cows and weird-ass giant ice cream cones

I live a quiet life these days, and I’m glad of it. For years my professional life was busy and important, sometimes a tad risky, often very strange. Now I mostly deal with words and images. Now I take walks.

Last week I had breakfast at a favorite joint directly across the street from the Iowa State Fairgrounds, which is one of my favorite places to walk. There’s usually something going on there — a gun show, a llama/alpaca event, a swap meet for car enthusiasts, something. Last week it was a cow thing.


This is where I confess to being almost completely ignorant about farm stuff. I know this is a Hereford bull. I know it’s a Hereford because 1) people on Facebook told me it was a Hereford and what the hell, I’ll take them at their word, and 2) I have another photo of this creature in a stall with similar animals, and there’s a small sign identifying them as Herefords. I know it’s a bull because this guy had massive cojones that were the size of cantaloupes. I declare, I don’t know how he was able to walk.

I spoke with the guy for a while. He was quietly pleased. This particular bull had just been sold at auction for enough money to buy a used Harley Sportster.


Here’s a thing I’ve learned about farm folks. They tend to be quiet and sort of shy around strangers, but if they find you’re really interested in them (or in what they do), they’re incredibly friendly. They’re also pretty tolerant of the odor of large mammals and large mammal shit. I mean, they clean it up right quick; farmers are not lazy people. But when you have that many cows lounging around and being moved through the building, you can just count on getting some cow shit in the treads of your sneakers.

While I enjoy the agricultural stuff, that’s not why I walk the fairgrounds. I do it because it’s quiet, and because there’s always some sort of unintended beauty to be found. Like a lot of photographers, I find something attractive in the gradual degradation of buildings falling into disrepair — abandoned factories, old barns, decrepit houses. But there’s something different about the way a fairground degrades.


It’s different because the disrepair is mostly temporary. The fairgrounds is active all year long, but it really only comes alive for a couple of weeks around the end of summer. A few days before the fair begins, folks arrive and start tidying up and re-asserting their footprint on the grounds. Then, of course, you have a week and a half of the fair. After which there are a few days when folks are breaking down their businesses and moving on to the next fair gig.

Then for eleven months things slow down. Eleven months of wind and rain and snow and heat and cold and storms and hail and all that leaves its mark — temporarily. For a photographer, it’s like renewable decrepitude.


The thing about a fair is that it’s meant to draw the eye and ear. Every corndog stand and deep-fried Twinkie booth and beer emporium and barbecue joint is competing for attention. We’re not talking about gentle competition here. This is a sort of economic combat. It’s a tawdry affair, all flashy color and noise — survival depends on it.

But when it’s over, the bright, garish, vulgarity starts to fade — and it fades quickly. This is a big part of what I love. The visual memory of cheap glitter, and the chance to look behind the make-up and see the bone structure. There’s a surprising amount of beauty to be found.

Some places — not many, but a few — manage to withstand the onslaught of neglect. Even though they’re closed for the season, some places remain loud and gaudy and weirdly attractive. Jalapeno Pete’s, for example. I’ve never been inside JP’s during the fair; it’s always much too crowded. I’ve never had a margarita in their rooftop cantina. But the sheer audacity of the colors, and the name itself — Jalapeno Pete’s — makes it impossible for me to walk past the place without wishing I had.


We won’t see Jalapeno Pete’s open again until August 10th. When it does reopen it’s unlikely I’ll be willing to bang my way through the crowds. But I can enjoy it now.

It’s still February; the fairgrounds is empty except for the farmers and their cows — and the occasional guy wandering around with a camera. It’s February, not as cold as it should be, and quiet. But the fairgrounds offers constant reminds that it’ll eventually be hot enough to warrant ice cream.

But in truth I don’t really care. I’m not here for the ice cream, or a margarita at Jalapeno Pete’s, or the Hereford bulls with their astonishing testicles. I’m here for the weird-ass giant cone.

Like I said, I live a quiet life these days. And I’m glad for it.


i took a walk a couple of weeks ago

I like to walk. I like to walk without any purpose, without any goal or objective, without any particular destination. But occasionally I walk with the idea of shooting photographs. Most often that happens on a Thursday (largely because I belong to Utata — an international group of photographers who walk on Thursdays; I’ve written about this before: here, here, and here).

