Archive for January, 2011

Director of the NSGRC: An interview

Just Wondering spoke with Emilia, director of the North Seattle Gravity Research Center, on 30 January, 2011.

JW: Will you briefly describe your organization and tell us what you’re doing here at the NSGRC?

E: The team consists of myself in both a directorial and a lead researcher role, and I have several highly trained assistants working with me. As for the NSGRC, the name really says it all. We’re researching gravity. What it is, what it does, how reliable it is, plus some collateral investigations, such as what happens as a result of the act of testing itself.   

JW: What does that look like in practice?

E: I drop stuff, chiefly.

Director and lead researcher Emilia in the lab.

JW: What kind of stuff do you drop, and from where?

E: We use a number of objects carefully chosen for their properties. One is the Nippler, a teething implement that looks a little like a World War II underwater mine. Round Shakey is a combination teething implement and a rattle. Another is called Snappy Girl. For a launch platform I use a special elevated research chair with a flat workspace mounted in front of me.  

JW: It looks like a high chair with a tray.

E: It’s an elevated research chair.

JW: Your own sister was director previously and still has an emeritus role here, isn’t that true?

E: That’s right. Mara did some pioneering early work, particularly in edibles, but she’s grown older and can’t do the pure research anymore.

Snappy Girl and the Nippler on deck.

JW: How does growing older impede “pure” research?

E: I mean, you obviously need to be focused on the behaviors. I drop this, it bounces toward the stove. I drop it again, it bounces under the chair. As you get older, experience skews your thinking. You think you know things. You start anticipating results. You start averaging things out, using your imagination. All good skills in life, but as a research institution we have to stay on task. It’s just observing what happens.

JW: What kind of things are you working on now?

E: I can’t say too much about it yet, but just this morning I was experimenting with using one implement to push another one off the workspace. That’s pretty exciting for us, the whole indirect agency thing.

JW: Why? What does that suggest?

E: Like I said, it’s really early and the results aren’t conclusive yet. All I can say about it is that the idea of indirect agency seems to fit some other theories we’re developing, things we’re seeing in other areas.

The Nippler about to be jettisoned.

JW: What have you learned lately that you’re confident about enough to talk about?

E: I’ve noticed a correlation between the number of things dropped and the number of things on my tray…workspace, I mean. Like it gets kinda quiet and boring after I’ve dropped a certain number of things, and this number — we think! — is often, maybe always, the same number of things I started with. But I can say for sure that there is a correlation there.

JW: You mentioned “other areas” and “collateral investigations”. It’s been suggested that your dropping studies are really just cover for your real study of your assistants.

E: Is there a question? I didn’t hear a question.

JW: Are you in fact studying your assistants? They pick up the things you drop over and over again. You said they are highly trained, but they’re unpaid. Their behavior could be seen as confusing. Are you studying this phenomenon?

E: Parallel research is ongoing into the motivations of my assistants, yes. They aren’t paid, it’s all volunteer, which, you have to admit, is pretty weird. I’m developing a theory that the assistants view this activity as a kind of investment, and several colleagues have suggested that my assistants might in fact be studying me. This line of inquiry quickly gets us into the hypermechanics of reciprocal observation, which is like string theory. I don’t think you want to go there. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work to do…


Better places than this

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery breakin’ my mind”

— Five Man Electrical Band

I was escorted off the premises a week or so ago. I’ve written before about having been assailed as a youth with a perverse desire to be in places where I shouldn’t be, but that desire has largely dissipated over the years and, in any case, this was not that. No, I was merely taking pictures, as I am wont to do, of the built environment in my city and I happened to run afoul of heightened security.

Only the streetlamps give the date away.

It’s happened before. The winter before Mara was born I bought an old Graflex Speed Graphic press camera, with the object of using 4×5 black and white film to document the older buildings in parts of town that are undergoing much redevelopment. Around that time, a mid-century public building had been demolished between James and Cherry and Third and Fourth avenues, leaving an open view of the back of the courthouse and Smith Tower and surrounding buildings. I took my camera and tripod and set up on the plaza of the new City Hall.

Now for a digression. To appreciate it, you must understand that it takes a long time for me to set up and take one of these shots. There are a lot of steps, some of which have to be done in a particular order or I will get blank negatives back. First I have to compose the shot, which is hard to do in daylight because I have to look at the back of the glass with the shutter open and it only presents a dim image. This is why photographers used to stick their heads under a dark cloth. It does not help matters that the image on the glass is upside down. I next pull out my smaller 35mm SLR camera and use its light meter to ascertain what shutter speed and f-stop I should use on the large format camera. Once this is done, I put the small camera away, close the large camera’s shutter and adjust it for the appropriate speed and then set the lens aperture. With the shutter closed I am now effectively working blind, but it’s moot anyway because the next thing I do is insert a 4×5 film holder between me and the lens. Next I must remember to pull out the metal plate that shields the film from light while it’s in the holder, first double-checking to make sure I did not leave the shutter open. Also, I am praying that there is film in the holder, because, you know, there might not be. There are so many ways to screw this up. Then I check to make sure the building didn’t run off, take a deep breath and depress the shutter release, and an image is made. Then I have to replace the metal shield, remove the holder, and begin the process again for the next photo.

