Thursday, December 25, 2008

The only Christmas photo I could muster--the festival of trees at the Hall of Waters in downtown Excelsior Springs, MO

The Sunday before Christmas

It’s the Sunday before Christmas and all through the house not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse.

Frankly, this surprises me. Usually this time of year the house is all but infested with rodents who have wisely determined that the balmy indoors beats the frigid outdoors any day, and the food is better, too. In preparation for their indubitable arrival, traps with their spring-loaded bars and touch-sensitive triggers were hung with great care (plus copious amounts of Jiffy peanut butter) in hopes that any uninvited mouseketeer would soon be dispatched to that other side which awaits us all. And then—nothing. 

Old Hiram Maxim would be disappointed. His design of the mousetrap as we know it has stood the test of time, even though over 4,000 patents in the United States alone purport to be a “better” model. Maxim, you might remember, went on to invent the machine gun, a fact that leads one to question whether it was due to a veritable plague of mice, necessity being the mother of invention and all. Thanks to Alexandra Fuller’s autobiography, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, which graphically describes Fuller’s mother cutting loose on a cobra in their Rhodesian kitchen, her Uzi set on full auto, the “explosion of glasses and bottles and tins and a wild chattering of bullets...the dust, the splintering of still-falling glass, the whimpering dogs,” it’s easy to picture a berserk Maxim training his new invention on the invasive horde and squeezing the trigger. Unfortunately, it was only a short step from there to the trenches of Flanders and  Ypres.

Sheba is nestled all snug by her cage, visions of townhouse crackers and Doritos dancing in her head, while in the bedroom Lori lies asleep, the comforter spilling onto the floor like a waterfall, and I’m half-dozing at my iMac, dutifully hammering away at the keys when what I really want to do is to rejoin my wife in the slumber of innocents.

Across the street festive lights twinkle and sparkle in competition with the growing dawn. Were I to glance out the south window I’d see the doctor's house aglow with each window pulsing red, green and blue, and to the southwest another house afire with glittering white icicles and the illumined skeletal outlines of mammals cavorting in the snow. Only our house is dark.

It gets worse. Within our humble abode not a single holiday decoration or accessory is evident. No stockings hang from the chimney, no tree festooned with ornaments and tinsel, no pine wreaths nor candles nor any other thing to honor the season. It’s not so much a “bah, humbug” as it is an “ah-choo.”

A hacking cough and ribs that feel staved in. 

An incessantly dripping schnoz.

Gritty eyes.

Bone-deep weariness from lack of sleep.

Merry %@&% Christmas.

I tell myself it could be worse. My back is better after tearing it out earlier this month, so at least I’m mobile, more or less. We could have pneumonia, or the latest ice storm could have snapped power lines and trees and plunged us into that darkness we knew so intimately last year about this same time. The economy hasn’t hit us too hard as evidenced by a steady stream of brown-shirted men bearing gifts. Our kids and grandkids are healthy. We have jobs and a roof over our heads. Yes, it could always be worse.

But contemplating a Christmas-less Christmas has plunged me in a reflective mood, and try as I might I cannot shake it. For a while I stare out the dining room window where a deep burgundy sheen filters through the naked woods and rises into the eastern sky like a red tide, only to be captured in the ice and hoarfrost coating the shrubs and held there, each glazed twig and limb burning with its own incandescence. For a brief, fleeting moment the rising sun paints the brittle snow in pastel shades of the most delicate hues, ephemeral as thoughts, before swiftly fading to the coldest satin-blue. The thermometer reads five below zero.

And within these walls where I am drawn evermore inward there comes a mental shift that always occurs with the transition between night and day, as if time had been held in abeyance or slowed to a trickle and the shot of light over the horizon’s circular bow the muezzin’s call to action. I must get busy, I think, and then reminded of a treeless Christmas settle back in my chair and linger while around me the house grows yet more still and its creatures quietly sleeping. 

I wonder: can Christmas be Christmas without a tree, or gifts gaily wrapped? Are the trappings as important as the event? Ritual plays a large role in how we interact with the great mysteries of religion, society and myth. Rote enhances experience and perhaps even opens us to a deeper understanding. But is it necessary? Not necessary, no.

