Sunday, 26 August 2012

Three Months, one week: "Her Favourite Things"

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember my favourite things
And then I don't feel so bad

"My Favourite Things", "The Sound of Music

Roni and I are slipping a wee bit these last two weeks.  I guess the silence of the house is getting to us after all.  I have apparently lost my ability to talk about anything more meaningful than the weather, and that conversation is usually short and to the point. Roni never was much for talking and now I am sure there are church mouses more verbose than she is right now. Both of us, for some bizarre reason, have forgotten that Calista is dead. We both make slips constantly, and then it all comes back like one of those sharp breaking waves you only find on the North Shore of Oahu at Waimea Bay.  Anyone that has braved the surf there knows what I mean: great walls of water that appear practically out of nowhere and slam you down on the sand like the hand of an angry God, leaving you gasping and fighting that powerful undertow which holds you fast at the shoreline, helpless as the next wave gathers at your back.

Last week I was doing a bit of exercise on my home gym down in the basement.  I was alone with only the television for company, letting my mind wander as I did thoughtless reps on the old and much used Bowflex.  I heard someone coming down the stairs and looked up to see my dark-haired beautiful daughter smiling at me, a load of laundry cradled in her full arms. The very thing I had been waiting for this last three months.  For a golden moment I forgot myself and smiled at her. The illusion lasted for just a split second and then dissolved to become Roni, carrying a barely loaded laundry basket down to the washing machine.  I didn't say anything at the time, but when I told Roni hours later we both cried about it.

Roni has been watching the TV series "Bones" the last two weeks. Calista loved that series and had all the seasons on DVD stored at her apartment when we cleaned out the tiny split-level in June. Roni is not a fan of the show, but it beats watching incipient melodrama like "Days of Our Lives" as she tends her daily make-up routine.  Because Roni does not know the characters in the show, she was a bit confused about a couple of points and wanted to ask the shows biggest fan to clear up some questions.  She had her cell phone in her hand before she realised she was about to call a dead person for television tips. Now there would have been a big long-distance bill I would love to pay. Later that same day Roni caught Doogie, our troubled Siamese cat with attitude, trashing one of Calista's valuable hard-cover Harry Potter books. When she told me of the little bugger's acts of literary terrorism I was really upset and checked the book for damage immediately.  All I could think of was how upset Calista was going to be with us for not protecting her book from Doogie's vandalism.  There was a full couple of minutes there that I forgot that she was dead and was unlikely to ever be upset about anything ever again.

Two steps forward and one big step back. It's going to be a while, if ever, before we are truly normal again.

I have been rereading my posts these last few weeks, planning on rewrites and edits as I expand this journal into something far more substantial.  There will be pictures and back-story and with any luck a tale that ends with hope for a better future. This week, as a break from the self-centred, tear sodden depressing fodder that has filled 41 previous entries, I am going to give you a photo-essay filled with all of "Her Favourite Things".  Please excuse the photographs; they are going to be mostly mine and therefor really awful, but while Calista seemed to plan for some big change coming in her life, she really did not plan to end it so soon. She didn't leave enough photos behind to really flesh out this particular photo journal.  I hope this works; feel free to tell me if it does not.

It gave her the eye of a photographer and the soul of an artist:
North Island College, Courtenay BC

mountains above, oceans at her feet and a sea breeze to ruffle her hair:
 the Comox Valley was her favourite place

Its art and personal statement:
her 1st and 2nd tattoos together

Halloween: the best excuse for costumes
for a girl who never needed any excuse

Her favourite family: maybe better than Mom and Dad!!

The trusty Canon 40D: Maybe not the "top of the line"
but it was all hers, paid for by her and treasured by her.

Ralphie, her favourite patient at the clinic.
I love this picture
Favourite reason to get called back to work: to transport a baby seal
to the airport for evacuation to the Vancouver Aquarium. Down
side was that her car smelled of seal pup for days after.

Her lover boys: Hermes who she saved from my clinic
and Dougie who she saved in Regina (by talking
daddy into taking them home)

Jack Cowin's Art: he gave Calista the world as her pearl

All these books had the special position above her bed.  The rest
of her "special books" are in a cabinet in the basement.

A bangle for every occasion. And a matching ring and necklace.

Bought for her and she was perfect in it. I can still see her
cruising down the middle of the road, music loud, cheap sunglasses
on and the scarf of the day perfectly tied "just so". A smile is on
my face and tears in my eyes.

