Words inspire pictures inspire words

Idaho photographer and educator Mike Shipman guest blogs in this week’s regular Friday edition.

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a writer; which was after I had passed up opportunities for lead guitarist in a rock band, pro football player, archaeologist, and architect. Words were escape, and still are; a transportation to another time and place, a transformation from one being to another, one lifestyle to another. And, words were (and are) therapy; sometimes, or often, expressing triumphs and failures through made-up situations and characters. When I write, and when I read, the words inspire pictures in my head (as I’m sure they do for you as well), whether Abbey or Leopold, Nabokov or Asimov, Feynman or Gould, poem or newspaper. The images are recalled part (or all) from past experience, knowledge and familiarity of the subject, or completely made up from my current knowledge, my emotional state at the time, or the flights of fancy driven by my imagination.

For example, this poem written by Bret Harte (1839-1902), published in 1880, evokes a variety of images:

The Two Ships

As I stand by the cross on the lone mountain’s crest,
Looking over the ultimate sea,
In the gloom of the mountain a ship lies at rest,
And one sails away from the lea:
One spreads its white wings on a far-reaching track,
With pennant and sheet flowing free;
One hides in the shadow with sails laid aback,
The ship that is waiting for me!

But lo! in the distance the clouds break away,
The Gate’s glowing portals I see;
And I hear from the outgoing ship in the bay
The song of the sailors in glee.
So I think of the luminous footprints that bore
The comfort o’er dark Galilee,
And wait for the signal to go to the shore,
To the ship that is waiting for me.

These words bring to mind a photograph I made on the Oregon coast:

In turn, pictures inspire words. When I look at pictures – paintings, drawings, photographs, moving images, or shadows – I can describe what I see, feel, how I react, in words. I become aware of various associations and “resonances” awakened by the image that can also inspire new and unrelated words and stories completely out of context to the picture’s original content, intent, subject, or subject matter. It’s important for visual artists, like photographers, to be able to describe their creations in words. It helps the viewer understand what the image is about, how it came about, what it means to the artist, and helps the artist understand for himself what the work is about. And when you write words inspired by pictures those words, coming full circle, need to inspire pictures in the mind of your reader.

It might be easier for some people to find or create pictures from words than to craft words from pictures, and vice versa. But, with practice, illustrating what you read and writing about what you see becomes easier and, being interconnected, help improve both.

“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.” John Ruskin (1819 – 1900)

Mike Shipman is a freelance commercial, editorial and fine art photographer and educator in Nampa, Idaho, and owner/photographer of Blue Planet Photography (www.blueplanetphoto.com). He is an Idaho Commission on the Arts Teaching Artist and leads workshops and classes in the western U.S. and around the world. His work is found in private and corporate collections across the U.S. and exhibited in the Boise, Idaho area. He believes everyone is creative.

Fun With Genealogy

Guest blogger Chuck Dennis plumbs genealogy in this week’s edition of the regular Friday blog.

This piece is a real departure from the normal Ken Rodgers blog entry. No descriptions of austere American deserts or green forests and mountains, and no birds or endless skies. No cowboys or soldiers or bad but interesting old times drinking and fighting. Nothing resembling Ken Kesey and “On The Road.” But there will be a bushwhacking.

Let’s start with me. I just turned 65 (read: geezer). The leading edge of the Baby Boom. In my 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, I had little interest in genealogy. However, back in my teens I met an old, Parkinson’s Disease-riddled uncle, who, probably because he had no children of his own, gave me a lifetime membership in the Mayflower Society. Since you have to prove you’re descended from someone on the Mayflower to get that membership, I was pretty sure that, in the words of the “X Files,” the truth (of that part of my genealogy) is out there. My Aunt Virginia, Ken’s wife Betty’s mother (Betty is my cousin), also gave me some of the research she had done on her line, including the name of John Billington, who was on the Mayflower. As I approached my “golden years,” I also found that I had a little more interest in my ancestry. So off I went in search of ancestors.