This, then, is my fate, one I grudgingly accept with full knowledge that the course is not irreversible. But in looking back on Christmases past what comes to me is not wrapping paper and strands of twinkling lights, not trees both real and artificial, nor even the dated Hallmark ornaments collected each year since our first together 35 years ago (has it really been that long?), but the laughter of children, the lunacy of cats and discarded paper, the closeness of family and friends, the sense of homecoming and warmth in a world gone cold, the joy of giving, an abiding feeling of thankfulness and blessings bestowed, the love in my wife’s eyes, a touch, a kiss, the intangible things that make our lives something to cherish, something to honor, something to give. 

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Found in light and shadow

Sometimes your life changes and you don’t know it until later, perhaps at a quiet time when your thoughts are your own and not held captive to some outside influence or imposition, your self laid bare under your own gentle scrutiny, and you get a glimmer, an inkling, of some subtle shift occurring in your thinking or vision or imagination, the way we see or imagine the world around us and our place within it. A little light switches on, perhaps dim at first but steadily growing brighter, and with Holmesian introspection and meticulous digging you trace the transformation back to its source. 

And sometimes it’s a slow evolution, the cumulative accrual of observation and experience. Looking back on it now from a space of several months as well as a hundred or so photographs, some tossed, some set aside as merely decent and a select few life-altering, I’m becoming aware of what began far away in another state and an old hospital, now museum, where sunlight filtering through gauzy curtains lay like time itself on the dusty coating of an ancient potbellied stove, or reflected off stainless medical instruments splayed on a table like tools of torture, or even of how a sliver of a hallway, laced by a crack inching toward a yellowed plastic light switch, seemed to hold the very essence of the structure in microcosmic completion. Indeed, my most memorable shot was so simple as to be impressionistic, a single shadow aslant down an unblemished wall with only a small hook to provide texture or dimension. Ultimately, what memories were captured or hauled off like booty were not of the museum’s entirety but of a few individual pieces that encapsulated, and perhaps defined, the whole.

Whatever the transformative process, whether sudden or slow, there were no angels singing when we closed the car doors in the parking lot at Missouri’s Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site and Park, no revelations from on high, no peals of trumpets. The lot was empty except for the vehicles of employees and a smattering of small birds filtering through the trees, a mixed flock of some half-dozen species. Low clouds played cat-and-mouse with a sun already lowering in the west while a slight breeze rattled the desiccated leaves like the faint stirring of castanets.

Lori seemed in awe of the visitor center, a sprawling megalith anchoring one end of the parking lot and a tangle of deciduous woods beyond hiding all else. “I’ve always wanted to come here but never thought I would,” she said.

It had been a trip hastily planned—minutes, actually, something unlike my normal plodding pace fraught with research and other diversions. When she mentioned the mill several nights before I’d leaped on the opportunity as part of Chase Jarvis’ admonition to go for the sake of art. So we went, taking time to close out the work week and make reservations for a hotel. I found much to like in the new and improved me.

I also found much to like in Watkins Woolen Mill, though it would be days and weeks before I learned the full extent of it.

The site encompasses a lavish interpretive center but once past the rear double doors the present falls away and one is back in the mid-1800s, when Waltus Watkins built his farm and mill. The latter, the only 19th century textile mill in the nation with its original machinery intact, stands several hundred yards down a dirt path shaded by overarching trees. Off to the side is the main house with its smaller smokehouse and summer kitchen, and beyond an extensive garden and orchards give way to distant woods. The place has an aura of being suspended in time and curiously emptied of its denizens, as if they’d wandered off and were expected back at any moment. No doubt our off-season arrival and the fact that we were the only visitors heightened this sense, but the pleasure was all ours in the personal attention provided by the staff.

