suicide

Kate Spade a few days ago. Anthony Bourdain today. I’m rarely surprised when I hear somebody has committed suicide. Saddened, yes, to be sure, but hardly ever shocked or surprised. Why? Partly because there are so many reasons for folks to want to kill themselves, and partly because thoughts of suicide are universal, and partly because the thought of nonexistence can be so strangely attractive.

I doubt I know anybody who hasn’t, at one point or another, thought about how nice it would be if you could just remove yourself from existence. All your problems, all those life complications, all that stress and anxiety and pressure — all of it, just gone.

For some folks there might be some measure of vindictiveness in the thought; that whole ‘They’ll miss me when I’m gone‘ thing. But I suspect most folks who indulge in the thought of suicide are more likely to be thinking something like ‘I wish I’d never been born.’ It’s not death itself that’s attractive, it’s deletion. It’s not being whited out or erased from the page so much as having never been written onto the page in the first place. That way nobody misses you when you’re gone, nobody suffers.

Kate Spade

Most of us never act on those thoughts, of course. Some do. Some succeed. But here’s the thing: everybody has a reason to commit suicide. Everybody. Most of us also have reasons not to do it.

Here are my reasons for suicide: 1) I’ve witnessed/done way too many ugly things in my life; I have way too many ugly images in my head, and not a day goes by without at least one of them popping up, 2) I’m getting old and my body is beginning to fail; I hurt a lot; my knees are crap; I can no longer do things I used to do easily, which is sometimes comical and sometimes terribly frustrating, 3) I’m moderately poor; I never expected to live this long, so I took no steps to insure I’d have enough money to live comfortably as I aged (in the same way I took no steps to insure I’d be healthy). I’m not so poor I’ll ever miss a meal, but more poor than I ever expected to be.

I don’t regret any of that. I may not like the images in my head, but I’m glad I’ve lived the sort of life where I experienced stuff most folks haven’t. I may be beat-up physically, but I’m glad I’ve lived the sort of life where fear of pain or suffering never stopped me from doing something. And I may be poor, but I’m glad I’ve never felt the need for financial security and I’m glad I’ve never made a safe career choice or taken a career path for a steady paycheck.

Anthony Bourdain

Here are my primary reasons for NOT committing suicide: joy and curiosity. Every single day — hell, several times each and every day — I find something fascinating to see, think about, watch, study, enjoy. Every day — several times a day — something happens that makes me laugh, that delights me, that makes me stupidly happy. Every day, several times a day, I’m glad I’m alive. All that far outweighs any passing desire to delete myself from existence.

Besides, the convenient thing about suicide is that you can always do it tomorrow. It’s almost always an option. There’s some weird comfort in that.

I need to acknowledge, though, that I’ve never experienced actual depression. I’ve been deeply sad, I’ve been desperate, I’ve been terrified, but I’ve never felt any sort of sustained depression. That’s a closed box for me; I can understand it intellectually, but I’ve no idea what it’s like to live with any more than I know what it’s like to be blind. But if it makes a person blind to beauty and joy and curiosity, I understand why it would seem to close any option for living.

So I’m sad about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. I’m sad for their friends and family. I’m sad they felt they’d run out of options. I wish they’d been able to find a reason to delay the decision to kill themselves. I wish they’d continued to find reasons to delay that decision. I’m not surprised by what they did, and I think the world is a slightly lesser place without them in it — not just because they were celebrities or accomplished in their chosen fields, but because their continued existence was part of what made being alive worthwhile for others.

I think that’s probably true for almost everybody who considers suicide.

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my ongoing relationship with phytoncide

It’s pre-morel mushroom season in my part of the world. Pre-morel season is that brief period before the brief period of actual morel season; it’s that interval when common sense, experience, and science all agree that it’s still too damned early for morels to appear, but you go hunting for them all the same because hey, you never know and why the hell not. Actual morel season probably won’t start until — who knows? Later this week? Ten days? It’s a damned mystery.

But let’s face it, for a lot of us, there’s no meaningful difference between pre-morel season and morel season. We find the same amount of mushrooms in both. In other words, none at all.