Smith Tower with its top ball clipped off. Not my best day out.

I did all these things properly and took a photograph of the courthouse and Smith Tower. The photo I made was framed so that it was only by noticing the streetlamps or some other small detail that you could know that it is not, say 1938. Less than a minute after I released the shutter, a B-25 bomber lumbered through this prospect, burbling right past the upper stories of the Smith Tower on its way south to Boeing Field. I stood staring, unable to set up another shot in time, thinking what a coup it would have been to capture a scene in the summer of 2005 that might have been easily mistaken for the summer of 1945.

But on with the story. I had moved my tripod to the sidewalk for a shot down what old-timers used to call “Cherry Canyon” when I was approached by a man in the blue shirt and black pants of Security, who seemed nervous and told me I couldn’t take pictures there. I hoisted the most benign and ignorant expression onto my face that I could summon, and asked why. He said that a lot of the buildings hereabouts were public buildings (including the Arctic Building, which I hadn’t known), and something about terrorism. The gist of it was that I might be — with my antique view camera — scoping out which window I might want to pilot my Piper Cub into as an attack on America and all it stands for, or otherwise amassing information about the buildings to exploit with a view toward their destruction. I started to explain that this camera was an old film camera that had no zoom. This made no difference to the security officer, who radioed back to headquarters somewhere up behind us in the City Hall Building, that he was on the scene and had the situation in hand. I asked if it made any difference that I was now on the sidewalk rather than in the plaza, but then he referenced a rule that prohibits tripods on the sidewalk without a license. While we were talking, a family of Chinese tourists strolled along Fourth Avenue, the paterfamilias pausing to lift a digital movie camera to his eye and indiscriminately sweeping the area’s buildings.  

The Arctic Building (closest), the Dexter Horton Building, center, the Hoge Building (yay!) behind the Horton, along with the Alaska Building (left) and the Broderick and other buildings on the south side of the street (out of view behind the Alaska) created a narrow slot that was once known as Cherry Canyon.

I asked where I could get such a license. He told me the mayor’s office. I thanked him for dispatching his duty and packed up my gear and left. He went far enough away so as not to seem eager, but made sure that I am-scrayed before he retreated into the public building, which by the way is owned by me and, depending on where you live, probably you too.

Later, at the mayor’s office, which is in that very City Hall Building that my presence had so threatened, I was told they wouldn’t be able to help me and that I really wanted Seattle’s Film & Music Office, a division of the Office of Economic Development. This office, whose mission is to lure the music and film industry to the Emerald City, is in the Municiple Tower diagonally across Fifth and Cherry. I called first and spoke with a woman who empathized with my situation and pretty much dismissed the terrorism rationale right away.

“Security guards are under a lot of pressure now because of Nineeleven,” she said. “I’m sure he was just doing his job.”

The Municipal Tower is the curvy-topped one.

However, she admitted that she didn’t know what particular rules he was trying to enforce about the actual taking of photographs in public. As far as she was concerned, it was the fact that I wanted to use a tripod on a city sidewalk that was of interest. She said the City regulates this because people can get hurt tripping over cables and tripod legs when large professional outfits set up their equipment in places where people walk, and the City doesn’t want to get sued. The license provides the necessary language to indemnify the City so that anyone who biffs on a tripod and breaks their leg will have to take it up with the particular production company they tripped over. These licenses started at $25 as I recall. I whined that I was not a film production company but a hobbyist with an antique camera taking pictures for my own use, and that such a fee would end my ability to practice my hobby downtown. She listened and heard — I wish I could remember her name — and was embarrassed to admit that the Film and Music Office was still pretty new and they hadn’t yet figured out how to go about licensing “amateurs”. But then from down in some wellspring of resourcefulness within her, she came up with the idea for a special modified license and said she’d work on it.

A few days later I went forty or fifty floors up in this green-capped high-rise to meet with her and recieve from her a unique license, signed by herself, that vouchsafed me permission for six months to shoot pictures with a tripod on city sidewalks. It had the number 001 handwritten in ink at the top. She told me to laminate it and tether it to my tripod and show it to anyone who gave me trouble. And to please be careful so I didn’t cripple anyone. I left feeling well served by my municiple government. Sad to say, I never used that license because it was more than a year before I got downtown with my camera again, by which time it had expired.