We met our guide at the mill. So well has it been preserved that it appeared almost new, a massive rectangle of three stories and a towering chimney, its brickwork sharp and clean-edged. Stepping inside was another matter. Windows provided the only illumination, November light spilling onto the worn wooden planks in harsh angular shapes whose intensity waned and waxed with the interplay of sun and cloud, while in the corners the disturbed shadows seemed to shift and sidle under their own volition, advancing and retreating in an endless war of give and take. 

As Lori and the guide wandered off I was drawn to the ancient furnace. Several hand-hewn boards lay lengthwise inside the firepit on ashes long since grown cold. The metal casing on the heavy door was shattered from heat, the housing pitted and peeled away by rust. On this lower level light slatted through open framing and congealed on the uneven cobblestones at the base of the forge as if burned there by past fires. I centered the furnace and a portion of the hallway within the viewfinder and snapped several shots, varying the exposure to capture the confluence of luminosity and gloom, imagining as I did the scene in black and white. In this forever twilight there was no room for color.

And that should have been that, a simple exercise in making art, the pressing of a shutter and moving on to the upper floors and the eternal shades of night captured within the flywheels, gears and cogs of the machinery, the endless strands of thread dangling like spiderwebs, the preternatural silence swallowing our footsteps, the mote-filled air. But if Watkins Woolen Mill is as much in the present as it is in the past, so too are our lives, and somewhere within those shadows something more than the shutter clicked, something still in the gloaming but slowly, ever so slowly, coming into the light. What we take away we also leave.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Across the wide Missouri

Across the wide Missouri! I’m immersed enough in folklore and American history to grasp the significance of the phrase in the annals of western expansion, part jumping-off point, part immutable threshold, a liquid boundary separating the staid past from the propitious future, roll on, roll on, hail Columbia. Departing Leavenworth on its magnificent double-span bridge—itself the color of an autumn sky—brings to mind riverboats and paddle-wheels and a nation at its crossroads. Once when flying to Pennsylvania I looked down upon the broad Mississippi and felt its presence even at 30,000 feet. It truly is America’s river, writhing through our collective DNA, guardian to our most sacred myths and literature. Though the Missouri plays second fiddle, the fact that it originates in the West, flows through the Heartland and empties in the South, bridging the entirety of the nation, gives it a more western aesthetic. In that respect, the river and I share kinship.

Crossing the Missouri has another connotation, that of traversing borders. Something about leaving my home state appeals to me though I can’t say why. It might have something to do with being raised smack-dab in the middle of New Mexico, which meant a fairly extensive journey to get to other states. Ditto for living in Denver. Now we’re just a short haul from Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa, so that within 30 minutes of leaving home I can crow with absolute delight, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

But on Highway 36 there was no sky-painted bridge to sail across, no graceful arches leading the eye. Rather, and to my dismay, a squat steel platform discharging us into St. Joseph and a bewildering maze of highways, speeders and impatient truckers. Lori had suggested sightseeing in town but neither of us were prepared for the sudden acceleration, rude and baffling after the somnolent backroads of northeast Kansas. White-knuckled and tense, I asked which sites she wanted to see and which exit would be best. “I don’t know,” she said. “I never had time to look.”

The major distinguishing characteristic separating the sexes can be summarized in how men prepare and execute and women expect sudden revelations. Maybe it’s because men tend to be pessimists (“realists,” my father would say) and women remain eternal optimists. With vague recollections of the Pony Express Museum and some fancy cathedral being downtown, I whizzed off the first exit with that designation and found myself heading north along the river. Before us unfolded a panoply of massive limestone structures, architecture from another era built on a grand scale the likes of which we will never see again.

“It’s beautiful,” Lori said. Indeed it was but possibly more so for the passenger. The driver was engaged in other matters, mostly keeping us alive and charting a course based on wishful dreams. Helpful signs directing us to historical sites loomed ahead so we followed them into a warren of ill-marked one-way streets rising and falling precipitously with the contours of the loess hills. Angling toward the spires of the cathedral with cars hard on our heels like a pack of wolves, I managed to spot an empty parking lot and whip in. The relief was staggering. I know it was my imagination but it seemed that the cars snarled as they sprinted past, furious at our escape.

