Bicycle Dream

Bicycle Dream

This is one from a series of about 50 “Gocco” silkscreen prints I made in the late 1990s (and one of the few that remain in my collection).

The original was a film photo taken by my dear old friend Ben Ostiguy (swimmer4buzzardsbay on Instagram). It’s a picture of yours truly on my bicycle, crossing the bridge over the Connecticut River between Hadley and Northampton, Massachusetts, circa 1991 when much of the Norwottuck Rail Trail had yet to be paved. Ben and I were out gathering photographic imagery for a painting class we were both taking at UMass, and we scouted out the nascent trail off-road style.

I first used the image to illustrate a haiku poem in a chapbook titled “Little Deaths” that I’d written, bound, and self-published in 1995:

When in a painting
you see a beckoning road,
then down it you go!

A few years later I happened to salvage a trove of genuine WWII-era aeronautical maps of Europe that the folks at the W. E. B. Du Bois Library at UMass had been planning to throw out. I used the maps as substrates for a handful of collages and paintings. But none of those projects were as successful as this print run, which supplied me with greeting cards for years.

I suppose I ought to scan the last two or three I have left, and make some giclée prints. There’s nothing quite like an original, though. The way the ink layers interact with each other and with the paper is hard to reproduce via modern printing processes.

Of Switchel and Shrub

Let’s talk about beverages. Water is life. It’s wonderful, but sometimes it’s a little plain and boring. Commercial soda is full of high-fructose corn syrup and who knows what other poisonous chemicals and preservatives. Coffee is sumptuous, but I don’t want to be constantly wired. Something like a cocktail might be nice, but I don’t drink alcohol. Fruit juices are tasty, but I’m trying to limit the amount of sugar I consume. What is a seeker of taste to do?

I’m on a quest to create modern versions of old-world tonic beverages—switchel, shrub, amuse bouche, tonic. My guiding principle is to use natural, minimally-processed, and healthful ingredients.

Water
Cold water is nice, but…

Start with the basics

I’ve been juicing a lot of lemons lately. The vitamin C they contain is beneficial, and they taste so good.

Fresh Lemons
Fresh lemons

I’m also a big fan of these three roots: ginger, onions, and garlic. Turmeric (not pictured) is nice, too.

Back to My Roots
Getting back to my roots

Put it all together

Here is some gingerade I made by boiling some chopped fresh ginger in water, then straining it through a coffee filter and sweetening it lightly with honey. It’s refreshing either hot or cold. Sometimes I’ll make a brew using various combinations of the aforementioned roots.

Fresh Gingerade
Fresh gingerade

Every week I juice about six or seven lemons, add the juice to a glass jar, top it off with apple cider vinegar, shake it up, and put it in the refrigerator. Both of these liquids are surprisingly sweet on their own, so no extra sweetener is required. I start my day by downing a few sips right from the jar. Occasionally I’ll cut it with a little bit of water or plain seltzer.

Vinegar and Lemon
Apple cider vinegar and fresh lemon juice

Commercial alternatives

My initial inspiration for this flavor-quest came from the discovery of a few products I liked, that I found at my local greengrocer. Fire Cider is not for the weak of stomach. It’s hot! It contains the juices of peppers, lemons, garlic, onions, and other spices in a base of apple cider vinegar. It’s also not cheap, so I figured it would be more economical to make something comparable on my own.

Fire Cider
Fire Cider

Switchel—which contains apple cider vinegar and ginger—is a tasty treat. But there’s a fair amount of sugar added, so I don’t indulge in this very often.

Cide Road Blueberry Switchel
Cide Road organic switchel

And then there’s coffee

This doesn’t need much elaboration. It’s a daily staple, but the older I get, the more I find that I want just one really good cup in the morning, before moving on to tea and other drinks throughout the day. Neither my stomach nor my nerves can handle office-grade swill any more. I buy green coffee beans (seeds of the coffee cherry, technically) and roast them myself at home.

Of all the variables in coffee making (freshness of roast, bean origin, preparation technique, darkness of roast), I’ve found freshness of roast to be the most important in terms of the flavor and “aliveness” of the coffee.

