(short, not sweet, always a photo)
The news of Orrin Hatch's retirement and Mitt Romney's possible run for his seat reminded me that I had taken a bunch of photographs while I was in Utah, mostly Salt Lake City, last November. Whether or not Romney runs, I hope that journalists reporting on the race in Utah will be knowledgeable about the state. Currently it is described, as Alabama was during the election of Doug Jones, as the "reddest of red" states. Sure, it's a red state. But it's more than that, as is any state described by it's crayon political color.
Here's an article about the naming of Harvey Milk Blvd, with quotes from locals that give you a good picture of the variety of opinions on the renaming of the street in an important commercial area. The gelato shop (site of Harvey Milk sign) on Harvey Milk Blvd is in a different part of town from the You Are Safe Here sign, which is downtown near Ken Sanders Rare Books. The Joe Hill mural is on the bookstore.
"Church & State." Explicit statement about the fact (one that infuriates me) that there never has been much separation between the two in this country. And that is, of course, an inescapable fact about the state of Utah and the Mormons--though this sign is not advertising a Mormon church group as far as I could tell. It is near the Central Christian Church building--as the plaque dated 1955 on the red brick notes--but I don't know if it is related to that church either. Or if that building is still even a church. (It was a drive-by shot.)
On the way to the north end of the Great Salt Lake to see the Spiral Jetty, I drove with a friend through the beautiful Logan Valley.
I was surprised, silly me, that people hunt swan, so I did a little research and came across numerous blogs devoted to the dressing and cooking of the swan (tastes like goose! let's have swan for Thanksgiving!). It is the tundra swan that is legal to hunt in the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, but not in this area, which might be the Salt Creek Waterfowl Management Area of that Refuge. (I couldn't find the exact name of the Public Shooting Grounds Waterfowl Management Area.)
I take lots of pictures of signs: they speak for themselves. And others.
Every morning and evening I read a few pages from Teju Cole's remarkable book, Blind Spot. I suspect when I finish it, I'll reread it, probably not page to page but just open it here and there.
I'm not someone who rereads books or rewatches movies (with the exception of Apocalypse Now and Badlands), though there are plenty of poems I read and reread. And I'm not someone who has much of a daily practice except for making the commitment to spend some part of the day writing and several times a week (once it was daily, now less often) take a photograph. If you are not familiar with Bind Spot, it looks like this.
So you can see (literally) why it appeals to me. I don't think anyone has made better use of short pieces of writing than Cole. Here is the opening passage from "Brooklyn" (pictured above). "One of the common uses of the word 'shadow' was as a synonym for 'photograph.' This was the sense in which Sojourner Truth used it when she wrote, on the 1864 photographic postcard bearing her image, 'I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance.'"
And just now writing this, I see that shadow behind the photograph (a scan of my grandmother's garden scissors) which inspired the following poem, published by Best Friends Feminist Collective in Albuquerque in the early 70s.
Those long silver scissors
shears you call them
sit in your kitchen
like you long your hands long
like the shimmer of
sliding down your lean throat
The garden scissors
snap the heads
of roses and mums
that sit in coffee cans
in your kitchen
We see them when we visit you
The scissors next to your hand
In San Francisco passing over
the Hills Bros. plant
I thought of you
The beach in Carmel
Waves breaking silver
I thought of you
In your kitchen
thinking of me
married on your back porch
surrounded by mums
your scissors had been to work
You stayed outside most of that day
to greet guests
But you longed for the kitchen
champagne did not satisfy
The silver of the kitchen longed also
What I planned to do:
What I hadn't planned to do:
Resonance: that is how Blind Spot is working on me. And why, for now, it is so valuable.
First: it's possible again! Seventy-five extremely cool degrees and breezy when I left the house this morning at 11:00 a.m. It's been a while: try as I do, it's impossible to enjoy a walk when it's 105 out.
