Friday, April 30, 2010

Mark Twain

MV Pocahontas, 2003

Okay, so calling this “Mark Twain” is a bit of a stretch. But this is a story about a boat on a river, so I’m not afraid of borrowing the name Samuel Clements gave himself after working on the mighty Mississippi.

When my daughter was in her last couple of years at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and the traffic between there and Virginia Beach got so bad that traveling that sixty-five miles could take as long as five hours (really), I started taking the Scotland Neck Ferry home instead.

The ferry runs from Jamestown on the north side of the James River to Scotland Neck on the south side. That’s not even in the right direction if you’re headed for our house. And even when there’s no wait at the ferry taking that route home is a good hour longer than taking the more direct interstate highway. But you could make money betting on the certainty of that being a two-hour drive, whereas taking the interstate home is a crapshoot. Besides, taking the ferry gives you a free forty-five minute boat ride.

After my daughter graduated from college, I continued to take the ferry home whenever possible if I found myself in Williamsburg on business. By then I’d started carrying a camera with me. So I decided to try to do a photo essay about the ferry.

Before 9/11 you could pretty much wander anywhere on the ferries—there are several of them—and around the piers. But after that even a benign little boat ride like this one turned into a national security risk. (Maybe because there’s a nuclear power plant on the river bank just to the east of the Scotland Neck landing.) So you were pretty much limited to taking pictures on the car deck.

I wasn’t very happy with the results. The exposures aren’t what they should be. But you can see in a few of these the beginnings of my fixation with shapes and colors.

Car Deck, 2003

Feeding the Birds, 2003

River Passing, 2003

Thursday, April 29, 2010


West Neck Woods, 2003

I was fortunate when I was in school to be taught by a number of instructors who’d studied with some of the big names in their respective fields. This was especially the case with English teachers. One of high school English teachers, for example, had studied with William Faulkner. Another had been the college buddy and, later on, fellow professor with poet Randall Jarrell.

I was thinking of them last night as I recalled one of the most enjoyable moments of my freshman year of college. I attended a small private university that was just starting to shake off the ties of its Baptist roots when I arrived. The men’s and women’s colleges were still separated by a long lake. Dorms and dining facilities were separate, and there was a still a really nice indoor pool on the women’s campus that was, by the mandate of the alumna who endowed it, forever off limits to male students. But we were making strides. And one should never underestimate the inventiveness of boys and girls determined to find each other. (Who knew there were underground steam tunnels connecting the two campuses?)

I made some good friends that first year in college. But I didn’t finish the year with a good taste for the school itself, especially after I learned from my faculty advisor just before the year ended that I had just spent a whole school year taking classes I’d tested out of before I ever got there. All the advisor could say as he nonchalantly tossed across his desk the letter that announced that I could skip over almost all of the freshman classes, was, “Oh, I thought you knew about that.”

But there were some good experiences buried in that year. One of the most memorable was when my English professor recommended that we go hear a talk being given the next morning on the women’s college campus by his old friend, fellow writer and drinking buddy, poet and novelist James Dickey.

I’d heard of Dickey before and knew of him mostly as a poet. Like Faulkner and Jarrell, Dickey was afflicted with an unhealthy affection for alcohol. One of his sons would later write about how his father’s drinking made chaos of their relationship. (Our professor, by the way, was an excellent teacher, but would die of complications related to alcoholism before the year ended.)

The next morning, though, James Dickey still had the command to draw the small group of students who came to hear him in close and captivate us with his use of words. There were probably only about twenty of us there, along with a few faculty members. We pulled our chairs together so that we formed a circle.

Dickey read poetry and talked about his inspirations and work methods. (Essentially this: kick everybody out and shut the door; get a clean glass and a fresh bottle of Jim Beam; put some paper in front of you and let the words flow out.)

But what really captivated the group was Dickey’s readings from a story, really more of a novella, that was about to be published. It was about some suburban neighbors from Atlanta out for a guys’ weekend canoeing on the Chattahootchee River. Only things went wrong. There was a death. And the final scene in the story involved a hand sticking up out of a newly flooded reservoir, washing clean not only everything in its path, but also, metaphorically speaking, the sins of man. I have to tell you, our little group of students was spellbound when he described that hand reaching up out of the water.

A few weeks after Dickey’s appearance at our school, Dell Doubleday Publishing released “Deliverance.” It was an immediate best seller. Two years later a blockbuster movie version of the book starring Burt Reynolds and John Voight was released. As happens with these film adaptations, the book was far richer than the movie. Some of the details were changed in the movie. But again, back there in Keller Hall we had no idea what it would sound like to hear Ned Beatty squeal like a pig.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

More Clouds

7-24-03 - 3, 2003

I was driving out of the neighborhood yesterday when I had to pull over and stop to take in the view of an immense thunderhead storm cloud that came into view.

