aimless, but not pointless

It’s probably got something to do with the transitional seasons — spring and autumn. Summer and winter are seasons of certainties and absolutes; you know what you can expect: heat and cold. Spring and autumn, though, are seasons of flux and movement; they’re about the passage from one absolute to another.

Maybe that’s why I feel a greater need to explore the countryside in spring and autumn. That’s where you witness the change.


Saturday began as a dark, cloudy, stormy day with no real promise of improvement. I had good reasons to stay inside — a book doctoring gig that was overdue, household chores I’d put off for too long, photographs I’d taken the week before but hadn’t yet uploaded. Valid reasons to stay home. But I felt restless…and here’s a true thing: I almost never feel restless. When I do, I usually give in to it.

So I went to a nearby lake, with no purpose in mind other than to noodle around and see what there was to see. It was raw outside, miserably damp, and the light looked infirm. But there’s always something to see at the water’s edge. Lake, brook, ocean, river, doesn’t matter — there’s always something to see.


Then the clouds began to fail. The sun took a shufti, and started to wriggle and squirm through the cloud cover. And soon the day had become lovely. It didn’t get warm or anything, but it became comfortable. And the light…lawdy.

I’m sort of stingy when it comes to photography — maybe because I learned to shoot using film. I’ll lift the camera to my eye fairly often, but I don’t always press the shutter release. I’m not particularly conscious of my reasons for shooting or not shooting. All I know is sometimes it feels right and sometimes it doesn’t.

I was out at the lake for about an hour and a half — ninety minutes — and I took about ninety photographs. For me, that’s a LOT of photos.


They call it a lake, but in fact it’s a reservoir built in the late 1960s and 70s as part of a flood control program. It’s hard to believe these days, but it wasn’t that long ago when the U.S. government spent big money on big projects that benefited regular people in a big way. Not only did the massive construction project itself provide a lot of jobs, but the finished lake supports a large community of small businesses.

The lake is a major local recreational area. It’s popular with recreational boaters, with hunters, with anglers, with hikers, with bicyclists (there are bike trails all through the area), with picnickers, with photographers (I saw one guy with a 4×5 view camera), with campers. All of those people spend money on their hobbies. They buy boats and jet-skis (and have them repaired and moored at marinas in the summer and stored in the winter), they buy fishing and hunting gear, they buy bikes and cameras, they eat at local diners and buy gas at local filling stations, they buy camping gear and rent camping sites at the many campgrounds, they buy sunscreen and mosquito repellent, they buy beer and soda, they spend a metric buttload of money every year. All because the government built a 26,000 acre flood protection reservoir. (All of which is to say ‘Fuck you, Tea Party Asshats!’)

DSCF4220bIn the summer, this lake is busy. It slows down quite a bit in the autumn, and on a day that began so cold and unwelcoming it wasn’t surprising that there were so few people to be seen. There were a few people bundled up but still zooming around in boats, there were a few folks fishing, there was a guy with a dog, and another guy wrestling with a large format camera. Lots of gulls, a few deer, some dead fish, a different hawk every few yards, no obvious raccoons or weasels (though a lot of tracks), finches so tiny you could fit two in a teacup.

It seems so quiet when you first arrive — but soon you realize how much sound there is. The waves, of course, and the wind through the grasses. Distant drone of boat motors. That ridiculous but somehow still moving plaintive cry of the gulls. Soft rattling of dead leaves. It seems absurd that the world could be so quiet and still so full of noise.


At one of the many official recreation spots there’s a bath house for swimmers — an open air place to shower and change in and out of swim suits. It’s a purely functional building made of formed concrete. It looks rather like a failed student project from the Soviet School of Architecture and Design. It ain’t pretty.

But, again, the light. Light has the capacity to turn even a butt-ugly bath-house into something interesting. For a moment, anyway.


