walking distance

Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.

I like slow modes of travel: walking and bicycling. But sometimes cycling is just too fast. On a bicycle you don’t have time to stop and visit with the young woman in a wheelchair who is being pulled along by an enthusiastic one-eyed Samoyed named Astra. Why was the woman in a wheelchair? I don’t know—I didn’t ask. How did Astra lose her eye? I don’t know—I didn’t ask. This is what I do know: Astra is a dog, and all dogs are wonderful no matter how many eyes they have. She’s not a one-eyed dog; she’s a dog—a dog who  happens to have half as many eyes as most dogs. But you don’t judge a dog by the number of its eyes. You judge it by its dogness.

The same is true of people, by the way. The number of operative legs a person has is a pretty inadequate metric for evaluation. If you’re on a bicycle—or worse, in a car—you may not stop long enough to remember that.

On foot you can stop and chat. I’m a big fan of chatting. Oh, I enjoy deep, meaningful conversations about politics and religion and Important Things as well. But there’s something delicious about a brief aimless chat—with friends or with strangers. “Hi, hello, how are you, isn’t it a lovely day, you have a beautiful dog, I like your hat, is there anything better than a sunny day by the river, take care, g’bye.” You can’t do that so easily on a bicycle.

If I’d been on my bike, I probably wouldn’t have stopped to chat with Mike and Jodi, who were just loitering along the river, taking a walk themselves, watching the water go by and the fisherman waste their bait. They seemed a tad embarrassed when I asked if I could take their photograph—but he straightened his cap and she removed her sunglasses, and both seemed pleased by what they saw in the LCD monitor.

Just ordinary people out on an ordinary Sunday afternoon taking an ordinary walk. The only thing out of the ordinary was when some long-haired character with a camera approached them, nattering away, and asking to take their photograph. I figure I gave them something to talk about—fair exchange for a photograph. With any luck, Mike and Jodi will have met Astra on their walk.

Farther up the river—much, much farther—I came across (actually my friend Stacey came across it first and pointed it out to me) a water-logged text written in what appears to be a form of Sanskrit. I never would have seen this on a bicycle (nor, I daresay, would she). There’s a Hindu temple nearby; I assume somebody was studying along the river and accidentally dropped the book in the water. Or perhaps somebody just wanted to share it with the frogs and fish and pelicans (the annual autumn white pelican migration is taking place now—is it a coincidence that the best English-language books are published by Pelican Press? Well, yes. Of course it’s a coincidence. C’mon).

It’s a beautiful written language, Sanskrit, and although I’ve no idea at all what this says, it’s a lovely addition to the river.

Steven Wright is correct—everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time. This is why you should take the time. Or make the time. Because the people you meet and the things you see will, if you let them, take you farther than your legs will carry you. It can give you an entirely new understanding of walking distance.

(Update: I am reliably told by Arvind Kumar that the text is in Hindi, not Sanskrit; both languages use the Devanagari script.)

are you fucking kidding me?

I’m stupid enough to spend part of this morning watching highlights (if you can call them that) of the GOP debate last night. They took a video question from a gay soldier serving in Iraq, the question being would the candidates re-institute the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.

Two things struck me. First, the audience booed. The actually booed a person who volunteered to serve his country–a person who is on active duty and serving in Iraq. Are you fucking kidding me? You don’t have to agree with a person’s beliefs or how that person lives his or her life to respect the fact that they’ve chosen to serve the nation in a low-paying job that offers not much more than a chance to get killed in some foreign country. Can you imagine the response if a Democratic audience booed an active duty member of the military?

Second, the question was answered by Rick Santorum. He complained that by allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military, the government was granting them “a special privilege.” A special privilege? Are you fucking kidding me? How is being allowed to serve in the military a special privilege? Were the people in the audience–the ones who booed–being denied the special privilege of putting on a military uniform and serving in Iraq? If so, we surely ought to make that privilege available to them.

Who the hell are these people? The ones who boo an active duty soldier, the ones who shout out that a person without health insurance should be allowed to die, the ones who cheer for the death penalty? How did they lose all their compassion? What’s made them so selfish and self-centered?

And what’s most desperately sad is they undoubtedly consider themselves to be patriots.

no room for error

Last night the governments of two States executed convicted criminals. Texas executed a man who was clearly guilty of the crime; Georgia executed a man who may not have been guilty. Both executions, though, were perfectly legal.

And that’s the problem. It’s absurdly easy to convict a person of a capital crime because it’s absurdly easy to convict a person of any crime. Even though the U.S. Constitution provides accused criminals with a number of safeguards, the fact is those safeguards have been gradually eroded over time—eroded by the courts, eroded by politicians who want to appear tough on crime, eroded by the 24 hour news cycle which feeds off conflict and fear, and eroded by the popular entertainment media that promotes the illusion that lots of criminals are released because of ‘technicalities.’

Our justice system—which is actually a pretty good system—is grounded in the notion of the presumption of innocence. Jurors are to assume the accused is innocent; it’s up to the State to prove they’re guilty, and to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. But research shows that most jurors (and, in fact, most citizens) tend to believe a person who has been brought to trial is probably guilty of something. That tendency is exacerbated in capital cases because of death qualified juries.