Shoes for every possible situation. And I missed at least five pairs,
including the famous "skulls and hearts" rubber boots..
No kidding. Shoes were practically a religion.

Just one closet full? Hell no, this is just the main collection.
She managed to collapse one very rugged hanging rack at her apartment.
 Her comment on the subject? "Duct tape can't fix everything"

I missed her treasured Canon 40D: I had to take this picture with something.
The Lamography cameras (cheap plastic things) still have film in them.
I am holding onto that film for a rainy day when Roni and I
need a boost and a few new memories.

Giraffes.  No idea why she loved them.  The one front and centre
held a special position; he is the only one to make the trip to Comox,
I found this lonely soul sitting next to her bed on her night stand. It meant
something to her.  We will leave it at that.

Did you think I was joking about the "Birthday Tiara"?
Hell no!!  She loved celebrating her birthday. Sometimes I
thought she celebrated her birthday when it really was not
her birthday, just so she could wear the tiara.

You would think those two colours would never work together.
I was shocked when I first saw this, but I would not have it
any other way now. It was just so Calista.

Yoga was just one of her passions. The other appeared
to be nasty, sweaty, boot camp work-outs. Lord I loved that girl.

Cheap sunglasses: seventeen pairs if you count the neon pink clear glass fakes. She liked the colour and it worked with some outfit.

Boxing Calista: I took the pictures but it was her idea. I think she just could not stand the fact that she was never going to get to wear that beautiful dress again. Thank goodness her coach did not walk in as we were shooting this series.
I might repeat this sort of photo array in the future. It was fun and the truth be known, I have been smiling for most of the day.  The shoe shot was hard though; her shoes were so personal and reflected Calista so well that it was kind of like looking at a piece of her when I took that shot.  Roni and I will always have some ghost of her around the house.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Three Months, Two Days: Ghostwriter

Teen-Aged Basket Case circa 16yo

Some wise man once said that there is a fine line between genius and insanity. While I hardly consider myself a genius, there are some things I have personal insights into since Calista died.  I understand where all mysticism and faith comes from: it does not spring from the wonder of this beautiful world, it comes from loss and sorrow. When you have lost everything, all you have left is faith that there is more to this world than what our five senses perceive and a mystical belief that there is some balance to this world. Be it a belief in heaven, reincarnation, fate or ghosts, it all springs from the desperate need of the bereaved  for there to be more than just our bleak world.

One of the things that has been bothering me lately is the nature of time and specifically anniversary dates.  For example, Roni and I mark a milestone each Thursday at 6 am: exactly one more week has passed since Calista died. Then there is the 17th of each month; that represents one more month without her.  On the other hand, is this more significant if the 17th of the month falls on a Thursday? Is that some sort of special milestone?  How about the true anniversary of her death next year? It will fall on a Friday rather than a Thursday; so will that change it's significance? In fact, May 17th will not fall on a Thursday until 2018, 6 years from now. Even that will only occur because we will have a leap year inserted in 2016 because our perception of time does not actually match the real time of the cosmos. So that brings us to the whole galactic time clock.

We don't actually know why Calista died. Perhaps it was her time simply because all the stars, planets, moons and asteroids aligned "just so" at that moment in time and caused her poor heart to misfire without any prior warning or episodes. Maybe something about the planetary alignment and the interacting gravitation fields was just wrong for her.  Extend this: If I live long enough or wait long enough, will the cosmos align just perfectly once again on some May 17th years from now and let her come back? Maybe just for a few moments  to set things right with her mother and I?  Hell, maybe she could just tell us what really happened and where the missing photographs and Ipod have gotten to.  Or she could dispense with the words and give us a hug. That would be something anyway.

Faith and mysticism is all we have left.

Friday, three months after her death, we received a letter from our Calista.  It took 6 years and two weeks to get here, but I hand it to Canada Post, the mail did finally get through. If there is any afterlife, somewhere Calisa is simultaneously laughing at the irony and cringing in embarrassment. You need a little back-story though.

Way back in Grade 9, when the princess was barely 15, her Social Studies teacher had her write a letter to herself when she was 20. I guess the idea was to create a little time-capsule to remind the graduates what their original dreams had been and how far they had come.  The teacher would hold onto the letters and send them out when the students were twenty.  Even back then, barely out of pig-tails and knee socks, Calista knew she was heading out to BC to chase her dreams.  With her best friend of the day Danielle, she cooked up a scheme to make sure the letter eventually was delivered.  Calista put our family home address in Regina on the letter, but had a return address of Danielle's  family homestead farm.  The obvious result would be that when the letter arrived at our home address either Roni and I would intercept it and forward it to wherever she landed, or it would bounce back to the Danielle's family and Dani could forward it.  The plan worked out perfectly; it's nice to know that something worked out for my girl.