Here’s an odd thing. When I first arrived at the lake, I spent most of my time looking out at everything. Looking out at the horizon, out at the trees and out over the water, out at the buildings and the shifting clouds. But the longer I was there, the more I began to look down.

Looking out, you tend to see the larger world and the things you notice are large things. Looking down, you notice the smaller world. A world of small stones and tiny plants and odd-looking insects and sand and dry broken bits of wood and dead grasses and clusters of cockleburs. Along the lakeside, it’s a universe of cockleburs.


Cockleburs are really rather fascinating. The seeds, of course, are hard ovals covered in spines. The spines are actually wonderfully-formed hooks, though the tiny hooks are difficult to see without close study. But c’mon, who really looks at a cocklebur? Nobody. You just want to get the wee bastards off. Off your shirt, and off your pants, and off your socks, and your shoes, and Jeebus on toast I’ll bet the damned things could stick to tank treads.

That’s the point, of course. The spiny hooks are an incredibly efficient and effective mode of seed dispersal. But what’s really cool about these remarkably annoying plants is that they’re classic examples of photoperiodism. They’re what’s called short-day plants, plants that only bloom when the days begin to get shorter. Short-day plants have a protein that actually serves as a photo-receptor, which is incredibly cool. What’s even more cool (if you like this sort of thing) is that the photo-receptor isn’t triggered by the amount of light during the day, but by the amount of dark during the night. Short-day plants should actually be called long-night plants.


But wait — there’s still more cool but weird cocklebur stuff. That infuriating egg-shaped seed pod generally holds two seeds — one seed grows the next year, the other seed waits and grows during the second year. It’s a marvelously effective way to insure the perpetuation of the species. If you were to pick a few of those irritating burrs off your socks and boil them, you could make a tea that’s moderately effective at relieving nasal and sinus congestion. Or, you could use the plant itself to make a yellow dye. Seriously. The cocklebur belongs to the genus Xanthium, which means ‘yellow’ in Greek. It got that scientific name from a 17th century French botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, who was aware that the plant had been used for centuries by the Greeks to create a yellow hair dye.

So the next time you have to pick cockleburs off your shoestring, remember to give a moment of thought to what a truly remarkable plant it is. Then throw the irksome little bastard away (which, of course, is exactly what the irksome little bastard wants).


An hour and a half, that’s all the longer I was out there. An hour and a half, and the clouds began to move back in, the wind picked up, and the air took on a dampness that made it seem colder than it was. An hour and a half, and if I believed in the soul I’d say mine was replenished in that time. Ninety minutes of mostly aimless walking and looking and shooting photos.

And another ten minutes picking the damned cockleburs off my clothes.

just another afternoon by the river

The Des Moines River is a little over 500 miles long. The section I spend most of my time on is maybe a mile. Probably a little less than that. It’s an urban section of river; there’s nothing ‘natural’ about it. There aren’t any real river banks, there are no trees lining the water, there are no organic eddies or sandbanks or mudflats. There are concrete walkways and arched bridges and dams and promenades and buildings. You can buy a coffee (or a beer or a glass of wine) in a small kiosk and sit and watch the water roll on.

I do that fairly often. When I do, I usually  find myself looking at the river and wondering what it must have been like before. City Hall Before, this was French territory. Most folks think of North America as a former British colony, which is a limited version of the truth. In fact, the British were largely confined to a relatively narrow strip of land along the Atlantic coast. Most of the interior was held by the French. Well, actually it was held by the native tribes who lived there before any Europeans made their way across the ocean. But history was written by Europeans, so it’s mostly concerned with what Europeans did.