So it wasn’t unusual for me to take a walk on Thursday, the 11th day of November, 2016. I needed a walk that day. I needed it because Donald J. (for Jackass) Trump had just been elected President of These United States. A quiet, contemplative walk on a gray, chilly day that seemed to hold the promise of a gray, chilly future.

And that was how I felt even before I got stopped by a police officer. But I’m getting ahead of myself.


I wasn’t really in the mood to shoot photographs, so I didn’t bother to take a camera. Just my cell phone. It was this tire swing that first made me pull out my phone and open my favorite black-and-white camera app. It seemed a perfect metaphor for my mood. Sort of sad, sort of nostalgic, sort of pathetic. Lost innocence and all that.

I was near a semi-industrial commercial area, so wandered over there and strolled along behind the various shops. You know, that area where the shop owners keep their trash and deliveries get made and isn’t meant to attract customers. I’ve always liked the lack of pretense in alleyways and the backs of shops. And, again, it suited my mood.


This wasn’t an actual alley, though it served the same purpose. I’ve wandered along behind these buildings before; it’s always remarkably tidy. The morning light gave it a certain shabby elegance that contrasted well with the bright, functional geometry of the buildings.

At some point I’d stopped thinking about Trump and started to enjoy myself. That’s the thing about photography, isn’t it. It draws you outside of yourself. And that’s especially true, I think, of black-and-white photography, since you’re paying more attention to shape and line and structure.


Everything gets reduced to what’s in the frame. Not just what’s in the center of the frame, but what’s on the periphery. A step or two to the right, and that bit of shadow from a vent disappears. A step or two to the left, and the bollard disrupts the lock on the electrical whatsit, and the ramp is no longer obviously a ramp.

I know this because I actually took those steps to the left and the right before deciding this was the composition I wanted. (I learned to shoot with film, and since film was expensive and processing it was pain the ass, I learned to pay very close attention to composition; get it right the first time, shoot one frame — maybe two — and move on. I’m a stingy photographer.)


There’s usually a sort of fuzzy area between semi-industrial commercial shops and the more comfortably suburban, well-groomed neighborhoods — an area where the houses might need a bit of paint, where the lawns aren’t quite as tidy, where the kids’ toys haven’t been picked up, where the cars and trucks are a few years older and are showing a bit of rust. It’s the Almost American Dream zone. I grew up in that zone.

Remember that police officer I mentioned earlier? This is where he shows up. I was just about out of the Almost American Dream zone when he arrived.


He was very polite. Young white kid, buzz cut, nice smile. He rolled down his window, said “How’re you doing?” I considered telling him I’d voted for Hillary, so how the hell would I be doing. And that’s basically what I said, though I moderated the last bit. He nodded and said he couldn’t believe it either. Then he said something to this effect: “We got a call about somebody walking behind the shops and taking pictures with a phone. That you?”

I admitted it was. He said one of the shop owners was concerned that somebody might be casing the joint (he actually said “casing the joint”), and then asked if he could have my name.

A short digression here. I worked as a criminal defense investigator for about seven years. I’ve been stopped and questioned and actively harassed by police officers more times than I can count. I know my rights. As a pedestrian legally walking along a public way and minding my own business, I’m not required to identify myself to the police. However, if the officer is investigating a possible crime it becomes a tad tricky. And given that there might be some dispute whether the area behind these particular shops is a public way, it becomes a tad trickier. So I told the officer I was going to reach into my pocket and get my wallet (as a white guy, the odds that the police would shoot me for reaching for my wallet are really really really slim — but still).

I showed him my driver’s licence. He asked the obvious question. “Why were you taking pictures behind those shops?” So I told him. Thursday walks, Utata, light and shadow, alleyway geometry.


Then he asked the really difficult question. “Can I see your photos?”

The obvious answer is no. No, you can’t see my photos. No, because you have no legal right to see them, and I have no obligation to show them to you. The fact that he’d asked to see them rather than issuing a command didn’t matter. The fact that he’d asked politely didn’t matter. Courtesy counts, but it doesn’t trump civil rights.

