Wednesday, September 30, 2020

A Slow Loss. Inevitable. On the Passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


Some losses are so sudden there is no anticipation attached. The death of Ruth Baden Ginsburg was of the worrisome slow and inevitable kind. I began worrying back when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009. My husband's death of the same type of cancer left me no choice but to worry. Her recent abrupt passing was attributed to complications of pancreatic cancer.

Her death coincided with a recent trip of mine to Wallowa County, where the barn in this photo reminded me of slow deaths. I always forget about this barn until I round a corner and see it butted up against the road and am caught by surprise that it still stands. The roof has been disintegrating for a few years, and more panes are broken each time I pass. It is inevitable that it will fall.

What strikes me is that this is not a private ruin. It might be privately owned, but its demise is a public one. Its eventual fall will be mourned by those living in the farm house sitting next to it, but many individuals, who will be unknown to the owners, will also mourn its loss. Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death, this will be a community loss.

Building have degrees of integrity, of usefulness, and beauty. When I pass this barn, I think about all the horses who were sheltered by its walls. The hay fork (you can still see it hanging below the apex of the ruined roof) reminds me of the farm hands, who were surely pleased with the ease at which their work could be done. Inside their labor was lit with the generous light from the south-facing windows. A pleasing place.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg also emboded high levels of integrity, usefulness, and inner beauty. Qualities which led her to  be the first woman to lie in state at our nation's capitol. As a woman, her work as a Supreme Court Justice had an impact on my rights to own a home or get a charge card both without a male co-signer. I often use a charge card now. I charge for books, replacement windows, hot spicy cocoa, and airline tickets. I swipe and accept charges as effortlessly as I put on my shoes in the morning. But without Ruth Bader Ginsburg's work, these simple actions would not be possible under my name. Her work has made my everyday life and those of all American women much easier.


No one cosigned for Ruth Bader Ginsberg's legal understandings. She studied and made her own decisions with her sharp mind in a professional field dominated by men. She made her way up the ladder, looking out those calm and thoughtful eyes. In the last few years, many of us held our breath with the news of her each new illness or  fall. Her passing is a public loss. A loss grieved even by those who were often in opposition to her ideas on the Supreme Court. Like the old barn (once it collapses at last) I will hold both of them – a beautiful old agricultural structure and an intelligent woman – in my memory. 

Rest in peace, the woman who made it possible for me to sit in my cabin in the woods.

Sunday, August 16, 2020



  Years ago, I remember being admonished to put the heaviest part of a load over a truck’s back wheels, so I was careful a few weeks ago to put the Ponderosa pine in the proper weightbearing location on the Umatilla County’s flatbed vehicle. I don’t work on the Umatilla County road crew, but I do walk up into Oregon from Kooskooskie and notice what they are about. When I took the photo of the flatbed and the pine, it reminded me of photos from the 1950s. Back when it seemed possible to do any sort of feat, even load a Ponderosa upright in the back of a vehicle and show it off by hauling it down say Walla Walla’s Main Street for a Labor Day Parade. I changed the photo’s color to black and white adding to the illusion. And yes, this truck parked in front of a Ponderosa pine is an illusion. 

Illusions sometimes are frivolous, fostered for humor or delight: the slight-of-hand of a magician’s tricks, the peek-a-boo game with a baby, or the tongue-and-cheek banter about who is better at golf – when everyone knows who it is that always wins.

Illusions can inspire. In the children’s book by Jabari Asim, Preaching to the Chickens: How Civil Rights Legend John Lewis’s Humble Childhood Incubated His Heroic Life, the recently deceased Congressman John Lewis created an illusion for himself by preaching to chickens on the sharecroppers farm where he grew up. Along with nine siblings Lewis grew up poor. He loved the word of God, the verses from the Bible, and hoped to one day be a preacher. The illusion of his flock (literally) listening to him as he joyfully prayed for their wellbeing, inspired his life-long optimism and activism. In his early forays for political justice, in a time when a Black man rising to political positions in the South was unheard of, he created another illusion for himself and eventually he made it a reality.

