Connect with Us

Clouds, made in America

America still does clouds well, clouds may be the best thing America does, and I enjoyed taking pictures of them while traveling cross-country, whether they were in the background or the foreground or whether they were the central image of whatever photograph I was taking. There's something very American about American clouds. Many times on the trip I would get goose-bumps seeing them in the sky, in Maryland and Georgia and North Carolina, even in Connecticut. I came to believe as the trip went on that each state had its own particular brand of clouds, just like each state has a flag all its own. Tennessee clouds were thin, sinuous, for instance, while Kentucky clouds were overblown, pompous and so on. Seeing clouds this way, the clouds of each state took on a distinct personality, an individuality, or at least that's the way I saw them, and I came to believe that I could tell when we'd crossed the border from one state to another by the shapes of the clouds I was seeing.

Somewhere in Maryland, along the Old National Highway (40 East) it started to rain, the kind of rain that doesn't seem like it will ever stop. The clouds became an angry mob with a seething resentment of sunshine, harmony, and political comity. The RV rocked and slid around on the old road, and the clouds did nothing about it. Driving, I could only look ahead, keep my hands tightly on the wheel, my eyes on the road. I lost sight of the clouds, there were no clouds to see, there was just one cloud, the biggest cloud ever, a gray mass made up of indistinguishable features. I drove with real determination through the rainstorm, turning my thoughts from clouds to our great national history: first we fought the Indians, then the British, then the Rebels, and now we're fighting ourselves, by which I mean the demeanor and words of our President, and opioids in small towns and the kind overall malaise all empires face sooner or later.

Clouds above gas station, Frederick, MD, June 19, 2019.


Late capitalism, post truth, small towns

The young waitress at the restaurant in Mansfield, PA when learning that we're from San Francisco says, "what are you doing here?" She asks the question like she can't believe there's a good answer, as if she didn't live and work in Mansfield, PA but lived and worked instead in San Francisco, CA and couldn't imagine traveling from northern California to rural Pennsylvania.

At a bar just outside Cleveland, OH I overhear a late middle-aged man say, talking to another man about the recent Democratic 'debates', "they think they can beat Trump." The sound of his voice suggests he's a Trump supporter.

In New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio I begin separating small towns into two categories: ones I could live in and ones I couldn't. The small towns I could live in are small enough to be able to walk across the main street without looking. The ones I couldn't live in got a little too big at one time but have since shrunk, and their shrunkenness is the thing I like least about them even if I can walk across their main streets without looking. 

Near Smithfield, PA I stop to take a picture of a field and a red barn. The day is sunny, warm, clear. There are white clouds in the background. I stand in the middle of the road and take one picture in color and one in black-and-white.

While I'm on the road it seems like a perfectly good use of my time to look at the difference between the color photo and the black-and-white, and to really think about the difference.

What is the difference between color and black-and white photos of the same thing, the same scene? I'd to think about that some more.

Field near Smithfield, PA. June 27, 2019. Photo by author.


Elvis impersonators and gig listeners

What makes an 'entrepreneur'?

And what's the difference between Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg? One could be on trial for greed and the other for war crimes.

The 'gig' economy is heading toward a worker-led rebellion pioneered by Caesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. It's heartening to see so many unions--union halls, union signs, openly union declarations of unionism on beer cans, cars, recreational vehicles, motorcycles, paper cups--as righteous as seeing a church on the side of the road somewhere between Pikeville, Kentucky and Moundsville, Virginia. A Church means something, as does a union.

Music can mean anything, and that music can mean anything is a big chunk of its beauty. But music can't mean nothing as so much of the music that calls itself 'country music' does these days.

Listening to David Byrne of/and The Talking Heads, is listening to three, maybe four music's at once, as is listening to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Lucinda Williams. Each still sounds like three, possibly four types of music--the folk music of The Highlands of the northern British Isles, the blues of North America, and the radio-induced hit parades of the post-war 1940s & early 50s when music was just beginning to become commercial enough to build, and then to maintain, Graceland.

Country music was a perfect blend of music's, and not the near-bottom/bottom feeding music of the 'gig' economy that is now called country western music. Country music now has no partralineal resonance, and so it all sounds very much the same. We who listen to this country music have every right to be critical of what we're hearing in restaurants and bars across the USA, particularly, but not excluded to, the swath through Appalachia running from western North Carolina thru WVA and on into Maryland.

