My Lockdown Binge: Downton Abbey.

While others may have felt cut off from the rest of the world during the lockdown year, I was using it to catch up the things other Americans were doing in the 2010s. Back then, some of the Americans I know best were studying the lifestyle of early 20th Century British peerage as revealed in Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey.

Having lately been of a mind to ask the Brits come run things again, I thought maybe I should catch up. I have dropped that notion since the successful election of a candidate faithful to democracy and rule of law. Still, we may yet have a need if the skewing of the census has the intended result.

So, I binge-watched Downton Abbey. I had avoided it even as the rest of my family in three different states bathed in it every week for six years. It seemed too much like soap opera. Will Edith attempt to attract another of Lady Mary’s suitors in their lifelong drama of sibling rivalry? Will Cousin Violet succeed in imposing her will on “those other Crawleys” and find a way to keep the fortune under His Lordship’s control? That sort of thing.

Even as members of my family urged it on me, I had resisted until the most wise Amazon Prime algorithm informed me that I should watch it. I have learned to trust the Algorithm. It knows what I buy, what I browse, what I watch and listen to and read. (Thankfully I don’t have one of those speakers that report private conversations to Mr. Bezos.) With all that information to crank through the Algorithm, I felt that Amazon must know, better than I know myself, that Downton Abbey was right for me and I was right for Downton Abbey.

So I spent a few weeks watching one or two episodes a night until, about four or five episodes in, I caught myself talking to the characters on the screen, advising them what to do or, more often, what not to do. To the gentlemen — be careful around Lady Edith. Or to anyone — watch out when Lady Cora dip-tilts her head forward and to the side a notch and peers at you through her eyebrows. And since that is the way way Lady Cora looked at everyone all the time for all six years of the series, I suppose the message was to always be careful around her. She can drag a secret out of anyone and she can’t keep one longer than one episode.

On the subject of secrets, the entire household — from lord to footman — seemed to fuel their lives around secrets. They simply couldn’t be level with one another. It made for a dysfunctional family upstairs and a toxic workplace downstairs, but they all loved their king. There you have all the makings of a good soap opera and a stable society where people can live together in peace and happy servitude.

After watching the assault on the Capitol by Trump’s brown shirts, the soap opera life of the Earl’s household seems an attractive alternative to rule by the Bad Boys. Maybe the Queen would have us back as members in good standing of the empire. At any place in the social strata, peer to pig farmer, life would surely be better than under rule of the American insurrectionists.

And maybe this is the simple wisdom revealed in Downton Abbey: pig farmers and peers had something in common that bonded them into happy little towns that made British society work. Wrestling sows in the mud was a livelihood for one and, for the other, a duty involved in preserving the ancestral line and estate.

Well, I’m being unkind to Lady Mary. Strike that last sentence.

Rage and Rampage: Is It Really About Mental Health?

Friday night, Brazosport Center Stages opened its production of “An Iliad,” a play by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. The play is an examination of the hold of rage over humankind and its expression throughout history as lust for war and blood. The opening night performance was provided with eerily apt real-life bookends by mass murderers in Atlanta and Boulder, one three days before our play opened and the next three days after.

Not the same, you say. One person with an automatic weapon is not the same as a war that pits populations against one another with all the force of their intelligence, technology, industry and wealth. I grant you that, in its scale, it is not the same. But the fundamental driving power of rage is the same.

In the case of the single shooter with the automatic weapon, he feels empowered to do what only armies could do in the past. And his weapon is the product of his society’s technology and wealth. (I considered the pronoun and I’m sorry to say for mass killings the masculine seldom fails.)

The New York Times offers a study that shows an undeniable connection between the availability of guns and mass killing. And the phenomenon is global. Societies with more guns produce more mass shootings.

After mass killings there is inevitably discussion of mental health as a possible factor. Of course, sick people sometimes do evil things. But it is our collective mental health that seems to be the problem. If there can be such a thing as societal or national mental health, perhaps the mental health argument makes sense.

In that case, we might say that a nation is insane when it produces large quantities of weapons of war and makes them easily available and, in fact, guarantees them as a right. Will the Second Amendment be read by our now right-wing court to guarantee the right to own and drive around in a military tank?  

