walking thinking plotting shooting photos

I wanted to take a walk yesterday morning. However, according to my weather app, it was only 26F outside (23F with the light breeze, which really isn’t a great difference, but still). Here’s a true thing: I lack the moral fortitude required to force myself outside when it’s that cold. I’ll generally do it, but sometimes it takes a lot of persuasion to convince myself that it’s worthwhile. Sometimes I have to trick myself into it. Which is what I did yesterday.

You know how your ex will sometimes ask you if you want to ride along while she runs and errand? And sometimes you do, and sometimes you really don’t, and sometimes you say “How about if I ride along part of the way, and then you drop me off somewhere so I have to walk home?”. Which, again, is what I did yesterday morning. You may find this hard to credit, but my ex was surprisingly willing — I might even say eager — to drop me off somewhere along the way in the 26F cold so I’d have to walk home.

Which is why I found myself on foot on a bike path — one of those long, straight, unforgiving bike paths that used to be a railroad track — at nine-something in the morning. My weather app was correct; it totally felt like 23F.

I like to walk. Not as a form of exercise; I resent the entire notion of exercise. I like walking as a form of meditation (I totally suck at sitting meditation, but thanks to Thich Nhat Hanh walking meditation works for me). I also like walking as a vehicle for clear thinking. Yesterday morning I wanted to think about the ending to a story I’ve been working on. Like a lot of writers, I don’t even start to write a story until I have a general sort of ending in mind. Knowing the ending gives you a lot more control over every other aspect of the writing process.

That said, I rarely use the exact ending I envisioned when I began writing. The act of writing almost always opens up other potential endings. I’ve reached that point in the story where I need to solidify the ending. So that’s the primary reason I was out there, walking on a bike path in the cold. I was thinking and plotting.

I say I don’t walk for exercise, and although that’s true it’s also a little less than true. I have a knee injury that benefits from…well, exercise. I could do all that lifting weights and grunting business, which can be enjoyable. But all I need to do is keep the muscles attached to my knee in fairly decent shape. Walking is low impact, as they say. Which is ironic, since it was impact that caused the initial knee injury.

I used to be a counselor in the Psychiatric/Security unit of a prison for women. I had an inmate — a short, round woman about 5’5″ and probably 260 pounds that was mostly muscle — who suffered from a whole constellation of emotional and psychological issues, all of which were exacerbated by the fact that she also suffered from a form of temporal lobe epilepsy that’s associated with aggression and violence. She was in prison for basically destroying a house. Mostly with her bare hands.

When I accepted the job, she was being housed in an old-school St. Louis cell — one of those classic jail cells you see in the movies, with the iron bars and a metal bunk bolted to the floor — in a separate part of the prison. The first time I went to see her they handed me a raincoat, because she tended to hoard her urine in cups and throw it on the staff. Every couple of weeks they had to replace her mattress because she literally ripped them up. Again, with her bare hands. And then she’d urinate on the remains.

Eventually I was able to get her treated for the epilepsy and moved into the general population, but during the first few months on the job I insisted on being present and helping the security staff whenever they had to physically interact with this woman. On one of those early occasions I decided to help replace her mattress. They unlocked the cell, I rushed in, and made a lovely Errol Flynn leap onto the metal bunk. There wasn’t any mattress on it, since she’d ripped it up and peed on it. But the metal bunk was also soaked in urine. Urine, it turns out, makes a metal bunk slippery, so my Errol Flynn leap turned into a mad slide, which resulted in my leg getting semi-trapped between the bunk and the wall. By itself that probably would have been okay, but the inmate grabbed me by my hair (and yeah, I wore it long) and proceeded to yank my head down and bang it against the floor. That made my knee bend in an unfortunate and unnatural way. Which is one of the reasons I need to walk. You know, exercise.

It’s also why I tend to hobble a tad when I begin a walk and hobble a tad more at the very end of a walk. The middle bits, though, are usually pretty enjoyable. Yesterday’s walk home took me through a sort of semi-rural area, into a semi-industrial area, and eventually into a suburb with a wee little park. By the time I left the park — still maybe half a mile from home — my knee was moderately painful. But at least it didn’t seem so cold.

