Monday, March 25, 2013

Borderland vignettes

        The cursor blinks with a cadence like an impatient tap of a foot. I’m waiting, it sneers. Would you speed it up a bit?

I remind myself of the writer’s first rule: to bring order from chaos.

Order. From. Chaos.

It sounds so simple, so why is it so damned difficult? I write a string of gibberish, grimace, write another, highlight, delete. Start over. 

For every sentence a wince.

After a while I feel like an executioner. Off with their heads! <Thwack> Digital ink drips in ropy rivulets from the monitor to pool darkly on the desk.


Habits die hard. I planned to sleep in on the day of the exhibit opening, to try to recapture a portion of what was lost during the preceding months, and hadn’t, or didn’t, or, most likely, couldn’t. Enough two a.m. risings and weeks of five-hour sleep and you’ve settled into a new groove that sometimes resembles a rut or a grave depending on your state of mind. Mine fluctuated between euphoria and melancholia with unnerving irregularity as if it couldn’t decide whether to soar unbounded into the heavens or sink into the quagmire of depression. To tell the truth I’d suspected some form of emotional turmoil but not this rollicking rollercoaster, but then I’ve never been a good judge of my inner workings. You’d think that by the cusp of sixty I’d have a fairly good grasp of what makes me tick but instead I constantly amaze myself by my failure to comprehend even the simplest concepts or, for that matter, to learn from my mistakes. In some ways I’ve become a stranger to myself and can’t seem to find my way back.

There were, of course, repercussions from those cumulative sleepless nights. My thought processes were addled to the point where the present dominated all else. I could remember so little of the weeks leading up to the finale, disjointed snatches and vignettes mostly, with an occasional Eureka! moment when deadlines met fruition. December was, as I had suspected it would be, a mad rush to completion, more panic than pleasure, and January a frenzied, inchoate second verse. The clock, as clocks do, evermore ticking down to the inevitable demarcation between the conclusion of what must be considered a seminal experience and the beginning of whatever would follow.

What I hadn’t expected was an unbroken continuation. After all, the exhibit was hung, the grand opening celebrated, transitions to a gradual unwinding that would last six weeks, more or less, punctuated with tours, speeches, discussions and roundtables. And yet the transition proved elusive. There were admittedly more moments where I found myself with nothing to do, or, as I preferred to see them, as in between crises or deadlines, momentary lapses that would stop me dead in my tracks. Now what, I’d ask myself, and scan the calendar for suggestions.

Somewhere in that shadowy, half-defined borderland I stood mute in an unheated room, formerly a grocer and now a gallery, alone in my thoughts. Shadows clung to the corners as the overhead lights slowly warmed. Yellow scaffolding, placed slightly offset in the center of the room, emphasized the nature of the project’s focus on work, as, indeed, the room itself was a work in progress. The gray sheetrock walls had gone up only two days before the exhibit opening, hastily tacked down and not yet mudded or painted. A two-foot bubble level left on a table seemed altogether fitting, almost but not quite staged for effect. Later, when a board member went to move it, I told her to leave it there. It was a perfect prop for the Way We Worked exhibit. 

No longer was it an abstraction, a vague concept impossible to visualize, a then-thing rather than a now-thing, something easily put off for the inconceivable future. Also so improbable as to defy imagination however wild, delusional or grandiose. Eighty photos ranked along the walls more or less evenly, the summation of a year’s worth of work. Sometimes it seemed too little, and at others too much to comprehend. 


Another restless, dream-haunted night followed by a day of zombie-like inattention. In between putting together an exhibition DVD for the Kansas Humanities Council and others plus gathering up releases necessary for the eventual upload to the Smithsonian’s website, I tried writing and managed after a few hours of fitful starts and stops to cobble together two paragraphs of utterly wretched wordsmithing. So wretched, in fact, that they were summarily erased and a new start begun. I can’t say the result was much better but at least I’m trying. Part of me wants to just roll over and die when it comes to writing, not an easy thing to admit when I earn part of my salary through the craft. The worst part is the constant struggle and the inevitable letdown. Frustration levels build exponentially. I feel like a volcano on the cusp of blowing its top. 

