iowa kids are okay

Right, background information first. The Iowa High School Athletic Association and the Iowa Farm Bureau coordinate with the office of the Governor of Iowa to create the Iowa Governor’s Scholar program. It’s designed to honor the highest-achieving students from each of Iowa’s high schools. It seems to be largely a ceremonial thing–the students get some sort of certificate of recognition and get a chance to be photographed standing next to the governor. The governor has to sacrifice a chunk of time standing still while kids rotate in and out for their photos, but she gets some free good publicity. Everybody wins, right?

That’s what normally happens. This year, not so much. This year Gov. Kim Reynolds and the GOP-controlled legislation have enacted a number of awful MAGA-inspired laws. This year, some of the kids being honored felt compelled to speak out in protest to the Iowa GOP’s repeated attempts to turn this state in the Florida of the Midwest.

For example, this year the Iowa GOP passed a wide-ranging education bill that includes a ban of public school books that include descriptions of sex acts, It also makes it easier to remove challenged books from school libraries. The law could include everything from Catcher in the Rye to Twilight to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to And Tango Makes Three (which is a children’s book about two bonded male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who raised a penguin chick). It’s a truly reprehensible law.

Newton HS senior Leo Friedman believes books have value.

This year, the GOP-controlled legislature also passed legislation creating what they call “education savings accounts.” This new law allows the state to use funds marked for public education to be spent instead on private education. It provides families with US$7,600 per student in public education funds which can now be used to cover private school tuition and fees. Most of those private schools, of course, are religious schools and religious schools are almost universally conservative Christian schools. This law not only undermines the purpose of secular public education, it also creates the conditions for religious/political indoctrination.

Newton HS senior Merin Pettigrew feels public funds should be used in public schools.

Also this year, Gov. Reynolds and the Iowa GOP have passed a number of anti-trans legislation. This includes barring transgender girls and women from participating in girls and women’s sports, a ban on students (and adults) using public school bathrooms and locker rooms that don’t align with their gender assigned at birth, and prohibiting minors from receiving gender-affirming care even with a parent’s or guardian’s permission. These laws not only discriminate against trans kids, it publicly marks them as dangerous, thereby putting trans kids at emotional and physical risk.

Davenport West HS senior Clementine Springsteen believes trans rights are human rights.

Springsteen wore pins stating “Trans Rights Are Human Rights” and “She Her” and as she left the stages loudly proclaimed, “Trans rights are human rights.” 

These were deliberate, thoughtful acts of civil protest against the sort of hyper-partisan political legislative movements we’re seeing in several ‘red’ states. They were acts of individual courage and integrity, done with as much respect as possible under the circumstances. Friedman said,

“I intend no disrespect to any other of the students (or attendees) there for sure. But if the governor feels disrespected, that is the purpose of the protest. Because we don’t respect what she has done recently with the laws that have been passed and the ideologies that she instilled into the government in our state.”

Springsteen, who is trans, explained why it’s critically important for trans kids to be able to affirm themselves while still in school. She came out as trans to her classmates during a speech class.

“I was terrified, obviously. But my teacher has always been really supportive. She’s always been really supportive, and there for me. As far as the class goes, there were a few there who I was really terrified of how they’d react. But I think within my speech, I’m hopeful that I managed to change their minds about the issue. I didn’t have any issues with them after that point. “

And that’s it, isn’t it. This is one of the unspoken benefits of public education. School is where kids learn how to get along with other kids, even those who are different in some way. School is where kids get exposed to new ideas, it’s where kids learn other kids can hold different views, believe different things, have different backgrounds, have different types of parents, exist in different ways, and yet can still get along with each other. School is where we begin to learn how to behave as adults.

Gov. Reynolds and the Iowa GOP need to go back to school. These kids could teach them a lot about modern life.

i talk to strangers

A few years ago, on a cloudy, rainy day, I was taking an idle stroll along the riverwalk in Des Moines and I came across a guy sitting on the steps. We chatted for a bit about nothing in particular. As I was leaving, I stopped and asked if I could take his photograph. He said “You gonna make me look sad or stupid?” I said, “Are you sad or stupid?” and he snorted and said “I sure am.” That’s when I took his photo. When I asked his name, he said “I’m just a guy sitting by the river.”

