1) DO SOMETHING DANGEROUS. Know what an adrenaline surge REALLY feels like. You cannot possibly write about one without that visceral knowledge. And “dangerous” is huge – you can fit in a lot of things under that umbrella – do something that your mother might have warned you about, or something that society considers “unsafe”, or something simply exilarating. Here’s a few of my candidates:- three of my (young, female) friends and I once climbed down from Table Mountain in Cape Town, on foot, in the dark, sliding down scree slopes and falling into the switchback roads, until we finally ended up hitch-hiking a ride the rest of the way down in a solitary car coming down from the topside parking lot, with a single male occupant inside. He was nice. We were taken down the mountainside and deposited at its foot without any incident at all. I was in my twenties; this was half my life ago. The adrenaline rush remains to this day.
– I jumped off a mountain. WIth an instructor, to be sure, in tandem, but still – I parasailed off a mountainside. I have pictures to prove it. When my father saw them – unexpectedly, before I did, long story – his response was, “If you survived that, when you get home, I’m going to kill you.” Yeah. Adrenaline.
– I swam off the edge of a coral reef. The adrenaline of THAT makes my teeth ache right now while I am thinking about it. The experience can still make my heart race.
– I gave my heart completely. And had it broken. And it HURT. And I’m the better off for having dared to do it.
2) TRAVEL. You will gain only a very limited understanding of humanity if you seek it only with people who live in the small town where you were born, and you’re too afraid to venture beyond the edges into the great wide world beyond. Learn at least the basics of another language in which you can communicate with people who are NOT LIKE YOU. The world will open up like an unexpected dream. It’s fun if your destination is far flung and exotic, but it doesn’t have to be. Take a road trip. A train ride. If you have to start small, begin by going an hour, two, four, six, outside your comfort zone. Then,if you feel ready, tackle the world. Some of the places I’ve been:
– Fiji and Tahiti (learned a few phrases of the Micronesian/Polynesian vernacular, learned to snorkel, swam with dolphins, saw an octopus and a coconut crab in the wild, made friends with local people and learned their dreams.And I will never forget the colours of the coral lagoons, nor the black depths of ocean that lie beyond them. The colours of the world.)
– Vienna (walked the polished wooden floors of its Imperial palaces and the cobbles of its streets, listened to waltzes, drank young wine in the wine shops of Grinzig, tasted Sacher Torte in the Sacher Hotel where it was born.)
– Kruger National Park, South Africa, and Etosha National Park, Namibia (saw lions and leopards in the wild, saw an elephant pace slowly and majesticlaly away into the purple African twilight, breathed in the dust and the heat while watching herds of Impala and zebra and wildebeest. Learned that rhinos are the firemen of the African savannah, and run TO a fire instead of away from it, and stomp it out with those hard-soled stumpy little feet of theirs if they can – which means that they can be damned dangerous to campsites when they blunder into the midst of fragile human campers.
– Japan (the first and only place on this earth where I was ever totally functionally illiterate – but I managed. Learned about the Shinto and the Buddhist faiths, and what each means to the Japanese people. Saw many beautiful temples. Saw many beautiful gardens. Been aware that I walked the ground where an ancient and vivid civilisation had thrived for CENTURIES, and felt breathless with that knowledge, particularly when gazing, in a museum, at a samurai sword from something like 1452 – still bright and shining steel and still probably capable of cutting a hair in half as it floated down upon its edge.)
But you get the idea. The world is a wide and wonderful place, and it is FULL of gifts.
3) FEEL REAL GRIEF. You cannot know what it’s like to lose a living thing that you love until you do that – until you lose the cat you’ve had by your side for the last fifteen or twenty years of your life from a simple and inevitable advent of old age or watch a beloved pet waste away before its time from something you cannot do anything about and make the decision on their behalf that they have suffered enough, or sit by the bedside of a grandparent who is slipping away and holding the soft wrinkled hands in your own knowing that they may not feel your doing so but that somehow, somehow, they know that you are there. Real grief is raw and bitter, and tastes of tears. Before you write of it, you have to have had it tear your own heart apart. Because everything else will feel inadequate to those readers of your future work who HAVE known such grief, and will know if you speak the truth.
