Still Life As Seen From A Toilet

I see the world as a collection of compositions, framed in rectangles of varying sizes.  Stand me on any spot in any part of the world, give me a camera, and I will find you a dozen images without moving from that spot. Beauty is everywhere, if you know how to look.  Maybe more appropriate: beauty is everywhere, if you are willing to look.  This scene has been in front of me as I take my morning crap for over a month now.  About a week ago, it occurred to me that it would make a nice image.  I could have got out my $5000 Sony and made a crisp, clean photograph.  Instead I took my cheap android and made this soft, dirty one, because it reminds me of a painter friend of mine, and the kind of images she sometimes makes. She can make, and has made, the interior of a random truck stop bathroom into a beautiful painting. My favorite thing about that particular painting of hers is the light over the farthest sink, which is the source of all the light in the painting.  You see it clearly, until you get up close, and then is simply isn’t there, just a smear of whitish paint. It is masterful.

I highly recommend her website: Inna Rohr Artist

Another dear friend of mine is an art therapist.  She and her business partner have a newsletter that I subscribe to. The latest talks about moments of positivity, and the ratio of positivity to negativity that one should strive for.  It occurs to me that finding positivity amidst the barrage of obligation, politics, difficulty, and stress of modern life is a skill akin to sitting on the toilet and noticing a beautiful composition in front of you. Acknowledging that positivity is like taking out your phone and snapping a picture. Translating that into a positive outlook on life is much more elusive and abstract, like making a smear of white paint into a lightbulb.

In Memoriam


It seems fitting today to remember the more than 28,000 men, women, and children killed in El Salvador during Ronald Reagan’s proxy war against an elected government in the 1980’s.  This is a photo I took of their memorial wall in San Salvador.  It is modeled after our Vietnam memorial.  For the Vietnam death toll to have been proportionate based on relative population, we would have to have lost over 1.3 million people.  The results of this evil campaign, which extended to Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, are the refugees at our border today. These people, who are so callously dismissed and discarded by our president and his supporters, are the product of our actions.  They are our responsibility.



Another image from Bagan in 2013.  I count at least 32 people working on this construction site. Sand, stone, and cement are shoveled into the small mixer.  The mixed concrete is poured into plastic buckets, which are transferred hand over hand up the wooden steps and then lifted to the roof, where they are walked across and dumped.  The process is continued until the entire roof is poured.  I watched for several minutes.  I’m sure the roof took all day to finish.

I used to work concrete.  The same job would have taken 4 people.  One to run the pumper truck, one to guide the chute, and two to muck and finish the concrete. You could add one more to run the front end loader which filled the mixer truck at the yard.

There are a couple ways to look at this.  One is to say that there are less jobs, 25 people or so will be out of work.  Another is to say we can now build more stuff faster with the same 30 people, because it takes less per job.

It gets more complicated when you think about the fact that it takes no education to stand on a stair and hand buckets of concrete to the next guy, and significantly more training to operate a pumper truck.

I’ll bet the construction company paid less for all that labor than they would have for a pumper truck and smaller trained crew.  That’s good on a micro scale, possibly, but not so good for the macro economy.  Lower wages mean less buying power, so less money to build factories, shops, and homers, so less business for the construction company. That in turn means less tax revenue for the country to fund education and raise the workforce to modern levels.

I only got as far as economics 101 in school.  I was having too much fun with my friends.  I think I got the basics right here, though.  On a side note, the integrity of a concrete floor poured in one hour by a truck and cured as a unit would be far greater than that of one poured in little bits by hand.

I guess the question here is how does a country like Myanmar transition from doing things this way, which keeps everyone employed and eating, to a modern, more automated method which raises everyone’s standard of living.  There will be inevitable disruption in the labor force, as some people lose jobs because they lack training.  Then they become dependent upon the government, which costs taxes and results in pushback from people paying those taxes.

The problem with economics is that it all works very well on paper, with neat little graphs illustrating cause and effect, supply and demand, but as soon as you put humans into the mix it gets complicated.  You can’t quantify greed, incentive, charity, or laziness on a graph.

The Things We Do


This image is from 2013. It was taken in Bagan, Myanmar, the day after the cover photo for this blog.

On this morning, I had found out that two friends of mine were dead.  They were a remarkable local musical duo.  She sang and played keyboards.  He played guitar.  They were married.  She had lupus.  It was a given that she would not live a full lifetime, but she died much younger than anyone expected. He was devoted to her, so much so that he killed himself.  It was fairly evident that he had planned to do this, not wanting to live without her.

So I climbed on this temple and sat and thought about them, and about love and death. I was about five months into a separation which eventually led to a divorce from my now ex wife and good friend. She was the one who gave me the news, over Skype, I think.  I remember her saying something to the effect of “Oh to have a love like that.”  I didn’t get it.  A love so codependent that if one person dies the other has to die too?  Where is the romance in that?

I remember when my grandfather died.  He chose to die.  My grandmother had died a year or two earlier, and many of his friends were gone as well.  He had perpetual health issues.  He decided that he was ready to go, and that there was insufficient reason to continue.  So he stopped eating and drinking, and 7 days later, he was dead. My grandfather, like me, was an atheist.  He knew that the end is the end, period.  Although I respected his choice, much more than that of my young friend who blew his brains out when his wife died, I can not imagine making that choice myself.  I’m not particularly afraid of death, but I have no desire to die any sooner than I absolutely have to.