My point, if you can call it that, is this: Iowa used to be part of Nouvelle-France. New France was fucking HUGE. It stretched west from Newfoundland all the way to the Great Plains (and, eventually, clear to the Rocky Mountains). It included all the land south of Hudson Bay down to the Gulf of Mexico. The entire drainage basin of the Mississippi River comprised a district called Louisiana, which was divided into Haute Louisiane and Basse-Louisiane. Upper and Lower Louisiana. Sort of like North and South Dakota, only with the benefit of not being either of the Dakotas. new france Of course, the native peoples didn’t give a moose’s ass what the French called the land. I suspect they just stood around grinning and snickering to themselves while these odd white guys kept ‘discovering’ places and renaming them. The first white guys set foot in what eventually became Iowa in 1659. Pierre-Esprit Radisson and his brother-in-law Médard des Groseilliers. Despite their poncy names, these guys were tough. They were coureurs de bois — runners of the woods. Unlike voyageurs, who were licensed to do business by trading companies (in other words, capitalist lackeys), coureurs de bois were independent, entrepreneurial fur-trappers, traders, and explorers.

Radisson and des Groseilliers explored and mapped a big chunk of the North American interior. Radisson eventually had three or four towns named after him, and a hotel chain, and even a Canadian Coast Guard vessel. Nobody named anything after Médard des Groseilliers. This is what happens when you partner up with a guy whose name is more cool than yours. But even though these men made their way to Iowa, they almost certainly didn’t travel up the Des Moines River. steps up holga Nobody really knows which European made the first trip up La Rivière des Moines. It could have been Michel Accault, Antoine Angel, and Father Hennepin in 1680; they were in the area. Or maybe it was the cartographer Jean-Baptiste-Louis Franquelin a few years later, though it’s more likely he copied some other guy’s map of the river. The Baron Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce de Lahontan said he traveled up the Des Moines, but most historians think he was lying about it. We know that Pierre Charles Le Sueur made his way up the river in 1700, but he probably wasn’t the first. A few years after Le Sueur, Father Peter Francis Xavier de Charlevoix wrote this:

[T]he river Moingona issues from the midst of an immense meadow, which swarms with Buffaloes and other wild beasts

Swarms of buffalo where there are now coffee shops. How cool is that? The buffalo are gone now, other than a few small herds kept in parks so sticky-fingered children can look at them. The buffalo are gone, and so are the French. underbridge holga We know why the buffalo are gone. Because we were well-armed murderous bastards and we slaughtered them for our amusement. But why did the French leave? They had a massive presence in the New World — not just all that territory in North America, but throughout the Caribbean. That’s why pirates in the movies (the ‘bad’ pirates, not the good Errol Flynn pirates) always speak with a French accent — because they fucking owned Hispaniola. So why did the French leave? Give some of the credit to François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, a slave born on Hispaniola.

In 1791 Louverture took the island away from the French by leading a successful slave rebellion. That pissed off the French and a decade later Napoleon Bonaparte sent a sizable military force to New Orleans to support an effort to re-take Hispaniola. The United States was only about 15 years old at the time, and having the French military camped out in New Orleans made the government nervous. Almost half of the goods imported into the U.S. passed through the port of New Orleans. So even though the French failed to retake Hispaniola (which is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), President Thomas Jefferson thought it might be a good idea to find a way to get the French off our stoop.

along the river holga

In 1803 Jefferson decided to try to buy the city of New Orleans from the French. He figured he’d offer France a cool US$10 million for the city — and what the hell, maybe some of the surrounding land. Why not? France would get a little cash in the bank, the U.S. would get a nice port and party town, everybody would be happy.

But Bonaparte was dans le pétrin — in a pickle. He’d lost the income from the sugar grown on Hispaniola, he was facing another war with Britain, and his nation was close to bankruptcy. So before the U.S. made its ten million dollar offer, Bonaparte proposed to sell ALL of Louisiana for 50 million francs (plus canceling a debt of about 18 million francs). That amounted to about 15 million dollars. Jefferson had planned to offer ten million just for the city; now he could get the entire French enchilada (yeah, I know, let’s not get bogged down in national cuisine here) for another five million. A bargain, right?

dam holga

Congress opposed the purchase. Seriously. Jefferson was about to double the size of the nation — to pick up around 828,000 square miles of territory at a cost of about three cents an acre — and Congress opposed it. They said the president didn’t have the authority to make or accept the offer. They disliked the idea of granting citizenship to the French, Spanish, and free black people who lived in the territory (nobody even considered citizenship for the native peoples). They worried about the political effects of bringing in all those farmers when so much of the power of Congress depended on the wealth of the merchants and bankers along the coast.

