The Process of Processing
A Chronicle of Bobb the Archivist
"Ha-HA!" I exclaimed as I slammed the newspaper down on his desk. The ageless man sitting there barely looked up. He was deeply engrossed in pouring over what looked like blueprints for some elaborate maze.
"AHEM!!!" I loudly proclaimed, thumping his desk again and pushing the headline into his line of sight. Ash fell from his cigarette onto my newspaper. He sighed heavily, then grunted angrily.
"You think I got time for this shit, Johnny Boy?!?!" Bobb growled. He flicked his cigarette into the fireplace and lit another. "Something is going wrong in the memory and vocabulary vaults, and while I am trying to track it down and put the fires out, you're playing around!" He was obviously agitated. Things had not been going well in my mind, even though Bobb had decloaked most of the files after we made some peace during the Goat-Fish fiasco. The stress levels had gotten so high, he had stopped drinking. Which is a bad sign.
I was a little hurt. I wasn't "playing around," I was looking for writing opportunities, and had found this one contest about photo processing, which I thought was ironic synchronicity considering how many writing procrastination hours I had recently spent processing photos. Okay, maybe desktop publishing a copy of the contest and then buying ad space in the local Shopper just so I could dramatically slam it down in Bobb's face was a bit much. I just wanted the rubber band to be on the other claw for once!
But as I stood there looking at the fear behind his angry eyes, I forgot my own selfish thoughts and set the paper down. Bobb was terrified! I had seldom seen him like this, and I had known him my whole life. Through all the years and all the adventures, it was he that was constant in my world. I don't know if other folks develop such a deep bond with their mind's resident archivist, but I had. He was definitely an acquired taste, but I had long come to not only depend on him, but appreciate his candid wisdom during times of turmoil. His expression softened, less angry and now more of an ancient sorrow.
"John," he said, his voice cracking. "If I don't figure out how to either recover these losses, or make back-up copies, it will all be gone. We spent 12 hours yesterday just looking for a French word for 'fur trade employee.' What if it had been something important, like your blood type?"
"But I can't remember my blood type, Bobb, you know that," I replied. I was confused, which was more and more common of late.
Bobb looked at me like something the dog dug up. Waves of rage and frustration swept over his face. He looked like he was gonna blow up. Instead he took a deep breath, finished his cigarette, and lit another. He got up and walked over to the wet bar, selecting a bottle of mead. He took two ceramic goblets down from their hooks on the Tavern ceiling. Soon liquid sunshine was flowing from its blue bottle. He raised his cup. Disoriented from the bootlegger turns of the last few paragraphs, I stood and raised mine, too.
"He either fears his fate too much, or his desserts are small, he who dares not put it to the touch, to win or lose it all!" Bobb proclaimed with a firm resolution. Montrose's Toast, or close enough. This was serious. I raised my own chalice for the counter-toast.
"When in doubt, advance!" I declared. I was quoting Patton, who was quoting himself 2000 years or so before. We both took a drink, then Bobb sat me down at the writing desk. He pulled up a nail keg and lit his pipe. The seas were calm enough, so I took another slosh of my grog.
"Explain it to me," Bobb requested. "You keep doing it, and I have to fight you to write. But you do get your writing work done, despite the fascination with photos. Explain it to me." I didn't know where to start, so I stalled.
"Oh, what's the point, Bobb?" I whined. "The last one might not even have been entered. My perspective is just too odd; I just don't look at things the same way other people do." If he was going to push me to write, I was definitely going to be uncooperative. My chest hurt, my eyes were blurry, and that old mule accident injury in my brain and spine was really punching today. I was forgetting stuff more and more. I was just not in the mood anymore.
"John," he replied more softly than I was used to. "You do better after you do certain things. When you work on photos, or sing old songs... it gets easier for me in here. I can find things faster and more effectively. And yes, writing helps, too. It forces me - us! - to do my job better." He took another sip of his mead and lit another cigarette. He got up and walked over to the old turntable in the Tavern. He selected a record, carefully lowered the needle and adjusted the volume.
John Denver's "Annie's Song" began to play. The cabin got very dusty, very fast. Bobb just looked at me, watching past the cloud of smoke around him with piercing green eyes that held more joy and loss than eyes should be able to hold.
"John, why do you always hear that line 'like a knight in the forest' instead of 'like a night in the forest?'" Bobb asked gently. "Since you were a baby, that is always how you visualize this song."