Now, 30 or 40 years ago, you really had to be devoted to do genealogical research. You spent years going through musty old files, wandering through old courthouses, and creeping through graveyards reading tombstones. Aunt Virginia did a lot of that in Massachusetts and Maine in the late ‘70’s (ask Betty). Today, however, you jump on the Internet. Using sites such as Ancestry.com and building on the work of others, you do in a couple of days what it took an earlier generation years to do. I even crept (online) through graveyards reading tombstones (and lists of tombstone names).

So what did I find? Turns out, the Pilgrims were a varied group, as you might expect, and John Billington was a piece of work. Seems he had an “enemy” by the name of John Newcomen. One day, he bushwhacked Newcomen along the road. So in 1630 he became the first Englishman – perhaps the first European – tried, convicted, and hanged for murder in the New World.

His family as a whole is described on the Mayflower History web site as, “Plymouth Colony’s troublemakers.” His son Francis almost blew up the Mayflower. He shot off his father’s musket in a cabin one day, starting a fire that was put out before it got to the open barrel of gunpowder in the room. Another day, Francis and a friend were wandering around near Plymouth when he climbed a tree and found what he thought was a new ocean. Turns out it was a large pond, named (perhaps facetiously) “Billington Sea”, a name it retains to this day.

Then there was the mother, Eleanor. She was sentenced to be put in stocks and whipped for slander. John Billington himself was sentenced in 1621 to have his neck and heels tied together for “contempt of the Captain’s lawful command with opprobrious speeches” (that would be Captain Myles Standish). He was forgiven for that, and later talked his way out of a charge that he was implicated in a revolt against the Plymouth Church. Finally, there was John, Jr. – not quite so accomplished, but he did wander off one day, got lost, and had to be brought back by the Nauset Indians.

Fortunately for me — and for Betty, who is one of the truly good people in this world — there’s been a lot of refinement of the genetic mix since then. Even on the Mayflower, we are related to at least 8 people in 4 families, including the colony’s doctor, its first elected Assistant Governor, and a carpenter, as well as the Billingtons.

So two “takeaways” to finish up this piece. First, genealogical research is much easier than it once was, and can even be interesting. Second, the attitude of most Americans toward “pedigree” is probably on target. We’re all related to the good, the bad, and the ugly, and even a supposedly good “pedigree” may not stand closer scrutiny. You are what you do, not who your relations are or were.

So now I go on to my father’s side of the family. It turns out that my great grandfather’s first name was Lumpkin. But I think I have a line on lineage going back to Virginia in the 1600’s. So I soldier on.

Chuck Dennis and his wife Donna are retired now and live in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Both were born and raised in California. For years, Chuck headed strategic planning at the FAA, and he once served brief stints in the White House and on the United States Senate staff. These days, Chuck and Donna enjoy travel and photography. They’ve been to many interesting places, from Timbuktu to Katmandu, and from Prince Edward Island to Patagonia. Iceland is next up. Chuck, by the way, is Betty Rodgers’ cousin. Ken just puts up with him.

On Kobe B., Homophobia, Alan Simpson, and Round Ball

I recall sitting in a room in the early seventies at Arizona State University waiting for the Economics 101 professor to show up. A day-old State Press, the university newspaper, sat on one of the desks. I picked it up and thumbed through until I came to the editorial page. I liked to see what the students thought about the world’s events. But the most interesting thing on the page, in the paper for that day, was a letter to the editor. Someone, a gay student at the university, had been murdered in Phoenix and the letter writer was berating the city, the university, the population as a whole for a lack of earnest concern about the death, who had killed the victim, the state of society’s relationship with gay people in general. In the margin next to the letter to the editor, someone had scribbled, “The only good gay is a dead one.” I need to confess that when I read that I laughed out loud. And for years I have thought about that and asked, why? Some of it was a chuckle at the local mentality, about the nature of a seemingly intractable relationship between gays and straights in the 1970s in Arizona, but part of it was an attitude on my part.