Here in my hometown of Walla Walla, we have our own form of illusion at work. At a recent Black Lives Matter event, Walla Walla City Councilman Riley Clubb noted that in the last many years, construction of houses have mainly been “large single-family homes.” They are attractive and give the illusion that our community has a healthy stock of housing, but in reality we lack diversity in housing options. This lack of choices impacts families of color to a greater extent, partly because many experience discrimination in the housing market. Clubb encouraged those at the event to support the construction of a variety of housing stock and be willing to create diverse neighborhoods where single-family housing is interspersed with multifamily structures. He asked us to imagine planning more Walla Walla neighborhoods, like our Catherine Street, beautiful in its mixture of homes, apartments for seniors, and condos.

John Lewis asked us to make “good trouble.” Walla Walla and many other cities in America could do so by taking the illusion of good housing and make it into a reality.  

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Racism Puts Dust on the Heart

My aunt led my sister and me across the street to avoid passing close to a Black man walking towards us on a sidewalk during the late 1950s in a quiet neighborhood in Newport News, Virginia. Even as a kid, I understood that I was doing something wrong and was embarrassed. The events of these past weeks reminded me of our uncivil maneuver of so long ago. 

In the Bahá’í Faith the writings describe the act of offending someone as putting dust on the heart of the offended, but also such an action puts dust on the offender’s heart. I can still see that Black man with his shoulders hunched, arms slack, walking with a heart freighted with the dusting of many such an insult as ours. I remember my small heart feeling unexpectedly sad.

I was raised out West by a dad who didn't make racial slurs or acted differently around people of color, but some of his sisters and brothers, who remained in the South, were indoctrinated with a deep prejudice against those of color. Numerous studies show that children as young as three to five-years of age can begin acquiring racist attitudes, their spiritual judgement obscured. But attitudes of racism can be both learned and unlearned.

After the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, my aunt’s attitudes shifted slightly as she came to know her now Black mailman and her local store clerks of color. This aunt passed away many years ago, but unfortunately she would recognize the racism we still see today. Only the protests would look different with the participants now having a greater diversity of skin colors. This, at least, is a singular point of worthy change.

The issue might seem less relevant here where I live, but in a Walla Walla restaurant just the other day, I overheard an older white man laugh as he mocked the Black Lives Matter protests for honoring a Black man who (allegedly) tried to pass a counterfeit bill, a minor offense. Even as this white man sat in a restaurant booth, his thoughts rose and sidestepped with his spoken words, slipping around the real issue of Black Americans suffering from systematic economic deprivation and unequal justice. This white man crossed the line of legitimizing the death of a human being for a minor crime – which even if George Floyd committed, he should be alive right now to have his day in court, this being the rule of the land in this precious democracy of ours.  

The smile of the restaurant patron, who rose and crossed lines, proud of his comments, conveyed not a light heart, but of a habit – of a lifetime of learning ways to be racist in America. Like my aunt, he has the capacity to eliminate his learned animosities, dust off his heart, and empty its rooms of prejudice. May he succeed. Godspeed.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Speed of Angels in the time of Coronavirus Covid-19

Angel, Mt. View Cemetery, Walla Walla, WA.  Photo by K. McConnell
  Scholars studying the Koran and the Bible concur from their respective doctrines that the speed of angels is calculated as being faster than the speed of light. I walked a local cemetery for an outing a couple of weeks ago during the coronavirus lockdown and I was thinking about speed. I had just read that coughs travel at fifty-miles per hour and sneezes at two hundred-miles per hour. The fastest human in the world can run only in the upper twenty-mile per hour range. If humans had to outdistance a cough or sneeze carrying the coronavirus Covid-19, any one of us would lose that race and risk becoming an angel.
  My mother died in the polio epidemic in the early 1950s, so I am hyper aware of how a single death can slow roll consequences across an entire life. As the numbers of coronavirus Covid-19 deaths are ticking ever upwards, I find the controversy about whether to wear masks or not to contain the spread of the disease confusing and sad.
  People who brag about the speed of race cars, of baseball pitches, and of bullets seem suddenly oblivious to the speed of a virus traveling through air in coughs and in sneezes. They brag as if one exists and the other does not. They label one of the prime methods of transmission of Covid-19 to be a hoax or a rumor. They claim that wearing a mask is a sign of not being macho enough or of being a member of the wrong political party. They seem to forget that the issue is a scientific fact about speed.
  Ordinarily most of us don’t wish to become an angel before our time – travel from this world to the next with a pace surely counted in micro-seconds. So, none of us should be so incautious as to be responsible for causing someone else’s death with our neglect. The issue is so simple. Get yourself up to speed; wear a mask.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