In other words, Congress — primarily the House of Representatives — were dicks about the whole thing (sound familiar?). But the sale squeaked through in the House and was passed by the Senate, and hey bingo, the United States was suddenly bigger and in a position to start seriously fucking over the native peoples west of the Mississippi.

river so quiet holga

So I walk beside the Des Moines River. I sip my coffee and watch the water pass by. And I think about those courageous coureurs de bois (and they were courageous; it took some massive balls to go wandering in unexplored and often hostile territory), and I think about the European politics that eventually led the United States to the genocide of the natives who lived in the Americas (and the French were just as guilty in this; in 1729 Louis XV authorized the extermination of the Fox Indians because they were interfering with the fur trade). Half a mile south of where the photograph above was taken you can still find the remains of an old fort constructed to protect the French monks who’d come to the New World to force Baby Jesus down the throats of the natives.

So many wonderful and horrible things happened along this river. And the only thing that’s been consistent throughout is the river itself. The river doesn’t care. The buffalo were here, the Indians were here, the French were here, now I’m here.

Given that history, I don’t think this ends particularly well for me.

gazania in a monkey’s head

So, back in May, right? I’m noodling around in the Sally (yes, I know the Salvation Army opposes marriage equality, but they still provide services to poor folks and since I live nearby, I like to stop in now and then and slip them a few bucks; I’m vocal about my support for marriage quality, but I’m not going to ace out poor folks just to get back at the Sally, and anyway same-sex marriage has been legal in Iowa for a few years now, so let’s not get sidetracked from oh lawdy it’s too late). And what do I see? A ceramic boxlike thing with a monkey’s head on it.

And I snatch it off the shelf. I know immediately, right then, I’m buying it.

no evil

“You’re buying a tissue holder with a chimpanzee’s head on it?” my friend asked. And I realize I’m not holding a boxlike thing with a monkey’s head; I’m holding a tissue holder with a chimpanzee’s head. Easy mistake to make.

“It’s not a tissue holder,” I tell her. “It’s a planter. Or it’s going to be.” She gives me that patient no-point-in-discussing-it look, which I get so often. At the checkout counter, a short woman wearing a sweater with a teddy bear holding some balloons on the front says, “Oh, I’ve always liked that tissue holder. That’ll be four dollars.”

Four bucks for a planter with a chimpanzee’s head. That’s a bargain. In fact, there are four chimpanzee faces on it. See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil, and a fourth face which I believe is Contemplating a Little Evil.

So since I now own a planter, I need a plant. We head off to the nearest garden center, where I wander around aimlessly, looking at a staggering array of plants, all of which are labeled with detailed information about the amount of water required, the amount of light necessary, the proper pH level, appropriate moon cycle for planting, the expected growth size of the plant, the size and color and dimension of its blooms, the Latin name of the plant, whether or not its edible and how best to prepare it, the etymology of its common name, which chapter the plant appears in Professor Snape’s Potions textbook.

I see a plant called a Gazania. It has odd, primitive-looking leaves and  a name that sounds like a fictional nation in a Marx Brothers movie. I snatch it off the shelf. I know immediately, right then, I’m buying it.

gazania in a bag

It turns out you can’t actually plant a Gazania (or anything else, for that matter, in a tissue holder on account of a tissue holder doesn’t have a bottom. You need a bottom in a planter, else the plant just falls out. I figured that out my ownself. So you have to plant the Gazania in a small planter, then somehow weasel the leaves through the tissue opening. If you take your time and are careful, it can be done. It can also be done if you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing and just try shit until it works.