"I don't know Bobb," I replied. I gave it some serious thought again, as I had several times before. "That is just the way I see it, I guess." I had no better answer and I was trying to not be overwhelmed with memories and feelings and thoughts...
Bobb took several puffs of his pipe before he spoke, "When you are around art, making art, engaging in creation or interpretation, the situation improves. Even when it is writing." He stood up and started pacing around the foc'sle. After awhile, he spoke again.
"More to the point," he continued. "You are fairly unique in having that perspective of that song. And the fact is, you are unique in myriad other perspectives. This seems obvious, and may be true in a general way for everyone, but here and now, it is you and these archives that are my business. Your perspectives are you! If you can't access them, you aren't you. If you stop being you, there will be no me. Art is your access code to your foundational identity. and that identity and its experiences are what create your unique perspective. Only you can be you." He finished with such sincere intensity, it was obvious how much pain and fear he was experiencing. Normally he just yelled at me or rolled his eyes.
I wanted to help him, but I had forgotten why I was even here. I was confused. I had come in here for something. I couldn't remember. Bobb came back over to the writing desk in my workspace at my wife's cabin.
"You were telling me about a writing contest," Bobb prompted. I stared at him. I had no idea what we was talking about. He reached past me and opened another tab. "What's that on your flatwriter?" He asked, pointing at the image on my laptop's screen. He stilled called every digital device a form of "typewriter," with modifiers.
"It is a photo I processed though that new Sudden Germ Cracker social media site," I answered. I was happy with how it had come out. It seemed timeless, which is something I try to be. The memories of that time were vivid. I was dressed in early 19th century garb, firing up a forge to teach blacksmithing at a historical site. As I looked at it, I seemed elemental. Classic. An archetype.
"So, write about some of those photos and how you fiddle with them, Johnny Boy!" Bobb vibrantly exclaimed.
"It seems silly though, Bobb," I was whining again. "What I write will not be what anyone is looking for. They say writers are supposed to be weird, but I doubt very much that they are supposed to be as odd as I am."
"Are you writing for them or for you, eh?" Bobb inquired gruffly. "Johnny, you do this for you, to make connections within yourself. If it connects with someone else, fine. But who cares?" He flicked his cigarette over the side. We were moored near a lighthouse, preparing to send their freight in with the tide.
I started to answer, then thought better of it. I already knew that whatever I wrote would not be anything like what anyone else wrote. I looked again at the photo. That wasn't the first one I had processed with the new App and my new inclinations. I scrolled around until I found what I was looking for.
"Here is the first one I did, Bobb," I said, pointing at the screen. I had processed art from a hardcover 1906 copy of Call of the Wild by Jack London, a favorite of mine and of the family. One of my daughters had just bought it at a thrift store for a dollar, and had subsequently refused and resisted all efforts to let go of it. I even offered to trade her a near new hardcover. She was not having it. But she did let me take photos of various parts of it for sharing to my online files. I showed Bobb the original.
"The same art appears on the cover," I explained. "It wasn't in good shape."
"So, why did you make the changes or whatever you call them?" Bobb asked. "It is a good job, and I like it. I like the original, too." He lit another cigarette while pulling up his chair to where I was working. "I can see that they are different, but the one you did seems more like a memory than anything else."
"I think that is what it is," I replied, feeling some enthusiasm about the project. "This was an important book to me, because it really spoke to me and my own pull towards something wild. All my life I have felt out of time and out of place, a savage cast into civilization. Also, I have had dogs my whole life - including using them with sleds. Anyway, there is a lot there. Seeing that book in her hands brought a lot back to me." The words were just pouring out, now.
"I balanced out brightness and contrast," I went on. "Then I enhanced the structure to make it stand out more, and make the definition clearer. A little of this and that with highlights, shadows, and sharpness. Then I set the focus in on what I see as most important in the story and life: connection, love, bonding, and trust. Buck had given all of that, and had received the same from Thornton; it was his moment of understanding." My mind was whirling as cascades of memories spun around in my mind, as though thousands of file folders had been hurriedly emptied by playing frisbee with them.
"The touch," I said as I wound down. "For someone who is uneasy about human contact sometimes, I can relate to a touch being very important. To give it, to take it. To trust it, when you have every reason not to. It was a meeting of unconditional half-way, each way." I let out a deep sigh.
"You know what the best thing about these canned peaches are, Johnny Boy?" Bobb asked. "They aren't axle grease." He chortled. What the hell did that have to do with anything! Bobb can be exasperating. I brought up another photo.
