Last Page, First Page

gassers-front-9340Its the end of an era, the end of a chapter. After five years working at Adolph Gasser Photography in San Francisco, the time has come for something new.

John announced his retirement and the closure of the store a few days ago. It was both a surprise, and no surprise at all. Business is difficult, John is getting older. I sit just steps away from his office and heard snippets of phone conversations, about selling, about moving on. So I’m not surprised, but still, surprised. The question wasn’t if, but when. Now I know when. When is March 31st, soon.

Years ago I knew that time was limited for the store. The world is changing, San Francisco is changing. There’s no space for a family owned, local business that refuses to embrace cutthroat capitalism, not in the age of iPhones and online shopping. Even I buy more photo gear online than I do with my staff discount. I told myself that I wanted to be there when it happened, to go down with the ship as it were. Now I am doing exactly that, and it feels strange.

Some of it is relief. It was hard fighting to stay alive in this economic climate. My passion isn’t retail, I’d rather be making photos and videos. Still, helping people with their projects and problems gave me a lot of pleasure. I’d literally click my heels or do a little dance when I felt like I’d just saved the day for someone and didn’t think anyone was watching.

I met a lot of great people, both customers and staff. I hope to continue some of those relationships, and those that don’t, I’ll still treasure. I was exposed to so many people, ideas, history, so much technology and talent. It was a run down building, full of crazy characters, leaky roof and old memories. It was a special place, and now it’ll be sold off, piece by piece until its nothing but a memory.

I’m going to launch myself headfirst into freelancing for myself, a pool I’ve been wading in for years, but never committed to. I have savings, and we’re getting severance packages, so there’s some time and freedom to spread my wings and take that risk. Its time. I’ve been preparing for this for a long time. I’m buying some microphones and lenses from the rental department so Adolph Gassers will be a part of my work for years to come.

I have so many feelings right now. The fear and uncertainty surrounding what’s next for me. At the same time excitement for the future and the new possibilities that open up in front of me. I can work on projects I’ve long wanted to work on, I can take more classes, go on more trips. The risks are great, but so are the opportunities.

I also feel guilt and sadness that our loyal customers will be left without their local photography store. I love our customers, both the regulars who come in year after year and the wild eyed newcomers who marvel at our time capsule of a San Francisco that’s quickly fading away. I saw one of them at the Chinese New Year’s parade last night filming as his band marched by and I burst into tears.

We haven’t been able to talk about it with anyone until the official announcement today. Its difficult to listen to people thanking us for our help and expressing their gratitude that a store like Gassers is around to help them with their photographic and video making needs. I choke up a bit when I think about it. Even the talkative old man who brings in old VHS porno tapes to be converted to DVD. Where will he go now?

I’m proud of where I worked, and the help I’ve been able to provide. Its an honor to have worked someplace that’s been such a fixture since 1950.

There is still much work to be done. The remaining merchandize isn’t going to sell itself, and there are many more problems to solve and conversations to be had. It isn’t over yet. I’m glad for this transition period. It would be much worse if it were to be cut off like a hatchet. This process will likely be both painful and ecstatic, and everything in between.

I wish John a happy and healthy retirement. He was a great boss and he deserves that for everything he’s contributed to the community. Similarly my best to my co-workers, whether this means retirement, new careers, travel or anything else they chose to do. Finally I hope that our customers take advantage of our blowout sale and can find the resources, advice, inspiration and connections they need to make their own photographic and filmmaking projects.

I feel honor, pride and gratitude. Onwards to what’s next, but never forgetting the people and the places that have fed me. Thank you all.

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What Day Is It?

Days of the week lose all meaning when you’re working as much as I have been. January and February are traditionally sleepy months in the photo and video business, and this year was down right comatose. Then the numbers came in, that said I owed the IRS my first born. It has been a trying time in the corridors of cash.

Its little wonder then that over the past month I’ve said yes to every job or gig that wandered my way, such that I don’t know the last time I had a legitimate day off. The best I can think of were days where I only had ONE job to do. Last night I finished up at SF MOMA at 2am, and then took almost another hour to get home, before getting up and coming here to Adolph Gassers. Luckily today I finish at 6pm.

There are so many cheques in the mail right now that I expect the sky to go dark in a few days as they fly over head and come in for a landing in my bank account. After so many months of financial gloom it feels good to have streams of cash coming back to water the roots of my life. I’m slowing down the work schedule now, being more judicious and saying “I want more money.” when they offer a gig, and being totally fine if they say no to just reject the job.

My self-respect is back. I hope.

