Monday, February 28, 2011

Men in Green

Boots on the Ground, 2011

We went down to South Carolina last week to watch our nephew graduate from U.S. Army Basic Training. Aside from the obvious pride in watching our nephew graduate, the best part was listening to his description of his experience, which if you want to use motion picture metaphors, fell somewhere between Full Metal Jacket and Stripes.

He began the experience mentally and physically prepared. He’d spent the months before reporting for duty getting into shape. He’d read up on the experience. This served him well as he and his fellow “warriors”-in-training endured fourteen weeks of long days and nights of arduous physical conditioning, training, brain numbing bureaucracy and persistent browbeating.

Our nephew described the two most important things to know before you show up for Basic Training, the first being not to do anything that calls attention to you and the second being to do only what you’re ordered to do (and nothing more).

These guidelines are simple, but were a challenge for our nephew, who’s always been an achiever. The first morning he was there someone took his running shoes. This made it necessary for him to show up at his first physical training formation as the only person wearing the official Army t-shirt, the official Army workout shorts and in place of his running shoes the official Army combat boots and knee-high green socks. “I knew I was in for it,” he reports, “and the worst part was that I hadn’t even been there forty-five minutes.”


A less flexible person would have gotten angry at this turn of events, perhaps even picked a fight with the person who took his shoes. Our nephew took the inevitable razzing in stride and went on to adopt a relationship with his drill sergeants that was more like that of an enthusiastic fraternity pledge than of someone who would bristle at the idea of being known variously as “Beast,” “Hairy Warrior” and “Chewbacca.” (Such is the lot in life of those of us whose most primitive ancestors were apparently hairy Equatorial apes.)

The structure and rituals of Basic Training are not unlike life in prison. The new soldier is allowed nothing but what the Army wants him or her to have. In prison, cigarettes are the unit of economic negotiation. In basic training, which our nephew described as a “prison economy,” the most highly valued tokens among the new recruits were cough drops and stamps.

Not that anyone actually had time, mind you, to write anything that uses stamps. The whole idea of Basic Training is to break you down and build you back up in the Army’s mold. That doesn’t leave much time for writing long, contemplative letters.

Indeed, the hardest part of Basic Training for our nephew was the lack of intellectual stimulation; fourteen weeks of near complete isolation from any news and information. It seemed especially ironic to me that this young man, whose next phase will be fourteen months of intensive training in the Arabic language, has no idea what’s been going on in Egypt and elsewhere throughout the Arab world.

Needless to say, there were no newspapers or magazines, no television, radio, cell phones, computers or Internet. Family members were able to write letters to soldiers in training. You could also send news clippings. But most of it was subject to confiscation and even that which got through could only be reviewed for a few minutes before it had to be turned over to a drill sergeant to be destroyed.

Like in prison, soldiers figured out how to get around some of these regulations. They learned, for example, that since soldiers are allowed to keep a small cache of “personal religious materials," you could get most anything to a soldier in basic training if you could either 1) put it in the form of a prayer or 2) started your letter with the words, “The Lord said…”

In the end, it’s probably a good thing that these young warriors in training didn’t have much time to think or relax. To be sure, someone would have gotten around to doing a little long division and figured out what all this ordeal was earning them on an hourly basis. Let me assure you, we taxpayers get a good deal with these young men and women of the Third Battalion of the Sixtieth Infantry Regiment.

It's an Army Thing, 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Russell

Russell 58, 2011

It’s been a busy week, so I’ll close with a few quiet scenes of the working boat Russell.

I’ve been photographing the Russell since the late 1960s. I don’t know who owns her or why, to address the contradiction in her name, a boat is even named for a man in the first place. Virginians can be funny about mixing men’s and women’s names. In the hoity-toity set it’s common for sons and daughters to be given the names of distinguished ancestors without regard to gender. So we have men named Beverly and women named Douglas. I’ve known men named Beverly and women named Douglas and Bruce. But boats are traditionally looked upon as being feminine, and therefore have feminine names. I’ve never known a woman named Russell.

Russell 56, 2011

In any event, Russell has been a fixture at Lynnhaven Inlet since the 1960s, where I first photographed her, and probably long before that. She gets hauled out and spruced up every year or so. Here she was last year this time just after having her hull cleaned and painted.