It’s a little-known fact that the process of jury selection in death penalty cases is slightly different than in regular cases. To sit on a death penalty case, a juror has to believe death is an appropriate punishment for some crimes. There’s a certain logic to that; the argument is that a person who opposes the death penalty would be less likely to vote for a conviction. But that same logic applies in the reverse; research demonstrates that a person who believes in the death penalty is generally more likely to vote for conviction.

So a defendant in a capital case is facing a jury that is more likely to convict. From that point on, the cards are stacked against him.

Yes, there is the lengthy appeals process—but what most people don’t realize is that appeals only address points of law, not points of fact. The original jury are the triers of fact; the appelate courts are triers of law. Innocence or guilt are no longer an issue; the only issue argued in the appeals process is this: were the rules of evidence and the dictates of the law followed during the trial? If the answer is yes, then the trial is considered fair—even if the verdict turns out to have been incorrect. It’s not about the verdict; it’s about the process.

It appears in the case of Troy Davis, the letter of the law was followed. The jury, given the evidence they received, reached a fair verdict. The fact that the evidence was flawed or faulty is irrelevant to the appeal process.

It wasn’t always this easy to conduct a legal execution. Proponents of the death penalty often cite the Bible as support—and it’s true, there are any number of crimes in the Old Testament that are punishable by death (including, by the way, adultery and breaking the Sabbath and persistent disobedience to one’s parents). But in practice, it was incredibly hard to impose the death penalty. In order to sentence a person to death a majority of a Sanhedrin (23 men selected for their wisdom and sagacity) had to vote in favor of it. There had to be two direct witnesses to the crime; those witnesses couldn’t be related to each other or to the accused (or the victim); the witnesses had to be men—and men known to the community for their virtue; both witnesses had to be able to see each other at the time of the crime; and both witnesses had to warn the offender that he was committing a capital crime.

In effect, it was almost impossible to condemn a person to death under the way the laws of the Old Testament were practiced. The reason for that was simple. They believed that to take a life as punishment was the prerogative of their God, and to usurp that prerogative was to dishonor God.

I don’t believe in God. But I believe they had the right idea. I don’t think the government ought to be in the business of killing its own citizens, BUT if the State elects to do that, then there ought to be no room for error.

don’t know

My brother Roger Lee asks me, sometimes, he asks me “Why’d you take a picture of that?”

It used to be “Why’d you take a picture of that?” with ‘that’ being the operative term. Why that thing? What are you seeing that you think is worth taking a picture? Are you crazy?

More and more, though, it’s “Why’d you take a picture of that?” with the emphasis on ‘why’? He’s beginning to accept that I actually have a purpose for photographing the things I do, but he doesn’t quite understand what that purpose is. He understands it’s less about the ‘thing’ in front of the lens and more about…well, something else.
It doesn’t help that I can’t give him a consistent answer. “It’s a condition of light,” I’ll say. Or “It’s the geometry.” Or “It’s the form of the shadow.” Or “Don’t know.”

He accepts “Don’t know” as an answer.


Maybe it’s silly, but I develop a sort of relationship with certain trees. I grow fond of them; it pleases me to see them when I’m in the vicinity. It’s something about the shape of the tree, or maybe where the tree is located—who knows how these things begin? What matters is there are specific trees that make me happy.

This is one of them:

That one off to the left—the one that looks sort of like a mitten from this angle—that’s the tree. I actually shot this photo of the feral cat that followed me around one foggy day. See that little white speck? That’s the cat; the little bugger paced me for half an hour or so, never getting any closer than this. But even though I shot the photo of the cat, I made sure the tree was in the frame.

I like that tree for several reasons. I like the way the bike path curves gently around it. I like that crows and hawks hang out there (though not at the same time). I like the fact that unlike some of the other trees along this stretch of the bike path, it was never trimmed back to make it ‘pretty’. It’s just a friendly, accessible, pleasant, unpretentious, somewhat disorderly tree.

It’s a nice tree, isn’t it.

They tore it down.

By ‘they’ I mean city workers. They’re refurbishing the bike path, partly because it’s in a flood plain. Two or three times a year the nearby creek (it’s just on the other side of the tree line) floods. It’s always done that. In fact, the worst train wreck in Iowa history took place just up the road, a result of flooding. Last summer, nearly 300 people had to be evacuated from their homes along the flood plain. So the city bought the property, moved the people, and set about ‘correcting’ the problem. Which required tearing down that tree.

I quizzed the workers about it. As much as I hate to admit it, they seem to have had a legitimate reason for removing the tree, though the reason was incomprehensibly technical. But the men I spoke to assured me no other trees would be removed. And, in fact, they’ve encircled the more tame and orderly trees with plastic snow fencing and yellow caution tape. I guess it makes me feel a tad better.But only a tad.