Danielle contacted me through Facebook two weeks ago and told me that she would be sending us the letter.  We had no idea it existed and needless to say it created quite a stir. The anticipation of that letter, a letter written six years ago by a teen-aged Calista we hardly remembered nearly killed us.  Each day we rifled through the mail at the clinic, the disappointment growing each day until we started to  get scared that that precious letter had survived all those six years only to be lost on it's last short trip to Powell River.  There is some irony to the day of it's final arrival at the clinic: Friday, August 17th, exactly three months (or not since it was a Friday rather than a Thursday?) after her death.  Roni found the letter sandwiched between a bill from Revenue Canada and an advertising flier from Staples. You never seem to get enough of that type of mail.  Quietly, she slid it into her purse to be left until later,to be read in the privacy of our home.  Anticipation had become reality and desire had become fear. How would the words from the past touch us? So far, all that sort of thing had broken us down nearly to primal screaming and mindless crying. 

I finally finished work and got home about 7 in the evening. My head was pounding and I was completely exhausted from a busy and frustrating afternoon that culminated with an ancient and decrepit dog flooding my waiting room floor with urine before collapsing into the newly formed lake from exhaustion. The smell of urine permeated my clothes and filled my nose as I drove home, dreading what I might find when I arrived. 

Much to my surprise, Roni was in good shape, all smiles and serving up a warm meal.  I looked around for the open envelope and found the still sealed letter from Danielle atop the kitchen island. Roni had felt it more proper for us to open it together and probably be there to help each other cry.  We decided to leave it until after dinner when we could sit down with drinks in our hands and open it with clear, calm minds. 

After the few dirty dishes (each meal reminds us that there are only two of us now) were washed, rinsed, dried and put away, we retreated to the deck to enjoy the warm evening air and read our mail.  We tore the envelope open and found inside it a second envelope addressed to Calista in her childish teen-aged scrawl. The writing was certainly hers; spidery, small and rushed but clearly legible.  With baited breath we carefully opened the second envelope and slid the paltry single sheet of lined foolscap out into the light for the first time in over 6 years. And we exhaled and laughed.

I am not sure what we expected, but common sense should have prevailed at some point.  She was barely fifteen when she wrote the letter, so why we thought it might be profound I have no idea.  The entire sheet, both sides, was filled with disorganised, grammatically deficient incomplete sentences basically telling us her favourite bands, favourite songs, favourite movies and a long list of her friends of the day. There were many self-depreciating comments to the effect she was "just so Emo", whatever the hell that means. There were a couple of comments about how lame her parents were (I think every teen-ager on Earth is sure their parent is the biggest loser on the planet) and there were several good shots at whoever her boyfriend of the day was. Then there was her final parting shot to herself: "get a good job or marry someone rich". Nothing deep here at all; just teen-aged angst mixed with hormone driven emotional hypebole.  Roni and I were positively deflated after weeks of anticipation.

I sat and thought about the whole letter and realised that there was much, much more value in that letter than our original reaction would suggest.  The letter is a mirror showing just how far Calista had come, how amazing she actually was and what a great person she was going to be. The fifteen year old Calista was clearly a typical, immature self-absorbed teen-ager who still felt the entire world revolved around her belly button. The disorganised structure, the hurried writing filled with many hastily crossed out corrections, the many shallow statements about herself, her friends and her parents are all characteristic of someone who really thought the entire assignment was "bogus and a waste of her time". This is the young girl I remember. The Calista that scoffed at house work, considered our family poor simply because we could not afford to send her to New York for Easter break and text-messaged her boy friend to break up with him. Please don't assume I sit in judgement of her now; I am actually basking in pride at the pleasant mature young woman she became.

Fast forward six years later and we would meet an entirely different Calista.  The mature Calista spent hours just setting up a single photographic shot and then redid the entire session the following day simply because her shots were great but not perfectly great. Comox Valley Calista always remembered to bring her friend's pets treats whenever she visited their homes and took the time to find the perfect birthday card for her Godmother in Regina (but we still have to wonder about the condolence card to her newly engaged friend). The adult Calista was not just mature; she was confident and proud of who she was, what she stood for and how she looked. This Calista was just as happy in front of the camera posing as a forties style pin-up girl as she was behind the camera photographing big tough biker-tattoo artists. She had earned the right to tell people to "just suck it up" because she lived it; she embraced her whole life and lived every day like it was her last.  It really is a tragedy that one of those days really was her last. I just picture her laughing loudly as she played her first game of bocci ball with all her friends during that last fateful evening bar-b-cue and know that she had learnt how to really live.