While Putting on Socks

  Something was familiar. I felt it around my eyes as if in some prior time, I had looked through these same eye sockets while also standing on one foot putting on a sock. The feeling evoked small bright anticipations and felt like the recovery of a stored memory from a long time ago. But when was it and where was I, and why was I having this reoccurring sensation a number of mornings in a row?

  When I felt it again this morning – coinciding with an image of my childhood self in my childhood bedroom getting dressed – I had it.

  This is how my days would start when I was a youngster. One might have thought that I was in quarantine by the ways I spent my days back then. Between meals, children were mostly left to their own devices. I had companions and we certainly whiled away many hours exploring the neighborhood, riding our bikes, or engaging in some game or another, but most hours were ours to spend alone – many in the house. Chores were simple and could be done by oneself. T.V. was never turned on at my house during the daytime or if the radio was broadcasting it was in the voice of a baseball announcer (background noise). Electronic devices were almost non-existent, unless you counted the rare walkie-talkies or the phone with its party lines.

  In this era of Covid-19, the stay-at-home mandate doesn’t seem much different than my childhood routine. I am not scheduled to be anywhere, and every day offers the bounty of time alone. It’s the dressing that prompts the memory. It happens before the tinkering with the toaster and the filling of the kettle. I already have woken slowly and considered the day’s responsibilities, so it falls then to those in-between moments of mindless dressing to consider and relish the possibilities of delight the day will afford. I am rarely disappointed. It might be something so simple as the lovely stalks of tulips on the counter, noticed just before turning out the light for the night.

  When I read the stories of the difficulty of families sheltering in, I imagine the chaos of kids in conflict, parents stressed out on yet another Zoom conference, or the immense sadness of having someone dear lost to the virus. This is not my story. Mine has a glimmer of being in love with a day’s possibilities, even in constrained circumstances.

  My time is spent in simple ways, like those of my childhood. Take the sounds of that time of indulgence. Slap, muffle, catch. Slap, muffle, catch. I bounced my red rubber ball against the side of the garage and caught it on the rebound from the grass. Jacks made pleasant clinking noises on the cement floor of the same garage. Sometimes I lay on my belly in the hot sun on a towel in the backyard, comforted by the familiar noise of a neighbor mowing grass. I liked the sound of silence in my own bedroom. It was a plain room without many toys at all, but again the adventures of books sustained me many hours.

  These days, some part of every day is spent outside. I watch for bugs and the budding of trees and bushes. And the noises in these days are as simple as hearing a frog in the little bog across the dirt road or the tiny screeches that mark the arrival of the violet green swallows that have returned from Mexico or Central American and somehow managed to again find the nesting hole in my guest cabin.

  Inside, I skip from book to book depending on my mood. And if I need a greater field of exploration, I vicariously choose the book of thirty-three walks of London from a book I brought back from the same city in January.

  These are all plain pleasures. Anticipated in the morning while the socks are coming on.  

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Lizzie Baggins Took, a Literary Dog of Extraordinary Wit and Presence, Dies at 60 Years

  A self-taught writer with a terrier mentality, she broke into the writing field mid-life with her tales from the road. Tragedy had played a part when she was only a child pup, losing her dearest companion man, Gary McConnell.