A place of conflicting interests: public access and security against the Axis of Evil. Between the end of the walkway and the blue-gray building in the center is Fourth Avenue.

It was not my cumbersome Graflex, nor even my 35 mm Canon, that I had with me two weeks ago when I stumbled upon a delightful little plaza between the newish 5th and Madison Condos and the old Bank of California skyscraper. I had the little digital camera that I use for most of my blog shots, one we bought when Mara was a baby after it became evident that our film cameras couldn’t keep up with her cuteness quotient. This plaza is simultaneously the roof of the Bartell’s drug store (below on Fourth Avenue) and the side-yard of the condominium building, where the hip urban residents are expected to recreate next to the little waterway that runs through it overshaded by ornamental trees. I know this because…well, I’ll get to that later.

The far end of the plaza affords wonderful prospects up and down Fourth Avenue, but no sooner had I taken a photograph of the YMCA across Fourth than a security guard came flapping out of the Bank of California Building and told me I couldn’t take pictures there, that this was private property. 

As before, I put on my Friendly Bumpkin face and said things like, “Really?” “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize…” and “Why is that?” in a humble and solicitous tone. This helps deflect hostility, and scaling down her bluster she addressed me in an almost entre nous tone.

I got the shot I came for, anyway.

“Well,” she said as we strolled back toward the sidewalk on Fifth, “it’s mainly because of the terrorism. And then we also have two banks in the building. They don’t allow people taking pictures here.”

It was at this point that I realized that she had come out of the BoC Building, not the condos, and that she probably had no authority where I was standing. A lot of what security personnel do, I realized, is bluff and hope people go away. So I kept up my incredulous prattle with my tongue, all the while moving the rest of my person in the direction she wanted me to move in, so that she would have no reason to call someone to put their bootheel on my neck.  

“But this is such a beautiful plaza with the canal and everything,” I said, “and the walkway comes right up here from Fifth Avenue.” My inference was that anyone would assume this was a plaza meant to be used and enjoyed by bipeds.

“Well,” she drawled again, “the city made them put that access in, but it’s private property.”

Hmmm. That’s all I’m saying. Hmmm.

"You can't take pictures here". Click for a larger image to see annotations. Image copyright Microsoft.

Later I looked at the condos’ website, where an animated movie* made before the building was completed showed an artist’s rendition of the plaza populated by youthful residents enjoying the fresh city air.* You can’t tell me that they envisioned this little paradise as a place where anyone brandishing a camera would be jumped by the nextdoor neighbor’s security guards. 

*In the less than two weeks since this episode occured the website has been changed and the video has disappeared from it. The link above is to the same video on YouTube.

Change of the guard

Note: I wrote this a while ago, before Emilia was born. It wasn’t quite right at the time so I let it season for a while. I have made some edits but did not change the references to our family of three.

The first sign of maturity is the discovery that the volume knob also turns to the left.”

– Jerry M. Wright

It is a frightening thing when you realize that all the mores, values and customs that make up the very core of your social self have shifted a notch on the scale away from current and in the direction of Mesozoic. This happens to all of us. There is nothing new in getting old. But from an anthropological point of view, there maybe something worth saying here about some of the details.

My first realization that I was no longer in the age group that could most viably claim currency was when I worked at the ranch camp in Ohio, and it centered around music. I was just 29, and I then still considered myself to be a young person, but my coworkers were mostly 19 years old and younger. When I said something about the Doobie Brothers and no one knew what I was talking about, I furrowed my brow a little. Similarly, I heard a song on the radio that was catchy, and I wondered absently at my coworkers who the group might be.

“T’pau”, said Geo immediately. I had never heard of T’pau, and at first I thought Geo was trying to eject a bit of apple skin or something from the tip of his tongue. Furthermore, the song was apparently already old news.


I started licking my finger and sticking it in the wind to see what was going on. I realized that I was somehow out of step with the cultural mind, although even then it took a while for it to dawn on me that there were people in the world who were fully ten years younger than I and yet were grown and developed human beings, and that that decade of seniority was the beginning of the difference between being young and being eveything else.

* * * *

I have several times reflected on the social manners of today’s young people — I guess I’m speaking mainly of the males — and entertained the thought that many of them seem to me to be not overly warm, even though they are, as a broad generalization, people I really like and people I would trust to run the country. At least, there’s something that I’m interpreting, maybe incorrectly, as unwarmth. I think of my own generation as self-obsessed, angry, unbalanced, compulsive, lazy, reactionary, and not very grounded. Broadly and generally, I mean. But still, I think of my contemporaries as warm, or at least polite in ways that make it easy to get to know someone. The generation coming into their own now are, generally and broadly, level-headed, just, honest, creative, energetic, helpful, intelligent, extremely capable, and not very excitable, but there sometimes seems to be something kind of flat about them in social interactions, and I have struggled in recent years to figure out whether I’m just misperceiving the situation or if there’s something fundamentally different about the way they interact with others.  