Roni and I no longer know how to live. We pass each day with an eye on the calender for the next "anniversary". The next Thursday, the next seventeenth, the next uncelebrated birthday or the next empty Christmas are always just ahead of us. And, of course, there is always going to be another 6:10 am on May 17th.coming over the horizon at us. Intellectually we know that we have to let our daughter lead the way on this.  She may be gone, but she can still set an example for us on how to live. We need to live for today and the hell with worrying about anniversaries.  Those milestones are more like millstones tied around our neck, pulling us back into the undertow and under the wave. And the wave is always there to welcome us back.

What a hypocrite I am.  I sit here typing away at a memorial journal, with a new memorial tattoo of a Canon camera on my left breast over my heart and a silver locket with some of her ashes hung around my neck (its a whale tail, in honour of that fashion conscious, smiling baby Orca whale I am waiting to come by and spit on me).  I am no where near ready to step out of the undertow and away from the wave.

Twenty: confident enough to play pin-up girl

Friday, 10 August 2012

Two Months, Three Weeks: "How Are You?"

Some of the things my mother used to do just escape understanding.  For example, out of the blue, she used to send me books that she thought I would enjoy. Some of them made sense while others just came out of left field (and I have never played baseball, so those were really confusing).  One of the books she sent me was Mitch Albom's novelette "Five People You Meet In Heaven". I'm not sure what her point was, maybe trying to lead me back to a Christian faith in heaven or something, but she was right, I did really enjoy that book.

"Five People You Meet In Heaven" starts with the death of the protagonist (it would seem that this book would be really short, but not so much) and follows him through his sudden, gory introduction to the afterlife while reviewing his life in a series of apparently unrelated anecdotes. Typically the story does build to a sort of climax and denouement, but the "reveal" is that we are all connected. The end of every story is merely the beginning of another and very few of them have all the loose ends trimmed off. Herman Hesse covered similar ground in a completely different manner in his classic "Siddhartha"; in this case, rather than dying to learn this universal truth,  the protagonist finds immortality by recognising the universal truth that all life is a flowing river where all humanity's  tale blends into one vast muddy course. Those two books are basically about life, death and the continuity of existence. Today's entry topic is very much the same: the death of our daughter, our life into the future and the eventual completion of this journal.

I am not sure if everyone realises how often we ask each other "How are you?". It seems to be almost a reflex greeting, possibly more common than "hello" or "good-day".  Often the answer is hardly heard or even expected as the inquisitor moves onto other, more interesting topics like the weather outside or the state of the union.  The subject of his query may be laying on a hospital bed, trapped in a wheel chair or white-cane tapping stone blind and the yet the question "How are you?" is thrown out like a leg tapped by a doctor's percussion hammer. Of course, if you are having a good day or even a merely mediocre day, the answer of "Doing well" or "I'm Ok" is pretty easy to give. On the other hand, if you are still living while the remains of your daughter are sitting in a brass urn in your bedroom, the answer is a wee bit more difficult to come up with. There are just so many ways to answer that question, most of them far more complicated than a short conversation could even begin to cover.

Grief is kind of like life; there is always a beginning, but there is not really going to be an end.  There are no stages or phases, no real progression and no horizon where the bereaved can see the coming dawn.  It does not get "better" and we who have lost our children do not "get beyond it". We just get better at hiding our feelings because the rest of the world moves on. Frankly, we from  the Club of the Damned realise that we have to put our grief away in a private place or be abandoned as our friends tire of being crutches or sounding boards.  I already see the apprehension in people's eyes and caution in their voices as they approach me and talk to me; they intellectually understand that my loss is still very fresh, but emotionally most people just want this all to go away and for Roni and me to go back to the way we used to be.  And we will eventually, at least in public.