Somewhere in the middle of head-butting my desk to clear the proverbial cobwebs I remembered those timed writing exercises that were once popular and might still be, where the budding or hamstrung author tunes out everything but the blank page and hammers out anything that comes to mind within a specified amount of time. Vomiting on the page, I call it. If I’m not mistaken, fifteen minutes was the preferred amount though that seems too long for my current state of mind. How about fifteen seconds? Nanoseconds? Finding myself in this predicament is disheartening as I’ve always considered myself a writer first and a photographer second. Maybe I just need a little literary regurgitation, some acid reflux of wordage. Don’t think, don’t follow distractions, don’t check my e-mail, don’t look for new and different reviews on lenses that make my heart palpitate, indeed, do not under any circumstance leave the page to cruise the Web. Connect with my emotional center. Dig deep and dig hard; mine that resource. Tap into a new vein of creativity. Surely it’s not been exhausted.

It might work, and it might not, too. It doesn’t help that I’m so very tired. I awake in the morning more exhausted than when I crawled into bed the night before, half-dead and groggy to the point of dizziness. The utter lack of coherency leads to a greater problem of lassitude, more apathy than depression. The latter I understand; this sudden inability to care is foreign to me, and much more debilitating. Some of my finest writing was done under the influence of depression. The same cannot be said about writing when physically depleted. The differences between the two are subtle but must be understood in the context of source. Depression is of the mind and soul, depletion of the physical body and how it affects the mind. When I say I can’t concentrate or think I’m not blowing smoke or exaggerating but simply stating a fact. I can’t

When the project is completed, by which I mean really completed, the exhibit on the road, the paperwork finished and delivered, all the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted, maybe then I can think straight.  My first priority, or so I like to tell myself, is to sit on the front porch with a glass of wine and a book of poetry. Maybe some soft music, though birdsong would suffice. I haven’t had wine in over a year but it sounds strangely comforting, the alcoholic equivalent of slow cooking. Until then I struggle without a sense of accomplishment, lost in a writer’s purgatory. One morning I look out the window to see ragged skeins of snow geese wending their way southward, their calls wild and free and oddly doglike. I track them until they’re swallowed into the blue distance, and sense in the ensuing emptiness something impending, an unseen presence dark and menacing as if just beyond the horizon a storm was brewing. What it might be I have no way of knowing, nor does it much matter. In the past I might have fretted over the sensation, or peered into the nooks and crannies of my consciousness in the vain attempt to discover the source. I’m beyond that now. What will come will come. I am grounded to the earth and cannot fly away.


I tell myself that I can’t be held accountable for what comes next. It’s not the exhaustion that scrambles my mind but the inability to see beyond the borderland where I find myself. The things I’ve accomplished are no more than precursors for what awaits, or so I like to think, but realistically I know better. Some achievements tower so monumentally in the short span of our days that they forever remain insurmountable. All else remains shadowed by what came before. If I were a younger man I would dispute such thoughts but age and experience tells me otherwise. The days are stacked against us. We have less time than we think or know. I want to move on, to do something grand and enriching and worthy, but I can’t seem to escape this halfway point. In the absence of mobility I stare hard into what might be the future and do not necessarily like what I see. As they say, the light at the end of the tunnel might well be a train approaching. 

I am not myself, or I am but in another form. Wanting more but not knowing what. Outwardly I’m as normal as I ever was, I go about my duties and tasks with few noticeable signs of disconnectedness, while inwardly tallying up the sum of daily happenstances. One cold morning I find myself standing outside the abandoned Union Pacific depot in Marysville with a small gathering of supporters desperately trying to save it from the wrecking ball, and later still wander through the empty hallways photographing graffiti in the bathroom stalls, congealing shadows in the stairwells and paint peeling from the ceiling like curlicues of bark from a paper birch. For a while I follow a noted photographer from Kansas City into the bowels of the basement, our flashlights bobbing restlessly in the darkness. He talks about other railroad depots he’s worked in, big projects that took weeks and months to accomplish. Some were back in the era of film and flash bulbs, relics he in no way misses. When the  discussion turns to gear as it always does among photographers he raves about his camera. He says it has the best image quality of anything he’s used in a lifetime of shooting. To me it looks like a toy beside my hulking D3s but the man has a few years on me plus a masters degree in photojournalism so I pay attention. When I ask what’s he’s using he doesn’t answer but instead turns and holds it out. A huge grin bisects his face. The silver lettering on the camera body ignites like an epiphany in my flashlight’s beam. And there is the genesis of an idea: a new camera for a new vision.


A friend says, you need to take time to get your bearings. Coming off a big project leaves you empty and vulnerable. Get some sleep. Do as little as possible. Above all, take care of yourself.