Just a guy sitting by the river.

I talk to strangers. I like talking to strangers. I like meeting new people and learning something about them. Granted, most of my conversations with strangers are casually superficial, so it’s not like I’m learning anything important or meaningful about them or their lives. But the simple fact of meeting and having an idle conversation with random strangers tells me something about humanity in general.

And this is what I’ve learned: most people are pretty much okay.

Just bought a bunch of children’s science booklets from the 1960s.

This guy (points up), for example. He’d just bought a bunch of outdated science booklets for kids, and he was happy and excited about them. To me, they looked like badly illustrated pamphlets depicting decades-old information about science. But his enthusiasm was infectious, and I found myself actually interested in the best 1960s approach to dealing with prairie dog overpopulation.

Is that information useful? Nope, not even remotely. But I love knowing that somewhere out in the world is a guy who can give a logical, sincere, and passionate defense of relying on natural predation instead of poison to deal with what ranchers consider vermin.

Mickey, whose story had…flaws

Every stranger I’ve met has a story. They’re not all true, of course. I don’t think that matters. Mickey (above) told me he was a disabled veteran. And who knows, maybe he was. He had a Marine Corps emblem on his jacket but his cap said 101st Airborne, which is a division of the Army. He was using a hand-carved walking stick, which I admired–and that’s how we struck up a short conversation. It was too chilly outside to chat for very long, and as we parted I gave him a quick salute–which he returned.

Here’s a True Thing: in basic military training, they literally teach you how to salute. How to hold your hand and wrist, the proper position of your upper arm, the correct incline of your elbow. They make you practice this over and over until it becomes automatic. Mickey didn’t know how to perform a proper salute. Does that mean he was lying about himself? Maybe. Maybe not. Again, I don’t think it matters. His story didn’t have to be true; it still told me something about what he believed and who he’d like to be and what he finds important.

James, sitting under a bridge

I met James on a hot summer day, sitting under a bridge. I was riding my bike, he was sitting in the cool shade drinking something in a brown paper bag. I stopped to get a drink from my water bottle. We discussed the heat, of course, but James also told me he worked at a nearby theme park; he liked to get away from the noise and the people, and the bridge was within walking distance. It was relatively quiet, cool, and it gave him a bit of what he called “down time.” You could tell James had been around a long, hard block–probably more than once–but he had a weird sort of muted raffish elegance about him. The careful way he trimmed his facial hair, his necklace, his sunglasses, his ornate tattoos–it’s as much about who he wants to be as who he is. And who knows–maybe he actually is who he wants to be.

Guy pushing his bike

Meeting strangers is easy; they’re everywhere. But it’s getting a wee bit more difficult to get them to talk. People are increasingly suspicious of strangers. I guess I can’t blame the guy in the photo above for being suspicious. It was a cold, foggy morning. I was riding my bike; he was walking a bike. So I stopped to ask him if he was okay, if he needed help with his bike. He hesitated, then said, “I’m okay; I live nearby.” I told him I had a small tool kit in my bike bag and I’d be happy to help if I could. He shook his head. He was clearly uneasy, so I let it go. Instead, I asked if I could take his photo. He asked, “Why?” I said something about his yellow hoodie and the fog, which probably didn’t make any sense to him. But he said, “Okay.” I took his photo, wished him good luck, and went on my way.

I wondered later if maybe the guy didn’t want me reaching into my bike bag. Maybe he thought I carried a gun there. Some people do. On one cycling forum I follow, there are lots of discussions about self-protection on bikes. People are afraid they’ll be attacked as they ride or when they stop, afraid they’ll maybe get bike-jacked. A lot of those fearful people have opted to bike armed.

Scared people are the last people who should be carrying firearms. But we now live in a world in which wrong-place shootings take place on an alarmingly regular basis. It’s inevitable, I suppose, that somebody will get shot for being on a bike in the wrong place at the wrong time (assuming it hasn’t already happened somewhere). The fact that a term like ‘wrong-place shooting‘ even exists is an indictment against our society. I’d argue one of the reasons we have wrong-place shootings is because fewer people are willing to talk to strangers. All day every day there’s a ‘news’ station that injects fear porn directly into the veins of its viewers. They tell folks that ‘others’ are out to get them, to take their stuff, to molest their children, to break into their homes, to take away their rights, to destroy their religion, to confiscate their guns. Of course, they’re frightened.