It would be wrong of me to suggest that I actually have a grasp on what is going on inside of Roni and me. Our moods swing wildly from moment to moment. Within each day there are some good points and some bad points. I still get caught by "the wave" at least once daily; it may be set off by something obvious like finding a previously undiscovered photo album featuring a very young Calista just out of grade school, or it may be something stupid like sorting through her practically new kitchen utensils.  In fact, those kitchen tools, some of them barely out of their packages, are in some ways the saddest items of all; they speak of a young woman just starting out on her own after a lifetime of living under her parent's roof.  Some days are much worse than others; Roni has bad days every single Thursday like clockwork, while I tend to spiral into a morose, angry depression each weekend. Often, by the time Sunday night rolls around all I want to do is hide in my basement and punish my beat-up punching bag for the crimes of an uncaring God who kills young women thoughtlessly. Most of this anger will eventually dissipate, but no doubt the sharp edge of  decent parents wrongfully cheated will always be lurking close to the surface.

Roni and I find ourselves quite intolerant of childish behaviour in adults these days.  Surly, demanding people who want what they want right now and at the lowest price just make us go flat and apathetic.  At the clinic, we do not even waste the time reasoning with these sorts of client now; we just try to figure out what will make them shut up and go away sooner rather than later, hoping to accomplish that goal with the least amount of stress possible. If it means just asking them to leave the clinic politely or otherwise, well that is what we do.  Thankfully the majority of the time the staff shields me from those clients and the rest of the time those clients catch the timbre of my voice and understand that today is not their day to "win" with me.  I still have trouble understanding how so many of  people have attained middle age or older without developing some degree of maturity. Maybe everybody needs to lose someone they really desperately love before they get their priorities in order. 

Neither Roni nor I fear death any longer.  That is not to say we court death or are suicidal. I am not about to take up high altitude mountaineering, sky diving or hang gliding. Roni still tells me to slow down and watch the road closer when we are driving.  My best description of our approach now is that we no longer lust after a long life; rather  we now find our current life quite tedious and the coming years stretch in front of us like a rocky goat trail through a desolate wasteland.  Certainly we still see beauty and light, we just don't taste it and savour it any more. When our time comes we will likely just give up, cave-in and  let go, hoping to either finally end this dreary life or enter a better one that includes a certain someone.  I am told by everyone (except ,of course, my fellow club members because they know the truth) that this is a natural phase which will pass.  Of course this is the same "everyone" that has told me about the non-existent stages of grieving.

If I had to break grief into stages, I would suggest there is three basic stages (much simpler than five or seven, of even a twelve-step program). There is the immediate "shock" stage.  I am not sure how long that lasts, but there are still moments of disbelief where both Roni and I are shielded from the raw pain because we feel like third party observers watching this terribly long movie about people that look a lot like us. This feeling of dream-like observations predominated the first week or so and is probably the only reason both of us survived that first seven days.  The second stage comes after you recover from the shock. Intellectually you understand the situation, but emotionally you still are not quite there yet.  Roni and I are still in this stage. Of course we understand Calista is dead. Hell, we have ashes and certificates to prove it.  On the other hand, we remain reluctant to move forward in any constructive way just in case this turns out to be one colossal mistake.  Make no mistake; we are able to move on and we understand that we need to move soon in some things (like the massive collection of designer clothes that will quickly become dated), we are just absolutely reluctant because it would mean she really is gone for good.  We are not giving her clothes away, we are not cleaning out her room, and Roni is keeping most of her stuff ship shape and buttoned down. Just in case.

Unfortunately, the last and final stage of grief is looming on the horizon and I believe that much of my anger and depression stems from the fact I starting to get to its edge.  We are starting to come to believe she really is gone. Gone for good. We can see the road ahead and it really is pretty bleak. We will be alone and lacking any real reason to live beyond our own satisfaction for years and decades to come. There will be no careers to follow, no marriages or grandchildren, no family trips or family visits. Nothing. This realisation creates the kind of lethargy that I can imagine only an immortal can feel: with all the time in the world to live, what does a person live for?

I have found my own behaviour has changed quite dramatically.  I used to exercise obsessively. I would rise early, swim between two and three miles, work all day and then either train in karate or lift weights in my basement.  I maintained  a large library on martial arts and I wrote extensively on the topic, managing to get published internationally several times.  I kept up a running correspondence with karate geeks over half the globe.  I do none of that anymore.  My karate library has been stored in a plastic tote under the stairs to be donated to some deserving aficionado (I am told I have to wait a year for my emotions to come under control before I give meaningless garbage away). I have not wrote one word about karate since she died. I have not gone to the pool even to pick up a new season schedule since her death.  I exercise, but reluctantly and I can be distracted by something as trivial as the cat wandering into the basement looking for more food.  Heck, I have been reading the same book for 6 weeks; since I finished the books Calista asked me to read prior to her death I really find reading more work than pleasure. I am even considering selling my beloved but impractical Mustang convertible since Roni and I now own three cars between the two of us.  I will likely never actively pursue photography as a hobby again; it seems so pointless without my Calista to laugh at my complete incompetence.  I work obsessively these days despite the fact just concentrating on anything other than HER death is supremely difficult.

