Thursday, June 30, 2011

Brother, can you spare a gas can?

        As a sometimes environmentalist, I’m familiar with having to defend policies or procedures enacted to preserve our natural resources. This is, admittedly, not always an easy task. Nor has it improved since our relocation to Kansas, less the fabled (if not iconic) heartland as much as the heart of the uber-conservative Republican mindset for whom the environment is something to be harnessed, harvested and exploited, and environmentalists nothing more than pot-smoking hippie activists. Here, the common view is that the government is the problem rather than the solution, that most regulations and legislation are senseless and intrusive, written by idiots, lunatics and Democrats. Which, of course, are the same thing.

Sensible topics for discussion at the local coffee shop do not involve anything associated with global warming (unless in ridicule), the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the EPA, ANWR, off-shore drilling, PETA, Barney Frank, gays, energy from coal, the legitimacy of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate or welfare. (God forbid one should broach the welfare-versus-farm subsidies issue, a surefire conversation stopper; it’s like asking for a chicken sandwich at the sale barn on auction day.)

A sane liberal, Democrat-voting environmentalist learns to keep his opinions undisclosed and hidden. For the most part I’ve done just that, though a situation has arisen that leads me to believe that preserving the environment is one thing, and wishing for a massive earthquake to send California sliding into the deepest depths of the Pacific quite another.

To my friends in the Golden State, I can only offer my condolences. I’d miss you. But let us not forget that it was you, and you alone, who allowed the passage of the CARB-compliant legislation that has now been amended into national Environmental Protection Agency standards. 

And did I say “amended”? Subsumed, enlarged, expanded, engorged, broadened, augmented into a policy even more stringent (breathtakingly so) and restrictive. 

Of course, living in the hinterlands I knew nothing of this until it was too late.

It started when Lori started itching. Now, itching isn’t unusual summertime behavior for active Kansans, not with the hordes of bloodsucking insects infesting the state. This year’s moisture and humidity have created fertile conditions for chiggers, in particular. It’s to the point where any trip outside, even if only to walk from the house to the car, is tantamount to rolling in a field of alfalfa. Red welts pop up seemingly at will; this evening while barbecuing I received a half dozen new bites and I’d been on a concrete porch the entire time! 

Her itching turned into a rash that spread, well, just about everywhere. Her face swelled up, one eye almost closed—she was the very epitome of misery. She’s always been deathly allergic to poison ivy and it was soon clear that she’d tangled with a patch and the patch had won.

Fortunately, we had on hand several brands and varieties of poison ivy treatment. Unfortunately, none of them worked. We bought new medications and tried a dozen homeopathic recipes; she soaked in epsom salts and vinegar; she liberally powdered herself with Gold Bond; but mostly she itched and scratched and in every which way grew worse.

It had to have come from the garden, but which one? She’s been working at a test plot in Marysville (the Garden From Hell, I call it—don’t ask), but when I last studied it I could find no leaves of three. Nor did our garden show signs of poison ivy. I’m not expert nor am I a botanist, but it seems that young growths of poison ivy closely resemble velvetweed in its infancy, or even tiny walnut saplings. Considering that the perimeter of our garden is a riot of indiscriminate growth, it’s probable that somewhere within that green vegetative maze is a strand of two of her bane.

Clearly, it had to go. So I ordered a string trimmer, a good one, even an expensive one, alleged to have a one-pull start and enough power to cut down the Empire State Building. 

I ordered extra industrial-strength string, a fancy “no-brainer” attachment (definitely needed in my case), and some synthetic oil for the gas mixture. Then I dropped by our local hardware for a new two-gallon gas can. 

Which is where things went bad. Mark didn’t have gas cans as I knew them: he had the new EPA-approved, California Air Resources Board-compliant gas cans. They were still made out of plastic, still chigger-welt red, but they sported a fancy gizmo that was part pump, part pressure valve, part lock and part spring mechanism in place of a simple funnel.

The worst part: they cost $5 more than the previous versions.

With assistance from several other customers, we scrutinized the new spout. We read the directions and tried performing them step by step, only to be rebuffed. We tried it upside down and backwards, we followed the instructions in reverse order, we swore and fumed and used language we almost felt ashamed to use but felt warranted under the circumstances.

“How the *@$# does it work?” I asked.

“Damned if I know,” Mark said. “That’ll be ten bucks.”