4) FEEL REAL ANGER. *Something* should make you feel your way down to your core, until you find that cold hard ember that is at the heart of you, not the swift mundane attacks of being cross about someone cutting you off in traffic or being rude to you on a subway. Something should reach all the way down to that primeval thing, the cold fury, the anger that does not leave you blinded with temporary passion but leaves you clear headed and clear eyed and knowing that ALL OF YOU hates this thing that you are seeing, hates with every fiber, and even though you may not be able to do anything at all about it (or maybe not RIGHT NOW, anyway) leaves you considering and discarding options of what to actually DO about that thing that has taken you to this place.. True fury needs few words, that’s for sure, but if you want to write about it you have to know what it FEELS LIKE. What it feels like to be REALLY that angry. So look for something. Cruelty to animals. Cruelty to children. Pointless war. Something precious being willfully wasted. Ignorance and bigotry. Hypocrisy. Something, anything, something that you consider to be IMPORTANT ENOUGH to tap that cold fury in support of. Know it, understand it. Only then can you own it.
5) FAIL. Because you will. it is inevitable. Do what you need to do anyway, knowing that it may meet this fate. Because fear of failure is otherwise going to put the brakes on too many things that you need to do or want or know in your life before you can understand any other human being alive deeply enough to write their story. You HAVE to know what it means to fail. The lives of the very rich and the very happy seldom make for good story fodder – because these people are insulated from failure. Everything is handed to them, and if failure becomes a looming option then a scaepgoat is found to take the weight of it leaving the one who truly failed unscathed by it all. The most interesting stories come from people who have failed HARD, and then learned from that failure, and risen up like proverbial phoenixes to touch fire again. DOn’t be afraid to fail. Just be afraid of not trying.
This essay might be of special interest to writers of detective and mystery novels who would like to enrich their stories by providing their readers with a gift of extra details. It might also be of general interest to many other readers, especially those who are CSI and NCIS fans. The ADDITIONAL INFORMATION section of this essay contains material found during research. It is not always closely related to the main subject of the essay, but is thought to be interesting.
This piece departs from my usual fare in that a victim is not saved or a crime is not solved or avenged thanks to some new gadget, process or stroke of genius developed by a person or group working in the field of forensics. In this case, a kidnap victim used his observational skills and memory to help authorities catch his kidnappers and a cadre of persons who aided and abetted them following the actual kidnapping.
Unlike many criminals during the crime-ridden1930s, George Kelly Barnes, Jr. was not brought up in a poor family in a poor residential neighborhood. His father was a well-to-do insurance executive and his family lived in a fairly select area of Memphis. He enrolled in college, but he was far from being a good student and left after a few months. He married a fellow student, but, after having two children, his wife divorced him. He drove a cab for a while, but soon discovered that moonshining and bootlegging were more profitable. This led to his being arrested several times, and he left Memphis. Apparently, to keep his family name untarnished, he also assumed an alias of George R. Kelly. As he moved about, he served a few months behind bars in the New Mexico State Penitentiary for bootlegging, was next arrested in Tulsa for vagrancy and later charged with bootlegging. Kelly eventually took a job with a bootlegger named “Little Steve” Anderson. He soon left Anderson’s employ, reportedly in Anderson’s sixteen-cylinder Cadillac and with its owner’s mistress, Kathryn Thorne. Kelly and Kathryn were married in September of 1930.
Ms. Thorne did not come without a bit of her own baggage. She had a daughter with a husband she had married when only fifteen and had soon divorced. She had then tried another brief marriage. Following that, she married a bootlegger named Charlie Thorne. While away, she heard that he had cheated on her, and she headed home. On her way, Kathryn reportedly told a gas station attendant, “I’m bound for Coleman, Texas to kill that god-damned Charlie Thorne.” Charlie was found shot to death the next day. A coroner’s jury ruled his death a suicide.
