Everything is too complicated. Really. Or should I say, we make things too complicated for our own good. Here as I seat pondering a new year, I can’t help but wonder whether my expectations for 2018 will be any different from those I conceived of for the year 2017. After all, what difference does a year make, or should make? I would like to think that with every passing year we become a somewhat better, refined version of ourselves. As our vision narrows with time, the complicated expectations of fame, fortune, and endless adventure are gradually fined tuned to a more personalized set of intentions. This focus was perhaps where our vision should have been all along, but when life is enjoying its boisterous spring time, it surely must be allowed some leeway for its blessed recklessness and exuberance. With time, however, we manage to gradually squeeze the essence of things, just like the concentrated extract of a fine perfume. What really matters gains in potency by the process of discarding the superfluous. During this process, slowness becomes a virtue, and simplicity a much-cherished objective.
And so it goes with my approach to 2018. No need to visit a hundred countries when spending a lot more time in a few would do. No need to live it up in fancy, über-expensive hotels when a quaint b&b in the French countryside would do. No need obsessing over eternal money pursuits, when loved ones are starving for a little more time with us. It is far too easy to become a slave to the constructs in our heads, to that complicated notion of who we should be that always comes at the expense of who we are. Less, with simplicity as its accomplice, may well be secret passage to a life of happiness and bliss. That scarcity, strange as it may sound, may just be the sweet fuel of our dreams and expectations. A new year, a new approach to living and traveling. And if anyone out there, like me, comes to the realization that it would be virtually impossible to see all the stars in the universe, then we all should just pick one, and give it all we’ve got. The journey will be equally rewarding.
Speed. What a noble virtue. Its need is everywhere, from computers to transportation. It saves time, it shortens the undesirable, and it allows us to accomplish a lot more in the limited time we all have in our lives. It is an adrenaline rush too, quite dramatically illustrated in blockbuster movies like Top Gun and the myriad of action movies that inundate our daily consciousness. Smell the flowers? You kidding. Who has time for that?
Well, as it seems, a lot of people do. In the last few days I have been concentrating my photographic time on the number of people that I constantly see moving in what for lack of a better term I’ll refer to as “the slow lane of life.” To a large extent, this slow road exists in somewhat of a parallel universe in society, dictating its own rhythm, its own sense of urgency, and its own rewards. It is not characterized by what it manages to accomplish in a short period of time, but rather by what it manages not to do over a longer period of time. It is subtraction, not addition; forsaking, not gathering. It is finding time instead of lamenting not having any. It is admonishing Seneca’s observation that the lack of time has more to do with how much of it is wasted than with how little of it is available. It is a road as real as the busy one our lives travel on, and it is always there, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
Interestingly, there was a time when I thought that the glorious “slowness” was only possible at life’s extreme ends. That is, when you were very old and financially comfortable (that is, whey you begin to talk about your days being numbered), or during your youth, when someone else took care of the bills and most of life’s worries (when we all believed we had all the time in the world ahead of us). In my mind, the middle was made for the fast lane, for the never-ending “too busy” lamentations, for the social fly-by’s, and for dreaming about that distant, slow lane. The rose garden? Nope. No time to plant it. Need to get going. And so it went for far too many years. And why not? Everywhere I looked people were traveling at the same rate of speed, down the same rocky roads, and in the same general direction. This was normal, and everything else seemed, well, abnormal, or at the very least, too far out in the future. It was all an exciting, zero sum, high-speed journey that if left unattended could have culminated many years later in a place that no one really wants to arrive at: the valley of regrets.
One day, however, I dared to take my foot off the accelerator in order to experience the effects of deceleration on the trajectory I was riding on. I slowed down, took a detour, acted on one long-neglected dream, and surprised a loved one in the middle of the day. Deceleration made it all possible, and clarity, its inevitable result, did its part in dissipating the stubborn forces of obfuscation and neglect. No longer would I drive past that farmer’s produce stand in order to lament later of not having had the time to stop. No, that story was changed to the great time I had while shopping at that very own farmer’s stand during my busy day. I also made it a point to never talk about that abstract walk in the park everyone talks about, but never takes. No, my story changed to how incredible it was to find the time to walk along the the carpet of fallen, yellow leaves that infuse such a bright, golden hue to a cold, autumn morning. Moreover, I made time for my friends so we could spend long hours at the dinner table solving the problems of the world over multiple bottles of wine. And without a doubt, it was a lot more meaningful to say “I love you” to the one I love while staring at her eyes rather than texting the words, Emoji in tow, over an impersonal data network of bits and bytes.
