Friday, March 24, 2023

The Connection Between Homelessness, Graffiti, and Mental Illness—Observations on the Street

On a cold evening in Seattle within sight of the iconic Space Needle I passed a couple bedding down for the night under the eaves of an entry way. The man cheerfully called out about my cute dog, casually engaging in conversation as if he were calling to me from his front porch. Later that same evening, I passed the couple again. They sat in their sleeping bags with their backs against a brick wall watching a movie on a laptop and eating popcorn. The man waved in recognition. The woman smiled. 

Residential architects wax melodic about the separation between public and private areas. A typical description might introduce you to the foyer from where the drama of a double height living room beckons through an archway. The kitchen might be enclosed or at least partially blocked from view, straddling it’s sometimes private, sometimes public status. The laundry room is always private as are the bathrooms and bedrooms. Exuding another level of intimacy, the primary suite is sometimes further isolated from the other bedrooms. 

For the homeless what is private has become public.

Each evening as I took my pup for his last walk, I observed some of the residents of the streets locating their night’s ‘primary suite.’ I happened to catch sight of a gentleman as he hopped a gate to bed down behind tall bushes in the relative privacy of a school’s play yard. Other night lodgers settled in doorways, their only privacy a stocking cap pulled low over their eyes or the edge of their sleeping bag pulled high over their chins. Evidence of ‘cooking’ came in the form of fast-food wrappers and cans left in their wake. 

On the same trip, I took this photo of the base of an abandoned tower on the waterfront of Bellingham. The smudged over graffiti and writing on the railing made me consider how what once was reserved for the privacy of studios or homes has also taken to the public sphere in the last many years. Like the homeless, the many talented graffiti artists have had to take their work to the public landscapes—to free surfaces of walls, train cars, bridges, and fences. It seems to me that the two phenomena are related, grounded in the increasing inequities of income.

In Bellingham late one afternoon, the ruckus of a young man yelling and singing called my attention to him. As he sang, gyrating with his arms akimbo, he took off his jacket and then his shirt and changed into another garment. Here was yet another illustration of private behavior conducted in public. Worse, it illustrated the tragedy of society’s intentional neglect of those with mental illness. Yes, President Reagan signed legislation that made it more difficult to place people in institutions involuntarily; the law caused mental institutions to close. But it was the failure to then adequately fund less restrictive homes that has created the situation we see today. At one time there was a mandate for schools to place children in “the least restrictive environment.” The terminology sadly fits the state of homelessness. Least restrictive.   


On my last day on the east side of the state, I walked a park with pup before getting into the car for the return trip. It had rained the night before but temperatures had been rising. As I paused to take the above photos of a budding pussy willow and rain drenched cherry blossom, yet another homeless man passed behind me. He was the fourth that I had seen in the park, including two encamped under a bridge fronted by bushes. As lovely as this park was, still it is not adequate housing. 

When will we loosen our purse strings (public and private) and grant everyone the privacy of an abode or artists a work space? When?   

Friday, January 20, 2023

Without Obligations—A Widow's Walk on the Town

An unaccompanied adult, widowed and unbound from obligations on a holiday’s eve, can walk a town alone on a frigid night and raise no suspicions, no concerns as to what she is about while she captures the loom of old buildings against the velvet fogged skies,  

the solicitations of streetlight shadows, "cross hither,"

and lights fuzzed soft, jeweled by the freezing air.

Only one car is parked in the five blocks of downtown. 

Only one couple strolls ahead of me. 

Only one man casts a shadow at a crosswalk.

Only a few cars pass as if erratically-tossed footballs post game.

 Everyone else must be at a celebration, eating leftovers and discussing... more football. I’ve come from a holiday dinner hosted at my cabin from which everyone has scattered homeward across the state or to another celebration. I’m left to walk alone with only my delighted breath, its cloud of crystals in the cold air accompanying me.