As with all things it will go up and down. But for the moment at least I’m feeling better about my prospects for a decent life/work balance.

Thoughts on a facebook fast

Rather spontaneously, when my parents were in town around Ash Wednesday, I decided that I would give up facebook for lent. At the time I wouldn’t have called my facebook use problematic. I already have StayFocusd installed which is set to limit my facebooking to 20 minutes per day on all of my computers. I gave up drinking for January, and I guess you could say that I’m just in a phase of investigating how I live my life, by taking things out and noticing what’s different. facebook was just another experiment.

facebook certainly has utility value. Its become the de-facto way to find out about engagements, pregnancies, promotions, parties and friends visiting from out of town. That said, I find that I use it more often than not as boredom relief. Nothing happening at work? Check facebook. Avoiding a deadline? Check facebook. Waiting for the wife? Check facebook.

So what did I learn from cutting it out? Well for the first week or so I found myself unconsciously starting to type “fac…” into my browser without even thinking about it. That’s a clear sign of an unconscious habit right there, but after about a week it went away. Instead when I found myself feeling bored I would pause, and think about things that interested me, or questions I had about the world. Then I’d type that in instead. If I was curious about something that one of my friends might know about, or if I just wondered how they were I’d pen them an email.

I discovered that my Internet usage became a lot more self-directed and conscious. The facebook timeline seems like its curated for our particular interests, but in reality its really more of an indiscriminate firehose of shallow clickbait. Instead I found myself visiting websites I hadn’t frequented in over a year like the wonderful BLDGBLOG.

Emailing and chatting with friends directly rather than through facebook was nice as well. I didn’t get daily selfies or “what I had for breakfast” posts, but what communication I did get had more depth and emotion. I also found that my writing improved since I was giving myself time to properly compose my thoughts rather than just responding to the torrent of posts, comments and likes that makes up the facebook timeline.

I started a photography blog that I’ve been quite happy with. I’ve been getting out more in my local community and just generally more active and productive. When I see someone else on facebook, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything, in fact I kind of laugh.

If I had to summarize what I like most about being off of the ubiquitous social network, it would be that I am once again the master of my own attention. I pay attention to the things that I care about, and I spend as much or as little time as I feel appropriate to them. facebooks’ infinite scroll doesn’t threaten to crush me with endless updates.

Lent is over, has been for almost a week, and I’ve yet to return to facebook. I just haven’t felt the need or the desire. Eventually I’ll get back, to get in touch with someone I don’t have an email for, or to promote an event or crowdsource something. Will I return to using it as I did before? I don’t think so. Even after I started drinking again, its been much much less, and so I hope it will be with facebook. I hope to be mindful and strategic about how I use it, not just typing “fac…” when I start to get bored…

Success/Failure

A week ago I set out to do something exciting, bold and a little bit crazy, to walk along the coast from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Well I failed. At least in as much as I’m writing this from my couch and not an Internet cafe on the beach in Santa Cruz. I feel a bit embarrassed and a bit disappointed, but I also feel proud of what I did accomplish, and determined to finish what I started.

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The temptation is to write a blow by blow account of the adventure, but here’s what it boils down to. I couldn’t do it. By the end of my first day my feet were wrecked, sore joints and a few terrible blisters. The next morning I started walking again but within the first few miles it became clear that I was in rough shape from the day before. I tried to do too much too soon. Nearly 20 miles in the first day with 55+ pounds on my back was more than I could handle. By the time I reached a roadblock in the form of no trail and a highway with no shoulders I decided that it was time to regroup and reassess.

I stopped in at a local taphouse in Pacifica for a pint and some salad to celebrate the distance done and caught a bus back into the city.

I determined that I wouldn’t let this be a success or failure, do or die kind of moment. Yes I stopped, and yes I was in rough shape. It was embarrassing to come home after only a day and a half on the trail, but it wasn’t the end. I rested up and a couple of days later with a smaller day pack set out for the Golden Gate Bridge and walked the section that I’d missed the first day from the Bridge to the end of Ocean Beach (earlier I had walked from home to the beach). It was a beautiful hike and made the whole endeavour feel more complete, and it also meant that I was still doing it. One piece at a time.

That left me sore, so I spent a couple more days resting and then yesterday I got on a bus and went back to the place in Pacifica where I’d given up days before and walked all that I could before the last bus home. I had the beautiful ocean bluffs to myself and put a few more miles under my belt.

