Monthly Archives: August 2021

One year ago this week, as it happens, my longtime friend Rob Simbeck had his fifth book, The Southern Wildlife Watcher, published by the University of South Carolina Press.  Five is a goodly number (his fellow Pennsylvanian, ecologist Rachel Carson, only wrote four) but his total count should rightfully include the six books Rob has ghostwritten as well as the eight he has edited.

It was my good fortune to attend college with Rob in the early 1970s.  I can’t recall how we met — we lived in different dorms, had different majors and never took a class together — but one of my earliest memories of our friendship was working with Rob on his psychology class project, “The Freud Game.”  As it turned out, we would spend much Id and Ego time together in our college years.*

I know three people who were English majors: my son, my spouse’s sister-in-law, and Rob. According to Data USA, most English majors become schoolteachers, magistrates, judges, lawyers or legal workers.  The number who make their living as writers or journalists (as I once hoped to be) is fairly small.  But Rob made that tough choice: he focused his talents, he honed his craft.  Rob dedicated himself to dedication.

I don’t review books per se but I won’t hesitate to recommend the ones I like.  As such, I happily endorse Rob’s latest, The Southern Wildlife Watcher, in spite of (or respecting) the fact that it took me months to finish reading it.  Which I must now explain.

In TSWW, Rob organized 36 nature essays, originally written for South Carolina Wildlife magazine, into sections titled Air, Land and Water.  There is a comforting retro feel to this schema, like those white-tablecloth restaurant menus which helpfully sorted  your food choices into “Surf and Turf” or “Farm, Fish and Fowl.”

Rob devotes equal time to each of these categories and to each of the species he writes about, giving the crusty Eastern Oyster (almost) the same love and respect as the pretty Monarch Butterfly.  If the essays in TSWW convey a common message, it would be Rob’s conviction that every lifeform plays an important, but often hidden, role on our planet.  Rob strives to reveal these hidden roles, which I found to be the strength of these essays.

You may ask, if this trove of five-minute essays was so compelling, why did it take me nine months to finish it?  The answer is simple: I read Rob’s book as comfort food; I harbored it for that purpose.  I would pick it up and read an essay or two when I felt the need for that certain kind of connection.  And for me, these essays were best enjoyed when read outside, on quiet mornings.

To dot the i and cross the t here, I must mention a couple of things I learned from TSSW that really surprised me.  First, smallmouth bass and largemouth bass are not bass at all, but belong to the sunfish family!  Second, bald eagles are not only hunters but scavengers, which gives them something in common with crows.  Third, earthworms are 82% protein, so no wonder birds love them.  (The other 18%, Rob doesn’t mention but we can imagine.)

Rob, I’m sorry it took a year for me to promote your book.  But I’m more sorry that there remains no more of it for me to read.  Here’s hoping we can get together again soon and talk about your upcoming adventures.


* Mostly Id.

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Once a Dancer

by Gavin Larsen

[This is a guest essay by friend-of-the-blog Gavin Larsen, who lives and teaches dance here in Asheville after an illustrious 18-year career in professional ballet.  I invited Gavin to share her “what it’s like to be me” story here at The 100 Billionth Person, and I extend the same invitation to my other subscribers.  Hope you enjoy. – CHC]

In the ballet world, we say, “Once a dancer, always a dancer,” and it’s true: no matter how defiantly we may turn our backs and try to walk away from the art and craft of dance, particularly ballet, we cannot rid our bodies of its imprint.  Ballet tattoos itself on our physicalities and embeds itself in our souls.

I was a professional ballet dancer for 18 years.  Before that, I trained for about ten.  And after I retired (“retired”) from my job as a performer, even then I couldn’t quit.  I kept taking technique classes and even performed a little bit, on smaller stages and in less technical choreography.

But slowly, I felt my mind and body loosening their grip on my fine-tuned, fiercely perfected technique.  I remember vividly the day I stopped wearing pointe shoes.  I was at the barre, warming up with a few relevés, when I found myself struggling to find my balance — I had to hold the barre a little too tightly for support.  Though a casual observer might have thought I was very much on top of my game, I felt like an amateur, not a former professional with decades of experience.