I’m okay with that. Finding morels is the other reason for hunting morels. The primary reason, for me at any rate, is to get out into the woods. Deep into the woods. As deep into the woods as possible, because the deeper into the woods you get, the more the world becomes slow and quiet. Not silent — just quiet. Between wind and wildlife, the woods are rarely silent. It’s just that the sounds of the woods are subtle and usually indirect.

If you spot one morel, there are usually others nearby.

Subtle and indirect — that’s how you find morels in the woods. You walk slowly, scanning the ground for small disruptions in the pattern of the dead leaves. You walk for a couple of minutes, you stop and search for a couple of minutes. It doesn’t necessarily matter where you walk. There are dozens of tips suggesting the best conditions for finding morels — near dead/dying elm trees, old creek bottoms, south-facing slopes, areas of mottled sun, areas of bright occasional sun, shady areas — but the difference between spotting a morel and missing one is often just a matter of a few feet in one direction or another. So you sort of meander semi-aimlessly through the woods, guided by 1) the wisdom of your morel-hunting ancestors, 2) the terrain itself, 3) maybe a deer track, and 4) a sizable dose of bullshit folklore.

dead elm in an old creek bottom during actual morel season

Hunting morels is weirdly meditative. That’s why folks who talk about hunting morels sometimes sound like students of Zen. Be aware without concentrating, be focused without any objective point of focus. Morels can be masters of camouflage; you can carefully study a few square feet of woodland for a couple of minutes, suddenly realize there are two or three morels right there in plain sight, look away to tell your friends, and then struggle to find those same morels five seconds later.

But here’s a true thing about hunting morels: you can find them just about anyplace. Abandoned lots in town, roadside ditches, suburban yards, in sand, in mud, along farm fields and pastures. Another true thing: a morel you gather from a rural roadside is just as tasty as a morel you gather from the deep woods. One more true thing: there’s always delight in finding a morel anywhere at all.

Actually on a south-facing slope

Still, most of us hunt them in the woods. The tick-infested, thorn-ridden, spiderwebbed, bramble-thick woods. That’s partly because the odds of finding a morel are somewhat better in the woods. Not a lot better, but better — just like the odds of winning the lottery are only slightly improved by buying a ticket. Still, I think most of us hunt them in the woods because getting deep into the woods is…well, it’s nice, isn’t it. It’s pleasant. It’s deeply relaxing. It’s…I’m going to say it…therapeutic.

I’ve seen lots of online references to ‘forest bathing’ lately. That’s a notion developed in Japan (where it’s called shinrin-yoku) back in the 1980s. Forest bathing sounds silly, but it’s become a rather trendy form of therapy. I recently read that it can increase a person’s “capacity to communicate with the land and its species.” I’ve no idea what that means, but it doesn’t sound any less absurd that some of the medical claims in support of forest bathing. For example, this:

[M]any trees give off organic compounds that support our “NK” (natural killer) cells that are part of our immune system’s way of fighting cancer.

Completely ridiculous, right? Well, actually, no. It turns out trees and plants actually do emit compounds called phytoncides. Surprisingly, this has nothing to do with the violent death of phytons. Phytoncides help prevent trees and plants from rotting or being eaten by some insects and animals. And hey, when you go into the woods, you breathe that shit in. And guess what? It turns out, it’s actually good for you.

This what pre-morel season looks like — nothing but you, some ticks, and an invisible cloud of phytoncides.

Seriously. A few years ago the New York Times acknowledged studies demonstrating that walking in the woods for a couple of hours can actually increase a person’s white corpuscles (those ‘NK’ cells mentioned earlier) for up to a week. There have been a number of highly respected medical researchers writing in highly respected medical journals all highly agreeing that despite its absurd name, forest bathing (and therefore morel hunting) is good for you.

This video is from a couple of years ago, during actual morel season. It may look like a lazy stroll down a deer track. But no! In fact, this is me madly forest bathing and soaking up phytoncides like a damned sponge.

I’m always a tad alarmed to discover that something I enjoy is good for me. I suspect I’ll now be accused of hunting morels for my health, which would take a great deal of the fun out of it. Well, it would — except that, as I said, finding morels is the other reason for hunting them. Sometimes the point of morel hunting is coming home with a sack (mesh, naturally, so the spores can be spread) full of morels. I don’t mind doing something healthy if it delivers the occasional mushroom.