I have to admit, my attitude towards the gay community has always been a complex one. My first overt activity with a gay was on the ball court at North School in Casa Grande, Arizona. Every afternoon, after my seventh grade classes were over, I gathered with a bunch of classmates and we shot baskets. One of the regular participants was a boy who had a reputation for being a “fag” or a “queer” as we called gay people in those days. One afternoon he and I ended up as the only ones left on the court. As the sun started to set, all I can call it was: he assaulted me. But before it went far, I got away and went home and never played basketball again unless I was with a gang of kids. I told my friends about my encounter and they all laughed, having had, they said, similar experiences with this young man. We huffed and puffed and talked among each other and made boasts about how we would handle it the next time, stuff like “If he does it again, I’ll get my dad’s twelve gauge and blow that fag’s ass away.” Unfortunately, that young man eventually assaulted someone and got hauled off to jail, and knowing the attitudes and laws in Arizona in the early 1960s, I am sure he went to the pen.

And I could say that experience developed my attitude about gays, but I don’t think it’s that simple. I had a gay aunt, maybe two, and I understood that on some level long before my experience on the ball court. Maybe not in a bright shining way, but I knew her as being different and that’s what this hatred and fear of gay people is, I think, about some people being different and the trepidation that creates in us. My father and his many brothers were two-fisted toughs, bare knuckle boxers who adored their sister, whom they even called “Butch”. Because “Butch” was one of the terms for a gay woman. So I knew it on some level. Besides that aunt, I had gay cousins, three that I know of and maybe more, and I have a nephew who has come out.

My first wife had at least three gay cousins, maybe more, one of whom I called on the telephone when I was stranded in a snowstorm in El Paso. He came to the Holiday Inn and picked me up and took me to his home and invited some of his gay (and straight) friends over and we laughed and ate and drank and had a great time, and I recall sitting in a chair and looking at them, thinking that these were a bunch of fags, some of whom I had known for years and whom I had known were gay, and we were having a great time just being folks, talking, laughing, no sex, no assaults.

Over the years I have come to accept gay people as friends, as working partners, as neighbors, as teachers. The ones I know are smart, capable, talented and mind their own business, so unlike the young man who assaulted me. Even though I didn’t know it then, I am sure that some of the men I served with in the hell hole of Khe Sanh, Vietnam, were gay. Brave men. Warriors. Men who did not dodge the draft.

So, as I sit here, I wonder why, when someone pulls out in front of me on the road, or does something else to frighten or irritate me, I say things under my breath like “F-ing Fag.” Why does that latent anger? fear? resentment? still remain? Why do I say it? Right now, some of my best friends are gay. But I am still capable of epithets that denigrate who they are in a base and crude way.

So when I read on the internet about Kobe Bryant, a man I don’t particularly admire, calling a referee in a basketball game an “F-ing Fag,” I got all uppity and denounced him until I caught myself doing the same thing out on the road yesterday morning. I thought, I’m not any different than he is, and then I thought, but I don’t hate people who are gay, and then I thought, he probably doesn’t either. But the grudge, the edge, the buffer still remains, doesn’t it?

Not to make excuses for Kobe or myself. Gays are killed in this country for being who they are…people. No less a stalwart of conservative Republican politics, The Honorable Alan Simpson, lately a Senator from the very conservative state of Wyoming, last week attacked some members of his own party, prominent members, for their homophobia. That surprised me, that someone as conservative as Senator Simpson, and a politician to boot, would have the guts to make a statement about such an incendiary issue. But I suspect one of the things his actions indicate is that there are a lot of homophobes in the Republican Party. And there are a lot of gay people in the world and somehow the twain must meet. And then it probably isn’t fair to just say Republicans are homophobic; a lot of Independents, Communists, Libertarians, Tea Partiers, Socialists, Know-Nothings and Democrats probably fit in that group too. Even me, given my outbreaks, could be described as homophobic.

As I sit and think about it, it seems to me that we have a lot of problems in this country…high unemployment, a lot of bitter economic-class-based rancor, two (or maybe three) wars, and a host of other issues. Given all this turmoil, do I need to worry about what a man and woman, or two men, or two women do in their beds at night? It is none of my business. Maybe, if I think about this enough, I might stop my little outbreaks. I hope so.

