August 2005

Remembering the dead

Sometimes you need a tangible reminder to pull yourself out of self-absorbtion. Yesterday after needlessly fretting over my first day back to teaching, which of course went fine, I got such a tangible reminder in the form of eight pairs of combat boots, each commemorating the life of a New Hampshire serviceman killed in Iraq.

When I’d heard that the NH chapter of the American Friends Service Committee was staging a miniature version of the organization’s acclaimed Eyes Wide Open exhibit in Central Square here in Keene, I was initially surprised that there would be only eight pairs of boots. With the seemingly endless reports of U.S. casualties I hear in the news–and with the seemingly endless stream of New Hampshire troops going to and from Iraq–I’d expected there would have been more than eight New Hampshire natives who have died in the war. “Only eight?” asked the war-jaded voice in my head.

Too many dead

I immediately corrected myself. There is no “only” when it comes to human suffering. Each of these “only eight” left grieving friends and family; each was terribly too young to die, ranging in age from 20 to 45. If it’s your loved one who fails to come home from war–if it’s your children who ask every day after Daddy, your son who died before you–it doesn’t matter if seven or seventeen thousand other families share your grief. Grief cannot be calculated much less compared. Every grieving person–every grieving family–grieves alone, their individual loss neither shared nor minimized by other wounded souls.

These days, the news is filled with reports of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, testimony that seems to alternate between saying the storm wasn’t as bad as it could have been and the destruction is worse than expected. Without a working TV, I’ve been spared the most graphic visual proof of the aftermath, so I rely heavily upon such reports to understand the breadth of destruction: how bad was it, is it, really? Although it’s an understandable human impulse to want to understand disaster, to put suffering into some sort of quantitative category called “how much,” that impulse is patently absurd. Any suffering is untenable: too much. The heart staggers at the thought of lives lost in war and homes and hearts broken by natural disaster. Eight soldiers dead, two states swamped, and countless souls dead, injured, or homeless is enough: too much.

On the flip side of flying cars are, of course, dying cars. I snapped this picture of a backlot of woefully abandoned vehicles when I was in Findlay, Ohio earlier this summer, there being something irresistibly human about the sorry visage of a derelict car.

It’s my first day back to teaching, and raining…and I’m feeling a bit like a woefully creaky car myself, not sure if rusty pistons will fire at the appropriate moments. That all being said, everything is ready: my syllabi are copied, my Blackboard sites are live and populated with this semester’s rosters, my books are packed, and I have the requisite supply of first-day index cards. (Don’t question the index cards: one year I forgot to bring them, and I could barely function without my accustomed office-supply crutch.)

In my heart of hearts, I know that teaching is like riding a bike: you never forget how. Although right now in the dim light of a rainy morning it feels like I’ve lost my teaching “stuff” over the summer, having grown too rusty and overgrown during these several months of downtime, the rational side of me knows that when the rubber hits the road and I walk into that first classroom, I’ll be subsumed by the exhiliration of acceleration.

Right now, though, it’s nice to hear the sound of rain trickling from downspouts: a couple more moments of literal downtime.

This photo pretty much sums up how I feel this day before Back-to-School. Airborne, off-kilter, and sparking, it’s only a matter of time before I crash and burn–live!–in front of a glassy-eyed student audience.

Classes at Keene State started today, but since I don’t teach on Mondays, I’ve had an extra day for pre-semester prep…and panic. I’ve blogged before about the back-to-school jitters I experience every fall, and this year is no exception. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve taught writing and literature to sleepy-eyed students…the thought of a new crop of staring faces is enough to induce a sickening sensation that vaguely approximates the feeling of sliding and careening off an ice-slicked road. In other words, the thought of a new semester feels a lot like Imminent Disaster.

Considering I started my pre-semester panic on Saturday, when flocks of incoming freshmen descended upon their dorms with parents and piles of possessions in tow, it’s probably good that yesterday I got away from all that by driving down to North Adams, Massachusetts, where I visited Mass MoCA–the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art–with Leslee and Rachel. Although our favorite installation was Mark Dion’s serene Library for the Birds of Massachusetts, an indoor, walk-in aviary featuring a scattered library of natural history books, an assortment of ornithological paraphenalia, and a flock of lively African zebra finches, my most interesting photos came from Cai Guo-Qiang’s multiple-gallery installation, Inopportune, with its exploding cars and arrow-studded tigers.

