happy birthday molly

Today is the birthday of the late, great Molly Ivins. ‘Late’ on account of she’s been dead since 2007, which is far too long. ‘Great’ on account of she was the smartest and wittiest and sharpest political writer since the invention of political writering.

molly ivins1

Laughing Molly Ivins

I don’t recall the first time I came across Molly’s writing, but I’d been a fan for quite a long time before I ever saw her speak. I only saw her speak the one time. I was a grad student at the American University back in 1990 or 91, and I heard she was going to be interviewed at some local event. So I put on a sport coat and a tie and took myself to some grand Washingtonian venue and joined the other couple hundred folks who’d come to hear Molly speak.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t the tall (in her cowboy boots she had to be over six feet tall), awkward-looking woman with the unfortunate haircut (it looked like she’d cut her own hair…with pinking sheers) who walked onto the stage. Then she sort of dropped herself into a wing-backed chair and grinned — and there was so much joy and delight and orneriness in that grin that I completely fell in love with her. She grinned like a pirate.

I couldn’t tell you what she talked about. I just don’t recall. What I do recall is that she was charming and clever and thoughtful and uproariously funny. I don’t know if she was exaggerating her drawl or if she was moderating it, but there was no doubt Molly Ivins was from Texas. And laugh…lawdy, that woman could bring a laugh. Nothing demure about it; she laughed all the way down to her boots.

Young Molly Ivins

Young Molly Ivins

It was the breast cancer that killed her. One more reason to hate cancer and donate money to kick its ass.

“Having breast cancer is massive amounts of no fun. First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.”

That was Molly Ivins. She’d bring you the Truth in all its ugliness. And she’d make you laugh about it. She didn’t make light of it, she didn’t want you to ignore the ugliness; she wanted you to feel the sting of the ugly. But she didn’t want you to forget to laugh. She didn’t want you to forget that having fun isn’t just how we tolerate the ugly. It’s how we defeat it.

A few of my favorite lines from our Molly:

[W]e’ve bounced back from this same mistake before—the mistake of thinking that we can make ourselves safer if we just make ourselves less free. We get so scared of something—scared of communism or crime or drugs or illegal aliens—that we think we can make ourselves safer by sacrificing freedom.  Never works.  It’s still true: the only thing to fear is fear itself.

I don’t have an agenda, I don’t have a program. I’m not a communist or a socialist. I guess I’m a left-libertarian and a populist, and I believe in the Bill of Rights the way some folks believe in the Bible.

A populist is someone who is for the people and against the powerful, and so a populist is generally the same as a liberal—except we tend to have more fun.

In Texas, we do not hold high expectations for the [Governor’s] office; it’s mostly been occupied by crooks, dorks and the comatose.

I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults.

I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn’t actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle.

So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.

Aw lawdy, that was a woman. They say the good die young. I don’t know about that. What I do know is this: the great die too soon.

The late, great Molly Ivins

The late, great, beautiful Molly Ivins

Happy birthday, Molly Ivins. We miss you.


Here’s one of the reasons I love history. The very first Iowa State Fair opened on 25 October, 1854. On that very same day, on the Crimean Peninsula some 5200 miles away, British light cavalry troops went barreling down a valley in a suicidal assault on entrenched Russian forces — the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade.

The first Iowa State Fair lasted three days and had an attendance of about 7,000 visitors. Nobody died. The Charge of the Light Brigade lasted about half an hour and involved nearly 700 men; 156 of them were killed (along with 335 horses), and another 122 were wounded.

Tennyson, of course, wrote a stirring poem romanticizing the pointless slaughter of the Light Brigade. I think the world would have been a better place if he’d written a poem about the grand prize-winning sheep at the Iowa State Fair, or food-on-a-stick. It’s not as dramatic, to be sure, but I believe we could do with much less “Theirs not to make reply / Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die” and more food-on-a-stick.