Kent, keeping the streets clean.

This is Kent. I met him on a cold, foggy morning too. He was walking the streets, sweeping up the trash other people (and their dogs) left behind. He’d been keeping the city streets clean for nearly three years. I asked him about his work. He said, “It’s not a bad job. I like being outside. I get to meet people, walk around, don’t have to stay in one place.” He’d learned which business owners were nice, which ones ignored him like he wasn’t there, which ones were rude. He wouldn’t identify any of the rude ones. Kent said there were about a dozen people who worked cleaning up the downtown area. He thought most of his co-workers were okay; a couple were lazy and some complained about the weather, but basically they were good, decent people. He knew most of the people he met on the street didn’t appreciate his work, but he said clean streets sidewalks make the city a better place. He wouldn’t say his job was important, but it was clear he felt he was doing something worthwhile.

These are just a half dozen of the many strangers I’ve talked to in recent years. All of them have been interesting in some way. All of them are connected in some way, if only by a shared community or a shared humanity. And I like to feel I’m connected to them as well. A guy feeling sad and stupid sitting by the river, a guy excited about science for kids, a guy who maybe lied about his past, a guy sitting quietly under a bridge, a nervous guy afraid to ask for or accept help, and a guy who gets up every morning and tries to make city life a little bit better. These people–these strangers–have enriched my life.

We don’t have to live in fear and isolation. We don’t have to be afraid of strangers. At the risk of sounding hopelessly like a Pollyanna, I truly believe the world would be a lot better place–and we’d all be a lot more relaxed–if we’d just take a few moments and talk to a stranger.

circular dance of ants

The photograph below shows a pair of bloodroot blossoms, one of the first flowering plants we see at the beginning of morel season. It doesn’t look at all bloody, does it. The sap, however, is generally orange to bright red. It’s sometimes used by native artists as a dye. The sap is also somewhat poisonous; eating bloodroot probably wouldn’t kill you, but it would certainly make you vomit like a high school drunk.

What’s cool about bloodroot, though, is the way it’s disseminated. The flowers produce pollen, but no nectar–which means all those bees and flies that land on the blossoms foraging for nectar are getting scammed. They’re helping pollinate the plant, but they aren’t getting jack in return.

But what’s really cool is that the seeds of bloodroot are spread by ants. That’s right, ants. The seeds have a fleshy organ–an elaiosome–that ants fucking love. They take the bloodroot seeds to their nest, eat the elaiosomes off them, then chuck out the seeds with the other ant trash and nest debris. Ant trash turns out to be a terrific medium for germinating seeds.

The process of ants foraging seeds for their tasty elaiosomes, then getting rid of the useless seeds in ant trash middens is called myrmechory. It’s from the Greek term for ants (mýrmēks) and a circular form of Greek dancing called khoreíā. The ants don’t actually dance in circles, of course, though they probably could if they wanted to. Who’s going to stop them? The important thing, though, is myrmechory works. It’s great for the ants, who get a scrumptious treat, and for the bloodroot, which gets dispersed across a wider range.

Of course, bees and flies and other pollen-seeking winged foragers get completely fucked over, which probably adds to the enjoyment of the elaiosome-eating ants. I’m okay with that. I mean, bees get to fly, after all; they get a temporary pardon from gravity. Hard to blame ants for being a wee bit envious and taking some small pleasure out of seeing the winged bastards get stiffed.

the improbable wilmer mclean

You have to feel sorry for Wilmer McLean. Some folks just can’t catch a break.

In 1861 our boy Wilmer was a successful merchant and farm owner. He was happily married to the former Virginia Mason (a wealthy widow). They had a young child and lived in a nice house on a good piece of farmland near Manassas, Virginia. Life was good. At least it should have been. It would have been, except for the brewing civil war.

In April of that year, Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard had been appointed a general in the newly formed Confederate Army and assigned to defend the port of Charleston, South Carolina. Beauregard’s artillery assault on the Union Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor were the first shots fired in the American Civil War. By July, Beauregard was placed in command of Confederate forces in Northern Virginia and he needed a place to establish his headquarters.

