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On your own time, rapid, fire

September 17, 2010 Leave a comment

A shortage of time prevents me from saying much these days, but a few quick points need to be pointed:

  1. Sunday morning will find me up at an ungodly hour so that I can get a bout of dog training in before heading up to Eden Mills for the rest of the day, where I plan to catch Alexander Macleod, Leon Rooke, and whoever else.
  2. The discovery, via Nigel Beale, that the Governor General doesn’t keep a collection of the books that win the Governor General’s Award is just plain depressing. I guess that’s how much Canada prizes its literary culture.
  3. Here’s some bitching about author photos from someone who evidently knows jack-shit about portrait photography. Three of the cliches that post supposes are unique to writers are, of course, staples of portrait photography in general. And if you were going to make an environmental portrait of a writer, what environment to choose other than that where the writing gets done? But don’t mind me; if photographic cliches irritate you, by all means blame the writer.
  4. I like this Globe piece on “the death of do-it-yourself” because, while I have no interest in fixing cars, it applies to all kinds of other things. We shall soon become a nation of people who have no idea how things work. I like stuff I can figure out how to fix. Every year, there’s less of that stuff around.
  5. Ashley Gilbertson’s photos of military rations from around the world brings back memories both pleasant and less so. Thankfully, the Canadian Forces have discontinued the most unpopular menu selection, Ham Omelette, affectionately known as “lung in a bag.”
  6. Oh, look. Seems PTSD is going to be the flavour of the day for a while.
  7. As evidence of just how far behind I am, I will now comment on Samantha Haywood’s 16-day-old piece on preparing the perfect manuscript. Well, what to do? The economics of publishing resemble an inverted pyramid, where the point is demand, the whole thing wobbling precariously under the pressure of a zillion people convinced their story must be told. Nothing we can do about that. So apparently, Peter Cheney in the Globe is wrong, and do-it-yourself isn’t dead at all. Except that we still can’t do it our fucking selves, can we?

And that’s all I have to say about that, as Forrest Gump liked to say. Or at least, that’s all I’m willing to say about that at this time.

Ashley Gilbertson: Shell Shock, On the Line

August 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Ashley Gilbertson’s photo essay, “Shell Shock,” on post-traumatic stress disorder among American veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan matters; this is an important story, one that demands attention. And it starts strongly, as Gilbertson turns the same eye that created “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” which was so sensitive to the aftermath of loss, on the suicides of returning soldiers.

It’s unfortunate that he then chooses to devote several frames to the sites of murders committed by soldiers suffering from PTSD. Although he does wrap it up with two survivors, the emphasis is on violence. The soldier with PTSD, we are warned, is a ticking bomb. If he doesn’t kill himself, he might kill you.

It’s a cheap and worthless world we live in if the only way to convince people of the importance of a problem is by appealing to the fear of becoming a random murder victim. Gilbertson here rolls back the clock to the 1980s, when the prevalent image of PTSD was the crazed Vietnam Vet, sniping from a clock tower with his deer rifle.

This is not the reality of PTSD. Reality, for the most part, is people suffering in silence: people who prize courage, now debilitated by fear, living in a culture that discourages one to admit a problem. And accompanying the startle reactions, the intrusive memories, and the anger, is the terrifying feeling that you’re no longer in control of yourself. These people need help and understanding. They don’t need to be stereotyped as killers who can’t leave killing behind.

Gilbertson does much better with “On The Line,” a story on the people who man the phones at the Veterans’ Affairs crisis line. Here, the story is told through their voices, and the picture that emerges is far more moving. Gilbertson is extraordinarily skilled at evoking what is absent, but he fails in “Shell Shock,” where we have no contact with PTSD itself. The absent voices of the callers in “On The Line” bring the reality home.

Photographs and shrines

March 19, 2010 Leave a comment

I was taken by today’s NYT Magazine feature, The Shrine Down the Hall, in which Ashley Gilbertson offers a series of simple, black-and-white photographs of the bedrooms of American soldiers, killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is something haunting in these pictures. It’s not just that the bedroom is an intimate space, in which we find personal tokens of the deceased. It’s that the series highlights the youth of the casualties. When we are older, our abandoned spaces are taken over by others, and the evidence of our lives is eventually erased. It’s only when we’re young that our parents preserve our bedrooms for us.

And those bedrooms are filled with tokens of youth: teddy bears, a baseball bat, baseball mitts, swimsuit posters, girlish knick-knacks, Little League trophies. Coonskin caps. In one room, the blankets are turned back, as if Nils Thompson will soon be returning, although he was shot by a sniper in Mosul five years ago. Someone still waters Jennifer Parcell’s plants, and keeps fresh flowers on her bedside table.

And there are photographs: of childhood sports teams, brothers, sisters, parents, girlfriends, boyfriends, and squad mates. Most of these photos we can barely see, but we know what they are, because we know what they’re for.

Photographs have a dreadful permanence. Polaroids and early colour prints may fade and shift to orange, but properly made black and white prints will persist for a century or more. Panoramic regimental photographs shot in 1940 hang in every Legion branch, their rows of anonymous subjects now all dead, and recognized by no one. It is impossible to look at these things without feeling a sense of one’s own mortality.

And it is impossible to look at Gilbertson’s photos without feeling a terrible sense of how fragile our lives can be, how susceptible to sudden violence or to random accident. Our family photos reassure us by giving absent loved ones a permanent presence. Gilbertson’s are unsettling, in the way they render absence permanent.

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