I blogged about Mass MoCA last summer after I saw Ann Hamilton’s corpus in the Museum’s industrial-sized Building 5 gallery. This year, Cai Guo-Qiang’s ode to the chaotic and careening fills this same 300 foot-long gallery with the surprisingly balletic beauty of nine airborne cars, each emitting shafts of multicolored, pulsating sparks. The exhibit is a silent one, so you experience the dream-like sensation of walking through a suspended action scene. It’s the usual Hollywood car chase complete with exploding vehicles, but with a twist as flying vehicles hang in an oddly pregnant pause, almost ready to self-destruct.

Although I’ve never flipped a car, I’ve experienced winter’s fish-tailing “fun” enough times to remember (vividly) the weightlessness you feel when your vehicle’s speed and spin make it clear you have lost your grip on pavement. Not being a big fan of spinning and twirling carnival rides, I understandably don’t like it when my car turns into an implement of whirling nausea. Even so, walking amid and around flying cars, I found myself enthralled by the sheer beauty of it all. Hurling without drivers in a room where time has stopped, these nine cars aren’t careening toward disaster or mayhem. Instead, they are dancers caught in the joy of soundless music, hanging aloft and multicolored, as fun as fireworks. Could it be that even in that split second when a driver loses control and realizes her or his car is going to fly, flip, and explode, there is a moment before the awakening of panic when adrenaline’s natural (and necessarily amoral) response is an ironically joyful yee-haw?

In my own case, I have a hard time relaxing into panic; instead of letting myself get swept away by a surge of adrenaline, I go rigid and wide-eyed. After all these years facing the same old back-to-school panic, you’d think I would have learned how to ease into that feeling, letting it permeate my being rather than fighting it. Theoretically, I believe panic is a wave that can be smoothly ridden if you allow yourself to roll with it…but instead of surfing I almost instinctively slam on the brakes, screaming, while cranking the steering wheel wildly this way and that. Wanting to control everything at all times, I can’t stomach the flowing sensation of being fluid and afloat.

As New Orleans hangs in the dizzying suspension of waiting for Hurricane Katrina to pass, I feel more than a bit silly for panicking about my job. Even if things go poorly tomorrow–and logically, I know they won’t–one wrecked class is never the end of the world. Instead of fighting my fear, I should embrace it, recognizing the sparks of anxiety as being another sort of energy, the psychological combustion that pushes my internal pistons. After lying awake in bed last night planning my Freshman Comp class in my head, I woke this morning and wrote my last-minute syllabus in a relative flash: a whole summer’s worth of scheming finally on paper, printed and ready for student consideration.

For even my careful, seatbelt-wearing self sometimes takes risks, inspired perhaps by the poetry of careening cars. Although it’s a small leap to completely re-design a 15-week course the day before it begins, it’s a leap nevertheless. This year I’ve scrapped the textbook I’ve used for years and sent my tried-and-true assignments to the recycle bin: starting tomorrow, my freshmen and I will be facing a new book with fresh eyes and renewed curiosity.

At least that’s what I tell myself now in the adrenaline-laced excitement of it all. Deep down, I know that despite the novelty of a new approach that excites me, the time will come when my students become (alas) bored with me, my syllabus, and my best-laid pedagogical plans, dismissing them all with a cooler-than-cool yawn. There is, after all, something worse than Crashing and Burning with a disastrously wretched class. The worst fate that can befall a professor is the inevitable tragedy of being shot through repeatedly with the cruel arrows of a bored student’s disinterested stare.

    Be sure to check out Leslee’s account of our Mass MoCA trip, including cool links to more pictures of Cai Guo-Qiang’s flying cars and perforated tigers.

In the still-itchy aftermath of Friday’s yellow-jacket incident, it’s understandable that I gave an unusually wide berth to this basketball-sized hornets’ nest, which I spotted during yesterday’s dog-walk at Beaver Brook Falls. Baldfaced hornets, I read, “will usually attack if someone approaches within 3 feet of the nest.” Yikes. It seems nowhere is safe these days, with either yellow-jackets or hornets everywhere I look. Needless to say, I stayed more than 3 feet away from the above-pictured nest, relying on my camera’s zoom lens to capture an image from a safe distance.

That the Wild Outside is full of creatures that sting and bite should come as no surprise, given Nature’s reputation for being red in tooth and claw. At Beaver Brook Falls, there’s even a handy sign to warn visitors that whatever might happen here is their own responsibility, not something they can sue the City of Keene over. Given our increasingly litigious society, I guess it should come as no surprise that Nature herself merits a warning label, given Lawyers’ reputation for being even redder than Nature in tooth and claw. It’s a wild world out there, so watch your step. And if something should ever happen to you at Beaver Brook Falls, keep in mind that you were duly warned. This is Nature, people. Use it at your own risk.