Imagine if the nut groups that invaded the Capitol on January 6 had crowd funded the purchase of a few tanks? How better to express one’s rage than with a few old German battle tanks? That, of course, would require a more expansive reading of the constitution but our court as it now stands seems up to the job.

Meanwhile, we go about our days. I have grandchildren who live less than a mile from the King Soopers store where ten people died this Monday (March 22). It has been their family’s regular shopping spot for ten years.

Now their parents have the job of trying to explain what has happened, to make them feel safe, to inspire in them the courage to live their lives, and to help them understand what must be done to reclaim their country as a desirable place to live and raise their children someday. I do not envy them the task.

Remembering Ed Christman, 1947-2020

A great friend and photographer, Ed Christman, passed away June 30 after battling with Parkinson’s for many years. A few years ago, after his tremors became profound and disabling, he had a surgical procedure that helped some but it could not protect him from the continuing ravages of the disease and time.

Ed was my photography mentor. I met him sometime in the 1980s or 90s when he was Dow’s head photographer. I worked at United Way and we needed a volunteer to help us with our color brochures and other campaign graphics.

I was surprised to learn that Ed didn’t mind talking to a family snapshot photographer about some of the finer points of getting good photos. He didn’t pretend that better equipment makes you better photographer. Mind you, as a corporate photographer, Ed had the good stuff but it was apparent to anyone who watched him work that his genius was in positioning, distance, relationship with human subjects, ability to read the light and a lot of other things that the camera can’t do for you, at least not with the same degree of perfection as a human who understands his machine and knows how to make it do what he wants it to do.

This is a photo of Ed I took eight years ago when we worked together on some publicity shots for “Dividing the Estate,” a Horton Foote show being produced by Brazosport Center Stages. I felt happy to tag along with Ed, mostly to see how he went about his work. You will notice in the photograph that he has adorned his flash with that photographer’s cheapest and most cost-effective gadget, an index card flash reflector. But he did have the nice Nikon gear. I followed him around with my little point-and-shoot (a pretty nice one actually – the Canon Powershot G11) and got a few fair shots. Ed’s, of course, were spectacular.

The things he did with light outdoors gave me an education in the possibilities for softening natural light on sunny days. His interaction with people who were posing for him struck me as being icing on the Nikon cake. Equipment alone could not explain the cooperation he got from the play’s actors. He didn’t ask people to say cheese, he made them feel happy to be on the other side of the lens from such a genuinely nice and happy man.

There wasn’t a lot of energy in him for show photography after that. He came out to The Center in November that same year to take some publicity shots for the Elizabethan Madrigal Feast. He allowed me to post a few of them on my Flickr site so others could view them. He was a little too early for Instagram and all the online toys that photographers like to use now. But he was happy for me to put some online for the cast to see. They are all carefully attributed to Ed. I do that even though it would be apparent to anyone that the difference between his shots and mine would quickly show me up as a photo-plagiarist.  Here are a couple of Ed’s shots from that November EMF shoot.

I was stunned by the beauty of his work. Here is the steward bearing the wassail. And, then, there is this Dutch master. I found this one to be simply breathtaking.

When our son got married in 1999, we asked Ed to do the wedding. That, if you remember, was back when photographers used film. What Ed did with that film was remarkable.

Nor was there anything fake or plastic about Ed’s presentations. No scrapbooks, silver frames, special sets for Grandma and Grandpa. All you got from Ed were packets of prints and negatives. No watermarks. No special permission for reprints. No proofs to pick from.

I will never forget when he came to our house after the wedding with about twenty packages of color prints and negatives. He left them with us. That was his total presentation. I asked if he wanted us to go through them and pick some for final printing.

“No, they are all yours. You may print as many as you wish.” He recommended a local photo printer who could give us any size, matte or glossy, and who had scrapbooks, mailers, frames, etc.

He left and we started to go through the envelope – twenty envelopes, each with 36 exposures. They were almost all beautiful photographs. I don’t think there were half a dozen throwaways in the whole batch. The man wasted no film. It was one of the most amazing things I had ever seen.