But appearances were not what mattered:  I cared about how this felt to ME.  And I knew my struggles would only get worse.  So, I decided this would be my last day on pointe.

I’d begun teaching dance long before I stopped performing — most dancers do — but being a full-time instructor presented a different challenge.  While I was a good teacher and the work was engaging, it didn’t leave me with the same sense of satisfaction at the end of the day.   For professionals, a day of dancing always follows the same pattern (class, rehearsal, performance) and leaves you feeling full.  Whether or not the day went well, whether you mastered the tricky choreography or not, at the very least you know you have given of yourself, physically and emotionally and intellectually, to something larger — to the dancers around you, to the art form, to yourself.  You go home with the satisfaction of having worked hard and well, and the fatigue in your bones is proof.

But I didn’t have that fulfillment anymore.  No matter how capably I demonstrated the exercises to my students or how exhaustively I worked on them in the studio, I felt I was losing my grip on the life I had led.  And I got scared that, with every passing day, my memories would fade and that the dancer part of myself — which was, really, all of myself — would be gone forever.  I needed it and clung to it.  And in a fit of desperation to preserve it, I began to write it down.

• • • • 

One day in 2011 or 2012, after I had transitioned from performing to teaching, I was passing through the lobby of the building that housed Oregon Ballet Theatre’s company and school.  One entire wall of the lobby was a window to the main studio space, offering everyone who entered the building a view of whatever dance activity was going on.  Company dancers and school students, warming up, taking class, rehearsing ballets or learning new choreography, all were on full display, as if life in the studio was also on stage.

That particular afternoon, company dancers were in rehearsal with artistic director Christopher Stowell for his ballet, The Rite of Spring.  Standing in the lobby watching them practice, memories of my own experience as a member of the cast a few years earlier came flooding back.  It was an unusual production in that the piece was largely en masse: almost the entire company appeared in it, but only a couple of us danced apart from what was literally a mass of bodies.

I had been a principal dancer then, accustomed to using my single voice, so being back in an ensemble was jolting at first.  But I soon relished the familiar comfort of being in the corps de ballet where I had started my career. The warmth of camaraderie, the different and energizing sense of “power in numbers” and the hilarity we shared to break the tension when the going got tough – all the familiar feelings of the days in my late teens and twenties when I was learning to be a professional dancer re-emerged.

My view through the lobby window that day — although just a brief snapshot — stirred up a strong, visceral reaction in me.  The dancers were working on a section that we had called, years before, the “human monolith.”  Christopher hadn’t given us any technical steps to execute — he simply told us to “ooze” our way into a tower of people.  One dancer would become the capstone at the top, supported by a few of the strongest men in the group.  The rest of us cascaded downwards from there in gradually smaller, flatter, muddier positions. The only directions we were given were that everyone, at all times, had to touch at least one other person— a hand or a foot or a neck or a torso — and that no one except the supporter-men could be upright.  And no ballet positions were allowed.  We were to embody humanity emerging from primordial slime.

Through the window, I watched those dancers work on “oozing” into the monolith and I immediately felt myself in there with them — as if I were outside my own body, watching myself in the past, yet physically present.  I felt I was reliving a dream.  Every physical and emotional feeling from my own days in The Rite of Spring came flooding back with such force that I almost thought I was late for rehearsal and needed to run into the studio to join them.

Seconds later, another emotion overcame the first one: the relief that I didn’t have to.

I was retired – I had no need to pull my body into shape and into a leotard, no need to be ready to do whatever moves a choreographer dreamt up.  But what I suddenly longed to do was relive those experiences, capture the essence of them, and find within them a thread of truth about what on earth this dancing life of mine had meant, how and why it had happened, and why had it happened to me?

I went home, opened my laptop, and began to write.  What came spilling out, in one sitting, would become Chapter 46 of the book that many more years of memory-capture ultimately delivered.

• • • • 

After that afternoon in the lobby, a flood of other snapshot memories cascaded down, so many and so varied that I feared losing them if I didn’t work fast enough.  I furiously wrote them down.  Some were a couple of pages, others a few paragraphs, or even less.  There were episodes, fragments of episodes, slivers of thoughts, reflections, images, conversations.  Eventually, feeling I needed some instruction in how to do what I was doing (always a dancer at heart, I wanted direction and correction), I signed up for a memoir-writing workshop, led by the marvelous Merridawn Duckler.