Yellowjacket on lilac leaves

I first posted this picture in May, 2004…back when I’d first discovered my camera’s Macro setting, and back when I still liked yellow-jackets. After yesterday, though, I’m starting to re-think that last part.

Yep, yesterday I had a run-in with a yellow-jacket…and let me tell you, one of the most painful and inconvenient places you can be stung by one is on the bottom of your foot. I was walking to campus when it happened; I stepped down and felt what I initially thought was a rock in my sandals, only it stung worse than any rock I’ve ever stepped on. Luckily, I killed Mr. Yellow-Jacket when I stepped on him, because unlike honey bees, yellow jackets are wasps which can (and do) sting repeatedly.

Yellow-jackets also (I read) emit a distress pheromone when they sting, and this scent alerts the rest of the wasp colony to come and attack whatever seems to be causing the trouble. So in retrospect, I’m lucky that I got stung-by-stepping-on only one of the buggers since late August is when they are most active.

The irony of it all is that I don’t typically dislike bees and wasps. Back in high school and college when I volunteered for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, I worked every year at the ODNR’s prairie exhibit at the Ohio State Fair, where a rectangular plot of soil had been planted with a variety of native tall-grass prairie wildflowers. Whenever visitors approached and saw all the bees that these flowers attracted, they’d shy away…but we’d hasten to point out that with so many flowers to tend to, the bees were too busy to bother with humans.

In all those years I stood surrounded by flowers and bees, I was never stung, and I never saw a visitor get stung, either: the age-old philosophy of “they won’t bother you if you don’t bother them” seemed to work. But after 35 years of sting-free living, within the past year I’ve been stung for no good reason twice: once while sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Galveston, Texas last November, and yesterday while minding my own business here in Keene.

Perhaps the yellow-jackets have it out for me. Could it be they don’t appreciate my paparazzi ways?

It’s been a while since I’ve posted any reflective photos, but this shot seemed a good pick for today’s Photo Friday theme of Chaos. (Click on the image for an enlarged version.)

I snapped this shot last July during a visit to Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. This particular installation featured all the litter gathered from a particular location, each bit of detritus meticulously tagged, mapped, and catalogued. (I believe the matter in this shiny glass case is a clump of shredded newspaper, displayed as if it were a biological specimen, which I suppose it is: the effluvia of suburban life.)

Although I never blogged this shot when I first took it, it being a bit too weird for me to know what to do with it, I’ve kept it filed away for over a year, it being just too interesting to trash. What I like best about the shot isn’t my own image in it…although I’m surprised that my image turned out clear and unclouded, reflective photography with its odd angles and perspectives being such an inexact art. Instead, what I like best about this picture is the crystal clear shot of the camera’s lens–the watching Eye–right at the image’s focal point…and the accidental shot of a random watching stranger (another Museum visitor who was either behind me or standing on the other side of the glass) whose image appears just above and to the right of that objective Eye.

As fate would have it, that last visit to Mass MoCA happened only days before my ex-husband and I would separate: a very chaotic point in my personal life. At the time, I didn’t know it would be the last time I saw my ex-husband’s brother, sister-in-law, and niece; at the time, I didn’t know what the next few days (much less the next year) would have in store. At the time, I wasn’t focused on my future or my past…at the time, I was simply focused on trying to take one reflective shot, my surprisingly clear and concentrated visage not showing a trace of the tangled chaos that hid within.

    This weekend I’ve plans to return to Mass MoCA with Rachel and Leslee, so we’ll see what sorts of odd photographic opportunities present themselves this time around.

You have to love a Universe that sends you flowers Just Because time is flying.

And time is flying, the summer quickly waning, whether you’ve noticed or not. Classes at Keene State start next week–next week!–so that means I’m doing one last mad push to complete all the things I should have done months ago. There are classes to plan, syllabi to prepare, assignments to design. Yesterday I went to an all-day faculty meeting, and now my head is buzzing with even more ideas about how to make this year better than last year: every instructor’s perpetually elusive goal.

As if I needed more evidence that tempus fugit, last night when I crawled into bed, I was cold, even with a sheet and blanket. Wasn’t it only weeks ago that I was hot with only a sheet? As I stumbled to the dresser and pulled out an extra blanket, I wondered: how long until I change my summer sheets for flannels, the official Last Nail in summer’s coffin?