Today I walked in a different direction from my usual treks and to a new neighborhood. I often pass this street designated as green when I'm driving because it's off Oltorf St., which is not a particularly enjoyable street to walk on, at least not in my neighborhood. It intersects with South Congress where there is an old strip mall on one corner, an HEB on the other, and the drive-thru entrance to a bank and a big Catholic church and school across from the HEB. Police often appear to mediate fender benders, and paramedics tend to injured pedestrians and bicycle riders weekly.
But I'd been curious about this street (Forest, I think, in the Dawson neighborhood) and what it means to qualify as a Green Neighborhood in Austin. I'd glanced down it a number of times as I drove past, attracted not just by the sign but also by the large trees and the shade they cast (see above ref to temperatures).
Like many neighborhoods in Austin there are sidewalks on only one side of the street. (In my sister's Crestview neighborhood some of the streets have no sidewalks and streets even wider than this one. In his book The Geography of Nowhere The Rise and Decline of America's Manmade Landscapes, James Kunstler writes that back in the 1950s when suburbs were being designed "the width of residential streets was tied closely to the idea of a probable nuclear war with the Russians. And in the aftermath of a war, it was believed, wide streets would make it easier to clean up the mess with heavy equipment" pp. 112-114). Austin, despite its Walk Score, is not a particularly walkable city. (When I moved here from the Bay Area, I chose this neighborhood because I can, in fact, walk to most everything I need to do and to much of what I want to do.)
In addition to being Green, this street is almost frightfully clean, something I notice because I am in the habit of picking up trash, and there is typically a lot of it on the streets of Austin.
I did come across a full bottle of root beer. It hadn't been opened, so I suspect it was accidentally dropped and not tossed. (Is it still litter?) After picking it up, I attempted to deposit it in a recycling bin at the end of someone's driveway and was chastised for it, so I carried it out of the Green neighborhood and into the parking lot of the HEB where there are plenty of trash cans but no recycling bins. While I did not have a conversation about the ownership of bins with the person in the Green Community, I talk trash frequently with my homeless neighbors (oxymoron?) many of whom sleep in the darker recesses of the strip mall and enjoy the shade of the bus stops along South Congress. I walk a lot, weather permitting, and also frequently ride the bus, so I've gotten to know a number of them. I once had a rather lengthy conversation about whether a single glove was trash or a lost item and was persuaded to leave it on top of the trash can in case someone came back for it. These conversations made me pause as I prepared to toss the unopened bottle of root beer. Was it, after all, trash? Maybe someone would want it? So, as with the glove, I placed it on the flat top of the trash can, leaving it to someone else to decide whether it was food or garbage.
And then I walked home.
Ghost jewelry. What you can’t see here, because I’ve made it that way, are the colors. Turquoise. Coral. Silver. Her colors. And also red. Earth tones I think of her that way. And black, too, in her last years, like a lot of women aging, she turned to solids. No color. One of the last gifts I gave her was a bright orange vest. Faux fur. To keep her warm. To brighten her up (did she want to be faux warmed and brightened?) She was always so cold, constantly losing weight, not eating so she wouldn’t have to think about adjusting her insulin. When I cleaned out her house, I took the vest home with me. I never wore it. When I moved, I gave it away. I gave a lot of things away. My sisters and I shared her jewelry. I don’t wear it (okay, I wear a bracelet, but it was mine before it was hers—another story). I look at it. Polish it. Scan it. Filter it. Fade it. Crop. Edit. Manipulate it. Until I start writing.
In the process. Writing. Memoir. Breaking things apart. Breaking things down. Breaking. This is an earring that belonged to my sister. I had the pair. Dropped one. Broke it. I wish I had kept the pieces. But I wasn't thinking then about this. I did keep the other one, the unbroken one. It's some kind of stone polished, flat. Tiger Eye maybe. A rectangle with a circle, a hole, in the center. I could show you the whole piece, but it isn't the whole that interests me right now. In the process. What I am showing you is the scanned image of an earring shattered with a photo app "healing" tool. Across the surface of the scanner my sister's ashes glitter. Bits of bone. Tissue. Bits of me. My kidney that became hers. Becomes her. Becomes me. The ashes a mess atop the scanner (something I hadn't considered; no doubt there will be residue in photos contracts and objects scanned in the future). But look at her! Me. Memoir. Transformed. Human. Mineral. Bone. Blood. Not living but alive. What we shared. I have ideas. Things I want to say about my sister. Me. Us. I've written some essays. Made notes. Drafts in progress. But right now I'm looking. Seeing. Rearranging. Re-seeing. Knowing differently. Learning. Breaking. Healing.