Kathryn’s baggage also included her mother, who ran a bootlegging operation, a step-father, who rented his Texas ranch as a hideout to wanted criminals for 50 dollars per night, two uncles, who were in a federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas for car theft and counterfeiting, respectively. A cousin was suspected of counterfeiting, another cousin was a bootlegger and an aunt was a prostitute. Kathryn herself was no stranger to legal authorities and had been charged with shoplifting and robbery and had been jailed for receiving stolen goods and for prostitution. She had done time using a variety of names. Her actual name was Cleo, but she preferred to use Kathryn because she thought it sounded more glamorous.
Kathryn has been credited with helping to establish a reputation for Kelly as a ruthless criminal wanted for bank robbery, kidnapping and murder. She bought him a Thompson submachine gun at a Ft. Worth pawnshop for 250 dollars and insisted that he practice shooting it. She even distributed spent shells to relatives and friends as souvenirs and referred to him as “Machine Gun Kelly.” A wanted poster described him as being an “expert machine gunner.”
Kelly took part in a number of robberies. His first kidnapping was that of a banker’s son. Reportedly, however, he was not the desperado that Kathryn made him out to be. Kelly released the banker’s son when he convinced his kidnappers that he could not afford to pay a ransom, but that he would owe it to them and pay off the debt when he had enough money. (He never did.) Meanwhile, Kelly and Kathryn lived in a Fort Worth house that had been built by the late Charlie Thorne.
The crime that brought Kelly and his nickname, “Machine Gun Kelly,” to public notice was that of kidnapping oil tycoon, Charles F. Urschel. (He was the observant kidnap victim mentioned in the second paragraph of this essay.) Kelly and a partner, Albert Bates, forced Urschel from his Oklahoma residence late in the evening of July 22, 1933, interrupting a game of bridge he and his wife were playing with another couple on their front porch. Bates repeatedly referred to Kelly as Floyd, assumedly to make Urschel think Kelly was “Pretty Boy” Floyd.
Urschel was held captive on Kathryn’s father-in-law’s ranch in Texas. Items he took note of to foil his captors included the sound of an airplane passing overhead twice each day. After what he judged to be about five minutes after each flight, he would ask the person guarding him what time it was. He estimated the overflights took place regularly at about 9:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. He recalled there being a violent thunderstorm one day. During a conversation with a guard, he learned there had been a severe drought in the area. Two of the guards seemed to him to be father and son. He remembered hearing the creaking of a pump from which he was served minerally tasting water in a tin cup. He also thought to leave his fingerprints everywhere he could.
After Urschel had been kidnapped, his wife called the police and then called J. Edgar Hoover in Washington, D.C. Urschel sent letters to Mrs. Urschel and two family friends, advising them that the kidnappers were demanding a ransom of $200,000 in $20 bills. One of the friends delivered the money to Kelly at an arranged location in Kansas City, Kansas, on July 30. Urschel was freed near Norman, Oklahoma the next night. He walked to the nearest telephone and called a cab.
By this time, the FBI had a fair idea who the kidnappers were. Mrs. Urschel and the other two bridge players had tentatively identified a photograph of Kelly as being one of the kidnappers. With the information provided by Erschel, the FBI located the ranch where Erschel had been kept. A check of airline schedules revealed that an American Airlines plane passed daily over Paradise, Texas between 9:40 and 9:45 a.m. and 5:40 and 5:45 p.m. Upon raiding the Texas ranch, they found the creaky pump, the tin cup and Urschel’s fingerprints. Kelly and Kathryn were arrested on September 26, 1933 during an early morning raid on a house in Memphis. At trial, they each received life sentences. They were not the only persons tried and sentenced in this case. A number of other persons were involved. As it ran its course, the case resulted in a conviction of 21 persons. Six earned life sentences and the rest, a total of more than 58 years.