Personally I like to mix half Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans and half Columbian beans. I roast them just shy of the oily stage. Pretty dark, but still “dry.”

How about you? What are your favorite homemade beverages?

The “West Mass” Rebranding Debacle

recent unilateral attempt by the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts to rebrand our region as “West Mass” strikes me as arrogant, short-sighted, and wasteful. It astounds me that these two organizations would embark upon such a far-reaching effort without involving the greater community in the discussion (until after-the-fact). And it is shocking that the groups paid $80,000 to an Oklahoma-based agency (Cubic Creative) to do the design work, when Western Massachusetts boasts a slew of homegrown creative agencies.

The term “West Mass” is grammatically awkward. “Western” is more adjective-like, and would have been a better choice. “West Mass” sounds like a social media hashtag that someone spent two minutes thinking up. I grant that there are precedents for using “west” as an adjective: we accept West Virginia and the West Coast as sounding normal, for example. But Western Massachusetts already has a couple of wonderful, valuable, and marketable nicknames: the Pioneer Valley, and the Berkshires. I live in the former, so I’ll focus my thesis here.

When I hear the word “Pioneer,” I don’t immediately think of the stereotypes of Conestoga wagons, tumbleweeds, Remington rifles, and people sporting either cowboy hats or sunbonnets. I think of the conceptual associations of the word: “leader,” “first,” “independent,” and, yes, “maverick.” This is exactly what the economic development experts are trying to project, right? It’s all right here, in the word “Pioneer”! (How’s that for a slogan?)

Who cares whether or not the term “the Pioneer Valley” (also known as “the Happy Valley”) isn’t well-known outside of our region? Maybe “the Pioneer Valley” is the secret pet name that you get to know only after you’ve invested some time living here. There are other ways to develop an economy and attract external investment than trying to shoehorn people into a new, inauthentic identity. Instead of worrying about external investment, how might we stimulate our economy from within? High-speed rail service between Springfield and Boston would stimulate tourism and employment opportunities. Let’s keep working on that. Perhaps we could draw more attention to all the healthy outdoor activities and unspoiled mountains and valleys that give context, beauty, and meaning to our day-to-day lives here. Or perhaps an organization could invest in the revitalization of one of the scores of boarded-up buildings in downtown Holyoke.

West Mass logoIt boggles my mind that anyone living in Western Massachusetts would see the new wordmark and think, “Ah, this represents us.” I’ve let it sink in for a couple of months, hoping that it would grow on me. But it still doesn’t resonate. The logo feels generic, and it is typographically-awkward. The slanted “M” is unstable, and the offset alignment calls attention to “ass.” The orange-and-turquoise color scheme feels more like Miami than New England. The brand does not sufficiently express the historical, cultural, and geographical attractions that make our region special. Are we so desperate for economic stimulation that any old solution will suffice? And speaking of solutions, they are most effective when they proceed from well-defined problems. What was the problem here? And how does an $80,000 orange and teal logo propose to solve it?

Make it in MassachusettsIf self-ordained economic development experts are going to invest in a logo and brand that looks—to be honest—straight out of the 1980s, I say we bring back the “Make it in Massachusetts” campaign, which was warm and charming, and didn’t take itself too seriously. But “West Mass”? It leaves me cold.

The identity of a region runs deeper than the superficiality of commerce, and any attempt to stimulate commerce by tampering with this identity should be approached with solemnity and respect. Importantly, the process should involve all of the region’s constituents—not just its businesses. This lackluster rebranding effort reflects little care or compassion toward the people of our region. It fails to consider our sovereignty and our character.

The Pioneer Valley—my home for three decades—will always be the Pioneer Valley to me, regardless of any misguided attempts to serve me a new identity. Western Massachusetts (I don’t mind spelling it out) is already abundant. We have: once-thriving mill towns in various stages of recovery and reuse, farms, farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, colleges, excellent public- and alternative schools, mountains, rivers, dinosaur footprints, waterfalls, fish ladders, cosmopolitan small cities and towns, world-class art museums and restaurants, artists, mom-and-pop shops, shopping malls, a music scene, rock stars, literary heroes, microbreweries, coffee roasteries, manufacturing, high-tech industries, environmental industries, energy industries, boating, hiking, sky-diving, swimming, alternative medicine, political activism, civil disobedience, open-mindedness, and tolerance. Through it all, we manage to get along with each other.