Even if we critics are wrong we're right: they've made 'gig' listeners of us. We're the ones--the listeners--who now have to provide the meaning to the music! And we're forced to hear it everywhere, this current country western music, in restaurants and bars, in the bathrooms inside the restuarants. Even if we should choose to eat and drink outside in the screened in 'porch' the restaurant provides, the restaurant pipes the music from inside to outside so we have no choice but to hear it as music and provide some meaning to it. 

Imagine if David Bowie had made country music the way David Byrne is making it? Yeehaw! Imagine if Eudora Welty had married Lyndon Johnson! It's time we listeners demand country western music that has the verve, daring, and improbability of such a coupling.

Listening to The Talking Heads while driving into Baltimore, MD on the way to the Museum of Art to see The Cone Collection and then the grave of Edgar Allen Poe, is the only way to go. 

Billiard room, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee. May, 2019.


Walking at night in Milledgeville, Georgia 

A tough day from the very beginning. The stove doesn't work--something wrong with the propane--so there isn't any coffee. There being no coffee is the worst thing that can happen, like waking up without a heart and thinking you'll have to go around the whole day without one: it's so bad not even Otis Redding singing "Try a Little Tenderness" can convince you of your own feelings, much less that they're worthy. There's nothing to be done but to pack up camp and hit the road.

There being no coffee there's no real breakfast, there being no little cafe's anymore in the small towns on the backroads anymore: all the cafe's, such as they are, are now built along the main roads, the interstates, and don't offer real breakfasts, offering instead imitation breakfast's made of a imitation egg and a slice of imitation cheese placed between a bread product imitating a real southen biscuit made from scratch.

There being no real breakfast, by the time you drive into Unadilla you're starved, at least I am, and stop at a restaurant in the countryside in the early afternoon for a Ten Commanments sandwich and a beverage or, as they call a carbonated soft drink here, 'a pop.' A large picture of Jesus as a white man hangs on the wall. The motif of the place is of worn-through formica, which is quite beautiful, and the humidity of a whole chicken being fried in a fryer full of Crisco, a kind of perfection achieved only through millenia and millenia of hard work, righteousness, and patience. The people who run the restaurant are real nice, the kind of people who take your order at the counter and don't expect you to pay unless you're happy with your sandwich, small town Christian people, Free Will Baptist I imagine but I could be mistaken.

I banter with them about the weather--hot--and the glorious water they serve. I say, "this is some of the best water I've ever tasted, and I know water." "It's just city water," the man behind the counter says, modestly. I tell him that I'm a water aficianado, that I've tasted the most exquisite waters of five different continents, and that this water, the water of Unadilla, Georgia is the best I've ever tasted. Most people in the countryside drill their own wells, he responds.

We'd both like to continue the conversation--his wife has come out of the kitchen to join us, having been to California and having overheard I'm a California--but before he gets to quoting Scripture it's time for both of us to move on.

By 5 pm I've reached Milledgeville, national headquarters of The Flannery O'Connor Peacock Society and Symposium. My traveling partner, the lovely Lea Ann McGee of Meeteetsee, Wyoming, and I find a high-quality RV park just outside town, hose down the RV and ourselves, take a nap, get dressed in our best t-shirts and find a nice restaurant downtown. I order a ribeye steak smothered in mushrooms and onions and cheese, and a vodka martini, my first martini in almost 2 weeks. Carly the young waitress has heard of Flannery O'Connor but has never been to Andalusia, the farm estate owned by O'Connor's mother that's been turned into a kind of musuem, nor does Carly seem at all curious. 

After dinner we walk the town. All Milledgeville's really good parts, the parts the town fathers want you to see, are concentrated in little squares of no more than 3 or 4 city blocks that you can't get lost in: it's a brilliant town plan, there should have been many more like it.  And if there's any greater freedom than walking around a southern town of genius that's brand new to you on a weeknight at about 9:30 pm accompanied by your best friend and a balmy light breeze, I can't imagine what it might be: the conditions for anonymity are ideal

I don't want anyone else to know me: that's my project, at least for tonight. 

