yes, it suits her

I have thoughts about Mr. Justice Kavanaugh, and Mitch McConnell, and the bloated carbuncle currently occupying the Oval Office — but I’m holding them in abeyance for a few more days. I don’t want them to corrupt the joy I feel about Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor.

I’ve written about the Dick-free Doctor Who Debate already, so I won’t repeat any of that, except to say there were people (and by ‘people’ I mean ‘men’ and by ‘men’ I mean ‘astonishingly stupid childish misogynists’) who were upset by the notion that a woman could be the Doctor. We’ve moved on from that now; it’s a reality.

In a very real way, it never mattered to me whether the Doctor was a man or a woman. I mean, I’m glad that the folks who run Doctor Who decided to cast a woman. It needed to be done, if only to demonstrate the reality that gender was never a defining aspect of the character. The Doctor didn’t have to be a ‘daft old man who stole a magic box and ran away.’ The Doctor just had to be a daft old being who stole a magic box and ran away.

Let me repeat the important bit in that last paragraph. Gender was never a defining aspect of the character. When Christopher Eccleston appeared out of nowhere and took Rose Tyler’s hand, telling her “Run!” he wasn’t being a Doctor Who for boys; he was just the Doctor. When Jodie Whittaker fell through the roof of that train, she wasn’t being a Doctor Who for girls; she was just the Doctor.

Here’s something Steven Moffat, the Doctor Who showrunner for a decade, said about the character:

Heroes are important. Heroes tell us who we want to be, but when they made this particular hero, they didn’t give him a gun, they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an X-Wing, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help, and they didn’t give him a superpower or a heat-ray, they gave him an extra heart. And that’s extraordinary.

Let me add this. They didn’t give him a penis, they gave her curiosity.

When the new Doctor Who was introduced on Sunday, the most surprising thing (to me, at any rate) was that Jodie Whittaker was immediately the Doctor. I’ve always been sort of slow to accept a new Doctor. I tend to put them on emotional probation until they’ve earned my trust — because Doctor Who may be a sort of cheesy sci-fi show on the surface, but the character of the Doctor is complex and nuanced.

“Right, this is going to be fun!”

Jodie Whittaker hit the right notes straight from the beginning. In her first scene she’s still coming to terms with the regeneration; she doesn’t know where she is, or what she’s doing there, or who she is, or even what she is, but she knows she’s there to help. That mix of confusion and certainty, peppered with the visible joy she experiences when she learns something new or remembers something from before, was convincing and totally natural. When she learned she was a woman, she treated it like a mildly interesting fact. She asks, “Does it suit me?” but she’s not hanging on the answer, because it’s simply not that important.

And yet, the fact that she’s a woman IS significant and important. Not for the character, but for the viewing audience. A woman Doctor doesn’t change the character of the Doctor, but it changes how the audience experiences the Doctor. It gives women — and more importantly, girls — a protagonist they can better identify with. A girl who wants to dress up as Doctor Who for Halloween no longer has to dress like a man. That’s a big deal.

So here’s the thing: the fact that the 13th Doctor Who is a woman is simultaneously completely unimportant and incredibly important. That’s about the most Doctor Who thing ever.

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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.

and the farmer’s market has begun

I have a fair amount of work to do today, so as usual I’ve been procrastinating. Read some reviews of electric bikes, checked out Comrade Trump’s latest rants, did some research on Chromebooks, skimmed a half-dozen or so political blogs, realized it had been maybe two or three years since I’d read Dinosaur Comics, rectified the hell out of that situation (and learned that lightning will mess up toast ), watched two short videos about octopuses and sinkholes (clarification: one video about octopuses and one video about sinkholes, though now I kind of wish there’d been two videos about octopuses IN sinkholes, because that would be epic), and processed a few photos I’d shot at the local Farmer’s Market.