Time. Speed. Contemplation. Obfuscation. Neglect. Love. They all do battle in our busy lives. Some of their challenges will be conquered by speed, others by simply slowing down. And just as it seems impossible to always travel at high speed down the proverbial road, it appears just as unrealistic to spend a lifetime on that slow, off-the-beaten-path lane. The secret in dealing with this dilemma may lie on both sides of the spectrum–on the adoption of a “variable speed” approach to life. Never accelerating without a well-developed plan for deceleration. Never decelerating without accepting that in life, even the good things often require a little acceleration on our part. The concepts are not, and should never be, mutually exclusive. Perhaps, and this may be mankind’s eternal hope, meaning and happiness will be found somewhere along that continuum. And at every one of those critical junctures along the way, changes in speed, and the detours we dare to take, will dramatically increase our chances of finding the cherished moments that will weave the incredible stories of our lives.
In today’s seemingly impersonal world, you would be forgiven in thinking that people just don’t care much about others, but I’m growingly convinced that this is just not the case. In fact, the more I come in contact with people, the more I see everyone texting, talking on the phone, and exchanging all sorts of information in digital form. Connection, rather than disconnection, appears to be the norm. That is, provided you have a strong enough signal.
A few years ago, and before coffee shops were discovered in earnest by modern-day workers, a somewhat bohemian fairy tale entered our lives. This fairy tale described a world where everyone had a relaxed disposition, enjoyed a warm latte by the window, and toiled through the day about as far away as you could get from the office maddening crowds. This very special place was an ideal sanctum where creative introspection, creativity, and unparalleled productivity could all be nurtured at the same time. However, something appears to have happened since the inception of that bohemian dream. Have you been to a city coffee shop lately in the middle of the morning? I don’t purport to speak for every coffee shop in every city of the world, but after seeing the above scenes at a very popular coffee shop in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC, I’m beginning to wonder whether what people intended to leave back at their crowded offices ended up following them to the modern coffee shop. Expensive lattes, canines, noise, uncomfortable furniture, you name it, and it’s there. Not that sitting in any of these places while you finish your morning cup of joe has ceased to be a rewarding experience, but it’s beginning to look like everyone and their families is now congregating there where you intend to do your day’s labor. Is this a necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps not, but just in case, better not get too enamored with that bohemian lifestyle just yet.
This was not the photograph I had in mind for today’s blog, but a recent encounter with my dentist (bear with me on this one) kind of made me think about people falling in love and the crazy things they do when they are in love. Not that there is any love involved in my visits to my dentist, far from it. What happened that got me thinking was his reaction to my comment on a story he had just narrated to me. You see, he was sort of curious as to why one of his dentist friends who recently got married had decided to sell his practice and move to Spain with his new bride. You have to understand that in Northern Virginia, leaving a lucrative job to experiment with a “less certain” lifestyle is tantamount to committing professional harakiri on a public square. Not kosher, to say the least. But this unnamed dentist apparently did just that, and off to the land of Cervantes and Miguel de Unamuno he went.
When I was able to talk again (you’ve been to the dentist, so you know what I’m talking about), I told my dentist the only thing that came to mind: “Maybe he was in love.” The reaction and scoffing sound that came out of my dentist kind of took me by surprise, but I did understand the “Yeah, right” comment that accompanied them. As I sat there trying to dissect the meaning of his reaction, I could only think of the words of the great Don Juan de Marco played by Johnny Depp in the romantic comedy: “What is this thing that happens with age? Why does everyone want to pervert love and, suck it bone dry of all its glory? Why do you bother to call it love anymore?” I definitely need to recommend this movie to my dentist.
This photograph pretty much speaks for itself, but it really makes you think of those years-gone-by when friends would actually talk when sitting at an outdoor cafe. How times change. Not that texting is not a form of conversation, but rather that the “here and now” has kind of given way to the “now, but over there.” While I walked around the area taking photographs, these ladies never raised their heads to talk to each other. I guess being there was enough, but that is precisely why I love photography so much: you never take your attention away from what’s around you. In a sense, everything talks to you in some way, and you never stop paying attention to it. You see, you listen, and you constantly feel. It is a visual conversation without distractions. At least that’s something that the Internet won’t be able to change any time soon.