"Look at this one Bobb," I went on. Somebody had to keep this thing going... talking about axle grease and peaches, seriously? "Similar process, but I played with the colors, too. I was happy with original, again, but by processing it, I elevated its intensity to be more that of stained glass." I smiled a little as I was truly happy with how this one came out. Symbols were important to me in that they encompass realms of knowledge and meaning in such a small package; they made themselves easier to store in the ever-bulging archives. I clicked to the original.
"I have done this pattern in hammered copper, too," I told Bobb. I connect to my ancestors and worldview though crafting and creating art. "The focus to center brings depth to the piece." Bobb was listening intently, his smoldering cigarette forgotten between his lips; the ash grew long and fell on the front of his cardigan, unnoticed. I clicked into the coppersmithing files.
"You miss that tinker work, don't you?" Bobb asked as the next phot came on the screen. He noticed his cigarette, put it out and lit another. He brushed the ash off his peacoat, then stood up and stamped his feet; that old boat could get chilly.
"I barely even remember it was me who did it," I answered sadly. "It seems surreal to me that something so fulfilling came into my life so unexpectedly, and then was taken from me so abruptly. I still have a little black book filled with the things people want me to make, and a couple of those I already owe on. Which is devastating! And I miss the tinker travel, camp to camp. That sort of work begs for an audience for the dance the hands do and the songs the smith sings." This was depressing. I had made the ink art because I could no longer do the copper art. Then I had arrived at a place where I couldn't even do the ink art... all I could do was tweak old art into something that looked like a memory to me. I started to fade.
I was jerked out of my reverie by the jolt of one of the wagon's wheels dropping into a pothole. Bobb steadied the horses and I glanced behind us to see if we had lost anything. He cursed around the pipe clenched between his teeth. The trail smoothed out and the horse slipped back into their steady rhythm. Bobb then spoke.
"I want to get this straight," he said. "You do this processing and it helps you see the things you have seen, in a way that makes you connect with whole collections of memories?" He stood up and walked over to the bottle of mead and poured himself another goblet full. He brought it over to my desk and topped mine off, too.
"I suppose," I answered. "After finding out I could do that with the art of others and my own art, I decided to work on a few photos of mine from the travels." I moved to another file and pointed to another processed photo. "This one was a poor quality photo, but it was an important moment celebrating the hard work of a great crew. They were even trying to make their facial expressions grumpy for period-correctness in the camp era we were working." I enlarged the processed photo so he could see it better.
Photo taken and processed by J.R.H of some of the crew at a camp
"Ha-HA-HEY!!!" Bobb exclaimed with delight. "I know that crew! They look like they stepped out of a time machine. Are you sure this is not an old photo?" He peered closer at it.
"No, just from three years back," I replied. "The original photo was not very good, but those guys were great. I wanted something better. Since they looked old-timey, I wanted the photo to, as well. The era they are portraying is before most of photography, so there is a discord here, but that adds to the timelessness that is memory." I brought out the original.
"I remember that the original was taken with a smartphone with a scratched lens," I recalled. "These kids are usually so smiley, every time they put their 'war faces' on, someone forgets. They did good in this one." I went on to explain the process, "I tuned out the light fog by balancing brightness and contrast, then sharpened it up, adjusted saturation for visibility, switched to a black & white filter, and then brought in the containment and focus. The process lets me add a meta dimension to some of these photos that let them say more than they would have said on their own." I was so proud of those children and grandchildren. As I looked again at the processed photo, I seemed to have been able to bring to visual their grit that is so obvious in person but so obscure in reflection.
"What about the original of the blacksmithing one?" Bobb asked.
"I can't remember who took it or with what camera," I said opening its folder. "It was good, fine, but again there was an anachronism to be embraced, but not in color."
"Do you do any in color?" Bobb asked while lighting his pipe. "The processing, I mean." I thought about it. It took a minute, but I got a pair of shots pulled up. First I showed him the processed one.
"I have carried those over a lot of miles." I explained. "And each part of both has its own history. The basic photo was fine, but it lacked the vibrancy these two artifacts hold in my heart and mind." I had often said that I wear my memories, my story. These two pieces in that place were typical of that perspective.
"There are a few symbols there too, Johnny Boy," Bobb observed. He poured the last of the mead into my chalice.
"There are," I answered. "And they hold a lot of meaning and memory, too." I was being overwhelmed with the memories and feelings both good and bad that rode alongside these symbols and items. That strap on that horn... woven by my wife... "Here is the original of it." I opened another file.