Next to us the twin spires of the former Church of the Immaculate Conception rose to the heavens. I’d read somewhere that it’s one of the most photographed buildings in town, but if so I couldn’t see how. Even with a superwide it was impossible to frame that magnificent structure without getting tangled with power lines and lens distortion, and after trying a few angles I grew bored and walked across the street to a shuttered derelict with November-hued vines clinging to the brickwork. Two quick close-up shots and I was done with St. Joseph.

Cities are no doubt a necessary evil on the road but whenever possible I try to avoid them. Years ago I when drove to Texas to bury my grandparents I charted a route straight south, 1,700 miles roundtrip of backroads and small towns and, once past the Texas border, a frightening number of Baptist churches. I religiously kept off interstates and made a complete bypass of Oklahoma City, preferring the open country to the crazed speedways, and in so doing arrived much later but also more mentally balanced, refreshed, in fact, from experiencing some of the loveliest country on earth. That stretch of road north of Possum Kingdom State Park in Texas is as lovely as it gets, which is why we travel, I guess. 

The sad reality of the open road is that the nearer to cities one gets the more expensive the houses are. Only when paint on the wayside homes began showing signs of peeling and the barns sagged from extreme old age did I begin to relax. For a while the land unfolded into plowed fields and I drove in a state of suspended animation, and then we turned south and skirted an interstate and the fields gave way to rolling hills and sheltering woods. Several times when we looped above the highway we saw a stream of vehicles clotting the lanes while ours was an empty two-lane bereft of traffic. Not much later we turned off onto an even narrower road and entered the state park. The road was strewn with fallen leaves and the afternoon sun slanted through the naked boughs like spectral fire, and every twilit fold had a tiny rill or creek reflecting the light. If there are gods they exist in shadows and moving waters. 

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Interregnum for a Black Friday

Most of the Black Friday sales were advertised for days in advance so shoppers knew where to find the best bargains. Universally, judging from comments, the “bargains” elicited yawns more than yikes. As many commentators put it, “Is that the best they can do?”

My sentiments exactly. I was ready to shop but hadn’t found anything worth spending my hard-earned cash on, and so gave the online ads only a cursory glance as I started my day.

My Black Friday day.

4:30 a.m., five grafs into my next column, more in my journal, and an ad pops up on my screen. I study it, searching the fine print for discrepancies or stipulations. I can’t find any. It says for today only, 7-7 Pacific time, customers receive 40% cash back for any product from HP.

Any product. 

This catapults me into my research mode, reading reviews, finding examples, sizing images in Adobe Lightroom, my editing software. It’s all motion and emotion as I contemplate a 13”x19” semi-pro printer I’ve always wanted, one that will print superb black-and-white as well as color. Think of it: prints as cheap as $2.50, and this on Hahnemuhle or Moab rag papers. Of course there would be the other expenses, the paper, the inks, the little things that jack up the final cost. I’d have to learn about paper profiles and calibration and all that. A similar-sized print (or thereabouts—none of the large photo labs uses that size, the nearest being 12”x18”)—runs between $10 for regular black-and-white paper to $21 for fine art paper. The savings are enormous, even factoring in the initial costs. What a deal. What an idea.

Just for grins, say I save $16 for each fine art print. I’d only have to print 20 images before breaking even. When looked at that way, it’s a steal.

Were I selling images, it would be a no-brainer. But I’m not.

On the other hand, this would make marketing and selling my photos much more profitable. 

And the price is right. The printer retails for $550 so the savings would come to $220. That is a big, big deal.

Plus free shipping! And no tax!


It’s the very first time I’ve seen that printer for less than $500. That’s how big this is.

It’s not the way I wanted the day to start. Cloudy and cold, with the chance of rain or snow showers, Lori home this morning, a column to write, an easy glide into the inevitable loneliness of an evening minus my life’s companion, and now this agonizing rumination on printing, art and making money at photography. It was assuredly easier to order a Dremel tool. Or a 16GB flash drive, which I’m still looking for. But a printer? I’d all but given up on ever being able to print my own images, and here’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Literally.