Widowhood—or any expansive time alone—allows for the practice in the art of consulting with oneself over impulsive endeavors. The gathering of options (the shoulds and the shoulds not), the inner dialogue (hmmm...), and the final decision takes less time than it does to turn off a car and step into the cold night air.

Had I tried to encourage someone to leave the warmth of the heated car seats while I took a few photos of the old Liberty Theatre, now delightfully devoid of the usual cars parked across its front, they might have acquiesed or chosen to stay in the car.

Without obligations, I wandered back and forth across the empty streets enjoying the city's holiday light displays as if they were meant for an audience of one, a widow on a walk.

The farther I walked, the colder my fingers, the colder my toes, the more pleased I became with my choice.

Rare it is to have a town to oneself. At night the closing of an old established store, it's facade brilliantly lit and yet soon to be extinguished, felt more grevious than in the daylight.

The circumstances of this walk: a winter holiday (sans tourists in a tourist town), a nippy forecast, the lack of momentarily any company, and a practiced consultation with a party of one all made this evening unforgettable.

Night, Foggy Town

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Dummies, Mannequins, and Lay Figures


Photo Credit: Kathy McConnell

    Dummies I spied while out on a walk. Dummies—white-skinned, stiff-limbed, and disarmingly beautiful where they lay displayed on silver racks behind the plate glass windows of a former car dealership. Dummies has such a derogatory connotation nowadays, but its etymological origin, according to the On-line Etymology Dictionary, is in the word 'dher,' whose meaning is the lovely vision of "dust, vapor, and smoke." From the lips of mutes and from those who spoke in gibbish, their breath and nonsense—like vapor—left no meaningful trace. From 'dher' to dummy, from vapor to vile.
    The history of words and their changing meanings detail inequities and slights and more optimistically have begun to reveal the evolution of humanity towards a more tolerant, sympathetic, and equitable world. Today dummies of the human sort and also mutes would more appropriately be called 'differently abled.'
    Consider the other words for human-like models: lay figures (in art) and mannequins (in the fashion world). Both words are grounded in eras when males held almost all the positions of agency, power, and employment. In Belgium in the Middle Ages only male pages were allowed to model clothes, even female clothing. These young men were known as ledmen (limb + man). Ledman became leeman and then layman and now lay figures. The layman was in use beginning in the 18th century to mean an artist's fabricated model. These models were ordinarily rendered in leather or wood and passed from one generation of male teachers to their apprentices. (Note male to male only.)
    Since painting a portrait was a tedious affair that required a patron to sit for long hours, artists would have their subjects sit only while they painted their heads. Later, their clothes could be draped on the fabricated layman's body (headless for ease of changing clothes) and painted at the artist's pleasure. Today the word used for an artist's model is 'lay figure,' a term which allows a model to be male or female, reflecting how women are now included into the artistic profession both as models and artists.

    Fashion's fiberglass and plastic mannequins (a word which still incorporates 'man' in its makeup) have themselves evolved. The bone-white mannequins in the car dealership window are old. Maybe not too old, but old enough to have been sold only in one skin color. And with women's feet molded into a shape formed to wear only high heels, a crippling fashion designed to make women into sexual objects and helpless on the run.

Photo Credit: Kathy McConnell

    The female mannequins were offered in only one body shape.

Photo Credit:  Kathy McConnell
    That one.
    But no longer is there one body type in female or male mannequins. Mannequins now come in all sizes and shapes. Large hips and breasts. Flat-chested. Muscular or rope thin. Short, tall, and everything in between.
    Skin Colors? Browns and blacks began appearing not many years ago. One company now makes all its mannequins in a neutral tone of gray, while another offers over three hundred realistic skin colors. All of this is a sign, a good one recognizing that humans are made up of only one race, the human race—equal in capacity regardless of gender or color. Maybe one day we might even come to call mannequins, humaquins.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Bears and Poop