I’m still going to claim insist that exercise is a secondary reason for the walk. The primary reason was to work on the plot resolution. The story is about a pipefitter who supplements his income with the occasional spot of burglary. In one of said burglaries, the guy came into possession of an expensive camera — a Leica M Type 246, which is a purely monochrome digital camera. You might think expensive camera gear would be a dream come true for a part-time burglar. It’s not. That stuff is actually hard to move. Pawn shops won’t touch it without some proof of ownership, because folks who own a camera body worth around US$7000 tend to have insurance, which means the serial numbers have been registered, which further means burglary squads will be nosing around. Camera stores that stock used gear won’t touch it for much the same reason, not to mention they hate camera thieves. You might be able to sell a hot Leica for a few hundred bucks it to a buddy — if you happen to have a buddy who only shoots in black-and-white. Most part-time burglars don’t have that sort of buddy. So the character in the story decides to keep the camera and play around with it. He gets in trouble shooting photos in a park where there are kids playing.

There’s more to the story than that, of course, but that’s the McGuffin that sets the events of the story world in motion. I’m basing it in a very small way on a personal experience. I was never a pipefitter or an occasional burglar, but I did once get in trouble for shooting photos in a park where kids were playing. I hadn’t taken any photos of any kids, but one of the parents apparently thought I might have, so he decided to front me off, demanding I show him the photos on my camera.

Here’s another true thing: I’m a firm believer in civil rights, which includes the rights of photographers. On the other hand, I dislike fuss. So I tried to stand up for my rights without creating more fuss. I told the guy I’d let him see the photos IF he admitted he had no right to see them. He got angry, continued to demand to see the photos, and threatened to call the police. I told him I’d wait for the police, and said I’d only show the photos to the police under the same condition — an admission they no legal right to see the photos. Eventually the guy agreed he had no right to see the photos and I showed them to him. There were, of course, no photos of kids. He walked away without any sort of apology. It was an ugly situation that could have become even uglier. Which is always great fodder for a story.

That business about refusing to show the photos on my camera (or cellphone)? I’ve actually had to do that a few times. On rare occasions I’ve been stopped — usually by a suspicious civilian or occasionally it’s by a security guard — and questioned about why I’m shooting photographs. I was stopped once by a plainclothes Homeland Security agent because I was shooting photos along a railroad track that happened to be by a building used by Homeland Security. And almost exactly a year ago I was stopped by a local uniformed police officer. The Homeland Security guy was mostly concerned that I might have taken a photo that included the license tags of vehicles in the parking lot. The uniformed officer was responding to a complaint. Both of them were professional about it.

I don’t blame folks for wondering what the hell I’m up to when I’m shooting photos. But at the same time, I refuse to abandon my civil rights. Offering to show the photos in exchange for an admission that I’m not legally obligated to do so is my compromise. I suspect the only reason it works is because I’m a white guy. I may look like a thug, but at least I’m a white thug. That radically reduces the odds that I’ll get arrested. Or shot.

Today is Thanksgiving in the U.S. I’m properly thankful that I can live a life that allows me to just take a walk on any day I feel like it, that I don’t have to worry about getting shot for exercising my civil rights, that Philippe Kahn invented the cellphone camera, and that despite years of neglect and abuse my knees still work.

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allowed — thoughts after the planned parenthood book sale

There were a couple of guys standing outside the Planned Parenthood book sale yesterday, talking together. My impression was they didn’t really know each other — one guy was older, had that sort of liberal artsy-intellectual look I associate with docents at museums; the other was maybe in his late 20s, comfortably scruffy, zippered hoodie over a Raygun t-shirt. Both guys were white, probably considered themselves to be progressive. They were just standing there, hands in pockets, idly talking, probably waiting for somebody who was inside buying books.

