“We’re Here For A Good Time, Not A Long Time”

This week, my grandfather, Dr. Ronald T. Abbott passed away. He earned his medical degree at the University of Glasgow, and his father, Dr. Sydney Gilchrist Abbott, earned his veterinary degree at Glasgow Veterinary College (which would later become part of the University). As a young man, Grandpa loved fast cars, his country, beautiful women, alcohol, bathroom and absurdist humour, and dogs. As an older man, he loved fast cars, his country, alcohol, bathroom and absurdist humour, his dogs, and a beautiful, tender and kind lady who cared for him until his last.

Ronnie B & W 1956.jpgGrandpa was a rabble-rouser, an adventurer, and was always busy with a new object of his focus and affection, motorized or otherwise. At twelve, I heard about his adventures riding his motorcycle from Iowa to Tierra del Fuego, at fifteen, of his adventures to Alaska and close encounters with bears. At twenty, he sent a short story about the time he mistook a brothel somewhere in the wilds of Mexico for a hotel. And no, he did not speak Spanish. Throughout those years, he had a habit of showing up out of the blue (usually in a different car each time), waltzing in with a belch, a smile, and a “hi, Dearie!”, typically in that order. Seeing him was never boring and was frequently a delightful break from ordinary days.

He was, at times, an abrasive man, but was a man who thought clearly with an evident sense of charisma and confidence which carried him through life effortlessly — going through a reported approximated eighty sports cars in five years in addition to airplanes, dogs, and motorcycles. The impeccable Scottish brogue didn’t hurt either.

At the peak of his medical career, his personal choices, career, and life path often took him away from the responsibilities fathers often encounter at bedtime — checking for ghosts in the shadows, reading, and telling bedtime stories — but my own father was never less grateful for the happy times they did share despite. I would ask that he tell them, in all hilarious detail, over and over as I lay down to sleep on nights when my mother was teaching a late class at a local University. Dad would always repeat the same ones.

I would beg for more stories of this ultimate reckless adventurer-leader — camping in Yellowstone and hearing the dogs fighting with bears as the camper rocked my father and his brother, being stalked through the woods, fishing for dinner, and my Dad, riding motorcycles across the great plains with his .22, being chased by bulls — but would, more often than not, come up empty. There was a finite supply of stories to tell, and I had heard all of the ones my father wanted me to hear. I wanted desperately to have these adventures — the three of us — on our own. Grandpa was an easy character to idolise.
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But Grandpa was still busy ticking things off the list of adventures to have, and I respected that. My father painted him as a character in a story book — Mr. Toad from the Wind in the Willows was a favorite parallel, always looking for another wild ride and always captivated by the sights, sounds, and smells of a clean engine. I came to admire and adore this feature of him — for his absence was in fact a distant presence as this character, off to seek more stories, and I learned early to appreciate this from a distance.

But where Grandpa was still busy with his adventures, others filled the void. A wonderful neighbour, Professor Kent Newmyer, came into our lives, and is always there to listen and share stories (he will probably never know how much this means to me).  My father gave up his own adventures (of which there were many) to check for ghosts in the shadows of my room, read bedtime stories, teach me to whittle, to work on cars, and take me fishing or to the flea market.  I dreamt up adventures of my own. And Grandpa was still there, too — a character to admire and adore.

The night he passed away, the streets of Glasgow were eerily vacant as if bereft of the normally-lively spirit of the population. All the pubs were empty but one, appearing equally sombre from the outside, in which an impromptu, ten-piece fiddle and cello band enjoyed some drinks while playing a lively melody to what seemed the entire population of the city. I couldn’t have known, but as he passed, I sat in that Glaswegian Whisky bar and knocked a few scotches back with an elderly, politely-vulgar Glaswegian man (with certain disdain for the English) with whom I spoke for hours about politics, culture, and current events. I thanked him for his time. I explained that Grandpa was passing and how much a simple conversation meant. We talked and laughed until the bar spilled onto the streets and bequeathed back to Glasgow the fervor it had been missing.

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I was his first-born grandchild, and I will forever respect him for the gifts he gave to the people I love and cherish: humour, adventure, and a love for the parts of life a Glaswegian cab driver named Stevie best described when he once told me “we’re here for a good time, not a long time”.

Whether right or wrong, we often pursue things in life to seek the pride of those we love, or to otherwise fill the spaces which are, to some extent, unfilled either due to our own flaws or the flaws of the characters in our lives. In seeking the adventures I have seen thus far, I hope only to have achieved the pride of my Father, for everything he has sacrificed, so that I may pursue my own ‘Miss Toad’s’ adventure.

So, if you partake, knock one back tonight for the man who in is part responsible for my globe-trodding — and if you don’t, picture my Grandfather staring at you, belching, and bluntly asking “Why not?” in perfect Scottish brogue.

 

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“By Yon Bonnie Banks” – Flowers on the Bank of Loch Lomond (On Victorian Love, Lost)

While everyone back in the United States is talking about St. Patrick’s Day, Scotland is fairly quiet. One of the most iconic emblems of the holiday, choruses of “Danny Boy” will probably float from the corner pubs across the country, invariably, at one point or another. But as a Scottish-American kid, I didn’t feel that same surge of emotion which accompanies a cultural connection to a piece of music — beautiful and as perfect as Danny Boy seemed, he just wasn’t for me.

Instead, I had “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond”, another iconic piece of folk music from the British Isles centering around themes of profound loss and departure, and this seems to fit the bill in producing the requisite overflow of tears when played at an emotional time (for best results, pair with a twelve-year Scotch, building stress from academic research, and a litany of questionable life choices).

I visited Loch Lomond in recent weeks, and despite the freezing cold weather which usually deters tourists at this time of year, it was, expectedly, as beautiful as the song suggests, and suddenly it became clear why everyone goes into a tizzy of romantic daydreams at the sight of it.

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I have to imagine that the fury of emotion associated with the triumphantly tragic tune and romantic setting is partly due to the older generations’ propensity for holding in emotions and a cultural pride in the ability to sequester them to the unaccessible depths of the psyche. It is something of an unspoken rule, particularly among men of a certain age, from certain parts of Scotland, that emotions are to be kept largely under-expressed lest weakness be shown, building pressure and tension until they are forced outward, typically by negative stimuli. The classic melody of a tender song has the ability to prod at those feelings in a different way, and on this I base my theory as to, partly, why the piece is still so incredibly popular here.

I expected to do the shoot, explore, enjoy the day, take in some lunch from a local place, chat with locals, and head back to Partick. In many ways, this is what I did. I hadn’t planned any invasive measures given the cold, and expected some generic shots as I was getting a feel for the place. Then I saw it.

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On one of the more accessible banks, a bouquet of white lilies had been placed carefully, quietly  — wrapped in celophane as they had been purchased, untouched — a gift for an unknown lost lover, lost life, or lost moment in time, placed by the hands of someone ultimately, intimately familiar with the feelings “Loch Lomond” evokes. It stopped me in my tracks and suddenly, this piece of litter, by definition, became the focus of my mind for weeks to come.

The simple image produces a thousand thoughts, a thousand questions, all never to be answered, and suddenly all the research in the world is useless. Was the person who placed the flowers young, or old? Were they mourning, or celebrating? Were they angry, or at peace? Are they still in pain? Are they still in love? Did they do it for others to see, or for themselves to enjoy — or was it for both purposes?

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But the burning question underlying any and all endeavours to understand photography, from an artist point of view, was the unpleasant rhetorical question: ‘Well. Who does this remind you of?’

I am a researcher of Victorian literature. I have read Kate Greenaway’s “Language of Flowers”, released in 1884, which captivated the attention of the people by providing significance to floral arrangements — sometimes used to express emotions which otherwise may have been sequestered just in the way I have described above. By the definition of that book, white lilies are emblems of purity, of sweetness.

I have read, of course, the origins of the song, published in the 1840s, author unknown. I have read essays on the significance of Victorian photography as an avenue by which to better understand and contextualise Victorian literature. Importantly, as noted by Jennifer Green-Lewis in her paper “Victorian Literature in the Context of Photography” for the Victorian Review in 2008:

Photographs, we note, have meanings that speak to the world beyond their immediate frames and aren’t necessarily “about” what we see at all: they may speak of our desires far more eloquently than they speak about their subjects.


I have only ever learned, in all I have learned, that in many cases, there just are no words. Sometimes, there are just reminders, signs, and things which prod at that ever-heightening emotional tension. No analyses from which to base an understanding. No discussion needing to be had. No broader context. No benefit to any of it. Sometimes it’s not a song that makes you remember.

Sometimes it’s just the privilege of imagining and empathising with the shared struggles of another human being, gifting flowers to the banks of a landmark long associated with patriotism, lost love…

And to the sustenance, in my case, of a fuzzy memory of a bus ride home, singing the chorus under my breath.

“Sky’s On Fire”: Urban vs. Rural Reactions to Fire

On March 5th, 2017, a fire tore through a Scrap Yard in Govan, Glasgow, sending plumes of billowing smoke skyward — much to the curiosity of Glasgwegians. On the streets in City Centre, on campus at the University, and in Partick near the River Clyde, bystanders at bus stops and crossing the street stood frozen in awe of the never-ending formations forming from the billowing smoke.

A few months ago, I was living and working in Northern California when wildfires tore through the hills, blackening everything in their path. Wildfire crews worked around the clock to extinguish the flames, but not before a fair amount of damage had already been done. There’s only so much which can be done for a wildfire when the fields of sun-dried grasses present an opportune tinderbox for even the smallest flame (I reflected on that experience with an essay and photo series here).

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After The Fire II, Brooks, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016

In both scenarios, a fire commands the attention of powerless bystanders who chance upon it or its effects. But in stark contrast to fires in urban areas, bystanders can be few and far between, only seeing the effects of a blaze up close and personal when it’s on their doorstep.

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Lake Berryessa Fire, Brooks, California, (c) Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016

But in urban areas like Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city by population, human reactions happen in real-time, expressing emotion and concern for something which instantly hits close to home. The outrage, concern, fear, and sadness hits every citisen within hours of the first spark.

IMG_4214.jpgAnd fire crews in urban areas clearly have a different set of parameters to work with: tasked with extinguishing a flame in an incredibly high-risk area where human life flourishes and congregates.  Urban areas are engineered around accessibility, and while battling a blaze in a densely populated area carries with it its own logistical issues, a wildfire taking multiple acres of land per day in the midst of some of the most unforgiving terrain in the world for motorcars is not an easy task — simply getting firefighters and tools to the periphery is a critically challenging, dangerous, and very costly endeavour.

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Urban Fire Under Glass, Glasgow, Scotland, (c) Caroline C. Evans Abbott, 2017.

Even from the safety of a cozy flat, there are few views which are not inclusive of a fire’s effects in some light — and the longer it burns, the more this issue presents itself. The slightest change in vantage point in an urban area will reveal the fire’s presence even if the fire itself is not directly visible: the demeanour of bystanders going about their day to day, the chatter of a local shop, a television or radio giving updates. Concern hangs thick in the air.

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Fire’s Effects Linger in the Atmosphere, contributing to Beautiful Sunsets — themselves often a product of pollutants. Glasgow, Scotland, (c) Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2017

But in California, where the Lake Berryessa fire burned thousands of acres, outrage, while certainly felt amongst NorCal’s population, was not as personal: it wasn’t on their doorstep… yet.

We have something to learn from the discrepancy between these events not just for their obvious differences, but chiefly, for their overall commonality. It is critical for the preservation of forests and the management of wildfire, particularly, that accessibility to personalised images which demonstrate fire’s impact on human and animal populations are distributed — because otherwise, human populations will always continue to be more terrorised by a lit match in a humid cement jungle than in a massive field of hay.

New Glasgow Guardian Article Out Now: “Glasgow protests Trump’s Muslim Ban”

At the end of January, I covered Glasgow’s two protests of Trump’s ‘Seven Nation Ban’ — or ‘Muslim Ban’ in a much more ‘newsier’ style than is typical of my past work for the Guardian. I investigated two separate rallies which took place within mere blocks of each other — one sponsored by Stand Up To Racism (SUTR), and the other, a privately-organised and unaffiliated event organised by Hali Amezianne Campbell. The new article investigates the reasons for the two separate gatherings in addition to covering the events themselves. Read it here.

Covering these events and subsequently reflecting on them  has given me immense faith in the character of the global community and in humanity, but has also elucidated the fact that truly, no one is perfect — particularly political parties, individuals, organisations, and factions — no matter how worthy their cause. Critically, it has drawn to my attention the fact that the responsibility of global citisens (in an age which poses increasingly more daunting challenges to that state of being) is ‘simply’ to keep one another in check: fact-checking, remaining objective, and ensuring that we all recognise our ability to morally falter. The longer an individual remains unchecked, the higher the risk of detrimental decisions, and serious ramifications to follow. The task of democratic constituents is to continue challenging our leaders — something the American press is consistently attacked for doing, guilty of doing incorrectly, or some combination thereof.

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Protesters take on increasingly sombre expressions as protests continue, growing in numbers: Glasgow City Centre Trump Muslim Ban Protests, Glasgow, Scotland, Caroline C. Evans Abbott, January 2017.

Conjoining photography with writing through my continuing coverage of Glasgow’s reaction to Trump’s election and subsequent executive actions — and this project in particular — is an exceptional opportunity for which I am very grateful. To capture the faces whose attendance to these rallies made the difference in proving Scotland and the United Kingdom’s majority state of solidarity with United States political discord has made all the difference in the way I perceive, process, and draw conclusions from the cultural events I cover.

Reading student journalism from around the world can truly take one on a journey without ever leaving your desk — for this reason alone, I encourage everyone to reach out and take a few moments to read some content they otherwise may not have.

 

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“A Boy Called Blue”, Glasgow City Centre Trump Muslim Ban Protest, Glasgow, Scotland, Caroline C. Evans Abbott, Jan. 2017

A sample of the article, below, details my interactions with a young boy called Blue (above) whose protest sign was by far the greatest of the night. For more photos of the rally and a thank-you note to Blue, click here.

But among the swarming crowds trying to make sense of the separate rallies, a little face, bundled in hat and coat, held a sign high at the periphery and gazed into the droves of people. His name is Blue, with eyes to match, and as he bravely consented to have his photo taken with permission from his Dad, he peered over the top of the cardboard picket sign he made all by himself, it’s big letters and colourful handle conveying a very direct message: “Mr. Trump [,] Everyone is the same change your ways!”

Hues of Old Glasgow

Glasgow is a friendly city rife for exploration even on the coldest of days. The winter brings with it the evocation of drab imagery: it is expected that every day spent wandering in this bitter season will include only gales from the North Atlantic to match the monochrome surrounding denizens whose wardrobes seem to have submitted to the bleak conditions. Fortunately, aside from the frigidity of the atmosphere, none of that is accurate… at least not all of the time.

The city is, of course, unforgivingly cold in the winter. Humidity hangs motionless in the air and sinks into even the most weatherproof of clothes indiscriminately. Citisens and visitors old enough to have errands appear as regularly as ever, going about their duties, where children seem less easily affected by the cold, darting between alleys and streets chasing one another on scooters and bikes. Aside from the historic tenement flats overlooking some of the city’s most popular roads, their ancient architecture looms over modernised storefronts as occasional, glamorously sleek structures blink between them.

Living here demands recognition of this fact: it is a confluence of old and new at every turn, an undeniable embodiment of the cyclical nature of life. History is patchworked into every element of life here even in the most modernised parts. Often, this overlap is felt most strongly through the creative freedoms taken by residents of tucked-away homes and buildings: using colour and quirkiness to underline the overlapping ages through architectural self-expression.

Attn. Mr. Trump: You Are No Son of Scotland

When I arrived in Scotland this September, a cab driver told me “Scotland always welcomes back her Sons and Daughters”. This sentiment has been echoed by many for each month I have been here, often at points when I would otherwise have felt alone. Instead, I felt surrounded by a community which loves its people – all of its people.

Just like me, Donald Trump is a Scottish-American citizen. And as a Scottish American whose culture and family is rooted so deeply within this community, I can speak to the fact that that connection carries with it a great deal of pride. Pride in country, in family, and in fellow men and women.

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Peaceful Protest: Inaugural Protest a Demonstration of Varying Opinions Coming Together to Admonish Trump. Glasgow City Centre, Trump Inauguration Protest Rally. Glasgow Scotland. 20 January, 2017. Caroline C. Evans Abbott

The fire and ferocity behind Scotland’s pursuits of freedom are a well-documented (and frequently embellished) facet of our culture. That fervour was present tonight in the hearts of the people who came together in City Centre.

There were no blue faces tonight, no tartans – and no, no haggis. But there was peaceful protest, there was ferocity, and there was a sense of safe community.

Being behind a lens frequently gives you a free social pass into diplomacy — the world sees you photographing and assumes you are doing your job and are to be left alone.

I make every effort when photographing to reveal truth, to remain objective, to analyse in the moment so that others may see that truth: to capture my perspective through compositions which convey the emotional and cultural relevance of a scene. But today I am a participant as well.

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“Mary with Child”: Protesters Smile at Joke Told by Speaker. Trump Inauguration Protest Rally, Glasgow City Centre, 20 January 2017. Caroline C. Evans Abbott

Behind my lens, I was shaken and moved to tears as a man began his speech with an emphatic battle cry: “Donald Trump: I am not afraid of you”, followed by the screams of the crowd. Sons and daughters of Scotland and of the World stood together tonight in a joint effort — putting aside political and cultural differences to stand in solidarity with my American friends and family. With me. With you.

Today my heart bleeds for the millions of innocent people at home who are afraid of facing a future which jeopardizes their religious, social, and human freedoms. For my friends. For my family. For those who choose to believe the values of the Democratic Party to be so clearly portrayed by one or two examples, and who then choose to regard my loved ones and I as ‘unsaved’ because of it. If that is the saviour you follow, then I am justified in divorcing myself from your brand of faith and am further at peace with my own.

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Protesters Gather Below Donald Dewar Statue. Glasgow City Centre Trump Inauguration Protest Rally. 20 January 2017. Caroline C. Evans Abbott

Mr. Trump has taken his oath today, and it is my hope that millions of Americans do so as well. Whether they be participating in his festivities, remaining impartial, or protesting his inauguration, may they vow to keep their hearts and minds open to the opinions of their fellow Americans.

It is my hope that they vow to expand their horizons. To not get angry, but to be thoughtful. To read more. To vow to do act with the class and grace our nation deserves, to commit acts of kindness, to deny gilded temptations which gloss over the truth. To make themselves uncomfortable, and then to come to terms with why they may feel that way. To swear an oath to defend our nation from whatever evil it will encounter: to defend your brothers, your sisters, your countrymen.

Mr. Trump may not support the arts, education, equal rights, or maintaining the separation of church and state which we rely upon for democracy to function, but I do.

In protest to Mr. Trump’s ideologies concerning education, the arts, his blatant lack of support for Native American rights, and his demagogic rhetoric, I will take to mine in whatever way I can through my art and writing.

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He has taken to demeaning, to bullying, and to fighting a big story with a bigger one. He has chosen his weapon of choice in a battle for America. And I will take up mine.

Scotland took a stand today, alongside thousands of citizens all over the world to protest the entry of a man into the most powerful position in the world – a man whose clinically narcissistic temperament has been overlooked by a population which felt abandoned by our government. That abandonment is what we must address going forward: with love, with education, and with exposure to the arts. But all good things in moderation, and I feel I speak for Scotland and for many Scottish American citisens when I say:

Mr. Trump, you are no Son of Scotland.

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“Sons of Scotland”: Two Young Boys Watch Protest Unfold. Glasgow City Centre Trump Inauguration Protest. 20 January, 2017. Glasgow, Scotland. Caroline C. Evans Abbott

How Van met Phyllis: Curley’s Diner, Stamford CT, The Ruby Slipper Project

Has anyone ever told you you have bedroom eyes?” He leaned in over the counter of the tiny diner and set down their food as her big brown eyes darted back and forth. For the confident, handsome, thirty-four-year-old veteran (a line cook for now), this interaction was easy, comfortable. For her – also a veteran, and savvy, but with a giddy laugh she never was very good at holding back – the interaction would have been a little less comfortable: she was on a date with another man. But my grandfather didn’t seem to care much.

That is the spark-flying story of how Van met Phyllis – the story of how my maternal grandparents met. Hers was an extreme caricature of a position many women have encountered over the course of history – whether to follow the head or the heart. She followed her heart, and like their memory, the diner still stands today.

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The year was 1948, and Curley’s diner in Stamford, Connecticut had been open for seven years, about the same number of years Van Gordon Evans, a southern gentleman with a strong jawline and an incurable sense of confidence, had called the north his home. There was instant chemistry, and through a series of events she never fully detailed, they were married six months later with their first of three baby girls arriving ten months after that.

My grandmother had an affinity for diners – frequently calling us from the land line of a local joint she had spontaneously arrived at to see if we would like to join her for a coffee, one of my greatest regrets in life is the one time I declined to join her on one of these occasions. But more often than not, we would end up in a booth at a diner, having a B.L.T., and talking about life: the future, the past, and the present. It was in those diners where I got my first sense of the world around me, of the community we lived in, and where she passed to me her unabatingly street-smart sense of class. Frequently, she spoke out against things she felt were wrong if the time arrived, but more frequently, she complimented that which she saw as good for the world. I gauged her reactions to the world around me partly in diners just like Curley’s, and in so doing, she taught me when to speak up and when to shut up.

Their courtship would have taken place as the height of Country-Western, Latin, and Big Band music led up to the birth of rock n’ roll. Most of their dating activities happened in and around the Southern Connecticut area where she had spent the latent parts of her childhood after immigrating with her family from Italy at the age of eight. But Curley’s diner is the stand-out landmark of their love story – itself as imperfect and inescapably charming as their relationship. The neighbourhood surrounding them abounded with visual disparity even then between the ‘rich’ sides of town and the poor, ramshackled places struggling with crime, violence, poverty, and drugs.

The diner was empty when I arrived, and admittedly, sticks out like a sore thumb in the heart of the increasingly gentrified Stamford, Connecticut, which in its efforts to beautify the neighbourhood has gone largely in favour of a more classic turn-of-the-century style. Skyscrapers and parking garages spring up all around, and construction sounds ring out in a clamour from behind the tiny parking lot, but inside there’s just silence. Across the street, town efforts to transform the neighbourhood into a bustling downtown are succeeding – it is a portrait of gentility with carefully restored brickwork and particularly-chosen lampposts. Black, Hispanic, and White workers can be seen ducking between the shadows of the buildings, working on construction crews while well-kempt Black, Hispanic, and White families enjoy the appeal of the restoration efforts below, driving into the city for a day of shopping while locals are an interesting mix of privilege and pain. But Curley’s is a quirky and quintessentially authentic New England diner, hosting senators, congressmen, and actors – DeNiro even filming a part of his film “Everybody’s Fine” at the counter.

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I love your shoes.” The waitress says in a very matter-of-fact way as she swings by the table. “Thanks! There’s actually a funny story about that – it’s kind of why I’m here”. I explain my Grandparents’ story and the shoes’ significance, hesitant at first and admittedly taken aback by the interior which looks more seventies than fifties despite the iconically original sign which still stands on the roof outside, but I am welcomed by her directness and interest. When I explain my grandfather’s opening line, she laughs and exclaims with great joy “I’d probably date him, too! And the Wizard of Oz is my favourite movie. Love it.

Opened by Herluf Svenningsen, called ‘Curley’ for his golden locks in 1941, the diner has been a stubbornly-steadfast icon of Stamford for decades, changing hands in the seventies after being bought by Maria Aposporos. It has, literally, made it through hell and high water: surviving everything from the flood of 1955 which left southern Connecticut drowning, to gentrification efforts which would have liked to do away with the diner entirely.

In 2007, then Stamford City Mayor and now Connecticut State Governor Dannel Malloy’s Urban Redevelopment Commission’s efforts to seize the diner under Eminent Domain in hopes of replacing it with an apartment complex lost to Aprosporos in a hard-fought and very public Connecticut Supreme Court battle garnering attention from everyone from The New York Times to CNN.

Curley’s didn’t ‘fit in’ with the sleek gentrification plan for Stamford, and the ground upon which it rests was valuable. It gives off an anachronous vibe: clashing heavily with the art deco style taking over the newly renovated downtown with its fifties charm and even more out of place seventies interior. Aprospros fought back with a card as political as the one she was dealt, using powerful alliances and the press to establish security on her investment – after paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight government claims of Eminent Domain, the battle ended in Aprosporos and her sister Begetis saving the decades-old piece of history from destruction.

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Aprosporos, a Greek emigrant with thick white hair and friendly eyes whose accent is as steadfast as her commitment to the diner, has garnered plenty of attention and support from Republican politicians and community members as a result of her public battle with Malloy, at one point supporting Tom Foley’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign for Governor in 2010, and serving on the Republican Board of Representatives in years prior. During his campaign for Governor against Foley, Malloy would later cite her involvement as a political move and claim no involvement in the Urban Redevelopment Commission’s decision to attempt to seize her property in Stamford.

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Typically, the Connecticut Democratic Party’s constituency are proponents and defenders of arts, culture, and humanist ideologies, and gentrification projects tend to reflect the democratic majority’s reverence for the arts and historic integrity, even across party lines – Willimantic, Connecticut, once much more of a heroin hotbed than it is today, has made strong and continuing comeback efforts in recent decades, presenting a swinging comeback which regards the area’s original features and historic value.

Today, restaurant is an unapologetically authentic homestead for the family clan – Maria and her daughter chat away in Greek as they serve the community. As she directs her staff, she carries herself with the wary sensibility of a street-smart mother, as though watching carefully for the next political move which may jeopardise the integrity of her legacy. She carries with her the wariness of her generation, looking out for her diner like a child from behind the front counter, ducking in and out of the kitchen in her apron.

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An African American woman and her son walk in mere moments after I take my seat – right across from the doorway my Grandfather may have walked out of so many decades before. In the quiet diner, she thwarts the boy’s requests for ham in his omelette order, explaining that it would cost more than they had — $0.50 more, to be exact – and that she had to eat, too. As they settle in and prepare to order, the waitress, who has overheard from the kitchen, comes forward to take their orders.

Excuse me, ma’am, not that it’s any of my business, but I overheard part of your conversation. This is the best value on the menu” she points at the menu, explaining the volume of food for one order. “Let him get what he wants. I’ll make sure you have enough to eat. I’ll put the extra dollar in.” She leans down to the child, shyly looking over his menu. “What do you like to study in school?” she asks. He responds happily, explaining in fragmented sentences his love of math, science, and community. He’s gotten loads of awards so far this year. He’s an area local, it’s clear he has no Daddy but he’s too young to mind, and he likes ham with his eggs.

Some time passes and a local comes in, greeting the waitress with a hug. They ask each other about business and he sets about getting some lunch. It’s the authentic place for the ‘real’ Stamford residents to come, where on the other side of the street, wealthy shoppers frequent the attractive, restored storefronts.

“Let me see if I can find something for you… Ma! I’m goin’ out for a minute” The waitress disappears into the parking lot. Moments later, she returns with two items: an old article from the Stamford Advocate featuring the diner’s story for me, and a toy truck. I pour over the collection of images, and information, and naturally, order a B.L.T., then watch as she takes the truck to the boy. “Santa told me you’ve been good this year”, she says, stooping down to deliver the gift. The boy graciously accepts, and the waitress returns with a smile, saying “you keep doin’ good in school, okay?” as she walks away.

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Curley’s diner represents a community through several parts of a very diverse whole, the underlying current of mankind uniting despite political, social, or racial differences to convene for one purpose: to enjoy some really good food and have a chat. Greek, Italian, Scottish, and Black culture, Liberal and Conservative, converging in one space with no animosity. Naturally, conditions are not always this idyllic, but for today, it was peace incarnate, and my Grandmother’s affinity for the American diner was alive both through her story and her legacy of acceptance. Their marriage was rife with differences – some more innately curable than others – but they loved each other, so they dove right in.

Maria represents a demographic which came to American in pursuit the American dream: much like my own Grandmother’s journey from Italy, and a demographic which is still very much alive and well today, but one which is challenged by hyper-conservative immigration reform proposals and adjacent media firestorms. When big business got in the way, Maria accorded with whichever political side could aid her in moving forward with her dream. But even with her conservative allies, she has not lost her socially liberal ideologies; serving food to the poor, sometimes lending money to regulars, and welcoming everyone, from white collar workers to prostitutes, to eat at her table. In the wake of the election, relations are tense even in the ‘quiet corners’ of Connecticut – but the American diner is still even ground on which to have a discussion or to learn about life from a stranger.

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Diners and community gathering places like them are hotbeds of human interaction: in them, we meet people from all walks of life and from all parts of the world. Frequently, they are tied to the romanticised ideals of American road-tripping, and frequently, that is an accurate connection, with travellers visiting from all over the country and the world. They provide common ground upon which ideas and differing philosophies can duke it out, ground upon which humanity’s most basic interests stand, and a chance for minds and hearts to meet. My grandmother’s view of diner meals as an occasional luxury was due to more than just her depression-era frugality: she saw the educational, humanist value to the interactions which took place within them.

I speak with Maria on my way out, talking about her experiences owning the Diner and the transitions which have taken place over the years. But charity isn’t new to Curley’s – in fact, Maria explains that the extent of their charity – feeding the neighbourhood poor, hungry, and prostitutes, had sometimes exceeded thousands of meals a week. She explains her battles to secure her business, her plans to eventually renovate, to keep improving, and to restore the building to a more original 1950s style: big dreams which transcend her age or any battles she may face in future.

I’m planning to fix the sign” she explains, sounding almost sheepish. But as her daughter chats with the young boy’s mother in the background of our conversation, watching the young boy play with his new truck, Maria has no idea how perfect her diner already is.

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Sources Consulted:

Some important sources consulted for anyone looking for basis to references made. It is important to note that all of these sources have been considered in light of their potential biases and most analysis within this piece has been made on the basis of interview and experience. Big thanks to Curley’s Diner for such a wonderful afternoon and for sustaining such a beautiful memory in the hearts of many people. Great food, too!

http://www.courant.com/politics/capitol-watch/hc-christie-to-appear-at-diner-where-owner-clashed-with-city-malloy-20140923-story.html

http://www.stamfordhistory.org/ph_1002_n3.htm

http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fsb/fsb_archive/2007/04/01/8403853/index.htm

“Nothin’ Left to Burn”: California Wildfire and the Metaphor of Human Choice

For days, weeks, or even months after a fire, ash and smoke linger visibly in the atmosphere, purveying the haunting scent of autumn to the denizens of this vacuous land. The effects of our human actions linger, too, like so much smoke, whether we are aware of or care for their damage or not.

These vapors of deadened leaves and thick woodsmoke temporarily veil the fixture that is that unrelenting sun, as ash from low-hanging clouds of smoke fall in fragile, soft flakes like snow, but these false disparities are hardly welcome ones.

Chemical Drop, Capay Valley, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016

 

Like any parent, Mother Nature’s great patience sometimes abates, punishing even our most minimally careless actions with irrevocably-damaging, fearfully-profound responses — the proverbial straw thus breaking the camel’s back, and calling upon the resulting denial of service as hope for change.

Locals of this area are hardly passive about this element of California’s weather: there is a mutual understanding visible within the fear that the next fire may be just close enough to their own home to cause for an evacuation — perhaps just close enough to fondle the property lines of the homes in which they house their memories. California’s drought (combined with the fact that wildfire is, of course, an integral part of the ecological structure of the region in some ways) makes for a perfect firestorm.

During these troubling times, the murmurings which circulate in small factions of wary community members here are statically similar, and are always expressed in somber consensus: there’s simply “nothin’ left to burn“. Blackened hills in recovery all-too-often play host, their charred remains a framed horizon over which smoke can be seen billowing from their neighbors. The smoke slows everything here (traffic and conversation included), and within a few days, a new fire will overtake the mountains and turn the horizon into a nihilistic minimalist’s photographic dream-come-true.

 

On The Prairie, Yolo County, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016
On The Prairie, Yolo County, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016

The ominous plumes of smoke rising from California’s iconic hills provide scale to its expansive, open skies: standing next to these wonders begotten of nature itself, we understand little more than the general concept that ‘we are small’. Where in New England and communities like it, trees and canopies overtake the skyline almost everywhere you look, these vast, open plains, parched hills, and cloudless skies are, in their magnitude, often difficult to grasp due to such conditions and the lack therein of comparative microcosm.

In the academic world, we are taught that each action is to bear an equal and opposite reaction both literally and figuratively, and the natural world is no different. Because that which some find “insignificant” — the disposal of a cigarette butt, coals left in an all-but-dead campfire — is frequently met with enormity in reaction by the earth under such a firestorm of circumstance, and here we are provided further insight into the lesson the earth conveys in so doing.

Nature lends to us through these disasters, leading by example as a teacher, indicating that the significance of our interactions with the land in any capacity, great or small, should be borne only with the awareness and understanding of the great responsibility necessary to respect its resources. Viewing that concept through an academic and spiritual lens lends even further insight into the metaphoric qualities of these conditions, and there we can make several observations.

Plume II, Capay Valley, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016
Plume II, Capay Valley, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016

In its destruction, a wildfire will have amounted to magnificent and horrific visual effect, illustrative of how a mistake, bad judgement, or careless action at the hands of a single human being can amount to more damage than one person could ever hope to rectify alone.

This secures the understanding not only how much human beings of capable of, but the potential therein to cause both disaster and balance. As communities gather ever-closer in the wake of disaster with hopes for safety in numbers, such activity begets the establishment of communal efforts aimed at the rectification of the careless mistakes of others — mistakes which so frequently cause these fires.

But the enormity of natural reactions to human stimuli is offset by the individual’s insignificance often felt upon staring at an unimaginably large plume of smoke, rising into the comparatively small atmosphere, reaching volume greater than the mountain from whence it came — presumptuously, we realize that this itself is certainly larger than a human being could ever be. But as a product of nature ourselves, we equally and oppositely reach its capacities for destruction — we have begotten this destruction, this response elicited by our action, and as such, we are afforded yet another shift in perspective…

These fires are perfect metaphor for human choice: that human beings must consider the consequences of their actions both in feeling and in application prior to acting upon their impulses and wonts — even the simplest ones.

Our actions taken in love, in war, and in every moment between require the utmost attention to detail in our self-awareness not because we should strive for an flawless, emotionless existence, but because the world requires little of us as a species apart from our implied task of taking care of one another.

Crews Assemble, Brooks, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016
Crews Assemble, Brooks, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016

 

Forever, communities of all sizes will take upon themselves the task of repairing the losses and damages to one another accrued through human error or borne of human choice all in the same manner.

Thereby, to temper one’s emotional response wisely is to do great service to humankind — temperance which is never fully achievable but something to which humanity is, as a unit, capable of working towards for the betterment of all its members and all functions thereof. Self awareness, altruism, and empathy are the only cure to the inherent tendency of human beings to simply be human… that is, to err.

 

Plume Rises, Capay Valley, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016
Plume Rises, Capay Valley, California © Caroline C. Evans Abbott 2016

 

Within each of us, the spark exists to act with minimal to no consideration for others, no matter the fortitude of our sense of personal decorum, and certain situations, people, and conditions are tempting tinderboxes. Metaphorically, a dropped cigarette butt, an improperly-extinguished, legal campsite, or an illegal campfire all represent choices made with either ignorance, thoughtlessness, or with great inconsideration to potential eventualities. In each hypothetical circumstance, the reasoning for having taken the action, or the corresponding explanation thereof is irrelevant, because the outcome — and corresponding chain reaction — is the same. But the forest has no tongue, as so astutely noted by the Lorax, and, like some strong human pride, it cannot ask for help when it has been burned.

Often, even when it is felt that there is nothing left to burn, the actions of one match, lit under ill-advised emotion, poor consideration, or both, can billow into a form immediately requiring the care and devotion of many others to heal what has been damaged, and in many cases, to completely rebuild all prior establishments — even those most inherent to our humanity.The smallest inconsideration can result in great abuse of that which is good in the world. Each human action, no matter how small, bears consequence, and must be treated as such: we must, with the mercenary dedication of soldiers, realize this and task ourselves with the vigilance required for commitment to this effort.

It is the responsibility of humanity not only to consider one another, but to never lose sight of this even in the face of personal challenge just as it is the responsibility of humanity to care for the environment we possess… Because, in truth and actuality, eventually that environment will deliver well-timed, forceful, and poignant reminders of the fact that we do not possess it at all: it possesses us, and there is always more to burn.

Dear Artists: On Hipster Hunting And Artistic McCarthyism

Stop calling each other hipsters. Please.

The entirety of this idea rings in my head in McCarthy-era accusations — “are you now or have you ever been a hipster?” Giles Corey’s voice from Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ stoically encourages “more weight”, and relieving him his fate is more important than you getting your intellectual rocks off (pun shamelessly intended).

The more effort our community invests in deciding who is hipster, or what is hipster, or how or why or when a hipster is truly a hipster — the less effort you invest into your interests, your future, and your education, and most importantly, your art.

Theoretically, it stands to reason that this makes you less adept at your own artistry, simply due to the fact that, the less time you expend on expanding and exercising your personal repertoire of skill, the weaker your artistic reflexes become. If you happen to be an artist studying at any academic level, you can see the folly here given the usually-high program costs.

Now, if you are willing to replace those hard-won reflexes with the ability to identify (per individually-developed requirements and ideologies) hipsters in their natural habitat, bully for you. Or, if this happens to be part of your personal artistry, or a profoundly important socioeconomically-based installation project pertaining to this concept, please continue being you. I encourage your art and would thoroughly support the existence of your project. But if this does not sound like you, I have a piece of unfortunate news.