If the evidence of late summer wildflowers, the back-to-school rush, and extra bedding isn’t enough to convince you that time is flying, consider Exhibit D. Yesterday afternoon after that all-day faculty meeting, I collected Reggie and we went to walk on the wild side of the Ashuelot River here in the heart of Keene. (If you want a flashback of what the wild side looks like in October, click here.) If you’re a long-time Hoarded Ordinaries reader with an exceptionally fine memory, the gnarled giant on the right might look a bit familiar since I first posted his picture less than two years ago.

If you take a moment to compare those two images–then in April, 2004, and now in August, 2005–you’ll notice something definitely different on the wild side of the Ashuelot River. The invasive buckthorn that grows there has run amok, growing higher than my head (and threatening to swallow the unmanicured paths) in the year or so since work crews cleared the electrical right-of-way on the wild side of the Ashuelot. Back then, I noted the angry bitterness of an older woman who obviously didn’t approve of such vegetative clearing…and yet, less than two years later, yesterday I found myself wishing those work crews would return to trim back the buckthorn, tidy up the trails Reggie and I wander along the river, and reveal (again) the base of that still-standing gnarled giant.

But yesterday there was no sign of work crews on the wild side of the Ashuelot, and I have work of my own to do here at home. Time is flying, and things change. The path out of bitterness is to accept the fact that sometimes the things and situations you love change whether you like it or not, just because.

Dillant Hopkins Airport, Swanzey, NH

I’ve been back home since last Thursday night, during which time I’ve taken very few photos. I’m finding it takes me a while to re-enter my usual world after being away for even a few days. It’s as if the miracle of modern travel–a.m. in Ohio, p.m. in New Hampshire–is something I still haven’t adapted to. After spending a week in Findlay then driving a day to return home to Keene, everything here still seems a bit blurry. Perhaps you could call it car-lag, the disorientation of returning to a known landscape after having immersed oneself in a different one.

Last night after having already walked the dog in the morning, we took a second stroll at the municipal airport in nearby Swanzey. The sun was starting to set, so the light was slanted…and a low mottled ceiling of clouds threatened heavy weather. Instead of a thunderstorm, though, all we got was a wondrous show of cloud and pewter light: that gray, metallic sheen that transforms the landscape into a museum diorama, layer upon layer of seemingly illusory depth. I’ve blogged this odd sort of late afternoon light before, but it’s something I still haven’t adequately captured: the odd gray glint that transforms the landscape when the setting sun gleams through the underside of a thick bank of clouds, making the ground lighter than the sky.

I’ve learned to drop whatever I’m doing and go walking whenever I see a hint of pewter light shining from the western horizon, for clouds move quickly and the sun sets suddenly. If you’re in the middle of a flat landscape–like, say, at the municipal airport–when the setting sun is doing magic tricks under the edge of cloud-capped skies, you’ll witness the most miraculous of phenomena: the earth itself aglow, like God’s in the thing. It’s a brief flash in the proverbial pan, that instant when the clouded sky is dark and the earth itself–you yourself–seem luminous, glinting gray beams that are best viewed askance, like ghosts. In an instant, the illusion is there, then gone, tree leaves no longer tricked in silver, the sky merely overcast, gloomy. But the ringing in your soul remains after that wondrous moment, the blood pumping in your walking legs as your heart remembers what it meant to be alive at the middle of the gleaming gray earth, aglow.

Dillant Hopkins Airport, Swanzey, NH

These days, in addition to admiring the impressive architecture of the Hancock County Courthouse, visitors to downtown Findlay, Ohio are guaranteed to see stars.

Yes, it’s true. While curiously colored moose are roaming the streets of Bennington, VT, the sidewalks of downtown Findlay, OH have been invaded by a wild, wandering herd of…stars. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a roaming pack of untamed stars has descended upon this quiet corner of northwest Ohio.

Why stars, you might ask? Well, I wondered the same thing. It’s not like Ohio is remotely near the Lone Star State (although so many reminders of his Texas home might make Gary feel right at home in Findlay). Most of the examples of so-called curb art I’ve previously heard of have been animals, like the painted pigs that inspired those Bennington moose or the art cows that roamed the streets of both Chicago and Houston.