I’d already bought my books and was heading back to the car. As I passed them, I smiled and nodded. I’m also a white guy, I think of myself as progressive, and on the docent-scruffy metric I probably fall somewhere closer to scruffy. I suppose these guys could be considered part of my tribe. After I passed them I heard the younger guy say something like, “Oh, well yeah, I think women should be allowed to decide for themselves.”

And I kept walking. I shouldn’t have. I should have stopped and turned and spoken up. I should have stopped and said, “Allowed? Did you just say allowed?”

Yesterday, before I left for the PP book sale, I made a comment on a friend’s Facebook post. The post was about sexual harassment. I don’t recall exactly what I said, but it was something to this effect: words matter. Language is critically important in shaping the way we perceive and understand the world. A few hours later, I had a chance to put theory into practice — and I didn’t do it.

Allowed. See, that’s the thing. That younger guy probably thinks he’s being — I don’t know. Supportive? I’m sure, if confronted, he’d have back-pedaled furiously. I’m sure he would have said — and said with sincerity — that he didn’t really mean ‘allowed’. In his defense, ‘should be allowed’ is better than ‘should NOT be allowed’, but only in the sense that diluted poison is better than concentrated poison. ‘Allowed’ is still poison.

I’ve avoided writing about abortion. Partly, I admit, because I don’t want to deal with the tiresome ‘abortion is murder’ crowd. But I’ve avoided it mainly for another reason: I can’t write about abortion without indulging in what will at first appear to be a tangent. This is the tangent.

I was a medic in the military. In my very first duty station I was assigned to a general medicine ward of a large medical center. The wing that housed the ward also housed the hospital’s medical waste incinerator. Medical waste has to be incinerated. If, say, a person has a foot amputated, you can’t just chuck the foot into a dumpster; you burn it. Somebody has to be in charge of the incinerator. Somebody has to accept the medical waste, check to be sure it’s what it’s supposed to be, log it, put it in the incinerator, then push the button.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. For about six months, one of my duties was to be the incinerator monitor. An aborted fetus, in that state (maybe in all states, I don’t know), was technically considered medical waste. My job required me to inspect the medical waste, then incinerate it.

But words matter, right? I didn’t incinerate medical waste; I incinerated amputated limbs and tumors and appendixes and chunks of ulcerated intestine and occasionally aborted fetuses. It was…unpleasant. The image of an aborted fetus in a blue plastic tub is one of dozens of images I wish weren’t banging around in my brain. I was 19 years old.

That’s when my opinions on abortion were formed, and they haven’t changed in the decades since. Here’s my opinion: 1) abortion is a legitimate and legal medical procedure, 2) it’s not a procedure anybody would undertake lightly, 3) it’s a procedure that should be rare, 4) in order to make it rare, we need to encourage folks to plan for pregnancy, 5) which also means folks should plan to avoid pregnancy, 6) which means we need to make birth control easy and affordable, and 7) these are decisions that can only be made by the women involved with consultation with their doctors and perhaps their religious leaders.

I don’t like abortion. But I recognize that sometimes it’s necessary. I don’t like abortion, but I completely support a woman’s right to choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. I don’t like abortion, and that’s exactly why I support Planned Parenthood. I don’t like abortion, but I recognize that everybody has the right to control over their bodies.

I don’t like abortion. I don’t like it. But the term ‘allow’ doesn’t belong in the discussion. 

never shocked

This is what I used to do. Wake up, start the coffee, look out the window to see what sort of day it is, read a chunk of whatever novel I was reading at the time, pour myself a cup of coffee, turn on the computer, spend maybe 30-45 minutes reading and editing whatever I’d written the day before, check my email, then turn on NPR and start the actual working part of the day.

That’s what I started to do sixteen years ago. But during the editing period I got a phone call. Normally, I’d have let the phone ring; I discourage interruptions while editing and since I didn’t have Caller ID back then, I’d no idea who was calling. But for some reason I answered it, and it was an old buddy. I don’t recall his exact words after I said ‘Hello” but it was something like “Are you seeing this?”