Texas has good junk. I learned this soon after moving here, having given away or recycled much of what I owned in California. There was stuff I needed. Like a table. And a chair. Forks. You get the picture. So I started going to the used, thrift, vintage--whatever you want to call them--stores in Austin. But I hadn't ever been to Austin's City-Wide Garage Sale at the Palmer Center. There are still some things I need: a kitchen step stool, for example, a screwdriver or two. I didn't get either of those things--no step stools, an overwhelming number of screwdrivers (I just walked away from that bin). But I saw lots of cool stuff (Texans have A LOT of stuff!)
If only I had more arms and feet.
Humor comes in pink.
Precursor to the phone case.
What I bought.
I needed the skillet. I'd been looking for cast iron skillets in the used shops, but hadn't found one that didn't seem really over priced or just too worn out. The man I bought this skillet from and I had a long conversation about cast iron skillets when I asked him for the price of the one I as interested in. He said, "This is a real Wagner." The look on my face probably told him exactly how much I knew about cast iron skillets. And when he asked me about that, I told him, "nothing." Which is true. He suggested that next time I want to buy something at a garage sale, I should probably not tell the seller that I know nothing about what I want to purchase. Point taken. (Out of curiosity, not because I doubted him, I looked up Wagner cookware when I got home. Apparently, I do have a real one.)
Anyway, he told me a lot more than I have ever wanted to know about cast iron cookware. But it was really interesting, and I enjoyed talking to him. One of the things I love about living in Texas (and there are a number of things I really despise) is listening to Southwestern accents. Of all the accents I used to hear in the Bay Area, the Southwestern wasn't among them. Lots of Southern drawls, for sure, but they are not the same thing. The twang sounds like home to me, and I can listen to it all day.
So I pad $15 for the skillet--a steal I was assured. I also bought a "vintage" billiard ball, for which I have no explanation.
Last weekend was the last weekend of the West Austin Studio Tour. I happen to live in a neighborhood with lots of artists, and it happened to be cool and overcast, so I walked to some of the places in my neighborhood.
Down Mary Street with all its different kinds of houses.
Along South First St with all its decorated telephone poles (when I first moved here I mistook this mysterious artist's--or artists'--work for the kinds of altars or descansos created for people killed on the road) and that mural everyone poses for.
Up Annie St. with an outstanding example of the things people in Austin do to their yards and some joyful noise being made at St. Annie's AME.
I ended the day by purchasing some cards made from photographs taken by my friend Gia (who I met via Instagram because we travel many of the same highways in New Mexico and Northern California, as well as Austin). Big Medium publishes a beautiful catalog with all the participating artists' statements and a sample of their work and sponsors studio tours for both the East and West sides of Austin, twice a year. But the studio that is Austin its quirky self is open 365 days a year.
I like to read and write. I spend a lot of time inside my head often in the company of writers who spend a lot of time inside their heads, too.
And so some days I have to get out of my head as the saying goes. These days I find it harder and harder.
Inside my head is the chaos of the current presidency and also the ongoing difficulty my son with Type 1 diabetes (who turned twenty-six a few days before the Chaos was inaugurated and the dismantling of Obamacare began) has had with health insurance. The short version is that we decided to, at enormous cost, use COBRA so he could continue using the good insurance I have as a result of teaching at UC Berkeley for about half my life. Somewhere in the harrowing process of dealing with three different institutions--UC, CoNexis and Blue Cross--his Social Security number was recorded incorrectly. Since February: phone calls, the frustration of paying for coverage doctors can't confirm, paying for insulin and hoping the reimbursement will get processed , etc.