Of course, the region also boasts its share of poverty, drug abuse, crime, inequality, entitlement, racial tension, sexism, traffic, urban sprawl, seasonal pollen, humid summers, potholes, decaying infrastructure, Massholes, and other detractors. Any economic development plan worth its salt ought to address these issues from the inside, and by soliciting input from the greater community. The Pioneer Valley—the place and the term—is big enough to contain and reflect all of our multitudes. I’m sticking with it.

Living Well Is the Best Revenge

All apologies to the late George Herbert for appropriating his title. But it’s an apt approach to weathering the crazy and noisy political zeitgeist of 2017. Of course it’s important to stay concerned, informed, and involved. But it’s also important to practice fierce self-care, to stop to smell the roses, and to remove oneself from the fray frequently, in order to recharge the batteries.

These photos I’ve taken remind and reassure me that the world is still a beautiful and incredible place.

2016 Odds & Ends

Vimeo—one of the services where I host my videos—offers a recurring workshop they call the Weekend Challenge. The 2016 Memory Bank episode challenges filmmakers to create a short film (under 3 minutes) out of their orphaned video clips from the year.

Until I learned about this assignment, I hadn’t given much thought to how many videos I’d recorded incidentally over the course of the year, nor whether they would fit together into a coherent narrative. I was surprised to discover that yes, they did. I hadn’t done very much work in this “video montage” style, so it was a new and interesting challenge.

I’d also never begun a movie project with the music. Previously, I had only added music to films after making the video part, like adding spices or a garnish to a meal. But using that approach has often resulted in movies where the music seemed like a poor fit or an afterthought.

This time around, I approached the project as a music video. (I was a big fan of MTV back in the early 1980s.) I started by writing and recording the music using Apple’s GarageBand software, overdubbing piano, synthesizer, and drum loops.

Then I imported the song into the Final Cut Pro video editing software, and added video clips to the song’s rhythmic timeline (versus the other way around). I liked this approach—it shifted my way of thinking and got me out of a couple of ruts I had slipped into.

I’m not exactly sure of the overarching theme among the clips. In 2016 I traveled more than usual. I had surgery. I got sick a couple of times. I had a good year at work and some pretty great times with family and friends. I got outdoors and did some hiking and bicycling. I played hockey. I grew some amazing garlic. I made sprouts. I learned to roast my own coffee. I took a bunch of photos and movies. I made four paintings. I published. I tried to improve. I learned some new technological skills. All the while a relentless and dissonant political battle raged in the background. My team lost, twice.

Perhaps the theme is one of continuing to be kind, creative, resilient, graceful, and happy despite the challenging nature of the times. Or maybe the lesson is simply to focus on the good stuff in life, because there really is so much of it to be enjoyed and shared. Hopefully this short film captures some of the happy highlights.

Tale of a Temporary Telecommuter

Reflections on the pros and cons of working from home

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to work for a company whose workforce is distributed. That is, a company whose employees work from home (or other office space) and use the internet to do their work and communicate with their colleagues.

Most of the time, the company I work for is staffed by on-site workers. But a recent construction project at our main campus forced a large number of us to work from remote locations. Thus, I enjoyed a rare opportunity to experience the life of a telecommuter for two weeks.

There were a lot of things that I loved about telecommuting. There were a few unexpected drawbacks as well. Overall, it’s an experience that I would love to repeat, and get to know better.