Some readers may recall that last year I wrote another one of these old boats, the York Spit. Boats like Russell and York Spit are special to me not only because of their elegant and practical lines, but because they are a connection to a way of life that fewer pursue these days and that those who do pursue in boats made of fiberglass. Practical, but not much romance.

Russell 46, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Color As in Nature

Hey, You Bees! Here We Are! 2011

Regular readers of What I Saw will recall that there is a lot of color in the Bonney house. Sometimes, though, even all that painted color isn’t enough to get you over the hump of winter. We try to resolve that by bringing in lots of cut flowers.

There are just about always fresh flowers in our house, even in rooms we don’t use much. The dining and living rooms, for example, aren’t used much unless we have company. But they have the best direct sunlight. Things thrive in that light. The kitchen, on the other hand, is where we eat most of our meals and spend a lot of time. But the light passes over the kitchen quickly. So flowers tend to come and go from there quickly. The same applies to the family room. Still, there are always fresh flowers in both of these rooms.

The only variation on this theme is that during the winter it’s usually necessary to bring flowers in. Mrs. B. knows when things are available and where the best seasonal deals are, so it’s not like we’re operating a hot house or a rest home for expensive exotics. Sometimes daisies are enough.

Daisies, 2011

Or hyacinths.

Hyacinths, 2003

As spring approaches we’re able to take cuttings from the yard and from the nearby woods. I noticed a forsythia bush blooming just down the street the other day. Back under the trees where we live, it’ll be another week or two before the forsythia open up. The same for the daffodils.

Among of the great floral joys of this season are the camellias. We have almost a dozen camellia bushes in our yard that bloom at different times of the year. The narrow lane we live on is also lined with them. My wife likes the variegated varieties that have colors and stripes than make them look like circus clowns. I prefer the old fashion ones, like the blossom shown above. Who couldn’t like those soft red petals?

Flowers are always a good excuse for pulling out the macro lens. A picture of the camellia above taken with a regular lens would have been a picture of the flower. But the same scene shot with the macro lens and a wide-open aperture is a siren call from all those little stamen to all the bees around, as if to say, “Here we are! Come taste our gold!”

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Turkish Rug

The Turkish Rug, 2011

In 1996 my wife and I went on a cruise that included a stop in Turkey. I’d really looked forward to this stop because of the opportunity to visit Ephesus, once one of the greatest cities of the Roman Empire.

Ephesus is a cool stop for history nuts because the excavation of the city has only barely scratched the surface. What’s been revealed is exciting. What’s yet to be found could be even more so.

You can get a feel for the history in Ephesus in the way you can only feel in, say, Pompeii. Very little of Ephesus is off limits. You walk among the ruins of great buildings. Part of the majestic façade of the Library of Celsus stands tall among the ruins. The marble seats of the ancient public outhouses are worn smooth from thousands of years’ worth of fannies. Slabs of stone and marble litter the landscape*. You can walk the lanes where Mark Antony was hailed as a god and where, Plutarch tells us, “the women of the town met him dressed as bacchantes, the men as fauns and satyrs.” The immense amphitheater where the apostle Paul spoke to the Ephesians is a short walk away.

The port for Ephesus is at the nearby town of Kusadasi. Kusadasi probably has many redeeming features. But for the cruise traveler, it looks like any tourist trap. After the formal tour of the ruins, most tour operators will make sure you visit one or another of the rug merchants. You can see these set-ups coming from a mile away. But there you are, captive on a bus or camel, so you endure them.

In our case, the merchant ran a pretty classy affair. They welcomed our group, beckoned us to sit around the edge of the room on piles of folded carpets and gave us tea and a presentation about the weaving of Turkish carpets. I wish I could remember more about the presentation. What I do remember is that the tea was very sweet and that when they unrolled a sample carpet onto the floor a bunch of cockroaches ran out from it.

Later my wife and I walked among the shops near the pier. If you want to imagine what this is like, imagine the scene where Indiana Jones tries to escape the Nazis in a North African souk. It’s noisy. It’s mobbed with people. Hawkers are selling everything from brass lamps to tube socks. (Yes. Tube socks.)