A few months earlier I’d moved from Manhattan to a massive old farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. It was quiet there, tranquil, no distractions aside from the occasional sound of a tractor in a nearby field, ridiculously inexpensive to live — a perfect place to settle down and work on a novel.

“Am I seeing what?” I asked. And he told me a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Which was absolutely ridiculous, of course. The towers of the WTC were huge, and not in any air traffic lane. “Maybe a helicopter,” I said, “but no way a plane would crash into the towers.” He said, “Go see for yourself, it’s on television.”

About a year earlier he’d come to NYC for a visit and slept on my futon-sofa. We’d done a few tourist things — the usual things New Yorkers take visitors to see. FAO Schwartz, the toy store. The boat pond in Central Park. The Bethesda Fountain. And always the top of the World Trade Center.

“Go see for yourself,” he said, and since he’d called on the land line, I had to hang up and go to the living room to turn on the television. And sure enough, the north tower of the World Trade Center was on fire, with a large hole in the side where something big had hit it. I watched for a bit, and was about to call my friend back and admit he’d been right — and that’s when the second plane hit.

When I lived in NYC I belonged to a reading group. We’d meet once a month at somebody’s apartment, eat snacks, drink a bit of wine, and discuss what we’d read. It was easy and pleasant and fun. One guy, Joe, occasionally brought along his dogs, a pair of Cavalier King James spaniels, one of which had a heart condition and always got extra attention from the group because we weren’t ever sure he’d make it to the next meeting. Joe worked in the South Tower. We later learned he’d called his sister after the North Tower was hit. He told her his office was evacuating the building as a precaution. He’d taken the stairs down to the Sky Lobby on the 78th floor and was waiting with others to take the express elevator ground level. Nothing to worry about, he told her. The second plane struck the building between floors 77 and 85.

A friend from graduate school. Mark, worked for a social research group located north of the WTC. We figure he must have left his office and walked to the towers after the first plane hit to see what was happening. He was apparently killed by debris, probably from the same crash that killed Joe. They identified Mark’s body fairly easily, since he was largely intact. Joe was confirmed dead several months later, apparently through tissue samples. A neighbor of Joe took in his dogs until a family member could claim them.

This is what I do now, this is what I’ve done every single day for the last 16 years: I wake up, I start the coffee, I look out the window to see what sort of day it is, I say to myself “Let’s see if any planes crashed into buildings” and I look at the news. It’s a sort of mantra — a ritualized phrase and a ritualized process. I check the news to see if anything horrific happened while I was asleep. Every morning. I don’t know why; it’s not like I can do anything about whatever has happened, any more than I could do anything about the 9/11 attacks. But except for making coffee, nothing gets done until I’ve checked the news.

It seems like a pretty small life adjustment. But beginning the day by asking about a terrorist attack means the news never really shocks me. A school shooting? A forest fire? A devastating flood? An explosion at a fertilizer plant? A ferry sinking? A terrorist attack in a major European city? The news can make me sad or angry or distressed or upset, but I’m never shocked by the ongoing list of tragedies. Because I begin each day wondering if a plane has crashed into a skyscraper.

my day so far

Woke up. Always a good start.

Checked the perimeter (by which I mean the cat and I stood for a minute or so looking out at the back yard). Light breeze, sunny. The breeze made a small greyish feather skitter across the deck. The cat watched it with a sort of philosophical detachment until it blew off the deck. The cat lost interest and wanted fed. The perimeter was secure. I fed the cat.

Poured myself a large cold brew coffee. During the summer months I drink nothing but cold brew in the morning. Summer is basically over; tomorrow I’ll run out of cold brew and will return to hot coffee. Read the news. Donated another small sum to the Houston flood relief, this time to Operation BBQ Relief — a group of caterers, restaurateurs, and competitive barbecue teams that respond to disasters and feed victims and responders.

Edited the stuff I wrote yesterday. I always begin a writing session by editing the previous day’s work.