We (my better half and our better third) attended a block party. Angela and I familied late and we have a young daughter, so we frequently find ourselves in company with younger couples. Our best friends are younger couples. For me this makes for some strange little moments. This was such a moment. There were only two men present at first, we’ll call them…oh, Simon and Mike. Simon was hosting the party with his wife. We were in their backyard. Mike and Simon live nextdoor to each other, on the opposite side of the street from us. They were talking about something in a relaxed way. I went over and the two men interrupted their conversation to regard me, and I said…I keep reliving the horror…”so Simon, what do you do?” I added ” — for trouble or entertainment” just in time, because I could see immediately that asking what someone did for a living was “not on”. He looked at me as though I had asked him whether he took his lunch to school or rode the bus. As though my question had no meaning. He furrowed his brow and slowly, making a little mouth puff as though trying to solve for x without scratch paper, delivered himself of a single non-descriptive line about marketing in Redmond, and then made a joke — gracious chap — to the effect that in his free time “I just do what she tells me” and pointed to his young spouse.

I was suddenly grateful that I had seen him building a garden box like mine this summer, now full of thriving plants, and I steered the conversation into that more sensible arena, and Mike walked away to get a beer. But the light went on in my head.

"Let's not kill each other, how 'bout." August II of Poland and Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia.

I suddenly understood — right at that instant — that in social situations I use social forms that are no longer valid. In fact, it’s not particular forms that are invalid, but the formalism entirely. The way I learned it, first we shake hands. This establishes trust, because the hands are used to do harm to one’s enemies and are occupied most often by a weapon of one kind or another. A handshake — the open, empty hand extended — is the pledge of peace, or at least truce. Next, I honor you by asking something specific but sufficiently non-threatening about you. That’s why we have jobs, so we can ask this. You answer and fill in that information for a while, then return the ball to me by asking what I do. So then I go, and in this way we get to know each other a little bit, though in a formal way. And war is averted.

At some point this formal introductory pas de deux might lead into a more “authentic” conversation, as when your work with data mining software prompts me to ask how random information can be intelligently searched, and my documentation of geospatial imaging software gets you curious about who our customers are, that they should need to see the writing on a number 2 pencil lying on the ground in Tunis. But the entry point is very formal, and this formalism just doesn’t fly anymore. Kids these days… they just don’t roll that way.

* * * *

I’m baffled still as to how young people today get their conversations started, but what I’m beginning to see is that they get there without the formalized intro steps. Those, I believe, they regard as inauthentic. Authenticity is the watchword of the new generation of twenty- and thirty-year-olds, as I see it. Mike and Simon were probably just picking up a conversation that may have started organically months before. My walking up and asking what Simon “did” was like a big cloud of weird perfume wafting in from over the fence. I keep wanting to laugh and cry about this at the same time. It was such a doof moment for me. I’ve always been quick on my social feet, deft in conversations even when dumped midstream where I don’t know the lingo.

But more and more frequently I encounter the feeling that the most basic grid I overlay on social situations for navigation cannot be trusted anymore. The topography has become unlike the earth I knew. Is this what becoming a fuddy-duddy is really like for everyone? Do I begin to seek out people who understand what I’m doing when I extend my hand? Do I start distancing myself from young people because I cannot break the code? And isn’t the code designed at some level to keep me out anyway? Every generation rewrites the code for this purpose, so that they can disenfranchise the generation before and wrest from them the sceptre of world dominion. It has to be this way. No generation, certainly not mine, gives it up willingly to those following.

The penitent man just accepts the process of aging, that's what the penitent man does. Indy narrowly escapes decapitation.

But I am just starting out as a father. I have to figure this out. I can’t go play golf with men my age whose kids are finally in college. I’m not complaining. I’m looking frantically around, like Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade trying to figure out which stepping stones to tread on so that he will not fall through the floor while also trying to dodge the whirling head-cutter-offer discs. But see, that’s a reference from 1989, and maybe now there are no coded stones to step on. Maybe you just wing it.  

Closer than a brother – Part II

[STOP! If you haven’t done so already, go here and view the Belvedere photos the way they were intended to be viewed, without any explanation. Then come back and read this (if you must).]

I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”

— Solomon (the Wise)

The original idea was that the photos would be found someday by archaeologists. No negatives, just the photos, without commentary or external clues as to what they might mean. They would be mysterious, the subject of much discussion in the circles of photohistorians and photoarchaeologists, who would seek grants to do research on them.

“Yeah, right,” said Jeff’s brother Gary. “You guys’ll do that for about two years.”