Downtown Farmer’s Market

We have a big Farmer’s Market. Nine city blocks. Forty thousand people showed up on the opening day. We have a free shuttle that runs through the city to ferry folks to and from the market. There’s also a bike valet service if you choose to cycle to the market. This year there are almost 300 vendors. There’s the standard fresh produce, of course, and the farm fresh eggs, and locally raised chickens and goats and all. And there are the usual homemade jams and jellies and salsas and artisan breads and pastries and local cheeses and infused olive oils and fudges.

“Market Management encourages pet owners to leave their dog at home as the environment is not conducive to dogs.” Sure.

But we’ve also got folks who specialize in caramels and caramel products. You like lavender? We’ve a vendor that does nothing but lavender stuff. We have folks who make various types of nut butters. We have a couple of mushroom vendors. There are some women who sell an astonishing variety of dog biscuits and treats. You need a hand-crafted leather duffel bag or maybe a saddle blanket? We’ve a guy who makes them. There’s a vendor who deals in chocolate freeze-dried aronia berries and freeze-dried aronia powder. I don’t know what that is, but he’s there selling it. We have mustard specialists, and a booth that sells a half-dozen different types of Gouda. Lots of places that sell soaps and lotions. We have picklesmiths (which probably isn’t really what they’re called, but I like the term) and a vendor who sells dips and spreads made with goat cheese.

And lawdy, the prepared food. There’s a booth that sells Andalusian street food — a sort of Arabic/Spanish fusion. There’s a ridiculously popular vendor who does nothing but various grilled cheese sandwiches. Hand-crafted root beer and ginger beer. We’ve got folks who serve Hmong cuisine (during and after the war in Vietnam, Iowa took in lots of Southeast Asian refugees — it was, oddly enough, a kinder times). You can buy borscht and perogie and cabbage rolls, you can get falafel and babaganouj, you can get sarma and ćevapi, you can get Salvadoran pupusas and Laotian sien savanh, You can eat yourself into a damned coma.

Everybody puts their trash in the trash cans. Hey, it’s Iowa — we’re nice.

Forty thousand people, mostly getting along. Mostly. I mean, there are some serious live musical conflicts. They tend to space out the different musicians in an effort to reduce that, but inevitably you’ll find yourself halfway between the women singing feminist folk songs and the blues band, and that sparks some dissonance. Or the guys playing the Peruvian flutes (I’m okay with about five minutes of Peruvian flute music, then I begin to hope Comrade Trump decides to invade Peru) will occasionally disrupt the old guy in the seed corn ball cap playing the fiddle. But none of them seem able to drown out the street preacher who insists on telling you loudly that Jeebus loves you while hinting that you’re probably not remotely worthy of it. But somehow that seems to fit right in with the Market ambience.

I love the Farmer’s Market, as much for the sense of theater as for the food and produce. I love the energy and the confusion and the way everybody totally disregards the official plea for folks NOT to bring their dogs. All manner of dogs — from Newfoundlands large enough to pull a tractor out of a ditch to dogs so tiny they hardly qualify as squirrels. It’s a constant source of astonishment to me that the dogs almost never seem to fight. They sniff, they occasionally bark, they bang into each other, and now and then you’ll see one piss on somebody’s shoe — but by and large the dogs just add to the delightful chaos.

This will continue every Saturday until the end of October. That means no matter what madness has overtaken the world at large, there’s always going to be a more appealing madness to be found at the Farmer’s Market.

Personally, I’d advise trying the butterscotch peanut butter. It’s heavenly.

 

 

a response to a friend suffering from ‘too much trump’ syndrome

A friend told me she was feeling discouraged. She said she was thinking about taking a break from social media — just a few days, maybe a week, maybe more. Why? Too much Trump. Too much Trump all the time. Too much Trump in too many aspects of her life. Health care? TMT. Immigration? TMT. Clean water, LGBT, equal pay, worker’s rights, renewable energy? Too much fucking Trump. She was having a really really hard time finding anything positive to focus on. The entire world was turning to shit right in front of her, and she just wanted to turn it all off.