   Poop # 1

"The school could fail," said one of the founding parents of The Kids' Place childcare center, but that was before the Ziplock bag of bear poop showed up in the sharing box early September of our first year—eliciting an uproarious delight of giggles and touching off an argument between the sharer and another knowledgeable child about whether the poop was pooped by a brown bear or a black bear, a detail that warranted a month-long study of bears, culminating with that founding parent saying, "I don't think we need to buy all those brightly-colored plastic toys to attract parents; if you can make curriculum from poop, I think the school will survive."
The bears in my neighborhood—same neighborhood as that of the infamous Ziplock bag of poop—have created some of the most gorgeous scat this summer. The photo above of poop (pressed flat by a tire in the middle of the road) looks like the bear had raided a bowl of Trix cereal. I was confused until I heard a bear has been raiding birdfeeders, even carrying the feeders themselves off into the woods.  

Poop is a taboo topic among American adults. Entire books—illustrated ones at that—display rooms where we poop without ever mentioning the word poop or its euphemistic name “number two.” 

On a recent four-mile walk up the canyon, I passed two piles of bear poop, each unique. (Does even a bear find his poop aesthetically pleasing?)

Poop # 2

Poop # 3

I marveled at how mammals manufacture poop. How in the world our digestive systems can withdraw only what they need and eliminate the rest is a marvel. I thought about how “wild-grown” poop has its uses. Besides offloading extra useless weight for the animal, another benefit is that the poop becomes a part of the food chain for dung beetles and other insects. On closer inspection of last of the bear poop piles shown above, I saw a spider and ants wandering about like they were explorers on an outcropping of rock.  (Can you spot the spider?)

As of today, I have seen more piles of bear poop (three) than bears (one) this summer. I like that the bear poop piles significantly increase my bear “sightings." I think I will continue the tradition of tallying bear poop along with bear sightings. If the bears don’t appreciate their poop’s beauty, I will. And of course, I'll continue admiring the bears—black or brown.

A bear who visited a few years ago, eying me from a neighbor's cherry tree.


Thursday, August 18, 2022

Who Walks Small Towns in America?


    Wander the streets at night in almost any small town in America and a nostalgia for an earlier time can set in. In the dark the predominance of black and white reminds one of photos from the last century. It was a time when car dealerships like this one above, formerly Teague Motors in Walla Walla, Washington were located on or just off Main streets. Expansive glass windows invited lunchtime ogling by businessmen or allowed farmers on their way to the implement dealer to consider a new car for the wifey.  

    Cafes offering biscuit and gravy breakfasts sat jowl and cheek with lawyer and insurance offices, or stores selling furniture, hardware, and groceries. At least one solid-looking bank building sat on one corner while gas stations with benches, where old men gathered, occupied nearby intersections. The city or county edifices stood their ground often in a prominent block to themselves, while theatres and bars provided nightlife. In the center of it all there might have been a small park with a grandstand. A funeral home added a respectable and somber presence. 

    In Walla Walla where I live now, there were a handful of hotels—some offering rooms for the well-heeled and others like the one over the former McFeeley’s Tavern not so much. Look above on the right side of the photo, you can see the elegant Whitman Hotel reflected in reverse in the glass. Resurrected from a significant decline, it now caters mostly to the weekend wine-tasting crowd visiting from Seattle, Portland and other big cities.

    As a child, I remember the glorious feeling of entering the five-and-dime store on the main street in Mooresville, North Carolina. The fountain served grilled cheese sandwiches, ice cream sodas, and banana splits. I recall wandering its toy aisles looking for a cheap toy that I could afford with my little stash of coins. Back out on the street I felt important walking at the side of adults as they stopped here and there to do their business. Everything within an easy stroll. We might have walked home or taken a taxi. On Saturdays all the stores in Mooresville closed by noon. It wasn’t an inconvenience, but a consideration for employees.


    My nostalgia has limits. 