The Pros

  1. I saved time and money by not driving round-trip to the mother ship. My commute normally takes about a half an hour, so I saved an hour per day. That adds up to 260 hours per year. That’s the equivalent of 6 1/2 work weeks, or vacation weeks, depending on how you look at it. Also, it meant one less car on the road causing traffic and polluting the air.
  2. Better mental health. I slept an hour later on the days that I telecommuted. This, combined with the fact that I didn’t experience the stress of the morning commute, meant that I was happier and gave my freshest mental energy to my work.
  3. Better physical health. The natural light in my home office was a nice alternative to the fluorescent fixtures that illuminate the cubicle farm. I worked with my windows open, so I breathed a lot of fresh air. I was not tempted by the array of fattening snacks that well-meaning coworkers frequently leave out in common spaces. I did not breathe photocopier fumes, nor was I subjected to my coworkers’ colognes and fast-food smells.
  4. Silence. I loved that there were no distractions caused by people or machines. No beeping sounds, ringtones, email sounds, or text message sounds. No printer or shredder sounds. No incessant mouse clicks or clackity keyboard sounds. No fantasy football discussions or impromptu meetings taking place just outside my cubicle walls. I imagine that telecommuting employees with children, pets, or stay-at-home partners run the risk of being equally distracted by those influences. But I was completely alone, and I loved it. At one point my back yard was visited by a rafter of wild turkeys, but this provided a welcome afternoon break.
  5. The flow of work felt more natural. It seemed that my efforts were more task-based than time-based. The usual flow is: rush to get to work, work two hours, take a break, work two hours, eat lunch, work two hours, take a walk, work two hours, spend half an hour driving home. Repeat five times, then take two days off. Working from home feels more like: check messages, plan the day’s agenda, make some coffee, begin the first task, work until that task is finished, take a stretch break, begin the next task, respond to a request from a colleague, jog around the back yard for a few minutes, pick some chard from the garden, work some more, etc. The tasks seemed to unfold more organically throughout the day.
  6. I was every bit as available from home as I normally am in the office. In addition to my front-end web development responsibilities, there is a customer service aspect to my job, which I love. People have web- or design-related needs that they often don’t realize until the last minute. They call or email me for help. I solve the problem. They are grateful. I feel needed. It’s tremendously satisfying. Thanks to the work of the company’s IT department, there were systems in place that allowed me to do my job seamlessly from my remote location. I forwarded my office phone number to my home phone, and I could access all the internal resources I needed over a secure VPN connection.
  7. I was productive. I won’t claim that I was more productive than usual, but I would go so far as to say that I was equally productive. I attribute this to being happier, healthier, and less distracted, as noted above.
  8. I’m not going to lie: I enjoyed working in my pajamas and slippers.

The Cons

  1. I missed many of my coworkers. Even the ones who cause some of the aforementioned distractions. I am fortunate to work with great people, and for better or worse, we are like a big family. As effective a communication medium as the web is, there’s no substitute for a face-to-face discussion, with all the nuance and body language it provides. But I think that a meet-up once every week or two would suffice.
  2. I missed riding my motorbike. In the winter when it’s snowing, and when school is in session and traffic is dense, the commute is stressful. But in the summer when the weather is nice, I love to ride my motorcycle to work. I choose a mellow route that meanders over backroads through some beautiful, hilly farmland. It’s a nice meditation, and a nice way to bookend the work day.
  3. Network latency. I worked over a fast cable internet connection, but some unknown link in the chain throttled network speeds to a crawl. I’m not sure whether it’s simply the nature of VPN, or an under-provisioned server, or if it’s an issue with Adobe applications. Photoshop CC took 34 seconds to open a 52MB file off of a network drive, versus 7 seconds to open the same file saved to my local machine’s desktop. I quickly figured out that it was more effective to copy files down to my local machine, work on them there, then copy them back to the network drive when I was done.
  4. Telephone service. Out here in the country where I live, Verizon’s wireless signal is pathetic. Just about every phone call I take gets dropped or scrambled. This wasn’t a huge problem for my work, as I conducted most of my business asynchronously via email. But the handful of people who reached out by phone had to repeat themselves a couple of times.
  5. Time seemed to pass more slowly than usual. It felt a bit like jet lag at first. I attribute this to the absence of the habitual “structure” imposed by the normal work week: waking early, exercising, showering, donning the business-casual attire, commuting, etc. I created a new structure during my two weeks of telecommuting, but it felt unfamiliar, and it took almost the whole two weeks for my circadian rhythms to adjust to it.