So one fine summer day, there was a knock on Wilmer’s door. An aide to Gen. Beauregard politely let him know his farm–his home and his barn–were being commandeered. Wilmer wasn’t happy about it, but as a young man he’d served in the Virginia Militia; he understood that sacrifices had to be made. So he and his family abandoned their farm while the first major land battle of the Civil War–the Battle of Bull Run–was fought on his farm.

Not surprisingly, the McLean home and barn were both damaged during the battle. Beauregard liked to tell the story of how his dinner in the house was interrupted by a Union cannonball coming through McLean’s fireplace. Still, Wilmer and his family returned to the farm after the battle and remained on the farm for another year–until the Second Battle of Bull Run. At that point, Wilmer said, “Fuck this.” He packed up his family (his poor wife was pregnant again) and they moved a hundred miles south to a small quiet town in Southern Virginia, where the war wouldn’t interfere too much with his life.

And hey, it worked. Mostly. By 1865, our boy Wilmer had been living as quiet a life as one possibly could in a nation torn apart by a long, brutal civil war. He was 51 years old; he and his family had a nice house and he was making a fairly decent living as a merchant and a sugar broker for the Confederate Army.

But then, on this very day, April 9th, there was another knock on Wilmer’s door. Charles Marshall was an aide to another Confederate general–Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Marshall wanted our boy Wilmer to show him a house suitable for a meeting between Lee and another general. Given his previous unfortunate experience with Confederate generals, Wilmer showed Marshall a couple of ramshackle houses. Marshall rejected them. After a bit of pressure, Wilmer reluctantly agreed to let Gen. Lee use his own house for the meeting.

The McLean residence in Appomattox Court House

The meeting, of course, turned out to be between Lee and Gen. Ulysses Grant, the commander of the Army of the Potomac. During that meeting, held in Wilmer’s parlor, Lee agreed to surrender his army, essentially ending all major combat operations in the Civil War. It was all very quiet, very formal, very somber.

But once the surrender was signed and Lee had ridden away, the Union officers wanted souvenirs of the historic event. They began helping themselves to various household items–tables, chairs, lamps, whatever was at hand. It wasn’t exactly looting; many of them actually paid Wilmer for the items they took. But as before, Wilmer had no choice in the matter. In 1861, the Union Army damaged his property with artillery; in 1865, they did it by hand. War doesn’t spare civilians.

The end of the war also brought the end of Wilmer’s career as a merchant and sugar broker. He was eventually forced to sell his house and move his family back to his boyhood home of Alexandria, where he found a job with the Internal Revenue Service.

Wilmer McLean liked to say the Civil War began in his front yard and ended in his front parlor. It’s a good line. That good line was the only good thing our boy Wilmer got from the war.

You have to feel sorry for Wilmer McLean. Some folks just can’t catch a break.

the point

Okay, this happened. On social media, I posted a photograph of…well, wait. Let me just show you the photo, that’ll make this easier.

That’s it. It’s not anything remotely artsy; it’s just an interior shot made from a corner booth. The primary reason I shot the photo was because it amused me; it’s a classic private investigator perspective–back to the wall and a view covering all three entrances and exits. (Yes, I worked for about seven years as a PI specializing in criminal defense, and yes, I actually did pay attention to those things back then, but no, it’s not really a concern to me anymore, but yes, it’s still sort of a habit.)

A friend commented, casually referring to this as a ‘dive bar’ and adding “…or what we call here, ‘the pub’.” (‘Here’ in that context meant Ireland.) And for reasons that probably don’t bear examination, I felt compelled to point out that this place is NOT a dive bar. Or a pub. It’s a sort of combination roadhouse and bicycle bar.

Because this is how my mind works, I’ve spent a few idle moments (well, maybe half an hour) thinking about the taxonomy of drinking establishments. Obviously, there’s no universally agreed classification; there’s no International Organization for Standardization overseeing drinking establishments. BUT there IS a history.

On the outskirts of town, along a road and bike trail — bicycle roadhouse.

The Roman tradition of conquering places and fucking around with local cultures and norms relied heavily on their ability to build and maintain a network of roads. Along those roads, they created tabernae–rude sheds and shelters where travelers could refresh themselves with food and drink, and maybe a safe place to sleep. Eventually, taverns began more like houses open to the public, and local folks would gather there to get news from travelers over a friendly ale. Public houses–pubs–became central to neighborhoods. Public houses located outside of town (or on the outskirts of town) generally provided rowdier entertainment–roadhouses.