So for the next few weeks — once pre-morel season morphs into morel season — I’ll be out there as often as I can, forest bathing like motherfucker. I don’t care if it’s good for me or not. I’ll be looking for shrooms; my white corpuscles can look out for themselves.

thanks

Occasionally people send me things. I’ve no idea why they do, but they do. Not often. Maybe three or four times a year. But periodically the postal carrier arrives at the door with an unexpected package.

Well, not always unexpected. I mean, usually somebody has emailed me and said something like “Dude, I have something for you — what’s your address?” And I give them my address. Why the hell not? I spent a chunk of my life as a professional invader of privacy, so I know the notion of personal privacy is pretty much an illusion. So far nobody has mailed me dog shit or anything explodey, so there’s that.

It always pleases me when these packages arrive. Sometimes, I confess, I’m a tad confused by what’s actually in the package — because sometimes the thing in the package is…well, let’s say some of the stuff is eccentric. But still, how could I not be pleased at the generosity and thoughtfulness behind the gift?

A random assortment of stuff folks have sent me.

I get photographs, of course. Lovely, interesting, beautifully printed photographs. And books (usually about photography, or about photographers, or by photographers but I’ve also received stuff like old Conan Doyle novels). I’ve a friend who, like some character out of fiction, sits in European cafes and writes beautifully (occasionally indecipherable) hand-written letters on the most sensuous paper, sometimes including an interesting business card. And occasionally there’s the eccentric stuff — shark teeth, a bent and rusty horseshoe, a bit of shale shaped like a duck’s head, an advert for gas masks, a box of Jane Austen band-aids, a ceramic ashtray. “Saw this,” people write, “thought of you.” I’m not sure quite what it means when somebody sees a key chain modeled after a Medical Examiner’s toe tag and thinks of me, but I like to think it’s somehow a compliment.

Yes, I took a selfie with a Jane Austen band-aid on my nose.

Okay, this is going to seem like a tangent, but it’s not. Back in 2012 I wrote a blog post about encountering a huge murder of crows. A couple of years ago, I was notified about a new comment on that post. It read:

Hi Greg,
I love your photos. I, too, am a huge fan of crows and ravens. We had a pet raven named Cyrano De Bergerac. He was so smart and so funny. I was wondering if I could use/buy one of your crow photos to include in a painting I want to do.
Thanks from heather

I said yes, of course. I usually say yes to this sort of thing. Besides, I’m a huge fan of crows and a huge fan of Cyrano (the Brian Hooker translation) and a huge fan of folks who can paint. So I said yes, then I promptly forgot all about it. I usually promptly forget about this sort of thing. But then in January I got an email.

Dear Greg, I responded to an early blog post about crows. I had a pet raven named Cyrano De Bergerac and I asked if I could use your photos for a painting I wanted to do. I finally got around to working on it. I am almost finished and I was wondering if you would like to have it. If so, may I have your mailing address?  Thanks from Heather

So I gave her my address. And, again, promptly forgot all about it. Then the painting arrived.

I don’t know what I was expecting. Something small, I suppose. Maybe one of those 8×10 cotton duck canvas panels. Actually, I’m not sure I had any expectations at all. I was just pleased that Heather liked a photograph, and pleased that she wanted to use it as a basis for a painting, and enormously pleased that she was generous enough to want me to have the final work. But whatever I was expecting, I can say without any hesitation that it wasn’t this. It wasn’t 34×24 inches of this:

I was gobsmacked. My gob? Totally smacked. It’s crows, of course, but it’s not just crows; it’s Aesop’s crow, the one from the fable in which a thirsty crow drops pebbles into a jug of water until the water level rises so he can drink. It’s Aesop’s clever crow channeled through Heather Vos, with a bit of mysticism tossed in, and a healthy dollop of pure crowness.

There’s a 12th century bestiary that includes an imaginary discussion between a crow and God. God, it seemed, was foolish enough to try to ignore the crow. The crow wasn’t having any of that, even from a god. The crow said,

“I, Crow, a talker, greet thee Lord. with definite speech, and if you fail to see me it is because you refuse to believe I am a bird.”

This what I love about crows, and it’s what I love second-most about this painting. Crows are clever, confident enough to talk to gods as an equal — confident enough to explain things to gods. We see that crow confidence here.

