Where your treasure is, there will be your heart be also
– The Bible
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers
– Wordsworth

When I was in college, I didn’t have a girlfriend until my Junior year, so for those first two years I had plenty of time on my hands in the evenings. Our student union building housed an amateur radio station, a ham shack, and I was its most enthusiastic user. In fact, the club elected me their president, for the other members had girlfriends and outside interests which I seemed to lack.

My ham highpoint came when one winter night, using a mere seventy-five watts of power, I contacted another ham operator in Russia. Conditions, frequency, antenna tuning and luck came together to allow this connection to be made, thirty years before the Internet made such things commonplace. Wearing headphones and concentrating with all my powers, I was able to pull his dits and dahs out of the static. My fist hovered above the brass telegraph key, sending code at an agonizing five words per minute.

At first I thought maybe I was fooling myself, but no, real, credible information was being shared. We were communicating in Morse code, as my novice license did not permit me to yet use a microphone. Using commonly accepted Morse code abbreviations, we exchanged the details of our position, signal strength, antenna type and height, and our names. I’ve forgotten his by now. Let’s call him Igor.

What Igor and I talked about was what most amateur radio operators talk about. Ham Radio wasn’t about the substance of communication, it was about the equipment needed to communicate. Maybe the guys who had access to microphones could talk about normal guy stuff, sports, politics. We novices were limited to the bare essentials.

A few nights ago, I attended a meeting of the Photography Club here in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Everyone who showed up was a foreigner. They shared their pictures, but most of the talk wasn’t about the image or what it represented, it was about the camera and the lens used to capture it, or the software program used to modify the image.

It’s always been easier to talk about equipment than to critique or comment on art. The world of catalogues and gear magazines inspires us with impressive specifications and sexy photography. But most cameras sit in drawers, becoming obsolete after a few years. I’m sure there are a few die-hard amateur radio enthusiasts still out there, but they are the geekiest geeks of all, brethren to model railroad enthusiasts and retired guys who put model ships in bottles or build bird houses.

I have a friend here who is five years older than me, and he refers to this time in his life as “sudden death playoff.” In other words, if he is ever to score, now is the time. The clock has run down and all that’s left is the tie-breaking moment.

It got me thinking that he’s probably right. Where I put my attention was always important, but now it’s doubly so, because there’s not much time left to waste. If I ever had any nebulous, half-formed plans, now is the time to either discard or finalize them. Wallowing in uncertainty or indecision is all-around bad idea.

And the fact is, I love the manufacture of art above all other human activities. (I consider love-making an art form) So now is the time to whole-heartedly try to make all my actions artistic. Even more than the Zen concept of one-mindedness (chop wood, carry water) I want my one-minded focus on art to result in a purity of action and soundness of mind. This artistic striving might result in a final product that inspires or delights others, but it surely will result in me enjoying peace of mind and maybe even occasional bursts of joy.

By now I know that I don’t lack any tools to make my art. A newer laptop or a more expensive camera would actually impede my progress. I’d have to learn how to use them, to read instruction manuals, to go through set-up routines. No thanks. Been there, done that.


click here to hear me read this essay



  1. John Hock makes bird houses. And water purification systems for Central American villages. I think I’ll just keep on making opportunities for artists since that’s where my urge lives.

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