Author’s photographs fall into several categories. The most common is the best face photograph; the ego shining forth. I’ve had my share of those photographs over the years. There are less common author’s photographs. Among those are ones that tell a visual story about a storyteller writing a story in a setting, which has its own story to tell.
This kind of photograph reminds me of Russian dolls nested together, each a smaller version of the one before it, until the doll is infinitely small and disappears with all of the stories locked inside.
This week, I was at the airport in Bangkok. Physically I was at the airport, but my mind was somewhere else. It was engaged with the latest Calvino novel. Scraps of dialogue, gestures, expressions, body language, and images buzzing around like fruit flies hovering over an open jar of honey. I normally carry a notebook. I left it at home. I knew from bitter experience that unless I wrote down the imaginary and dialogue that it would be lost. There were too many ideas, too many scenes and faces. There is nothing more frustrating than being in the flow of a scene and having no way to pull from that river the treasures floating past.
I went to a counter and asked for a piece of paper and found a place to write. Only later when looking at the photograph could I see that the world around me as rich as an imagination set free. An unattended airport cart filled with various packages. Who had left it? What was inside the packages?
No one but a writer lost to his imagination would miss the huge Mount Blanc advertisement, a brand, a prestige item and a godlike face—all playing out a story about how our world of commodities feeds our desires, focuses our motivations, and guides our deepest hopes. The illuminated ad shone like a mini-shrine, a spirit house, a testament to our wish to elevate our status and to receive the recognition of those around us.
Here I was a writer holding a two-dollar pen, writing, head down, lost inside myself, ignoring our culture’s message as to what is real and important. I wrote in the shadow of a company that sells really expensive, flashy pens—that now also expensive perfume for men to go along with the Mount Blanc pens. The smell, the look, that’s what has pulled us into the dragnet of manufactured happiness. We are suckers who no longer fight the dragnet as it sweeps us along with millions of other little fish trying to swim like outsized, important fish, one that secretly aspires to become a legend. Money is the shortcut to rise out of fishery. That’s how stuff is sold to us. It is the reason we part our money after we have everything else. Who doesn’t want to be a legend and immortal? And to smell so fragrant that the gods weep as we pass, is a feeling that we can’t easily shake.
The escalator leading international passengers to the immigration control, the airport workers with their vests talking to each other, knowing they’d never take that escalator upstairs to clear immigration. They are the fish, which swim in huge schools, the fish, which will never buy the perfume or take the plane to Berlin or London or New York. These local fish stay close to home shore.
I had been writing. I had been paying attention to the flow inside my mind. Everything in the photograph went unnoticed. Focus is the bullet that puts a slug in the heart of distraction. They fall away dead and we don’t notice the bodies until we look at a picture and identify them later.
What we pay attention to and how we pay (or fail to pay) attention defines as much as a tattoo of a dragon on our forehead. As a writer my books and essays form part of the attention focusing business and they compete with all of the other products that attention hawkers hit you with hundreds of times a day. Exhausting, isn’t it? All this money and effort spent to get you to focus your attention on some visual, oral, acoustical experience.
It doesn’t matter what public space we enter, someone wants us to pay attention to what they have to say. Retreating into a private space provides little protection. Legions of companies, governments and other people want you to remember that you paid attention to their message and for a reason. They want something from you. And in return, they are offering you some reward in return for your attention.
One reason to read is to find a way out of the lamppost light bias. The parable goes like this. A cop on foot patrol comes across a drunk on his knees circling around a lamppost.
The officer asked the drunk, “What are you doing on the ground”
And the drunk replied, “I’ve lost my car keys.”
The cop took pity on the drunk and helped him search for the lost keys. After fifteen minutes of a futile search, the cop asked the drunk, “Where did you lose the keys?”
The drunk pointed to the park in the dark beyond on the lamppost. “Over there,” said the drunk.
The cop shakes his head, “For God’s sake,man, why are you looking here?”
And the drunk replied, “Because that’s where the light is.”
The books l read take me out beyond the light of the lamppost. They take me to the hidden world inside the dark park. That’s where the keys were lost. Not to my car but to understanding about the nature of the world. Truth is camouflaged, out of sight. You won’t find it under a lamppost. That’s where everyone expects to find it. But the right book, in the hands of a master, can light a single candle that reveals what has been concealed. The things not sold on airport advertisements. We have in our power to take that candle and set out on an exploration. Even if truth isn’t at the end, the journey will have illuminated a pathway to worlds that lay just beyond where the darkness begins.
I was in the airport in Bangkok. It was a lamppost and I was inside its light. But my mind was inside another the terrain, time and place, and whether or not I found anything of value, I can’t be sure. But I was pleased to have found strangers who donated paper and pen to take a chance that I might be writing my own ticket to escape from the lamppost circle of light.