Essays taken from a weekly newspaper column published in the Washington County News, Washington, Kansas. Look for my book, "Dispatches From Kansas," available from Amazon.com, or from the author.
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Saturday, October 30, 2010
Thursday, October 28, 2010
How we do it here
My friend asked, have you ever photographed a cattle auction, and I said, no. Would you like to, she asked.
Her offer sounded so—innocent, so devoid of ulterior motive. My suspicions were immediately aroused.
I asked for more details. This would be their first homeground auction, combined with two other families. It was a Big Deal, two years in the making, and she wanted a photographic record of the proceedings. I could put my photojournalist skills to good use, she said. No pressures, just have a good time.
There was one catch: she wanted the expressions of the bidders captured at the moment of their win or loss. You know, she said, the drama.
Since moving to Kansas ten years ago, we’ve been invited to a K-State girls’ basketball game, rodeos, county fairs, soup suppers, church socials, VFW flag-burnings, chicken-butchering (is that a verb?), poetry readings, modern dance performances, art galleries, trail rides, volleyball tournaments, 4-H events, tractor pulls, horse-drawn Christmas parades, square dances and mega-wattage Fourth of July celebrations. Some events were familiar to us from our time in the city, but others, notably those more rural in nature, were attempts to enculturate us to our new surroundings.
Or so I suspect. There’s a strong sense of gratification in the rural lifestyle, and it’s natural to want to show it off to those whose backgrounds were constrained by fields of asphalt and skyscrapers rather than fields of corn or milo. But to consider it mere pride of place would be overreaching. Prairie people are much too stoic and commonsensical to fall for one of the deadliest deadly sins. Theirs is a simple message devoid of bragging or exaggeration: This is how we do it here.
How they did it at the Burlap and Barbed Wire Female Sale at Hofmann Simmental Farms near Clay Center was to let prospective buyers inspect the cows in a small penned lot prior to the sale. Men, women and children, each clutching a sale flyer, pored over each bovine like enraptured viewers gazing at a Rembrandt or a Matisse. The attention given to the animals was weirdly fascinating but, frankly, puzzling.
I mean, they all pretty much looked alike. Some were reddish, some were reddish-brown, some brownish-red, some black. Each had a tail and a nose and two eyes. I overhead two men discussing the shape of their hips. Try as I might, I couldn’t distinguish one hip from another. When I think hips, I think the Swedish Bikini Team, but that’s another story.
Before the auction started, I asked my friend, Kim, if bidders used paddles like at the fancy Sotheby's auctions. I was told country auctions rely on facial expressions, or the lack thereof. She demonstrated: the cross-eyed grimace as if a mosquito flew up your nose, the barely perceptible lift of an eyebrow, the sideways shift of the eyes, the flick of a finger.
Sometimes, she warned, you won’t even see that.
I thought I knew something about action photography from shooting volleyball tournaments, but the auction left me in the dust. From the opening bell to the last fading reverb there wasn’t a break in the pulse, with yelling and shouting and arm waving from the three guys on the floor to the auctioneer with his full-auto vocals. Bidding, however, was done either invisibly or through motions too subtle to catch. By the end I was convinced much of it was done telepathically.
To wrap up the shoot I followed several buyers into the pens to document the loading. The cows marched unhesitatingly into the trailers. One young girl who earlier had bawled inconsolably followed her cattle as they were loaded and then swung the tailgate closed with an air of finality and resolve. It was humbling to watch and for a moment I felt like a voyeur. Her grit and determination burned white-hot and yet she turned and walked away without a backward glance. Lesser men would have been brought to their knees.
A man standing nearby shook his head as if moved by the sight. Those cows are the gentlest I’ve ever seen, he said. I’ve never seen more gentle cows.
Being the obvious outsider, I was too unsure of myself to reply. I was afraid of saying something really stupid or of showing my ignorance, so I remained silent. But I wanted to say, of course they are, they’re Kim and Rodney’s cows, they’re the best. And they have good hips!
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Friday, October 22, 2010
Thursday, October 21, 2010
No column day, clouds rolling in
Messin' around with new rental lens
Monday, October 18, 2010
Friday, October 15, 2010
Thursday, October 14, 2010
In case you can't tell, I'm having a moment...
The kindness of strangers
What I remember most are the nightmares. They were merely and always a reflection of reality taken to the extreme, fear gone amok with a brush and palette of colors hellishly mixed to glistening greens and scintillant scarlets, luminous with spectral highlights like the iridescent sheen of oil on water. And when at a Dairy Queen in the small dusty town of Stratford, Texas, the nightmares proved themselves not figments of the imagination but prescient, harbingers of an inevitability I refused to consider, the denouement was written not just in my flesh but in Lori’s horrified expression.