Maybe the link is fraudulent. Maybe it won’t work. I guess there’s nothing I can do until 9 a.m. when it goes live.

Until then, I float, my words for the next column as flat as the light outside, as colorless, as gray. And I click the link to see what happens.


10:15 a.m. and the HP site is down. Hammered, no doubt.

The good news is that the link is legitimate.

The question is whether it’s really 40% off everything or only on selected items. If it’s the latter, it’s a flagrant scam. I’m getting peeved at the uncertainty. C’mon, servers, handle the load! Jerks.

Lori said I should buy it for Christmas. But think of the expense! It’s like many things in the hobby world, the upfront costs are daunting. Any (theoretical) savings come later. I must return to my column. I have to get something done today to prove my worth as a wage-earner.

Noon. The column sucks. I’m unsure if there’s any redemption or if I would be better to delete the entire thing and start over.

The link is still broken. How am I supposed to concentrate with this distraction? One question that concerns me is whether after this much time and effort, if the link opened and actually worked as advertised would I buy the printer or walk away. If there’s any chance of the latter, I should give up now and focus on work. Walk away and forget it. After all, I’ve resigned myself for the most part to never being able to do my own printing—it’s that “for the most part” that nags at me. If photography is about the final image (and it is), then by not printing my own images I’m relegating to a stranger the single most important part of the process, the thing people actually see, the image itself in all its glory. Is that what I want, or do I need complete control? (Without sounding like a control freak, naturally!) So: if the link works, what will I do? 

I wish there was a way to express the long, drawn-out pause following that question.

I’ll buy it. That’s what I’ll do. Like I said, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime offer. I’d be a fool to let it pass.

I just don’t want to get my hopes up only to have them dashed.

On to work! 


4:35 p.m. and still no go, though the last few minutes I’ve at least been directed to the site before the screen dims and a little popup windows goes “oops!” Oops my ass, just get me there and I’ll do the rest. 

I’d like to say I’m in a spending mood but I’m really not. Funny how a printer isn’t sexy like a new flash or lens, more a service thing, like getting your oil changed or a new refrigerator. But the idea of printing my own images and having total control—final control—is captivating, possibly because I’ve never had that ability. Strange that I can spend so much time in my digital darkroom and never finish the job. 

In desperation I call HP and ask if the offer is online only or if they would help a poor bugger like me. Nope, can’t. So sad for the trouble. 

I cook dinner and eat alone, knock down a beer, put the dishes in the dishwasher and clean off the table. Night falls gray and cold and I begin to understand that there will be no new printer for me. It’s strange how you can go from not thinking about something one minute to craving it the next. These past few hours have been an evolution and I’m not sure how I see myself at this point. Frustrated, certainly, perhaps a bit depressed. Maybe a smidgen happy that I’m not spending money.

A friend sends me a news article about a Wal-Mart worker getting lethally trampled by eager shoppers. My revulsion quickly turns to reflection and a sudden queasy recognition. 

I click the refresh button and wait a few seconds while it thinks, and receive the oops window.

I click the refresh button.

I click the refresh button.

This is my life, clicking the refresh button. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Boundaries, backroads and backwaters

These towns cling to the loess hills like strangler vines, tucked away into draws and hollows, masked by an impenetrable jungle of trees and vines, the raw exposed hillsides venous with roots. The hardest thing to remember is that this, too, is Kansas, and the lazy drawl of the Missouri River at your back a road of another kind where in 1804 the improbable appearance of white men maneuvering boats upstream bespoke a new unthinkable future. One gets the impression that floods and wars and time’s implacable erosion have touched this place hardly at all, and also that in a century little will be left but the few capillaries of rarely-traveled backroads, the steep-sided hills and shadowed woods, and the eternal, ceaseless river.

Not that there’s much remaining now. Step off the main thoroughfares and you exit civilization as most of us know it, even those of us who live in small rural towns. There’s something different about extreme northeastern Kansas, an aura of another place, the Appalachians, perhaps, or the Ozarks, homes nestled in gullies or tiny cleared meadows, towns fading into forests so thick the languorous air barely stirs, and roads as winding as the perennial streams. Throw in a belted cow or two and the idea of Vermont crops up. Like the innumerable springs and creeks, the roads, mostly gravel but a few paved, take the path of least resistance. Which means slow going—but with scenery this lovely, who’s in a hurry?