This isn’t over. I’ll make it to Santa Cruz if I have to head out every weekend this summer to do it. So I’m not doing it as a heroic odyssey, one man alone against the elements. But that’s never what it was really about. It was about getting into nature, about challenging myself, about doing something outside of the every day. Am I sad that it didn’t work out as planned? Hells yeah, but its also reminding me that I have limits, that great endeavours require great preparation, and sometimes no matter what you plan, you get a blister between your toes and it all goes out the window.

I consider myself really lucky that I could turn around, that there was a bus stop only a mile or so back, that I wasn’t so stubborn that I tried hiking up that road with traffic whizzing by. I’m lucky that I’m not a pioneer or a refugee stuck in a hundred mile march, blister or no blister.

I understand my limits and my abilities better. A sixty pound pack is excessive, especially on a trail where food and other amenities are regularly available. Hiking twenty miles in a day might be possible, but it isn’t worth it and isn’t sustainable. Twelve miles feels a lot better.

I stayed off the Internet all week even when I was home in order to maintain at least the time to be alone and introspective. To be honest I’m a bit scared of returning to that world and getting caught up in the swirl again. That will subside and I’ll be just another fish in water soon enough.

The trail, though I spent less time on it than I’d hoped was a great place to be. Nothing but one foot in front of the other, deciding when to eat, when to rest, and a million beautiful plants, animals, rocks and sea.

Buy Nothing

As I travel through life often I find it useful to take a moment to look at behaviors and ways of being that have become habit and are so rote that I don’t even see them. The last time I posted here I was taking a month off of facebook. A few months ago I cut pornography out of my life. Last month I abstained from drinking (and celebrated its conclusion with some great wine). Now I would like to try another experiment, inspired by two young people from my home town of Calgary.

The Friday after American Thanksgiving has the ominous title of Black Friday, when hordes of crazed shoppers trample one another for dubious deals on consumer goods. The progressive response has been to reclaim the day as Buy Nothing Day. The Calgary roommates took this concept one step further and had a Buy Nothing Year. Reverend Billy would be proud. Stella and I have decided to split the difference between these ideas and have declared November as Buy Nothing Month. It will be interesting to see how our consumerist training is challenged and exposed over the next few weeks.

Of course there are limits to the idea of buying nothing in the city. We obviously have to pay for rent and utilities, and nice as it would be to grow our own food neither of us really has the space for that sort of thing. We will therefore exchange dollars and cents for housing, food and to an extent transportation (though I plan to bike as much as is practical), but that’s it. No eating out, no fancy baubles from the store, and no movie or theatre tickets unless they’re free (thank goodness for FunCheapSF).aaaaaaa

Truth be told I think I’m living pretty close to Buy Nothing Month already, but I suspect that there are a lot of little money leaks that I’m not even really aware of that will become blindingly apparent over the course of this little experiment. I’m sure going to be cooking a lot more.

So here we go. Wallets sealed. Onwards to Buy Nothing Month!

We are the 100%

Occupy Wallstreet protesters are angry, and with good reason. A very small number of people, the purported 1% has in their hands the overwhelming majority of the money and power in the world and the gap is ever widening. But, as this image so aptly points out, the imbalance is a lot bigger than comparing their multiple mansions and yachts to your two bedroom rental apartment (or wherever you live).

[And of course now I can’t find the image that several people posted on facebook recently so I’ll describe it. Basically its a motivational poster style image with a picture of Occupy protesters on the left and starving children in sub-Saharan Africa on the right. Below it reads – “You are still the 1%”]

So let’s take that image in for a moment and think about its implications. The obvious implication is that despite it all we have it pretty good compared to most of the world and we’ve got quite the responsibility to help those who are less fortunate than we are. If we dig a little deeper and think a litter bit harder thought we’re led to another realization. Most of us, most of the time don’t think about the fact that most of the rest of the world deals with much harsher relative conditions than we do. In fact we take it for granted and even feel entitled to things like clean drinking water, education, roads, etc. We feel that way because we were born into a certain class, in a certain part of the world. Its just how we live. Making due with less is scary, and its frustrating when we see others who have so much more.

Now for the leap.

If you were born as one of the 1% of the 1% you’d feel the exact same way. Think about it. Born with a silver spoon in your mouth, always having servants, getting a BMW for your 16th birthday. Many of today’s uber-wealthy if not born into their fortunes got a pretty good head start compared to the rest of us. From their perspective the system works pretty well, and the idea of giving up the summer house in Nice or drinking $75 wine is downright terrifying. It must seem like the world’s being turned upside down. When you’re raised to think that you’re special, that you deserve everything you have, that somehow you earned it, why would you question that?