Good advice but half-heeded. Sleep continues to elude me. With Lori at work the silence and emptiness of the house are oppressive. Three beers and a half shot of Woodford Reserve eventually drop me like a rock. In what seems the blink of an eye my internal clock triggers one minute before the alarm rolling me out of bed cotton-mouthed and groggy but unwilling to remain any longer beneath the covers. There is work to do, words are calling and yet I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that they will flee or choke up or withdraw into whatever dark place they reside as soon as I sit down to a cursor blinking in expectancy. And blinking, and blinking, never losing its patience but always an unspoken condemnation.

Back to the museum for another day of showmanship. Weariness gives way to a cautious high as friends come from as far away as Topeka and McPherson. The question on everybody’s lips concerns my next project. What will you do now, they ask. I look around the room and have for the first time an answer: buy a new camera. 

And that will do—what? I have no ready answer. I’m running on empty and can’t be expected to make sense, and anyway logic, like math, was never my forte. In the intellectual void emotion and impetus take precedence. Justification, always the deceptive siren’s song, paves the way so that weeks of research, calculation, consternation, frustration, and, ultimately, fearful acceptance lead to its foregone conclusion. The universe was born in fire and conflagration; why should buying a camera be any different? 


I park the truck on the shoulder of a dead-end road and take off on foot. Rather than ascend the grade to the railroad tracks I parallel the wooded elevation along its grassy base, weaving through a fledgling forest razored with ominous three-inch barbs. Behind me the sun lowers into a golden haze. The walking is easy, easier by far than the previous afternoon along the Little Blue River when I stumbled through deadfalls and downed branches concealed beneath sodden layers of decay. I was searching for remnants of the former U.S. Gypsum mine complex but could find little more than a mound of white rock where the entrance had stood and a mossy seawall at the base of the hill. The river had shifted leaving the wall high and dry, surely a metaphor for my writing disabilities. Like yesterday I travel light: tripod, camera, lens. As an afterthought I stuff the Glock under my jacket. It’s not people I worry about but wild dog packs of which I’ve encountered several. Forward momentum is a blessing of sorts after so much time sitting before a computer, perhaps even an intercession. I’m still wandering the borderland but the outer peripheries draw ever nearer. My right knee is tight but should hold. The new camera sways at my hip.

I’m always surprised at how far it is to the bridge. I’ve miscalculated the distance and the hour and find as I emerge from a tight knot of trees onto the river bank that the light is fading fast. Two deer are drinking from the water below and take no notice until one turns and sees me. They freeze into immobility, tails raised like pale luminous flags, before bounding away with an effortless grace I will never know. The last birds silence with the dusk. I’m left with the slow purl of the river and the need to hurry.

Mounting the camera to the tripod, I recall the first time I saw a digital negative from the D800. It was the moment of truth, the culmination of planning, execution and research into what was billed a medium format sensor crammed into a DSLR body. Also, because the Parker brothers are incapable of making purchasing decisions without first suffering through ritual lamentations and unhinged visions of financial wreck and doom, not a small measure of stress. My expectations were further dampened by the hysterical din of online naysayers frothing over the massive file sizes associated with the 36-megapixel sensor and the demanding techniques needed for optimal results. They were, in part, correct: the resolution was so astronomical that it made photography harder rather than simpler. But when that selfsame image resolved on the monitor—noticeably delayed as the computer struggled to keep up with the flow of data—the amount of detail was nothing short of stunning. Every twig, every blade of grass, every ripple in the Black Vermillion River was exquisitely crisp even at a half mile distance. The effect was revelatory. After staring at the photo for a few minutes all I could utter was an awed, “Oh, my God.” 

After that it’s hard to go back to the old way of doing business. But I wasn’t ready to fill out the warranty card just yet. I was here to see what the camera was capable of, and if not for the increasingly late hour with its concomitant fading light might have enjoyed the excursion much more. As it was I barely have time to crank off five or six well-executed shots before howls break from the woods like the wailing of banshees. The baying seems to emanate from everywhere and nowhere, from the sky and the ground and the river itself, lifting and lowering and undulating and, from what my ears can ascertain, drawing evermore nearer. I imagine slavering canine shapes streaking toward me through the trees, their padded footfalls masked by their ululations. Their unwavering trajectory toward my own riverine stance. From the disparate tones there must be at least a dozen, I think, and knowing that coyotes are never prone to attacking humans nevertheless trust nothing. An insensate fear submerges me like a tide. With fumbling fingers I dismount the camera from the tripod, attach it to the shoulder strap, knock the tripod to its lowest setting. The doleful cries are upon me. Without thought or askance the pistol is in my hand sweeping the shadowy treeline.