My friend’s friend said, “It’ll die. It needs a bigger pot. It’s got to have muttermutter sunlight. It’s supposed to be planted muttermutter.” “It’s a Gazania,” I said. “In a monkey’s head. If it lasts a week, I’ll be happy. Anything beyond that is gravy. And besides, I piss on the nation of your birth.”

I cannot abide a naysayer.

gazania inna monkey head

Anyway, I was happy. Stupidly and completely happy. I had a Gazania in a monkey’s head. How many folks can say that? If it died, so what? Four bucks for the monkey’s head, four bucks for the Gazania — hell, you pay more than that for a movie (I saw The Heat with Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock last week — it’s hilarious, y’all should go see it; it won’t bring you as much joy as a Gazania in a monkey’s head, but very few things will, you know?).

And hey, it didn’t die. In fact, in a couple of weeks, it blossomed. Which was pretty much a shock on account of I didn’t even know it was a flower. I had a flowering Gazania in a monkey’s head. Crazy-ass, wild yellow flowers. Gaudy bastards, with a red blaze down the center of each petal.

I was over the moon.


Look at those flowers. They look like something a child would draw. A child who’s seen too much Speed Racer.

And it hasn’t stopped. It just keeps on continuing to blossom. One flower withers and dies, and another takes its place. Sometimes two takes its place. I trim off the dying flowers and this thing just keeps pushing out new flowers, like Octomom.

I swear, no power in the ‘verse can stop it.

more gazania

Well, okay. I know that’s not true. I know it’ll die in the fall. Maybe. Actually, I don’t have a clue what it’ll do in the fall. But probably it’ll die, right? And that’s okay. On account of it’s been the best eight bucks I’ve ever…well, no. That’s almost certainly not true either. I’m sure I’ve spent eight bucks in lots of better ways, though I can’t think of any at the moment. Still, it was a really great eight bucks, no mistake.

Also? I may start a website And I’ll be sure to thank the Sally for giving me the idea.

my share of lightheartedness

The year was 1896, and Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy experienced two life-changing events. One was tragic; one wasn’t. First, his son, Ivan Lvovich, died. Vanichka, as he was called, was only seven years old, and Tolstoy’s last child.

Second, two months later, Tolstoy learned to ride a bicycle. He was 67 years old.

Lighthearted Leo Tolstoy

Lighthearted Leo Tolstoy

Moskovskoye Obshchestvo Lyubiteley Velosipede (the Moscow Society of Velocipede-Lovers — and no, I’m not making this up) gave Tolstoy a bicycle and offered him instruction on how to operate the machine. To everybody’s surprise, he quickly became a devoted cyclist, riding along his garden paths most mornings after writing. Tolstoy on a bike; in 1896 that was considered a major news story. Scientific American reported on it: Count Leo Tolstoy…now rides the wheel, much to the astonishment of the peasants on his estate.

One of Tolstoy’s friends was considerably less enthused. He wrote: “Tolstoy has learned to ride a bicycle. Is this not inconsistent with Christian ideals?” Tolstoy’s reply:

I feel that I am entitled to my share of lightheartedness and there is nothing wrong with enjoying one’s self simply, like a boy.

Dude was right. No doubt about it. We’re all entitled to a share of lightheartedness. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying oneself like a boy. I do it all the time. I did it last Friday, in fact. And though I forgot to take my camera, I did take my phone — which like all modern phones, takes photographs.

What was once a lumber yard

What was once a lumber yard

As a camera, the Nexus 4 is a great cell phone. It’s not bad as a camera, you understand. It’s just not…well, a camera. Still, it’s good enough that when I rode by this old lumber yard on the way out of town, I had to stop and shoot the photo. It’s not that old, the lumber yard. I mean, it’s not like Tolstoy-old. But it’s semi-beat up and sort of weathered, and it’s a pretty sort of almost-yellow, so worth a photo. If I’d had my actual camera with me, I’d have ridden around the place and given it more attention. Maybe.