I completely understand that sentiment, and wasn’t about to attempt to dissuade her. But I did want to offer some encouragement. “There’s a pink pussy hat on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London,” I told her. She said, “What?” I said, “The Victoria and Albert, the world’s largest museum of design and decorative art, they’ve just added a pink pussy hat in their collection.”

Which is true. They actually have. Take a look:

My friend is still going to take a short break from social media, but at least she said the fact of that hat on display made the future of the world seem less bleak.

Let’s face it, the pussy hat is a pretty unlikely symbol of resistance. But it’s one of the best examples of the intersection of fashion and politics. It’s also maybe the most organic example. The pink pussy hat concept grew out of a singular and highly unlikely confluence of ideas and events. We had Comrade Trump talking about grabbing women by the pussy. We had — and this still strikes me as astonishing and improbable — Trump as the President-Elect. We had women organizing a march, partly in protest of Trump’s treatment of women, but also to support a variety of causes and policies threatened by a Trump presidency. We had a date for that march. January 21st, the day after Trump would be sworn in as president. And we had Krista Suh, who lived in California, who was planning to attend the march in Washington, D.C.

“I wanted to do something more than just show up. And I realized as a California girl, I would be really cold in D.C. — it’s not tank-top weather year-round. So I thought maybe I could knit myself a hat.”

And she did. She knitted herself a hat out of pink yarn. And in a mocking salute to Trump, she gave it cat ears. Her friend, Jayna Zweiman, also made a pink pussy hat. So did another friend, Kat Coyle, who owned a yarn shop. Then Coyle created a pattern for the hat, and distributed it widely and freely on social media. Facebook, Ravelry, Instagram, Twitter — and hey, other folks shared the design and the idea. To use a sadly over-used phrase, it went viral.

Do you know how many women knit? Probably not. I don’t either. But it’s a LOT. Women made themselves hats to wear at the March for Women. Then what the hell, they started making them for others folks who planned to attend. A lot of women who couldn’t attend a local march began making pussy hats to support those could attend. There was suddenly a large, dedicated community of pussy hat knitters, making hats and giving them away. Some gave them for free, some in exchange for the cost of materials and shipping, some donated their hats to a cause they supported and those causes used the hats to raise much-needed funds. It was (and still is) a remarkable display of selflessness. Love and selflessness.

When they shared the design and pattern for the hat, Kuh and Zweiman asked knitters to do something else:

We’re asking that when you knit a hat, that you also include a note to the marcher. This creates a tangible way for the marchers to connect with the knitters who can’t attend.

Admittedly, the pink pussy hat is an imperfect symbol. Lots of folks have objected to it for one reason or another — and many of those objections are valid. But I’m not sure there IS a perfect symbol. The pussy hat has the advantage of being both highly visible and easily recognizable. I’m told the basic pattern is relatively quick and easy to make, but the design is also flexible, allowing the knitter to express her creativity. And if that’s not enough, it’s relatively inexpensive to make.

Think about that for a moment. Think about all those photographs you’ve seen of the Women’s March. Think about that ocean of pink hats. Then remember they were all made by individuals. These weren’t mass-produced by machines, and they aren’t the product of an astro-turf political machine like the Koch Brothers-sponsored tea party. Each pink pussy hat you see was made by hand as an act of love and resistance. That’s pretty staggering, isn’t it.

You know you’ve tapped into something pretty powerful when you can get aging white guys to wear a pink knit hat. The V&A Museum in London gets that. They have what they call the Rapid Response Collecting gallery, which is focused on contemporaneously examining how politics and popular culture manifest themselves in design and art. It would be hard to find a better example of a spontaneous, organic fashion response to political conditions than the phenomenon of the pink pussy hat.

As I’ve said before, I like the hat. I like that the hat stands for resistance to the Trump agenda. Even more, I like that it represents solidarity with lots of causes I believe in. And even more than that, I especially like my pussy hat. It was made by a woman I’ve known for years but never met — a woman I like and respect. I like knowing that she made it specifically for me.