Now there’s an entire constellation of drinking establishments. We still have pubs, some towns still have taverns that also act as inns (though those are largely supplanted by hotels and the hotel bar), we still have roadhouses. But we’ve also got dive bars, which are sort of low-rent pubs devoted to serving local folks inexpensive drinks without a lot of fuss. We’ve got bicycle bars for thirsty cyclists, and brew pubs for beer connoisseurs (from the Latin cognoscere, meaning ‘to know, to understand, be familiar with’), and concept bars that are devoted to a specific theme (like zombies or hobbits or steampunk or bondage), and sports bars with eighteen large-screen televisions showing a disconcerting number of sports events, and cocktail bars where beer and ale is spurned in favor of spirits, and wine bars which you can figure out yourself, and pool bars (both swimming and billiards), and population bars directed at specific groups (like LGBTQ or veterans of foreign wars) and I’m probably forgetting several other types of drinking establishments.

My point is…well, I’ve forgotten what my point was. I definitely had a point when I started writing this. I wonder what happened to it. Somehow I seem to have gone from looking at things from a PI perspective to tavern taxonomy to the fucking Romans to a semi-random rambling list of bar types. A point could get lost anywhere in there.

Turns out, that photo at the beginning did NOT make this easier.

Uh…how ’bout those Red Sox, huh?

do i gotta use words?

On some social media platforms I describe myself as a writer and a photographer. That recently led to an interesting question. I was asked:

“Do you shoot photographs the same way you write? Do you write like you shoot photos?”

My response was pretty simple: Never thought about it. And then, of course, I started thinking about it. I probably spent most of an afternoon thinking about it. Well, that’s not really accurate. I thought about it off and on for an afternoon. Because that’s a thing I do; I think about stuff.

Morning light, drinking coffee

My first thought was: Well, maybe I do. I mean, it was worth considering. Both writing and photography are vehicles for self-expression. They’re both grounded in craft rather than art, although they’re amenable to art. Do I need to go into the difference between art and craft? I suppose I do…but briefly. Basically, craft is about structured skills that can be learned whereas art is about unstructured imagination. I think that’s brief enough.

Anybody of average intelligence can learn the skills involved in writing and photography, stuff like the mechanics of grammar or the mechanics of exposure, or how to use punctuation in a sentence or determine an image’s depth of field. So in that sense, sure, I write and shoot photos in the same way. Learn the skills, apply them to the work.

But there’s a lot more to fiction than being able to correctly write a complete sentence; there’s a lot more to creative photography than being able to correctly expose a photo. It all comes down to composition: 1) choosing what gets included, 2) what gets excluded, and 3) how it’s presented.

Because while writing and photography are both vehicles for self-expression, they’re completely different vehicles. Asking if me if I write the same way I shoot photos is like asking me if I drive a truck the same way I paddle a kayak. It’s like asking me if I sing the same way I play the banjo. (Okay, I don’t actually play the banjo, but you get the idea.)

I can articulate my reasons for crafting sentences and paragraphs. I’m aware as I’m writing why I arrange scenes the way I do. I know I’m trying to amuse the reader, or distract the reader from something in the story, or foreshadow an event that will take place later, or reveal something about a character.

I can’t always articulate why I shoot a photograph. Sometimes there’s just something about the arrangement of the world that pleases me. Looking through a camera’s viewfinder allows me to put a border–a frame–around a chunk of the world. At that point it becomes about arranging the world within that frame. A step to the right, two steps forward, dropping down on a knee–all of that changes the arrangement of the world inside the frame. But I’m not always aware of why a specific arrangement pleases me. Afterwards, looking at the photo, I can sometimes perform a sort of autopsy on the image to figure out what I was seeing at the moment I shot the photo.

Seven posts

(Sorry…here’s a tangent. Autopsy is from the Greek auto, meaning ‘self’, and opsis, meaning ‘see’ or view’. It basically means ‘to see for yourself’. Since the late 17th century autopsy has been used to describe a forensic dissection of the body to see for yourself what caused the body to die.)