He had no need for PhotoShop. In fact, his wife has told me he detested it mightily. His philosophy was that you should do it right when you open and close the shutter. And sure enough, all but a few were perfection. He made a precise exposure and an elegant, perfect composition with each frame. I am still in awe of his art and his skill in coaxing the best work out of the camera.

We had one more wedding to go after that. Needless to say, we asked Ed to do it again. By then he had moved to digital. I have also stored a few of those on my Flickr site. Again, his art is at another level. Those wedding photographs he took of our children have given us anchors in time on two of our happiest days. Ed was able to see those life events with the same intensity of feeling that the parents felt on those days and he captured them for us to enjoy for all these years. All these years later, they live on.

Ed was a photographer trapped in a literary family of writers, teachers, and actors. I don’t know which of them was the primary author of his obituary, but whether by the Christman team or one individual author, they have said it best:

While raising his family, Ed became one of the most popular photographers of Brazoria County. Early evenings—when the light was perfect—weekends, and holidays were filled with portraits, weddings, celebrations. Attired in a utility vest and a broad-brimmed hat, he captured moments of joy, solemnity, achievement, honor, camaraderie, daring, and love. Ed taught people to see, to focus on the light in the eyes, to find a person’s best angle, and—as light does—to illumine the beauty sometimes concealed by shadow. In his art, whether a portrait, a candid shot, a cityscape, an industrial, a shell in the sand, or an old oak draped in Spanish moss at dusk, Ed found the uncanny perfection hidden in plain sight. He showed us ourselves and our world as only he could see them.

We miss Ed’s presence in our community.  But he has captured time for us in photography’s special way. We see the images and we feel those moments again. Thank you for those treasures, brother Ed.

Graduating before the Pandemic – and After

Such a joyous occasion. Families and friends crowded onto football fields and into auditorium lobbies. The hard work has paid off with a treasured piece of paper (or parchment as you move beyond high school), the smiles, tears, and congratulations of adoring parents, extended family and friends.

That’s the way it was. And, who knows, maybe it will be that way again.

Now our graduates are treated to celebrations like this.

We line them up in the church parking lot and friends drive by and hand them cards and gifts of congratulations. They honk their horns. They smile, they cheer. They do everything but touch.

And if you made it out of A&M, you may even get a treat like this one.

Lost in the Pandemic: Christmas Visits with Grandchildren

They traveled many miles with their parents to be with us for Christmas and New Year’s. They can be silly, funny and smart. They dedicate their time and effort, as you can see here, to entertaining Grandpa.

Or, sometimes, we would get in the car and drive to Colorado to share Christmas with another set of grandchildren. We would all crowd in, share a breakfast, play with the new toys and, most of all, enjoy one another’s company.

This is not likely to happen in 2020. Our usual family celebrations will be on hold until transportation is safe, hotels are safe, a vaccine is available, and social distancing is one of those dated expressions that falls from usage. In the meantime it will be up to FaceTime, Zoom, and UPS to get the Christmas toys and greetings to the distant family.

Remembering the Days of Our Innocence: Eating from the Party Table

Hover over the table with your friends. Everyone is commenting about how pretty the layout is. Stab an olive with a twice-used toothpick. It’s about saving the forests after all. Or glance furtively around the table. No one is looking. Grab one between thumb and index finger. Double dip the cheese melt with a cold green bean. No one noticed that first bite. Dip the other end. Hands are clean and dry. Now reach across the table and shake hands with a friend you haven’t seen in at least a week or two. On the return from that greeting, swoop down and land a chunk of sweet pineapple.

Moving on to the new year.

The crowd is still forming. Scotch eggs, maple-iced doughnuts, French roast coffee, artichoke dip, veggies, nuts, wassail. Before the morning passes, sixty or so friends will crowd in around the table, serve a plate, exchange greetings, and tell tales of the year gone by, hopes for the year ahead and mostly true stories from all the walks of community life.

Our love is manifest in food and words.

How will we greet 2021? There is virtually no safe and healthy way to do it the way we have been doing it. But January is so far in the future. We can hope.