Each week, Merridawn gave us a title prompt and an assignment to write two pages about it.  (Five of her title prompts became chapters in my book.)  I distinctly remember how excited I felt to run to my computer to write about “The Fork in the Road” and “The Time I Taught Someone Something” and “My Scar.”

The workshop members shared their writings each week.  As nervous as I was to read my essays aloud to the group, it finally proved to me that my conviction was right: people — not just other dancers but real people — could be as fascinated by ballet as I was, if they were shown something a little below its surface.

• • • • 

Now, at last, I have found gratification again: my book, Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life, was published in April by the University of Florida Press and reviewed in May by the New York Times.

How does a dancer become a writer?  One would think these art forms could not be more different: the one is intensely physical, interconnected with and dependent upon other bodies and minds, and effervescent, disappearing forever the very next moment; while the other is completely stationary, solitary, and permanent.

But for me, the similarities that make expressing myself in words on a page as natural as using my body are strong.  I still don’t have to speak out loud, which emboldens me to be forthright, daring and fully revealing.  On stage, costume, characterization, choreography and the buffer of a proscenium stage gave me that fearlessness.  On stage, no one can stop you.  On the page, no one can, either.

Once a dancer, always a dancer.

[Gavin Larsen retired as a principal dancer in 2010.  Her final principal performance was in Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant,” music by Stravinsky.  For several more minutes of pleasure, I recommend you watch this video of Gavin’s movements and reflections.]

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Twenty years ago, back when the internet was in its wide-eyed childhood, before Google, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest scrubbed and scoured the humanity out of the web and turned it into a trillion-dollar digital strip mine, I had a homepage.

You may not remember that, in the late nineties, many tech startups imagined that their road to internet riches lay in enticing ordinary people to create shrines to themselves on the web.  Sites like Angelfire, GeoCities, Go.Com and Tripod offered free homepages for that purpose.  Naturally, I took the dive.  The thought of having one’s own address on the WORLD WIDE WEB (!) was irresistible to anyone with an outsized sense of identity and correspondingly few friends.

I thought that my homepage (and those of others) might be a way to make connections, maybe even friendships, with like-minded people without geographic limitations.  One of the popular ways to interact in the homepage era was via a site’s guestbook.  People who visited your website might leave a comment in your guestbook, just to let you know they were there.  The remarks were friendly, never snarky, as that would not only be rude but would be sure to deprive oneself of a nice comment in return.

I happened to stumble upon my old guestbook while searching the Wayback Machine for fragments of my homepage, CHCollins on the Web.  I decided to share it (below) as a reminder of how life used to be, not only on the web but in the real world.  I’d prefer that you view its length not as an indulgence but as an illustration of how charitable and generous folks could be.

The first line of each entry lists the visitor’s screen name, their website (if they had one) and the date of their visit.  Some of these screen names are so poignantly 1990s.  I never knew the real identities of many of them, i.e., those I played hearts with on Yahoo Games.  The visitors who used real names were either the folks that I “met” on photo-sharing sites (PhotoCritique, ShutterCity) or other homepagers who were in the same “web ring” as me.

Three of the comments in this guestbook archive happen to be from current subscribers!

GUESTBOOK (1999-2001)

  • Jeanie | 02/Jul/1999:16:41:40
    You have some interesting personalities on your web page. I guess that makes you an interesting person also.  Thanks

  • toes | My Romantic Hideaway | 14/Aug/1999:22:32:49
    I’ve really enjoyed visiting your page, you have alot of good content, I look forward to viewing your next update : )  Toes

  • shirley2716 | 17/Aug/1999:01:04:10
    you have avery lovely website.  I enjoyed the artwork. keep it up, I look froward to seeing more.