Bacon-wrapped Barbecued Rib on a Stick

Bacon-wrapped Barbecued Rib on a Stick

This year there were more than sixty (60!) foods served on-a-stick, most of them either deep-fried, wrapped in bacon, or covered with chocolate (or at least two of the three). There was the Shrimp Corndog On-a-Stick, the Soft Salted Chocolate Dipped Almond Pretzel On-a-Stick, Peanut Butter and Jelly On-a-Stick, Chocolate-Covered Key Lime Dream Bar On-a-Stick, a Hard-boiled Egg On-a-Stick, Chocolate-Covered Deep Fried Cheesecake On-a-Stick, Lamb Sausage On-a-Stick, Turkey Sausage Wrapped in a Pancake On-a-Stick, a Smoothie On-a-Stick, Chocolate-Covered Turtle Mousse Bar On-a-Stick, a Deep Fried Double Bacon Corn Dog On-a-Stick, Pork Chop On-a-Stick, a Deep Fried Snickers On-a-Stick, Fresh Pineapple dipped in Funnel Cake Batter and Deep Fried On-a-Stick, Sesame Chicken On-a-Stick and I think I’ll stop there.

Sadly, this year there was no Chocolate-Covered Fried Bacon On-a-Stick — the State Fair Food Trifecta.

Exercising a horse

Exercising a horse

Food and animals (and animals raised to be turned into food) are a significant part of the fair. I’m pretty much a dunderhead when it comes to agriculture, but I enjoy wandering through the various animal barns and looking at the livestock. I can tell a horse from a cow, and a cow from a sheep, and a sheep from a pig — but one horse looks pretty much like another horse to me, and while I’m sure individual swine have distinct personalities, don’t ask me to tell one from the other.

But the kids who raised them can tell them apart. No doubt adults take a great interest in the livestock judging, but it’s almost always young teens who are in the ring with the animals. There’s something very sweet and innocent about watching these earnest young folks show the animals they’ve raised (of course, you have to ignore the fact that those pigs might turn up next year on the Iowa State Fair menu — and, in the case of the bacon-wrapped barbecued rib, some of them could turn up twice).

Pre-show warm-up

Pre-show warm-up

Showing the livestock isn’t just a matter of pride, of course. There are cash prizes for the winners. Not just the winners of the livestock competitions, but also the winners of the best zucchini, the best needlepoint, the best peach preserves, the best hog caller (I’ve no idea how one judges hog-calling), the best of just about anything related to farming or produce. How much money? About half a million dollars, spread out among the winners of some 60,000 exhibitors. It’s a big deal, winning at the Iowa State Fair.

The fair was given its permanent location in 1886. The fairgrounds covers 445 acres (160 of those acres is devoted to campgrounds for fair-goers and exhibitors). Most of the primary buildings were constructed in the early 1900s. They’re lovely old buildings, well-maintained and preserved. Although the Agriculture Building (home of the Butter Cow) was built in 1904, it’s a classic example of late-19th century exposition style architecture. It would have been easy for the State Fair Authority to tear down these old buildings and replace them with more modern structures, but to their credit they’ve resisted that temptation.

Pioneer Hall, built in 1886

Agriculture Building, built in 1904

I often visit the fairgrounds during the off-season just to walk through the massive old barns and structures. One of my favorites is the Horse Barn, built in 1907. We’re talking about two acres of brick and stone and metal girders — that’s more than 87,000 square feet. In other words, it’s a really big fucking barn. It has nearly 400 stalls; during the fair they’re almost all filled with really big fucking horses. And to be honest, even during the off-season the place smells faintly of old hay and horseshit. But I find it weirdly lovely, and I don’t mind the smell. Much.

Horse barn

Horse barn

One of the things I love about the Iowa State Fair is the celebration of useless skills. Let’s face it, nobody really needs a blacksmith anymore. But you have to love the fact that there are people still using a forge to work iron and steel, people still weaving basketry by hand, people throwing pottery and canning jam and quilting and brewing ale and growing Fairhope miniature roses.