Kathryn attracted suspicion when, on the day after the kidnapping, she tried to establish an alibi when meeting one of two detectives she had wrongly thought were corrupt. She told him she had just come from St. Louis, but he noticed red dirt on her car’s tires and Oklahoma newspapers on the car’s seat. He also recalled that she had previously invited him to take part in a kidnapping. There were two versions of what happened next. One is that the detective suspected that the Kelly’s were involved in the Urschel kidnapping and reported it to the FBI. The other was that there were two local detectives who contacted the FBI when they didn’t get a split of the ransom.
A vivid description of Kathryn Thorne was provided by J. Edgar Hoover when he reportedly quoted a man as having told a friend, “Remember that innocent little girl I was going to show a good time? She took me to more speakeasies, more bootleg dives, more holes in the wall than I thought there were in all Texas. She knows more bums than the police department. She can drink liquor like water, and she’s got some of the toughest women friends I ever laid eyes on.”
Until 1935, the FBI officially bore the title of the Division of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice.
An accessory to a crime is one who helps another to commit a crime. Aiding and abetting is a crime that includes persons who purposely have someone else commit crimes for them. Punishment for the latter is usually more severe than that for an accessory.
The nickname, “Machine Gun Kelly,” referred to Kelly’s supposed weapon of choice. While serving time in Alcatraz, he often boasted about having committed many crimes. According to a fellow inmate, however, he was such a model prisoner that other inmates referred to him as “Popgun Kelly.”
The development of the Thompson submachine gun and its use by gangsters–especially during the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre when seven persons were killed–reportedly led to the 1934 National Firearms Act and the public pressure for gun control in the United States.
At the Cascade Writers Conference in Seattle, over the weekend of July17-20 2014,I gave an hour-long talk entitled “Sea of Voices”. This is not, exactly, a transcript. More of a “retelling”. But this is the gist of what I had to say at the conference, repackaged for a wider audience.
“How many people are in this room?” I asked the audience at my talk, and I saw them start turning around to start counting heads. “No,” I interrupted, “not how many warm bodies. How many people. Let me introduce you to the ones that are currently up here at the front of the room, with me.
And then I spoke, in character, as character, as four of the characters from my own stories. Here’s what I said – here’s what the characters said through me, using my body, my voice:
Coyote (from the Worldweavers series)
She called me Corey, in the books. She had to call me something. But you might know me better as Coyote… or perhaps as someone else altogether. You might never know when I am near you. I have many faces.
I am a spirit; I am a god; I am an avatar. I am chaos.
I am a rock in a stream; I do not block the water flow but I act as a dam and I make the water find a way around me if it wants to move forward in its bed. I am a lesson to be learned.
I am neither good nor bad, but I am balance.
I do not plan, because the future comes anyway, but I live in this moment and in it alone and I do what must be done to help the world – and my people – move forward. I am always early, and I am always late, and I am the world’s most trusting fool as well as its most cunning Trickster. I am neither light nor darkness, I am shadow, and without me neither light nor dark exist.
Rohese Mazarin (from a work as yet unwritten)
When I first came out of the cloud to speak to this one I introduced myself, I gave my name and my city, I gave my lineage, my history, my past, my credentials for becoming the narrator or at the very least a very important part of A Story. I gave far more than would ever be used – but how else could I be real?
I gave the story of the little girl who knew that in her world she would be without power unless it was the power of pillow talk with a man who could make the things she thought and dreamed of come to pass in her name. The little girl who wanted the world anyway.
The little girl who sat on the rim of the fountain in her father’s marble-paved courtyard and saw the reflection of the moon in the still water… and reached out to take it in the full knowledge that it could not fail to be hers… and watched its image shiver and shred into ripples as her touch disturbed the water.
The little girl who knew even then that the lesson was not that she could not have the moon. The lesson was that the moon was an illusion.
Grayson (Gray) Garvin (from “Shifter”, book 3 in the Were Chronicles, Coming Soon!)
