Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Travel, Auroras, and Disappointment in the Internet

It's been a weird week-and-a-half for me. After departing on a business trip Monday of last week I've only now managed to settle back into the safe, familiar routine I often loathe but often enough pine for. And tonight feels like an arbitrary exclamation to the series of uneventful events that sum up that strange period. One could postulate it's the Saint Patrick's Day fanfare speaking, but alas, I'm in my living room, sober, pensive, and with a lot of my mind. Not a bad way to spend the holiday at all, simply different.

From the beginning.

Last week I spent a short stint in New Jersey for graphic design work, the other odd creative labor for which I've somehow shoehorned into a legitimate business practice (especially odd given that I do not feel anywhere near as skilled in that medium). I've made the trip many times in the last year, and its execution felt enough like routine so as to not befuddle my mind with panic over making my train on time or not having enough cash on hand for a cab. Like those other tenures, time on the train was spent quietly listening to ambient post rock and idly chatting with friends on my laptop whilst omitting the clutter of vocal business people around me speaking in corporate tongues (I shouldn't begrudge them so, really, they are of course just doing their jobs). Work days were a solid 12 hours of unrelenting, productive creativity, with the final 4 spent cramming overpriced hotel bar beers down my gullet so as to sleep in an unfamiliar bed without the comfort of my partner or my pets to settle an active brain.

When I took these trips in the past it was during my infatuated period of time lapse creation. I intentionally arrived to the train station early both coming and going to run 400 frames in a 20-minute period. They were fun to produce, but this time around I stuck to my small PEN kit, E-P3 and 45mm f/1.8, and passively took photos in the few minutes I expected to have waiting for the train. Heading north, there was little in the way of inspiration, but coming back south involved an elaborate jump between trains and stations until the final departure to home. Taking the airport tram over Newark Liberty Airport, I was engrossed by the landscapes seen through the tinted windows, of planes taxiing and taking off with an industrial backdrop of cranes and freight, itself against the backdrop of nearby New York City. Funny thing, having stayed at a hotel right on the airport loop in the past, I never realized the city in the distance was Manhattan. I'd always assumed it to be a distant portion of Newark itself. During sunset last year, capturing a time lapse from the top level of the airport parking garage, the glimmer off one particularly tall building caught my attention and I recognized its shape to be that of the new World Trade Center. A strange moment that caught me off guard. Even from the far off view, I'd never expected to see such an infamous urban center in person.

The last train I would take on this trip heading back to Baltimore wound up being delayed by an hour. A combination of fog and an earlier accident on the railway happened to interrupt the evening business line. All being professionals and held with tight reigns to our schedules, the masses due to board flooded the indoor seating area until the seats were all taken, those remaining left to stand or sit and sigh as they waited to return home to families or work. They brought out laptops and cell phones and resumed business as usual while they wait, surrounded by the more casually dressed frequent fliers of the commuter train system equally engrossed in handheld technology. It's something we're all used to seeing at this point, the masses with their necks crooked to gaze into contact and comfort via glowing screen.

Newark Penn Station features many countermeasures to dissuade the roosting of birds and invasion of wildlife. It makes sense to do so given the cost and effort of cleaning after such interlopers, and in my past trips they'd done their part in keeping such animals out of the station. This time around, however, I couldn't help but notice a nest in the cracked brick behind a classic analog clock at the far end of the third platform, buzzing like crazy with tiny songbirds behind the florescent glow. I was bored and looking for a more personally gratifying use of my time, so I took to photographing them, following them around the station like a crazed lunatic (and I'm sure plenty of the other commuters took me as such, chasing down veritable pests to urban life). Eventually they were joined by a pigeon, snacking fiendishly on the remnants dropped from the sandwich a waiting commuter had eaten, sloppily, not too much earlier. They were clearly urbanites, not in the least fearful of my approaches to get better framing with each shot. Certainly a daily occurrence, it struck me well enough to focus my attention for some time while waiting for the delayed train. I was happy to think on the experience on the ride back when the train finally arrived.

I give this backstory as context for a circumstance I found myself in earlier today having decided to share one (I think) particularly handsome photo of the pigeon on Reddit. Not often, but from time to time, I like to share a choice image on in that community that has a particularly powerful personal impact as a means to share the experience. They are typically shared links to a Flickr gallery post with its own long winded description to set the stage for what circumstances inspired its creation. In this case I chose the portrait of the pigeon because it struck me as a subtle beauty in the everyday grind (and I know I've overlooked the mundane in daily life plenty, we might madden ourselves trying to focus on it every day). My titling of the post read as "While everyone else was on their phones, I chased this pigeon around for an hour". There are only so many characters one is allowed in a post title, and I assumed further context could be gathered by reading the description on the Flickr posting itself.

This benign title began a mild flame war. Despite the posting's popularity in regard to upvotes, the comment section was suddenly filled with personal stabs. I was accused of judging the people in the station paying attention to their phones, of being a hypocrite for taking the picture with a phone, for trying to paint myself as a "special snowflake" and in general being an idiot for chasing a pigeon through a train station for an hour. Within less than two hours, what I had simply intended as a benign sharing of an experience morphed into a judgment of people for being internet and technology addicted. And the more I thought about it the more I understood their point of view. From editorials to the judgments of our elders, criticism of a "smart phone culture" abound, and it makes complete sense to me how even the mention of the other denizens of the train station being focused on their technologies was an inherent criticism. Ultimately, in the simple context of a picture of a pigeon, it has no relevance. And I never made mention that I am, essentially, just another one of those cell phone absorbed people more often than not when idle time is abundant. But in the spirit of reflex, I insisted on replying with equally irrelevant commentary to make light of the negativity, saying "Crap, you caught me" to those accusing me of being a hypocrite, expanding upon being a "well adjusted adult" by degrading myself for still playing with yoyos and watching cartoons at my age. In the end, I chose to delete the post entirely.

I've question myself over the impact of that single sentence all day. And at this point I remain unsure if my words rightfully inspired backlash or if perhaps those reading that post's title on a cell phone felt directly insulted by the statement. What it has taught me, however, is that communication on internet lacks some inherent mechanism of person-to-person communication, be it inflection or body language, that permits the benign, the inconsequential, to be construed as attack, and that reality rather depresses me. I shouldn't say that it is a new concept or something I was necessarily taught, I've been aware of it just fine and been victim of misunderstanding same as those who felt slighted by the post. It took time and strong influence by a very good friend of mine to learn that often the safest approach is to remain silent when the intent of a statement is unclear, be it in person or text. Reminders come hard, it seems, but I do feel my choice to remove the post and cease any possible out-of-control spin of a comments table to be the best course of action. I'm simply disappointed it ever had to come to that, and so quickly.


Tonight the aurora is supposedly visible at my parallel tonight. I've been looking outside every once in a while, but suspect the light pollution in my area to be too severe to permit such a gorgeous thing to be seen. Were I smarter I would have prepared hours ago, traveled to a mountaintop some 50 miles away, set up camp and waiting for the solar storm to hit its peak. Lesson learned this time around, not everything can be photographed from your own back yard. Writing this post has been my alternative, as I'm sure I won't sleep well tonight until today's experience has been divulged in a sort of venting exercise.

I do have plans to visit a friend in Pennsylvania, perhaps indulge the long lost muse of abandoned infrastructure and again recenter. I've done poorly in the practice of escaping my comfort zones to acquire truly inspiring images, but it is always good to know I have friends out there who help me to find the muse whenever it is at its most elusive. Certainly looking forward to have new stories to share of those experiences within the coming week.

For now, I will continue staring out the window, hoping to catch a glimmer of green.