Episcopal Church, downtown Milledgeville, Ga. June 4, 2019. General Sherman stabled his horses in this church on his way to Atlanta, or so they say. Photo by author. 



From Selma, Alabama to Montgomery

Political activism in this country now lacks the religio-spiritus component that made the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s finally successful. Now no one's willing to die, an activist is only for or against something in varying degrees of intensity, there's no God dynamic. What God dynamic there is has shifted to The Right. The Right now owns the word, freedom.

Freedom. The word freedom has more or less been sold as a feeling, and not the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness promised in The Declaration of Independence. The word "sold" is the best I can think of to portray the propaganda techniques The Right has successfully employed, beginning in the late 1950s/early60s AFTER the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, in response to that movement's social and political gains. The Right now owns the word, "freedom" and they've programatically sold the word to their adherents, such as they are, overwhelmingly caucasian, undereducated, suspicious with good reason of social institution. The Right's concept of freedom is based upon an almost total distrust of federal government, a distrust not dissimilar from the distrust made manifest in the break from the Union the Confederate States made official on February 4, 1861. 

The first White House of The Confederacy, the Executive Residence of President Jefferson Davis and his family, is in Montgomery, Alabama. I visited yesterday, after having driven the 54 miles from Selma.

Selma is a magical place, as magical as Chartres or Stonehedge or other magical places I've visited. I met a mother and daughter there, Rosemary (70) and Carlette (38). They'd cruised by me while I walking around downtown taking pictures, mistaking me for someone else. We talked for awhile. Both went to Selma High School: Rosemary when it was segregated and Carlette when it was integrated. They also told me where to get good bar-b-que.

 Downtown isn't a pretty picture--many of the buildings are vacant, windows are broken, weeds in the sidewalks--though you can almost imagine how beautiful it once was, and prosperous, and could be again, maybe, though it's beautiful also the way it is.  At 7 p.m. when the light's right downtown Selma is a photographers paradise. Everything bad and good about the country comes out then--slavery, white supremacy, gospel music and blues, the human civil rights movement--you can feel it all while walking around Selma on a late summer evening.

I camped at the Selma Flea Market and RV Park outside of town. It was all white, mostly workers at The International Paper (IP) plant. I talked with a fork-lift operator who worked at IP, making an hourly wage, a witty guy who lived in Louisiana. "It's hot here but it's only heat, where I live it's hot and wet." The park was more or less a gypsy camp, with workers living in their RV's and trailers: there were kids running around, kicking soccerballs thrown the mown crabgrass, playing with toys, riding bikes, being kids. How'd this work, I wondered? Did the kids go to school? And if they did, were they resented as outsiders?

Selma's one of several ground zeros of the Civil Rights Movement. On March 7, 1965 about 500 marchers left Selma for Montgomery on US Highway 80. At the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge they were met by county sheriff's and state troopers who attacked them with tear gas and billy clubs. The incident became known as "Bloody Sunday." MLK Jr. rushed to Selma, met with other activists at the Brown Chapel A.M.E Church. They made a plan there, non-violent but definite. By the time they crossed the bridge--Edmund Pettus, by the way, was a Confederate General--there were 25,000 marchers. The force of the publicity caused LB Johnson, not such a bad man as I'd previously thought him to be, to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that gave ALL CITIZENS THE RIGHT TO VOTE.

Sunday morning I attended church at the Brown Chapel. Pastor Leodis Strong put forth a rousing sermon, "Do the Right Thing," invoking the Spike Lee film and reading from The Bible (Kings) the story of Elijah's struggle with Baal worship, and Jezebel's chicanery. "Pray for Donald Trump," Pastor Strong said more than once, "Pray for Franklin Graham", son of Rev. Billy Graham, adviser to the current President as his father was adviser to Richard Nixon, most notably, and harsh critic of Barack Obama and his wife Michelle. DO THE RIGHT THING, DO THE RIGHT THING, DO THE RIGHT THING, Pastor Strong said over and over, to which we all must say, AMEN.

Freedom's a large thing to think about. On the drive from Selma to Montgomery I try to begin to define it for myself: Freedom is freedom from hatred, freedom from vicitimization, freedom from the sort of materialism that insists on having more than it needs.