According to the EPA’s website, the new cans reduce gas fumes from escaping into the environment. What the EPA failed to disclose is that the new spouts refuse to dispense gas. A very brief online check revealed hundreds of customer complaints, most of which stressed that they might indeed prevent gas fumes escaping into the atmosphere but they also leak everywhere but out the nozzle, which somewhat negates their primary function. Review after review excoriated the new spouts. 

For 26 years I made a living working with my wits and my hands. The new CARB-compliant spout was beyond my meager capabilities. As advertised, it was definitely spill proof. I could turn the can upside down and sideways and nary a drop would escape. 

Nor would a drop, a trickle or a gush escape from the spout, despite my most fervent efforts to fathom the instructions. When I finally managed to get gas flowing, it was around the spout’s base where it screwed into the can. Spilling a half gallon of gas onto my patio, my pants, my boots and into the atmosphere was the final straw. I ended up rooting around in the shed until I found another can that would substitute.

I’m all for saving the environment and protecting our air and water. I’m not for mindlessly restrictive policies that turn the simplest pieces of basic equipment into a nightmare of safety features that make them not only much more expensive but utterly useless. Somewhere along the line we’ve crossed the border of rationality into a wilderness of regulations that benefit only manufacturers, lawyers and pencil-pushers. We might be saving a small fraction of our natural resources, but we’re driving thousands of Americans insane in the bargain.

If and when the human race gets serious about preserving the planet, it won’t be through over-engineered gas cans. What’s needed, desperately so, are fewer regulations, fewer bureaucrats, fewer states (adios California!) and fewer people. I wouldn’t bet a plug nickel on any of it.

The good news is that the trimmer performed flawlessly. The bad news is that old-style, functional gas cans are no longer being sold. That hasn’t stopped me from searching high and low on the Internet, though. Brother, please, have mercy—can you spare a gas can? 

Thursday, June 23, 2011


 50@50_01 Western Washington County

 50@50_02 Morrowville

50@50_03 Barnes

The world as we know it

        Let me state firsthand that I needed the lens. 

It wasn’t a frivolous spur-of-the-moment decision triggered by a press release announcing the latest and greatest iteration of a particular piece of camera equipment, though honestly there was a hefty dose of complicity in its timing. (A new one had just been released.) I’m not one to willfully part with my hard-earned dollars, paltry as they are. In fact, their very scarcity precludes any thoughts of wanton disbursement. If I buy something there’s a damn good reason for it, and in this instance I needed something wider and faster, and it arrived on my doorstep late last week.

The shipping box was small and the lens smaller still, almost toylike, with a hard plastic shell and a deeply recessed front element. The mount was metal, at least. It was both larger and heavier than the last version, itself a quality product though not without its faults, some of which were insurmountable. 

I placed it on the table and gazed at it with satisfaction tinged on dubiety. It wouldn’t be something I’d use very often, more a specialized piece of gear to be hauled out when needed and then forgotten about. Thankfully—and uncharacteristically, I might add—it was inexpensive, ridiculously so. Initial reviews rated it higher than its costlier upgrade, which was also a plus.

Lori, used to seeing me bring home big expensive lenses, took one look at the dinky little thing and asked what I intended to do with it. 

Low light stuff, I said, like at the wedding reception. I could have used it then.

But there was more to it than that, maybe even more than I was willing to admit. Certainly I was piqued as much by its wide aperture as the limitations imposed by its focal length, but something deeper was unfolding, something intensely personal. I’d been feeling a little stale and out of sorts, and the idea of challenging myself to do something never before done had been growing, incrementally but relentlessly. Maybe this new lens was the answer. Maybe, I thought, it was time for a new project and a return to my roots.


  A long time ago, way before the digital era, cameras were sold with a choice of a 50mm lens or a 50mm lens. In other words, it was the standard kit lens of the film era. Nifty fifties, as they were called, were inexpensive to produce but wickedly sharp and fast, unlike the kit lenses of today, most of which are inexpensive, cheaply-made zooms. Its inclusion made perfect sense because every photographer relied on a 50mm as an everyday lens, one that remained mounted to the camera more often than not. 