The cat complained about the lack of attention. Gave the cat some Laxatone, allegedly tuna-flavored (though how the hell would I know?), to reduce the odds that she’ll hack up a hairball someplace where I’m bound to be walking barefooted.

Thought about that feather. Not a particularly interesting feather, but I’d enjoyed the way the breeze made it sort of wiggle-waggle across the deck. Wasn’t a major flight feather; Maybe one of those smaller feathers from the upper part of the wing. Googled ‘types of feathers’  Discovered the feather the cat and I observed was probably an upper wing covert feather, which I’m told overlay the secondary flight feathers and serve to smooth the airflow over the wings. Nice.

 

Wrote maybe two or three hundred words.

Thought about the term covert, so researched the etymology, which was about what you’d expect. It comes from the Old French covrir which meant ‘to cover, protect, or conceal’. Made me think of a television show, Covert Affair, of which I watched the first episode a million years ago — mainly because it starred an actor with the improbable name of Piper Peribo. I remembered her name from a brilliant Christopher Nolan movie called The Prestige, though I couldn’t for the life of me remember what role she played. In the first episode of the television series, she played a CIA trainee who spoke a couple dozen languages and so was made a field operative. It was pretty awful. I never watched another episode, but I still like the actor’s name. I’ve no idea if she’s done anything else.

The improbably-named Piper Perabo

Picked up the cat’s dish and clean out the leftover Laxatone. The cat has disappeared to wherever the cat disappears to.

Wrote maybe dozen paragraphs, mostly dialog. Dialog is easy. Doesn’t take long.

Still thinking about the feather. Figured there was probably a website somewhere that cataloged feathers. Googled ‘feather atlas’ and hey bingo, there’s actually a feather atlas. Told myself I would NOT get distracted by looking at bird feathers. Did NOT get distracted by bird feathers. Got distracted by this:

READ THIS FIRST: Feathers and the Law.

Feathers and the Law — four words I’d never expect to see together. Totally clicked on the link, which opens a window with a few other links and begins with this alarming warning.

Feathers are beautiful and remarkable objects.  If you find feathers in nature, appreciate, study, and photograph them, but leave them where you found them.  It is illegal to take them home.

No fucking way is that illegal. Is it? Yes, it is. Sorta kinda. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 makes it illegal to hunt, take, capture, kill, or sell migratory birds or any part of a bird, including feathers, eggs, and nests. Of the 900+ bird species in North America, more than 800 are considered migratory. We’re talking birds like crows and mourning doves and chickadees — and it’s actually illegal to take their feathers.

This feather (not the actual feather mentioned) is TOTALLY illegal. Probably.

Of course, in reality, the government is only really interested in protecting a few endangered species, but you can’t expect a wildlife enforcement officer to be able to distinguish between the covert feather of a barn swallow and the covert feather of a Gunnison sage grouse. So the law covers just about all the birds and puts the burden of proof on the poor sumbitch who picks up a feather to prove it’s NOT from one of these protected species.

Got a wee bit distracted by the feather atlas.

From the Feather Atlas

Got interrupted in my distraction by a phone call reminding me I have a doctor’s appointment on Friday.

I confirm that I’ll be there, but I’m not actually thinking about the appointment. I’m thinking that somewhere in that illegal feather business are the bones of a story. But it’s not the story I’m working on, so I close every goddamned window on my computer and bang out another hundred and fifty words or so.

The cat reappears and wants fed. It’s noon. I haven’t had breakfast yet.

Ate breakfast, caught up on the news, Melania Trump wearing stilettos while touring the flooded parts of Texas. Wrote this.

My day so far.

 

uncomfortable confessional crap – part two

I have this Fitbit thing on my wrist to remind me to get up off my ass periodically and move. When your work involves sitting in front of a computer and putting words in a row, an activity tracker is pretty handy. It’s set up to keep track of all sorts of stuff, most of which I don’t keep track of — how much liquid I drink, how much food I eat, how many calories I burn.