Oh Outhouses, Four-Holers, and Burning the Heads

One of the Twitter headlines for The Washington Post.com on 4/5/2011 was, “Is it impolite to bring reading material to a public restroom?” I chuckled when I read that and not because of the inanity of the query, but because of memories that hove into my mind’s view.

In early April, 1968, I had just escaped from the siege of Khe Sanh and was killing time in the 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment rear at Phu Bai south of the old Vietnamese imperial capital, Hue, waiting to go home. Luxurious being able to sleep in every morning on a cot, above ground, in a covered hooch, no mud, no incoming. Luxurious with hot showers, hot chow, movies, sodas, beer, no work parties. Luxurious, too—and this will sound basic, basic as hell—walking to the head with the latest edition of The Stars and Stripes military newspaper without doing the Khe Sanh Shuffle. Not worrying about being blown off the toilet seat while taking care of one of your most intimate acts.

The battalion head at Phu Bai was a four-holer housed inside a substantial building vis à vis the one-holers I was used to. I had some experience with heads…crappers. On several occasions, I had to burn the “shitters” as we called them in Vietnam. I had shitter-burning detail for a whole month in August-September 1967 on Hill 861. Alphabet (a Marine with a Polish last name too hard to say or spell), Spooner and I had given each other Mohawk haircuts, out of boredom, I suppose, and the Company Commander, after catching sight of one of us, ordered us to fix the damned things. So we did the only thing possible, we shaved our heads and of course, given military logic, that was worse than a Mohawk, so the three of us had to run all the way around the trenchline of Hill 861 as our fellow Marines pummeled and slapped and kicked us as we stumbled and huffed and puffed and elbowed each other to come in first which really was not part of the punishment, to come in first, but as you know, coming in first is important. As I hunched my shoulders and kept my face buried to avoid the hands and fists attacking me, I recollect I thought of Tyrone Power in The Black Rose when Orson Welles as the Mongol warrior Bayan forced Power’s character to run lengthwise on a log through a dangerous gamut of Mongol warriors slugging Power’s character with inflated pig bladders with the intent of knocking him off onto spearheads buried point-end-up on both sides of the log.

Our reward (Alphabet, Spooner and I), whether we finished the circuit of Hill 861 first or not, was burning the shitters and the trash dump. Which we did. Twice a day. Using gasoline, diesel, and wet matches. Ignominy was draped on our shoulders. We smelled like what we tried to burn. Everything was monsoon wet. We joked about it and laughed and exaggerated our every crapper-burning action, but no matter how hard we tried, we were shitbirds, as the term goes. Luckily for me, time and time-in-grade moved me past my shitbird moments, through the dank wet of monsoon floods, red mud, two trips out-of-country on R & R, and then as a grand finale, the siege.

Then on to Phu Bai, where the head in Phu Bai was not under constant attack, as had been the heads in Khe Sanh. Right now I can smile at the guttery notion of it all, running between incoming rockets, mortars and artillery to do your business, but men were killed and wounded while conducting their affairs in the head. So, being able to sit on the throne and read The Stars and Stripes without fear of flying shrapnel, even though there was little privacy between stalls, just a half wall, was still paradise. That’s one of the things you learn in war and privation, the elegance that can be had with the most basic of functions in the most basic of places.
In the head at Phu Bai, what was scratched on the walls was more interesting than reading in the paper about Lyndon Johnson deciding not to run for re-election, or who won NBA basketball games, or who got killed that week in-country. Some of the messages left dug into the unpainted walls were names, dates, home town, home states. One of the most interesting things I read:

We are the unwilling
Lead by the unqualified
To do the impossible
To help the ungrateful

I laughed when I read that little verse. It was cynical, yes, bitter, yes, but something about it drove home a little sharp stake near where I imagined my emotional heart, not necessarily the physical heart, lived. The unqualified out there tearing up a country, killing people, getting killed…and most of those we were trying to help, ungrateful. Not a comforting thought as you sat there, relaxing…not a comforting thing to think about. But like having to dodge shrapnel on the way to the crapper, not much about the Vietnam War was comforting.