High ground, I think, and make for the junction of tracks and bridge. 
Up I go, and up, clawing over limestone blocks and bulling through ropy vines that seem to snake and curl malevolently around my ankles, shoving saplings out of the way and watching always watching for lowslung forms flowing like bodiless wraiths through the gloaming. The brace restricts the elasticity of my knee, slows my momentum dangerously. My flight is comically crablike, more rout than strategic. By the time I reach the barbed wire fence bordering the railroad proper I’m winded, frenzied, sweating and panicked. Abruptly, as if cut by a knife, the howls cease.

I’m half through the fence, jacket snagged, but swivel my head to look behind. The woods have grown dark and gloomy, devoid of all detail except for those supplied by my fevered imagination. I imagine them staring back, fangs bared, the smell of my fear almost but not quite overpowering the scent of blood trickling from a cut on my hand. 

I rip the jacket free and clamber onto the tracks. Twin rails shining in the last light point the way home. On either side slopes fall away into murkiness, but the high ground is mine. 

For a moment I listen, and hearing nothing more than my own ragged breath turn and let the tracks take me. 


There is no longitude and latitude for this middleground. It does not exist. Its contains neither high ground nor low ground nor in-between ground, no prairies nor oceans nor swamplands. But, I’m reasonably certain, it has limits, borders fixed and immutable; borders than may be crossed.

A friend asks the fateful query: So what now? What will you do?

And I answer as I always answer, I don’t know.

This was before the camera but not long before, when I was still searching my way forward. When I was still lost.

Watch this, he says, and pulls out his iPhone. A video starts. 

In the red-rock distance, a blur of speed, a cloud of dust. Wiley E. Coyote is block-and-tackling a massive boulder to hang pendulous over the path. The rope starts fraying. Redoubling his efforts, eyes wild with panic, he edges the boulder higher. The roadrunner draws closer. No avail: the rope snaps with the sound of a gunshot.

The boulder drops. The unfortunate mongrel faceplants into the ground from the force of the suddenly freed gear. 

Meep-meep, the roadrunner spits, and disappears beneath the boulder in a welter of gore.

The coyote stares in disbelief.

“I did it,” he says. “I did it! I can’t believe it!”

The scene cuts to a dining room. Coyote and friend pick over the carcass of a bird. 

“Quite an accomplishment,” his friend says admiringly. “It took, what, 20 years? So what will you do now?”

Coyote’s look of smug satisfaction turns to shock. He blanches. 

“I don’t know,” he says, each syllable drawn out. “This is all I’ve known. I mean, I’m not good for anything else.”

Third scene: coyote sitting listlessly on the couch in the glow of the television, a pile of empties at his feet. His beard haggard, eyes bloodshot and hollow. 

It gets worse. A failed job, suicide attempt, epiphany and religious conversion.

I laugh so hard my ribs ache. It’s hilarious and crude and unsympathetic. It also hits too close to home. 

Well, I say, I hope I manage better than that

And how am I managing? I am not yet free. The border is not visible on the horizon, but lies somewhere beyond the curvature of the earth.


In the absence of clear demarcations, mobility.

Behind me yips, yelps and a darkness stealing from the east. The crunch of gravel beneath my feet. Birds fall silent in the dusky twilight. 

I am almost there. I spy the truck through a latticework of boles and branches. The paralleled tracks stretching to the west flare briefly in the sunset’s apogee and then fade to charcoal. A sort of prairie alpenglow suffuses the embers into a luminous azure radiance that seems to arise from the earth itself. I escape the tracks and cut through the trees where the air is suddenly cloying and thick and out the far side where the valley opens to the south and a distant ridgeline still palely glowing.  My boots hit the graveled surface of the road. Relieved, for the first time feeling relatively safe, I look behind but the view is almost unrecognizable now. The light is gone and with it something else, a presence that might have once meant something but now fades to inconsequence. 