On the other hand, I didn’t want a fuss. Hillary had just lost the election; I didn’t have the energy to make a passionate civil liberties argument. So I offered a compromise. I told the officer I was reluctant to show him the photos as a matter of principle, but I understood why he wanted to see them. I said “If you agree that you have no legal right to see the photos, I’ll show them to you.”

I got lucky, probably. This guy had a sense of humor. He laughed a bit, then agreed he had no legal right to see the photographs. So I showed him the photos. More than anything else, he was surprised to see that the photos were actually shot in black-and-white. He wasn’t aware there were black-and-white apps. He wasn’t aware you could shoot square format with a phone.

So I took my phone back, turned and shot the photo of the basketball hoop and shadow, and showed it to him. He asked for the name of the app. Then I asked if I could take his photo, and he said this (or something like this): “You have the right to take my picture so long as it doesn’t interfere with the performance of my duties…but I’d rather you didn’t.”

So I didn’t. I thought about it, but I didn’t. As he drove away, I wished I had. Sort of.

Postscript: I began to write about this on the day it happened. But the sad fact is, I was still too discouraged about the election to write more than a couple of paragraphs. I’ve noodled around with this post off and on, but I’m still pretty gutted by Hillary’s loss — and seeing these photos reminded me of how grim I’ve felt since the election. It reminds me of how much stuff I’ve put off, how many things I’ve been procrastinating about, how much normal stuff I’ve been avoiding.

I had a good encounter with a police officer — something positive happened to me — and I just couldn’t maintain that feeling. That sucks. It has to change. Maybe finishing this and publishing it is the spark I need. And now I suppose I have to append the ‘confessional crap’ tag to this. I hate confessional crap.

thoughts on sand

I was walking along the lake shore, not thinking about anything in particular. Just casually looking at the birds, watching the dragonflies that hunt the small ponds along the lake, listening to the gulls arguing, enjoying the way the sand shifted under my feet. Here’s an interesting thing about sand: it behaves more like a liquid when it’s dry, and more like a solid when it’s wet.

I was just walking in the sand by the lake, idly scanning the ground for interesting chunks of driftwood or colorful stones. And I saw this:


Somebody had lost a beach shoe. Nothing really out of the ordinary. And a dog had padded by. Also pretty common; lots of people take their dogs to the lake. At some point, a raccoon had wandered along the same bit of sand; the woods around the lake are a haven for raccoon. And now I was standing there. That layering of temporal events pleased me for some reason — four creatures had crossed that same little patch of sand, separated only by a period of time.

This sort of thing happens to me all the time. I see something, and neurons start firing in my brain. I saw that lost beach shoe and the dog’s paw print and the raccoon track, and thoughts start turning over in my mind. Because it wasn’t just us that had crossed that bit of sand. Dozens of creatures had walked, slithered, or hopped across that same spot. Thousands of dozens. Millions of thousands of dozens. I mean, some three hundred million years ago, this entire area was under water; it was the sandy bottom of a great inland sea — a sea that dried up, only to be replaced by another inland sea a couple hundred million years later. Then that sea dried up as well. Now there’s just sand.



Well, not just sand. There’s also a lake. Six thousand acres of water. Almost ten square miles. Not a natural lake, though. Technically, it’s a reservoir — a man-made lake; an intentional containment of the Des Moines River. The lake was created about 50 years ago to try to control the periodic flooding that plagued the city of Des Moines for over a century. The flooding also troubled the native people who’d settled at the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers seven thousand years earlier.

We know people lived here seven thousand years ago because we’ve found their bodies. A woman and a child, well-preserved skeletons sealed in a layer of sandy clay deposited by a sudden flood. It’s only relatively recently that humans developed the technology (and the audacity and arrogance) to dam up the river and create a lake. The dam and the lake hasn’t put an end to the flooding, but it’s certainly reduced the damage.


A lost beach shoe and a raccoon print in the sand, and my mind went caroming off of disappearing Paleozoic seas and banging into ancient human settlements and human high-handedness toward nature. But even while a chunk of my brain was knocking around notions of time and human presumption, I couldn’t help being drawn by how gracefully the water and wind have shaped the lake shore.