Anyway, having thought about the question ‘Do you shoot photographs the same way you write?’ I decided to do a brief autopsy on a few photos I shot recently. The first was shot while I was sitting drinking coffee and reading the news–the morning light coming through a window. The other two were just things I saw during a semi-short road trip to find a small town diner for lunch.

The first photo autopsy was easy. I was just pleased by the momentary arrangement of light and shadow, of lines and shapes. And it was momentary; five minutes later the earth had rotated enough that the light through the window had shifted and was no longer interesting. But THINK about that for a moment. That photo depends entirely on the alignment of the solar system. How cool is that?

I suppose the second and third photographs also depended on the cooperation of the solar system since all photography depends on light, but not in such an immediately obvious way. They’re photos of ordinary crap you’d see in the Midwest countryside. Some posts marking the boundaries of a parking area in a public hunting zone. A blue corrugated metal shed. Why were they worth photographing?

Okay, I’m going to get even more pretentious here. There was a French poet-essayist-philosopher with the cumbersome name of Ambroise Paul Toussaint Jules Valéry (though he’s normally just called Paul Valéry). He wrote:

To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.

That reads like a Zen koan, except that Valéry’s comment actually makes some sort of sense–or at least it does to me. The photo of the blue corrugated metal shed doesn’t depend on it being a blue corrugated metal shed. It’s ‘shedness’ is irrelevant. What matters is that it offers three different shades of blue, which pair well with the softer blue of the sky. What matters is the sharp angular lines of its shape, which contrasts nicely with the sinuous way the gravel road curves around it. It doesn’t matter that those three utility poles exist to distribute low voltage power to customers while keeping the cables insulated from the ground and out of the way of people and vehicles. It only matters that they provide a sense of balance to the overall image.

To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. To forget the thing’s purpose, its use, its reason for existing. Those things can contribute to the complete effect of an image on the viewer, of course. I mean, the photo of the blue corrugated metal shed could be seen as a commentary on how humans have transformed the prairie by organizing its resources for commercial purposes. The photo of the posts in the parking area of a public hunting zone could serve as a reminder that early residents of the area hunted game in order to survive (and some still do).

But that’s all gravy. The photographs either work (or fail to work) on their own compositional merits. The words don’t always matter, and they shouldn’t. The visuals displace and supplant the words.

So there’s my answer. Nope, I don’t shoot photos the way I write. And more apologies, but here comes another pretentious moment. This is from TS Eliot’s Fragment of an Agon:

I gotta use words when I talk to you
But if you understand or if you dont
That’s nothing to me and nothing to you
We all gotta do what we gotta do

I’ve got to use words when I talk to you, but not when I show you something. But if you understand the words or images or if you don’t, that’s nothing to me. And really, it’s nothing to you either. We’ve all got to do what we’ve got to do.

knuckles, back on the map

As some of you may know, Knuckles Dobrovic is the name under which I occasionally create photo projects on Instagram. This began back in 2013. I created the Knuckles alias to explore Instagram, to learn what it was and how it worked, and to do that without having my name associated with it. I thought it made sense to dissociate myself from the account back then; now it just seems silly. In any event, I created the account and began to compile a very simple project. I put a thing on a glass-topped table on my deck and photographed it.

South of Ulan-Ude, Russia

I did that for about a year, during which I realized how ridiculous it was to have an alias account. So I created an IG account in my own name. When Things on a Table was finished, I put the Knuckles account on a shelf and forgot about it. Except–and I realize this is also silly–I’d become attached to the name. So eventually I revived the Knuckles account for another project. And then another. This will be the seventh Knuckles photo project.

Arvik, Norway

Early on, I cobbled together some simple, flexible parameters for Knuckles projects:

  • It’s got to be simple (which means I won’t have to do a lot of planning or a lot of post-processing).
  • It’s got to be organic to my life (which means it’s something I can photograph during the course of an ordinary day — whatever that is).
  • It’s got to have at least one intellectual component (which is more accurately described as a pretentious bullshit element).
  • It’s got to be able to keep my interest over time.
Near Yotvata, Israel

Here’s a quick recap of the various Knuckles projects themselves with a link to a representative image from that project:

