

I managed to get myself a crappy digital camera from one of those surplus stores that are now ubiquitous.

A little Samsung that has so many quirks and bizarre functions that the fine folks from Excess Cargo should have paid me 30 bucks to take it off their hands rather than the other way around.

Which is neither here nor there, because I made the darned thing work. And in the intervening years I almost always had it at the ready to whip-out of my bag whenever C. or our two E.'s had camera trouble.

And this fall, I've been whipping it out both around the house and around town every single day.

Because since our oldest kid, Bigger E., left town for college earlier this fall I've been making a little like Auggie Wren so that I can send her a picture-a-day with a short narrative attached.

And I got all the way up to Image #50 last weekend when, suddenly, somewhere between home and Iona Point, I lost the Samsung.


After a few days of frantic searching in which I used old pictures to fill the gap temporarily, I finally gave up and did the only thing I could.

Which was to ask our other kid, Littler e., to whip out her camera, a camera not bought at a surplus store, so I could take Image #52 which is the one at the top of this post.

Image #52 shows the fall colours outside our front window. As you can see by the flashback bouncing back from the glass, I clearly do not yet know how to work this fancy box.


If you click this link you can hear the greatest Christmas Story ever read by Mr. Auster himself...Alternatively, you can listen to and watch the lyrical version, brought to you by Tom Waits, Wayne Wang and Mr. Auster, here.
*When I was a kid my Dad once said that we should just wait a few days and have Christmas on, say, the 28th so that we could save a bundle....I'm pretty sure he was only half joking.
**Which is the kind of stuff I'm still working on almost 20 years later.
And just in case anybody thinks that time is not timeless for everyone....Well, you shouldn't even begin to bother with......This.



Rev.Paperboy said...

One of my favorite stories from one of my favorite writers. And possibly the best thing Harvey Keitel has ever done on screen, and certainly the best use of a Tom Waits song in film. Love that movie.

Danneau said...

Damn, I like this stuff, from the qualifier "crappy" to "biophysical and biochemical signals downstream of extracellular matrix-binding cell adhesion molecules regulate mammary epithelial cell differentiation" and all in between and around about. Along with Paul Auster and Tom Waits. And all the serous stuff. Thanks.

Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

I hate it when people go getting me feeling good about being a Canadian, when I have no good reason, every good reason, for doing so. That's baseball.

RossK said...

There once was a time when I went chasing hits 'round here.

But now I do not give a hoot in hell, fresh or otherwise, about such things.


Because I have learned that comments like the three above this one on this thread mean way more than any number of hits, or links, or re-posts, or whatever, ever could.



Rusty M said...

and here i thought this victoria-christmas yard was gonna be about the time you got suckered into spending two days shovelling your mom's neighbour's sloped driveway ...

Rusty M said...

and then when i realized it wasnt, i thought you might dive into the irony behind the salinas spurs ... and independent team composed mostly of players recruited from leagues in japan and the irony part is that the salinas ball park was built on the former site of a WWII japanese interment camp ... or maybe about how the spurs players were expected to wash their own uniforms and not being able to speak anglais, they emptied a bottle of draino into the washer instead of fabric softener, and the rinse cycle reduced all their uniforms to tattered rags ...

RossK said...

Jeebuz Felix!

Stop buggin' me, or I will tell these fine folks about Chocolate Roy and The Anti-Driving Conspiracy...And just so you know, my wife just found my camera...I had stuck it up on the shelf behind the washing machine adjacent to the subterranean blues room in the basement for some unfathomable reason.

(And ya, I remember the drano, but didn't know about the internment camp - you sure you're not just making that one up?...You may or may not know about a couple of fine promotions they used to run in Salinas - one was the 'best seat in the house', where the winner got to sit in a lazyboy recliner directly behind home plate...the other was a bit of an old saw, but I saw it there first - it's where two lucky number winners got a player each to throw baseballs at an old wrecker from a 100 ft or so way- if they popped a headlight the winner won something like a year long supply of KFC)

Rev.Paperboy said...

and if they missed they got a two year supply, amirite?

RossK said...




Rusty M said...

dont even get me started about the Nat Bailey Stadium Midnight Tennisball-Baseball League ... not to mention 'the ghost'

RossK said...

...the ghost is never, ever far away.

Especially when there are always fungos to be hit in the desert.

As for the Cronument....



North Van's Grumps said...

A new quest for me RossK. The photograph of "your front street" lined with a particular type of trees.

Don't laugh! There's a book on this at City Hall.

Fifty years ago there was this BC Land Surveyor, Alan Tolliday, who worked for Vancouver City, and he told me of these two books that became his bible:

"The Vancouver Town Planning Commission was established by Vancouver City Council February 1, 1926 with the authority to prepare and maintain a town plan, including harbour, railway, rapid-transit, and street-railway plans, and to carry out the land use designations and regulations called for in the plan."

"The first comprehensive town plan was prepared for the Commission by Harland Bartholomew and Associates in 1928 and revised in 1929 to include the newly added municipalities of South Vancouver and Point Grey. After Vancouver’s amalgamation with South Vancouver and Point Grey, the Town Planning Commission contracted Harland Bartholomew and Associates to draft a new Zoning By-law."

The exact details of where all the trees are planted, and their types.

RossK said...


I will pay you good money if you can find out whose idea it was to plant all these banana leave trees in the near eastern townships in the 30's....There beautiful, right now, for about two weeks, and then they create a muckified disaster that is often not gone, especially from the pavement until march because the streetsweepers can't get their rotting carcasses back up...So, when it freezes?....Well....I'm just surprised the former web-clerk from Spam-A-Lot hasn't tried to make a big deal about that AND the snow removal issue...


North Van's Grumps said...

From page 215 there's this:

The meteorological records were consulted and diagrams prepared showing the prevailing winds by seasons and by years for the past four years. These indicate that the general prevailing winds are from the east and south-east. Wind velocities, however, are generally
extremely low."

I guess the winds were low from the South-east because the BC Liberals weren't in power then in Victoria.

There's some great maps in the books, all 332 pages. Maps of Vancouver showing how the park locations were located... circle crops comes to mind.

They even take in the North Shore un-development. Search criteria in the document .... is..... of..... course.... TREE

Anonymous said...

Remember this......RossK

You've had one comment left, NOT MINE, but I was interested in the lawsuit that the BCTF launched against Premier Gordon Campbell

RossK said...

In the end they withdrew it.

However, it is important to recall that the teacher's won a much more important lawsuit against the Campbell-Clark government much more recently.