I found myself paying attention to how the moisture content of the sand shifted its color along with its consistency — how the farther I got from the water, the more pale the sand became. I started to notice how the granularity of the sand changed — how some was more coarse and some was incredibly fine. I paid more attention to how the wind revealed layers of different color in the sand, how driftwood bleached into various subtle shades.


There was something wonderful and beautiful about how dried leaves gathered gracefully in fluid self-organized, breeze-driven groups. There was something fascinating about how different waterlines arranged themselves; you could gauge the strength of various storms by the arrangements of the detritus and the driftwood and how far they’d been driven from the waterline by the wind and the waves.

None of this is stable. It’s changing all the time. The change is sometimes radical and quick and violent, but mostly it’s slow. I know I can return to this same spot in a couple of weeks and find that same driftwood log and those same weeds; I know I can return in six months and find that same log, though it will likely be surrounded by different detritus. There is continuity. Continuity, but not sameness.


There’s a good chance that the next time I return to the lake, that lost beach shoe will still be there. The dog’s paw print and the raccoon track probably won’t. The sand, though, it’ll still be there. Long after I’m dead and gone, long after that shoe disintegrates, long after the driftwood deteriorates into nothing, the sand will still be there.

There are people who collect sand as a hobby. They’re called arenophiles. The word comes from the Latin term for sand: harena. That’s also the root of the word arena. What does sand have to do with an arena? The Romans understood that the best and easiest way to soak up the blood spilled from their arena spectacles — the gladiator fights, the chariot races, the beast contests — was to lay down a layer of sand. Before there was a Coliseum, there was sand.

There’s always sand.


iowa state fair — part two: romans & countrymen

I’ve written about the Iowa State Fair before, because c’mon — it’s the Iowa State Fair, and who doesn’t love a state fair? Or a county fair, for that matter.

People have been holding and attending fairs since the Romans invented them. They were astonishing assholes, those Romans, but you have to give them credit for spreading the concept of a fair all across Europe. Of course, they did that by conquering most of the various tribes of Europe. While I suspect those tribes would have preferred not being conquered to having a local fair, the fair is still a great idea.

Rock & Roll

Rock & Roll

In concept, the Iowa State Fair continues to follow the Roman model. It’s a temporary event, it’s about gathering livestock for display and for sale, it’s about marketing of wares, it’s about entertainment of the masses, and it’s about giving young folks a way of meeting new young folks. It’s an amusing way for folks to buy a new goat and acquire a new pan while expanding the gene pool. Everybody wins — except for most of the folks who get caught up in tossing a ring at a milk bottle.

Expanding the gene pool.

Expanding the gene pool.

If you’re one of those people who always categorize things into groups of threes (and it appears today I’m one of those people) there are three types of folks you’ll see at the fair. First, there are the folks who work there — the people who sell the food, the carnies who set up and operate the midway rides, the folks who sit in the information booths and tell you where you can find the bacon-wrapped barbecue ribs, the fair security staff.

Dishing up freshly made ice cream.

Dishing up freshly made ice cream.

It’s got to be hard work — if only because even in the best of circumstances people tend to treat service workers terribly. I suspect it’s even worse at a state fair, if only because fairs aren’t known for their efficiency. That said, the woman in the image above was fast and friendly and made buying ice cream a pleasure.

There are also the people who are at the fair for exhibition purposes — the artisans who demonstrate arcane or traditional skills like blacksmithing, the kids who enter their goats and sheep and chickens and assorted livestock for judging, the dedicated hobbyists who show curious people how to go about carving a figure of a beaver using a small chainsaw.


Blacksmiths doing blacksmith stuff.

One of my favorite things about attending the fair is seeing the farm families that come from all over the state to have their livestock judged. There’s something charming about it. These kids have raised their sheep and llamas and pigs, and they want to show them off. And during the ten days of the fair, a lot of them basically set up small camps in the barns.