We’d show him. The idea was simple and we thought it was a good one. It leapt into our heads on a rainy day in September of 1982. I had seen a photospread in one of my mother’s magazines (Redbook or McCall’s or Good Housekeeping) of a father and daughter who had had their photo taken on the porch of their house every year since she was born. At first he held her as a babe, then as the years unfolded along the page she stood beside him and grew. There was a blast of color in the early ’70s when she went briefly tie-dye and beads and orange pants. The man’s hair receded, quietly, like a forest at the edge of an agricultural field that claimed more space for tillage with the passing of each season.

We schemed to embark upon a similar experiment, only ours would have complexities, subtle humor. We drew up a charter we called the Pact and each signed it. The signing was witnessed by Jeff’s neighbor, a kid named Cort. In the document, it was explicitly stated that if one of us did not show up or failed to comply with any of the provisions of the Pact, we could be “taken to Cort” by the other. Id est, this was a binding contract.

Here are the main provisions, as best as I can recall from my memory:*

*The Pact is in a large shoebox, called the Archives, in a storage facility in Reno, Jeff’s last city of residence, but he now lives in Colorado Springs.

  1. The shot would be taken at the Belvedere Park overlook in West Seattle at 9:09 and 9 seconds a.m., on 9 September, every year. A similar series was provided for on 3 March, at three minutes and three seconds past three o’clock p.m.
  2. We would stand PRECISELY in the same positions each year.
  3. We would not smile or bear any deliberate facial expression.
  4. Each of us would hold an unbitten apple (green or read, no matter) in one hand.
  5. Each of us would wear the metal ring we had made in Mr. Peterson’s shop class in junior high school.
  6. We would not wear hats. The advance of years was to be visible on our hairlines.
  7. A bottle of Pepsi-Cola would stand on the pavement between us, filling up over the years. It would start the first year filled to two inches’ height. Each year it would advance by one quarter inch. The Pepsi in the bottle represented our friendship, God only knows why.
  8. Attached to the bottle, so small as to be visible only by dedicated photohistorian sleuths, would be a word each year, and over the years the word would spell out a Bible verse. We chose Proverbs 18:24. “A man of many friends comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” That would take us through the rest of the millennium and then we’d choose another.
  9. Rain or shine, hell or high water, famine, etc.
  10. In the year 1986, the year Halley’s comet would return, we would change places in the photo, but only in the March shot.
  11. In the year 2000, the millennial year, we would smile great smiles, but only in the September shot.

Truly, the Belvedere Shot should stand as a warning to anyone who thinks they can beat time and human nature at their own games. This was perhaps the most significant thing any two human beings have ever attempted (I said “perhaps”), and it was a colossus of failure. The March shot was discontinued after five or six years of being plagued by botched poses and bad weather. The September series did comparatively well in its early years and eventually spanned a quarter century before expiring in ignominy.

Following are my recollections and observations about the September Belvederes. As usual, click on any of these photos (twice) for full resolution.


The perfect shot, although one would think I’d have taken time at the outset of such a singular journey to flip down my collar.


Perhaps not surprisingly, here’s where the trouble starts. To begin with, we found it impossible at Year Two to repeat our positions. Jeff seemed to have had a final growth spurt, making it harder for him to lean on the rail. I could not recapture the charming slouch I had naturally settled into the first year after releasing the timed shutter and racing into the frame. Also, it became clear that shooting toward the east in the morning was a mistake that the Pact would compel us to repeat every year. Thankfully (I guess) sunny days were rare, so the shadows on our faces were usually not severe. Jeff can’t figure out where his apple goes.


Jeff went to Europe in the summer of 1984 and was not back in September for the third shot. I hang my head to admit this now, but I was actually resentful about his going, somehow figuring that what we were doing here was serious enough to give the Old Continent a miss for. We had, after all, signed a Pact. The truth was I was just resentful, always, about everything. The Bellevue High School letterman’s jacket belonged to a friend (I lettered not). Note the emergence of the Columbia Tower downtown.


I made my own extended trip to Europe the next year. Though I felt that the Pact was now pretty much worthless, or at least optional, I still, at the exact moment that the shot was to be taken in Seattle, posed against a railing in Monterosso al Mare on the Italian Coast in the correct position, with my ring on my finger and an apple in my hand, and the correct non-expression on my face. It was not an insignificant amount of trouble to make sure this happened. I thought maybe my photo could be somehow affixed as an addendum to the shot Jeff took back home, but he was not enamored of this idea when I later showed him how faithful I had been in absentia. I don’t know where that picture is anymore. Jeff gave up trying to lean with his arm on the rail this year, and because I was unable to access the bottle the year before (at his house, in a closet somewhere, though I suppose I could have tried), Jeff “fixes” the error by including both last year’s word, “of”, and this year’s, “many”, on the same card superimposed on each other in different colors. I was disappointed in this turn of events upon my return; I considered each year a universe and reality unto itself, and figured that the word “of” could have been deduced from the context of the entire series (you know, by those people who would be staying up through the night studying these photos).