In Ohio, at least, folks have gotten creative (or desperate) in their search for new approaches to the increasingly trendy idea of seeking corporate sponsorship for colorful fiberglass statues riffing on a given theme. Several years ago, for instance, Toledo weathered an invasion of six-foot-tall painted frogs. Not to be left out, my own hometown of Columbus apparently featured curb corn, as if its reputation as a Midwestern backwater weren’t established strongly enough.

Given Findlay’s status as Flag City, USA, I guess art stars make as much sense as anything, given that statues of stars and stripes might have been a bit difficult to pull off. And although a lot of the stars in Findlay these days are painted in patriotic colors, there’s enough variety in color and design to make looking for stars an interesting afternoon pastime. Walking Findlay streets these days, you’ll see patriotic stars in red, white, and blue celebrating Main Street, USA…

Lady Liberty…

and the all-American pastime of sittin’ a spell on a downtown bench.

Some of the stars are remarkable because of their backdrops. When is the last time, for example, you’ve seen much less been in that staple of old-time, small-town America, a Ben Franklin five-and-dime?

Or what screams “Americana” more loudly than an art star dedicated to the automobile, stationed across a wide Main Street from two parked cars?

Although I initially was a bit skeptical about Findlay’s Star Gazing project, I eventually did get swept up in the spirit of star-spotting. True, painted stars lack the quaint charm of lifesize painted moose…but if fiberglass statues can encourage folks to stroll downtown streets and look around a bit, that has to be a good thing. Who knows what new things you’ll discover if you simply start looking.

It wasn’t until I started collecting these pictures of the art stars of Findlay, for instance, that I realized how seldom I look at a city from a knee-high perspective. Yes, life-size painted moose are cool…if you’re a grown-up looking the creatures straight in the eye. But a young’un walking the streets of Bennington, VT is going to see a lot of painted hooves and kneecaps…unless, of course, a strong-shouldered parent gives them a lift.

At least the art stars of Findlay have this much going for them: they exist at a child’s eye level, easily viewed (and touched) by toddlers and kids in strollers. Come to think of it, the thought of decorating a street with art at kids’-eye level is a novel idea since most museums hang paintings to be viewed by grown-ups, and statues are almost always life-size, at least.

Star-gazing on the streets of Findlay is a child-like activity, as is walking any Main Street with a camera. Suddenly you’re stopping and investigating instead of focusing continually on your oh-so-important destination. Suddenly you’re stopping and crouching, or even crawling, trying to find just the right angle or perspective on something that other “more mature” folks are rushing by, oblivious. We grown-ups occasionally talk about a home’s “curb appeal”–the way it looks when viewed from the street–but when’s the last time you checked out your hometown’s literal curb appeal: the way Main Street looks if you’re sitting or crouching on the curb?

At the end of a street-strolling day, though, my favorite star is the one fancifully dedicated to my now-favorite mythical creature, the Staardvark.

Johnny Tobak's Nite Club

In the past, I’ve blogged pictures of the two Coke murals here in Keene, as well as a picture of the Parrish Shoes mural left over from filming of the movie Jumanji. Of the various sights I notice and collect, old advertising murals are among my favorites, so I was amused last week to see more than a few faded glories in both Findlay and Toledo.

When I posted that first picture of one of Keene’s two Coke murals, I mentioned that such painted signs remind of the old Mail Pouch tobacco murals you used to see on the sides of rural barns. So I had to laugh when one of the first things I saw in downtown Findlay, OH was a brick wall sporting ads for both products: tobacco and soda.

Mail Pouch tobacco

Judging from the abundance of old soda murals, Ohio must be a particularly thirsty state…either that, or Midwestern folks are so hard-working, they need lots of reminders to stop and pour a pop. (And yes, Ohio is the heart of pop country, “soda” being a word I taught myself to use only after moving to New England.)

It seems that in the olden days, if you were thirsty in northwest Ohio, you had a wide choice of soft drink options. You could have enjoyed a Pepsi at Johnny Tobak’s Nite Club…

5 cents Enjoy

smiled with a Coke by the pawn shop…

Coca Cola

or sipped a 7-Up at the Paradise Grill & Bar.

Paradise Grill & Bar

After you were sufficiently hydrated and ready to get back to work, you could take a cue from this faded sign by going shopping for “Everything for the home, farm, garage, or factory.”


Some old murals are so faded, they are no longer legible. This wall used to advertise something, but now it’s difficult to determine what.

Faded mural

Whatever products they sold, faded brick murals continue to fascinate me, standing as they do like isolated islands from a nearly forgotten past.


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