So how are we doing?  We are doing poorly but covering well. That is the simple truth of the matter.  Answering the question is a loaded gun though. If we answered truthfully, it would consume much of every conversation and I believe most people would avoid speaking to us altogether in the future.  If we lie and tell everybody we are doing fine, we run the risk of either being called out as liars or having some flip remark like "See, life really does go on. You're going to be just fine" thrown back at us.  Or we will appear to be abnormally cold and apathetic about the death of our Calista, something we most definitely are not. We really don't have an answer for the question. I have taken to telling people that I am taking it one day at a time and some days are better than others. This is a pretty bland answer and avoids getting into details, but it really confuses people who don't know that Calista has passed away.  I just hate discussing the topic with strangers these days. I believe those that know now are those that need to know and those that don't know need never be told (and my frail and aged mother, with her tenuous grip on reality, falls under that category). Roni appears to ignore the question altogether now; she just skips over the entire topic and goes straight to weather talk.  This tactic confuses a few people, but the people that really know Roni fully understand. Roni has never been much for discussing her feelings with anyone, even me (or especially me sometimes).

I keep on reminding myself that there are all sorts of people who have been hurt by Calista's death.  I am still concerned about her friends and how they are coping. Kareen seemed to be hardest hit by her death, but then she was actually there when Calista collapsed. Jesse was closest to Calista and the way she learnt of the tragedy was far less than gentle (I really am such a blunt instrument sometimes).  These are two young women with their entire life in front of them; I really do not want them to bear any deep scars that will effect their enjoyment of life.  I want their friendship with my Calista to be a source of pleasure and strength for them for the rest of their lives.  It will be a challenge for me to support these young ladies without looking like a creepy old man, but I will do what I can and try not to intrude too much on them. Then there are all her friends back in Regina; I am sure there will still be repercussions from her death at her future high-school reunions.

I also have to keep in mind that into each life some rain will fall. Certainly some of us have sudden, torrential and devastating thunder storms, but everyone will have at least one nasty rain storm in their life.  One of my clients commiserated with me just the other day; she understood how I felt because she lost both her husband and her son in one terrible boating mishap. For months after the accident she kept on seeing her husband's truck roll up the driveway and park. The door never opened and he never came home. Then there was the visitor from the mainland who's beautiful and inquisitive ten year old daughter is suffering from barely controlled leukaemia. That poor woman gets to sit through months and years of cancer consultations and unending chemotherapy sessions with little hope of seeing her girl grow up and grow old.  Roni and I have to understand that there are worse storms to endure; I'm not sure  how I would stand to watch my child slowly die of an intractable cancer (as if anyone has a choice though).

 Passing through life constantly moaning about the poor hand one was dealt is to forget that none of us get out of here without a few scars and some people have much deeper scars than can be believed, they just have managed to keep them hidden. Hopefully Roni and I will eventually learn to hide our scar from outsiders and return to some modicum of normal.

So where is this all going? There have been just so many words and not much progress. That's the point though. This is not a mystery or a thriller, there is not going to be a climax or a denouement. Roni and I are not going to just turn some mystical corner and walk out smiling into the light. Certainly we are progressing somewhat; our crying jags are shorter, less frequent and not so intense and we are returning to some normality in life. On the other hand, our progress is going to be slow and our final destination is going to be far from "happily ever after". This stuff is hardly fodder for a best-seller.  I am not sure I need to drag everyone through ever minuscule step of my lengthy recovery simply because if I did, any message I might have to impart would be diluted.  There will be far fewer posts in the future but perhaps those few will be better and more meaningful. My final post, if the coroner ever manages to finish the job, will be a full review of the coroner's report. This I promise; my readers at least deserve to get the official decision on why Calista died.

