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Entries in nostalgia (63)

Friday
Oct012010

Setdressing

I.
A basement paneled in wood. Sneakers making a tock-tock-tock sound down the staircase. Off to one side, a greenhouse filled with ferns; in the corner of the greenhouse, an old sewing machine. Shelves piled high with games: Concentration, Othello, Operation. Games that buzz and clack and pop. Books in German and Russian. Upstairs, a terry loop bedspread, pale violet and blue floral pillowcases, a green velvet couch. Sepia photos in frames on dressers. Drawers full of silk scarves and soft cotton tops. Dial soap and Archway cookies. The hum of a flourescent light suspended under cabinets. Klondike bars in the freezer.

II.
A hallway lined with red lockers, slamming at unpredictable intervals. Combinations commited to memory being spun deftly with a left hand. Cutouts of Keanu Reeves, quotes from Robert Smith and Michael Stipe. Paper bag covered textbooks and binders scribbled on with Bic pen pulled quickly from a heap of papers on the top shelf. A mix tape. The smell of Love's Baby Soft and peppermint lip gloss. Further down the hall, formaldahyde creeping through a vent in the biology room door.

III.
Rubber skate guards thrown under a bench painted glossy red. Plexiglass marred by galvanized rubber puck nicks. T-stop ice dripping from a metal blade onto the rubber floors. Rental laces graying from renters' hands pulling them tight around wool sock-thickened ankles. Wide-eyed kids from church groups wearing sneakers and chasing a rubber ball across ice with brooms. Dimes under the hot chocolate machine, scraped free by a hockey stick. Caramels with a creme center under dim vending machine lights.

IV.
Two beds against perpendicular walls. Quilted headboards. A closet with sliding doors, sash windows with double panes. Flannel nightgowns, sleep in the corners of the eyes, whispers in the dark.

(Prompt: a couple of old pictures sent to me by my cousin, plus these calendars, which reminded me of the aforementioned pillowcases. [via] See also: someone else's picture of the sheets my parents used to put on the fold-out couch when guests came to stay. There's something about bedding patterns that sets my memory going, and then I feel like I need to set dress everything or it might disappear forever.)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.

Tuesday
Sep072010

You Couldn't Even Email Pictures Uphill Both Ways

/join #nostalgia

You remember the early days of the internet.

If you don't, honestly don't worry. It's okay. You couldn't even email pictures back then. You weren't missing much.

But what you were missing was the crazy thrill it was to set foot in mostly barren land. It was like the wild west: you never knew what you'd come across, and sometimes you'd have to travel long distances to find good people who might take you in and tell you a tale worth hearing. There were these little communities of strangers, trying to figure out if you were friend or foe. Our own prehistoric version of "social media" had very few boxes for sorting: ASL? What usenet groups do you follow? Is this guy creepy or what? And it was all very terrifying. (At least for my parents: "Mom, this Dutch skateboarder I met on the internet is coming to stay with us for the weekend. No, I've never met him in person.") Groups of timewasters hanging out on computers all the way across the world, typing nonsense to each other in the wee hours of our respective mornings while roommates slept.

We were the laziest pioneers. Explorers with esoteric handles and bags under our eyes.

Offline, if we felt the need to connect further, we'd send each other pictures. Mix tapes. Whatever would fit in an envelope, whatever postage we could afford. I still have most of them: the Dutch skateboard stickers, the grainy zines, the masking tape covered plastic cassette boxes, the picture of some Croatian and his dog (though who's to say if it was actually him, or what happened to him if it was).

Once in a while, we'd meet in person, and find ourselves in that awkward position of getting to know someone you only know through their words. In New York, I met Richard who took me to 2nd Avenue Deli and a lesbian bar. In Chicago, I met Chris. We went together to see Austin Powers, and when we got back outside, the city was on fire. Lesbian bars and cities on fire: experiences you can only have in real life. That's how it was.

Over the years, I lost touch with most of them, kept in marginal touch with others. Every time I thought of Chicago, I wondered about Chris.

Then, last week, somebody found him.

/ping xtop

The email from Danielle began "I seem to run in very, very, VERY SMALL CIRCLES."

We weave strange paths in life. And one path went from those late nights I spent awake on a random skateboarding IRC channel, bonding with strangers, all the way up to Danielle. She put us back in touch, and the emails flew.

"Let us pause for a moment to remember that when we knew each other last, I couldn't even send pictures over the internet. And now I just took a picture of a video cassette with my cell phone, mailed it to myself, downloaded it, and mailed it to you. Also, you were making VIDEO MIXES."

"And remember when someone was going to make a #skate website and it'd have everyone's profile with picture and we all had to actually mail photos through the mail to one person in charge?" If we hadn't been emailing, this is where we both would have audibly sighed with bemusement. "I have to say, the future is kind of great when I can sit outside on the lawn and answer my email on the phone which also lets me watch youtube videos of cats doing mildly amusing things."