It also keeps track of how much sleep I get. Which isn’t much. On average, around five and half hours a night. On average, that’s the key. Sometimes it’s less than five hours, occasionally as much as six and a half. Last night, according my Fitbit thing, I topped out at four hours and five minutes.

Nightmares. Everybody has them. I had them last night. Not the standard nightmares. You know — being chased, being trapped, being stalked, falling from a height, the universal nightmares everybody shares. Last night I had the sort of nightmares that you earn. The nightmares that grow out of stuff you’ve seen, stuff you’ve done, stuff you were afraid to do but did anyway, stuff you don’t really think about but is always there lurking in…I don’t know what it lurks in. Your subconscious, I guess. Doesn’t really matter what it’s lurking in; it’s the lurking that matters.

Sometimes the nightmares are weird replays of stuff you’ve done or seen. More often they’re about the moments leading up to the stuff you did, the stuff you saw. Those are the worst. It’s the awareness of what’s coming and the inability to halt it or turn away.

I don’t have those nightmares very often anymore. Three, maybe four times a year. A long time ago I had them weekly. They’ve gradually abated. I’ve also gotten better at interrupting them, which sounds a wee bit crazy. Somehow, when I’m asleep and the nightmare begins, it’s like I can tell myself “Dude, this is that nightmare…you know, that one where you have to break the transom over the door and crawl through and then after you fall there’s that awful bit with struggling and the jagged, broken bit of metal and all that hot slippery blood…you know this nightmare and you can skip it tonight,” and then I usually wake up and everything is okay.

But every so often one gets away from you. When you finally wake up and turn on a light, all you can do is reassure yourself that it’s just a nightmare. Sometimes you can go back to sleep. More often, though, you don’t. It’s not that you can’t go back to sleep; it’s more that you’re afraid to. If you go back to sleep, it might happen again.

But here’s the really crazy part. I’m okay with that. Like I said earlier, I earned those nightmares. My life now is quiet and calm and peaceful. Most days my biggest concern is what I’m going to prepare for supper. But I spent about fifteen years doing really interesting stuff, stuff that was intense and demanding, stuff that mattered. If I think about the stuff I’ve seen and done that could figure into nightmares, I feel I’m getting off fairly light. So if the cost for all that is the occasional nightmare, then I’m okay with that.

Note: I started to title this post ‘Uncomfortable Confessional Crap’ because…well, it’s uncomfortable for me to talk about, it’s confessional, and really who gives a crap about it? But the title sounded familiar, so I checked and found I’d used the same title almost exactly three years ago. So, part 2. I may do another uncomfortable confessional thing three years from now.

where the light is

I noodled around the Des Moines Art Center with some friends a couple of days ago. It had been a while since I’d visited the art center, and I’d forgotten just how visually engaging its architecture is. I’d brought a camera (a real, actual, no-nonsense camera), thinking I might shoot some photos of the artwork. And I did. I shot three frames with the camera — all of the same Calder mobile. I spent far more time shooting quick black-and-white snaps on my cellphone. And very little of that was of the artwork; almost all of the photos I shot were about the building.

Stairs in the Meier wing

The history of the architecture of the Des Moines Art Center is sort of interesting. Well, it’s interesting to me. The original design was the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. He’d won a competition in 1939 to design the Smithsonian Gallery of Art. But Congress being Congress, they decided to deny funding for the construction. Happily, the folks in charge of creating a new art museum in Des Moines saw Saarinen’s plans for the Smithsonian and said, “Dude, slide on over here and build us a museum.” And he did. He cobbled together a structure that was an esoteric combination of Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles. They finished construction in 1948.

What made it unique, though, was the decision NOT to construct a standard museum gallery. Saarinen’s design also included spaces for practice and instruction, making it both an art gallery and a teaching center. And hey, bingo — we had us an art center. Pretty cool idea.