Those of you who understand the solar system and Seattle’s place in it will perceive immediately that this shot was not taken anywhere near 9 o’clock in the morning. This may have been the year that Jeff left his backpack on the bus that we rode out to Belvedere. When we discovered the loss, we had to walk the half-mile to the Admiral Way district, find a phone booth*, call Metro Transit, discover that the coach carrying Jeff’s pack would only return to that route later in the day, and then amuse ourselves for several hours. Or this may have just been a day when we didn’t have our act together. This is the last time you will see the Seattle (Northern Life) Tower and the Telephone Building downtown.

*Before mobile phones, these were little stations on the sidewalks and in other public spaces where you could pay a quarter to use what was called a public telephone. In very olden days, it cost only a dime and they were actual booths where you could call someone half a world away and hold a private conversation with them right on the sidewalk, with strangers walking by and everything. Many tense movie plots in the 20th century hinged upon the necessity of finding a phone booth and coming up with a dime to place a critical call.


Or maybe THIS was the year of the backpack fiasco. In any case, another one shot well past noon. Notice how in many years the slant of the sidewalk downward to the right creates an impulse in the cameraman (usually me, once Jeff) to compensate by tilting the entire world downward to the left. The sidewalk is quite steep, but for years and years I kept falling prey to the optical illusion and tilting the camera too far to the right, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. This year, because of the fog obscuring the horizon, it was even more tempting and I all but flattened the hill.


Jeff switches to man pants, which have deeper and looser pockets than jeans and thus make his arm straighten out. Sure he looks better, more stylish, but at what cost? I on the other hand have indulged in an impulse purchase of clothing at the recently opened Larry’s Market in North Seattle, an opening which has coincided with my suddently becoming a foodie. Kid Who Ate No Vegetables Between 1964 and 1987 Suddenly Becomes Omnivorous. I got a wok, started shopping at Larry’s, cooking with watercress. I wore the colors proudly. Last year’s fog lifts to reveal the pyramid-topped Washington Mutual Tower.


Of all the dirty tricks to pull on a couple of fellas just out on a lark to CONQUER TIME, West Seattle up and replaced the railing that had been there since God created the world and all the things that creep and walk and squirm upon it and that we figured would be unchanged forever. This created havoc. For one thing, we had to recalculate where we had stood for all the previous years and make a new mental note (18th post from the right). For another, my right foot would now be too low, ruining a pretty good run I’d had up until that time if you don’t count the outstretching of the fingers of my left hand in Year Two. Plus, it just felt unnatural. For another, the new rail was higher and obscured the waterfront. On the upside, shadows vouchsafe that we were on time this day. See how red my hair used to be? I missed a couple of haircuts and decided to shoot the moon.


Jeff embarked on a career in Academia, studying and teaching German linguistics. In 1990 I believe he was in Columbus, Ohio. By this time, as you can plainly see, I hardly cared that he was not coming home for “the Shot”, as we were calling it by now. I was probably on time, but I didn’t bother with an apple (again, the Pepsi bottle was Jeff’s area, but I made no effort to try and get ahold of it from his mother in Bellevue), and I rebelled against the new position forced upon me by the rail remodel of the year before. Also, I seemed to have gone dapper (or something). Of all the shots that were taken, this is the one I regret most. I had made the effort to get out there, so how much more trouble could it have been to simply bring the apple and stand on the rail to keep a by-now-amazing thing going? I wish I had had a better attitude, because this shot stands out as a thumb in the eye of the Pact. Notice that without Jeff there, I am unable to line up the shot horizontally and end up shooting too far to the right.


The first year that no shot was taken. Jeff was in school at Columbus and I was only an hour away from him at the Ranch in Eastern Ohio. I visited him just once, whereupon we went together to spend Thanksgiving at the home of his Aunt Vergie, where I reached for a 2-liter soft plastic bottle of RC Cola on the table, dropped it, grabbed it again quickly and thereby induced a fountain of soda to leap out into the face and lap of Jeff’s Uncle Elvin.


Still unwilling to succomb to the rail, I attempt a repeat of my 1990 stance as my new position. But in looking at my feet in relation to the large crack in the new sidewalk, it becomes evident that I had been standing at the wrong post two years before. This is when we finally took a firm count of the new rail posts. 


Jeff does not remember this, but we spoke on the phone the evening before the 1993 shot and tried to feel out whether each really wanted to bother with it. We agreed, by virtue of not resolving to do it, not to do it. It was not done. This was very nearly the end of the Belvederes.