Here’s an interesting documentary that probes into exactly that, what its like to grow up uber-rich.

http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/born-rich/

This is where the 99% vs. the 1% really breaks down. Ready? They’re human beings too. They’re scared of losing what they have. To them, taking the bus and eating bean soup would be like living in a shanty. They’re understandably defensive and afraid. Just like we’re reluctant to give up our cars or live in a smaller house. Some of the 1% are self-made and many of them sympathize with the Occupy Movement like Warren Buffet. Of course there’s sure to be a few genuine psychopaths amongst the uber-rich as well, but that’s a totally different bucket ‘o bolts.

99% or 1% we’re all really just playing out a game predicated on a set of rules that was written nearly half a millennia ago when central currency, major banking institutions and chartered corporations all got started. Now, those old rules about money, value and trade have snowballed into an avalanche that’s carrying us all away, poor, rich and middle class alike. That the system has treated certain members of society better than others there can be no doubt, but its reaching the point now that its starting to squeeze everyone (in relative terms of course) but its been in place for so long that hardly anyone is even aware of it, let alone trying to create a new alternative.

That is what we need to do, 99% and 1% together. Build a new system that doesn’t force us to be at each other’s throats.

There’s a lot dystopian sci-fi books and movies about a future where computers take over the world and enslave humanity. I suggest that this is already happening, except that the computers aren’t ArpaNet or Cybermen or Matrix Machines, rather its the increasingly complex “program” of financial systems, corporations and laws that are dictating how we do just about everything. Its not about metal and silicone robots dominating us, its about corporate ledgers and law books. We’ve written our own prison, our own doomsday scenario. Ironically all we need to do in order to escape is write a new one.

Writing a new scenario, a new script to follow (or better yet to improvise!) will take imagination and courage. This is why youth are so important. They have less invested in the old system and therefore can see and do things the rest of us have forgotten were even options.

The Great Protest

They used to call WWI the war to end all wars. Then they called WWII that. We all know what came next. More wars.

The Occupy Movement is stressing me out and I think its because at some level I’m under the incorrect impression that its the protest to end all protests – that somehow if we really apply ourselves and do an absolutely stunning job that we’ll manage to solve everything. What a ridiculous thought. And yet I can’t help myself – I’m a romantic and an idealist.

That’s why I want to be there all the time, obsess over strategy, because I feel like its an endgame move. We either win it all, or we lose everything. In some respects this is true. Social and ecological systems on the planet are definitely on a course for disaster and given our huge technological power as a species today we could really trash the whole place. We could also unwittingly dismantle centuries of progress in social spheres, justice, social welfare, health, etc. So understandably the stakes are high.

But let’s be honest, even if we achieve a lot, there will still be problems. Most revolutions go in fits and starts, some things get better, other things get worse, some people settle, some people take advantage, then things destabilize again. It takes a while.

What concerns me most and keeps me up at night is knowing that MOST people don’t understand the underlying mechanisms of the injustice and inequality found in our current political and financial systems. As a result we’re likely to accept band-aid measures rather than the sweeping changes that are truly needed to create a better and more just society for EVERYONE and the PLANET. I’m afraid that all we may do is buy some time, make a few more people more comfortable, just enough to quiet people down but not enough to actually make any lasting or deep changes.

I do have hope though. There ARE people who understand the underlying issues. One of the great strengths I’ve found in the Occupy Movement is that its a community as much as its a protest, and its a community that’s eager to have dialogue to discuss not only what we’re not happy about, but also how we might build something better. In fact the very structure of the occupations, providing their own services of food, education, communications, sanitation, etc. demonstrates that we don’t really NEED government or corporations, and that’s the first step in getting them to really seriously negotiate with us, from a position of being equals rather than supplier and consumer. (No self-deception that the tents and food and computers don’t come from corporations, but there is something distinctly non-commercial about these Occupy “villages.)

Its also vitally important that this revolution is for the benefit of everyone. Getting to the root causes of corruption is a way to do that, not by passing laws to protect a few middle class white Americans, but by fundamentally changing the way we produce and consume on a global scale, from Wall Street to Harlem to Haiti to Hong Kong. That’s why the global(ish) nature of this revolution is important. We all have to recognize that we’re in this together and that we need to collaborate, rich and poor, black and white, east and west, north and south. Otherwise new systems of domination will simply replace the old ones.

So all of this is a big order and probably not what we’ll get from this first wave of revolt. But who knows? We really should be trying to do that anyways. That way, even if we only achieve 1/10th of what we set out to do, there will at least be seeds planted for the other 9/10. Seeds planted will eventually grow, and if this boulder keeps on rolling, pushed by those who are never satisfied – well, just try and stop a boulder that’s going in the right direction…