    In Mooresville in the 1950s and early 60s, I can’t recall seeing any people of color out shopping or even walking down the sidewalks on their way anywhere. In a town where Blacks were a significant portion of the population, they were denied the use of the “public” library or burial in the town cemeteries long after the Civil War and well into the next century. They were also denied the simple pleasures granted white children—easy, welcome, and safe access to downtown day or night. 

    Out west the towns hid “undesirables” under streets and in second story bordellos. Walla Walla had its share of underground passageways built to keep the Chinese population invisible or to provide hidden access to houses of prostitution. One such passage—now filled-in—led from the basement of the former Pastime Cafe across the street to the then upstairs bordello. 

    Walla Walla was late in banning prostitution. Even in the 1980s one could wander former establishments with their dreary small rooms furnished with iron bedframes or walk down a hall and peer into community bathrooms. Now those establishments have been reconfigured into offices or boutique hotels. 

    My town has changed. Few small American towns have had the good fortune of reinventing themselves like Walla Walla has. When I came here forty years ago, I could find a place to park on any block downtown, even on a Saturday morning. There were no shade trees or fancy light poles and benches. It was a drear place with empty storefronts. As apple orchards and pea fields shifted to vineyards and small family wineries became world-renowned, the town changed. In the photo below the gleam of a grill in that back corner of the car dealership is a Jaguar, and there is a collectable Willie’s Jeep to the right. No longer a dealership for the middle-class, it will be one for the better-heeled wealthy.   

    As the crescent moon rose over Whitman Hotel earlier this month, much as changed in my small town. But not enough, not yet. Although people of color have had some success since the passing of the Civil Rights Bill, as a country we still struggle recognizing that all our citizens and all immigrants are members of the same race, the human race. I might be comfortable wandering downtown anytime I want, but the real pleasure will be when anyone of any skin color feels the same. Day or night.      

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Seeing Photo Opts in a Macro World


Orange Peel Fungus, Aleuria aurantia

I landed in Mexico City during college with two years of high school Spanish. I could ask where to find a library or what your name might be, but seemed unable to listen fast enough to understand the responses. I remember trying to adjust my ears. Turn up the listening speed to muy rapido. The sensation has recently been repeated with my eyes. I bought a 100 mm macro lense to attach to my cell phone and have found myself struggling to see on a different plane of existence.

                Great black wasp

As I try to focus the rectangular field of my phone screen, I struggle with a plethora of unexpected minutia. Bug eyes of a great black wasp, the subtle colors of a tiny mushroom, or the roughness of a snail’s skin. I find myself trying to see faster.

I am coming to appreciate the blur of the backgrounds for their potential for beauty.

Slice of a downed river alder trunk with a background of wood chips and lichen.

Both newer iPhones and androids have built-in macro lenses, but none equal the ability of a 100 mm attached lenses. When I stopped to take a photo of a buttercup with drops of rain, I looked through the macro lenses and discovered a caterpillar creeping along the edge of a petal.

Startled by the bounty found in a square inch (or an equivalent square 6.452 centimeters), composition seems almost secondary. The hardest task is holding still and catching objects motionless between light wind currents. Only later, does the background or the composition seem important. This is where I find myself trying to “see” faster. 

Looking at the mushroom again. This is a comparison of its size with my fingernail.

Once I switched the focus of my phone lens, I took a number of shots before I became aware of the soft curve of the blurred mound of moss to the right of the stem and centered it in my lens for a better composition.

Although the macro lenses feels heavy in my pocket, I don’t head out anywhere without it. 
Even in built-environments, I find macro worlds.

The screw on a cigarette butt can with the remnants of a tiny leaf folded across the cut are beautiful.

I am coming to realize that the world is more populated than I envisioned. And fungi and bugs and roots—even those in a vase in the sun— exist; although most days, I don’t see them as I swish through the world at my human pace. The macro lenses is making me walk slower to examine the world and speed up my sight to see its beauty.