We should have known better. We’d already paid a kid a few bucks to let my wife sit on the back of a somnabulant camel. We should have gone straight back to the ship. But instead we decided to buy a rug.

We went into what looked like a reputable rug place. The shopkeeper spoke English and had a photo and magazine story about his “other” shop in Carmel, California. We saw a lot of rugs we liked. But we couldn’t find anything in a color my wife had seen and admired at another shop.

The shopkeeper grabs our hands and led us on a fast walk down alleys and up and down stairs and along dark halls until we arrived at another dealer’s showroom. Old men sat around a large dim upstairs room smoking..well, I don’t know what they smoked. But we found a rug we liked among their piles. We retraced our steps back to the original shop. After a little obligatory bargaining, we purchased the rug. I filled out customs forms and shipping labels. We took a picture of the carpet and returned to the ship. No tube socks for us. We’d bought a real Turkish rug!

We didn’t expect our rug to arrive in America quickly. The rug guy said it would likely be 6-8 weeks. No problem.

Only after six or eight weeks there was no sign of the carpet, nor was there any sign after ten or twelve weeks. I attempted to contact the shop by phone. No luck. I asked a Turkish friend if he had family in the area who could make inquiries. They did and confirmed that the business was reputable, but they were unable to make contact with anyone there, either. I called the shop in Carmel and just got an answering machine.

I finally called American Express to explain the situation. They put me in touch with their Istanbul office. They’d had no complaints about the merchant, but promised to see what they could find out.

A few weeks later, I got a phone call from a freight forwarding company in New York. They had a package addressed simply to “Chris Bonney, Virginia.”

Later that week a big truck pulled up outside the house and unloaded the rug. Thankfully, there were no cockroaches and the rug was indeed the one we’d bought in Kusadasi. Rolled up tightly in the middle of the rug was the paperwork for our purchase, including the fully addressed shipping label I’d filled out back in Turkey.

The rug has been in our living room ever since. Every now and then the sun shines in from the one of the front windows and illuminates a different small section of the rug, revealing patterns we never noticed before.

* I wrote about the “rock man” of Ephesus here.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Comeuppance of History

Not the Photo I Planned, 2011

On Sunday I went over to the old Cape Henry lighthouse with the intention of making a panoramic photograph of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay from the top of the lighthouse.

“Old” is something of an ironic adjective given that the “new” Cape Henry lighthouse built in front of it to replace it went into service in 1881. The “old” lighthouse was completed in 1792 during the presidency of George Washington. The old lighthouse is such an enduring element of our city’s history that an illustration of it appears in the city’s seal.

I grew up about two miles to the south of the lighthouses, too far away to be aware of it unless I was out on the beach at night and could see the beacon sweep out across the Atlantic Ocean, but not too far away to hear the Cape Henry fog horn that was a familiar bellow to anyone living at the north end of the beach in those days.

Since 1914, the two lighthouses have been surrounded by Fort Story, originally an Army base and now a sub-installation of the U.S. Navy. During my youth, you could ride your bicycle into and pretty much all over the base. In the wake of 9/11, access to the base is far more restricted. If you’re willing to stop and allow your vehicle to be inspected and declare that you’re not carrying firearms, though, you’re allowed to drive to the lighthouse site.

So on Sunday I endured my vehicle search, declared myself free of firearms, paid my $5 admission fee to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and clambered up the sand dune and from there the ninety feet up to the top of the old lighthouse. It was a sunny day and the view was wonderful. There were other people behind me climbing to the top of the lighthouse, so I quickly made the shots that I would use to stitch together into a panorama.

The first people to ascend to the top of the lighthouse behind me were a young Navy enlistee and his girlfriend. They busied themselves taking pictures of each other. I offered to take a picture of them together. After they mentioned that they are from New Mexico and unfamiliar with our area, I told them a little of the history of the lighthouses and Cape Henry so that they might know more about what they were viewing. When I mentioned that the “first permanent English settlers in America” had landed near the foot of the old lighthouse just over four hundred years ago, though, they very politely reminded me that there were permanent settlers from Spain living in what is now New Mexico long before the dandies from London headed for the “New World” of Virginia.