I played coy, see. I wandered into the story, late, and stood playing with my hair – I tend to chew on the ends of it, it’s a bad habit I picked up in foster care when I was little – and I wouldn’t give her my name. And so we played Rumpelstiltskin, she and I, and she would ask, are you Jenny? Are you Anna? Are you Vivian? Are you Maggie? And I would shake my head and smile coyly and drop my eyelashes over my eyes and watch her squirm.
Until finally she gave up and posted a poll on her blog asking her readers what my name was – and hey, I couldn’t have that, I couldn’t have her crowdsourcing my name – and so I crept up to her one night as she was just about to fall asleep and wasn’t even thinking about me and I whispered into her ear, “Grayson. My name is Grayson Garvin, But you will probably know me better as Gray.”
She sighed, and slept. But now she knows me. And now we wait for my story to begin. I haven’t told her all of it yet. I am not the kind of girl who gives it all up just like that. I will make her work for it, for every word I say, for every dream I have, for every thing I love or despise – I will make her find out. It’s MUCH more fun that way.
Xaforn (from “Secrets of Jin Shei”)
I lived my life by the code of honor.
When I was just a little girl I brought down three bullies, boys bigger than me, because they were torturing this innocent kitten – not just because the kitten was innocent and helpless, although there was always that, but because the kitten belonged to us, to the Guard, and we had a duty to it. To protect it, to save it, to keep it safe and out of the clutches of these impious hands. So I just did it, what needed to be done, without thinking about it – it was instinct, it was something inside me, it was something I was born with and could not be myself without.
They asked me why I did it and I told them – and it was simple – it was OUR cat. And we had a duty to it.
It was only years later that I understood the true lesson of the kitten, that day in my childhood now long gone – on the night I found myself having to choose between the love and duty that I had always given to the Guard who had been my family since the moment I had been left on the doorstep of their barracks in a basket when I was only days old, and my duty to the sense of honor which was the core of myself… and I faced down the Guard because honor called me to do it, in defense of my friend, of the sister of my soul, of someone who was another part of myself, because it was the right thing to do, because it was the only thing to do… because she was MY cat. She was where my love and my duty lay, in the end, even if it cost me my life.
I could see the dawning of understanding in the audience as the characters stepped on the stage and took the light and the cue and said their piece. I could see eyes beginning to sparkle. And when I asked, after my last character was done, “How many people do you think are in this room now?” – I could see the original number, the original head count, becoming revised upwards. Into dozens. Maybe approaching hundreds.
We all carry it within us, all the writers, we all swim in this sea of voices which whisper into our ears as we work, as we eat, as we sleep, as we dream. We contain multitudes, That person sitting in the back of the bus having a passionate conversation with thin air? He’s probably a writer arguing with a recalcitrant character who will not do what is needful because they know better (the worst thing is that they usually DO…)
One of the things that these conference attendees came here to find out is how to create their characters – how to find them, how to meet them, how to control them – and all I could tell them was that I did not know, because in my case my characters came out of the ether fully formed and proceeded to find/meet/control ME. I – and I think a very high number of other writers – suffer from a case of mild possession, with the character demanding that I sit down and take dictation, that I tell a story that needs to be told and for which I am the only voice. I am not so much a God of this universe as I am its amanuensis.
Good characters, true characters, are self-aware to a degree that would astonish most people if they stopped to think about it – and that goes for the protagonist of any story and the chief villain thereof as much as it applies to the third spear carrier from the left who may or may not have a speaking part. Even when it feels the most like you – the author – are making all the decisions… if you are listening hard enough, it’s the sea of voices which is steering your craft, telling you which way to go in the currents of story.
They may begin nebulous, like any newborn, but those characters who are worth their salt quickly get past that stage into the classic teenage “don’t tell me what to do!” mindset and then they find themselves walking a largely self-chosen path with the writer only there as support, as a source of information, as a confessional, as a curious companion.
The difference is that, to any story that is being told, the author is necessary; the characters are essential. It’s their story. All YOU are doing is telling it.