The fair not only awards prizes to folks who do those things well, they provide space for people to give demonstrations of their skills. In one building you’ll see a guy working iron, in the next building you’ll see somebody painting miniatures on wood, or weaving a rug out of alpaca hair, or using a pocketknife to whittle a birdcage from a single block of wood. It may be silly and archaic, but it’s also pretty wonderful.

Working iron

Working iron

And then, of course, there’s the Midway. That’s the term used in the U.S. and Canada for an area deliberately separated from the exhibition sites and designated for various forms of entertainment. The term ‘midway’ was coined during the great Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, held in 1893 (Columbian because it was the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the New World — and yes, it was actually the 401st anniversary and yes, there’s absolutely no connection between Columbus and the city of Chicago, but don’t blame me; I’m just explaining the origin of the term).

The Midway is where you’ll find the games of chance (in which chance rarely plays a part), the very worst forms of fair food (which is saying something), amusement rides (designed, I’m convinced, to provoke the regurgitation of fair food), and other sources of pleasure and delight.

The Midway

The Midway

The Midway is the gaudiest, noisiest, smelliest, craziest, drunkest, annoyingest, and most aggressively fascinating part of the fair. This is what the Iowa State Fair has instead of the Charge of the Light Brigade. There’s an aura of self-destructiveness that infuses the air of the Midway. All the things you know you probably shouldn’t do are available here. The Midway is where you’re most likely to step in puke, most likely to see a fistfight, most likely to see tattoos in the most unlikely places, most likely to Death Metal t-shirts, and most likely to win a giant plushie banana.

More of the Midway

More of the Midway

The Midway reaches its peak madness hours after dark — which is why I tend to leave before twilight. I have grown older and wiser and less tolerant of noise and vomit and drunken bikers. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like the Midway. No state fair experience is complete without a trip through the Midway.

On the periphery of the Midway you can find the more tame amusements — the ones designed for children. You can’t always see the children’s rides, but you can locate them by the wide fringe of camera-toting parents surrounding them.

Super Slide

Super Slide

I spent about six hours noodly about at the Iowa State Fair, and that was enough. I didn’t get to see everything I’d wanted to see, but still I managed to eat a Bacon-wrapped Barbecued Rib On-a-Stick, a Deep Fried Pork Tenderloin with Bacon on the Inside and Outside, and a Deep Fried Hostess Twinkie On-a-Stick (surprisingly without bacon).

It wasn’t until I was driving home that I realized I’d neglected to see the Butter Cow. That’s been an Iowa State Fair tradition since 1911 — a life-sized cow carved out of around 600 pounds of butter. Each year since 1996 (Iowa’s Sesquicentennial) there’s also been a companion butter sculpture. That first year it was a butter version of Grant Woods American Gothic (I swear, I’m not making this up). There have also been butter versions of Elvis, Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, John Wayne (honest, I’m really not making this up), a Harley Davidson motorcycle, Tiger Woods (don’t look at me, I’m just reporting this), Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, and Harry Potter.

1911 Postcard of the original Butter Cow sculpture

1911 Postcard of the original Butter Cow sculpture

This year the companion sculpture was a butter Abraham Lincoln (in honor of the centennial of the completion of the Lincoln Highway, which runs through Iowa). That’s the Iowa State Fair — a bacon-wrapped barbecued rib on-a-stick, a pig that weighs over 1000 pounds (did I forget to mention the largest pig and cow competitions?), and the Great Emancipator carved from a solid chunk of churned cow’s milk.

Ain’t that America.

The Room

I like games. I love games. I love ‘play’ as a concept, and as an activity that’s absolutely fundamental and necessarily integral to a meaningful life. There’s been an element of ‘play’ in everything I’ve ever done for as long as I can remember. I’ve never held a job that didn’t allow me to include ‘play’ in some manner. Even when the job was deadly serious, there was always the potential for ‘play’ in it somewhere.

So I love games — but I’m not really a gamer. Not in the modern sense of the term. I don’t spend much time playing video games, primarily because so many of them are goal-directed. Achieve this, attain that, increase in level, gain points, compete against your friends, maximize your scoring potential, win.