In practical terms, 50mm on 35mm film cameras was considered “normal,” replicating the angle of view captured by our eyes. Composing was a matter of footwork, something today’s zooms all but negate. Learning on a prime, or a fixed focal length lens, taught me that proper framing was an interactive exercise. I’d move in or move out, zooming with my feet, and never once felt hindered by having to do so.

Zooms were light-sucking monstrosities and poorly crafted, at least the ones I could afford, so I stuck to primes. At one time I owned and used a 28mm, 50mm, 85mm and 100mm, the 50mm being the fastest with an f1.4 aperture. I had ordered it special and paid dearly for it, but its quality was superb. The others were good lenses, too, all manually focusing with aperture rings, something modern lenses no longer have or require. 
     I tried selling them and a Canon A1 body a few years ago, only to discover that their resale value was next to nothing. One company offered me $80 for everything, an odious sum. When that didn’t pan out I tried giving it away. A guy in town put out word that he was looking for a cheap 35mm camera so I offered him mine plus a handful of lenses. He couldn’t be bothered suddenly. Maybe that was hardest thing of it, the realization that all your hopes and dreams, your aspirations of becoming the next Ansel Adams, the money spent that you didn’t have, the penny pinching and arguing, the meticulous research that forever pitted quality against cost, none of it mattered in the long run, it was utterly worthless. You couldn’t even give it away. 

Which misses the point entirely. It was never about permanence, it could never be about permanence. If our lives are transient, how much more so the material things we accumulate, even, or possibly especially, those that inspire us, that make our lives not just bearable but full of value and meaning. We own these things because we must. What matters isn’t permanence but temporal usefulness. The money amounts to nothing in the greater scope of things.

About the time I was ready to add the gear to the local landfill, a neighbor took it off my hands. But I kept my old manual Canon FTb body and the 50mm f1.4. At the time I remember being mired in indecision whether to substitute the 28mm for the 50mm. The 28mm was my primary landscape lens, the way I viewed the world, large and expansive, wider than reality, but the nifty fifty was my go-to lens for almost everything else. In the end I couldn’t part with it.

Since going digital I’d never once considered a normal prime lens. High-end zooms were as good or better optically though not as fast. A wedding and a few indoor receptions in dungeon-like lighting conditions were enough to disabuse me of the idea that primes were dinosaurs, throwbacks to another era. 

So I decided to take a chance on a prime. And then a funny thing happened: I fell in love all over again. I liked how it looked, I liked its lightness and I liked even more the perspective through the viewfinder. Here were no optical tricks, only the world as I know it. As I once knew it, for like technology everything has changed, leaving me washed up on the tallgrass prairie rather than my beloved Southwest.

The thought was a gauntlet thrown. So be it, I thought: a new challenge is required, a refined vision, a return to roots. Without time limits or deadlines, I’ll seek fifty new images that define this rural place. Fifty images taken at fifty millimeters. I’ll call it 50@50.

Sure, I could just as easily use my 24-70mm zoom and get the same effect, but that’s not the point. And maybe I’m not even sure what the point is other than that limitations are nothing more than stepping stones. We need challenges to grow, and this was mine. The only limitation I could see was myself.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


An unexpected new friend

My aunt’s tiny farmhouse in west Texas always smelled faintly of dust, but then dust was a west Texas specialty. It probably didn’t help that we boys slept on the floor during our infrequent visits, huddled in the room’s center to avoid things creeping from their lairs at dusk. There were scorpions, mostly the smaller, more poisonous kind, and behind the house foot-long poisonous centipedes that sometimes found their way indoors. Spiders were ubiquitous, including black widows, which we knew to avoid. But the most terrifying nightcrawler of all, the one we could hear rustling around the baseboards and clicking across the wooden floors, was the dreaded vinegarroon.

Also known as whip-scorpions, vinegarroons are nonpoisonous but capable of producing painful pinches. What separates them from their more dangerous cousins is their size: the Latin name for the trans-Pecos variety is “giganteus,” a word requiring no translation. Hearing them scuttling about in the dark was an exercise in the mind’s unlimited potential for imagining the worst; seeing them was proof that reality often trumps imagination.

I was a typical boy interested in typical boy things: guns, hunting, the outdoors, reptiles. I was, in fact, something of a master lizard catcher. My collection varied over the years but usually included horned lizards (horny toads, as we called them, but not the sharp-pronged, irascible Mexican species), bluetails and collared lizards. The latter were my favorite, but much harder to catch.

