Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Mama, don't take my Kodachrome away!

Cigarettes stink up the joint and good riddence to them but...

There are things about smoking I miss.

I didn't quit. I never took it up. The one time I tried it in high school I managed to burn the back of my throat. I set out to learn how to smoke for a play I was in in college. I played a musician in Michael Weller's Moonchildren, which is set in the mid-1960s. Smoking, the director and I decided, would be as much a part of this character as a blues flag and shades. I couldn't learn the trick of it. It wasn't just that I couldn't do the actual smoking. I couldn't master the art of holding a cigarette. The director decided my character did all his smoking offstage.

But I spent a lot of time around people who smoked. From the time I was a little kid---three out of four of my grandparents were smokers---through grad school I stank like a three-pack a dayer, and no one noticed because everyone around me stank too. Somehow after leaving grad school I fell in with a healthier crowd and cigarettes, and all the interesting sights and sounds and fragrances that belonged to them, pretty much disappeared from my life. In the meantime, more and more states and municipalities have banned smoking from public places and now it is possilbe to go weeks without spending any time in the company of someone smoking.

There are things about other people smoking that I miss though. I miss the sounds---of a match being struck, the snick of a lighter, the first satisfied exhale of the contented nicotine addict getting her fix. The tapping of a new pack of Luckys on a knee and the crinkling as it's unwrapped. I miss the sights of a match flaring in a dimly lit bar and the orange glow of the tip of a friend's cigarette in the dark of a car traveling through the night. I miss all the gestures and play that go with handling a cigarette. I miss some of the smells. The aroma of good tobacco burning in a room that isn't stale with a lot of bad tobacco and old tobacco. The slightly sulfphuric but not unpleasant tang of smoke and burnt cardboard from a match shaken or blown out. I even miss some of the bad smells because of their associations. I'm thinking of times I put my nose into a girl's hair or buried my face in her sweater and had to read the scents of her shampoo and skin through the reek of the crowded bar or party we'd just left. I had a girlfriend who smoked like a chimney and bathed in perfume---Charlie, probably---and let me tell you, those two smells don't mix.

Those are losses. Small losses but they are a part of a general sensual loss that worries me.

I think we folks living in the post-industrial part of the world are immersing ourselves in a gigantic sensory deprivation tank. Every advance in life seems to come at the expense of interesting sights, smells, sounds, and things that feel good to the touch. Visually our world is all about cars, asphalt, concrete, and blank glass. Our workplaces are colorless, devoid of decor, increasingly windowless. Wherever it isn't bank lobby quiet, it's traffic jam noisy. There's a difference between noises and sounds. Sounds have a music and a poetry. That say what they are about. You hear their purpose and their connection to life. Noises are just...noisy.

And as more and more work is done by machines, computers, and robots, the only thing anybody feels during the day are plastic buttons. And plastic really has no feel. Not like wood or cold metal, paper or cloth, dirt, stone, animal hide and fur, leather, and skin, all of which used to be a part of everybody's workday. Plastic's "feel" is just the impression of a feel, a reminder to the fingers there's something there that needs to be pressed.

Not only do we lose touch we lose intelligence as the machines and computers and robots take over. Muscle memory slips away. Our hands and legs become dumb. They stop talking to our brains and our brains have no reason to miss the conversation.

There's little to connect us to the physical world, to tell us we are inside bodies and that those bodies are part of the earth and the beat and hum and pummel of life.

As we lose touch with the world we lose touch with ourselves. Absent things to feel, we don't develop any feelings about what we are doing.

Minds locked inside themselves disintegrate. Isolates go mad.

We are all Ben Gunns marooned on islands of disembodied self.

Even in the arts, sensuality and muscle memory are losing out to the feel of plastic. In the movies what was done with paint and pencil and ink is done by computer on a computer screen. That's as true of live action movies as of cartoons. Once when you wanted a castle for a movie you had to build it, or at least build a model of one. Once when you needed a crowd you had to hire actors and dress them and put make up on them. Once you shot on film. There was a negative to develop and cut by hand.

Once the work had to be done by human bodies that contained human minds. Now it can be done by computers connected to human minds by the barest touch of finger.

Writing used to be a more physical, more sensual act, it had sounds and smells, the job required dexterity, back when it was done with pens and paper and typewriters that clacked and rang and banged and had ribbons that needed to be changed---took a real skill to do that in the old days so you didn't wind up with ink all over your fingers and your pages.

The coming of digital photography has been a gift to me. Once upon a time I wanted to be a photographer. I had a good eye. But I also had an empty wallet. If you weren't rich, photography was not a hobby you took up lightly.

Digital photography has made photographers and artists out of people who used to think they just took snapshots, and that's great. But cameras used to make interesting sounds and I miss the clicking of shutters and the popping of flashes and the whirr of film advancing. And while manipulating an image on a computer screen requires a good eye and a light and intelligent touch on the mouse, that's about all it requires, while to go into a darkroom is to be an artist and a chemist and machinist and a clock and an explorerer and a bat and a whole lot of other things that add up to being a whole human being and not a wetware component of your own computer.

The Heretik used to be a photographer, but he was not rich. He still misses his art. He misses his dark room. He misses quite a bit that he'll make you miss too when you read this post Clicks.


At 5:59 PM, Blogger Ann Wesley Hardin said...

Lance, this is a brilliant post on so many levels. It really touched a spot in my soul and I'd like to link to it, or shamelessly rip it off for my own blog. Can I? Huh? Can I??

Seriously, great, thoughtful, insightful commentary. I'm glad I found it!



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