“A love like that.”  What does that mean?  They were my friends, but we weren’t close.  I don’t think I ever talked to them about their relationship.  In fact, I am certain that I never did.  She was the primary musical talent in the duo, able to play anything on her electric keyboard, and sing any type of voice or song.  I once saw them, with the help of only a bass player, perform Pink Floyd’s The Wall, in its entirety.  They nailed it.  She sang every part, down to the crying baby.  The two of them had a powerful connection, it is undeniable.

I suppose I’ve had glimpses of a connection like that.  I’ve definitely been in love, although every time was different.  Still, I’ve never found “a love like that,” and I don’t know that I ever will.  I don’t know that most people ever do.  I think we all feel that way when we first fall in love, but how many of us feel that way after a year?  After 10 years?  After a lifetime?  Very few if any, I imagine.

At 60 years old, I would be very content to find one friendship that has no strings attached, no judgement, no secrets, just acceptance, love, trust, and the joy of each other’s company. I don’t know if I’ll find it, but I am positive that it won’t involve suicide if one of us dies.




Image captured in 2015 at Bombay Beach, on the shore of the Salton Sea in California’s Imperial Valley.

In 1905, engineers of the California Development Company cut a channel into the bank of the Colorado River, hoping to augment the flow of water to the irrigation canals supplying farms in the Imperial Valley. They miscalculated, and the flow overwhelmed existing canals and for two years flooded into the valley, forming what is now the Salton Sea.

At first, there were high hopes for development of the area, which became the largest lake in California.  It was stocked with fish, and resorts were built.  Sonny Bono, among others, grew up waterskiing on the lake.  Communities were built, and even more were planned.

Unfortunately, the lake did not have a normal ingress and egress to create a healthy water cycle.  Heavy fertilization of the land upstream of the lake poured salt into it at a rate which has left it with a greater level of salinization than the Pacific Ocean, and one which approaches that of the Great Salt Lake.

Most of the fish in the lake have died, due to increased salinity and pollution, and water levels have receded, leaving planned communities as “slab cities”, with the occasional house popping up from the empty grid of streets.  The beaches are littered with the eerie salt-preserved corpses of fish, and nearby the rapidly decaying homes of the people who once lived there.

Nevertheless, it is a beautiful place.  I brave the smell in order to photograph the conquest of human construction by the elements as often as I can.  You will also find a rich population of birds on the lake.  It is a critical stop on the migration routes of many species.

I made a bold move recently, cutting through the banks of my vulnerability to try to feed and fertilize a part of my soul which had become barren.  It got out of control, and a budding friendship was overwhelmed.  I did my best to repair the damage by rebuilding the bank, but the lake remained, and was poisoned by the very thing I had been trying to feed.

Still, like the Salton Sea, it is beautiful, and the remnants of the dream are worth visiting, recording, and remembering. And, like the Sea, it is still alive for anyone willing to take the time to see it.  Millions of birds can’t be wrong.


Shadow Lives

I found this shadow in front of my local coffee shop this morning. It’s beautiful, so I caught this with my phone.

Looking at it just now, it occurred to me that the actual plant which cast the shadow is far more beautiful, in full color, living and photo-synthesizing life from the light of the sun which cast this shadow. Yet I am drawn to the shadow first. There is a simple elegance to it. It’s clean and easy to understand. In two dimensions it is easier to compose into an image.

How many of us look at life this way? We avoid the messy complexity of a full color existence, instead opting for the safety of black and white.

The Remains Of Fences


This image was taken last August in South Dakota. As is the case with most of my photographs, it was the abstraction of forms which inspired me to point and click. I love the contrast between the organic forms of the lake and the manufactured angles of the fence, and the way time has eroded the materials of the fence and blurred that contrast.

We build fences across the landscapes of our lives. Some protect us from perceived or known danger. Some separate us from other people. Some are internal, built from fear, instinct, and experience. Some are cultural and/or moral.

Over time, these fences shift, eroded or strengthened by maturity, ambiguity, experiences both positive and negative, and education, both good and bad.  The older we get, the more cluttered with fences and remnants of fences our landscape becomes. Often, the path to something we desire or need is blocked by one or more of them. We stumble into it and stall on the path to the fulfillment of that need or desire. We have a hard time looking from side to side, so focused are we on our goal.  If we could break that focus, we might see that a short walk in one direction or swim in the other will take us to the other side of that seemingly insurmountable obstacle. But we don’t.  We keep banging our head and heart against that barrier, and in doing so we paradoxically make it stronger.  If there is a person on the other side, we make it harder and harder for them to see or reach us.

Self imposed barriers are the hardest, because we believe in them, in the need for them, and in our justifications of them. We often don’t want to consider alternatives, even if we need to, so these fences become stronger and stronger.

The solution is to step back far enough to see the entire landscape and how our fences cross and interact with it.  Then we can chart a path to our goal.

Shoveling Steam


I snapped this in Nederlands, Colorado last summer as I was leaving town.  I’m not sure if it was actually a steam shovel.  It’s hard to see from this angle if it has the telltale smokestack.  Regardless, it is the metaphor I am chasing. When I came across this photo, it made me think not of a steam powered shovel, but rather of the title of this post: shoveling steam.

Picture it in your mind, some sort of bowl or depression in the earth, full of steam, possibly made by tossing some bricks of dry ice into it.  Up drives a steam shovel, and proceeds to attempt to empty the bowl, dipping its scoop deep into the steam and then raising it up. At first it seems to be succeeding. As the scoop rises, it is indeed full of steam, but its very motion creates a downdraft. Air pushes down into the scoop, displacing the steam, and sending it cascading back into the bowl.

This is what arguing politics online is often like. You can shovel steam all day, but in the end, the bowl is still full of it, and you have exhausted your fuel. The trick is to find a bowl that is full of more than steam and dig into that.