We certainly weren’t. We were on a one-night, two-day excursion to Watkins Mill, a 19th century woolen mill, now a Missouri state park, located just a few miles north of Excelsior Springs. It wasn’t all that far, a few hundred miles at best, mostly a chance to get out and see the country and relax after the grueling two-year presidential race. We probably weren’t the only Americans nauseous at having to undergo such withering nonsense, nor who were disheartened by the venomous attacks, outright slander and base pandering that goes into running for high office. Our system of governance is clearly dysfunctional and in need of repair, but if I were asked for a solution—which I most assuredly won’t be—I’d settle for starters on a six-month limit on presidential elections. If it can’t be done in that amount of time, it ain’t worth doing. And if a candidate can’t speak the truth, an old fashioned tar-and-feathering shouldn’t be out of the question. Give us a break already.

The question always arises whether Americans are as stupid as they sometimes act. Maybe elections bring out the worst in people, but each succeeding election I’ve witnessed seems to aggravate a penchant for lemming-like behavior and Chicken Little hysteria. The depth of ignominiousness by politicians and the public alike grows ever deeper. The difference between democracy and mob rule has never been adequately explained to me, or else I slept through that part of civics class. But then school was never the highlight of my life. I much preferred exploring the mesas and foothills around Albuquerque and communing with nature. The writer Daniel Pinkwater said when voting he always pencils in fictional names, possibly the only sane thing to do.

The fecundity of the loess soil and the riotous growth of this area, coupled with the perpendicularity of the terrain and the slow purl of the river, create a sense of ageless finality and decadence at once removed from the power plays of rich men in suits. Armed with our trusty guide, “The Kansas Guidebook for Explorers,” we had a blueprint for what the area contained, the historical sites, the cafes and gift shops, unusual architecture and regional art, and a modicum of route information. The rest was up to us and our Kansas DeLorme Atlas, whose maps were correct most of the time. When they weren’t we relied on common sense and an unfettered appreciation for adventure best summed up by Winnie the Pooh’s excellent descriptive, “expotition.”

There were times, however, when I wished for a compass. On several occasions, after innumerable ninety-degree bends and long graceful curves, I completely lost track of the cardinal points and could no longer tell north from south or east from west. I’m usually pretty good at keeping directions but here I became utterly discombobulated. Nor could I adequately retrace our route on a map. Somewhere north of the town of Highland we ended up on the wrong road, or not the road I wanted, and after some puzzling glances at the trunks of trees—which side does moss grow on?—we dropped down to a broad level area with light fracturing through the trees. And so to the river.

North was White Cloud, a small town perched on vertical lines and above which from an observation point one can see four states. Its claim to fame was Wilbur Chapman, a 10-year-old boy who in the early 1900s sold his prized pig to raise money for a leper colony. The story goes that children throughout the world joined his cause by collecting money in little iron banks shaped like pigs. While nobody’s saying this was how piggy banks started, experts admit uncertainty over its true cosmology. Personally, I like the idea that it began here.

The difficulty for the itinerant photographer and explorer is in trying to capture the essence of a place when time is short. Ideally, several days would be involved in a thorough immersion, capturing the play of light in its infinite forms and angles. In the end I settled for several panoramas of the wide sweep of the river angling to the northwest and tight vignettes of the architecture: a steep white metal staircase leading up a dark brick wall, a stone frieze contrasting with a dented metal awning. The long and short version of White Cloud, Kansas. And then the road took us and we were gone. 

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Davis Memorial, Hiawatha, Kansas

The economics of remembrance

Today an air of mystery hangs over the memorial, sort of a second canopy of skepticism and resentment.

Hiawatha knows whodunit: John Milburn Davis. The question remains...why? 