I knew that, although in Virginia we tend to revere English history a bit much and a little too defensively at times. It turns out the young lady is a history teacher. Knowing better than to question a teacher or make a big thing about the distinction between English settlers and Spanish settlers—especially since Spanish explorers had indeed stopped to check out Cape Henry long before the Virginia Company settlers arrived in 1607—I wished the couple a good visit and made a hasty retreat down the spiral staircase to the ground.

As for the panorama, it was terrible, a discordant symphony of converging and diverging lines. Next time I go up there I’ll have to take a much wider lens and see if I can capture the view in a single shot.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Death Notices

Death Notices, 2011

I've always been a reader of the obituaries. I'm not obsessed with death. I rarely know any of the people being written about. I don’t come to these pages to mourn. Rather, I come to learn about life.

Obituaries are as good a history book as many I know. They are windows into the human condition of the last century and into the changing interpretations of what people thought were their best parts. They tell stories of everything from impoverished childhoods on the prairies to the lush life of the Gilded Age. They tell stories of quiet lives centered on family and lives of valiant service to community and country. You can learn about lives lived with courage, dignity and happiness. You can learn about lives lived in pain and loneliness. In between the lines of obituaries are hints at many secrets. You can learn about people whose absence will be felt by few and those who will be missed by many. You can learn about lives summarized in just a line or two and lives thought to be so worthy that family members purchase entire columns of the newspaper to chronicle the deceased, as if the obituary is the one last chance to settle past accounts.

By far my favorite part of the obits is the way people describe the manner of death. Obituaries are nothing if not a land of euphemisms. People only rarely just "die." More often they "pass away," as if their bed got pushed into another room. Albert W. "was welcomed into the arms of his Lord and savior, Jesus Christ." Tina I. "was enfolded in the love of family and friends." Barbara P. "made her transition into heaven." Sharon B. was "called home." Royal W. "exchanged time for eternity."

Only rarely do the deceased appear to have died without a fight, leading one to wonder whether those said to have been so sure of their heavenly future were really all that anxious to ascend to whatever afterlife they subscribe to. They "struggled," "battled," and "fought" against this condition and that. For some, the “earthly work was done.” For others, “their work among the living was cut short.” Obituaries display love and anger, triumph and defeat, pride and prejudice.

Whatever the course that got them there, though, the outcome is always the same, and the real treat of being an obituary reader is that each day brings a whole new crop of stories.

Friday, February 18, 2011

In the West Country

Weston-Super-Mare, 1989

The photo above is one that gets a lot of attention from time to time. I'm not exactly sure why it’s popular. I think it has a lot of issues, photographically speaking.

In 1989 my wife and I traveled in England for the first time. We spent time in London and then lit out for the southwestern coast. One night we stayed in a b&b in Chedder, which in those days meant we would be staying in a family's guest room.

Chedder’s in Somerset, as pretty a sounding name for a county as you can imagine. For me, the name conjures up images of big puffy clouds and bucolic pastures.

Chedder’s a pleasant enough place, most famous for a local gorge of the same name. The home we stayed in was located outside of town. There wasn’t much to distinguish it. But the family was nice and our room overlooked a bucolic pasture.

This being our first trip to England, we’d been told not to expect much in the way of fancy cuisine. Our budget wasn’t overly generous, in any event, so we had a lot of pub fare. A staple of just about anywhere we ate on that trip was lamb and peas. No matter where we ate, whether it was a nice restaurant or a pub, the menu always included lamb and peas.

Realizing that we were only about fifteen miles from the shore of the Bristol Channel, we decided to drive out to the coast and have dinner at the seaside resort of Weston-Super-Mare. Weston was once a really popular place with factory workers from the big British cities. It was known for its beach, which is so flat that at low tide it extends a full mile out from the shore. There’s a big pier that reaches out almost that far and that had an ornate pavilion on the end.

Weston-Super-Mare was a busy place during WWII. Its location made it a strategic protection point for the Bristol Channel and the River Severn. German Luftwaffe bombers dropped some 17,000 incendiary bombs on Weston-Super-Mare.

When we arrived in 1989, though, Weston-Super-Mare had seen its better days. In fact, it was a pretty dreary looking place. We were there at what we supposed to be the height of the summer season and while not completely empty, the town was deserted enough in the early evening to be a little eerie. Such people as did see walking the streets and bobbing in and out of the various pinball arcades looked like thugs. The lights on the pier leading out to the pavilion probably would have been more impressive had more of them been working.

