I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between words and images. I share a lot of words and photos here on my blog, and I produce a lot of words and images that never get posted here. I consider myself a writer who also takes pictures, the “taking pictures” always taking second place to the “writing.” But although I consider myself more a shutterbug than a serious photographer, I have to admit how reliant upon images my writing has become. Although I certainly can describe things without an accompanying photo to illustrate, whenever I find myself at a loss for words, it’s often because I haven’t been looking at (or photographing) much.


I’m coming to realize that looking at things–particularly new or interesting things–is an important part of my composition process, even if what I’m writing has nothing to do with what I’ve been looking at. I guess you could say I’m a visual thinker: whereas some people are inspired by ideas or sounds or even smells, my personal muse seems have big, wide-open eyes. When I’m in search of inspiration, looking is more fruitful than thinking: thinking just leads me in circles, but looking at something interesting perks me up in a way that few other things can.

Through leaves

Last weekend while I was at Northeastern University for the BRAWN Summer Institute, I went to a session on place-based pedagogy. I’ve always described Hoarded Ordinaries as being a blog about place, and when I taught a first-year writing class called “The Art of Natural History” at Keene State College, I encouraged my students to choose research topics that similarly close-to-home: “topics they could touch” was how I described it. Now that I divide my days between two different campuses, I’ve struggled to incorporate place into my teaching: it’s hard to feel rooted when your teaching is neither here nor there.


During that session on place-based pedagogy, however, something remarkable happened: we took a field trip. Half of the participants went to examine the Student Center food court, and my half of the session went outside, walking over to a brick wall where Los Angeles-based street artist El Mac recently painted a mural representing the union of arts and sciences. Our official assignment was simply to look at the mural, and when we reunited with the other half of the group, we discussed the various uses of these two spaces: indoor and outdoor. But what fascinated me most wasn’t that ensuing discussion but the simple act of looking an an interesting image.


Having taken so many photos of the Wall at Central Square, I’ve developed a certain fondness for the look of spray paint on brick. And having once had an office inside Holmes and then Nightingale Halls–two of the academic buildings housed in the re-purposed factory where El Mac’s mural is situated–I love the look of the neighborhood these days. A brick wall can be a frustrating obstacle–something that blocks the sky and gets in the way of forward progress–or it can be a canvas of opportunity, a window into a world you can envision only with your inner eye.

Click here for more photos of El Mac’s new mural at Northeastern. “Just looking” is a title I’ve used for two other blog posts: one describing a summer walk around my neighborhood here in Newton, and the other featuring one of my favorite photos.

The Potluck

David Fichter’s murals look better on a sunny day…but it was raining when I arrived at the Cambridge Zen Center on Sunday morning, and I’m in the habit of taking a walk before sitting down to meditate. So despite the drizzle, I left my purse in the car and walked with just my camera and a raincoat: just me, the rain, and a neighborhood full of images.

The Potluck

In response to Rurality’s comment on yesterday’s post, today I’ve been sitting with a question: what is wrong with quick picture-posts? As a writer, I feel guilty when I post “just” a picture, yet I continue to stockpile more photos than I could ever blog, even if I posted “just” a picture a day. So what am I waiting for? Why am I saving images for a proverbial rainy day when I know the secret to successful blogging is simply showing up?

So here I sit on the evening of a sunny day sharing pictures from a rainy day. This is how Central Square, Cambridge looked on a wet Sunday morning, before I arrived at the Zen Center to meditate to the sound of raindrops. What better way to spend the morning of a rainy day?

If these rainy-day images of David Fichter’s “The Potluck” have left you hungry for more, you can revisit my sunny-day photos of “Sunday Afternoon on the Charles River,” another Fichter mural in Cambridge, MA. And if you still haven’t gotten your fill of photos, I’ve finally uploaded a photo-set from the May 3rd soccer match between the New England Revolution and the Houston Dynamo. Enjoy!

Modica Way

For all the times I’ve shown you the graffiti wall along Modica Way in Central Square, Cambridge, I’ve never shown you the photo-mural on the opposite wall.