In Conclusion

Obviously there are certain types of jobs (doctor, nurse, law enforcer, repair person, manufacturer, laborer) that require a physical presence at a particular work site. But for programmers, designers, writers, and other mostly computer-based professionals, telecommuting—even part of the time—seems like a reasonable and environmentally-responsible option. Kudos to the companies that trust their employees, and explore this modern approach to work.

Sunflower Tote Bags

A few years ago I set about to make a series of hand-painted canvas tote bags. I ordered a couple dozen plain canvas bags online. I drew up a simple, happy, graphic image that seemed like it would be easy to reproduce. I cut out a paper stencil so that I could transfer the drawing consistently from bag to bag. I cleared all the flat surfaces in my studio. Then I got busy making the acrylic paintings.

My original intention had been to put these on Etsy, sell a bunch of them, and fund my next art project. But they languished in my Etsy shop, and I never sold a single one. I ended up giving most of the bags away to friends and family members, and of course I’ve kept a couple for my own use. I may have one or two left; if you want one, please get in touch.

The photo gallery below shows the process I devised to make the paintings. Instead of painting each bag’s image from start to finish, I used the mass-production approach: I performed each step on all of the bags before proceeding to the next step. So for example, first I painted a rectangle of white primer (gesso) onto each of the bags and let it dry. Then I stenciled my sketch onto each of the bags. Then I painted the blue sky onto each of the bags. And so on. The later detail steps were a bit more improvisational, so there are minor differences among the paintings that hopefully add some character.

Art Show

Update November 13, 2016: I took down the show. I have updated the tenses in this post to reflect the new reality.

I exhibited some of my photographs at Mt. Tom’s Homemade Ice Cream in Easthampton, Massachusetts, October 8th through November 11th, 2016. There was an opening reception on Saturday, October 8th (as part of Easthampton’s monthly Art Walk). I loved seeing you there!

Details

I like to take photos involving outdoor scenes, trees, water, earth, and sculpted clouds. These days I share a lot of my work online, but it has been a while since I’ve shown the physical artifacts of the process. When my friend and fellow artist Jim Ingram asked me if I’d like to show my work at his ice cream shop, I said yes.

Originally I was going to show paintings. I’ve made a few of those over the past couple of years, but not enough to fill a whole show. Later, I thought that I might show a mix of a few paintings and a few prints. But after reviewing my whole available body of work, I decided to narrow the focus to one medium, and stick to photos. I’m glad I did, because in this case it made for a more cohesive show. The prints for this show were all either 12 by 12-inch squares, or 11 by 14-inch rectangles.

Please enjoy the gallery above, which offers a glimpse of the photos that were in the show. Please get in touch if you’d like to buy one. Soon I will be listing them in my Etsy shop.

Venue

Mt. Tom’s Homemade Ice Cream
34 Cottage Street, Easthampton, MA 01027

Nightfall over Providence

Recently we made a quick overnight trip to Providence, Rhode Island, to help Rebecca’s daughter settle into her dorm at college. The view from our hotel (Omni Providence) was pretty nice, so I got to try something I’ve been wanting to do: make a time-lapse movie of day turning into night in an urban environment.

I suppose I could have used my iPhone’s time-lapse mode and called it a day (into night—ha), but the quality of the iPhone’s photos suffers in low-light conditions. So I got my “good camera” ready, and embarked upon a little project.

Check out the short video above to see the result of my experiment.

Some notes on the equipment I used and how I set things up:

  • Camera: Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II micro four-thirds format (great camera, awful name—I propose Zephyr)
  • Lens: Panasonic Lumix/Leica 25mm f/1.4 (equivalent to a 50mm focal length in “full-frame” camera terms)
  • Tripod: GorillaPod Original
  • Fortunately, the window of our 12th floor room was able to be opened about four inches, so I didn’t have to shoot through dirty windows or contend with room reflections in the glass.
  • I spent a good 15 minutes obsessing about whether to use a wider-angle lens, to capture a bigger view of the city. We could see Waterplace Park and a portion of the river from our room, and had it been a WaterFire night, that might have influenced my decision toward the “more-is-more” direction. But Rebecca, bless her, helped confirm my hunch that what this particular scene needed was a tighter crop of a specific subject: the domed Rhode Island State House at the other end of the street.
  • I settled on the 25 mm lens, set the camera on the tripod, aimed it through the open window, and composed the shot through the viewfinder.
  • I used the brightest f-stop available (f/1.4) and set the camera to aperture priority mode, so that the shutter speed would vary and the “after dark” shots would be adequately exposed.
  • I manually focused on the State House so that the camera wouldn’t waste any battery energy automatically refocusing for every shot. Also, auto-focus doesn’t always focus on the right thing—especially when the scene is dark—so I figured I’d take control of that aspect.
  • I set the camera to take medium-resolution shots. Again, I was concerned about battery life, and shooting RAW or high-resolution JPGs would have drained the camera’s battery too quickly.
  • Sunset was going to be at 7:17 p.m. I figured that if I started around 6:00 and ended around 8:00, I would capture the transition from light to dark nicely.
  • As far as the frequency of the shots, I started obsessing with the math, calculating how many shots I’d end up with if I set the camera to take a photo every 5, 10, or 15 seconds, and what the frame rate of the final video would need to be, to create smooth animation. I ultimately decided on one shot every 15 seconds, figuring that I could sort out the timing considerations later, in software. The camera has a programmable time-lapse mode, so I set it up, crossed my fingers, and pressed the shutter button.
  • We left to get some dinner, praying we would not come back to find that a flight of pigeons had taken up residence in our room. (They hadn’t.)
  • I’m glad I chose the 15-second interval, because as it happened, the battery died and the camera stopped taking pictures before I manually intervened. Fortunately, just enough shots (514) were captured.
  • Back at home on the computer, I imported the photos and used Apple’s QuickTime Pro 7 software to convert the image sequence into a movie. I tried one at 60 frames per second (FPS), one at 30 FPS, and one at 24 FPS, to see which one worked best. Ultimately I kept the 24 FPS one.
  • I brought that file into Final Cut Pro X software, cropped the composition to the 16:9 proportion of HD video, and rotated it a half of a degree to correct a slight listing feeling. Also, I shortened the movie somewhat at the beginning, as it felt like it was dwelling too heavily on the “day” side of the transition.
  • I exported the movie to Vimeo, and embedded it into this page.
  • The biggest lesson for me was the consideration of battery life. Olympus sells an add-on battery pack for my camera that combines two batteries, but it adds bulk and weight, and part of the reason I chose this camera in the first place was its compact form. If I plan to do longer time-lapse projects in the future, I might consider investing in it. But then again, I might simply switch to a 20- or 30-second interval, and make sure I start with a freshly-charged battery every time.

In Praise of Cranberry Wake

I love this short film Cranberry Wake by Alex Horner. It is such a perfect marriage of storytelling, history, sport, music, and abstraction, told with an exquisite attention to detail. Every frame of this film is a perfectly-composed painting.

The film starts out seeming to be a mini documentary on how cranberries are grown and harvested. But then the wakeskaters show up, and the film takes on a whole new dimension. “What’s a wakeskater?” you might ask. Watch the film and find out!

I’m particularly moved by how well the music harmonizes with the visuals. Steve Horner’s Light on Blue and Tycho’s Daydream are perfectly ethereal selections that complement the dreamy, slowed-down action shots. I would love to learn how to obtain rights to use another artist’s music in my own short films. Until then, I’ll continue to make my own music for films.

What Happens in the Barn Stays in the Barn

I’ve been enjoying taking photos at night and at the blue hour, using my Olympus camera, a tripod, and a long exposure. The time of day (9:10 p.m.) was the crucial element in this shot, because at this time of year, at my latitude, there’s still enough ambient light to take a four-second exposure that reveals some details in the landscape.

Moreover, with the sun already sunk below the horizon, the sky’s light is predominantly blue in hue, which makes a nice cool counterpoint for the warmer LED light that spills out from my barn through windows and cracks between the boards, illuminating swaths of grass and garden.