The most unforgettable characters who can grace any story are not the ones whom you are trying to change – it’s the ones who are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) changing YOU while you are in their company. Because those characters are going to change everyone, by the time they’re done. They’re the ones the readers will remember long after they close the book in which the characters appears, long after the details of the individual stories are forgotten. These are the characters who step out of their books and live as eternal companions to the people into whose minds and hearts they have crept and taken residence there; the characters who are so alive, so real, that those who have made their acquaintance will be able to tell you with absolute certainty how the characters would act in any given situation which is not remotely within the realm of their original tale. They have breath, a beating heart, a real soul – they may not always have salvation but if they are good enough they will always have an afterlife.
A character like this is a gift, more than any author can hope for when they dip their metaphorical pen into the inkwell and start a tale. Listen for their whispers, when they drift near you in the sea of voices. They will frustrate you, they will anger you and annoy you, they will make you weep, they will make you laugh, they will fold their dreams into your hand and close your fingers around them and tell you to treat those dreams with care. And it is a covenant. This is a promise that you must make them, that you will do right by them, as best you know how. THEY will show you the way.
The best way to find your characters… is to listen. The sea of voices is out there. Its message is waiting for you to find it… when you are ready to hear.
Somewhere in those voices there is one that is speaking to you right now. Meet them halfway. And then watch the magic happen.
This essay might be of special interest to writers of detective and mystery novels who would like to enrich their stories by providing their readers with a gift of extra details. It might also be of general interest to many other readers, especially those who are CSI and NCIS fans. Kindly note that the characters and locations in the following essay are fictitious and have been created to represent persons and places associated with a possible crime solved with the aid of an unusual, but real, forensic method.
The telephone call was directed to the office of Captain Billy Miller, who was in charge of a police precinct in Gulfax City. Among those he commanded, he was often referred to as Barney Miller, after the popular situation-comedy and character having had that name. Miller sported a mustache that gave him an appearance similar to that of the character, but he lacked a similar sense of humor. Miller’s smile was reserved for off-duty hours and was not often seen even then.
The captain’s office adjoined a squad room containing a meeting table and a number of cubicles. Each cubicle was shared by two officers who worked different shifts. When not out investigating crime scenes and interviewing witnesses, they wrote reports, discussed theories and received assignments from Miller. The incoming call was to advise Captain Miller of an apparent murder of a well-known trial judge, Malcolm Bridger. As the captain hurried through the squad room, he collected two detectives, namely, one Colleen Donovan and one Riley Finch. The three hot-footed it to a police cruiser and headed for the suburbs. The late judge, a recent widower, had lived alone there in a large, Victorian-style house.
Upon arrival, the trio found Bridger’s body resting face-up on the floor of his study before a large, paper-strewn desk. The body was clothed in a light-blue lounging robe. Blood had escaped from a knife-inflicted chest wound, darkening the front of the robe. It appeared that Bridger had tried to defend himself before being stabbed. A.pair of glasses lay broken nearby, and a high-back chair lay on its side. Four depressions in the carpet disclosed the chair’s original position along one side of the desk. Neighbors discovered the body when they had arrived for a traditional Friday-evening card-playing foursome. Bridger had not responded to his doorbell, and his back door was ajar.
Captain Miller was all business and dispensed instructions to his crew of two in clipped, right-to-the-point sentences. After photgraphs were taken of the crime scene a medical examiner arrived and officially confirmed that the judge was dead. The body was then transported to the Gulfax morgue, where an autopsy would be performed. The detectives remained to attend to the business of note-taking. measuring, photographing, collecting and labeling the usual multitude of items that might prove to be important when identifying, finding and subsequently convicting Bridger’s killer. The potential evidence would be submitted to a laboratory for analysis by forensic specialists.
Among the items found near the body was a small, plastic article. Finch immediately identified it as an in-canal hearing aid, and Donavon said that it looked like one worn by her mother. They initially thought it had probably belonged to Bridger and had fallen out of his ear during the skirmish with his killer. Forensic analysis of ear wax (cerumen) adhering to it, however, excluded the judge as having been the wearer; and there was a good chance it had fallen from the attacker’s ear.