  1. Things on a Table — I put a thing on a table and photographed it.
  2. My Feet on the Earth — I took walks, stopping periodically to photograph my feet. I selected two or three of the images during a walk and created multiple exposure images.
  3. One Hundred Appropriated Google Street Views — This was sort of an homage to Hiroshige’s ‘One Hundred Famous View of Edo’. While playing the online game GeoGuessr (which involves finding a random location based on Google Street View), I made screen captures of interesting vistas. I converted those screen grabs into square black & white images.
  4. Slightly Dislocated — During the enforced isolation of the pandemic, I shot square format photos during my solo walks or masked errands. I diddled with the color a wee bit, digitally sliced the image in thirds, then re-arranged the pieces.
  5. Are Bure Bampot — I’d been playing Geoguessr again, and during a break I read something about Daido Moriyama, the godfather of a photographic style called are bure bokeh, which roughly translates as “rough, coarse/crude, out of focus.” That same afternoon, on Twitter, a Scots acquaintance referred to somebody as ‘a total bampot,’ which I was told means “an idiot, a foolish person, a nutcase”. For reasons I can’t explain, the phrase are bure bampot came to me, and I decided to follow through on it. As before, I made Google Street View screen captures of scenes and locations in Scotland. This time I modified them using the are bure bokeh style.
  6. A Red Wheelbarrow — This was another coincidental project. I’d encountered the early version of DALL-E, the AI application that generates an image based on a written sentence. I’d also recently seen a photo that fell into a genre I call Red Wheelbarrow photos. It’s not actually a recognized genre; it’s just a thing I’ve noticed. These are photos in which the emotional appeal relies heavily on a color/object element (this particular photo was sunlight falling on a green hat hanging on a doorknob). The name comes from the William Carlos Williams poem: so much depends upon / a red wheelbarrow / glazed with rain water / beside the white chickens. I entered that line into the mini Dall-E app, and it generated an interesting image. So I began a series of AI images of red wheelbarrows. That lasted until I was approved to work with the full DALL-E application. When I repeated the original text of the poem, the AI provided me with much more realistic image. At that point, it felt like the project was over.
Unknown location in South Africa

Now I’ve returned yet again to Google Street View with a new project: Bus Stops. I’ve always been intrigued by the bus stops I’ve encountered playing GeoGuessr, and I often pause long enough to get a screen capture of them. I’ve written about my fascination with bus stops before; lots of folks know about my interest. Recently an acquaintance sent me a link to a photo of a primitive bus stop in Turkey. It occurred to me that over the years I’d amassed a small collection of Google Street View screen captures of bus stops.

So I decided to do a quick search my old files and organize them. I found just over a dozen images of bus stops–enough to kickstart a new Knuckles project. It falls well within the Knuckles Criteria: simple, organic to my life, an intellectual component, and since I’ve been doing it haphazardly and thoughtlessly for years I’m not likely to get bored with it.

San Esteban, Chile

The intellectual component? A bus is the most democratic form of public transport. They’re most commonly used by the poor and working classes, but the bus stops for everybody. In cities it’s not uncommon to see people in business attire riding the bus to work. 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 in which bus stops act as fixed point attractors. And if that’s not enough, bus stops are ubiquitous. They’re everywhere because a bus network is socially elastic–the design can be stretched to fit almost any community anywhere in the world. But stops are both local and global.

Outside of Petronys, Lithuania

You need more? Bus stops can tell you a lot about a community. Are the bus stops clean? Cared for? Are they in poor repair? Are they stylish or simple? Some bus stops have trash receptacles. Some are trash receptacles themselves. Some are shelters, designed to please the eye as well as keep riders dry and protect them from the wind. Some are purely utilitarian. Some are nothing more than a wide space in the road. You look at a bus stop, you learn something about the people who use them and the communities in which they live.

Bus stops are fascinating. But you have to look at them. So here…take a look.

another ordinary day

Wake up, get myself dressed, wander into the kitchen, remember the cat isn’t going to be there, make coffee, read the news, get distracted by…something. That last bit? Getting distracted by…something? Story of my life, right there.

I’m not driven by ambition or security or responsibility or success (whatever that means), but I am ridiculously weak to curiosity. I have a compelling need to know stuff. Unfortunately, it’s rarely useful stuff. If you’re looking for somebody who knows how to repair something mechanical or build a cabinet or replace an electrical outlet, I’m completely fucking useless. But if you ever want to know the name of the brother of the last Saxon king of England or the history and etymology of ‘spatula’ or why jamon iberica is the best ham in the world, I’m your huckleberry.