Every outdoorsman has a one-that-got-away story. Mine was a particularly large collared lizard that ran my older brother, my father and I ragged over a large dusty patch of Texas near my aunt’s house. The thing must have been close to 20 inches long (caution: these tales get taller with age), and when alarmed, as it most certainly was, it took to its hind legs and cruised off like a miniature T-Rex. We bolted after it, flanking it, trying to hem it in, scrambling from creosote to mesquite and back, and might have caught it in the end if not for the biggest, baddest, meanest, most dense clump of catclaw ever invented. The lizard dashed inside and dared us to follow with a reptilian look of unadulterated smugness. 

Our failure to capture it was a blow Freud would diagnose as an unrecoverable loss. Afterward, the mere sight of a collared lizard triggered an irrepressible motivation to pursue, regardless of what I was doing at the time. When on vacation with my parents in southern New Mexico a collared lizard dashed across the road in front of us, without thinking I slammed on the brakes and ejected myself from the vehicle before it fully stopped rolling. The lizard quickly eluded me; it took hours for my family to recover.

For two glorious summers I had a pet collared lizard about 14 inches in length. We went everywhere together, even on walks after I fashioned a small leash for it. People would stare unbelieving at us as it tagged along on its hind legs, its long tail following in long sweeps. We were best of friends, or so I like to think.

Age distances us from our past. In some matters it’s more a matter of losing ability than in losing interest. Shortly after moving to Kansas a decade ago we were hiking at Konza Prairie south of Manhattan when I saw a collared lizard streak past. Besides the obvious shock of seeing what I considered a southwestern speciality on the tallgrass prairies of the Midwest, there was a split second where time seemed to gel and wallow to a stop as my brain sorted through the implications. And then I was off like a shot, gloating for a brief interlude that here at last were no mesquite or catclaw with their razored thorns, no Spanish dagger or jumping cholla to rend and tear, only an endless expanse of grass. 

Several embarrassing minutes later I clutched my chest and collapsed in a sweaty heap. All I’d managed to do was to provide a little entertainment for the lizard and to frighten my wife, who questioned my sanity and my ability to breathe. The air was so thick and soupy I felt I was drowning.  

“My days of catching lizards are over,” I gasped, a lamentation utterly unfathomable to my wife.

But if I thought that was the last word on the subject, I was wrong. While reorganizing our patio this week I came across several creatures of interest, from fledgling praying mantises to a gray tree frog which I relocated from a trashcan to a mulberry. Most surprising was a small collared lizard that had fallen into a plastic tub. The rim was too high for it to escape so it sat there in the brutal heat without food or water. Without giving it much thought I scooped it up and set it in the grass, where it zipped off into the flower garden.

Holding it, even momentarily, brought a surge of memories. A little of the magic had returned, a touch of confidence that I still had it in me—disregarding the fact that the lizard was trapped in an enclosed space, that is.

And then an odd thing happened. Whenever I went outside the little lizard seemed to pop up out of nowhere. It followed me around utterly without fear, letting me approach within inches before shying away. I began to sense it was watching for me. For all I knew it might think I’m its mother.

One afternoon it was perched on the edge of the top step, so I sat down beside it. After studying me for a few minutes its eyes closed in what appeared to be contentment. I slowly reached out one finger to touch it, holding my breath, making no sound, but when my finger was an inch from its back the lizard opened its eyes and leaped back.

“Okay, okay,” I said. “No touching.”

But I could have had it. I could have.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Spring Creek School dedication and a visit to the old Shehi homestead

Elsie Shehi Bock in front of the home she was born in.

Elsie Bock was nine years old the last time she sat on this porch. Thanks to the generosity of the current owner, family members were allowed to visit and tour the homestead. 

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Looking beyond what if (Part 2)

With everything neatly stored away in the basement there was little left to do but remain at my lonesome vigil. I can’t say I was afraid but the past two weeks were enough to make most Midwesterners feel stalked. Beyond the thin skin of the walls lightning flared in strobic pulses painting the fields bone white before dropping darkness like a curtain. Winds shrieked in the trees and hammered the framework until the house creaked and groaned and thrummed like a taut sail. The thunder was the worse, a subsonic rumble felt in the bones and the soles of my boots as if something large and menacing were erupting from the starless bowels of the earth.