I heart you

For whatever reason, I tend to focus on the color and changeability of the graffiti wall more than the monochromatic sameness of the other wall. I suppose the officially sanctioned permanence of a photo-mural isn’t as interesting or illicit as an ever-changing wall painted by street artists. Some civic-minded folks organized, designed, and then erected the mural, which commemorates the faces and flavor of Central Square…but knowing the mural is going to be there with its predictable black and white photos every time I’m in the neighborhood, I tend to ignore it. The graffiti on the other wall is unpredictable and always surprising, so the same old photos on the other wall seem tame and reliable in comparison. Although I’ve occasionally snapped photos of the other side of Modica Way, I’ve never found a reason to blog them. “If it bleeds, it leads” is the dictum of the mainstream media, and “if it’s colorful, it’s bloggable” seems to have become my unofficial policy. Images of someone else’s black and white photos always seem to take a backseat.


You miss a lot, of course, if you focus only on the colorful, remarkable things. Much of life is monochromatic and predictable: in fact, you could rightfully argue that the best things in life are tame and reliable. Colorful graffiti offers the excitement of novelty: turning the corner onto Modica Way, you’ll never know what sort of colors, shapes, or images will be there to greet you. But there’s something to be said, too, for reliable predictability. Temporary exhibits might draw us back to the same old museum, but there’s a reassuring comfort in knowing the permanent exhibits are still there, inviting us to take another look.

Rev. Larry Love (RIP)

Truth be told, the photo-mural on Modica Way isn’t as unchanging as I seem to think it is, and therein lies the true lesson of all things monochrome. Passersby have and do put stickers and Magic Marker messages on it–the most primitive form of graffiti–and someone occasionally cleans these up: the towheaded tyke pictured on the far right here is no longer labeled as a white devil, and the fellow with his thumb up here is no longer holding a flower. Impermanence does indeed surround us: yesterday’s Magic Marker commentary might be scrubbed by tomorrow. Even if the mural itself doesn’t change, the faces depicted therein certainly do: the celebrated Central Square figure of the Reverend Larry Love, a deranged but lovable fellow who wandered the streets (and occasionally directed traffic) in colorful costumes when I lived in Cambridge, died in 2001, but an image of him in his makeshift police uniform keeps his memory alive on Modica Way.


After having unofficially participated in November’s National Blog Posting Month, I feel like I’m returning to the monochrome world of posting when and how I can. The month of November showed me that I can post something every single day if I really put my mind to it, but now that December has started, life will be less colorful (and thus presumably less bloggable) as my academic workload turns from “fairly busy” to “that time of the semester when I’m buried in paper-piles.” On the one side of Modica Way, colorful graffiti points to the creative impulse that makes something out of the blank slate of bare brick…or that, at least, paints over yesterday’s ephemera with today’s novelty. On the other side of Modica Way, a collage of decade-old (and older) photos invites the commentary of marginal marker scribbles: given what someone else saw then, what can you say today?

Last month, I spent 30 days typing words on the blank slate of an empty screen, and for the next three weeks, I’ll be writing comments on papers, my marginal scribbles seeming mundane and monochromatic compared to November’s colorful conversation. I’ll post when and how I can, even if it’s only an occasional postcard, until I come out on the other side of the current semester.

Click here for the complete photo-set from the other side of Central Square’s Modica Way. Enjoy!

Two for one

When I first moved to the Boston area in the early 1990s, my understanding of the city and its outlying areas was completely T-dependent. I knew the individual subway and trolley stops I used on my way from Malden to Chestnut Hill, for instance, but I didn’t know how these places connected above ground. When I started graduate classes at Northeastern, for instance, I’d take the Green Line from my Beacon Hill apartment to the aptly named “Northeastern” stop that let me off in front of campus…but it took my slow-witted self about a semester or so to realize the Orange Line “Ruggles” stop let me off on the side of campus where my office was located. It came as a silly surprise to realize a stop on the Orange Line could be so close to a stop on the Green: just one side of campus to the other! It was a realization I had to come to on-foot, leaving the safety of train or trolley to explore the neighborhood (and possibly get lost) on my own.

If you’ve been visiting Hoarded Ordinaries for a while, you’ve gotten some individual blog-stop views of the greater Boston area…but unless you’ve been to Boston, you might not understand how these individual blog-stations connect. So when I described Cambridge’s vintage Shell sign and freeway revolt mural as both being located at the intersection of Memorial Drive and Magazine Street, you might not have realized that these two landmarks really are so close to one another, you can shoot them both in a single shot.

