Tuesday, December 25, 2012

When you’ll know when

         The process was as slow as it was detailed: select an image in Lightroom, transfer it to Photoshop, increase the canvas size one inch on each side, type the name of the person in the lower margin followed by the name or nature of his or her business, center the type, transfer the image back to Lightroom for resizing to approximately 12 x17 inches, and print. And wait. 

Waiting wasn’t difficult; I wait good. It comes from being a birder and a photographer where success is often attained only through Jobian patience. Sometimes I’d read from a Kindle propped up on the desk, and sometimes a hardbound copy of The Complete Peanuts. If I was really tired I’d cruise the Internet looking for information on fonts and font management, design, typography and other new interests. Or I’d go shopping for bargains. Sometimes I dozed off.

I was tired all the time. In the past month sleep was as elusive as coherence or the ability to piece together words into a cohesive whole, similar to writer’s block but much more debilitating. When people asked when I was going to write another column, I’d say, when I can think straight. But thinking straight seemed to be exclusively the domain of the Way We Worked Project, and little else. It filled my days and troubled my dreams. It propelled me from the warm confines of my flannel sheets, often at 2 a.m. And in December, the month of its finale, it allowed for very little else.

When prints ejected from the printer I’d inspect them for flaws before setting them out on a table for drying. The table was long and narrow and could hold only four images. Another, larger, table held five. The first table blocked the front door and the other the space between the bed and the chest of drawers. When the tables were filled I’d stop printing and do something else.

Something else might mean staring at the prints with equal parts critical analysis and awe. It wasn’t just that I was satisfied with the technical qualities of the photographs, the lighting, the composition, the subject, no, it was more the emotional rush each image triggered. That I had taken it, that I had been invited so openly and so graciously into the lives of complete strangers, that I spent a year striving to capture the diverse ways they worked whether for financial reasons or volunteerism, still astounded me. Sometimes I could not believe it was real. 

The deadline for the project was real, though, perhaps the only real thing in a world gone hazy with stress and the associated emptiness left in the wake of my wife’s crazy work schedule. I rose early and dropped late and in between teetered with exhaustion until the line between reality and imagination blurred. But while my exact positioning within those shifting borderlands was never precise, and changed from day to day, I didn’t need a GPS to know where I was. I was here in Blue Rapids, my adopted hometown. I was involved in the most important project of my life, and now, after twelve months, I was watching it slowly emerge into being. Each print was an exultation. More importantly, each print was a story. Our story.

They reminded me of something my friend the Shaman asked in early February. When will you know you’re done, he asked, and I said, I guess it’ll just come to me. I’ll just know. 

I still ask myself the selfsame question. Logic and reason would dictate that its ending would coincide with the end of the calendar year, and for most of the project that was my determining factor. I’d know it when December 31 rolled around. 

Now I’m not so sure. The turning of a year is nothing more than an arbitrary border created to manage time. And borders, as I’m discovering, are illusory. They exist only in the imagination or in lines on paper or pixels. When will I know I’m done? Maybe I never will be. Maybe I’ll glide across that border as if it wasn’t there. Maybe I’ll keep going. Nothing can stop me but myself.


Joel Sartore, the National Geographic photographer, addressed the Marshall County Leadership group last week, and since the meeting was held at our community center I weaseled my way in as a bystander. Lately I’ve resented anything that takes me away from the project but missing a chance to interact with Sartore was unthinkable. We’d met in early spring at another leadership conference, a memorable encounter that left me breathless with inspiration. Sartore is the most quotable person I know other than Mark Twain. His saying, “Go big or go home” became my mantra throughout the project. 

Sitting off to the side as unobtrusively as possible, I scribbled notes while simultaneously adapting his points to the project, to the historical society, to any and all upcoming projects that will follow the Way We Worked, and to life itself. That his points were applicable to such a diverse range said more about their timeliness than about their specifics. 

What struck me most was his insistence that our remaining days are not only numbered but unknowable. “We have less time than we can imagine,” he said. “There is no time to lose.”

And: “You can’t waste a day—there’s no promise of tomorrow.”

And: “The clock is ticking, and yet we go about our lives as if we have all the time in the world. We don’t.”