Don’t get me wrong. I can be ridiculously competitive in some things, and I like winning. But for the most part, it’s not what drives me. What drives me is being immersed in the experience of the game, deeply engaged in playing it. The outcome is secondary. Or even tertiary.

I’m talking about all this because I got an email from a friend who knows how I feel about play and games. The subject line of the email: Here, look at this. And the text of the email:

I downloaded this on my phone. I fucking hate it. It’s all about observation and thinking and logic and intuition and solving puzzles and the music totally fucking creeps me out. It’s everything that makes me nuts in a game. It made me think of you. You’ll love it.

And it included a link to this teaser:

So I downloaded the game to my new phone. I think it cost me two bucks. It’s the only game app I’ve put on my phone. And my friend was right. I love it.

There’s a narrative behind it, but I really don’t care (which in itself is odd, because I’m usually all about the narrative). I’ve not finished the game yet, and I’m in no hurry to do that (well, I’m in an absolute hurry to finish only in the sense that I want to keep playing; but I’m in no hurry in that I want it to last). The experience is satisfying in the way solving any puzzle is always satisfying. But the game designers understand that solving the pleasure of solving the puzzles is enhanced by the visually rich environment and the sweet and peculiarly creepy music. It’s so good that I’m parceling the game out, which seems awfully Protestant of me — like it’s a reward for doing the things I’m actually required to do. There’s apparently something to all that ‘delayed gratification’ business.

I have no idea if I’m almost done with the game, or if I’ve just begun, or if I’m somewhere near the middle. If it ends after I’ve solved the next puzzle, I’ll be disappointed. Not by the game itself, but only because it’s over.

Now I have to make myself some lunch, log in a couple hours in reviewing my students’ homework, and then back to The Room.

llamas on parade

I was surprised to learn the Llama Futurity Association, in conjunction with the International Llama Registry, was having its 2013 World Championship Show & Sale this weekend. In fact, I was surprised to learn there was a Llama Futurity Association and an International Llama Registry. But they actually exist and they were having a llama show.

I’d never in my entire life been to a llama show before. Not once. This one promised to have pack trials (I still have no idea what llama pack trials are), costume classes (sadly, the costume event was held earlier — but c’mon, llamas in costume? It is to swoon), a llama cart pulling competition (which I assume involves llamas pulling a cart), and a live auction (in case you wanted to buy an extra llama while you’re there). Was there any way I was going to miss what might be my only chance to see an international and world llama event? Hell no.

Llamas all around

Llamas all around

When we arrived, there were two events underway. The main event was a sort of llama conformation judging. Like the Westminster Kennel Club, only for llamas. A man in a burgundy coat was examining groups of llamas with a critical eye. He had them stand, he had them walk in a circle, he had them…well, stand and walk in a circle. That was pretty much it. Then he’d frown a bit and point at one, then arrange them in some sort of order and everybody mostly seemed pleased.

I confess, I didn’t give much attention to the llama conformation event, though I’m sure it was fascinating. But somebody mentioned that at the same time, at the other end of the arena, was — and I swear I’m not making this up — a llama agility trial.

Llama standing on a square

Llama standing on a square

It was described to me as the llama equivalent of a dog agility trial. As it turned out, that was a rather generous description. There was certainly an agility course — a set of standard obstacles laid out — and the entrants were required to attempt the course while an impartial judge evaluated the animal’s success at each obstacle. And it was certainly a trial for many of the contestants, both human and camelid. But the concept of agility was stretched pretty thin.

Llama standing on a raised square

Llama standing on a raised square

The llamas were required to 1) walk under an object, requiring them to lower their heads a few inches, 2) stand on a square, requiring them to stand still with all four hooves on the square, 3) stand on a platform, which was basically a square elevated to a height of maybe six inches, 4) hop over a pair of jumps approximately a foot in height, 5) walk up a ramp, turn a corner, and walk down the ramp without falling, 6) walk backwards for about a meter, 7) walk sideways for about a meter, 8) walk through a puddle, and 9) walk through a short tunnel.