Sunlight through a curtain (with incidental Giacometti bronze)

In the late 1960s, the art center folks decided to expand the building to include a space large enough to hold an auditorium and display really big sculptures. They got I.M. Pei to design it. It’s hard to do better than Pei. But his design revolved around a sort of massive block building that would tower over the existing structure. It was necessary, of course, but the design would have clashed with the low, ground-hugging Saarinen design. So Pei said, “Dudes, not to worry. I’ll sink the block into the landscape, easy peasy, lemon breezy.”  And hey, bingo — we had us a fine addition to the art center.

I.M. Pei window (with incidental Debora Butterfield painted steel horse)

By the 1980s, the art center needed another new extension — a space to house more contemporary works. This time they landed Richard Meier as the architect. Meier is one of those Pritzker Prize geniuses whose work is fairly idiosyncratic. The guy is totally smitten by structures designed around very white geometric patterns. Nothing at all like the designs of Pei or Saarinen. The advantage of being a Pritzker genius is nobody’s going to force you to adapt your aesthetic to fit in with your predecessors.

Meier’s addition to the art center is basically what he’s known for — white geometric patterns. It sort of looks like it was designed by a member of the Borg Collective who’d gone to an architecture school in Minecraft. That sounds more harsh than I mean it to. It’s really a very smart, clever, and very very clean design. Just different from the rest of the art center. But hey, bingo — we have us a space for contemporary artwork.

It speaks to the design, I think, that the only time I felt the need to shoot a photograph in color was in the Meier wing.

Mobile — Calder, Meier wing.

The fact is, I really didn’t make any thoughtful, considered photographs. I just walked around and took quick, square format, b&w snapshots using an app I’ve configured for black-and-white photography. It wasn’t until I got home and looked at the photos (there were only 18 of them) that I realized most of the photos were of the building itself rather than the art it houses. Art figured into some of the photos, but they were accents incidental to the photo rather than the subject of it. If that makes sense.

It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the art; I did. I enjoyed it a lot. In fact, I’d often put on my glasses and get really close and try to figure out exactly how some of the work was done. I mean, how did George Wesley Bellows manage to paint a human face (it is, I’ve decided, humanly impossible — maybe Bellows was an alien)? I looked at the sculptures and admired the sketches and appreciated the paintings and watched a couple of works of video art. By the way,  some of the video art? Incomprehensible and (is there a polite way to say ‘stupid’? — no, I don’t think there is) stupid. But then there was this piece by Michael Najjar. Sublime.

Spacewalk — Michael Najjar

I looked at just about everything and I enjoyed most of it, but in the end the primary reason I’d shoot a photograph had most to do with the way the building interacted with the light. The way the light and the structure worked together seemed to infuse some sort of extra meaning to both. For example, I was very much taken by a chair (based on an Eames design) partly because I mistakenly thought I was in the Saarinen wing (the Eames brothers were students of Saarinen). I was actually in the Pei wing — irony gone awry.

Unironic Eames chair

Some of these photographs, I know, probably won’t appeal to anybody but me. Like the chair above. It’s just a chair the guards sit in. Or this view out a window to the street. What’s that about? There was something about the geometry that appealed to me, though I couldn’t say what.

Looking out on Grand

I actually spent more time on this stupid photograph than all the others combined. I wanted to get that tree in the right spot, and the reflection of the window’s crossbar just the right angle. Then I probably stood there, trying to be still and hold that view, for a couple of minutes, waiting for the passing cars to line up properly. Silly, I know, but it seemed worth it at the moment. Still does.

It’s a wee bit embarrassing to visit the art center and return home with nothing but a handful of black-and-white photographs. All that amazing art, and here’s me with some photos of curtains and stairways and chairs and random views out of windows.

Some random curtain

But what can you do? That’s where the light was.

a simple acknowledgment of service

I’m not particularly moved by the U.S. flag. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a patriot. I joined the military and did my four years in uniform. I’ve spent most of my life engaged in some form of public service — prison counselor, criminal defense investigator, teacher. I stand up when they play the national anthem at ball games. But I’m not a flag-waver. The flag just doesn’t move me as a symbol. It’s been brandished too often by too many hypocrites for too many cynical reasons for me to get very emotional about it.