As with the nightmares, so with reality: I peel a wet and bloody sock from my left ankle to expose a gelatinous mess the size of a small saucer. The sight is enough to make me queasy but the look on my wife’s face drives a stake of fear through my heart.
What are we going to do, she asks.
What can we do, I reply, trying to maintain an air of nonchalance I in no way possess. We’re five hundred miles from home.
Promise me you’ll see a dermatologist in Albuquerque, she says. Promise me.
And so I do, knowing that my chances of winning an appointment on such short notice is about as likely as my rash healing itself.
It was always “my” rash. Not “the” rash, or “a” rash, descriptives that would have distanced it somehow or minimized its presence, or even depersonalized it to an object of no importance. It was my rash, and it was mutating and spreading in a nonlinear trajectory.
It inhabited my nightmares and tainted almost every waking moment. It changed how I lived, restricted which clothing I could wear in public, squandered far too many hours in plausible but ultimately ineffectual homeopathic remedies, and cost me money I could ill afford.
Worse, perhaps, it stoked my suspicion that the medical profession was a parasite, that it sought to replicate itself like fungus or mold without the slightest concern for its food source. The running joke was that it was named “medical practice” because of its inability to provide concrete results. No warranties were expressed or implied. If a particular medication failed to perform there were no applicable refunds or credits, only an insistence to try and try again until the practitioners miraculously got it right or the patient perished, lost all hope or bled dry financially, whichever came first.
I can’t say how or when it started. Years ago, five at least but maybe more, at first a red stain under my wedding band. It itched unmercifully. Within months I stopped wearing my ring in the vain hope the rash would go away. Instead, it morphed and spread across various parts of my anatomy—under my eyebrows, between my toes, on my crotch.
Because I don’t have medical insurance we tried over-the-counter medications for athlete’s foot, vaginal infections, poison ivy. We powdered it, oiled it, soaked it in colloidal silver, turmeric, black walnut, common plantain. When I broke down in desperation and went to see the doctor, he diagnosed it as a fungus and prescribed several tubes of ointment and vials of pills. The combination gave the rash a one-two punch that sent it reeling into the ropes. Where it rested for a while, biding its time, regaining its strength.
The second assault was worst than the first. Certainly it was less unobtrusive or stealthy. The doctor tried another tack, this time without noticeable effect.
A third trip, a fourth, each to expose my rash’s various permutations to a fresh set of eyes. Ours was a curious relationship, with lots of throat-clearing and intense scrutiny and poring over medical texts and prescriptions that didn’t work. For treatments that wasted my time.
Until I said, enough.
I knew that if I were to ever be delivered from this scourge it would come through a specialist rather than a general practitioner, and all the more costly because of it. That was the future, however. The now was manageable, more or less, a lie I told as I tore myself to tatters.
We were on the way to New Mexico when I stopped to photograph an abandoned grain elevator somewhere in western Kansas. Or Oklahoma, I can’t remember. Walking through bristly weeds triggered a violent response from my ankles—both of them, as the rash had spread exponentially—leaving me in abject misery. As I drove away, I reached down to scratch the itch and came away with crimson fingers. Skin peeled away effortlessly as if floating on a layer of putrescence. For a hundred miles I fought the urge to scrape myself to the bone, and then came Stratford and the ill-fated DQ. It was then that we saw the damage. My one remaining option leaked away into the fabric of my socks like so much pus.
I have connections, my older brother, Wes, said. Let me see what I can do.
My parents said, he’s the best dermatologist in the state. If anyone can help you, he can. But it usually takes six months to get an appointment.
The dermatologist’s office called to say they could see me the next day.
Dr. Matthew Thompson, a fit, trim man with a genial air took one look at me and said, you’re a mess. He smiled when he said it. I saw dollar signs and predicted catastrophic financial failure. He was still smiling when he said, drop your drawers.
The needle went in without warning. Thompson wrote several prescriptions and patted me on the back. This one’s on the house, he said. Get better.
Later, when we were discussing it at the house, my father said, you should have seen the look on Tommy’s face. You should have seen it.
The look. I can only imagine it from an outsider’s perspective, the initial shock erasing all thought, paralyzing my expression into a mask of surprise, mouth agape, eyes welling, speechless at the wholly unexpected gesture, helpless to do more than stammer my gratitude, and then, in the weeks that followed, increasingly humbled at the inconceivable kindness of strangers and the rapidly vanishing traces of a rash that once plagued me.