  Gary taught her how to navigate a human’s world: to make eye contact with love, discern the meaning behind obscure demands, and express her wishes in eloquent speech (sometimes a single sharp bark). After he died, Lizzie visited Gary's cemetery plot almost daily. She cleared squirrels from his grave’s surroundings and touched noses (and other parts) with a neighborhood terrier – the one who was usually peeing on the new cemetery bouquets. During Lizzie’s circumnavigation of the cemetery, she appeared to examine the writing on gravestones, gathering observations on the fragility of humans.

Wapato Ferry on the Columbia River

  Lizzie’s literary skills blossomed under the tutelage of her mistress, the writer Kathy McConnell. As a character in a memoir and a writer herself, Lizzie was a dog of unusual skills. On the road in 2013 and 2014 her break out essay was Pup's Post from the Road. And later, heralding her favorite writing surface and tool – the car window, she wrote Ode to Dogwoods.

  Lizzie had a natural talent for character development. She relied on her discernment in telling good dogs from wicked ones, and she could pick out generous humans – those with lovely-smelling pockets – from those who in a miserly fashion kept their goodies at home to themselves. She particularly loved those vet techs and vets at Animal Clinic East. They always had the best treats. Others who taught Lizzie about good character were her best dog friend Lucky and Lucky’s mistress, Carol Blue.

  Lizzie also had a certain fondness for Rae Bohn, his long beach, and his crazy kites which she got to chase. He taught her the joys of running loose on sand until exhausted and of sleeping on the kite bags in the back of his truck afterwards.   


  Lizzie depended on her experiences of traveling and of living in a loving home for developing plotlines. She focused on suspense: chocolate is poisonous, which dog ate it? Or natural consequences: food falls from cutting boards and the laps of children, who will get the last bite?  

  Otleys Elizabeth “Lizzie” Baggins Took was born on January 14, 2009 in Arizona to CH Keepsake’s Peregrine Took and Oltey’s No Parking. At three months old she traveled with a dozen or so terriers from the Otley Border Terriers clan to attend a spring dog show in Walla Walla, Washington. She acquired a new family and moved to a house on a stream with a lawn, three cats, and two girls. Doted upon, she was forgiven for untying shoelaces and chewing on the occasional piece of underwear. She had a good life and was loved beyond measure.

  Lizzie is survived by her two girls, Molly and Bekah, none of the cats, and her mistress, Kathy McConnell. Kathy will miss Lizzie for her immense loyalty, her sweetness, and her good company on and off the trail. 

  Donations may be made to Blue Mountain Humane Society A life service to be announced will be held in the summer of 2020.  Lizzie was interred in a private burial location near where she begged treats from Matt, the mailman, and Tom, the newspaper man. She was buried with a chocolate bar and a dog toy.  May she rest in peace.  

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Mudlarking Mill Creek

Mudlark /'mAdla;k / n. & V. L18. [F. MUD n.1 + LARK n.1] A person who scavenges for usable debris in the mud of a river or harbor.  (Definition from Mudlarking on the River Thames by Lara Maikem, a marvelous read)

  Initially I was invited to mudlark for a full-sized red pickup truck. Or, with some luck, a men’s size-large, black wetsuit. I found a cow bone and a chair arm. Their resemblance disconcertingly similar.
  If I had been scavenging along the Thames River in London, I might have found clay pipes, Roman coins, or Victorian medicine bottles, but mudlarking along Mill Creek River in the southeast corner of Washington State was a different game. I hoped to find an arrowhead from a few centuries back, but everything else was likely to be remnants of the cabin that floated downstream or bits and pieces of stuff washed from structures in the historic flood of this month.  
  My group of five mudlarkers with the owner's permission crossed a field and approached the river.  Looking just to our left, this is what we saw.  And to the right, way down there upstream, black wheels atop the red pickup, belly-up just as reported.

  Two of our crew, Dave and Gary, began the journey across the above bridge of natural and unnatural materials. Leary of the crossing, my mudlarking partner, Gloria, and I kept to the riverbank and nearby islands of rocky rubble and soft mud. Black plastic bags fooled us into thinking we might have spotted the wet suit. Two cabinet doors with old knobs were the only thing seemingly of interest mixed in with quantities of splintered plywood and old beams. Brown was the predominate color.
  I kept noticing the occasional iron-red volcanic rocks probably washed down from Tiger Canyon. The careful examination of rocks rewarded me with views of natural phenomena that I might otherwise have missed.
The pattern made by waterdrops falling off a log into the mud. 