Unfortunately, even if we get a definitive cause, the death of a beautiful young woman at the very beginning of her adult life will always remain meaningless to me.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Two Months, Two Weeks: An Art Education

Andy Warhol Calista

Cities and Empires are built on Science, Engineering and Commerce, but civilisations and culture are defined by art. If you consider all the great human works throughout history, the ones that stand out and define historical cultures such as the Greek,the Roman and the Egyptian empires are the architecture and art.  The Renaissance is remembered for the revival of the sciences and intellectual explorations, but it is the art of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian or Caravaggio that we recognise and relate to (you may not know them, but you would recognise most of their works at first glance as Renaissance art). Many of our religious beliefs are tinted by the visions of artists rather than any biblical passages. We even tend to name periods of European history based on the predominant art movement of the time; the art and architecture of the named period are considered reflections of the culture and civilisation of those times.  If you doubt this, contemplate how our current popular media, fashions, architecture and art are molded by and reflect our times.

Calista always was excited by art. I have already described her "art appreciation hour" when she would sit as a two year old each evening in her high chair in front of a western print I still own, jabbering away in baby talk. I can only assume she was commenting on the quality of the composition, the colour combinations, the drawing, or perhaps just the framing job with it's engraved scroll work and double matt. She certainly was always visually oriented. Thank goodness since her singing was atrocious, her writing was suspect and she never mastered any musical instrument besides the electronic mock-ups that accompanied one of our computer games ("Rock Star"?).  On the other hand, I don't want to suggest that she was some sort of ingenue; colouring between the lines was always a challenge (and later she considered it a  direct personal challenge if you asked her to stay between the lines) and her drawing skills remained rudimentary her entire life.  Photography was a perfect fit for her; she had an instinctive feel for composition and the ability to manipulate the digital photos allowed her freedom to completely explore her artistic side....with no drawing involved. On the same token, her skill with her camera came from excellent instruction, hard work and hours of training to attain mastery.

The program at North Island College filled a huge gap in Calista's skills.  Her own experience and eighteen months of Jack Cowin's guidance had given her a superb sense of tasteful composition, but she she was sorely lacking in the technical knowledge of "how" to photograph her world.  Over the years I had purchased all sorts of photography primers as I struggled through my own efforts at photography (I might as well have spent the money on comic books for all the good those books did me), but Calista refused to even read the instruction manual on her camera. In fact, when her Canon 40D was giving her some grief, she was hard-pressed to even remember where she had stored the instruction booklet for it.  I guess she missed chapter one of my best photography book (the KISS Manual of Photography; excellent for photographic morons like me) which said that a photographer should never leave home without their trusty camera manual. To this day I get the feeling that Calista thought that actual technical knowledge of art somehow sullied the creative process.  She also had a purist's attitude that any digital manipulation of the image beyond simple cropping was cheating. Her time at NIC changed all that; she realised that without technical skill, the artist is just dabbling. In this day and age where anyone with a healthy credit card can buy an expensive camera, it is knowledge that separates the true photographer from a simple pretender. ( I have met many amateur photographers over the last few months; sorry to tell you guys, but owning a digital camera does not make you the modern day Ansel Adams).

In art there has always been three basic camps: the true artist, the technically gifted artisan, and the technically challenged pretender. We can see examples of this throughout history.  Look at Leonardo da Vinci: a gifted scholar who literally defined the high Renaissance. Leonardo could draw, had a superb sense of composition and knew how to use his tools with unsurpassed skill.  Leonardo also had the one most important element of a great artist: he had his own vision of the world and he wanted to share it. On the other hand we have the artisan; a good example of this would be a forger of art. The forger usually has complete mastery of his tools, he can copy a work by Leonardo with ease, but he absolutely lacks  his own unique vision.  It may be a bit harsh, but I kind of lump many modern commercial artists in this category; they produce work that is pleasing to the eye and looks good on the wall, but is hardly original or thought provoking. The final group pretty much covers the rest of us dabblers; people that can throw paint on a canvass (or press the button on a camera) but our few successes represent good luck rather than high skill.

Calista shared with me one joke she found on the Internet. It goes something like this: A professional photographer is invited over to her friends house for dinner and brings her portfolio over to show her newest works off. Her friend looks at all the superb photographs and says "Wow, you must have some really expensive photography equipment, these pictures are just great!!". The photographer keeps her mouth shut and sits down for dinner, which turns out to be an excellent Italian dish with an outstanding Greek desert, all home made by the friend.  After dinner the photographer turns to her good friend who is obviously a talented cook and says to her: "Wow, that dinner and desert was just amazing, you must have some pretty expensive pots and pans".  Certainly the irony of the comment would appeal to Calista's sense of humour, but there is a lot of truth in that statement. These days everyone seems to consider themselves a photographer simply because their iPhone has a pretty decent built-in camera.  Things have not changed all that much from the days when European royalty got to host concerts and art exhibitions filled with their own works simply because they had the money and time to tinkle the ivory on a piano or slap a little paint on canvass.  Its telling that none of those blue-bloods are remembered as maestros or masters; money can't buy talent.

