Tag Archives: Christmas

A Christmas Shopping Experiment.


Good Evening:

So there I stood in the middle of what must rank among one of America’s largest shopping malls, waiting for the Mother Unit, Sister Unit, and Niece Unit to finish shopping for presents and feeling most relieved that I had finished last week, when an idea for an experiment struck my misanthropic mind: how many people will walk past me smiling by the time my family walks out of the store?

The mall was jammed, I mean big-time jammed, so within a minute maybe 150-200 shoppers had passed me when the family joined me.

Only one person had smiled, a young woman carrying an infant daughter and cooing at her.

That was slightly more than I expected.

You see, I had noticed that everyone seemed miserable, even the ones telling their fellow shoppers they had found the perfect gift. And few people spoke to anyone. Most had down-cast faces, vacant stares, exhausted postures, but perhaps you already know how they appeared to me; rather like Munch’s famous figure in The Scream, except too tired to do even that.

This is “the most wonderful time of the year?”

No one looked successful, cheerful or happy, even the one who might have enjoyed great success finding presents judging from the loads they carried.

I wonder if malls do that to people. I did most of my shopping in the Upper Haight last weekend and my fellow shoppers looked much more cheerful. Perhaps the nature of the stores did something to folks in the mall. Every single store was a franchise, even the spa, while the Haight still has a fair number of one-store businesses or whatever the technical term might be. Perhaps the combination of an enormous mall with nothing but franchises affects people, alienates them. Now this is rank speculation (and the rankest sort of rank speculation), but what if those poor folks in the mall felt, for lack of a better word–processed?

You know, not like people. Processed.

Have a great holiday everyone and *please,* for your own sake–smile.

Vonn Scott Bair


The Toddler, The Bulldog & The Tortilla Chip (Weekly Writing Challenge: Snapshot)


Good Evening:

Another snapshot, another memory.

During the 1990s, my parents lived in a really truly Colonial Colonial in rural Connecticut. How really truly Colonial was this Colonial? The earliest record of this house’s existence dates back to 1710, stunning old for my San Francisco friends, interestingly old for my East Coast friends, and “so what?” old for my European and Asian friends. The house had early 18th Century ceilings, which meant that you had to be very careful not to bump your head on the ceiling or in doorways as you trod upon the uneven floors, and a living room fireplace almost five feet tall, about seven feet wide, and four feet deep. In winter, the dark red wooden house with an electric candle and wreath in each window looked too perfect in the deep powder snow, like something a Hollywood film production would reject as unreally beautiful.

My parents also had two bulldogs, one of whom was an absolute beast.

Bonzer (yes, my Australian friends, his name was your word for “the absolute best”) weighed in at 80 pounds, enormous by English Bulldog standards, with an unusually large head by English Bulldog standards, and unusually muscular by English Bulldog standards. His coat was the basic white, but mottled with butterscotch-colored splotches and spots of various sizes.

Fortunately, his friendliness equalled his size. Unfortunately, he did not know his own strength. When he played, he played hard–over the past 150 breeders have bred out the viciousness of the original Bulldogge, but they have not bred out the aggressiveness. This did not prove much of a problem for the puppy growing up as he grew up among adult humans who knew how to deal with cheerful, happy and aggressively affectionate dogs.

But Bonzer had never met a human child. And my sister and her husband visited the too-perfect Colonial one Christmas week, bringing along their 18-month-old daughter.

We had to be very careful with Bonzer. Don’t get me wrong, he liked Isabel just as much as he liked us adults, but English Bulldogs are not the brightest lightbulbs on the Christmas tree, to put it mildly, and he did not seem to realize that he had to tread carefully around Her Majesty The Granddaughter. So we always kept an adult between him and her.

One night shortly before the big day, the five adults sat in the living room in front of the fireplace big enough to hold a twin-sized mattress and box spring (but we wisely piled it high with firewood and enjoyed a nice blaze), noshing away at various appetizers before dinner. Bonzer found himself a suitably close enough location to the platters and bowls of people food that we had to placate him with goodies to keep him from jumping on the cocktail table. Given his fondness for lunging at people food, we found it best to gently lob food at him. He would snatch it out of thin air at remarkable speed. Isabel watched us feeding the dog, but we thought we had kept her safely far enough away.

But toddlers are really fast.

Just like that, she stood right next to him in her pink holiday dress with people food in her tiny hand.

A Trader Joe’s Chili-Lime Tortilla Chip.