"Because, really, what else could you ask for in life? I'm going to start mailing people physical pictures of cats asking for cheeseburgers. That should be a thing."

/me comes to the point

It's mind-blowing to think how much this place has changed, this internet. In just fifteen years. How it's grown, rapid fast, swelled to an almost unwieldy size, full of books of faces, Rick Astley videos, and hungover owls—and in between, the things that used to live elsewhere. In books and record stores and on street corners. We're all online.

And because this is what we are now, because in fifteen years it's become the same thing only faster, only broader, only further-reaching, and in honor of the mix tapes we used to send each other when we still did that sort of thing, and because, heck, Chris asked what I was listening to lately, I decided to make a mixtape for the internet.

If you're viewing this in your RSS feed, you won't see the player. Come on over here to hear.

(Interestingly, no matter how good the internet gets, I still seem to be making mixes that sound like they've been chewed up by a garbage disposal. Apologies for the quality.)

Track Listing:
40 Day Dream - Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes
Watch the Waves - Taken By Trees
Hold Me - Fleetwood Mac
Deadbeat Summer - Neon Indian
Ambling Alp - Yeasayer
Couldn't I Just Tell You - Todd Rundgren
The Ballad of El Goodo - Big Star
Frederick - Patti Smith
Bloodbuzz Ohio - The National
I Think I've Had It - The Gories
Carry On Wayward Son - Kansas
Your Love - The Outfield
Things Ain't Like They Used To Be - Black Keys

/quit #nostalgia

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.

Monday
Aug162010

Neither Here Nor There

ARGUMENT
I think there might be crickets outside.

Or they could just be car alarms.

New York is sweating off its summer. This great rushing snake, shedding its skin. Underneath, a smooth pink layer of memories. Never memories from here, though. For me it's drive thrus, the swingset outside the junior high where we used to go late at night, the metallic smell that lingered on your hands from grabbing the chains, the woods, deep and dark, high school kids tucking themselves inside with soft packs of Marlboro reds and cans of beer. 

The air at dusk, the light over a solitary water tower. The sound of a parade with its thundering bass drum.

Thunder - real thunder - rolls over the barrier of the Hudson, pinballs through midtown buildings; the rains come and I close my eyes and think of all I ever think of: nights on porches, eating corn, breathing in the smell of rain on grass, earthworms peeking out to say hello.

Fleshy pink. Like a skinned knee.

AN EXAMPLE FROM EVERYDAY LIFE
Yesterday as I was husking ears of corn, I noticed that my posture was all wrong. I was bent over the plastic trashcan in our kitchen, one foot pressed to the foot peddle keeping the lid open. Inside: coffee grounds, empty potato chip bags, two empty grapefruit husks from my morning juice. Outside: the sound of subway wheels clacking against tracks. This was wrong. I should be sat comfortably on the end of a wooden porch, knees rounded, paper bag at my feet waiting to receive silks, husks, the rough stalk satisfyingly snapped clean. There should be birdsong. 

As the water boils, I think I can hear crickets again. Cicadas. Something that lurks in trees; the organic engine of a non-mechanical life somewhere outside my city window. I can't tell anymore if it's real or wishful thinking.

SLIGHTLY FORCED TREE METAPHOR, PT. 1
I recently learned about pine trees in Ireland. That many, many years ago, Scots pines grew natively in Ireland, but then something happened, and they were gone, and no one knows how or why. For years, there were no pine trees in Ireland. Then someone decided that Ireland needed pine trees, so they imported entire forests from elsewhere, from Scotland and Norway.

The Irish pine forests are beautiful, majestic. They have the same solemn, cushioned air found in other pine forests all over the world. But I can't help but wonder if these pines ever miss their home.

SLIGHTLY FORCED TREE METAPHOR, PT. 2
I find a book of North American trees and flip its pages as the bus putters up Riverside Drive. Slippery elm. Trees of the soapberry family: Buckeyes. Boxelder. The helicopter seeds of maples, like two tadpoles kissing. The hum and cough and paper shuffle of society buzzes around me; a man with an off-track betting book considers the names of horses: First Flute, Capitalism at Risk, Flaming Punch. He puts a star next to Every Little Thing. And I remember every little thing about creek beds, waterstriders, flat rocks concealing crawdads and tadpoles, too.

I read up on sweetgum trees, those staples of park walkways. Fruit 1", long-stalked woody ball of pointed capsules, ripe in fall, persistent through winter.

Like me, I think.

Maybe when fall comes I'll ripen, be less of a cynic about this place. Maybe I'll persist through winter.

Or maybe that idea will stick in my teeth like a kernel of sweetcorn, prodded by a fingernail as the rusted chain of a swing creaks under my imported weight.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.