Sunday, May 1, 2022

Malheur Country: Birding, Historical Structures, and Views


"Wear boots. Knee high. It can be muddy around the ponds." Such was the advice of Steve, a gracious ranch-owner in the Malheur area of Harney County in Eastern Oregon. Steve had invited my friend Nancy and me to visit and bird on his property. (Yes, bird is a verb.)

The ponds on his property were host to several hundred American coots and various species of ducks. The birds moved from pond to pond as Nancy and I circled the dikes walking on dry alkali-coated roads. There was also some mud, but Eastern Oregon is experiencing a severe drought.  


Over the five days of traveling from Walla Walla, Washington, through John Day to Burns, Oregon, and then to our lodging in the town of Hines next to Burns, and back, Nancy and I counted eighty-two species of birds. This is the season of spring bird migration and we were not disappointed. We saw thousands of snow geese and dozens of sandhill cranes.

Do you see the two sandhill cranes?

Many birds were in surprising numbers: white-crowned sparrows, yellow-headed blackbirds (my favorite), black-necked stilts, and cinnamon teals. Some of our rarer birds were a Virginia Rail, a pied-billed grebe, an eared grebe, a common loon, and a fleeting glance at a burrowing owl.

In old homesteads in stands of cottonwoods, we saw great horned owls and even one nesting in the cliffs on Steve's ranch.

Our best sighting of great horned owls was in the Peter French historic round barn. To digress from birds a moment, this area became a ranching magnet in the latter part of the 1800s led by a man named Peter French. Peter built this round barn for winter use.

The barn is one-hundred-feet across with an interior wall of stone, sixty-feet across, punctuated by windows. Inside the interior wall foals were born, while in the outside circle wild horses were trained to pull wagons.

A pair of nesting great horned owls had taken up residence in the peak's beams. You can see one owl on the lookout in the upper left and the ears of a second in the huge nest in the lower right.

Wild horses are still gathered in the area. BLM has corrals where horses and burros are fed and eventually sold. It was difficult not to come home with a horse or a burro. 


It is impossible to wander Harney County and not notice evidence of old ranches and homesteads, many still running, but some abandoned. Stands of cottonwoods marked where houses once stood.

An orange basketball hoop attached to a tree was evidence of more recent occupation at this homestead.

Fences, some of woven sticks, mark old corrals.

There is beauty everywhere—sites of hardwork and tenacity.

Hines, where we stayed in what I thing was one of the 128 mail-order houses which were constructed for mill workers back in the 1920s, has its monument to ambition. Besides the carefully planned community of houses that still has an inviting neighborhood feeling, the mill owner commissioned an elegant hotel. Unfortunately, the timing was poor coming up on the Depression, so the concrete hotel named The Ponderosa never opened its doors. 

The Ponderosa

Our mill house lodging had been rennovated and was absolutely lovely. Tourism is the new mill work.

The drought is tough on ranchers. Everywhere we went, locals mentioned their concerns of drought, of low wages, or lack of help. At the Frenchglen Hotel in Frenchglen south of Burns, the restaurant was quiet. Nancy and I were the only lunch customers. The hotel is owned by the National Park Service and will be open for an operating bid this next year. The current operator has been there for decades and is retiring. Finding help has been a recent problem. Fortunately the Frenchglen Mercantile two doors down is expanding into a former many-windowed porchlike room. An energetic local woman is making it into upscale coffee shop with couches, a woodstove, and local art for sale. The hotel's eight rooms are nearly fully reserved from now into next fall. Might any of you be interested in relocating and becoming a hotelier? The position comes with a room of your own!

You could even be a cook! The Frenchglen Hotel has a kitchen for serving meals for the hotel guests.

The Mercantile had a good selection of attractive items. This is Nancy, my best birding partner. We both bought something pleasing at the Mercantile.

I certainly felt sorely tempted to stay in Malheur country. What I found appealing was the immense solitude and the long views. The beauty is at every turn from the panoramic to the macro. 

And of course the wildlife is intriguing. 

Not sure what this species is called. Steve, have you selected a name yet?