That Tactile Experience

Since I can remember I can remember the tactile nature of my being. My mother would smell me behind the ears and say “You smell like an Englishman.” She would then blow gently into my ear and say “Un secretito para el nenito.” (A little secret for the little boy).

My father would pick me up and when he hugged and kissed me I felt the roughness of his shaved face. The roughness that rasped on my cheek came with a bonus, a pungent mixture of cologne, Player’s Navy Cuts and Old Smuggler Whisky.

Since then the tactile always accompanies scent. Or the scent brings me memory of touch.

I do not like the smell of plastic or whatever material that is used on modern cameras. Few ever notice that metals smell. When I hold my Nikons, my Pentaxes, the Mamiyas and most recently that Leica IIIF the smell of metal nicely dovetails with the heft and smoothness of these wonderful instruments of the pictorial.

My old Pentax MX has a shutter dial with one stop. You go in one direction and you cannot go further. Its purpose is that without having to look you could count the clicks while lining up your shot and know at what shutter speed you were. The sound of a shutter, a sound that no photographer can forget or ignore will rapidly tell you if you are at 1/15 or at 1/1000 second. Unlike the modern back screens of DSLRs this method is not battery dependent.

It doesn’t take too much daydreaming to conjure the feel and smell of fisting a well-used baseball mitt, or the almost (that dust from the home plate to absorb the hands’ sweat) smoothness of the bat, the smell and giving nature of a blown up red balloon when squeezed, a recent purchase of a theatrical cap gun came with memories of drawing my Gene Autrey peacemaker and dropping Mario and Miguelito (my Argentine boyhood friends) on their tracks with the nifty smell of gunpowder, that odd warmth on the tips of my fingers that comes from picking up a South American ostrich egg on the Pampa, and of course that first time, before the idea of sex ever came into my head, of holding her hand and finding that my gentle pressing is reciprocated, a proof that Newton was not only right but also that he was a romantic.

Many years later I thrilled dancing the Argentine Tango with Indiana and knowing that the variations of my right hand’s fingers pressing on her middle back would result in instant abeyance followed by a rapid following of my body’s movements.

A week ago in my darkroom I placed an exposed sheet of photographic paper into the developer tray. I wanted to take it out with my fingers once the image magically appeared, but I learned long ago that prints dried with stains. Once the photograph was washed I placed it on my drying glass and squeegeed it with a windshield wiper and from there on a blotting paper. I cannot imagine comparing this with the digital work “flow” (most dry) on a computer monitor.

That blotting paper brought me memories of my desk top inkwell of my second grade class and having to use a papel secante (blotting paper), and its unique texture, on my juvenile squiggles. I can still smell the ink and the chalk on the bottom of the real black blackboard.

In my darkoom, after years of practice and use, when the lights are out, I can find anything with the tips of my fingers after I stretch my arm in the desired direction. I have a string hanging from the middle of the ceiling’s electric light. I wave my hand in the dark until I feel the string and then pull it to see what those prints in the fixer look like. Feeding exposed film, in the dark, into the Nikor stainless steel tank reels is as tactile as anything can get. But I am ready for that little noise that tells me that there is something not right and I have to fiddle to unkink the film. To make things easier I keep a pair of scissors (to cut off the film leader) in my back pocket, a bottle opener (to open the film cassette) in the other and in my front pocket I have the extra rolls of exposed film. A darkroom, in spite of the safelight (but never on when loading film into the reels), is a fully tactile experience.

I remember with heavy fondness the days I would take Rebecca (my then young granddaugther) to Vancouver’s UBC Botanical Garden or VanDusen and take the rhododendron walk. We would stop at every rhodo to check on our favourite foliage rhododendrons. These are those with leaves that are densely covered in a felt-like coating of silvery white, cream, fawn or rusty orange hairs on the surface of the leaf (the tomentum) and its underside (the indumentums). Some of the indumentums felt like the soft inside of a cat’s ear. Rebecca would smile and then giggle with joy.

Both my granddaughters know all about the two species hydrangeas in our garden, Hydrangea aspera subs. sargentiana or the straight aspera. Both these plants have a tomentum that is exactly like the skin of dogfish and other sharks. I know this because I have touched the skins of dogfish in Mexican seafood markets. You can feel an escalofrío (a lovely Spanish word for shiver) when you pass your fingers. It’s much like premium sandpaper.

From that shark skin I will move my fingers (right hand) to touch las nalgas of my wife. This word has a much nicer ring to it than its English equivalent, buttocks. My grandmother would call this section of the human body “ese lugar donde la espalda pierde su nombre.” It is virtually untranslatable as espalda in Spanish means exactly a human back. Where that human back is no longer a human back you will find the…

Why my right hand? I must confess that this bit of revelatory intimacy is important if I must proceed on things tactile. I sleep on the left hand side of the bed. Casi-Casi, Rosemary’s cat sleeps at my feet so I must place my legs in a diagonal towards the centre of our queen size bed. Plata, my female cat sleeps on Rosemary’s right side and close to the edge of the bed. My wife sleeps with her back to me.

This means that with my right hand I can gently place it on her… and feel a warmth and a smoothness that is sufficient, at my advanced age, to calm all the stress of the day and plunge me into a deep sleep in which only faulty plumbing will lure me away from the comfort of our bed.

Link to: That Tactile Experience

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