Llama walking on a ramp

Llama walking on a ramp

Now, this may sound silly. And in some sense it is — it really is. Unlike dogs, many of whom seem to really enjoy running agility obstacles (or at least enjoy the interaction with their handlers), the llamas clearly didn’t give a rat’s ass about the trial. They were mostly willing to be led through the obstacles, but it didn’t take a llamaologist to see that, given the chance, they’d have preferred to just be standing around looking dignified.

llama walking backwards

Llama walking backwards

I’m told llamas are intelligent animals, and I’ve no reason to doubt that. They have a sort of lofty poise, and carry themselves with solemn stateliness. But I’m not sure anybody could claim they’re particularly agile. Only one of the llamas I watched actually completed the course without incident. With that single exception, the llamas were entirely dismissive of the small jumps; most of them just strolled right through them, not even bothering to acknowledge their existence. It was as if they were too polite to point out that some ill-bred rascal had inadvertently cluttered up the area with some planks.

Llama walking sideways

Llama walking sideways

What kept this event from being completely comical was this: the love and affection felt by the handlers for their llamas. They wanted their animals to do well, to be sure, but mostly they just seemed to enjoy being actively engaged with them. It was rather sweet to watch them together, even when the animals appeared absolutely puzzled about why in the world this human expected them to walk sideways (if llamas had thought balloons, there would have been dozens that said I’m terribly sorry, but I just don’t understand the point of this.)

One of the things that surprised me (and there were a lot of things that surprised me) was that most of the llama handlers were women — primarily young women. In fact, women seemed to be in charge of almost every aspect of the entire llama-fest. There were men and boys there, of course, and a few of them participated in the activities (it also appeared that most of the judges were men), but everywhere I looked it was women who were making things happen and keeping things running smoothly.

A girl and her llama

A girl and her llama

There’s something wonderful about events like this. There’s no money in it; the only reward is the pleasure of participating. These people brought their llamas (and a handful of alpaca) from all over the U.S. simply out of passion. And that’s beautiful.

So sure, the notion of a llama agility trial is absurd. Who cares. These folks were having fun, and the llamas didn’t seem to object very much. I’d be hard-pressed to find a better way to spend a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon.

a cold, wet, miserable day is trumped by seriously badass fudge

It was thirty-seven degrees Fahrenheit yesterday morning. Over the previous two days, we’d had seven inches of snow. The morning vacillated between mist and drizzle, interrupted by brief periods of actual rain. The only good thing you could say about the weather was that it was washing away the snow. It was a cold, wet, miserable day. The fourth day of May, and it was cold and wet and miserable, and the only sensible thing to do was stay in bed. Maybe read a grim Russian novel about peasants. Starving peasants.

But yesterday was also the opening day of this year’s downtown Farmer’s Market. And that meant Spring was officially here. And that made everything pretty much okay. Bugger Russian novels. I was going shopping.

Opening day of the farmers' market

Farmers’ market – from the skywalk, looking south down 4th Street

I love the Farmer’s Market. Every Saturday morning from the first weekend in May to the last weekend in October, the city closes off a few streets and vendors set up booths and stalls from which they sell their goods and wares. These are small, local producers of victuals and crafts. They sell a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, of course, and all the expected pies and jams and pastries and herbs and breads and honeys. But there are also folks selling locally produced eggs, beef, poultry, lamb, rabbit, and goat. Hell, you can buy elk, ostrich, or buffalo, if that suits your tastes. There are folks selling locally made cheeses — cheddar, gouda, blue cheese. There are folks selling local wines (which can be an adventure) and usually somebody selling Templeton Rye — a marvelous locally distilled whiskey. There are skilled craftsmen selling ironmongery and hand-crafted furniture and all manner of jewelry. And there’s music, even in the rain. And puppetry sometimes. And of course you can buy food and drink to eat while you’re shopping — the usual burgers and barbecue, to be sure, but you can also pick up some regional delicacies made and sold by immigrants from Bosnia, Thailand, El Salvador, Morocco, Viet Nam, India.