Let’s face it. Pink is not my color. But I wear the hat anyway. I don’t wear it very often, mainly because the weather has been unseasonably warm — but when I put it on, it connects me to every other person who has worn or made a similar hat. That, I think, is incredibly cool.

I have no idea if this pink pussy hat business will last. I hope so. I hope the hat and what it stands for will be a bulwark against Too Much Trump Syndrome. I hope the passion and dedication (and yes, the sense of whimsy) that sparked the creation of the hat withstands the Trump onslaught. For my part, I plan to follow the suggestions included with my hat.

Steam iron inside out if needed.
Wear it and stand firm.
May it keep you safe and strong.
Love wins.

not really all that instant

Back in 2008, when Polaroid announced they were going to stop making film, I thought maybe I’d pick up an old camera and play around with it. I was never a fan of Polaroids; the notion of instant film always struck me as gimmicky. They were okay for making quick, amateurish snapshots at parties and events, but not for ‘real’ photography.

Still, Polaroid’s announcement sparked enough interest in me that I took a trip to the local Salvation Army store in search of a camera. They only had one — a Polaroid Spectra 2. The clerk had no idea if the camera worked, but since it was only a couple of bucks I figured I’d take the chance. The clerk also told me I should check out the nearby Goodwill shop. I did; they had a Polaroid Sun 660. Maybe a buck and a half. Maybe it would work, maybe not.

cameras

I took the two cameras home, put them on a shelf, and promptly forgot all about them. A few years later I heard about the Impossible Project — a group of lunatics who decided to try to recreate the process by which Polaroid film is made. They bought a bunch of old Polaroid production machinery, leased a building, and set to work. And hey, they succeeded. After a fashion. By every report, the film was finicky. Exceedingly finicky. Crazy finicky. So very finicky that I had no interest in playing with it.

I sort of half-heartedly followed the progress of the Impossible Project. Maybe more like quarter-heartedly; it was sort of like keeping abreast of Italian politics — you were aware that stuff was happening, but it all seemed very distant and confusing and it didn’t have any real effect on me.

But I discovered I had friends who were mad for Polaroids. Mad and passionate. Friends who weren’t the least bit discouraged by finicky film. Friends like Meredith Wilson, and Lisa Toboz, and Heather Polley, who shot astonishingly lovely Polaroid photographs using expired Polaroid film or film from the Impossible Project. Another friend, Debra Broughton, has been photographing a specific barn for at least a year and a half (she shoots with a Fujifilm Instax, which is a more modern instant film camera). These women and the work they’ve done made me more and more curious about instant film.

First two shots with the Polaroid 660.

First two test shots with the Polaroid 660.

Then, a few weeks ago, I learned about ‘Roid Week — a project on Flickr celebrating instant film photography. That was enough to get me interested in taking another look at those old thrift store cameras. And what the hell, I bought some B&W film from Impossible Project for the Spectra.

You’ve heard the phrase ‘a learning experience‘, right? Well, I had one of those. First, I learned that the camera sorta kinda functioned. It would take photos, but it wouldn’t eject them. They jammed. I did some reading, watched some videos, learned of a few possible causes for the problem, tried a few things — and none of them worked. So I sent an email to the folks at Impossible Project and asked, “Dudes, what else can I try?”

Get this: they replied within a couple of hours. And they told me what else I could try, but said the only way to test the camera would be to try another film pack. I should note at this point that Impossible Project film ain’t cheap. US$25 for eight photos. But — and seriously, get this — they offered me a free pack of film. So what the hell, I ordered another pack of B&W film for the Spectra AND a pack of color film for the Polaroid 660. The film arrived like two days later.

THAT is excellent customer service.

2016_1103_12130100

I loaded the color film in the 660, took a couple of test shots — and hey, bingo! The camera worked, the film worked. I made a few adjustments. Well, I made one adjustment. There aren’t really a lot of adjustments you can make on a Polaroid. Lighten or darken, that’s about it. I made my adjustment, shot another test shot, and then started to think about how to make photographs with a Polaroid.