His outlook was colored by several things, most of which centered on his wife’s cancer. There was also the sobering thought that he’d been away from his family so much that he barely knew his children. On that we’re alike.

As an exercise, he had the group write down ten words that describe what they do now. It could be about their job, their role in their company, organization or group, their hobby, anything that says what they do. I’m a freelance photographer and writer, I thought. I dabble in fonts and design and want to know more. I crave sleep and the ability to concentrate. 

He told the group not to be too concerned if they didn’t come up with brilliant insights immediately. It took him three weeks to fill out those ten things, he said. 

“But,” he added, “this is critical. You can’t steer the ship if you don’t know where you are in the ocean.”

Next, he had them write ten words describing what they would like to do. “Remember,” he said, “your days are numbered.”

From those ten words he had them distill them down to the top three. “Be strategic,” he said. “Then write three sentences about those three words. Elaborate. When you have the sentences written out, that’s your mission statement.”

Adhering to the mission statement was our life’s biggest goal. Doing so would mean sacrifices and losses, and sometimes we’d have to say no even if it meant turning away money. “It’s a hard thing, but our days are numbered,” he reminded them. “There’s no stinking way around it.”

The project was uppermost in my mind, but at this stage, with a week or so left, I’m starting to look beyond it and question what could be its successor. Something big and grand comes to mind, though what that might be escapes me. And yet, there are few things grander in photography than panoramas. What if I learned how to overcome parallax shift to train my lens on the interiors of the magnificent edifices from former centuries, or to create wall-sized scenics of the northern Flint Hills and the small towns that dot the land’s surface—surely that would be a fulfillment of a big vision. The big view, I could call it. Or the wide view. And in many ways I could continue my project of photographing our adopted hometown in ways I’d never anticipated, and that nobody else could. 

Go big or go home. The idea appealed to me. The equipment would be sizable investment—a friend, Harland Schuster, said it was made from “unobtanium” on account of its prices—but so what? Our days are numbered. We have less time than we can imagine.


Three a.m. and sleepless. I rework several images but the monitor keeps swimming in and out of focus. Instead of another cup of coffee I elect for a quick trip outside hoping the cold will shiver me awake. 

Stars burn cold and frigid. Overhead the luminous arc of the Milky Way links horizons like a bridge, northeast to southwest, ten million suns sailing the solar winds. On our own tiny speck of space dust a great horned owl calls in the distance, its solitary query answered by another near the gully. Owl-night, our very existence questioned by golden-eyed birds of prey. Who indeed? The question now is where to? What now? Time is running out. Our days are numbered.

In that pellucid emptiness a meteor streaks to its fiery death. More follow, soundless and serene, their origin almost directly above me. There are so many that it seems the galaxy itself is falling to earth. It’s the Geminids, I remember, but with coyotes suddenly kicking up a ruckus to the west and a barred owl caterwauling from the woods it’s easy to believe the Mayans were right, that the world is coming to an end. If so, too bad that half of humanity lies sleeping unaware. 

After a while the cold drives me back inside where the clock keeps ticking, the universe expands a few more million light years and the coffee jumpstarts my brain. When will I know I’m done? With 65 of the projected 75 prints already bagged and sent off to the framer, I’m almost there. According to the calendar, a handful of days.

So why don’t I feel almost done? 


A friend asks, what are you going to do next, and I said, sleep. 

No you won’t, he said. You’ve invested too much of yourself to walk away. You’ll find something else. You can’t stop.

Well, I don’t want to stop, but the project stops whether I like it or not. To paraphrase Jim Harrison, the days are stacked against us. 

This is increasingly becoming evident as I approach the midpoint of my 59th year. I have bad knees and bad hearing and worse teeth. On the Friday before the extended Christmas weekend another tooth crumbles leaving a jagged edge cutting into my tongue. My only recourse is to take a metal file to the tooth and whittle it smooth. 

But then I’m standing in the faded opulence of the State Theatre of Kansas—the Jayhawk in downtown Topeka—abandoned for 40 years but hoping for an afterlife, taking its measure and perhaps my own as well. Lori asks, where do you start, and I say, I don’t know. Somewhere.

