Monday, January 27, 2014

Undeveloped Lives!

In 2007, John Maloof went to a storage unit auction, placed a winning bid of $380 and won the rights to a cardboard box filled with never-developed photo negatives. A real estate agent and President of the Jefferson Park Historical Society in Chicago, Illinois, Maloof initially bought 30,000 black & white film negatives, placed on the auction block because their owner was behind on storage rent payments for the locker in which they had been kept for over 50 years. He would eventually purchase over 130,000 of the undeveloped snapshots made in the fifties and sixties by a Chicago woman named Vivian Maier.

Since developing the massive archive of negatives, John Maloof has introduced the world to the photographic work of the hitherto unknown nanny and amateur photographer. This remarkably talented woman is being hailed as the twentieth century’s premier street photographer. The spotlight of international media attention has illuminated her work through exhibitions in New York, London. Los Angeles, Oslo and Hamburg and a BBC documentary. Her poignant shots of everyday life in the American urban and suburban setting of the 50's and 60's seem, to many, to capture the soul and essence of the times. Many now refer to the woman as a “poet of suburbia,” or “Mary Poppins with a camera.”

And yet, for years, most of her work remained locked up in a storage unit. Two years after John Maloof bought the negatives, he discovered her obituary. At the age of 83, before her great talent was fully discovered, she died from complications resulting from a fall on the ice.

One wonders why Vivian Maier never developed her artistic photos. If she could not pay her storage rent, perhaps she lacked the funds to pay for film developing. Maybe she lacked confidence in her work, was insecure and hesitant to pursue her artistic talent or afraid to risk public criticism. Maybe life got in the way and other things which seemed more important kept her from getting around to it. It’s possible that, in her mature years, she regarded her youthful photos as nothing more than the na├»ve and foolish idealism of adolescence. Perhaps someone in a position of power over her insisted that she had no talent, that her pictures were a waste or that she should spend her time and money on something more sensible. We’ll never know.
How many gifted and talented people go to their graves with their photos undeveloped, their true beauty still in some sort of undiscovered storage? How many people of magnificence, potential and value live incomplete and unfinished lives, with their best possibilities still unexpressed? How many melody makers die with their music still within them, while the world remains bereft of their unique splendor?     

Oh God, give us more people like John Maloof who are willing to risk a bid and bring the unexposed treasure and worth of others to the light. And, pray God, may their undeveloped potential be discovered before they die!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Waffle House Choices!

Recently, we spoke for a banquet in Beaumont, Texas. Because our onward journey to Florida took us across several states and since we wanted to make visits en route, we travelled by car. We said quick goodbyes after the banquet and drove-on into the night. By 11 PM, we had checked-in to our motel and Janice was ready for sleep. Since I was convinced that I deserved a snack, I went out in search of something to eat.

I found a Waffle House nearby. A gaggle of late-night patrons filled the booths, so I grabbed a counter seat. From snatches of overheard conversation, I knew that my fellow diners were oilfield workers and regulars at this particular eatery. After placing my order, my sitting-down place being weary from the drive, I rose and began to read the material pasted on the grease-filled walls of this tiny, but hospitable place. Several worn posters celebrated Waffle House’s service to the public for over 50 years. This brand has been serving America’s short-order food needs with a largely unchanged menu since 1955.

I was stopped in my hungry, weary tracks by a poster that read: “283,115,520 ways to build a Waffle House 100% Angus burger. Better get started!”  My interest was aroused, my imagination was piqued and, for a few fleeting moments, I forgot my hunger. Who knew that there were so many ways to dress the humble hamburger patty!? Who knew that such diversity and choice existed from within modest Waffle House offerings!?
Over the next few days, crossing county and state lines on my journey, I pondered the potential of so many hamburger alternatives. Eventually, my mind wandered and I began to extend the truths of my Waffle House learning beyond its original sitz-im-leben to more metaphorical and personal applications. I wondered how social, economic, political, religious and interpersonal life might be richer and better if I and my fellow travelers on life’s road might stop to consider the many substitute choices hidden within all-too familiar situations. If an unpretentious meat patty at a common eating establishment affords so many options, then why does life so often seem limited, choices so constricted and viable alternatives so hard to come by?

Politicians, pundits, preachers and others in the public square too frequently present life’s challenges as though there are only two ways to go - their way or the highway! Because we have always dressed our hamburgers one way, it may be too easy for us to assume that there is no other way. When we face that old, familiar besetting sin or seemingly intractable social problem, surely we would benefit from considering the possibility that there may be other, better approaches to handling it. Just because we have yet to discover a cure for the common cold, there is no reason to assume that we have exhausted the list of potential solutions.

If Waffle House has thrived for over half a century by giving people choices, they just may be on to something foundational. Maybe my universe is a lot larger than I have imagined. Maybe I have more prospects than I have assumed, after all. The next time I feel hemmed-in, cornered by too few conceivable solutions in my life, I’ m going to pull over at Waffle House, order a burger (or pancakes and bacon) and think about it a little longer! Imagine the possibilities! Better get started!