There’s always been a cerebral aspect to photography for me. With the exception of street photography, most of the photographs I shoot are shot with some level of deliberation. I think about what I want in the frame and what I want to exclude it. I tend to think about shadow more than light. I think about depth of field, and the geometry of composition.

But with the Polaroid cameras I have, there’s little (or no) control over shadow — and the fixed focus lens severely limits what you can do with depth of field. So it all comes down to composition, right? Basically, I was using a camera I’d considered useful only for party snapshots to make what I hoped would be artful, thoughtful images.

2016_1103_12133200

For me, that meant concentrating on the simplicity of composition. Line and form. Balance. Leading the viewer’s eye. Color blocking (with color film, obviously). The basics — which is sort of appropriate for such a basic camera.

Remember back a bit I spoke about how finicky Impossible Project film used to be? Well, it’s still finicky. Maybe not as finicky as before, but pretty damned finicky. Unlike the old Polaroid film, Impossible film has to develop in the dark. Almost everybody agrees the very first thing you do after the camera ejects the print is immediately put that little bugger away in a dark container. Don’t even bother trying to look at it for at least ten minutes. At least ten minutes. Some folks say give it an hour to cook.

This can sometimes be a monumental pain in the ass. In order to get the photograph of the industrial building above, I had to park my car near the field, open the glove box, open the passenger side door, walk about fifteen feet into the field — and THEN shoot the photo, immediately put it into the wee box the film arrived in, sprint to the car, slam the film box inside the glove box and close it. Then I drove home, put the car in the garage, and wait for an hour to go out, open the glove box, open the film box, and finally see if I’d got the shot.

I enjoyed ever minute of that.

First two shots with the Polaroid 660

Here’s what I’ve learned about shooting with a Polaroid:

— It’s fun.
— It’s stupid expensive.
— It’s a lot of fuss.
— When you press the shutter release, there’s a charming little whirring sound that’s ridiculously happy-making.
— It’s SO easy to screw things up
— When it comes to Spectra film, you take what you can get. When I first ordered film, all they had was B&W packs. Now all they have is color packs.
— The autofocus is done by some weird sonar arrangement, which means shooting a photo through a window requires you to press a secret, hidden autofocus override button.
— It’s NOT instant film. It’s nowhere near instant. Unless you’re thinking in glacial or geological terms.
— It’s still fun.

I never got anything done in time for ‘Roid Week, sadly. I think for a serious photography project, personally I’d probably buy a Fujifilm Instax — they’re a lot more reliable and consistent. Not the Instax mini, but the silly-looking full-sized unit.

But for sheer unpredictable fun, it’s Polaroid. I don’t know that I’ll be doing a LOT of Polaroid work, but I suspect I’ll continue to do it sporadically. In fact, I’ve made some repairs to the old Spectra, and after feeding it a new pack of B&W film, it seems to be working. If I can get through a pack of eight without mishap, I’ll be ordering color film for the Spectra.

This is probably how all addictions begin.

iowa state fair: part one — machine love

I went to the Iowa State Fair on Monday. I love that fair beyond all measure because it’s organically weird and completely ridiculous. It’s also completely ordinary, and folks, I’m here to tell you that ‘ordinary’ is its own kind of weird and ridiculous. Seriously. You don’t think of ‘ordinary’ as weird and ridiculous until you’re in the middle of tens of thousands of examples of it.

The fairgrounds has maybe half a dozen different gateways. I entered through a gate where agricultural equipment was on display. Let me be clear about this: I don’t know dick about agriculture. I’ve visited a few farms in my life, but I don’t have a clue what actually goes on there. I know there’s plowing and planting and harvesting, and probably a lot of stuff in between. I know farming is hard work (well, I hear it’s hard work, and I’m willing to accept the claim). I also know farming involves a lot of odd-looking, complicated, wildly expensive equipment. But what that equipment does is a mystery to me.

Look at this thing, for example:

For farming on Mars, probably.

For farming on Mars, probably.