Then there is the issue of somewhat talented artists that are basically just phoning in the effort.  I attend galleries everywhere I visit, and while I'm no art critic, I see a lot of artists and photographers that are just cashing in on whatever craze is popular today and calling it fine art.  Las Vegas is a prime example of a place that just screams commercial art cash-in.  Some galleries sell pointillist art along the line of Seurat and call it "original and unique" while the gallery next door sells large canvasses billed as "revolutionary" when they are clearly inspired by Hieronymus Bosch of the early Renaissance. Photographers in Las Vegas are a dime a dozen; if they are not selling cheesy wedding pictures then they are selling mass produced landscapes that are so similar from gallery to gallery that you could be forgiven for thinking they are all created by the same person with different pushy sales staff. Of course they all claim to be unique and original, despite the fact they are merely applying HDR technology with large format cameras and then tweaking the hell out of the pictures with their computer. The term for this is "derivative" and it is a form of crass laziness.  Certainly a student should copy the works of the masters to learn the techniques, but once they have attained those skills, they need to break the mold and find their own groove.

I was always badgering my Calista to find her own vision without re-inventing the wheel as it were.  Study the works of the great artists and photographers, play with their established techniques and, once you have found their secret, find new ways of using those secrets to establish your own vision.  I frequently told her that failure while exploring new techniques was just another form of success. The very attempt to leave the beaten path was a success in and of itself. I frequently used my old friend George as an example. George is independently wealthy and retired at fifty simply because he always dared to fail and considered every failure a valuable lesson rather than a costly mistake.  George was always somewhat of a mythic hero around our house: my old friend who made good and proved all the high-school bullies wrong.  I like to believe that Calista's success in photography came from hearing stories of the stories of George and understanding that stepping outside the box and trying new things is the key to success.  I only wish she had the opportunity to fully develop her skills and find her own niche in this world.

Art is hard to define. I think the best definition of art came from Jack Cowin. Jack told me a piece is really good if it makes you look at it and contemplate its message longer than you feel comfortable. If you go back to a piece repeatedly and ask yourself what it is telling you, then it is good art. Evenif you don't actually like that work.  With regards to photography, I personally believe that the goal of a good photographer is not to just record what he is seeing, it is to make his audience see the same thing and feel similar emotions as they look at the image. Sometimes creating that emotional reaction means subtly altering the photo digitally; the feel of the photograph is more important than the accuracy.  I like to believe that Calista listened to what Jack and I were trying to teach her. Certainly most of her later photographs, even the product marketing photos (or maybe especially the marketing photos) have a feeling to them rather than just a simple image. Jack said it best last time I spoke to him: Calista had a photographer's eye with the soul of an artist.

I searched our house last night for a copy of a book we used to read to our Calista when she was a diaper-clad illiterate. It was a wonderfully illustrated short read called "Waiting for the Whales". The story is about an old lonely man who's only joy in life is watching for the return of a pod of Orca whales each spring from a promontory somewhere on the coast of Northern BC.  One year his daughter returns to the isolated family home with a child and the old man finds a new meaning to his life. The child grows up learning stories of her family from the old man and sitting with him as he watches for his pod of whales. Finally one winter the old man fails and the grand-child is left waiting for the whales by herself.  When the whales finally return, there is a new addition to the pod in the form of a newborn calf.  I always assumed that the author was suggesting the grandfather was re-incarnated as a whale, letting his soul enter the creature the old man loved to watch for all those years.

I never found that book; I found instead a small photo album made by Calista when she was still in grade school. The pictures were of Calista and all her friends just fooling around as "tweens"  often do. Old crushes that passed with the changing of the grade and old friends left behind with the change of schools, with each of them one young girl I will always miss.  I broke down and cried harder than I have in a couple of weeks.  Roni tells me that we have cried ourselves dry over the young woman we lost, but we still have lots of tears left for the baby, the toddler and the young girl of years past.  Working our way through the family albums is going to really hurt.

I might just start watching for the whales though; perhaps one of these years there will be a newborn calf with a radiant smile and an obvious sense of style.