I miss that tree every time I ride or walk that stretch of the path. Eventually I suppose I’ll get used to not seeing the tree. And that will be a little sad too.

this is my bike

This is my bicycle. I dearly love it. It’s an old bugger; a Trek 850 I bought in 1995 for about US$400. I’ve put thousands of miles on it—miles of riding sandy trails on Cape Hatteras, miles of city streets in Norfolk, VA and all over Manhattan, miles of hilly country roads in rural Pennsylvania, miles of suburban lanes and bike paths in central Ohio, miles of roads and converted railroad lines in Iowa—and the old bike is still as solid as ever. Except for replacing the knobby tires for road tires, nothing on the bike has been changed or upgraded. The sumbitch is nearly indestructible. Sixteen years on a four hundred dollar investment—that’s twenty-five dollars a year. A bargain.

But obviously, it’s not about the money. You know what it is about? I’ll tell you. Here’s a true thing: a bicycle is a self-propelled, two-wheeled Fountain of Youth. You get on a bike and you immediately feel like you’re twelve years old.

Oh sure, bicycles are also very practical and efficient and utilitarian. They’re not only a common means of transportation in much of the world, they’re also used to convey goods and products. They don’t pollute, they’re good for your health, they’re cost-efficient and easy to maintain and blah blah blah. But fuck all that—mostly they’re fun.

There’s an instant joy in getting on a bicycle and pushing off—an instant feeling of liberation. I’m sure if I had to rely exclusively on a bike for year-round transportation I’d feel differently. But I don’t.

Later today I’ll jam an old L.L. Bean knapsack into the bike bag and ride down to the market to buy enough groceries for the next few days. I’ll probably buy something wildly unhealthy (I’m thinking I need a chili cheese dog for supper tonight) that will completely undo any fitness benefit I gain from riding the bike. But that’s okay; I’ll still feel like I’m twelve years old during the ride.

last breath

Somewhere in a filing cabinet stashed (at great inconvenience to everybody involved) in Ohio or Virginia or possibly New York are a few three-ring binders containing Kodachrome transparencies of various old crime scenes. They’re images I shot as a criminal defense investigator–all from cases that never went to trial. Had the cases gone to trial, the images would be filed away somewhere else as evidence. Since the cases were either dismissed or resolved by a plea agreement, the transparencies remained in my possession.

They are, for the most part, the most dull images imaginable. A lot of them are nothing more than establishing shots–photographs taken to establish the features of a location. If, say, a murder took place in a house, you’d begin (or end) your crime scene photography by shooting pictures of the exterior, taking care to include things like street signs and traffic signals and light poles. Evidentiary photographs are about registering clear information that might be helpful to an attorney or to a jury. A conviction or an acquittal might depend on something as mundane as the distance between a front stoop and the nearest light pole.

But also tucked away inside those three-ring binders are images that have no evidentiary value at all. These are photographs I shot simply because they appealed to the eye. There is, for example, a photograph of a blood spatter pattern that splashed across a church calendar hung on a kitchen wall. The calendar has a painting depicting the face of Jesus on the cross. It’s pretty horrible (both the painting itself and the photo showing the blood on the painting), but it’s also visually arresting.

There’s also an abstract image that shows a glass sample container from an old Breathalyzer test. Years ago when suspects were administered a Breathalyzer test to determine their blood alcohol, the samples were kept in glass vials that looked rather like test tubes. Two samples were taken–one of which was sent to the crime lab, the other was set aside for independent testing by the defense. In this case, the accused was charged with vehicular homicide. While awaiting trial, he hung himself in his jail cell. Several months later I discovered the tube while I was cleaning out my evidence locker. It occurred to me that it contained the breath of a dead man. So I photographed it.

There are probably no more than fifteen or twenty such Kodachromes. Except for a few defense lawyers, nobody has ever seen them. I’m not entirely comfortable with them. I’m rather glad they’re unavailable to me now. If I had them, I’m not sure if I’d scan them and make them available for people to see.

I rather think I might, though I’d feel bad about it. I hope I’d feel bad about it.

we walk on thursday

I belong to a group called Utata. The group is an odd collective; we have photographers and writers, we have stay-at-home moms and software designers, we have scientists and security guards—and you can’t always tell which is which. Mostly what we do is talk a lot and participate in photography projects.

Our longest-running project is also our most simple. We walk on Thursdays. As of yesterday, we’ve been doing this every Thursday for 281 weeks. That’s nearly five and a half years. Five and a half years.

Not everybody in the group walks on Thursdays. We have around 20,000 members, after all. But every Thursday, somebody is walking somewhere and taking photographs. This week we had somebody walking a picket line in Canada, somebody walking down a street in Kaiserslautern, Germany and along a field in Tungelsta, Sweden, somebody walking along a beach in Florida and a harbor in Ireland. And me, I went walking along a wooded creek and took the world’s most common photograph: flowers.

It’s such a simple thing, and yet it’s completely wonderful—and I mean wonderful in the old sense of the term. It leaves me full of wonder. There’s no logical reason for people all over the world to do this—and yet they’ve continued to do it for half a decade. We have continued to do it for half a decade.

I really feel fortunate to be a part of such a group.