Foolishness dies hard, and we’re back for a tenth repeat. An amateur photographer since high school, I began worrying that color prints would eventually fade. I had seen how photographs of my own family from the ’70s had already become washed out, while black and white photographs from the ’30s seemed to be eternally vivid. I convinced Jeff that we should switch to black and white. But I think this switch really happened because we found ourselves unprepared with color film one Belvedere Day, and since I was shooting black and white in those days, we had a roll of that. Sadly, this image is very grainy, as though I were shooting a high ASA. Maybe this was the year I forgot to switch the ASA setting on my camera and the film had to be pushed or pulled in development. I see I have finally given up my struggle and have returned to the best repeat I can approximate of my original position on the rail, although I have put my foot in a different slot from the one I put it in in the 1989 shot. I begin repeating this gaffe again in 1998. From my clothes I am reminded that I was working in the nursery industry for the first time.


The foliage behind us is starting to need attention as it rises into the view of Seattle. This year it doesn’t matter anyway because of the morning fog. The problem of using a zoom lens for this job shows itself in this shot as in many of the others: this one is zoomed too far out, we’re much “smaller” in this frame than we were in the original year. I rode my bike this year because Little Nemo had finally developed such persistent troubles that I’d been compelled to sell him to someone who could better care for him. I didn’t actually ride my bike all the way to West Seattle (real men do this). I put it on the rack on the bus most of the way.


Sometime around here Jeff and I each started realizing that there were things about the other that bugged the snot out of us. About Jeff’s faults my official statement is that I “have no recollection” of them, but my own, I’m obliged to confess, were and are memorable enough and pestered him grandly. Still, we managed to pretend that we were having a ball when we showed up, each by our separate conveyances, and began doing what we knew to do. Jeff opened the back of his pickup and used the tailgate as a table to measure out the Pepsi, which you’ll notice has been increasing in volume inside the bottle as the years have passed. I would set up the tripod and camera, often having to move several times as tourists drove through to get the view. We did this surgically now. We could be in and out of there in fifteen minutes, props and all. During the 1990s the camera was swinging wildly left and right, but more about this later.


This is when things really began to fall apart. Jeff did not show up, although I learned later that while I took this shot he was madly driving through traffic, trying to get there. Since he had called me the day before to “remind” me to be there (“as though I needed to be reminded” said the angry voice in my head) and then did not show up on time himself, I took the liberty of being incensed. I gave him fifteen minutes, snapped this shot — not even noticing that the city had cut down the weedy trees and shrubs that had been growing up — and left. I had the timer on my camera, but no tripod (Jeff was bringing that), so I was unable to put myself in the photo. This (non-)event caused a huge outpouring of stored-up grievances from each of us to the other, aired via snarky handwritten letters delivered by the United States Postal Service.


Two straightforward infractions here. One, Jeff’s wearing a hat. I can’t prove it until I lay my hands on a copy of the Pact, which may be never, but I believe the Pact explicitly proscribed headwear. The other is the photo of Jeff’s dad, Vance, who had died that year. Jeff wanted to honor him by having his photo in the Shot. I loved that old man in a kind of way, had actually worked for him in his construction business at various points in my wasted twenties. He was gruff, but he was true, and because of his generosity I was able to experience the Ross Lake camping trip for several years. By now I wasn’t worrying about the rules much. I kept showing up because Jeff kept showing up. We’re back to color film again. Whatever. 


After about seventeen years, I think we got one just about right. However, you’ll notice that Jeff and I share the center of the frame in these later photos, whereas in the archetypal 1982 shot we were both further right and the city was the “subject” of the left half of the frame. I remember trying to correct this, and if I could lay my hands on the negatives we might see that this was not my fault; the 3×5 print is not true to the negative proportions of 35mm film. A good deal of lateral cropping must happen to make that size, and it may be that photo department technicians were assuming we’d want ourselves in the middle of the scene and took all the cropping off the left side. I really don’t know. It’s just as likely that by now I wasn’t really paying close attention. Jeff repeats the effrontery of the hat.


Back to black and white. Particular failures aside, we have managed to take a photo almost every year at about the same time and in pretty much the same place all the way to the end of the century and of the millennium, and in accordance with the Pact we are allowed these anomalous expressions of mischievous glee to mark the occasion. Inexplicably, for the first time ever, Jeff has placed the bottle in the wrong spot. He also takes this opportunity to change his position at the rail after eighteen years. Why not? His hat has now become a tradition. Don’t let the smiles fool you. Nobody is enjoying this anymore.


Color again. Jeff switches feet after nineteen years, saying that he has only now just realized that he has been uncomfortable for the last two decades crossing his uphill foot with his downhill foot and claiming that it makes more sense to brace with your downhill foot. I couldn’t agree more. So be it. However, his upper half repeats the 2000 “new” stance. 