– Hiawatha Convention and Visitors Bureau brochure

There’s a vestige of stubbornness in his expression. Flinty eyes shadowed under furrowed brow, old John Davis glowers defiance, mouth downturned, fierce beneath a full beard cascading in waves to his chest, one eyebrow half-cocked as if in askance: You dare question me?

Some do, amazingly enough. Some still do.

I don’t. As Lori and I stood beside his marbled monument on the eastern fringe of Hiawatha, I stared into those cold gray eyes and saw something besides anger, a trace of longing so deep and terrible no words could express. The stiffness in his posture belies his anguish; feet placed carefully together, right hand draped over the arm of his overstuffed chair, left hand gone, sleeve empty, jacket unbuttoned, spine rigid, eyes locked forward. An almost formal posture, as if sitting for a portrait or worried that any sudden movement would irreparably fracture his comportment. Beside him an empty chair matching his own is all the more revelatory for what’s missing, what’s designated simply by an inscription that reads, “The vacant chair.”

But even that doesn’t explain his unregenerate demeanor. Something more is at play in the grassy fields of Mt. Hope Cemetery, whose headstoned ranks eddy around the central bastion of the monumental Davis Memorial. 

Commissioned after the death of his wife, Sarah, in 1930, the memorial consists of 11 life-sized statues portraying the couple through the stages of their lives. Here a younger John Davis sits on a bench beside his wife, an attractive woman impeccably dressed. Foursquare beneath a central marble canopy weighing more than 50 tons are two middle stages of Davises, one set older, him dressed more casually as depicting his occupation as a farmer and her outfit trendy, the other set more casually attired but with the addition of hats; his broad-brimmed, hers stylish. Opposite the seated younger couple sits an even older vintage, and it is this that greets visitors when they drive into the cemetery. Sarah stares placidly into the distance, cheeks sunken in a toothless mouth, eyes hooded as if gazing inward at another place entirely, some inner dimension or landscape people by shadows. Her husband looks to the side and down, sorrow etched in the lines of his face, pooled in his eyes.

It’s an impressive assembly of marble and granite. Some would say pretentious, as I did when I first heard of it. I’ve been around spectacularly rich people and have seen their monuments, both to the living and to the dead, and in nearly all instances found in them a hollow facade tinged with fear. Death is the great equalizer but some imagine themselves greater than the common denominator, not knowing, and probably not caring, that others view their sepulchers as no more than outlandish wastes of money.

Such was certainly the case with John Davis. By the time the monument was taking shape he was embattled, harried by townspeople who saw only his assets and not his need, and after their demands for assistance were rebuffed, flayed him with vicious rumors that persist to this day. 

The town lacked certain amenities, a swimming pool, a hospital; the Great Depression was a wolf ravening at the door. Community leaders pressed Davis to underwrite the projects, but he undauntedly carried on with the memorial. Their union had been childless, and opposed by Sarah’s parents, so he sank his fortune into creating a lavish tableaux of their life together, all the while slipping money to the truly needy and ignoring the townspeople’s demands. When Ernie Pyle interviewed him in the late 1930s, he told Pyle, “They hate me. But it’s my money and I spent it the way I pleased.”

No wonder the look of brooding discontent. 

I knew little of this at the time. We were on our way to an old woolen mill in Missouri and had taken a detour through northeastern Kansas to pick up a few of the more interesting sites that had eluded us in the past. But while researching our itinerary I came upon John Davis and felt a kindred connection. That vacant chair spoke volumes, much more so than the angry, beggarly entreaties of the good citizens of Hiawatha who saw his entrenchment as simple selfishness. I believe it was a matter of remembrance. The alleged “mystery” about why John Davis paupered himself to create a memorial to his wife and the times they’d shared—versus forking his loot over to the town—is artificial and disingenuous, a figment to lure tourists and to mask a central greed. 

