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