  • bovineboss | 26/Sep/1999:16:21:38

  • mary m | 27/Sep/1999:20:16:37
    Craig, loved your site! I started with watercolors and then people. Where do you keep the originals (art, that is)?  They are beautiful. I really liked the avacado and bananas. I am working on a web site for our department. Can we talk? Would you share some tips? Love, mary

  • Em | 06/Oct/1999:10:46:37
    Somehow, this web-page is cooler than I would have imagined!  Nice work Dad! I will continue to browse around after classes.  I will recommend this to my friends, they would be amused at what a cool dad I have!

  • Kim Adams | Kim’s World of Photography | 16/Oct/1999:13:31:43
    Craig, you are so talented. This is a great site. I look forward to seeing more of your nice photos on Photocritique. Best Wishes.

  • Green I´s | 06/Nov/1999:04:20:44
    Craig – somehow I just knew you had to be a crazy man. Love your homepage. :) Christel  PS: Nice to see a fellow Kodak and Corel user.

  • Gary Martin | 09/Dec/1999:16:03:19
    Criag, great web page…. I like your design a lot! You’re inspiring me to get off of my tail and get a web page put together… something that I need to do, but which I keep defering until “later” because I’ve been having too much fun with my photography! Best regards, Gary

  • rosewood36 | 16/Dec/1999:23:56:01
    Hugs to you!!!!!!!! I like your web site it is real nice. Yust a note to let you know that we are at 6 weeks and counting…*G*….both me and the twins are fine. I will let you know when they are born…..till then, don’t do anything that I wouldn’t…..LMAO

  • Jim Gatschene | 19/Dec/1999:22:34:22
    Great Home page Craig. I’ve been trying to get my son to help me set up a similar web page. I admire your work.  I have put a few of my albums on Zing but I believe it is hard for people to see them unless they sign up too. (No cost) Keep up the good work!!

  • Kim Adams | 02/Jan/19100:16:26:55
    Craig, My second visit to your page. I love it. Interesting section about your life and family. I also remember playing Atari. I enjoy your commentaries on photocritique.  My brother Bradley is now in jail for being a smart***:) Happy 2000 to you and your family. Thanks for your helpful insight on my photos.

  • Terry | R.S.V.P. | 14/Mar/2000:18:30:50
    I certainly have enjoyed visiting your site! “Midnight Express” is the most intense film I recall seeing.

  • Paul Bracey | Stream of Consiousness | 14/Mar/2000:23:15:14
    Today –, Tomorrow – The Louvre! Keep on posting!

  • Ruth | The Wildwood Cottage | 20/Mar/2000:20:07:38
    Great site..thanks for sharing a bit of yourself with the world!

  • John Sidlo | 26/Mar/2000:22:36:46
    Although I’m “in the biz” and have had a website (offering software) since 1996 (recently dismantled) I have yet to make my own “home page”. It’s on my list of tasks for this millennium! And when I do, I’ll come back here to take another look. Nice job!

  • L. Lanning | Life in the Chihuahua Desert | 08/May/2000:09:30:04
    Came your way through the Friends of Art webring and had an enjoyable stay. You’ve a good attitude I think. What more can we do with this life than to share a bit of ourselves, spread a little color and humor, and try to cause no pain? I hate heights and glass elevators, too! Come and share a bit of desert color with us.

  • Barak Yedidia | Barak’s Photography | 06/Jul/2000:19:05:00
    Craig, Enjoyed your website. I share your admiration for Fred Rogers among others.

  • tess campbell | 26/Aug/2000:14:03:42
    Craig…thsi has to be one of the best personal web pages I have visited in a long time. WOW you are some all-around creative guy. I bookmarked the site so I cam come back often…want to hear some of those MP3’s.

  • Garry Schaefer | Garry’s Page | 12/Sep/2000:08:49:43
    Craig, yours is the best personal web site on my list of bookmarked favourites. I’ve wended my way through most if not all of its intricacies with much pleasure. The highlight for me is, of course, the Photography section, including your innovative “Double Letter” series and recent “Tools” scanner-based series. I’m honoured that you have included a link to my digital photography web site. I’ll be certain to be back from time to time to see what’s new. Best regards, Garry.