I have numerous ways to get outside of my head. I take photographs. I go to the gym. Sometimes I go to the gym and take photographs. My gym is at the Townlake YMCA in Austin. Right behind it, unbeknownst to me until yesterday (I've only lived here for a little over a year) is the Austin train station.
That it was nearby was obvious as I've spent a lot of time waiting for the train to pass when I drive to the gym and watching it curl around the tracks as it crosses the Colorado River not far from the Y. In any case, yesterday, soaking in sweat from and hour of Zumba, I decided to walk up the 32 steps that lead from the parking lot to what I thought was just an empty lot. But at the top of the path, I saw a pile of discarded railroad tracks and sat there to watch the train approach the station.
Then I walked down to the station and discovered an amazing row of abandoned buildings right across from it. Austin is known for the color orange (UT Hook'em Horns) both in its architecture and the flowering plants throughout the city. But it was the blue that caught my eye in this row of buildings.
So I lingered. And took pictures. And thought about some train trips I'd like to take. When I got back to the Y parking lot, I saw a small flock of bright green parrots bathing in a puddle left by the recent rain. I didn't take out my camera. Sometimes it's best just to focus on what is in front of me rather than frame it with a lens. A nearby car pulled out and the parrots flew off in a sparkle of green, leaving droplets of water glinting in the sunshine as they went.
When I got home, I learned that my son had resolved (we hope) the insurance problem. No headbanging for at least another 24 hours. Every day is a countdown. But every day is a also new day.
I resisted. I resisted consuming more than fifteen minutes of news.
What I did consume made me look forward to my impending mammogram.
After the mammogram, I decided to explore South Austin, a part of town I'm not very familiar with.
I didn't really think there would be armadillos, but I thought I'd take a look anyway. None to be found. But it was the looking--camera in hand--that was important.
And then down the road a piece I found the Rio Grande Tortillaria. The tortillas are wonderful and the salsa de arbol has a rich red flavor that approaches the flavor of New Mexico red chile.
As for the dread: it won't go away until 45 and his minions do. In the meantime, I enjoy fresh tortillas, try not to overdose on news and continue my search for armadillos.
(originally written as a #cnfgram Creative Nonfiction's call for #tinytruths with photographs)
Taxidermy: the word painted in letters that drip like blood down a jagged board nailed to a dying pecan tree. This image appears in more than one piece of fiction I've written. But it isn't until I see this neat sign, this bright Lone Star trailer off I-10 in Texas, across the road from Hruska's--known for its kolaches--that I write what I know about the taxidermist's daughter.
Five days a week the school bus that stopped in front of my family's farm outside Roswell, New Mexico, also stopped at that pecan tree for the taxidermist's children. Nipple. Bone. Breath. Everything showed through the fabric of the sisters' worn out dresses, garments that resembled those worn by girls on Gunsmoke and Rawhide. Myra, the youngest girl, was a year ahead of me in school, her little brother the same age as mine. When the bus driver opened the door for them, we cleared a seat so the sisters could sit together, not because they requested this, but so they would not sit with us. The two older girls were quiet, but Myra was loud and boisterous. She asked to copy homework. No one replied. She cracked her gum and offered pieces to us from her grimy pocket. No one accepted. Shunned even by her sisters, Myra forced us to pay attention to her if only with our silence. The boy, his face caked with snot, always found a place with other boys, often with my brother, Johnny. They weren't close friends, but Johnny didn't ignore the boy's existence.
After about a year, Myra and her family disappeared. Migrant workers were common in our farming community. We were accustomed to transient classmates. The bus no longer stopped at the pecan tree; the sign faded. When I was in college, my mother served on a jury down the hall from where Myra was being tried for the murder of her father and brother. Details leaked. The two had held her hostage in a trailer outside town, raping and torturing her until she got her hands on a gun and filled their bodies with bullets. Myra was found innocent. Self-defense. Her only defense. I put down my kolache and pick up my iPad. Haunted by Myra for decades, I attempt to acknowledge her presence.