There are separate barns for different species. There are a couple of horse barns, a sheep barn, a barn for pigs, another for cows. They’re massive, these barns. The horse barn is over 90,000 square feet with more than 400 stalls for horses. It also has showers (for people as well as horses). The sheep barn is even more massive — more than 140,000 square feet. You can pack a lot of sheep and people into 140,000 square feet.

Pokemon among the sheep.

Pokemon among the sheep.

The exhibitors who stay in these barns do many of the same sorts of things they’d be doing at home. They catch Pokemon (the fairgrounds are littered with Pokestops), they take care of their livestock, they visit with their neighbors, they shop and eat, they hang out with friends, they…well, they expand the gene pool.

Canoodling in the barns.

Canoodling in the Cattle Barn.

Hanging out in the Horse Barn.

Hanging out in the Horse Barn.

But  most of the folks you see at the Iowa State Fair are people like me. By that I mean visitors. People who aren’t employed by the fair or exhibiting something at the fair. Visitors are just there to have fun. We’re ordinary folks. We may be old folks or kids, we may be round or flat, we may be tall or short, but we’re all basically on the same old Roman (or Star Trek) mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations.

The Romans (and the peoples they conquered) might be astonished by the technology of the Iowa State Fair, but they’d recognize the atmosphere. One of the benefits of ancient fairs was it allowed for the dissemination of information. That still happens.

Consuming information.

Consuming information.

I basically go to the Iowa State Fair for three reasons. Reason One: to eat the sort of food you know you should never eat on account of it’s SO bad for you. I’m talking about fried everything on a damned stick, probably wrapped in bacon.

Reason Two: to look at goats. Well, goats and llamas and weird chickens and rabbits the size of Jack Russell terriers and a really really really big pig. I’ve never lived on a farm so my experience with livestock is pretty much limited to looking at them in pens at the fair.

Reason Three: people. I like people. I like to watch them. I like to see a LOT of different sorts of people. I like to see those people reacting to other people.

Waiting for the ride to begin.

Waiting for the ride to begin.

There are some things people want to see more than other things. I mean, the number of fair-goers who want to see ornate, detailed dollhouses are minuscule compared to the number that want to see the fair’s Biggest Hog. I am NOT making this up, by the way. People line up every year to see the biggest hog. The pen holding the biggest hog is surrounded by a crowd. This year the pig was (and again, I’m not making this up) named Lug Nut. Or maybe Lugnut (it’s not clear, but because I think Lug Nut is more visually appealing, that’s what I’m going with). Lug Nut weighed in at 1148 pounds. I had to wait about ten minutes to get close to Lug Nut’s pen to actually see the beast. The photograph below was shot at about minute nine.

In line to see a large hog.

In line to see an exceedingly large hog.

There was a sign attached to Lug Nut’s pen warning people to keep their hands and fingers away from the pig. I can only guess Lug Nut would, if given a chance, eat the hands and fingers. You don’t get to 1148 pounds by being discriminating in your diet. (I have photos of Lug Nut, by the way — maybe I’ll do another installment.)

But as popular as the big hog is, there’s absolutely nothing at the Iowa State Fair that’s comparable to the popularity of the Butter Cow. Every year for over a century, the fair has found somebody to carve a cow out of butter. Since the mid-1990s, the Butter Cow has been accompanied by ‘companion’ butter sculptures. This year the cow was accompanied by butter figures from — and I swear I am NOT making this up — Star Trek. I’m serious. There’s a butter starship Enterprise and a butter Captain James T. Kirk (and maybe some other crew members). It actually makes a weird sort of sense. Kirk, after all, will be born in Riverside, Iowa in a couple hundred years

The line(s) to see the butter cow and butter Enterprise crew.

The line(s) to see the butter cow and butter Enterprise crew.

Not that I got to see the Butter Cow or Butter Kirk. As you can see, the line to view these treasures was Soviet long and moved at a Soviet pace (though it was somewhat more colorful that most Soviet-era lines). There were too many other things to see, too many other places to go — so I went and saw those things instead.

But that’s the nature of a fair, isn’t it. By design, there’s always something else to see and do. That’s what brings you back year after year, even if you’ve already seen it and done it before.. Let’s face it, if you’ve seen one huge pig, you don’t really need to see another — a huge pig is a huge pig is a huge pig, as the poet said. Last year’s prize apples and award-winning goat are pretty much going to be like this year’s apples and goats. Next year’s blacksmithing demonstration will be pretty much like this year’s, and the new Fried Thing On a Stick won’t be radically different from the current Fried Thing On a Stick.