The judge had been well-liked and respected by everyone who knew him–even attorneys against whom he had ruled in court. As was to be expected, of course, felons to whom he had awarded prison terms did not generally number among his admirers. That alone substantially expanded the field of those who might have wished to seek revenge for him having reduced the size of their living quarters to a single, unfashionable cell. A recently paroled felon named Fester Sturbic, however, who had, in front of the entire court, strongly addressed the judge by a name not given him by his parents, naturally became a prime suspect.
Meanwhile, research had been directed at determining the possibility of using body odors from armpits and earwax for forensic purposes. It was thought their analyses could reveal persons’ identities, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, states of health and also where they had been and what they had eaten. It has long been known that mothers can recognize their babies by their odors. I can recall that, upon returning home after attending night classes, I was immediately able to determine which of my brother’s children had visited during the day.
In Sturbic’s case, there was evidence supporting a guilty verdict , but it was somewhat inconclusive. In the laboratory, the earwax found adhering to the hearing aid found near the judge’s body and that taken from Sturbic’s ear were separately warmed until each became an odorous gas. Each gas was then analyzed using a technique employing gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. The results of the analyses were compared and found to be a match. When added to the evidence found previously, it easily resulted in a stiff sentence for the defendant.
Animal tissues come in four flavors: epithelial, connective, muscle and nervous. Epithelial tissue is relevant to this essay because it lines our ear canals and provides a function of transcellular transport. Epithelial migration acts as a conveyor belt for earwax, moving toward the entrance of the ear (auditory) canal, carrying particulate matter that might have gathered in the canal. It also carries debris dislodged from the canal wall by jaw movements. Epithelial cells migrate at a blinding speed, comparable to that of fingernail growth.
Earwax has another useful application. A build-up of earwax in toothless whales sometimes provides the only means of determining their ages. Blue whales are baleen whales, which have baleen plates that filter food from water. They evolved later than toothed whales and live for an estimated 80 to 90 years. Being some 98 feet in length and weighing some 190 tons, they are not only the largest living animal, they are the heaviest animal that ever lived.
I time travel quite a bit.
No, seriously, I do.
It’s cheap and you can do it whenever you want, really.
So long as you have photographs..
Sometimes, when I take stock of how many photographs I have, it’s alarming. There are albums and albums which my father put together as I was growing up. The earliest one I have in my closet, a precious thing, is the old fashioned kind with thick gray pages on which you pasted the photos, and Dad did this, small old black and white pics to begin with, of my mother pregnant with me and then my first baby pictures (yes the obligatory bare-ass one…) and then me, growing from a shapeless papoose into a chubby toddler – and then, over a series of other albums, into a long-legged pre-teen and then a rangy adolescent, and then a young woman…
At some point the albums peter out and cross over into something more chaotic, just loose photos, hundreds of them, THOUSANDS of them, from four continents, with occasional efforts being made to sort them and categorize them. Most of the time nobody wrote down anything on the back so actual times and dates and locations are sometimes probably literally known to only one viewer – me – because I was either in the shot (at an identifiable age from which I can then map the rest of the details) or, later on, I was the one behind the camera and remember taking that shot.
By the time my father stopped taking pictures and making albums I had my own camera – but my pictures are different from the ones that came before. I take pictures of landscapes and animals and clouds in the sky and flowers in my garden and butterflies and the ocean and snow. My pictures are of the things I have seen and preserved like a solid little memory square in full Technicolor.
But I don’t have many pictures of people. With my dad’s abdication as photographer and archivist, the long line of the family record really all came to a sputtering end, with a few explosions at a handful of times – a bunch of shots from my graduation(s) from University – a bunch of pictures on which I feature from our sojourn in New Zealand – a couple of shots of me from my South Seas adventure – and then one or two here and there, just as proof of life, I am still here and I am still walking this Earth, but nothing like the sustained record that there was when I was young.
A similar chaos exists from the era that was pre-me.