Here’s the thing about being an informal member of the American Midwest Society of Velocipede-Lovers: you almost always have to deal with wind. And heat, in the summer. Wind and heat can play merry hell with bicycle-riding photographer’s attitude. And that day was both hot and windy. We’re talking steady 18 mph winds with gusts up to 27mph. Riding into the wind is great exercise.

I fucking hate exercise.

Some sort of storage shed, plus a tree

Some sort of storage shed, plus a tree

I stopped occasionally to drink some water. Some serious cyclists I know always refer to this as ‘hydration.’ They hydrate themselves. I’ve actually heard them say it, right out loud. “I gotta hydrate.” Then later they re-hydrate themselves. They engage in periodic hydration management. That’s some serious business, hydration. Nothing lighthearted about it. Which is why I just pause now and then and drink some water.

I should note that Tolstoy never, not once, in all the tens of thousands of pages he wrote, ever referred to hydration. It would have astonished the peasants on his estate.

Bike trail intersection

Bike trail intersection

One of the disconcerting things about riding a bicycle in the American Midwest is how abruptly town transitions into farmland. One moment you’re noodling your bike down house-lined streets, then you’re riding through old, out-dated semi-industrial areas, and suddenly without any real warning you discover you’re actually out in the country. You know…where they grow things. Like crops. Soybeans and corn and…and maybe that’s it. I don’t know. But there are massive fields full of green growing things.

And none of it blocks the wind.

There's a lot of not much out here

There’s a lot of not much out here

On the other hand, after you’ve spent forty-five minutes riding northwest into an 18mph headwind, you can turn your bike homeward and enjoy the rare pleasures of an 18mph tailwind. You hardly have to put foot to pedal. You sit upright and the wind will blow you most of the way home.

Riding with the wind is a lot more fun than riding into it — but the fact is, just getting on a bike is enough to make you lighthearted. Tolstoy learned that. At 67 years of age, he learned it. Even after the horrorshow of his youngest child’s death, Tolstoy learned that simply by putting his bony ass on a bicycle seat, he could become lighthearted. It doesn’t change anything, of course. Riding a bike won’t actually make anything better. But it will temporarily lighten the heart. And that’s good for you.

And hey, maybe you can astonish some peasants. It’s good for them.

noodling away a sunday morning

Last Sunday my brother Roger Lee and I went out for breakfast. For no real reason, we chose to leave the city and go find a diner or local cafe in a small town. Iowa is teeming with small towns. We found ourselves at CayAnne’s in Woodward (population 1024), and breakfasted on biscuits and a tasty but rather odd-looking spicy sausage gravy.

just outside of CayAnne’s restaurant

After breakfast we sort of noodled around the county, sliding in and out of various small towns. Like the town of Moingona (population unknown, but it’s really small), where we saw the original town school. It’s not in use (at least I don’t think it’s in use), but it was nice that the town cared enough about the old building to preserve it. The school probably constitutes about 5% of all the town’s structures (excluding sheds). Like I said, the town is really small.

moingona schoolhouse

Moingona is named for the native American tribe that inhabited the area before white folks arrived and casually took their land and kept their name. The town was home to Kate Shelley — the first woman in the U.S. to have a bridge named after her. On a stormy night (okay, it was a dark and stormy night) in July of 1881 a railroad bridge was partially washed out by a flash flood. A pusher locomotive that had been sent out to inspect the track conditions failed to notice the mostly-missing bridge. Our Kate, hearing the crash, rescued two of the engine’s crew (the other two died). Knowing that a passenger train was scheduled to pass over the bridge soon, Kate (relying on the illumination of the storm’s lightning) crawled across the remaining span of the damaged bridge, then ran a mile or so to alert the nearest depot manager of the problem. The passenger train, with 200 aboard, was stopped in time. A grateful Chicago & NorthWestern Railroad rewarded her with US$100, a half barrel of flour, half a load of coal and a life-time pass. Later they named a nearby bridge after her.