It really doesn’t matter where I start, only that I do. I swap the 24-70 for the 14-24, mount the camera to the tripod and attach the remote cable release. My eyes settle on nothing, take in everything, the huge gilded arch with its rampant jayhawks, the circular mural high above the stage, the flanking organ lofts, the putrid green sodium lights, the sickly orange tungsten lights, the shadowed recesses, each and every one a challenge I must overcome. But then, life is all about challenges and how we handle them. How we face them. There’s really only one way, of course, head on, face first, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. There can be no mincing in the game of life. Go big or go home. 

About then, or maybe a little later when we’re deep in the bowels of the theater setting up strobes to throw back the darkness, the answer comes to me. When will I know I’m done? When I’m too blind to see my way forward, too busted up to get out of bed, too weak, too old or too sick to lift the camera or tap the keyboard. Or dead. 

Stopping is not an option. There’s no stinking way around it.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

The bridge over the River Blue

       Before the opening last week of the new low-slung concrete bridge spanning the banks of the Big Blue River, residents worried that the old bridge would fall apart before its replacement could be built. Closing it was unthinkable—a detour would require a minimum of 45 miles one way on dirt and gravel roads for employees of the Georgia-Pacific plant three miles north of town. The Kansas Department of Transportation rated it one of the worst bridges in the state. 

        People said, someday a section is going to fall off like you see on TV and cars will go sailing into the river. You wait and see. I’m scared to drive across it.

I thought about that often when crossing the bridge at three a.m. on my way to work. I always kicked the headlights to high beam and slowed down, and always breathed a sigh of relief when I was safely across.

It probably wasn’t as bad as people said, but hear something enough and it becomes real, at least in the imagination.

This went on for years, decades. Then KDOT replaced it. The new bridge is wider, more stable, with better visibility and a gentler curve leading into the approach from the downhill side.

It didn’t take long for people to change their tune. I’m going to miss the old bridge, they said. The new one isn’t as pretty.

Or as rusty, I pointed out. Or as bristly where the concrete had fallen away to expose the underlying rebar. 

No matter; change had come and nobody seemed happy about it. But I had to admit, there was something comforting about the old bridge’s oxidized green girders, especially in winter when ice or snow glazed the road’s surface. They wrapped vehicles in a cocoon of metal latticework, and you knew with utter certainty that there was no way your vehicle was going to slide into the river. No way. 

The new bridge: people are already saying how scary it’s going to be in winter, how dangerous. Cars will go sailing into the river, you wait and see.

For a week we watched the old bridge shed its layers. Jackhammers broke apart the concrete and cutting torches sliced away the rebar. The old roadway was zippered up like a sheet of carpet. It didn’t take long until all that was left were the concrete supports and the girders. Beside it, the new bridge, not 50 feet away, radiated newness like a beacon. 

When people learned I’d been photographing workers rigging explosives, discussion inevitably centered on their preference for the old bridge. It wasn’t just the style of bridge, I don’t think, merely that it was what they knew. And for many it was all they knew; the bridge was built 62 years ago, replacing what was an even worse structure. A few remembered the grand gala when the bridge was dedicated. Videos of its ribbon-cutting show politicians grandstanding and musicians bandstanding and people waving flags, long lines at the feeding tables and smiles all around, hi-ho the old bridge is dead, long live the new bridge. This time around the ribbon-cutting was a solemn occasion. There were no trumpets or tubas, no glad-handing. People spoke of war, of soldiers dying on foreign fields. Skies were as somber as the mood of the participants.

But one common theme ran through every thought, every sentence—they’ll miss the old bridge. The new one just isn’t the same.

Maybe it’s because the differences are so obvious. For months they formed a twin span, side by side, the old versus the new. Comparisons were inescapable. When it’s gone, I thought, memories will fade. The new bridge will become, simply, the bridge. Not new, not old, just there.

But for that to happen, the old bridge had to go. And on a sunny autumn afternoon, under clear skies, it did.

It was over in a second, a heartbeat registered by a shockwave as the concussion of the blast rolled down the valley. Little puffs of gray smoke blew out the girders, dropping them as neatly as if severing strings. 

That’s it? someone said.

There aren’t many iron bridges left in Kansas, Pat Haverkamp, KDOT project inspector said, and now there’s one less. 

What was left was a tangle of twisted beams wreathed in smoke. Somewhere down the line I heard a man say, I’m going to miss that old bridge. 

