Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Hollywood Star Map

For the past several months, Emmett and I have been playing eight ball in the basement most evenings. We play best 2 out of 3 games. Last spring these rounds didn't last long. I'd quickly win two games and that would be that. After all, the kid was only 9. He could barely reach the pool stick over the table, never mind with any consistency. So it wasn't a fair fight. I beat him every time, although I can't say I took much pleasure in it. 

But times have changed. With steady practice Emmett has developed into a solid player. He's larger now and more contemplative, and uses both traits to his advantage. He plays good, deliberate positional pool, and rarely chokes on the gimmes as he used to. He has his own stick with name engraved —a Christmas present— with which he beats me regularly. It's a changing of the guard, the latest in a seemingly neverending string of them as my kids move through adolescence.

As I write this I'm coming off a fresh loss. But instead of admiring Emmett I'm thinking of all the things I did wrong. For pool is one of those few games —like golf, horseshoes, and darts— where you control your own fate entirely. Unless your opponent runs the table (a non-event in our basement) you will get a crack at the balls. And if you play them right, you can win every time. Note that "can" is the operative word here. More often the result is "can't" or "didn't". I'm not saying it's easy. But at least in theory, victory is possible with every turn, and your opponent is helpless to prevent it. Ultimately the struggle isn't against the opponent. It's internal.

After our pool game a few nights ago I caught the end of the Steelers-Bengals game. It was one of those contests where each team battled itself as much as the opponent. It was back and forth. Both teams had their chances. Near the end Cincinnati sat on the best opportunity of the night, with a two point lead, 1st and 10 deep in Pittsburg territory, and 1:30 left in the game. They controlled their own fate entirely. But they imploded. The Steelers survived another week, although they didn't have much to do with it.

Shooting photographs follows a similar equation. As one moves through the visual world, photographic possibilities are everywhere. One can find them on busy streets, in suburban cul-de-sacs, at the breakfast table, out the back door. Potential photograph are Everywhere! Not that finding them is easy. In fact it's often quite difficult. The world can feel aligned against you. Subjects won't juxtapose properly or lighting is wrong or your fingers are freezing, or you just aren't feeling it for whatever reason. But the photos are always out there. There are five world-class photos in front of you right now as you read this. It's a pool game. You can run the table any time you want. Any opposition is imagined.

Seeing photographs is the part you control. The part you don't is what happens afterward. There are measures you can take to influence their reception, but it's largely a crapshoot. People will like them or they won't, and there's not much you can do about it. Sometimes the wind of luck is behind you. Sometimes it's in your face. Navigation is tough. And that's while you're alive. After you die, there's no hand on the rudder. 

This might be where the concept of fate comes in. What is fate? Don't ask me. I don't understand it. But it feels true. Or, to be more accurate, it has felt true to me at certain points in my life. Taken to its logical extreme —which astrologers and Tarot readers do— fate might be said to determine everything that happens from birth. Just a star chart or mix of drawn cards lays out the course. By this logic we're all helpless pool balls being knocked here and there by the rules of Laplace's demon.

Making photographs it's sometimes hard to know where the edge is between free will and fate. Some photos walk right up to you and announce themselves. Others cower in the bushes. Is the difference serendipity? Luck? Chaos? Should you search harder? Or with indifference? Does it matter? 

I don't know the answers. But if someone was reading my start chart way back in 12/29/68, they would know with certainty that I'll be in Los Angeles this week.

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