Sunday Afternoon on the Charles River

On sunny days, I try to take extra pictures for a rainy day. On Sunday while I was photographing the mural on the backside of Microcenter in Cambridge, MA, I also snapped some shots of the mural on the side of Trader Joe’s, my actual post-practice destination. On sunny days, you need to save up for a rainy day, and on days when you drive to the Zen Center, you might as well stop on the way home for groceries.

Sunday Afternoon on the Charles River

Municipal murals are an interesting sort of propaganda; even more interesting are murals sponsored by a particular company. As far as I know, it’s sheer coincidence that a mural depicting the Cambridge freeway revolt is on the backside of Microcenter: as far as I know, Microcenter had nothing to do with this activism. But the mural on the side of Trader Joe’s, although painted by an established muralist responsible for other public artworks in the metropolitan Boston area, is pretty much a giant ad. If you look closely at the diverse cast of lounging locals enjoying a sunny Sunday along the Charles River, you’ll notice they’re all picnicking on Trader Joe’s products.

Sunday Afternoon on the Charles River

On one level, I have no problem with the product placements in this particular mural. The artist’s “canvas,” after all, is Trader Joe’s itself, and I’ve no doubt that the money for the project came from (yes) Trader Joe’s. If a grocery store or other business is going to paint an exterior wall anyway, why not hand a brush to a worthy artist who can put something pretty on an otherwise nondescript brick wall?

What I find interesting about corporate-sponsored murals, though, is the vision and ideals they depict. In a Trader Joe’s world, people of all ages and races enjoy a sun-drenched moment of leisure along the river. Mothers walk with children; children walk with dogs. Families and friends gather over food, and athletic types row by in their sculls. There’s a place for everyone at the “table” that is the Charles River, and there’s food enough for all. I find this brightly colored, utopian vision of a Trader Joe’s world just as tasty as any groceries I might buy inside.

Sunday Afternoon on the Charles River

I commented long ago on the amateur version of this idealistic Mural Mindset that can be found here in Keene, NH: “In our rainbow-happy world, we walk hand-in-hand with persons of all races and sizes, communing joyously with one another and with natureā€¦” Here in shiny happy Keene, that old mural got tagged by graffiti hoodlums who presumably aren’t so happy. If your vision of Trader Joe’s, Keene, or whatever else doesn’t match that of actual locals, you might encounter some criticism…and apparently some critics carry spray-cans. It’s hard out here for a muralist.

Sunday Afternoon on the Charles River

The idealized mural view of either Cambridge or Keene reminds me of the viewbook perspective prospective students get of college campuses. In college viewbooks, it never rains or is cloudy, students of all races study and hang out together, and nobody gets sick, drunk, or expelled. Just as there’s no crying in baseball, there’s no crying in college viewbooks. No one in those pretty pictures ever gets homesick, dumped by a faraway high school sweetheart, or infected with an STD. In viewbooks, college campuses are pretty and pastoral, dorm rooms are spacious, and everyone is Best Friends with their roommate. Anyone who has actually been to college knows the real collegiate world isn’t like that, but the real collegiate world isn’t what prospective students are applying for. If a college degree is a necessary first step toward the American Dream, then a lushly illustrated Viewbook Dream is the first step toward pursuing a degree.

Sunday Afternoon on the Charles River

Blogs are more than a little like viewbooks and murals. When I showed J this picture of a larger-than-life beagle that bears more than passing resemblance to his real and life-sized one, he wondered where I’d taken it. Although J’s been to this very same Trader Joe’s, he’d never noticed either the mural on its side or the beagle included therein. Given all there is to notice during a shopping trip, on a college campus, or in a city the size of Cambridge, can we be blamed if we miss a detail here or there?

If the mere act of perception is selective–if we can’t see and notice it all, but only bite-size bits either randomly or consciously chosen–why shouldn’t we act like a master muralist, picking out, zooming in, and blowing up those details we want commemorated? I know there’s a graphic artist who Photoshops cigarettes out of the the candid campus photos that get included in the Keene State College viewbook, and I know there are details of my days I don’t mention on-blog. If you can’t squeeze everything into even a larger-than-life canvas, why wouldn’t you choose the brightest, most colorful, and rainbow-happiest images to include? Given the stocked grocery-shelf called Life, wouldn’t you add only the tastiest items to your menu?

Sunday Afternoon on the Charles River