The lane out our part of the neighborhood is narrow and lined with trees that form a dense canopy overhead. You can’t even see the sky very well until you’re about a half-mile away from our house. That’s where the road widens and the canopy opens up to sky.

4-26-10, 2010

I’ve written here before about the allure of clouds, how they can be delicate little puffs on one day and a horizon-t0-horizon roiling sea the next. When I came upon the storm cloud yesterday I decided it was worth delaying my errand long enough to sit and watch the cloud move across the sky. I sat transfixed long enough that one of the neighbors got up from the yard work he was doing and came over to make sure I was okay.

The only camera I had with me at the time was my iPhone. I pulled it out of my pocket to take a picture and discovered it wasn’t even turned on. By the time I turned it on, the storm cloud had passed.

2-05-06 – 2, 2006

2-05-06 - 12, 2006

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Back in Time Once Again

Barker House, 2003

How I came to spend a lot of time in Edenton, North Carolina, is a long and convoluted story involving death, divorce, squandered fortunes, alcoholism and madness. It’s too long to tell here, and suffice it to say that fortunately I was not the victim of any of these misfortunes. But during the late 1990s I started visiting this little town on the Albemarle Sound on a regular basis. I was invited into the homes of many old families and introduced to family stories rich with drama and intrigue.

Prior to this, Edenton has played only a small role in my experience. When my maternal great-grandparents came to America from Germany, they settled in another small town not too far away on the opposite side of the Sound. But no family remained there by the time I came along. My mother remembered some elderly relatives from her youth who’d lived in Edenton, the kinds of tradition-laden, but otherwise dirt poor antique dealers you often find in towns like this, of whom it was said that they’d sell anything in their house if you were offering cash. They, too, were long gone by the time I came along.

Edenton has one of the finest collections of Colonial architecture on the East Coast. So the story goes, these structure exist because the town fathers made a deal with General Sherman when he was moving through the South during the Civil War, burning every village, town and city in his path.

Many of the surviving structures remain today and are still in use. Some have never left the hands of the families that built them.

The Barker House, shown above, dates from 1782 and has served for many years as a visitor center and headquarters of the local historical society. I made this photograph of it in 2003, just a few months before a hurricane swept through town and sent a surge wave over the breakwater and knocked The Barker House off its foundation. (It was subsequently repaired and re-settled atop a much higher brick foundation.)

Chowan County Courthouse, 2003

The Chowan County Courthouse, built in 1724, is considered one of the finest Georgian courthouses in the United States and one of the most important public buildings in Colonial America. It’s courtroom, of a design that would be unfamiliar to most today, reflects the link between the English sense of justice and courtroom design and justice as it would come to be known and practiced in America.

During the summer of 2003 I took a lot of pictures in Edenton. Each year since I’ve added a few more images to the collection. There was talk once of a regional publisher creating a coffee table book of these photographs. But for reasons never explained to me, that idea never went any further than talk.

Fishing on Edenton Bay, 2003

Monday, April 26, 2010

Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch, and Other Cloying Ideas

Culture Eats Strategy Everyday for Lunch, 2010

I’m an unabashed optimist. I like to think there’s blue sky above me, not clouds. I don’t believe the world’s going to hell in a hand basket. I believe in transformative creativity. I know there are some people about who are evil. But most people aren’t. So I greet them with a smile. I believe in the Golden Rule. I try to find the good in people and give them the benefit of the doubt if I don’t. If I can’t agree with them, I at least try to understand them.

All of this is part of me. I don’t know how to be any other way. But I’m not the kind of person who walks around spouting Pollyanna-ish platitudes or leaving treacly affirmations posted in my wake or in other people’s space to remind us to “Hang in there, Baby!”

And I’m definitely not one of those people who finds inspiration in either “inspirational” speakers or those dreadful “inspirational” posters you see in some offices. In the case of the latter, in fact, it’s been my experience that the mere presence of those posters is as sure proof as anything that the establishment where they’re hanging has a demoralizing workplace culture.

So I was surprised recently when I spent a few hours in an office that was adorned with the whiteboard shown above. The man who occupies this office is a very kind, thoughtful and determined person. He’s bringing major cultural change to a very large institution.

I’ll admit, though, that I was a little surprised to find all these affirmations on the wall. The man whose office this is comes from the South and has the charming ability to draw on a well of countless homespun aphorisms and biblical inspirations. (If you happen to tell him how much you’ve enjoyed getting to know him, for example, he’ll say something like, “And you smell good, too.”) You wouldn’t think he needs any reinforcement.

But it seems he does. And what with this being Monday, I thought you, too, might be in need of a few cloying pick-me-ups to get the week rolling. So here you go:

“Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible.”

“If better is possible, good is not enough.”

“Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I might not remember. Inspire me and I’ll understand.”

“’Trying’ is just a LOUD way of failing.”

“A problem is defined as a deviation from the standard. So what’s the standard?”

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”

And my favorite:

“Culture eats strategy for lunch.”

Friday, April 23, 2010

Will You Still Feed Me When I'm Sixty-Four?

Holiday Village - 8, 2010

This is apparently some people’s idea of an idyllic slice of retirement heaven. These are the kinds of sights you expect to see in a place like Tempe, Arizona, one of the Phoenix suburbs that seems to be a Mecca for retirees and snowbirds.

I’m told there are retirement communities in Florida that are very clearly segregated by where their residents used to live. As in, “The Detroit people live over in Waverly Pines. The Grand Rapids people live in Blue Seas Shores.” As best as I could tell, if you’re from Milwaukee, you want to be careful not to mistakenly land in the development where all the Pittsburgh people are.

I don’t know what the geographic arrangement is of people who’ve settled in Arizona. If you’re from Denver do you go to La Casa del Mirador Phase I or Phase II?

Holiday Village - 10, 2010

There are lots of New Yorkers, that’s for sure. And lots of people who’ve retired from the Upper Midwest to the Southwest in search of relief from respiratory conditions. There are lots of senior communities around the Phoenix area, and down the highway south of Phoenix and Tucson are all kinds of retirement communities seemingly stuck out in the middle of the proverbial nowhere.

I stumbled on the settlement shown in these pictures while killing some time before I was scheduled to interview managers at one of the biggest senior living communities in Tempe. From the street I thought it might be a cheery kind of place, what with all the palms, pastels and bright white trim.

Upon closer examination, it wasn’t nearly so cheery. To be sure, there are people who live here year-round in mobile homes and formerly mobile homes that have been fastened to the ground and gussied up with trim, attached porches, carports, patios and landscaping. I’m sure they’re an affable lot. There were freshly painted shuffleboard courts in some yards and card tables arranged under umbrellas and awnings. But I didn’t see many people. There’s a lovely pool area, too, but no one was using it or the comfortable lounge chairs around it.

I saw a few people riding bicycles, but they looked like they were doing obligatory exercises rather than popping out for a casual recreational spin.

Maybe everyone was at the nearby Village Inn restaurant, where a banner hung outside advertising a free slice of pie with every lunch served on Wednesdays. I have to admit that was a tempting offer. But I had interviews to do. So I got on about my business.

Holiday Village - 15, 2010

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Reading List

Conversations By Themselves, 2010

I’m reading Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, The Lacuna. Kingsolver is probably best known for her novels The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, Prodigal Summer, Pigs in Heaven and the recent non-fiction account of eating only locally grown food for an entire year, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, written with her husband and daughter.

The story of The Lacuna is too complicated to recount here. The central character is a young man coming of age while attending to various chores in the households of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky. (If you saw the Julie Taymor's gorgeous film, Frida, you’ll remember how the three relate.

Like the work of Larry McMurtry, the beauty of Barbara Kingsolver’s books is not just in the story, but in the writing itself. It seems like every other page of The Lacuna has a passage that stops me in my tracks. For example, this one describing a young boy following Freda Kahlo:

“Following behind her was a whole conversation by itself: her swilling skirts, her short legs walking as fast as a little dog’s, her proud head crowned with a circle of braids.”

Or this, reflecting on the state of the Trotsky house and the disparate band of people who once served and protected him, but are now cut loose in the aftermath of his murder:

“This household is like a pocketful of coins that jingled together for a time, but now have been slapped on the counter to pay a price. The pocket empties out, the coins venture back into the infinite circulation of current, separate, invisible, and untraceable.”

I mean, really, can you beat that?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Faded Love Affair

Cushing Street, 2010

I suppose any love affair with a place is likely to fade eventually. Such was my recent experience in Tucson.

The last time I was there I spent most of my free time wandering the Barrio Historico, a small downtown neighborhood then undergoing a modest bit of gentrification. Many of the residences and commercial buildings had fresh coats of adobe and paint and were brilliant against the blue sky. I even titled the series of pictures I took that day, “Tucson, A Feast of Colors.”

Here I was, back again almost five years to the day from that last visit. Arriving in town late in the afternoon, I rushed downtown to the Barrio hoping to photograph some of that color and the shadows just before sunset.

Sadly, walking down Convent Avenue was like visiting an old friend who’s fallen on hard times. The bright colors of five years ago had faded. Some of the commercial buildings that had five years ago been busy with offices occupied by lawyers and architects were empty. Where I once heard conversation and music spilling out onto the street from patios and residences there was silence. Some of the homes that were being renovated when I was there in 2005 looked like work had stopped just after I left and never resumed. Some of the residences that had been full of life in 2005 were empty in 2010.