I didn’t buy a lot. An asiago focaccia. Some asparagus. Some cherry and apple pastries. A half dozen pieces of frightfully expensive artisanal fudge.

farmers market mapThis is not your momma’s fudge. This is a confection meticulously prepared by Master Fudgesmiths. This fudge is handmade by craftswomen following arcane fudge-making techniques that have been handed down from generation to generation of Flemish bekwaam handwerkswomen. Red velvet fudge, praline fudge, traditional old school chocolate-walnut fudge, raspberry fudge, peanut butter fudge, and a milk chocolate fudge with teensy Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups cleverly grafted into the mix.

Dude, we’re talking some seriously badass fudge.

Seriously badass fudge

Seriously badass fudge

But it’s not just the stuff you can buy that makes me love the market. It’s the gentle carnival atmosphere. Everybody is friendly, everybody is happy, everybody wants to be there and they all make an effort to get along. I know that sounds terribly sappy, but there it is. Even as cold and wet and miserable as it was yesterday morning, the people were having fun.

Happily, three of the downtown parking garages offer free parking on market day. On cold, wet, miserable days like yesterday, it’s possible to park inside, take the skywalk to an exit near the market, and remain dry and warm going to and from the market (and on those hot days in summer, you can use the skywalk to keep cool and in the shade).

Warm and dry in the skywalk

Warm and dry in the skywalk

Farmer’s markets are pretty common these days. Every city and most large towns have one. I’m sure this one isn’t radically different from a weekend farmer’s market near you. That’s part of what makes them so wonderful. Farmer’s markets benefit everybody — the farmers and the artisans who produce the goods, the consumers who buy and eat them, and the community itself. Everybody. Think about that for a moment. How many activities can you think of in which everybody benefits?

You should go to your local market next weekend. Seriously. Get up, go to the market, buy yourself some fresh vegetables, if you’re a carnivore you should buy some chemical-free chicken (yes, it’s a tad more expensive, but you’re getting better food with better flavor), buy yourself a treat of some sort, meet and mingle with a lot of strangers, pet a dog, be a part of your community. Then go home and take a nap. If you don’t wake up feeling refreshed and satisfied with life after that, then you probably belong in a coldwater garret somewhere, eating stale crusts of bread, and reading Russian novels.

walking like a camel

No, I don’t do it for the exercise. Yes, I understand that both walking and cycling are terrific forms of exercise, but no, that’s not why I do it. Yes, I’m usually going somewhere when I go for a walk or a ride, but no, that ‘somewhere’ isn’t a destination. I’m not actually going to that place. That place is just a prompt, a nudge, a reminder that it’s time to turn around and go back. Yes, the walk or ride serves a purpose; the walk or the ride is the purpose.

the cyclistI do this almost every day, regardless of weather. Sometimes I’ll walk or ride for hours, sometimes just for ten or fifteen minutes. I might stroll for a couple of hours along the river; I might ride five minutes to the nearby Stop & Rob and buy a Coke Zero. The purpose isn’t to see the river or fetch a Coke, though those are both fine things. The purpose is movement, the purpose is to move the body and disengage the mind from whatever I was doing and allow it to re-engage in…well, something else.

jaywalkHere’s a true thing: I don’t really walk or ride. I saunter. I even saunter when I’m on a bicycle. This is how Chambers defines saunter:

to walk, often aimlessly, at a leisurely pace; to wander or stroll idly

That’s me, wandering idly on foot or bicycle, somewhat aimlessly, at a leisurely pace.

promenadeThere’s some uncertainty about the etymology of saunter. It’s been suggested the term derives from sans terre, ‘being without land or a home,’ which would be a good reason for walking aimlessly. Others believe it comes from s’aventurer, ‘to take risks or leave to chance.’ My favorite explanation of the term, though, comes from the Middle Ages, during the period of the Crusades.