“It’s harder to dismantle your life than built it,” Jim Harrison wrote. Maybe I’ve gone about everything backwards, spending too much time pigeonholing ends and beginnings and other esoteric terms as if life could be so neatly categorized. Life is messy and chaotic and bloody. It never stops until it does and then it’s fatal though we’re not cognizant to the fact. I’m unsure but suspect that whatever borderlands we find ourselves trapped in are nothing more than constructs and fabrications devised to chart our bearings when we’re emotionally and physically handicapped. And where am I? Standing on a dead-end road as the first stars freckle the purpling twilight. My compass a gyroscope never alighting on a reference point. It doesn’t matter which way I go, only that I go. And so I do, marching for the truck and all that lies beyond. I can’t see the border yet but I think I’m almost there.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Circular thinking

        I saw my first roundabout several years ago when driving to the Topeka correctional facility to interview inmates who raise puppies for a local dog assistance program. First impressions linger longest, they say, certainly the case in point here. Rather than proceed blindly into the newfangled contraption, I pulled to the shoulder to study it. Then I opened the map to chart a different route.

As a whole, Americans welcomed roundabouts, or traffic circles, with rancorous vitriol. Citizen committees and organizations opposed them bitterly, in some instances taking legal action. But if the average driver considered roundabouts the equivalent of radioactive waste, highway departments embraced them with open arms. In short order some of the most dangerous intersections in the country were transformed into what many believed were little more than circular mazes, confusing, frightening and, above all, dangerous.

I’m anything but ambivalent about roundabouts. When the city of Manhattan added one to its second-busiest street, I made a mental note to avoid it at all costs. And I have. But on the open road in rural Kansas roundabouts are beginning to crop up with increased frequency, replacing high-traffic intersections in out-of-the-way places where one would least expect them. Such was the case when my wife and I followed her great-grandmother’s wagon-train diary from Blue Rapids to Eureka Springs, Ark., last year. I was not amused.

Traffic engineers spout data and statistics and facts that prove them to be safer than four-way intersections. A study conducted for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety concluded that roundabouts reduce collisions of all types by 39 percent, reduce injury collisions by 76 percent, and reduce fatal and incapacitating collisions by about 90 percent. Other studies match those percentages. Roundabouts also keep traffic flowing which reduces air pollution, noise and fuel consumption. 

Maybe so. But they also bewilder drivers, and bewildered drivers are never a good thing. Or so I used to think.

Recently I came across an article from a traffic engineer who admitted that roundabouts were dangerous. As this was a deviation from the standard axiom, I continued reading rather than my usual response of shouting invectives and stuffing the offending publication into the trash.

They’re dangerous, he said, because most drivers don’t have enough experience to comfortably circumnavigate them. They’re dangerous because drivers can be counted on to do the exact wrong thing. They’re dangerous because traffic is constantly moving and doesn’t come to a stop so people have little time to react. They’re dangerous because they make drivers uncomfortable if not downright terrified. And that, he said, is what makes them so safe.

Inattention is the leading cause of collisions in intersections. But when faced with a roundabout, most drivers pay attention, studies show. They have to, he stressed. It doesn’t matter that they’re confused or scared or angry or bitter (in my case, all the above)—that sense of heightened awareness is why roundabouts consistently make traffic flow more efficient and safer.

To paraphrase, the author, “The average driver approaches a roundabout as he would a snarling dog. If he thinks he’s about to get chewed up and spit out, he’s going to be fully conscious and aware of his surroundings and his actions.”

In other words, fear is good.

Suddenly it made sense, though in a roundabout way. Yet when less than 24 hours after reading the article we came upon a traffic circle outside of Florence where Highway 50 collides with Highway 77, my first reaction was of rage. “Idiots!” I shouted. “Anyone who likes roundabouts should be exiled!”

My wife tried placating me, pointing out the obvious: only one vehicle was approaching the roundabout and it would get there before we would.

“Doesn’t matter,” I spat. “I can still see it.”

“What a baby,” my wife sighed.

I remembered the intersection as having a stop sign for north- and southbound traffic. This time I cruised through with only minor slowing, something I knew was a convenience but hated to admit. 

I thought about what the engineer said all day, and the more I thought about it the more sense it made. My response on entering the roundabout was precisely what he said it would be. Maybe, I reasoned, if Americans were approached with gut-level honesty about why roundabouts work—the fear factor rather than endless homilies—they might reach greater acceptance, however grudgingly.

On our return leg, somewhere in the middle of the Flint Hills, we came to a busy intersection with four-way stop signs. It seemed so wasteful, so primitive, so disruptive, that I found myself saying the one thing I never thought I would.

“They need a roundabout here,” I said.

Lori studied me with an odd gleam in her eye. “You constantly amaze me,” she said.

“Just going with the flow,” I said brightly.