  And pebbles neatly wedged along a stick, as if the river current had slowed and taken extra care in their placement.

  Last week, I had spotted evidence of other mudlarkers in the area. I wish that I had seen the heron or the cat. 

 Last night as I glanced through my photos, I came across another mudlarking find from earlier this week. I had gone up the canyon to Oregon to help a family muck out their little cabin. The find appeared to be a cane until I got close and realized that it was an old iron pipe. Mud filled, heavy, and leaded. 
  So much stuff. And none of it worth much anymore. Even the red pickup. 

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Photography is Writing with the Eye

What is this butcher thinking as he stands in the audience at the Smithfield Meat Auction?

I take photos and write.  There are similarities between a photographer capturing an image followed by editing it and a writer who seizes a fleeting thought, commits it to script, and rewrites it for effect.  While I traveled this past month to London, England, and briefly Europe, I was quite aware that when I was moving, I was constantly framing what I saw.  One step too far or a moment too soon before crowds crossed my sightline and I knew that an image would not be what I desired.  Some places were simply so evocative – brightly alive or on the other extreme quite melancholy that they were worthy of a picture.  Others embodied some element of contemplation, humor, or interesting perspective. 

The scope of subject matter for a photographer is infinite and yet limited.  Not everything, place, or person is sufficiently interesting at any precise moment to be worthy of recording, and yet all of these subjects might have merit and potential.  Writing is similar, except the author is trying to catch thoughts, gather overheard comments, or collect place and character traits for their descriptive value.

I wrote little during my travels, letting my camera record impressions from which I could later assemble my thoughts and recall what I was noticing.  (I took pictures at Dachau Concentration Camp and later will write a newspaper column about my sobering observations.)  The photos which I chose for this post are the ones among all of the ones that I took that pleased me the most.  Like good writing, they hold the viewer a little longer.  Most of these are not your typical tourist photos. 

Is he envious or curious?

When advertising goes awry...

I was trying to capture the feeling of being in the crowd on Primrose Hill on New Year's Eve while we all waited for the London fireworks to begin at midnight.  The high contrast of the dark crowd against the bright sky gives the photo tension.

The Shard, a new skyscraper located on the south bank of the Thames River, has become an iconic shot.  I liked that this photo captures a little of the nautical history of the area with the rusty chains and gear in the foreground, and although the Shard is out of kilter, it is a striking view.

I counted seventeen building cranes on the skyline of London from one location.  My daughter began teasing me about my crane photos.  I liked the novelty of this shot with the mudhen seeming to eye and avoid the wonky crane reflections in the canal water.

This is one of my best photos exemplifying how timing is so critical. Even though the train was beginning to slow as it pulled into the London Train Station, moments later the angles would no longer have converged with the base of the Shard.  I think the photo conveys the excitement of train travel, of arrival.

Ah, this is another example of timing and place.  I took this photo on one of my first days in London. I was riding on the top of a double-decker bus when I looked down and saw this marvelous building reflected in the roof and the windshield of a car.    

Bike Rack?  Antiquities themed?  Is this some city planner's joke?

This skate buddy on an icerink in Salzburg exhuded an impression of longing and hope.  I noticed him because of his charm, but I had to wait a moment until the ice all around him was clear of skaters  to get this shot.  I'm not sure that I would have gotten the chance again.    

I love this photo for its varied textures and the restaurant sign on an obviously empty building, but mostly I love this for the pop of color.  It just makes me smile.

Although I am a member of Audubon and have many opportunities to take photos of birds, I am relatively awful at the task.  I include this swan both because of its nice shape, but also because of the color of water.  The swan was in a pond on Hampstead Heath.  There were others near by, but I managed to isolate this one for a moment.
And for a selfie, how about this one taken in front of a shop window with a neon light documenting my location?

Off to writing now...