According to reports tornadoes raked the prairies to our north and south and west, and one spearpoint of red crept along the border making a beeline for our town. The telltale bow sent waves of warnings flying in its vanguard with dread mutterings of hook echoes. By that time I was unutterably tired and yet incapable of leaving my electronic post for not only was I watching out for myself but for Marysville, thirteen miles to the north, where Lori was at work. And so I watched and waited, adding new things to a duffel I’d dug out—a small bag of wintergreen Lifesavers, a box of ammo, not because I thought they might come in handy but because it gave me something to do—until the patchwork of doppler colors and patterns blended and merged into a sickeningly familiar pastiche devoid of reason or understanding and my eyes burned with fatigue. And then it started falling apart.

Reds faded to yellow, yellow to green. Scarlet-outlined boxes disappeared entire, in many cases replaced by green rectangles or polygons indicated torrential downpours and swollen creeks. Thunder moved off toward the east. More cells kept popping up to the west but I could sense the worst was over; the storm gods had decided to let us stay.

After a while I closed my laptop and turned off the light, and without undressing climbed into bed. Kill me if you must, I muttered, but take me in my sleep.


What woke me wasn’t the wind but the silence. Soft gray light filtering through the blinds heralded a gray and sodden dawn. No birds sang nor did anything move across that preternaturally frozen landscape. Everything felt leaden and heavy, the wet dripping leaves, the gray-dark bark, the silvered pools, the shadowed woods. My head. I sat up and peered through the slats and groaned with weariness but wrestled out of the covers to stagger into the kitchen to make coffee.

I dully remembered hangovers of my past. One of my more spectacular hangovers followed a night of heavy drinking that reduced me to a blind animal crawling along a levee while puking my guts out. Another involved copious amounts of an inexpensive red wine that faintly tasted of turpentine. This was similar but without the alcoholic intake and on a much broader scale: the entire world seemed dazed by excess.

The half-opened duffel on the kitchen table reminded me that I now had to undo my methodical and inclusive preparations. Much ado about nothing, I thought, and if at first there was a moment of sheepishness it was quickly replaced by a sense of relief untainted by vexation at the extra labor involved. We had been spared, others had not. 

Whether this would become a habit remained to be seen. The danger in crying wolf too often isn’t the potential for stampede but the inescapable indifference. No show, no go. Statisticians tell us another story, one based on averages and mathematical formulas. The odds of being hit by a tornado are about one in five million, depending on some sources. Others downgrade the odds to one in a million or even less. One detailed thesis I read calculated the square footage of an average residential home against the average footprint of a tornado and juxtaposed the finding against an Oklahoma map. The author’s finding: why bother? But tell that to the residents of Reading or Joplin or Tuscaloosa, or Oklahoma City for that matter. 

Unfortunately for the number-crunchers and their ilk, humans are still half animal and wild and afraid of the dark. Our ancestors were hunted by saber-toothed tigers, and if we’ve forgotten it our genes haven’t. And anyway let’s not forget that in the fairy tales the wolf is always there, just biding its time.

As the coffee brewed I did a quick search to see what the wolf had claimed during the night. A half dozen dead, homes and businesses flattened throughout three states. Statistically speaking I suppose they were the losers, the ones who fell on the wrong end of the equation. Here in Blue Rapids we were virtually unscathed with only minor tree limbs shaken loose and nearly five inches of rain fallen. I went downstairs to start unpacking.


  It’s all a crap shoot. Nobody has ever explained to me how to do this day after day and week after week without developing an attitude of acquiescence. In the debilitated mundanity of everyday life we’re not cut out for constant readiness. Tornadoes might indeed be a state of mind but their significance is relative to exposure. After years of misses one begins to gamble on what appears to be sure bets but it’s all smoke and mirrors. Ask penniless gamblers in their exodus from Las Vegas how many times sure bets brought them to ruin and you’ll find all the statistical data you need. The wolf is real and it’s out there in the dark, and if climatologists are right these cyclonic storms are going to become bigger, meaner and more prevalent. 

Where this leaves us is anyone’s guess. I unearthed the photo backpack from its waterproof case and slipped into its padded straps, tucked the Glock in my belt and slung the camera over my shoulder. I wasn’t sure about my knee with the weight but clumped up the stairs on the first of several trips, rising from the basement like Lazarus into a morning soft and gloriously intact.