Which she offered to Bonzer, a dog almost four times heavier than herself.

We all held our breaths. We didn’t want to startle the dog into some sudden action that might hurt my niece.

Bonzer tensed himself for another lunge at his beloved people food.

But then he stopped.

Isabel held the chip vertically. Think about it; when you eat a tortilla chip, you insert it horizontally into you mouth. Not vertically.

I swear, it looked like Bonzer actually thought about the situation. Bulldogs don’t think. They are probably the dumbest breed of domestic canine out there. But Bonzer seemed to think about the situation before him; a human puppy, very small and delicate, offering people food to him, but holding it the wrong way.

Bonzer sat for a moment. Looking like he was actually thinking. Which is impossible. He was an English Bulldog.

We held our breaths. He could have easily bitten off her hand. But he didn’t.

Bonzer slowly twisted his massive skull 90 degrees. He slowly leaned forward. He slowly wrapped his huge mouth around her hand and slowly sucked the Trader Joe’s Chili-Lime Tortilla Chip away from her. Then he chewed it and swallowed. Isabel laughed because evidently his jowls tickled her hand, and offered another tortilla chip. He slowly twisted his massive skull 90 degrees. He slowly leaned forward. He slowly wrapped his huge mouth around her hand and slowly sucked the Trader Joe’s Chili-Lime Tortilla Chip away from her. Then he chewed it and swallowed.

The adults watched as she offered one tortilla chip after another, giggling, to an absolute beast of animal which twisted its head 90 degrees so he could gently suck each chip out of her hand.

Vonn Scott Bair

Union Square Holiday Lights: Deliberate Blur Experiment (Weekly Photo Challenge: Lights)


Good Evening:

Saul Leiter, another one of the great American street photographers, died recently. He stood out among the others of his era because he liked to use color, but in one respect he did resemble the rest; a number of his most famous shots, such as “Hats,” are blurry.

Blurriness has always vexed me. I have not figured out how to determine the difference between an unusual technique producing a unique interpretation of a subject versus a plain mistake decorated with mounds of pseudo-intellectual high-falutin’ bull hockey. I get why the Magnificent Eleven are all blurry photographs; Robert Capa was splashing, flopping and crawling through rough surf under intense enemy fire during the D-Day landings. But what excuse do photographers have when they can set up a camera and gear and then wait for a shot to walk by?

So I walked to Union Square tonight to photograph the holiday lights whilst experimenting with extremely long exposures (5″ to 30″) using my Nikon D40, a 2007 model discontinued in 2009, but still adequate for my DSLR needs. And now I have 60 pictures–and no idea if any of them are good.

Two of my few relatively quick shots (1/15 second):

DSC_0050 DSC_0047

That is the Macy’s annual Tree. In the second, I include a WWI monument in the shot. As a contrast, here are two of my 30 second experiments.

DSC_0016 DSC_0056 DSC_0031

The top is a different view of the tree with a 30 second exposure, the middle is the skating rink with a 10 second exposure, and the bottom is Geary Street with a 15 second exposure. I’m kinda sorta maybe perhaps possibly semi-half-convinced that all three are pretty bad, but I don’t know. What do I examine to determine if a deliberately blurry photo is good or bad?

My current guess consists of this: a long exposure should have a single object that never moves so that it will come out crisp and clear whilst all around it becomes blurry. I’ve seen this in the work of night photographers, a curious bunch who will think nothing of taking 4-8 hour exposures for a single photo.

The next is a 5 second exposure of a photographer photographing the tree.


Kind of OK. I think. But check out this last picture. I had set up my camera for a 30 second shot on a nice steady railing and began the exposure when some dumb 10 year old boy ran up to the railing about six feet to my left and began shaking it for absolutely no reason at all. I told him to stop that, showed him my camera, and since I didn’t know how to stop a 30 second exposure once it started, waved my poor little old DSLR at anything lit up. And this is what I saw after the upload:


Jackson Pollock in lights.

What am I supposed to do here? Should I go around brightly lit exteriors at night, set my exposure times for somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds, wave my camera around like the random madman that I am, call my virtual smudges my “unique Cubist photographic interpretation of the urban metropolis of San Francisco in all its energy and excitement,” and then sell the gosh-darned prints for $10,000 each? Is that ridiculous or what?

Wait a minute. What’s so ridiculous about  earning $10K/photograph?

Hmmm. Time for more experiments.

Vonn Scott Bair