The wind was raw, raking the cemetery in gusts that sent dust and corn husks skittering down the pavement. Lori and I got out of the car and walked around the monument, me framing photographs and measuring light, Lori reading the documentation and the expressions on the faces of the graceful statues. When she disappeared into the car for warmth I remained alone and letting the camera drop finally stared at John Davis’ scowl, and in a flash felt something raw and elemental as the icy wind, personified in the vacant chair, and I thought of him sitting in his living room as dusk settled down and the walls closed in, the silence deepening into a preternatural scream. After she was gone, nights would have been the worst. When Lori’s not home I never know what to do with myself. Pace the floor, stare out the window or aimlessly surf the Internet, read a book with only a half-measure of concentration. Rub Sheba. Grow brittle and apathetic. I recognized the look.

There’s no mystery here. There’s only a vacant chair.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Snake in the grass

“Want to see a snake?” 

As the informal and unofficial chronicler of our lives together, a job which involves varying skills of censor, comedian, sage, psychologist, tinkerer, revisionist and historian, I am prone at times to making lavish announcements concerning era-inducing events. Being a journalist and occasional headline-writer only aggravates this tendency. With that in mind, let it be known to all and sundry alike that such an event transpired on Tuesday, July 8, 2008, when Lori entered the house and calmly posed the preceding question with none of the usual hysterical hue and cry, call to arms, half-veiled insinuations or glaring death-threat looks. If not for a slight higher tone to her voice, she could have been discussing a singularly-beautiful red-blushed cloud, a first purplish blossom on the echinacea or, as happened later in the day, an impromptu and mysterious hoedown on our porch by six young cottontails. 

So collected was she, in fact, that I almost misunderstood her. But snake is a word immediately impressed upon our consciousness: at first sensuous and sibilant, a slow hiss jarringly truncated by a harsh stop with only a short vowel bridging the gap.

At the time I was sitting on the floor in our back room, a sheaf of important papers in my lap and our black Angora rabbit, Sheba, beside me. I’d made a mistake on an important survey and was trying to locate it among dozens of forms and didn’t want to be bothered, but as any veterate married man will attest, a wife’s speech consists of delivery and content and the twain are both isolate and inseparable. “I’m coming!” I said.

For at heart her question was not a question but a command and a plea. Identify it. Make it go away. As a man, I find this touching and, dare I say, affirming. My grandmother, a farmer’s wife on the brutal plains of West Texas, would without fanfare or prompting snatch a hoe and vivisect any serpent audacious enough to slither onto the property, with added emphasis in each blow the nearer the offending herp was to the chicken coop. In our relationship, I’m the defender as well as the herpetologist, lepidopterist and ornithologist, with a few other ists thrown in for good measure, and vastly prefer my wife’s direction toward a living specimen rather than to bloodied portions scattered throughout the tomatoes and cucumbers.

As we walked to the garden I questioned her about what she’d seen.

“How big was it?”


“What color was it?”

“I don’t know. Yellow, maybe.”

“Any distinguishing marks?”

“I didn’t see any.”

“Did you see its head?”


Translated, this means she didn’t hang around long enough to look.

The snake had been coiled inside a wire containment fence enclosing a potato plant. The closer we got to the garden the slower Lori walked so that by our arrival she lagged behind a good ten feet. She pointed to  the fence amid the overgrown tangle of wild lettuce, bindweed, velvetweed, pigweed, fleabane daisy and pokeberry—ideal habitat, I noted—and I carefully parted the fronds and peered into that green and wild jungle. No snake.

“Where did it go?” she asked.

I assured her that it was no doubt still around. The main bulk of our garden is laid out in three rows of hay bales with a fallow section piled high with sticks and broken branches left over from our ice storm. One border is mostly tall weeds, left there for the grasshoppers. Any self-respecting snake would be delirious with joy over finding such a home. 

I poked around for a few minutes without result. Blister beetles were dispatched with vengeance so I felt as if I’d done my job at least somewhat. 

The question now is how my new non-hysterical wife will handle her garden. Will she fear it, startling at the sight of a coiled hose or a darting skink, or wade into it with impunity? Will she still rely on me for help with snakes and other monsters? Time will tell. If she buys a hoe I’ll know she’s gained the grim capabilities of my sainted grandmother. And if I find her thumbing double-00 shells into the shotgun, I’ll suspect my services are no longer required.