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?

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Reflections of a Ukrainian Sky, Musings on War

As the earth rotated four times, Ukrainians saw the same sky seen reflected here in the windows of a Walla Walla building before those citizens looked up towards its early morning light and heard blasts and the whine of incoming bombs. Backing away from the glass of their windows, reluctant to turn away from the sight of their beloved buildings and neighborhoods, the Ukrainian citizens moved to their home’s windowless rooms or down to basements and designated subway stations—where they learned to make Molotov cocktails.

I wonder sometimes what it would be like if we could see in the sky a reflection of what has happened in the lands over which it earlier passed. Or if at least, the sky’s atmosphere would carry in its breathe the holler, the whimper, the shimmer, and the dust of such tragic events as the miscalculations of men instigating wars. The sounds from elsewhere raining down on those of us here might just detour us from thinking we too can covet what is not ours.

The building in the photo above was constructed in the mid-1930s, post WWI and prior to WWII. Mostly it has been an unremarkable building, a car dealership on the back of Main Street. As it is being renovated for some new endeavor, it is looking good. Its western-facing plate glass windows clean and gleaming in the day’s “cloudy with sun” forecast. It hasn’t and likely won’t be blown apart. All of us have turned into and pulled up that asphalt drive to park in the back lot and visit the candy store, toy store, frame shop or the latest restaurant where Merchant’s used to be. The storefronts and restaurants flip occupants, but none violently like those in the Ukrainian cities which will change by necessity as they are overtaken or bombed by Russian aggression. 

There is much debate as to whether the relatively peaceful last few decades is an aberration or if the human race is moving towards a greater peace. I wonder if when we look down at our cell phone's news with the phone’s screen reflecting the sky above, the visions will contain the echoes and scenes sufficiently awful to convince us to be done with the necessity for those occasional internet searches for Molotov cocktail recipes.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

My Word for 2022: Juxtaposition



Whoever placed the roof drain directly over the electrical boxes or placed the electrical boxes under a roof drain probably never heard of ironic juxtaposition nor expected a woman leaving her dentist appointment some decades later to be delighted with the humor and beauty of the iced version of their handiwork. The date of this color-infused photograph is January 4th, 2022. Perfect timing for me to choose a word for this year.   

I am responding to a challenge from The New York Times to select one word. My word for the year. As they point out, when you make a New Year’s Resolution, you are expected to try and complete it. A single word doesn’t have to have the same obligation. If I chose the word diet or heal, I might feel obligated, but there are so many words that lack any compunction to be doing anything. And yet be useful in all seasons.   
My inclination was to choose a word whose sound I liked. Amenable. Serendipitous. Intricate. Silly. Any of these would do, but with the alley view of a potential disaster in mind, I settled on juxtaposition. The Oxford English Dictionary describes juxtapose in this way: Place (two or more things) side by side or close to one another; place (one thing) beside another.

Although I could be compelled all year long to place things side by side (word by word, cocoa by cookies, pens by paper), the word juxtaposition implies that the placing has already been done. My only obligation will be to notice.  

My wry sense of humor encourages me to consider all juxtaposition as ironic. "Ironic juxtaposition is the fancy term for what happens when two disparate things are placed side by side, each commenting on the other.” according to Roy Peter Clark in Writing Tools. I don’t intend to limit myself. After all, I am supposed to have only one word. However so far most of the things I have noticed in January are of an ironic nature. Like the cake and pastry containers above seemingly advertised with a Beer/Wine sign. 

And here are snow-layered heaters looking like elegant Parisian women modeling their hats out in front of the French restaurante Brasserie Four. Snow on heating elements. Score one for winter.

Natures placement holds so many possiblilites. Here is Eeyore on the run—ice laid on rocks. 

I’m set. I'm on the lookout for placements both intentional and serendipitous. Word placed by word, thought by thought, the footfall of one human by the footfall of another. The juxtaposition of things in time and the circumstantial placement of nature in all her ways.