  • ola s 09/Oct/2000:14:35:44
    since I knew you before this as a photographer, I now espescially enjoyed the other things, esp.the music (“Playing Against the Wind”) and some of the poetry (Graft on pepler simt and shun / Sortie nefers habla ned!) cheers, Ola.

  • Pam Ramsey | Castle Ramsey | 31/Oct/2000:20:56:17
    I enjoyed your page. I love to surf photography webrings since I also post my photos on my web page.

  • Ruthie | 23/Jan/2001:20:27:51
    Well, after all these years, you never cease to amaze me! You are such a talented guy! It’s taken me this long to even look at your web page and I can tell you that it will take me some time to get through it all. I will look forward to checking it all out! (in my spare time!) I have no doubt that it will amaze me! Love you and give my sister a kiss for me!

  • Kim Adams | Kim’s World of Photography | 11/Feb/2001:09:18:14
    Craig, I haven’t been here in a long time and decided to come back for a look. I especially enjoyed your autobiography section. You are very talented and have a lovely family.

  • John Sidlo | someday… | 01/Mar/2001:22:49:07
    Fun to come back to visit, almost a year after my first visit. You *must* embellish your site with your wonderful Chalon-sur-Saone photos you’ve treated us to on PC. Cheers, John

  • Carol Waldvogel | 15/May/2001:11:06:15
    Craig, what a wonderful website! I have enjoyed your images elsewhere for some time…now, I am also impressed by your many other talents! Loved your poetry, especially liked the “haystacks” and the (haiku?) “moved by tired skys”…anything but boring! One of the best, most interesting personal sites I have visited!

  • Carol Waldvogel | 15/May/2001:11:15:51
    OK…so I am not the great speller that I once was! But tired “skies” moved me every bit as much… ;-)) Besides…I did mean to say also, that you have a beautiful family!

  • Huntress Stone Angel | The Web Brawls | 06/Jun/2001:15:59:09
    Dear CH Collins, I enjoyed your site very much…your photography was so crystal clear, you seem to have an idea of what you are looking for and want to photograph before you do photograph something. It’s all cohesive. Thank you very much for a nice time, and I would like to extend my invitation to you to join an online organization called The Web Brawls. I won’t bore you with my pre-formed letter, I think you would resent that, but let’s just say that it’s another way to get to that 6% of addicts you were talking about…toodles, Huntress Stone Angel / The Web Brawls.

  • Steven Schnoor | Random Magic | 27/Jun/2001:14:00:32
    You know I’ve enjoyed your photography for quite some time. Some shared interests in photo subjects, movies (well, The Deer Hunter, anyway), similar “skill” on the golf course (though I’m still looking for my first eagle), and concerns about the intricacies of parenting, etc. make your site a good one to return to when I need a boost. Above all, though, is the humor and intelligence you show in your pages — rare elements on the web. I had a real good time here.

  • Terry Forrest 17/Jul/2001:21:54:48
    Hi Craig! Took a quick look at some of your website and photos. You have a lovely family. Your photos that I checked out speak to me of someone very creative, interesting and not afraid to try something different. Will be back at some point to see some more! Terry

  • Dawn | The poetry and art of Dawn Baker | 11/Oct/2001:19:40:40
    Hi Craig, I just had to stop by and see your painting called Shapes….You were right, we do have paintings that resemble each others….very intriguing…. I do love yours, and the way you use color, way cool! I enjoyed my visit here very much, you have much talent, and I thank you for sharing : ) Take care

  • Brenda Bohannon | 08/Nov/2001:13:33:49
    This is FASCINATING stuff, Craig! You are BRILLIANT artist and I’m completely captivated here! Thanks so much for sharing CHCollins on the Web with me, your ShutterCity friend, Brenda! :~)

  • Bruce Irving | Bruce Irving Songs | 14/Dec/2001:08:47:24
    Hi Craig! Cool web site! Rob told me about it. It was great to see some of your creative visual work and hear some of the old CMU “greatest hits.” It’s been a while, so if you get a chance, drop me a line. Take care, Bruce

• • • • 

I’m guessing that most of the visitors to my homepage back then had the same idea I had,  to make connections.  Though hardly any of my web connections evolved into friendships,  those who weren’t your friends could still be decent and nice.  Those were the days.

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