railroad track and dusty road

After we left Moingona, we discovered the railroad tracks were still in use. We began to sort of leisurely follow them. I can’t say it was an intentional decision at first, but the tracks seemed to parallel the general direction we were heading. After a while, we began to feel some sort of connection with them.

union pacific – building america

I believe it was outside of Ogden (population 2041) we came across some sort of slag heap, or possibly the tailings of a mining operation (both coal and iron were mined locally in the late 19th century). The truth is, I don’t know what the hell it is. It’s a massive pile of something. It looks vaguely like a smallish, Midwestern version of Ayers Rock in Australia. You can get a sense of the scale of the pile by noting the house and large garage on the right side of the frame. Aside from the dwarf alpaca, this pile of something may have been the oddest thing we saw all day.

a very large pile of something

We eventually found ourselves in the town of Boone (population 12,661). Boone was originally a coal-mining town. A pair of thick coal veins were discovered near the banks of Honey Creek, which attracted local blacksmiths (who needed the coal for their forges). It became incorporated as a town in 1866, the year the C&NW Railroad laid track through the area. The Lincoln Highway passes through Boone. That’s the first transcontinental road built for the automobile. The Lincoln Highway begins at the intersection of 42nd and Broadway in Manhattan and ends at 100 34th Avenue in San Francisco; that’s the address of Lincoln Park and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. When I win the Lotto, I think I’ll spend a few months idling along the length of the Lincoln Highway.

boone scenic valley railroad

Boone, to my surprise, also turns out to be the home of the Pufferbilly Days Festival. I’d never heard of Pufferbilly Days. In fact, I’d never heard of a Pufferbilly, It turns out that Pufferbilly is another term for a railroad steam engine, and the festival appears to be a celebration of All Things Railroadish. The Boone Scenic Valley Railroad operates a number of old railroad engines, and periodically takes passengers on short jaunts around the area (including, apparently, the Kate Shelley Memorial High Bridge, which I’m assured is the longest, highest, double-track railroad bridge in the country — who knew, right?).


While we were nosing around the depot area, a couple engineers and assorted other folk were warming up Engine 6540. Unfortunately, by that time Roger Lee and I had already pissed away the entire morning and were running late, so we couldn’t stay to see if they were planning to take the train anywhere.

All in all, it was a strangely entertaining morning. Unfortunately, I failed to photograph the herd of dwarf alpaca (which, upon closer examination, turned out to be a single adult alpaca standing in a herd of goats) or the peculiar reddish-orange sausage gravy we had for breakfast (the gravy was similar in color to parts of the large Pile of Something which, now that I consider it, is a wee bit alarming). Still, I still managed to shoot just under fifty frames during the morning. For me, that’s a lot of photos.

Roger Lee and I plan (well, as much as we plan anything) to do this periodically over the next few months. We’ll take off on a Sunday morning, find a small town for breakfast, and then wander around pointlessly until we’re late, after which we’ll hurry back to the city. It may not be a very tight plan, but it’ll do.

eat a cookie

Like a lot of you folks, I was unaware this year, 2012, is the 100th anniversary of Oreo Cookies. I only became aware of it on June 25th, when Nabisco took what turned out to be a controversial step forward. On that day, in celebration of Gay Pride Month, they released this advert:

The ad, of course, delighted an awful lot of gay and gay-friendly straight folks. It was fun and funny, clever without being twee, and expressed a political and social position. That’s a lot to include in a simple advertisement.

Predictably, it caused an uproar among religious conservatives and homophobes. While liberals applauded, conservatives vowed to boycott Oreos specifically and Nabisco products in general. They swore would give their custom to Hydrox cookies — apparently unaware that Hydrox had gone out of business. It was a classic temper tantrum.