Probably not their first Iowa State Fair.

Probably not their first Iowa State Fair. Probably not their last.

And yet folks keep returning to the fair. For decades, they keep returning. Why? Because it’s always different and it’s always the same, and there’s excitement and comfort in that.  Because it’s the fair, and what else are you going to do?

The Romans may have been imperialist assholes, but credit where it’s due: they gave us the fair.





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.


This is why it’s so hard for me to get things done.

I took a short walk this morning. I try to take a walk every day, even if it’s just a short stroll to the local Stop & Rob for a cookie. Round trip, a walk to the S&R is about 1.75 miles. If I’m not interrupted, it takes me maybe forty minutes to get there, buy my cookie, return home, and re-park my ass in front of the computer.

But I’m always interrupted. Always. Almost. This morning I walked by an old couple (I call them old but they’re probably not all that much older than I am, really) sitting in lawn chairs inside their garage. “Hot,” the old guy called out. And he was right, it was already closing in on 90F. Anyway I stopped and chatted with them for a bit. He was a retired something-or-other in some insurance-related business; she never said what she did. We chatted about the weather for a bit. They seemed nice, and they clearly liked each other, and that was that. On I went.

After I’d gone thirty yards or so I thought “I should have taken their photograph.” Opportunity lost, right there.

At the S&R I bought a frosted sugar cookie, put it in a bag to tote home, and headed out. I was only a few steps out the door when this guy says “Excuse me,” so of course I stopped. He wanted to know how to get to Oskaloosa — which, believe it or not, is an actual name of an actual town. I knew the name of the town, but didn’t have a clue where it was. But I had my phone, so it only took a moment to call up a map and get directions.

He wondered why his phone wouldn’t do that. He had a Samsung something or other with Google Maps, so I had him tap on the little microphone skeuomorph (which is a real word, though WordPress doesn’t seem to think so) and say “Give me directions to Oskaloosa.” And hey, his phone gave him directions, and he was happy.

He thanked me, said he thought he detected a little Dixie in my voice, and I told him I’d spent a chunk of my life in the Deep South. He said he was from Baton Rouge, and was in Iowa working on constructing a pipeline (one whose construction I opposed, but he didn’t need to know that). We chatted a bit more, then he asked if I’d ever had any gratons.

If you’ve never spent much time in Cajun country, you may not know that gratons are what other Southern folk call ‘cracklings’, and if you’ve never spent much time in the American South you may not know what ‘cracklings’ are. As far as that goes, you may not want to know what ‘cracklings’ are. But I’m gonna tell you: they’re fried chunks of pig skin and fat. Here, look:


Now, I don’t eat much meat anymore. And I realize that even dedicated carnivores are likely to turn their faces away from gratons. But I grew up eating stuff like this. He asked if I’d ever had any, and I said yes, and he opened up his car door and pulled out a container about the size of a coffee can full of spicy home-made gratons. Not those commercial pork rinds you might see in truck stops, but the real thing. I took one, popped it in my mouth, and it was hot. Even though my head said I should be disgusted, my mouth was telling me I was home. It’s hard to escape your culture.

It must have shown on my face, on account of he laughed and said “Here, have some more.” So I held out the bag I had my cookie in, and he dumped in a bunch of gratons. We shook hands and that was that. On I went. After I’d gone thirty yards or so I thought “I should have taken his photograph.” Another opportunity lost, right there.

I managed to get home without further incident. Less than two miles, 75 minutes, two conversations with strangers, and a bag of spicy gratons (which reminds me — Public Service Announcement: Cajun spices do NOT improve a frosted sugar cookie). Just another morning.

And this is why it’s so hard for me to get things done.

so sad so cool

The truck, that was the first thing I noticed — just off the road, on the other side of a deep, grassy ditch. At some point in time it had been a serious truck. Not a gentleman farmer’s pick-up that could also be used to run errands, but a full-sized working truck built to haul serious payloads. Now it was basically a ruin; sitting lop-sided in the dead grass. It had been sitting there so long it had actually settled into the soil.