The older pictures, the black and white shots filled with faces I do not know, my grandparents’ generation. Pictures I cherish because of their age and their testimony – shots of my grandparents as young parents, one particularly affecting one with them weeping over the tiny coffin of their second daughter who did not survive her babyhood – my great-uncle’s high-school graduation photo (he was a handsome young devil) – pictures of my mother as a ten-year-old with her hair in wheat-gold braids. But many of these older pictures are already lost to me because I can no longer identify their subjects. Some of them actually have dates on the back – semi mythical ones, to me, like 1936 and 1945 and 1950, the days before I existed – but the people who might know anything more about those pictures are beginning to vanish.
My father, the great photographer and organizer, died last year. While he was still with us I did a time capsule of sorts for him, combing through that chaos of loose photos for ones in which he appeared, putting them all together in a coherent timeline in a separate album.
Here was my father in a rare early picture when he was seventeen. Here he was in his twenties, and then in his late twenties and a soldier in uniform (they had obligatory military service in those days, and he was in uniform for a while, was in one when he met my mother, and it was horrifying, shocking, for her to be seen being squired around by one of the soldier boys, according to the accepted laws of propriety her culture lived by….), and then in his early thirties holding toddler me in his arms, and then in his forties still young and full of gung-ho optimism about the world flying out into adventure under the flag of the United Nations into Africa with wife and daughter in tow – and him in his fifties, and then his sixties,, and then the later ones, in his seventies, thin and spare and white-haired…
I do not have any of him from the last three months of his life. I did not want to remember him like that (as if I could ever forget, seeing it in real life, holding his skeletal arm in my hand as I supported him as he tried to walk…) But there it is, in front of me, pure time travel, me at my father’s side as he traversed the years of his life, the pictures bringing to life this moment or that one, conversations that started with “Do you remember…?”
It’s a time travel that can go in one direction only, into the past, into the things that were, that had been. Into memory. And photos can take you straight there – take a good look at one, and then close your eyes, and you can live the moment again as though all the years in between never were. You can be young again, any time you choose. You can look at a picture and remember joy, or sadness, or triumph, or awe. Time vanishes into a line, into a dot, and it’s all one continuum, and you and your older self hold hands like ghosts and dance across the story of your life.
It did occur to me, when I was putting together Dad’s albums, that it all ends with me.
I don’t have anyone to come after me. No young eyes are looking at these photos, no young eyes that share the histories that the pictures represent. I discovered already, the hard way, how fast those pictures can become just a pile of paper, in the end – when my father died, my mother culled his own vast mess of uncategorized and un-albumed photos, and she only kept a few, a precious few. Somehow the rest of them – the vast majority of them – lost all meaning when Dad went. A handful were useful as pointers… but photos… are a very personal time machine. Without the spirit to drive them, they become dead letters, a dead story, a vanished history, no longer of interest to anyone except someone who might have cared about the smiling face on the pictures in some capacity, or possibly, if that face had been a public figure of some sort, a dispassionate archivist putting together a collage for a museum exhibit, a cold static display.
This is a time machine for the soul. And it looks back, only back. And when the spirit withers, so does the ability to make sense of the time travel, and meaning, and memory.
I still have photos of my grandparents, dead now these twenty years and more. But for me, their meaning lies in the shreds of personality that still cling to them, the ghostly sound of remembered laughter, or a whispered word in their voice.
Dad’s images are still too young, too fresh, I remember him too well living – some of the more lasting images I recall of him are not recorded by camera but indelibly imprinted in my own mind, and these will be the things that cling to his own photos eventually, like my grandparents’ But for now it’s all still too close, too real. The time machine still sputters, fitfully. His hand is not in mine any more but I can still go back in time with him, he is still close enough for me to do that with.
But it will be a year since he left me, very soon. A YEAR. It’s hard to believe. Another year or three or five and the time machine will come to a final stop, somewhere, and everything will be just dust and ashes and memories.
But not yet. Not yet.
There are still a few journeys into time I can take with my father’s soul as my guide.