What the hell IS that? The wheels were nearly as tall as I am. You need a ladder to climb up to the — I don’t even know what you call the place the driver (operator?) sits. The control center? The cockpit? The bridge? I have no idea. But I’m thinking this thing would be great fun to drive. On Mars.

Then there’s this machine below — the thing with the rubber tank treads. I not only don’t know what the hell it is, I not only don’t know what it does, I couldn’t even figure out which end was the front. Not until I noticed the rear-view side mirrors. You guys, this thing has rear view side mirrors. Why? What are they expecting to pull up behind it? I mean, it’s a farm machine, right? Presumably it’s meant to be driven on farms. I can only assume it’s meant to be driven on the farms of Arrakis, the desert planet of Dune. But just look at it.

Sandworms in mirror may be closer than they appear.

Sandworms in mirror may be closer than they appear.

These machines fascinate me. I confess, I don’t really care what they’re supposed to do; I’m just intrigued by their massive size and their design. There were also a lot of smaller, but equally obscure, machines. Seriously creepy-looking devices and attachments that looked like they were designed by Torquemada — if Torquemada had been a Romulan.

Did I take any photos of those things? No, I did not. Why? Because it never occurred to me that today (or any other day) I’d be writing about farm equipment. But trust me, there’s a good reason you occasionally see a news report about some farmer who was killed or mutilated by a piece of farm equipment. It’s because a lot of that shit is flat-out terrifying to look at. A lot of it gives the impression that human mutilation was built into the design.

But down at the bone, the Iowa State Fair is just a fair. Here’s a true thing: ALL fairs are grounded in nostalgia. You cannot attend a fair without thinking about how things were when you were a kid. So it’s understandable that scattered throughout the Iowa State Fair grounds are collections of old farm equipment. Including this — which I presume is some sort of Hall of Tractors Used by The Ancients.

Tractors of Our Forefathers.

Tractors of Our Forefathers.

I heard a guy about my age tell a young boy “Yeah, my dad had one of these units. Old Farmall Super MD, three-plow, broke a lot of acres with that tractor.” I don’t have a clue what any of that means, but the guy was sure fond of that tractor. The kid was skeptical (as kids should be). He looked at the tractor like maybe it had arrived in Iowa on the ark (and yes, by the way, there actually was an Evolution: Fact or Myth booth at the fair).

I saw a LOT of old tractors littered around the fairgrounds. Mostly red or green, a few that were yellow. It was pretty common to see a couple of old guys loitering about the tractors, talking about things like couplers (whatever those are) and…I don’t know. Gear ratios, maybe. Tractor stuff.

Bromance -- bonding over an Allis-Chalmers tractor.

Bromance — bonding over an Allis-Chalmers tractor.

Iowa is a farm state. You can’t travel around Iowa without passing by farms. And that’s been the extent of my experience — driving (or cycling) by farms and farmland. It’s only when I attend the State Fair that I get some remote sense of what farmers do. What they do is pretty fundamental: they feed us. They grow the stuff we eat. It’s really that simple, and really that complex.

I see them sometimes at the Farmer’s Market, in their hats and overalls and checkered shirts. I occasionally see them in a diner in some small town where I’ve gone to have breakfast and see some ‘local color’. But when I’m at the fair, that’s the only time I find myself actually appreciating them — which is probably pretty shitty of me.

Later today I’ll run some errands, and while I’m out I may stop by some roadside stand where a young farm girl (it’s almost always a young farm girl) is selling melons and sweetcorn from the back of a pick-up — crops picked early this morning. Today, when I say “Thank you” after buying the produce, this time I’ll really mean it.

bus stops

 

You’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place — then it won’t make a damn.
(Ken Kesey – The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test)

I’ve written about the GeoGuessr game before. It continues to be fun and challenging, and I still play once or twice a week. I find I’m approaching the game differently, though. I’m still always lost, of course, and trying to figure out where the hell I am — but now I’m also looking for recurring, universal scenes. Clothes hanging on outdoor clothes lines. Solitary cyclists riding down isolated roads. Couples walking, holding hands. Bus stops. A village in Latvia, a small town in west Texas, a city in Scandinavia — doesn’t matter. Folks still need to dry their laundry, they still hold hands, they still wait on the bus.