Beyond the truck was a house. A small farmstead, really — the house, a collapsed barn, a few small outbuildings, some sheds, a scattering of grain bins, rusted farm equipment. There was surprisingly little vandalism, aside from a few shattered windows and maybe the front door, which had been torn from its hinges. Most of the damage appeared to be the result of weather and long neglect. The property was clearly abandoned, and had been for some time.

It’s a curious term, abandon. It connotes a complete giving up, an absolute and total acknowledgment that there will be no return, a total surrender. Perhaps whoever lived there had originally intended to return — but at some point there had to be a moment of recognition that it would never happen. There’s something profoundly sad about that.

abandoned farmhouse2

Here’s an odd thing: I couldn’t bring myself to enter the house. I mounted the stairs and stood in the doorway, but I was reluctant to go inside. Not because it wasn’t safe (the house itself seemed pretty stable), and not because it would be trespassing (legally, I was already trespassing). I was unwilling to go inside because it felt wrong. It felt like a violation, somehow. What makes it odd is that at one point in my life I had a job that involved routinely trespassing and violating the privacy of other folks. But back then I was getting paid; to trespass in the house for no reason other than my own amusement seemed like some sort of transgression.

However, I didn’t feel that way about the other buildings on the property. I noodled around in them without any compunction at all. This one, for example.

music room2

It was just a few yards away from the main house. The roof had caved in a long time ago, and the debris made it almost impossible to walk around. It didn’t help that there were obvious nails and shards of broken glass lying about (combined with the fact that I was wearing sneakers). Still, it was easy to tell the building had most recently been used as a sort of office or studio.

The bones of an old Hackley upright piano occupied the main room.

piano also2

In 1863, at the height of the American Civil War, Milo J. Chase began building pianos in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A few years later, his company was reorganized as Chase-Hackley Pianos. The company had a good reputation as builders of durable, medium quality instruments. The pianos could be bought directly from the manufacturers, which allowed buyers to avoid sales and additional shipping charges. This made Chase and Hackley pianos popular with rural and farm families — at least until they went out of business in 1930, victims of the Great Depression.

It’s easy to imagine farm kids sitting in front of this old Hackley, struggling away at some painful version of Clair de Lune.

tractor again2

Behind the house were a variety of small, slowly collapsing sheds and workshops, as well as well as some farm equipment — all of which suggest that at one time this was a rather successful farming operation. There was a woodworking shed, a machine and tool shed, and a couple of storage buildings — all of which were in some stage of dilapidation. Only a few had working doors; none had functioning windows.

As with the house, most of the damage was a result of time and weather — and in some cases, animals. One bench was littered with raccoon shit, there were what appeared to be small mammal nests under some of the workbenches, and paw prints in the dust.

shed again2

The barn was the most severely damaged structure on the farmstead. The roof and one wall had completely collapsed, two of the other walls were pretty unstable, and the fourth wall seemed to be supported primarily by stacked bales of old hay. I wouldn’t have gone inside at all, except that I could see some bones — and bones make me stupid.

So I crouched down and groucho-walked inside to look at them. It was dark, of course, and what I first thought was an old sack turned out to be the semi-mummified remains of a dog. It appeared to have died of exposure or natural causes rather than violence, and was eviscerated by other creatures after death. The roof was too low at that point to allow me to examine the dog closely. I couldn’t even photograph it properly; I had to hold the camera out at arm’s length and shoot blindly. This is the only shot that was in focus — which is probably just as well.

family dog2

I didn’t stay at the farmstead very long. Places to go, people to meet, and all that. But the entire time I was there, I was very aware of my own internal dissonance. I’m not a terribly self-reflective person under most circumstances. I don’t spend much (or any) time thinking about what I feel, or wondering why I do stuff. Yet I was conscious of being torn between feeling This is so sad and thinking This is so cool.

Because it was so sad and it was so cool, and it still is. I’ll almost certainly go back at some point when I have more time to explore. Maybe I’ll even overcome my conscience and actually go inside the house.