What I love most about the painting, of course, is that it exists. That it’s a physical reminder that people like Heather Vos exist. That a woman from a small town in Ontario, was thoughtful enough, generous enough, talented enough to create this painting and share it with me.

I’m a lucky guy, I recognize that. I live in a safe place, I have a warm bed in which to sleep, I haven’t had to miss a meal in years, I have friends and family. I’m generally a ridiculously happy person. On those rare occasions when I start to feel the world is cold and cruel (and there’s ample reason to feel that way these days) all I have to do is look around my desk and I’m reminded that the world is full of people who are kind and caring and altruistic and warm-hearted — and I’d go on, but I already sound too much like a Pollyanna.

But thanks — thanks to Heather and to everybody who has ever sent me anything, including their thoughts.

no need to help the arseholes

Yesterday I mocked the biased preliminary report on the Russia investigation from the Republicans on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. I included a few silly fictionalized tweets based on Comrade Trump’s all-caps tweet celebrating the prelim HPSCI report. One of those fictional tweets…well, hold on. I’ll come back to that.

I tend to write these blog posts fairly quickly. I may piss away a chunk of time doing research, but the actual writing happens in a bit of a rush. Most often it’s a first draft — so there are occasional typos, errors in grammar, mispeled wirds, or words omitted. It also means I sometimes includes stupid shit I wouldn’t have included if I’d paused long enough to consider how the stupid shit could be interpreted by folks who don’t know me. Or even those who do know me.

I made a rare editorial change before publishing yesterday’s post. I deleted a harmless but snarky fake tweet about HPSCI defending the music of Nickelback. I wanted to include something more obviously and sharply political, something more Republicanish. I replaced it with a snarky fake tweet about HPSCI and Stormy Daniels.

This prompted my friend (for the purposes of this post, I’ll call her “Jenn” — which is coincidentally her name) to respond. She wrote:

Loved this, darlin’, until the “STORMY DANIELS PROBABLY ACTUALLY A MAN” bit, which chucks a mudball of mockery in an unfortunate and undeserved direction.

“Jenn” went on to say this:

I’m in complete favor of taking jabs at Republican bullshit and hypocrisy; and lawdy, you do it well. But I find it cruel when a joke depends on transphobia and homophobia for any sort of “scaffolding.” Even if it IS exactly the sort of thing these arseholes would say. There is no need to help the arseholes sideswipe people who are already vulnerable and targeted and getting hurt all the damned time.

“Jenn” is smart, funny, compassionate, and thoughtful. She’s also a good friend. And she’s right. I’d intended the Stormy Daniels bit to be a swipe at the misogyny / gender insecurity of Congressional Republicans. But that swipe WAS built on the hurtful ways haters depict some folks who are already marginalized. It’s all the more hurtful since I have friends who fall outside of traditional gender norms.

I want to say this: I will not let anybody — friend or not — police my speech. But I also want to say this: I need to remember to police my own speech. I’m grateful I have friends who’ll call me out when I’ve crossed a boundary. I may not always agree with the boundary, I may not respect it and I may intentionally violate it — but I’m SO thankful for friends who point out where their boundaries are.

One of the most difficult things we can do — and something we really MUST do — is to call out our friends and family when they say or do something offensive or stupid. It’s probably harder to call out our friends than it is to call out a stranger. It took a bit of courage, I think, for “Jenn” to tell me I’d fucked up. It would have been so much easier for her to stay silent.

Do Not Feed the Arseholes

In this case, I totally agree with “Jenn”. As she said, there was “no need to help the arseholes.” Helping the arseholes is just a tiny step away from being an arsehole. I could have made my point in another way. After “Jenn” spoke up, I considered editing the blog post and re-inserting the snarky Nickelback bit. But that would just be covering my tracks. I think it’s probably more important to acknowledge that I fucked up.

And hey, let’s face it, I’ll likely do it again. We all fuck up. And we can all benefit from friends who remind us not to help the arseholes.

time insists on change

“Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” Brecht was right about that. Time insists on change. That’s not a bad thing — but it’s not always welcome.