I'm told the decline of Weston-Super-Mare continued after our visit. For one thing, there are fewer factory workers in England. For those who still had job, the traditional August “workers holiday” was no longer the only time people could take vacation. But most crippling was the popularization of discount air travel and the introduction of cheap European vacation packages that made it possible for the working classes to travel abroad. The number of visitors to Weston-Super-Mare decreased each year. The pavilion and the outer end of the pier were destroyed in a fire in 2008.

But none of that mattered when we were there in 1989. We took a walk on the beach and drove up and down the tourist strip a few times before concluding that there was nothing in Weston-Super-Mare that we wanted to see any more of. We got back in our little rental car and headed back to the country. Along the way we stopped at a pub and had our daily dose of lamb and peas.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

It Appears There Will Be a Spring

The Promise of Spring 1, 2011

I’ve been a little low lately. There’s nothing serious going on. No major issues. A few more deaths around me than usual. A few disappointments. A bit of a creative drought. The usual anxieties. But nothing that stops the world from spinning. I’ll get over it.

I gather this happens to a lot of people this time of year. We’re in the doldrums between [hopefully] the worst of winter and the promise of spring. The holidays are over. The weather’s too unpredictable yet to know whether we should start working in the garden or stay inside and paint bedrooms.

This happens every year. You think I’d have figured a way around it by now. (Aha! So this is why some people go to the Caribbean in February!)

Yesterday afternoon I took the dog out for a quick “run and a sniff,” as one of our elderly British friends used to say. On cold days these are utilitarian outings. You throw the tennis ball until the terrier’s compelled to run off into the ivy and do her business and then you go back indoors.

Only yesterday I decided to take the camera out with me. Just having the camera in hand makes me a more observant person. We played with the tennis ball and then I let the dog wander around some while I started paying more attention to my own surroundings.

What emerged yesterday was hardly a revelation. It started with a simple walk around to see which of the shrubs had survived this capricious winter and which hadn’t. That requires looking at things up close, snapping a few branches and such.

I call this the “brown” season. It’s when I pick up all the dead limbs and debris that the most recent winter storms and winds have cast about. There are bushes to trim, dead materials to remove. The lawn is dull. The vegetable garden is covered. All in all, not exactly what I needed on a day when I was running low on enthusiasm.

Last Season, 2011

Then it happened. I noticed a little sprig of green poking up through the mulch in the woodland garden area on one side of our property. When I looked closer I found tufts of daffodils finding their way to the sun. The dog and I will have to be a little more careful now when we walk over there.

Then I noticed that some of the hydrangeas, even the ones that looked like they might not have survived the winter, have buds coming.

I’m feeling better already.

The Promise of Spring 10, 2011

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Deepest Cut

Members & Guests Only, 2003

It was a moment Mike wouldn't forget.

Every day he used his lunch hour from work to go pick up his old man and take him to the VWF for an afternoon of cards and drinking with his war buddies. Since the heart surgery the old man couldn't drive any more and he wouldn't talk about riding the bus even though the bus went right by the house and the VFW hall was only five minutes down the line.

"I ain't riding with those people, plain and simple," the old man would say every time Mike brought it up. "I worked too long to end up riding on some damned bus with all the cleaning ladies."

Mike couldn't get any more time off from work because of all the time he'd taken when the old man was having his operations. So the old man had to wait until Mike got off work at 5:30 and could pick him up and take him home.

"Where's Teddy?" the old man barked at him when he got in the car. It was already dark. Sylvia, the daytime waitress, had waited at door with the old man to make sure he didn't wander out into the dark and slip on the icy sidewalk. Mike gave her a short wave of thanks.

"Teddy and Laura live in Cincinnati, Dad. You know that."

"Why couldn’t Clare come pick me up? I don't like having to wait around while all the other guys get in their cars and go. Bristow and Cutty, I think they make a point of driving by the front door real slow just to tease me. Makes me look like I can't pull up my own pants."

"Dad, you know Clare and Todd and the kids live in Orlando now. There was nothing for them here anymore after the plant closed."