When we think of the Crusades, we generally think of armored knights on destriers, traveling to Jerusalem to ‘rescue’ Christendom. But it wasn’t just knights and noblemen who made their way halfway around the world; poor folks were also seized with the irrational desire to travel to the Holy Land. But they had to walk and beg for food as they made their way à la sainte terre. While of lot of those folks were sincere, the willingness of people to help a common sainte-terrer (it was a sacrifice that would gain them favor with God) created a population of poor folks who wandered through much of Europe claiming to be journeying to the Holy Land, but actually were just medieval hobos.

humming to himselfObviously, I’m not that sort of saunterer. I’m more in the Ludwig Von School of walking. Beethoven took a long stroll almost every afternoon, with a pencil and some paper stuffed in a pocket so he could write down any musical thoughts he might have. I keep myself open to ideas when I walk or ride, but I don’t take any writing paraphernalia with me. I tell myself that if an idea is good enough, I’ll remember it. If I don’t remember it when I get home, I tell myself the idea couldn’t have been that good.

That’s probably nonsense, but it gives me some comfort when I get home and can’t recall the ‘great’ idea I had when out sauntering.

a wee bit tipsyOr maybe I’m more in the Thoreau School of walking. Thoreau said this:

[T]he walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called…but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.
Moreover, you must walk like a camel which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.

I’m very much taken with the notion of riding a bicycle like a camel.

hard day at the officeI think I could argue that the real reason I take walks or go on rides is to get outside of my mind. Things happen when you’re out and about. Real things, and they happen to real people. The things that happen when you’re at your desk only happen in your mind.

Here’s an example of the way things happen. This thing happened to the composer Benjamin Britten, who was a great walker. It’s my favorite Benjamin Britten story (okay, my only Benjamin Britten story, because c’mon, does anybody have more than one Benjamin Britten story?). He was walking along a railroad track one day and came across a couple of young boys standing by the track, waiting. They had a newt in a jam jar. Britten asked the kids what they were doing. They said, “We’re waiting for the two o’clock train to come out of Aldeburgh, so we can show this newt what a steam train looks like.”

I’m willing to bet you five dollars this will become your favorite Benjamin Britten story too.

brutal bastard

You get that one moment. That’s it. You either get the shot or you don’t. And let’s face it, most often, you don’t. And in some types of photography, there’s no second chance. I love that. I hate that.

Yesterday was a cold, bright, sunny day. A good day for a guy with a fine little street camera to take a walk through the city. As I was walking along I saw this dark gash of an alleyway running between a building and a parking garage. I have a thing for alleys, so I decided to wander down it. But it was on the other side of the street; I had to wait for traffic to clear before I could jaywalk to the alley.

As I stood there I saw an obscure shape moving in the alley. A guy. A guy with a red hat. And I knew there might be a photograph to be made.

This is what I love: sometimes you can anticipate that moment. You can see the shot developing. You can visualize all the elements potentially moving into place. Potentially, that’s the key. It’s all about the potential, because any number of things can happen to totally fuck up the situation. A cloud might obscure the light. A car might pass in front of you at the critical moment. A passerby could throw off the balance of the composition.

I saw the guy with the red hat. A moment earlier I’d noticed a doorway with a red logo at about head level. I figured there was a good chance the guy was going to walk out of the dark alley and into the light. So I hurried to my right so I could include both the red hat and the red logo — and the moment I began moving I also began to kick myself in the ass. I was thinking “Idiot, you should have closed in on the alley and caught the guy stepping into the sunlight.” But it was too late to change my mind. I’d committed myself to a wide shot.

Sometimes the shot never comes together. You know that going in, of course. Sometimes all those elements you saw moving together simply move away from each other. The guy could turn around and go back down the alley. He could step out of the alley, but remove his red hat. Somebody could could open the door with red logo. So many things could go wrong.

But they didn’t. Things not only didn’t go wrong, they actually got better The guy stepped out of the alley and into the sunlight, just like I’d hoped he would. His red hat was almost perfectly in line with the red logo on the door, just as I’d hope it would. And then a little black and white dog followed him out.