I only know these things because I allow myself to be distracted by something. And following that distraction led to something else, which led me to something else, which ended up with me accumulating still more useless information. And that’s exactly what happened to me this morning.

In an online forum devoted to readers of the historical fiction of Dorothy Dunnett I came across a passing reference to St. Mary’s Loch–the site of a band of mercenaries in Dunnett’s work. Being familiar with the novel, I had a general notion of where the loch was located in Scotland, but (and this where it always starts…with that but) I decided to look at a map to get a more exact location. And I was curious why the loch was named for St. Mary.

The answer to that last question was both obvious and easy to discover. It was named for a church dedicated to St. Mary. That church is gone now, but the graveyard is still there (and since this is about useless information, the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery is that a graveyard is associated with a churchyard, which requires a church; so this grave site is still a graveyard even though the church is gone).

St. Mary’s graveyard.

Information about the burial site led me to somebody’s blog post about St. Mary’s Loch, which included a reference to “the Hamlet of Cappercleuch with its couthy old, corrugated iron village hall.” Multiple sources of distraction here. What the fuck does couthy mean? (Spoiler: it’s a Scots term meaning ‘sociable, friendly, congenial, comfortable, snug.) And who wouldn’t want to see a couthy old, corrugated iron village hall?

That led me to Google Maps and Google Street View of Cappercleuch. It turns out that a corrugated iron village hall is…well, just that. It’s basically a rather ordinary, disappointing metal shed. Not particularly old, and certainly not very couthy.

St. Mary’s Hall at Cappercleuch — neither old nor couthy.

Still, as long as I was noodling about with Google Street View, I figured I may as well spend a few minutes looking at St. Mary’s Loch and seeing what else Cappercleuch had to offer. And within ninety seconds I came across another distraction. This:

What the hell is this?

Reader, now THIS is a serious distraction. Just what the hell IS this? I mean, I can see what it is: a small, cross-gabled, distinctively decorated, phone-box sized structure. But what is its purpose? Why is it located just off the A708 motorway in Cappercleuch? (And if you’re curious enough to look for this on Google Maps, here’s a shortcut for you.)

The first thing I learned was that the A708 was one of the five most dangerous roads in proportion to traffic in all of Scotland. Or at least it was between 2007 and 2009. Not particularly helpful information, unless many of those accidents were because drivers were distracted by this weird boxy structure.

We can assume it’s not a Scots Tardis, but it has that ‘police box’ aura about it. It’s something official, certainly. The carefully crafted logo seems to confirm that. If we look closely, we can sort of see that it has the number 723 on the side. So, of course, the only thing for us to do is Google Box 723 Cappercleuch. And that gives us this:

I’m just going to assume you’ve made the same leap I did. AA stands for Automobile Association. It’s the UK version of AAA. AA boxes were an early form of roadside assistance in the UK. The first AA boxes were introduced in 1911. They were lit by oil lamps at night, and were sometimes referred to as “the lighthouses of the road.” The AA boxes contained maps to help folks who were lost, as well as a fire extinguisher, a lantern, and a telephone available to contact the AA for assistance. Members of the Automobile Association were issued with keys that fit all AA boxes in the UK.

By 1919 the AA had established a well-connected communication and assistance network of over a thousand roadside boxes, many of which were manned by yellow-uniformed ‘sentries’ who were there to offer free assistance.

Improvements in technology eventually made the AA boxes obsolete. By the late 1960s, the AA began to phase them out. In 2002 only 21 call boxes were still standing; AA shut down the entire network and made plans to dispose of the structures. The following year the boxes were listed as historic landmarks, and efforts were made to physically restore them. Apparently nineteen boxes still exist.

There’s a part of me, of course, that wants to use Google Maps to find them all. It shouldn’t be hard to do. There is absolutely NO REASON for me to do that, but at some point I probably will. Because that sort of pointless activity is my wheelhouse.

But it won’t be done today. I’ve learned some minimal self discipline over the years.

I’ve no idea how much of my day is spent giving in to my curiosity. I’m going to guess at least a couple of hours every day. There are folks who’ll consider this an inefficient use of my time.

Ain’t it great?