"You don't have to tell me anything, Buster. I know what it was like to work in that plant. I made tires, boy. There was none of this sissy call center stuff like you do back in my day. A man did a man's job. I took good care of your mother and you kids. Clare’s Todd, he knows how to do a man's job. "

Mike knew better than to argue. The old man had no idea that Todd was now working as a part-time tour guide at a cheesy reptile zoo in the Florida swamp just to pay the rent. Clare was watching neighbors’ kids to earn milk money.

"It's just me, Dad," Mike said with resignation. "I'm who you've got." The conversation quieted. As they approached his street, the old man looked over.

"You know what Sylvia said to me today?"

"What, Dad?"

"She said I must have a really good son to look after me like you do.”

Mike looked over at the old man. Maybe there’d be a moment of appreciation.

“You don’t know how much it hurt me to have to tell her that you'd been no help at all. Just a pain in the ass.”

Mike turned his head and looked ahead.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Finding Country

Nanney’s Creek Road, 2011

It used to be that you didn’t have to go far to find the country. You could drive five or ten minutes and you were in either the fields or the fields.

When I live now, it takes a good thirty or forty minutes to get to the edge of suburbia. There’s only one small farm left within a couple of miles of where I live, and it remains only because the patriarch of the family that owns it won’t let it be sold. But when he’s gone, I’ve no doubt his children will swoop in and turn the remaining pastures into fields of cookie cutter McMansions.

The Southern part of Virginia Beach is still rural in character even if less and less of it is no longer authentically rural in fact. Bit by bit, subdivisions of surprising affluence have crept down into the farming country. It’s still our city’s horse country, though these horses don’t work and when they’re carried somewhere it’s more likely to be in trailer towed behind a Range Rover than behind a pickup truck.

When I drove down to the North Carolina border this past Sunday afternoon there was hardly a place along the old two-lane country road where I couldn’t see at least a half dozen large homes situated on lots so close to the water level of Back Bay and the North Landing River that they were once considered undesirable for anything but raising soybeans and big fat water snakes.

February isn’t the best time to go looking at farms. The fields are just starting to warm for spring planting, which means most of the action is taking place underground. But every now and then you come across a view that reminds you that there was once some breathing space around here.

Princess Anne 36, 2011

I took the pictures posted here because I was initially drawn to the trees. I started photographing the big tree in Nanney’s Creek Road years ago. Each time I go down to look at it another storm seems to have hacked more of it away. It wasn’t until I came home and looked at the photos on the screen, though, that I noticed that the skies were a much more interesting story.

We’ve become accustomed to photos of the earth taken from airplanes and satellites that show weather systems swirling above us terrestrial souls. It didn’t occur to me until I looked at Nanney’s Creek Road that I was getting a view of such a swirl from underneath. Is that a dynamic sky, or what?

The sky in Princess Anne 36, below, is arguably less thrilling. You could probably argue that it distracts from the composition of the trees that first attracted me. But upon reflection I think it makes for a more interesting photograph. Besides, my car tires were sinking into the mud at the edge of the field as I contemplated this shot. If I’d waited much longer for the sky to clear, I’d probably still be stuck there now.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Tasty Meadows

Tasty Meadows 16, 2011

There are several memorable moments in of the 1981 movie The Incredible Shrinking Woman, not the least of which is Lily Tomlin’s performance as the aforementioned shrinking woman and Charles Grodin’s performance as her harried husband.

But the part my wife and I always chuckle about when we remember that movie is how the neighborhood Tomlin and her husband lived in was called Tasty Meadows. The only thing that distinguished the houses of Tasty Meadows from one another was that they were all painted in different pastel colors.

I mention this because I took a ride through my own city yesterday, particularly the part that has been developed since 1980, and was taken aback at how lacking these neighborhoods are in color. Whenever my wife and I drive past one of those neighborhoods where hundreds of homes are built from the same three or four templates and the colors are all within three shades of beige, we look at each other conspiratorially and whisper, “Tasty Meadows.”

I suspect this palette had more to do with the limited range of colors available in vinyl siding in the 1980s than with a desire of the developers to create mind numbingly dull looking neighborhoods. It certainly says nothing of the people who live in these homes. They were looking for good space and value in their purchases and these homes undoubtedly fit the bill.