The best yet: an evening with the Dallas Brass

Thursday, December 06, 2012

The Turtle Island Quartet in concert--a dazzling performance


How we appear to ourselves is rarely how others perceive us. This is doubly so when trying to infiltrate any form of gathering of “locals,” a weasely term that at once distances the bulk of attendees from a smaller fraction of those relegated to outsider status. Freelance writers and reporters are familiar with the sensation of standing out from the crowd, of sly sideways glances and sometimes intense scrutiny, and this week’s meeting at a small town in Republic County was no exception. Fortunately, my presence was trumped by a pair of documentary reporters from the BBC’s Washington, D.C. branch and another reporter from Atlanta, so I was merely a sideshow.

The funny thing was how easily I recognized them. It wasn’t just the microphones and video recorders that set them apart—their attire and demeanor were painfully obvious. In the case of the BBC reporters, one wore a tan leather jacket more suitable for the fashion district and the other pointy loafers  of European styling. I had them pegged as Brits long before we were introduced. The Atlanta reporter was polite, soft-spoken and black, and with an accent of foreign origin. 

My own dress certainly wasn’t a match for the farmers and cattlemen but at least I had the benefit of home turf, more or less. It reminded me, though, of Wil Hylton, a freelance reporter I’d met at a Kansas Farmers Union convention in Great Bend two years ago. He, too, stood out, with a floppy felt hat and an intensity that was almost disconcerting, and clothing that seemed a little too upscale.

We were both there to cover a talk by Frank and Deborah Popper of Buffalo Commons fame. Hylton told me he was writing an article for Harper’s magazine, my favorite periodical, so naturally I eagerly awaited each new edition for his take on the meeting. It was a long time coming, but this summer it appeared with the somewhat extreme title of “Broken Heartland: the looming collapse of agriculture on the Great Plains.” 

Typical Eastern elitist exaggeration, I sniffed, followed by an increasing appreciation for his thoughts. He opens with a quote from Thomas Hart Benton on the futility of human effort on the Great Plains and proceeds to the Poppers’ suggestion that prairie residents embrace their own decline by converting their lands into a sort of wilderness. According to Hylton, Kansas alone lost more than 6,000 towns since the Great Depression, and from a recent excursion across half the state my wife and I saw a dozen communities that were little more than ghost-towns-in-the-making, as I called them. Most were holding on with everything they had but the conclusion was inevitable.

His figure, while startling, corresponds to similar data from K-State’s Chapman Center for Rural Studies, whose interns are working on a multi-year research initiative called “Lost Kansas Communities.” The goal is to document towns of less than 500 residents, to unearth historical records and, when possible, to interview former or current residents. 

It also corresponds to my own research as we charted the course of my wife’s great-grandmother’s covered wagon exodus from Blue Rapids to Arkansas. Historical topographic maps dating to the early 1900s detailed dozens of small communities whose very names have been forgotten. For all the animosity raised toward the Poppers when they introduced their findings, depopulation isn’t a theory—it’s a fact.

It came to me in a sort of revelation that I’d witnessed the opposite effect in burgeoning metro areas.  During my childhood Albuquerque spread across the Rio Grande Valley and onto the West Mesa, and later as an adult I watched the Denver metropolitan area fuse into one traffic-choked gauntlet stretching from Castle Rock to Fort Collins. Here it’s emptying out except for the larger cities, with most towns showing population declines since the Dust Bowl if not long before.

Last week I spoke to the owner of a preservation company who said she was having difficulty acquiring grants for a small town in Marion County. “I keep getting told, ‘Why bother? The town won’t be there in ten years,” she said.

The town’s population zenith was in 1920, when it boasted 2,455 residents. A decade later it plunged almost 40 percent, and since then has had something of a rollercoaster with influxes and exoduses. In every case, though, gains were offset by greater losses; the city now has 1,210 people. In my small segment of north-central Kansas, that constitutes a major, if not the major, population center for the entire county.

I’m not wringing my hands at the news, however. After seeing firsthand the debilitating effects of unmanageable growth, the depopulating, collapsing Great Plains is where I belong, and anyway reflect a sort of mirrored image of my own declining years. I’d rather be here at the great emptying than at the unconstrained filling.