So I took the shot.

a guy and his dogIt was the shot I wanted. It was almost exactly as I’d envisioned it. But it doesn’t really work. Not at this scale.

The guy gets lost, the red hat gets lost, the red logo gets lost, even the little dog gets lost. I think the photo might work if it was printed very, very large — but dammit, it doesn’t work at this scale. It just doesn’t.

Even when all the elements do come together — even when it all coheres perfectly and organically, as if it was predestined — even when you get the shot you want, it might not actually be the shot you want.

It gets worse. I got the shot I wanted. I knew it as soon as I released the shutter. I’d no idea it wouldn’t turn out, of course, but at that moment I knew I’d got the shot. I felt satisfied and full of myself. For maybe half a second. Even as I was lowering the camera, I saw the guy hold something out in his hand. The little dog leaped up to get it. And I missed it.

Photography is a brutal bastard. And I must be masochistic, because I’m okay with that.


self evident truths

I spent some time looking at the portraits from the Self Evident Truths project before I read the ‘About’ section. I like the photographs. They’re simple, unfussy, comfortable, direct, wonderfully relaxed portraits of ordinary people. I like them a lot.

On the landing page, the portraits scroll by at an unhurried pace — about the pace you’d expect if you were strolling through town and looked casually at the people coming toward you on the sidewalk. It’s pleasant and smile-making to just sit for a while and look at the faces that pass by.

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Then I read the ‘About’ page. These are the first few lines on that page:

In 2010 iO Tillett Wright began a project called Self Evident Truths, photographing anyone that felt like they qualified to fall on some part of the LGBTQ spectrum, from bisexual, to transgender. Shot in simple black and white, in natural light, with no makeup or styling, the photos were intended to humanize the very varied face of gays in America today.

Intended to humanize. I read that and thought ‘We need to humanize gay folks?’ That notion seems so out of date. It feels like something activists would say in the 1990s.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the portraits. I love the foundational concept — I find something oddly pleasing about portraits of ordinary people categorized in some way. I’d love to see portraits of people who work in grocery stores, or people who are in bowling leagues, or people who frequent swap meets, or people who keep lists of the birds they see. I suspect they’d all look fairly similar to the people we see in the Self Evident Truths project.

But I can’t imagine shooting portraits of birders or bowlers or grocery store employees in order to humanize them. It’s 2013 — do we really need to humanize LGBTQ folks?

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If the Montana legislature is any indication, then yeah, I guess maybe we do.

Yesterday the Montana legislature voted on a measure to strike an old Montana law that criminalized “sexual contact or sexual intercourse between two persons of the same sex.” The Montana Supreme Court ruled that law was unconstitutional in 1997, but the law remained on the books despite regular attempts to have it removed. Why? Because some Montana Republicans apparently felt that if they voted to remove the law, they’d get some of the gay on them. And you know, that stuff is hard to wash out. Or something like that.

This year was different. This year Montana Democrats garnered enough support to have the unconstitutional law stricken from the criminal code. The vote was 38-10. That’s right, ten Republicans still voted to retain the law even though it’s unconstitutional and even though it can’t be enforced. Lawdy.

Despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled them unconstitutional, there are still at least a dozen other states with anti-sodomy or anti-homosexual laws on the books. There are elected legislators in at least a dozen states who are so afraid of gay folks that they refuse to remove blatantly unconstitutional laws from their criminal codes.

But I still disagree with iO Tillett Wright and the Self Evident Truths project on this issue. I don’t think we need to ‘humanize’ gay folks. I think we need to humanize the people who hate gay folks.

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Visit the Self Evident Truths site. Visit their shop. Buy prints of the portraits. Buy ‘We Are You’ t-shirts. Donate to the project if you can. But work to humanize bigots and assholes. Gay folks are already okay as they are.

Editorial note: When I say ‘gay folks’ I mean everybody in the LGBTQ mishpocha; I just get weary of the acronym. Also? It’s already totally fucking obvious, but for the record let me just point out that all the photos are from the Self Evident Truth project.