Jeff manages to create yet another new stance. The apple is now in his left hand, but his downhill foot again crosses his uphill right. The trash can is chained to Post 18, otherwise we might have moved it. We might not have, too, depending on the outcome of an argument that might have ensued between us about the original intent of the framers of the Pact. I think Jeff and I both would have agreed that it could not be removed. An early conversation in which we pondered what would happen if a truck were parked in our spot at 9:09:09 resulted in us both agreeing that we would take the shot anyway, even if we were not visible in it. I’m SO GLAD that never happened.


After pinwheeling a little in recent years, Jeff finishes out his participation in the Belvedere Shot forever with yet another new position — arguably the one he should have started out with — braced with the downhill foot but with the apple back in the right hand. Not much to report at my end. Still have my foot in the wrong slot for the sixth straight year (hello, Matt!). I can’t begin to hazard a guess as to why there is a statuette of a lion on the ground between the bottle and Jeff’s feet. I had to stare at the enlarged version of this photo (click to enlarge, then click again — as with all photos here) for five minutes before I could even recognize that that’s what it was, so completely had I forgotten it. Jeff brought it, but I can’t remember what it means or why I didn’t finally walk off the set in protest over this latest assault on the Pact.


The day before this shot, Jeff emailed me to ask whether I had any desire to do the Shot, or some language like that. I wrote back that of course I did not “have any desire to”, or did not “want to”, whatever the phrase was. What I meant by this was that I had no love of the Shot anymore, but that was not the same as saying I would not be there. The Pact was binding. No one need ask whether or not I would be there. But I didn’t communicate this adequately. To this day, I believe he thought I meant I was not coming. That’s what I get for speaking sideways out of a mouthful of resentments. He did not show up the next morning, nor ever again afterwards (as far as I know, which was two years more). Again I had no tripod to take the photo with so I couldn’t be in it. Some surveyors tagged our site with paint.


This was the most dismal year. I procured a tripod and drove out to Belvedere, and even though I didn’t expect Jeff to show I still hoped he would. He had been living in Reno for years now, but had still made the road trip several times. If I brought an apple I didn’t bother using it in the shot (I can’t tell even from the larger version whether or not I’m wearing my shop class ring). I was ambivalent about being there. I felt as though I were trapped by some bizarre compulsion of honor. I had promised to be there, always. But what did it mean if the promise meant nothing to the other person? Not to kick you while you’re down, Matt, but now you’ve got your foot in a different wrong slot. You’ve corrected in the wrong direction.


The last Belvedere Shot was better than that of the previous year. I came with intention. I knew this would be my last showing and I wanted to do it right. I didn’t: my foot is still in the slot one to the north of the correct one, and notice again how, without Jeff, my center wanders so that even though I’m standing (pretty much) on my marks, my position in the frame is almost where Jeff should be. Oh well. We did the best that two mortals could do. I forgive us for failing. I even forgive us for trying, if it was wrong to try. The foliage behind this familiar scene is growing up tall again and will, in a few short years, obscure the view.

Closer than a brother – Part I


Who’s on Second?

Hi. If you’ve come to this blog following a link from Paul Dorpat’s weekly Now & Then column in the Sunday Seattle Times supplement, Pacific Northwest magazine, or from Paul’s own website, welcome.

Even though Paul and I connected around old (or no longer existing) buildings downtown, I write about a lot of other things here. Feel free to browse — all my posts are listed on the right. But if you came looking for things having to do with the city and its buildings and its people and other treasures, you’ll be best served by the Categories drop-down menu at right. Select “In my city” and you’ll filter out all my parental musings, my Tristram Shandyesque reveries, and my anguished handwringing over the ills of modern Western life and find all my posts about down- and around town.

The rest of you — the other nine or so — friends and acquaintances of both my actual and virtual lives, already know that what I’m about here is telling long-winded stories for the sake of preserving the art of long-winded storytelling. But you may not yet know that I have a little cameo part in Paul’s Now & Then article this week. That’s a little story in itself.

I’ve gotten to know Paul a little through our mutual interest in the history of Seattle’s built environment, especially as it involves photography. The weekly repeat photographs and history lesson in his column were always one of my regular reading stops since he began doing them in the early ’80s or so. I bought my dad volume one of Paul’s Seattle Now and Then book series, and bought myself the second volume, read it cover to cover and studied each photo and caption, enthralled by the connection of places in my world to the corresponding places in historical photographs and amused by the wit and humor in Paul’s writing.

I enlisted Paul’s help in solving a mystery of missing floors last summer, which resulted not only in my getting to meet him at Ivar’s for a bowl of chowder on him, but also in his asking me to stand as the “now” figure in a repeat photo for his own treatment of the Hotel Savoy. I am beside myself with delight at being involved in one of Paul’s articles. Jean Sherrard risked his life standing in the middle of Seneca Street in busy weekday traffic to get the photo.


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt