I never worked at a factory. I did, for a few months, between my graduation from college and when I went off across the country to graduate school, work at an oil refinery, which at least is another industrial setting. That was the summer of 1988, which not coincidentally was the last time I was shaven; the refinery prohibited beards for safety reasons. I did a variety of things there; some clerical work, some gopher work, some light manual labor, so I was not bored. I find it difficult to imagine myself in something like an assembly-line job, doing the same thing all day long; I think my personality is not suited for that and it would be very hard on me. Other types of factory work are much more varied.
I saw a UFO once. I mean that literally, as in an “unidentified flying object.” It was back when I was a kid and my family was getting up very early in the morning to go on some long trip. I went outside, to put something in the car or get something from my father’s truck, and somehow I noticed something extremely tiny and odd up in the sky—it is rather amazing I noticed it at all, so small and far away it was. It looked like the tiniest of circles hovering in the stratosphere. I went and got my dad, who came out and looked at it, and then went back inside and got his spotting scope—the closest thing we had to a telescope. Even through the spotting scope, we could make out very little, just a few appurtenances or gewgaws coming out of the thing. Eventually we decided that it had to be some sort of weather balloon, high up in the atmosphere. Sorry if you were expecting tentacles.
We pick up the narrative again in relating a frigid February 2015 expedition into the snow-covered hills of northeastern Ohio Appalachia. As I write, a year later, the weather outside my window is not so different from what we see here, so I am channeling my inner Yeti. I’ve been finding taking photographs in snowy conditions is rather interesting; snow can really change the character of a photograph, whether landscape or otherwise. It has both a visual effect—the addition of so much white into a photo frame—and a psychological effect, creating distance, loneliness, sometimes purity.
Photography is, I am learning in my own novice way, in many ways the study of light. But it is more than that, too. It is also the study of color and of texture. I can’t help but think that this is somehow a metaphor for living life. Light is the world we live in, the ocean in which we swim. Color represents those things around us, the things we see, the things we notice, the things we react to. Sometimes these colors of life are bright and superficial, sometimes darker and more soulful. But perhaps most important of all is texture. Texture is richer, deeper. No matter what the color, it is the texture that reveals the truth of something. Texture is not so much life as how you live your life—the choices you make, the way the world wears on you—etching grooves deep into your surface. Colors can change, but texture abides. And as we live our life, the texture of that life defines us more and more.
We humans are a social species, which I guess why one of the most comforting feelings we can experience is the feeling of belonging. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. I was born in northeastern Pennsylvania, where my father is from, but my parents moved our family to El Paso, Texas, where my mother is from, when I was only four years old.
From the time I was four until the time I was sixteen years old, I never saw any of my father’s family: my grandmother, my aunt and various uncles, their spouses and children, not to mention a variety of cousins, great-uncles and great-aunts, godparents, and the like. We simply couldn’t afford a cross-country trip like that. But when I was a teenager, I had an opportunity to go to West Point, New York, for what was essentially a week-long attempt by the USMA to recruit national merit scholars. We arranged the trip so that I could travel first to Wilkes-Barre and spend time with the family there.
I was nervous about that, as my only contact with any of these folks was through scratchy long-distance phone calls and the occasional holiday card. But to my relief, surprise, joy, call it what you will, from the moment I landed and reconnected with these long-lost relatives, I felt like they were family. I felt like I belonged. Is that DNA? Luck? Maybe we Pitcavages simply have charisma oozing out of our pores. In any case, it was a wonderful feeling.
I’ve always been interested in foreign words that have no equivalent in English—unless English decides to appropriate them, such as schadenfreude. If you think about it, without a word to express a concept, we don’t even really have that concept, do we? Our culture is the poorer for it, in most cases. Take the French concept of esprit de l’escalier—literally, “wit of the staircase.” Imagine leaving the apartment of your significant other after he or she has just cruelly broken up with you. As you trudge down the stairs, you suddenly begin to think of all the retorts and responses you should have made—only you didn’t think of them until just now. That is the wit of the staircase. It is a perfect concept—why is there no English word for it?
In which our intrepid hero misses an important clue…
When I was a kid, like a lot of kids who read a ton of books, I had a reading vocabulary that was much bigger than my speaking vocabulary. One word that I knew the meaning of was French in origin: hors d’oeuvres. In my mind, I pronounced this word something like “whores davores.” I knew the word meant something like appetizers. There was another word that meant basically the same thing: “orderves.” I don’t even know how many years passed before I finally realized that “orderves” and “hors d’oeuvres” were actually not synonyms but the same damn word.