Convent Avenue, 2010

I saw several people just home from work walking menacing looking dogs. You know a neighborhood’s not feeling its best when just about everyone you encounter has a dog that is, or is the cousin of a pit bull.

I was willing to chalk my initial disappointing impressions on Wednesday to my own fatigue. I’d started the day in Virginia at 3:30 a.m. I’d flown across the country and spent the better part of the afternoon interviewing people up in Phoenix before driving a couple of hours to Tucson. Maybe I wasn’t giving the area enough of a chance. Maybe my eyes were just tired. Or maybe I was expected too much.

After work on Thursday I headed back to the Barrio, determined to find out what had happened since my last visit. I found some of the color I’d missed the night before. I stopped the first person I saw who wasn’t walking a pit bull and explained my curiosity about the neighborhood. “What’s happened?” I asked. The man explained that the sub-prime loan meltdown had pulled the rug out from under a bunch of young people who’d leveraged their last dollars renovating historic homes in the Barrio. Recession had similarly stopped speculators in the process of adapting historic structures for contemporary.

One mystery solved, I asked the guy for a good restaurant recommendation. He sent me around the corner to the Cushing Street Restaurant and Bar, where I’m happy to say I sat in the courtyard under the warm night sky and had some of the best pork tenderloin I’ve ever had. The service and music were primo. A good room and a good meal. Go there if you’re in the neighborhood.

Cushing Street Dentist, 2010

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

In the Pit

Mission Mine Pit, 2010 (Click to see larger)

By now you know I can be easily amused. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that when I saw a sign along the Arizona interstate highway advertising a mining museum, I pulled off to see what it was about.

We’re not talking West Virginia mining, the claustrophobic kind where guys go deep into the bowels of the earth and risk life and limb. Modern copper mining in Arizona is dangerous, but is at least conducted in an open pit in daylight, which means they start with a mountain or flat stretch of desert and just keep digging down until the amount of copper found in the soil is no longer profitable to extract.

I was first drawn to Asarco Corporation’s Mission Mine operation by an obviously man-made mountain range running parallel to I-10 south of Tucson. It goes for miles and is somewhere between three and four hundred feet tall. It’s so big that I’m sure someone would tell you it can be seen from outer space. You can tell it’s man-made because it’s so uniform in size and doesn’t have much vegetation on it yet. (And if that still isn’t enough to convince you, there’s also the fact that you can see heavy equipment up on top of the ridge increasing the height in forty feet increments.)

Asarco, the Mexican-controlled concern that owns the mine, must have a spotty environmental history. How could I tell? For starters, the film they show at the Visitor Center starts right off with a token message about environmental responsibility and never lets you forget that while they’ve been blowing up mountains and extracting millions of tons of copper ore over the years they’ve been leaving behind an environment so pure that a Sierra Club member would cry in amazement.

Hence the ersatz mountain range, built out of the crushed rock and earth (“tailings”) from which they’ve extracted copper, other marketable mineral byproducts and sulfuric acid.

The Mission Mine operation is located in a harsh climate that’s home to all kinds of nasty desert snakes. Just walking from the parking lot to the visitor center I saw scorpions, some kind of Sonoran version of prairie dogs, swarming bees and a rattlesnake.

I paid my $8.00 and joined a tour bus full of Midwestern retirees. I love tours like this because they’re almost always cheery PR anthems to industry. Likewise, the people who go on tours like this are almost always cornball patriots, big fans of industry and easily impressed by magnitude.

If you watch cable TV shows like Modern Marvels and Build It Big, you’d enjoy this tour. The metrics are impressive. The company owns 20,000 acres at this site. The open pit is six miles wide, a mile and a half across and 750 feet deep. (The far side of the pit seen in the photo above is several miles away.) Six times more earth has been extracted here than was excavated to create the Panama Canal. To move that earth from the mine to the mills they use trucks that can carry 375 tons at a time and have tires that cost more than some people’s houses. Two-thirds of the copper used in the U.S. comes from here. They expect to tap the last bit of it in thirteen years, after which the City of Tucson may acquire the site and use it as a landfill.

Prior to this tour, I didn’t know much about how copper is mined. But thanks to Roger, my Asarco tour guide, I’m now a “certified expert” in copper mining and milling and “visitor of the day” since I could correctly answer a question about how pure the copper is after the second milling. Knowledge I doubt I’ll ever have reason to use again.

But should you ever find yourself around a copper mill and wonder why things smell of pine oil, I’ll be able to tell you why. Or how an enzyme from soybeans is used as a copper binding agent. Not bad for a guy who barely made it through chemistry class, eh?

Lord knows, if I weren’t here to tell this kind of stuff, how would you know? And now you won’t even have to stay up late at night to watch the thirtieth rerun of Build it Big.

Mission Mine South Mill, 2010