Corning’s Cash Store

In 1893, the International Order of Odd Fellows established Lodge 576, apparently named for General William Tecumseh Sherman — the Union general who famously (or infamously) inflicted total war on the Confederate states during the U.S. Civil War thirty years earlier. The Odd Fellows held their meetings upstairs and leased the ground floor to Corning’s Cash Store.

At some point in the 1940s, the grocery store was sold and Fairground Hardware opened. Mike (I don’t know his last name) bought the place about twenty years ago. In a couple of days, everything in the store will be auctioned off, and Fairground Hardware will become…something else. Possibly a bistro.

Fairground Hardware

The fact that Fairground Hardware lasted as long as it did is something of a miracle. Small, local hardware stores have been failing for more than a decade, driven out of business by big box ‘home improvement’ enterprises and giant retail chains. Online shopping drove the last nail in the hardware coffin.

Fairground Hardware’s survival was due in part to its location; as the name suggests, it’s located directly across from the Iowa State Fairgrounds. During the ten days of the state fair, the hardware store saw a lot of customers — drawn in more by the store’s appearance and its peculiar inventory. A lot of people enter the store just to look around.

That was certainly what first attracted me to the store. I occasionally eat at a working class diner on the corner opposite Fairground Hardware, and I always found myself intrigued by the store. Not so much the structure itself, but by the fact that it was called a hardware store, and yet the shop windows contained an assortment of cowboy hats, old radios, oddly shaped tin canisters, and ancient advertisements for products I’d never heard of before.

The interior of the shop makes the shop windows seem almost normal. Yes, there are some of the things you’d expect to find in a hardware store — wood screws, paint brushes, wrench sets, replacement parts for water heaters and toilets, mallets, cold chisels, shovels, crank-neck gouges, screwdrivers. But scattered throughout the store are things you do not expect to find in a hardware store — things that have nothing to do with hardware at all. Things that have nothing to do with normal reality.

Stepping into Fairground Hardware is like stepping into a set for a David Lynch film. The mix of normal and not-normal is wonderfully disorienting. Above a display of sockets for wrenches, you’ll find brightly colored fishing lures hung on a line like holiday ornaments. A plastic lobster is affixed to a ceiling water pipe, under which is a selection of coils of industrial wire. An old leather horse collar hangs from a peg-board along with some gardening tools.

Everywhere you turn you find yourself saying, “Wait…what? Why are there taxidermied Canada Geese next to the Allen wrenches, which are beside the cans of spray paint? Who puts PVC pipe and vintage Melmac dishes together, along with toy trains and light bulbs? Putty knives and puppets and metal screws? What? Halloween decorations? And…wait, canned goods? Those can’t be actual canned goods. Can they? Can they?

Maybe the shelving made sense at one point in time. But it seems clear that in recent years none of this stuff was placed where it is as part of a merchandising strategy. It’s equally clear it hasn’t been placed simply to astonish the customers. I can’t say how Mike decided to put anything where he did, but walking through the store it feels more like he simply had a thing in his hand and saw a place without a thing, and so put the thing in his hand right there. And that’s where it stayed.

Mike himself, the owner, you couldn’t call him a ‘character’. Not really. I’ve probably gone into Fairground Hardware once or twice a year for the past few years. He can probably tell I’m just there to look, not to shop — and for the most part, he’s remained quiet and reserved. But when he decides to talk, he talks. You can’t get him to stop. And he’ll talk about almost any subject. The Old West, his childhood traumas, Donald Trump (he’s a fan), clowns, the inevitability of change. You can try to ease your way out of the conversation, you can say, “Well, I should probably be goin…”, and he’ll start on another tangent — his issues with his foot, why he prefers baseball caps to other hats, the history of camouflage.

You get the sense that he spends a lot of time alone in that shop — and that he’s been okay with that. He’s not reconciled to the fact that Fairground Hardware is going to close. He’s obviously a tad skeptical of the plan to turn the building into a bistro — you can tell simply by the way he says bistro, as though the term itself smells like bad cheese.

Time insists on change. Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are. Because things are the way they are, the authentic weirdness of Fairground Hardware will likely give way to a trendy bistro. In a working class neighborhood. That’s not a bad thing — but it’s not always welcome. And it’ll be a sad day when Mike has to turn off the ‘Open’ sign for the last time.

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.

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.