Tasty Meadows 42, 2008

Yesterday I revisited a new subdivision I lasted visited just over two years ago. It’s built at the site of what used to be a string of immense and deep sand borrow pits. When I last visited, the sides of the largest of the old pits, an eighty-five acre monster of a hole that looks to be every bit of 50– 60 feet in depth, had been graded to such a sharp pitch that while attempting to photograph it I nearly tumbled down the hill into the water at the bottom. Since then, the pit has filled almost completely with water.

That much water is impressive, although given its depth it’s not the kind of body of water I’d have built a children’s playground right next to. But what really caught my eye about this subdivision were the colors of the homes. The first home built there were in same dull shades of beige you see everywhere. But the more recent additions have been bolder with color.

It’s a strange project. On the one hand, it reminds one of Celebration, Florida, the Disney Corporation’s attempt to merge New Urbanism with a Potemkin-like sheen of traditional conservative values. All of the houses have front porches big enough for people to sit on and observe their neighbors and the life of the community. Some of the houses are even arranged around broad common lawns, with vehicle access and parking diverted to alleys in the rear.

Tasty Meadows 45, 2008

But that’s as far as it goes. Nearly all of the newer additions to the neighborhood are being built with 8’ vinyl fences that not only cast deep shadows across yards at all hours of the day but noon, but also mitigate the safety value of having all those people sitting on their front porches observing the life of the community. The fences as much as announce: “We may be neighborly, but what goes on within this wall is none of your damned business!”

Tasty Meadows 12, 2011

Friday, February 11, 2011

You Never Know Where They Come From

Any rooms at the Bates Motel? I dunno. Let me go ask Momma, 2010

I’m always curious to see which of the photographs I post at Flickr will catch the attention of the Flickr community. They’re a discerning lot and you just never know what’s going to click with them.

My all-time most viewed photograph is actually a short Flip camera video, 40 Seconds of Zen from the Dead Horses. As of yesterday, it had been viewed nearly 21,000 times. Each day a dozen or so people get added to the count. I don’t know where they come from or how they find their way to this little video. The Flickr statistics tell me only that the majority of them come from “unknown sources,” leading me to believe they’re here because they were searching for “Zen.”

But that theory doesn’t hold much water, if you’ll pardon the pun. Here’s another little video I posted that also has the word “Zen” in the title. It’s been viewed by fewer than 150 people. And here’s yet another one, this time a photo with “Zen” in the title. It’s been viewed by fewer than 100 people. So much for that theory. (Looks like I'm more interested in Zen than them.)

My second most viewed image, Old Sparky, is a photograph of the old electric chair in the Texas Prison Museum. It’s been viewed by more than 7,000 people. As with the 40 Seconds of Zen from the Dead Horses, new people find their way to this photograph every day. Flickr statistics tell me they come primarily from search engines. So my assumption is that they come as a result of interest in the death penalty. (I do know that this photo has been used at two web sites devoted to overcoming the death penalty.)

The other day I posted the picture above, “Any rooms at the Bates Motel? I dunno. Let me go ask Momma,” at Flickr. It’s a scene I’ve photographed many times through the years, but one I’ve always chosen to show as a black-and-white rather than color image.

I took this picture last October. It was so far to the bottom of the list of pictures I liked from that series, though, that I wasn’t even going to post it at first. I try not to repeat myself. I also think Flickr has a relatively short attention span for series that don’t punch you every day with something really exciting. But I liked the composition, the great light and the blue sky. So I posted the picture and went on about my business.

Some of my usual friends stopped in to comment, for which I am always grateful. But then, later in the day, I started getting comments and e-mails from people I’ve never heard of before. They wrote to me in French, Italian and, I think, Portuguese. The French I could understand. The Italian I could make out. The Portuguese I had to go to Babel Fish to interpret.

Every now and then one of my pictures will be featured at Flickr’ Explore page. If you hang around Flickr long enough this will happen to you from time to time. Flickr doesn’t tell you they’re doing this. You usually notice it in the form of an uptick in traffic to your Flickr page. But someone also usually comments that they saw the picture at Explore. This time, though, there were no such notes and I couldn’t find this photo at Explore.

I guess this’ll give me something to think about this weekend while I should be thinking about finding a Valentine.