Kraft Foods, which makes Oreo cookies, rightly refused to back down. They released the following statement: “Kraft Foods has a proud history of celebrating diversity and inclusiveness. We feel the Oreo ad is a fun reflection of our values.”

What is just as cool — and what has sadly been overlooked — is that for the next 100 days Oreo celebrated their centennial anniversary by releasing an interesting new advert each day, commemorating some event. Here’s a sample:

The ad campaign was known as The Daily Twist. They used multiple agencies and a dedicated team of four designers to come up with these clever ads, and sadly not nearly enough people saw them.

So here’s your chance to make up for that. Go buy some Oreos. Support the company. Remind them that we appreciate their willingness to do what’s right instead of what’s safe. Eat some cookies in a good cause.

the people are wrong

I’ve been shooting a lot of cityscapes lately — partly because I have a new camera that’s particularly well-suited for that sort of photography, and partly because I’m a sap for the geometry of structures. It’s been pointed out to me that most of my photographs are unpopulated. Devoid of people or other life forms.

This photograph, for example, sparked a couple of my favorite internet people to make the following comments:

I’m becoming increasingly aware of how meaningfully empty and post apocalyptic your cityscapes are. I used to think it was purely a compositional choice, that you didn’t want too many people or cars cluttering up the frame, but now I’m wondering if Des Moines has been quietly evacuated

I’ve wondered, too, about Des Moines. Where are all the people?

Where are all the people? The people are all over the damned place. They’re out on the streets and in the alleys and walking through the skywalk. I don’t always include them in the photographs, though. When I’m shooting cityscapes, I’m usually drawn to some combination of light and shadow, or some arrangement of form and shape. I’m usually drawn to the geometry, and the problem is that so often the people are just wrong for the geometry in the frame.

They’re dressed in the wrong colors, or they’re moving the wrong way, or they’re standing in the wrong spot or in the wrong stance, or they’re looking in the wrong direction, or they’re looking in the right direction but with the wrong expression. Sometimes they’re just wrong for reasons I can’t articulate, but they’re clearly wrong in the frame and they distract from what interests me.

When the people are being right, I include them. But when they’re being wrong I wait until the right people come along or until there aren’t any people at all. Or I give up and go somewhere else. For example, the following photograph needs people. I noticed the light and the shadows and the reflections, and I parked my ass across the street and waited for the right person or group to move into that space. I don’t recall how long I waited — I’d guess it was somewhere between a quarter of an hour and half an hour. During that time a lot of folks entered the space, but there was something wrong about all of them. None of them contributed to the space. So I documented the light, and moved on. With the right person, it would have been a good photograph. Now it lacks life.

There are other times — less common, to be sure — when I notice people who look like they’d be right. There’s something about the person that draws the eye and makes me think all that’s lacking is the right background. So I sort of wander along with them for a while in the hope they’ll move into an interesting space with good geometry. If they don’t, they don’t. I end up with nothing. I tagged along with the kid in the next photo and his puppy for maybe ten minutes (any longer and I begin to feel like a pervert). I shot maybe a half dozen frames in a half dozen different situations — but the light was always wrong, or the shadows were wrong, or the geometry was wrong. And when the exterior factors cooperated, the kid or the puppy were wrong, or I was a half second too slow or too quick. So in the end, I got nothing interesting.

The thing is, I’ve been shooting cityscapes — photographs of the city. Not photographs of the people. This new camera is also, I think, well-suited for street photography and I’d like to start getting involved in that. Street photography is a lot more fluid and relies on a different sort of geometry. Instead of looking for the geometry of structures into which people might fit, I’ll have to learn to look for geometry and structure in how people move and arrange themselves.

Cityscapes, in my opinion, can fail if the people are wrong or if the geometry is wrong. I have the feeling that when street photography fails it’s because the photographer is wrong. That should make things interesting.