However, there are two exceptions. First, I get weepy every time I see a military funeral. I’m going to guess a lot of you have only seen a military funeral on television or in the movies. Even so, you know there’s a military tradition that involves folding the flag and presenting it to the next of kin. Believe it or not, there wasn’t any actual written protocol for this ceremony until about five or six years ago. There was, however, the awesome weight of tradition, and tradition is a very big deal in the military.

By tradition, when the flag was presented to the next of kin the Casualty Assistance Officer (yeah, they actually have a title for this person; it’s the military) would kneel, offer the flag, and then say some variation of this:

This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation as an expression of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one.

The moment I hear the words a grateful nation I get totally choked up and by the time they get to honorable and faithful service I’ve been known to cry like a fucking baby. Partly because it’s so often a lie. The service was real. I’m not going to judge whether it was honorable or faithful, the fact is that person served. But let’s face it — the nation is rarely very grateful.

The other exception to my flag-related apathy is Memorial Day. This wasn’t always the case. As a holiday, Memorial Day has pretty much lost all meaning. I’ve written about this before. I’ve written about how ‘patriotic’ Republicans treat one of their own on Memorial Day. And three years ago I wrote about accidentally stumbling across a cemetery in a small town in Iowa on Memorial Day.

I went back to Maxwell, Iowa last year and again yesterday. I keep going back because the good people of Maxwell make Memorial Day feel like it’s supposed to feel. The flags they display are large, and they display a lot of them. But what moves me isn’t the number or size of the flags; it’s about the simple act of recognizing and acknowledging service. Maxwell shows appreciation for the inherent sacrifice of serving.

These weren’t necessarily big sacrifices. Very few of the veterans in Maxwell’s cemetery died while in uniform. They weren’t all heroes (when you call everyone a hero you devalue actual heroism). They were just ordinary folks who felt they owed something to their country or their community. The vast majority of the veterans did their time in military harness, came home, got a job, and lived an ordinary life. And each year, on this one day, the town of Maxwell basically says ‘Thank you.’ They don’t just say it to the dead who served in the military, mind you. The town also puts little flags on the graves of volunteer firefighters and police officers — red for firefighters, blue for police. It’s all about service, regardless of its form.

There’s a good chance, if you live in the US, that over the Memorial Day weekend you’ll pass by a cemetery, and you’ll have seen all those little flags scattered amongst the tombstones. Think about this: somebody put those flags there. Somebody walked out into the cemetery with a little chart showing where the bodies of veterans are located, and planted a little flag by each of those graves. In a few days, they’ll collect those flags and everything will go back to normal until next year. The vast majority of veteran’s graves will go unremembered. Nobody will visit their graves, except the persons planting those flags.

That’s probably not true in a small town like Maxwell. In a town of only a few hundred people, there’s a good chance whoever put those small flags by those graves knew the deceased. Or knew his kin. Maybe they learned geography or math from the person, or maybe grew up with the person’s grandson, or maybe bought their used car. There’s a good chance whoever put those flags in place in Maxwell wasn’t a stranger.

That moves me. It moves me in a very different way than when I visit the graves of my own family’s veterans. It moves me because what I see in Maxwell isn’t just honoring the dead, they’re honoring of the concept of service. It reminds me that service — the act of doing work for the benefit of the community — works both ways. By honoring service itself, the community of Maxwell makes itself worthy of that service. That’s a lesson for every community — every community across scales: neighborhood, small town, city, state, nation.

If you want a proud professional military, be sure you create a nation worthy of pride. If you want a good police force, make sure the city serves and protects everybody who lives there. If you want good teachers, give them good schools and provide them with the material they need to teach. It’s really very simple. If you want good service, give people a good reason to serve.

I’ll probably go back to Maxwell again next year. It doesn’t make me feel any more patriotic, and it won’t really change how I feel about the flag. But it reminds me that the reasons so many of us put on the uniform are valid. It reminds me service is honorable.