To this day, while driving down country roads in Idaho, finding abandoned homesteads, often one can still find the outhouse. When I was a kid in Arizona, some of them were still functional. My grandfather had one on his old outfit. Tar paper, black widows, cold seat, hot seat, gossamer trailings into the dark corners. Flies. Seeing those old outhouses, with their doors flung open, hinges missing, throws memories at me, about incoming artillery rounds, my shitter-burning details, running the gamut, getting pummeled like Tyrone Power, and that message carved into the wall at Phu Bai.

I’ve never had an affinity for communal heads, and try to avoid them as much as possible. I’m not sure if that’s due to my bathroom days in a war zone, or the unwanted but often truthful messages carved into the paint on the walls. And whether someone carries Time or Good Housekeeping or Playboy into a stall is not my concern, nor is it my business.


This week essayist and guest blogger Susan Bono muses on handfuls.

The first time I got pregnant, I hoped for a girl. I knew nothing about babies and everyone said girls were easier. Three years later, when a sonogram revealed a second son, I had to grieve the daughter I would never have, but I’d gotten over my fear of boys. Babies were just a lot of work, period.

But when my sons were little, it was always, “Oh, you have two boys. You must have your hands full!” Every mother I knew was exhausted and on the verge of madness, but this comment suggested that because I had boys, my situation was more dire. Did everyone assume I spent my days chasing after grubby little imps, trying to get them to stop bashing other children, teasing dogs, and running into traffic? I knew plenty of little girls who were more willful, more restless than my sons. In the baby play group that constituted my social life in those early years, there were biters and tantrummers, but none of them were boys.

There was no use arguing with people. Whenever I tried to point out how my oldest son in particular was as sweet and cooperative as they come, the looks from my sympathizers changed from conspiratorial geniality to pity and suspicion, as if delinquent behavior was the only sure sign of health in a boy. If my gentle sons weren’t born aberrant, although such a defect was highly likely, bad mothering had perverted their natural tendencies toward savagery and violence.

No one ever warned me that teenaged boys might be capable of self-restraint. Along with the “hands full” comment, I invariably heard, “They must be eating you out of house and home!” The pride with which people listed the quantities of snack foods and dairy products their sons put away made me feel like a failure. In reality, most of the cookies, chips and large second helpings consumed in our household could be traced to me or my husband. I always worried that my kids were eating other mothers out of house and home and revealing their hideous lack of judgment in places they could really be themselves.

Despite everyone’s predictions, the oldest moved judiciously through his so-called partying years with a group of reasonably sensible friends. The youngest preferred hanging out at home. Whatever unlawful or dangerous adventures I worried about them having (thinking all the while of my own misspent youth), I never had to experience one of those terrifying middle of the night phone calls or the defiance all mothers of sons get automatic credit for. I was always braced for disaster, vacillating between relief and the feeling I was missing something, but in the end, my parents were the ones to pay me back by pulling more scary stunts in their final years than my sons ever did as teenagers.

Now that my boys are in their twenties, I’ve come to understand that children will confound you on levels you can’t possibly anticipate. My parents were unprepared for the explosion of sex, drugs and social unrest that drove their children’s choices in the ‘70s. I, in turn, still can’t get over the fact that “hippie” is a dirty word in my kids’ vocabularies. Instead of beseeching my youngest to be more careful during his teen years, I am goading him into taking more risks now that he is an adult. My husband and I are even in counseling to find ways to get our baby bird to fledge. For all I know, he’ll wind up joining the police force or the military and become the kind of son everyone told me to expect. With children, you always have your hands full, but of what is anybody’s guess.

Susan Bono is a writing teacher and freelance editor living in Petaluma, CA. She founded Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative in 1995, and its online counterpart, www.tiny-lights.com, shortly thereafter. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Sheila Bender’s Writing & Publishing Personal Essays, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, and Passager Magazine. Lately, she’s been doing more cupboard cleaning than writing, but finds time to write a postcard a day.