"Why not black & white on this one?" Bobb seemed puzzled. "It is historical or could be. Or am I missing something?" He laid back on the bundles of plews and packed his pipe.
"I guess because I live my own life in color," I replied. "Sometimes, I am in a timeless way, but other times my connection is with myself. And that has a broad spectrum. So for this one, I did the usual, but with the color I looked for warmth and dimension" I looked for another file. Finding it, I put it on the screen.
"Nice!" exclaimed Bobb. "There is something surreal about it. It is timeless but in color, why?"
"It is one of my favorite places in this life, one I may not get to visit again. Playing in the surf in the cove, listening to the sea lions, coming along the coast as it hove in sight..." my voice broke. I was sitting here messing around in a bowl of metaphysics, while the reality of it all was that I was looking down the barrel of a dry death. I felt Bobb's hand on my shoulder; he squeezed, hard.
"Show me the original, John," he said with a resolve. It was almost an order. Who works for who here?!? But opening another photo was better that riding the whirlpool down into the abyss.
"That's the one you used for the Goat-Fish fiasco," Bobb said. "Symbols again?"
"Yeah," I said. "Always. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but symbols are so much more complex and dense. As far as memories go, they are worth more than all the words that have come before or will follow hence." Yes, I used words like "hence." Still do. I went on.
"For this process, because it is both memory and symbol, it had to be containing, focused, and not too specific - even though it is. My process is basically tweaking a photo until it looks like it should when you add memory, and emotion, and symbols. Processing completes the photo sometimes." I could hear the surf, I could smell the salt. Blackberries grow there in abundance, and I found an amazing hagstone on the sand one time. I have walked alone with my wife in that cove, sat with sons and talked of the sea, and played tag with Poseidon with my daughters where the sea meets the shore.
"Metaphysics," Bobb stated. "The key to processing damaged or incomplete scraps of life is metaphysics, how things react and move each other. Don't you have a degree or something in that?" He crushed out his cigarette but didn't light another. "You don't like me smoking in here, do you?"
"No, I don't," I answered. "But you wouldn't be you if you didn't. Besides, it is only imaginary." I thought about that.
"Life has been called a persistent illusion," I realized I had something to say. "I say that the illusion is merely an allusion. We are each writing our stories from the shattered pieces - the fragments- of all the other stories."
"Do you think that might work for me?" Bobb asked eagerly. "I mean, do you think it will help me to reassemble and refile your lost, missing, and damaged memories and vital information? Maybe bring them back into view?" Bobb looked almost like a child waiting for a treat. I gave it some thought.
"Do you want to try it?" I asked, moving the keyboard towards him. He wasn't handy with this sort of thing, but in a few minutes he brought a photo up. I showed him how to bring it into the Sudden Germ Cracker thingamabob and we started on it.
He wanted color, so we left that alone, but picked a warmer and brighter color filter. Then it was time to balance out the brightness and contrast, and then he tuned up the structure. Shadows, highlights, saturation... little tweaks and tunes. Contain, sharpen, adjust the lighting, and focus on what matters most. When he was done, he patted me on the back. He sighed with satisfaction, then packed and lit his pipe. After a few puffs, he smiled, taking the pipe from his lips.
"How's that one for you Johnny Boy?" he asked with tentative pride.
"I love it Bobb," I choked out. "I really do, thank you."
"What will come, will come, lad," Bobb said gently. "And we will meet it when it does. I will make you a promise: No matter what, no matter what it takes, I will never let you lose this memory... even if it means forgetting me." He tousled my hair, then stopped. He slowly lowered his hand. "I forget sometimes, you not liking that. I also forget that you haven't been young in a long time."
I held out my hand, and he clasped it with a firm grip. We looked in each other's eyes and nodded. I felt like something important had happened, but I wasn't sure. I couldn't remember what we were talking about. Oh yeah, processing photos. I looked again at Bobb's first try. Memories and symbols merged into visions which inspired emotions into exhilaration.
I could have sworn I was forgetting something. I looked over at Bobb who was busy scooping burnt and tattered fragments of all sorts of things off the deck. He dumped a bunch on his desk and started sorting them. I couldn't really understand his process. He seemed calm and resolute, like he knew where to turn the helm.
As for my own course in these troubled waters, I was still processing. I looked again at the photo on the screen and smiled. I know those folks, I thought. I didn't notice Bobb looking up at me from my work, a look of grim determination on his face. Memories started flooding the cabin...