Tuesday
Oct272009

The Return of the Porch Swing

"Step away from the internet," said J. He could see the steam coming out of my ears. "Take a deep breath."

He could tell that something was getting to me more than it should. By the way I was hacking away at the keys on my keyboard, perhaps, louder and louder as I got deeper into each sentence, turning red in the face, huffing out air.

"Let it go."

He's right. I lifted my hands from the keys in surrender position. I would let it go.

Just as soon as I hit "publish."

* * *
It was a photograph I had taken when I was sixteen or seventeen. A photograph from a series of black-and-white portraits I'd taken with my mom's old Canon AE-1. One of a student teacher in our art class, the water tower that once lived in the center of our town barely visible behind him, already fading from view. One of my grandmother at the end of our lane. One of a long-haired girl in overalls leaning against a tall dark-haired guy called Oliver, who I always thought was a bit mysterious. And this one, a portrait of a friend on a porch swing, knees up and smoking a cigarette, his hair in his eyes.

And there it was on Facebook, number 4 out of 5 in an album of pictures posted by someone I'd never even met before.

I had used these last two photographs in an end-of-the-year high school art show, and so I assumed that maybe this guy had gone to the art show, seen a photo of a friend of his, and taken a photo of my photo. Or some other equally logical explanation.

In the hopes of shedding some light on the situation, I sent him a message asking him how he came across that old photograph of mine. And waited. And then, half an hour later, a response:

Hmm, no I took that. I was doing a B&W photography project at the time. I have several from that week... ???
And I felt as if I'd been hit over the head with a sack of flour.

We had a brief back-and-forth conversation, trying to determine if we might have been standing next to each other when we took the picture, if maybe I knew him and we shared a roll of film. Or doubles. Or something.

But I couldn't shake that odd feeling. The sensation I felt after I'd read his response was one of complete doubt in everything I've ever known, everything I've ever remembered, or written, or believed. And the questions poured into my brain: How can we trust our own memories? Who owns an image? Do we own it if we've owned it for fifteen years in our own memories? How do we know for sure it was ours in the first place? Even when the style is consistent with yours, has the watermark of your eye, your tone, your storytelling with the lens, how do we authenticate the origin of a simple snapshot taken of a friend on a porch swing?

Worse: When we surround ourselves constantly with the comfort of memories, when we define ourselves through them, what does it mean when these memories are challenged?

I'm living in self-doubt for the moment. I'm entirely convinced that I took the picture, and at the same time, trying to remain open to the fact that I could be wrong. What is most difficult is that it's one of my favorite portraits I've ever taken. I remember being disappointed that he was slightly out of focus, the return of the porch swing a bit too fast for my shutter, but I decided that the composition was too perfect, my emotion in it too real for it to be tossed away into the back of a drawer. I loved that photograph. And suddenly I'm being told that it was never mine to love in the first place.

Almost as if I was never there.

What that must feel like.

Wednesday
Oct212009

We Come Seeking Dragons

A few months ago, I put the feelers out to see if anyone had better access to my memory than I do. Reach inside my head! Try to see what I'm seeing since I in no way have the means to describe to you what's in there! I like to be challenging.

I was trying to remember a series of fantasy books I'd read when I was younger; the problem was that I couldn't remember anything concrete about them, but I had a fading image of the cover in my head.

Several of you came up with ideas, but nothing struck the right chord. I sent my childhood best friend a note to see if she could remember. She came up with the Xanth series, but that didn't feel quite right either. Yesterday she left a note on my Facebook wall asking if I'd ever figured it out, saying that it's been killing her too. Her older sister Sally then piped in to ask what we were trying to think of, so I replied with the description.

And Sally, bless her well-preserved memory, came up with Robert Asprin's Another Fine Myth. And, wouldn't you know it, when I clicked on her link and saw that cover, it was like the image in my mind came tumbling out onto the page.

As disturbing as it would be to have a Until the End of the World-style mind recorder*, I sometimes wish we had some way of digitally preserving our very thoughts. The ability to use a search engine to search your brain for the name of the babysitter you had when you were seven, the outfit you wore on your last day of high school**, the script of everything he said to you that night you watched the sun rise over Trafalgar Square. Then again, if we could do that, we'd certainly lose the thrill of throwing out the little scraps of memory we have left, piecing them together with the scraps others have held onto, and discovering what a fine quilt it makes.

(I guess I owe Sally that pewter unicorn.)

*A film whose screenplay, I've only just discovered, was co-written Peter Carey, Booker Prize-winning author of True History of the Kelly Gang, Theft, and Oscar and Lucinda. What interesting paths this train of thought has carved.
**This I actually do remember: The Clash/London Calling t-shirt, moss green corduroy cut-off shorts, black combat boots.