Sunday, October 24, 2010

People I can count on

Growing up in a big family must come naturally to most people fortunate enough to have had the experience. Me? I distinctly remember asking myself one day—I believe I was about two—who all these people were.

I understood, of course, about my Mom and Dad. But as for those others milling about, all bigger than me, it was time to take charge and settle this question for good. They had to be here for a reason other than to tell me “no.”

What I wanted to do was get them all home, these people I figured were my brothers and sisters, home at the same time. I would herd them all into the three-bedroom apartment’s hallway, the part that opened into the dining room. I would have them stand up against the wall in a line, from oldest to youngest. And I would walk down the hall, stopping at each: “Okay, there’s Vinnie; there’s Regina, yeah; Stephen, yeah; Patty, yeah. There’s Kathy, and…me. One-two-three-four-five—I make six. Now I have it!”

I never got to it. Aside from the reality that two-year-olds didn’t give the orders, at least ones named Eddie, it was also hard to get everyone together. Dinnertime was the exception, though with so many people sitting so close together, I often left the dinner table in tears over some slight. (I guess it’s time I stopped that.)

As I got a bit older, I learned I wasn’t the only one who had trouble figuring out who was who in Apartment 10F. The other one was Stanley Dabrowski, who lived with his mother in 10E. I realize now that, despite our youth, we called a man in his 40s by his first name was odd. But “Stanley,” we reasoned, was preferable to Mouth, our other name for him.

We could also have called him Eyes, since we often caught him looking into our windows. Whenever we spotted him spotting us, though, one pull of the shades was all there’d be of Stanley. No, he earned his proper moniker mostly because we lived so high up. Long elevator trips became even longer when Mouth would corner me—as the youngest, the easiest target—and speak words I dreaded. “Let’s see now,” he’d begin, “First there’s Vincent. Then there’s Regina. Then there’s Stephen. Then….”

Looking back, I suppose this litany was better than the other line of conversation…the one where he’d ask about various objects on our windowsills. And the posters in his line of vision.

Stanley, I guess, might have been less lonely, less weird, if he’d had brothers and sisters. And I eventually learned that families were all different sizes. My Uncle Ray and Aunt Betty in Maryland had eight kids. Most kids my age had one or two siblings. And then there were married couples who, for any number of reasons, had no kids at all.

But times change. Fewer couples seem to be having kids. And who, moreover, says that a married couple needs to be a couple? Chen Wei-yih of Taiwan doesn’t think so. Unimpressed with the crop of available men and feeling pressured to tie the knot, the 30-year-old Chen has invited friends to a lavish reception celebrating her marriage—to herself.

At first blush, I feel sorry for this woman. On second thought, I suspect she wasn’t trying hard enough. Taiwan, two years ago, had about 2 million males between the ages of 25 and 34. If that island nation’s marriage rate is 40 percent, that leaves up to 800,000 possible candidates.

All she needed to do was line them up. It would take the better part of a day, so she’d need to start early. “Okay, first there’s Chao, then there’s Yong, then Déshì….”

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What’s not to smile about?

Seems lots of people thirst for power these days. Some rise to leadership in the media so they get to control others’ thoughts and beliefs. Some go high in the military so they can lead others into battle. Some enter politics—presumably so they can tell the media and military what to do.

I’m into power, too. Why not? But when I grow up, I want into the profession that, for sheer will to unbridled power, puts all of the above to shame.

Yes, I might yet become…a school photographer.

Taking pictures of students, individually and in groups, never used to make anyone rich. And if the photographer held power, it was solely the power, however unintentional, to make a mouth clamp shut just by uttering the words, “C'mon, show your teeth….”

What made it tough, besides us kids, was the cost of film—along with the gear and supplies needed to produce endearing representations of snot-nosed kids. When the photographer was coming, parents had plenty of notice. And once he arrived, he took his time to ensure he shot pictures that were acceptable, at least to parents. Why? Because every extra shot cost him money he couldn’t charge.

The game changed when the business went digital, and we parents see it every year. First comes the notice, a few weeks into the new school year: “School pictures will be taken one day next week.” Which day? Beats me. There’s no point in asking, because school staffers won’t know. Or won’t say.

If your child is in elementary school, maybe you’ll get away with sending your cherub to school dressed up every day of that week. Once your kids hit their teen years, though, you can just forget about it. With some kids, even one day of careful grooming is out of the question. And the trouble is, you might even agree, having been a teenager once yourself. Is it so hard for the photographer to share with the school at least his intentions for which kids he expects to do when?

Apparently so. But there, behind the delay and uncertainty, lies the introduction to the school photographer’s power: the order form.

Before the photographer even aims the camera or, if you filled out the form online, perhaps learned which direction to point it, he has the order form you spent days completing. Plus your check or credit-card number. It won’t be pretty.

For whichever package you pick, you’ve got myriad selections: colors, backgrounds and other options. There’s also the retouching, which ranges from none whatsoever to an option that will whiten teeth, even skin tone, remove blemishes of all kinds and remove stray hair. You might call it the Mister Hyde option.

All this presumes, however, that you were first able to choose from among varying configurations of photos in a range of sizes. Each package, you see, is the result of careful market research. I picture, in the photographer’s studio, three dart boards. One is sectioned off by photo size; the second, with the numbers 1 through 50. For each package, he throws darts at each of the first two boards to come up with, for example, 24 2 x 3s, nine 5 x 7s, and five 8 x 10s. How else could the photographer have come up with the countless permutations outlined on the order form?

But from package to package, there’s a congruence worthy of Euclid. In the end, no matter how you work it out, you’re doomed to have the same number of photos left over.

Oh, if only this alone were the full essence of the photographer’s power.

You won’t even see the breadth of this power, in fact, unless your son or daughter happens not to smile or…oh…sneezes the instant the photographer takes the picture. Even if your child is flailing at a sudden swarm of yellowjackets, this guy is taking one picture. Not because of the cost of the film; there isn’t any. And not because he didn’t notice that, say, a pterodactyl entered the room during a hiccup in time and is carrying away your offspring by the head. Since the camera is digital, he can view the photo moments afterward and decide the photo perhaps needs reshooting then.

No. Despite the 100+ options you spent hours poring over, he’s spending two seconds to take one and only one photo because he feels like it. Want a retake? There’s a promise about reshoots on the order form. That sentence is printed on the back of the part you’ll fill out and give away, rendering it lost forever—barring, of course, another hiccup in time.

There’s also an asterisk printed beside the guarantee. Look all over the order form for what the asterisk refers to—you won’t find it. I suspect you can find the explanation at the photographer’s studio; visits are by appointment only. In tiny type, it’s stuck to the third dartboard. You’d best not lean too close.

Elena and I were just finishing up this year’s form, for our son, Andrew, when I saw the last display of the school photographer’s power. “You know,” my wife was saying, “that’s one thing I feel sad about Katie being in college.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“They don’t do photos anymore.”