You are buying into the witch hunt-inspired, hipster-hunting, Mean-Girls-esque culture which Gen X, Gen Y, and the Millennials have built an order of magnitude more than the person you feel you are qualified to be judging.

I would be lying if I claimed to have never fallen victim to this culture of accusation-encouraging, classification-driven, disingenuous art people: we are each capable of great and terrible things. And so, to speak from the experience which comes from living the ignorance of youth to its fullest potential, accusation is the cousin of confrontation and is generally a really, really bad and altogether forever-regrettable idea (particularly if you have no marketable skill for real-life confrontation).

As a community, it stands to reason that we can make more headway promoting the importance and value of art to society if we don’t attack one another internally (our friend Abraham Lincoln touched upon this widely-applicable concept quite some time ago). We exist in a time where there is great need for artists who will accurately address the world’s changing problems (and solutions) where there are boundless resources for many, and next to none for others. As a community, the time has come to see art for art without disparaging one another on the basis of our personal choices. As a community, we must leave behind all antecedent expectations: and exceed them limitlessly. We cannot continue with these artless attacks on one another in any capacity. Criticism has its place, but let not that criticism take the hand of cattiness, for no one will benefit.

Now that I, too, have expended valuable time, brain chemicals, and caffeine resources discussing concept this with my ever-receptive computer screen, perhaps those who discuss this freely and willingly have, in fact, accomplished their goal by drawing another party into the melee. If this be the case, please accept my congratulations for a job well done… You hipster.

Dear Art Major: Why Art Matters

 

About one year ago, I graduated with my undergraduate degree in Studio Art.

I chose to study art first: to devote six years of my life to the pursuit of direction within myself, always guided by the fundamental rhetoric of the arts because I knew that what this study called up within me would allow for refined pursuit of my other academic interests in future degrees.

At times, enforced by philistine ideologies in certain cultural circles, variants of the phrases every art student is intimately and begrudgingly familiar with would surface: “What are you going to be able to do with that?”, “Oh, so you have to go to grad school”, or in some cases so far as…

“I’ll come visit you in your cardboard box!”


I am happy to report that, roughly one year post-graduation, I am not yet living in that box (in fact I’ve grown quite comfortable in my quaint third story apartment overlooking a redwood grove). Rather, I have a job which provides me more than I need in a wonderfully supportive community driven by humanist values, the ability to pursue art in the manner in which I so choose, and an acceptance letter to my first choice graduate program for the Fall of 2016. Above all, I cultivate my own independence, procured of my own accord, which in my view, is invaluable. But I have heard it all, and I have pondered it all.

After graduating, I asked myself to formulate a cohesive answer to the question “why [the study of] art matters” in my first postgraduate year (which has recently come to a close). Initially, I thought it necessary to know the answer to this question in order to arm myself from further attempts by strangers (or more intimate relations) to castigate the practicality of my life choices, but I have grown into confidence and quickly realized that, due to the perspective afforded me largely through my pursuit of the study of studio art for so long, truth requires no defense.

I cannot guarantee that what follows is the “right” answer, and believe in no such concept, but I do know that I am at peace with it as my answer for the present time. When I am asked, I now reply confidently:

“I chose to study art first because of what it teaches. Art teaches us, fundamentally and primarily, how to see.”

If I cannot see the world, how then can I begin to understand it? And, without understanding it, how then can I operate therein for the benefit of those in plain sight, the plights of whom otherwise may have gone unseen? How could I begin to assume that I would be effective in any professional capacity without first having devoted my sensibilities, passion, and mind to the study of thoroughly, fully, being able to see? I could not clarify the existence of anything within myself without first the ability to do so with my own eyes.

By its nature, its fundamentals implore us to find within ourselves the inherent, difficult-to-teach ability to learn; to extract details from the environment around us and to process that information in a manner unique to our perception and sensibilities. Organized study thereof (at the collegiate level in particular) will provide the ability to engage in supporting coursework which otherwise teaches us to learn. We engage in writing-intensive courses, we study art history, we compete with and support one another alongside our academics and artwork. We are taught patience, time management, culture, humanism, language, philosophy, and we see all of this as presented in the best and worst light humanity can produce. We engage in cooperative, constructive criticism. We encounter ego, often and frequently, and learn to override or succumb to its wiles. We are challenged to produce, by most curriculums, art which is not only demonstrative of technical ability, but which demonstrates an understanding of the world and viewpoints which express a fine-tuned ability to truly see. We are expected, by the culmination of our curriculums almost universally across the world, to discern our perspectives, supported on the backs of detail and reason as would an engineer building a bridge, or a lawyer defending a criminal.

The act of learning is an art in itself, contingent both upon the ability of the learner to see with open eyes and of the teacher to coax (or pry) them open. It is by virtue of this fact and this fact alone by which I am able to function effectively in an academic context — not just for my own edification, but for the benefit of my students.

It is purely due to the pursuit of this degree at its most fundamental level that I am in any way, shape, or form able to effectively operate at my post and in my field, as it is purely due to this pursuit by which I am afforded the opportunity to lend a visual perspective, both figurative and literal, unto any subsequent endeavor which I choose to undertake.

I believe confidently that the foundation upon which the academic future of those who pursue the arts is the soundest by virtue of its well-examined substance, and after one year, I have never been happier with my choice of, what I was often told to be the most “useless” major in the world.

A degree in the arts requires no apology to society, negates no complementary skill, and hosts no regret. It requires no explanation, but should one feel like giving one, know that above all, an art student should be celebrated not only for their pursuit of truth, but for having the courage to do so in the face of a world which can be both brutal and beautiful in the same afternoon… and the bravery with which to see it.