A bus stop in Norway

A bus stop in Norway

I’ve become particularly interested in bus stops — partly because they’re ubiquitous, partly because they’re the most democratic form of public transport. It’s true that, outside of major metropolitan areas, buses are most commonly used by the poor and working classes, but the bus stops for everybody — and you don’t need a reservation.

Near Stega Mala, Poland

Near Stega Mala, Poland

We can thank John Greenwood for that. In the early 19th century, Greenwood was a toll gate keeper on the Manchester-to-Liverpool turnpike. Yes, they actually had turnpikes back then — the monarchy built a few decent roads and charged travelers a fee to use them. The fees were collected at various points along the road, which were marked by a shelter and a pike stretched across the road. Once the fee was paid, the pike was turned and the travelers were able to continue. These turnpikes were mostly used by merchants who needed to transport their goods quickly, or by the merchant classes who could afford to book a seat on a coach. Ordinary people took ordinary roads, which were messier and more dangerous.

Near Boa Vista, Brazil

Near Boa Vista, Brazil

Greenwood changed all that in 1824; he bought a horse and a wagon and began the first mass transport service for ordinary folks. All they had to do was show up at the appointed spot at the appointed time (no reservation necessary) and pay a small fee to ride in the wagon. A similar service was developed two years later in the French city of Nantes. A retired military officer who’d built a heated bath house on the outskirts of the city devised a transport system for getting clients to and from the baths. His clients would gather at the Place du Commerce, outside a shop owned by a Monsieur Omnès, whose motto was  Omnès Omnibus — all for all. You can figure out the rest.

Outside of Arvik, Norway

Outside of Arvik, Norway

The concept of a bus network is fundamentally simple: a series of designated routes with consistent designated arrival/departure times and stable designated boarding locations with predetermined fees. It’s a predictable, reliable, efficient dynamical transportation system, and bus stops act as fixed point attractors. Riders know where to go and when to be there.

And yet it’s an incredibly elastic concept. The same basic approach can be molded to work anywhere under almost any condition. It works in the mountains, it works in the desert; it works in totalitarian nations, it works in democracies; it works in urban centers, it works in rural areas. Buses just make sense — so it’s not at all surprising to find bus stops scattered throughout the Google Street View universe.

Portstewart, Ireland

Portstewart, Ireland

What IS surprising, though, is the diversity of design. Some bus stops are elaborately designed structures, some are purely utilitarian; some have shelters to protect riders from the elements, some are merely wide spots in the road; some are meticulously cared for, some are trash magnets; some are designed to make the wait as comfortable as possible for the riders, some…well, aren’t.

Near Calilegua, Argentina

Near Calilegua, Argentina

Over the years I’ve become a fan of the bus. I often prefer to take the bus than drive. Of course, I have some advantages over most bus riders. I’m rarely in a hurry and I rarely have to be anywhere at any specific time, so I don’t mind if the bus ride is slow and stops often. The pace of a municipal bus suits me.

I enjoy looking out through the large bus windows. These days I find myself living in a rather dull, middle class, suburban neighborhood; the bus takes back through the sorts of poor, working class neighborhoods I grew up in. As a kid, I never felt there was anything interesting or beautiful about those neighborhoods. Now I see variety and diversity that’s entirely absent from where I live — variety in the people who live there, in the houses they live in, in the clothes they wear, in the level of life on the street. It makes me appreciate experiences I used to take for granted.

Sudovice, Slovakia

Sudovice, Slovakia

Among the Hopi and Pueblo peoples of the American Southwest there’s a creation legend involving Grandmother Spider. She existed in the world before it became the world. Before there were places. She spun a web that spanned the entirety of the incipient universe. It connected everything that was to exist, thereby creating — and linking — all places.

She’d have been a great bus driver.

Rural South Africa

Rural South Africa