Wednesday, April 30, 2008

God save the Queen!

(Art found via Google Images)
I watched "Love Actually" on Sunday, and it was incredible. A new favorite. Not because of the love (even though it was great), but because of the Britishness.

There is something about the United Kingdom that creates such a longing that I teeter on the verge of melancholy and elation.

I was lucky enough to be in the UK last summer. I spent the majority of my time in Northern Ireland, but also got over to England and Scotland: a couple of weeks in London interspersed with trips around the two countries.

Sensational. I can't think of any other word to describe it. I can't believe it.

Maybe I'm just a naive, starstruck Yank who is taken with the glamor of the American concept of the UK. But maybe there really is something about that land that makes it my favorite.

Being in England was something of a spiritual experience. No one taught me to be attached to that country, and no one randomly makes me think of the time I spent there and how much I loved it. When I was there, it was right.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that my family came from Puttenham, a small town northwest of London. Maybe there is some, primitive ancestral tie to that land.

If all goes well, maybe I can spend sometime living there after I graduate. Maybe. It would be important to figure out exactly how serious I am about it and how much time I'd want to devote to trying to make it work.

In the meantime, I'll try not to be the jerk that annoyingly pretends that he actually IS European and writes "color" as "colour" or "realize" as "realise."

Some things (in no particular order) that kill me about Britain:

Thursday, April 24, 2008


My last column for The Threefold Advocate:

When I first arrived at John Brown University, I had no idea what was in store for me. I had no idea that I would completely reevaluate my fields of study. I had no idea that my identity would change radically. And I certainly had no idea that because of an ardent and dedicated advisor, I would fall in love with journalism.

To distill all the things I’ve learned and the memories I’ve made would take far more space than I am allowed in this column, so perhaps I should try and shed some light on what it means to be a student journalist.

We are caught in the awkward position of having to wear two hats: that of the professional and that of the student. If we don’t take our jobs seriously, what we print could be extremely costly to the University in expensive lawsuits.

At the same time, we are in the middle of the learning process, and our homework is out in the open for the public to critique.

Life for me is rushed, hasty. I sleep in a bed that I hardly know; I am constantly in transit. Just about the only place I feel I truly know well is the newspaper office.

No time to breathe.

My life this year has consisted of two elongated, disproportionate days: the week and the weekend. My week begins in earnest on Tuesday evening, which fades into Wednesday without fanfare. Thursday is spent trying to track down sources and set up interviews, and I have to remind myself to go to class.

There, the routine ends. Really, there is little regularity. When the news happens, it’s our job to drop what we are doing and report. Inconvenient for planning? Too bad.

And with that, a new issue of The Threefold Advocate emerges, produced out of the sweat and sleepless nights of a staff that lives for this. It takes a moment to catch its breath and then begins the grind again.

For the 25 to 40 hours each staff member spends on the newspaper per week, we are awarded one or two hours of credit.

Would I change anything? Not on your life.

I’ve heard people say that the journalism practicum is the hardest on campus, and I see why they say it.

Here, I have learned much about others and myself. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. I have seen selfless service and tireless dedication. I’ve seen tensions flare and people lose their cool. I’ve seen and felt the best and the worst.

The experiences I’ve had have created the foundation upon which I will base my future study and career. As I move on to the University of Missouri and later into the workforce, I will carry with me the faces and experiences I have encountered at JBU.

Here we are: The end of the marathon, where we as a staff have given all we have to give. It’s certainly been a long, strange trip.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Cindy and Steve

So John decided that he wasn't going to burn his house this week, which meant that we had to go find some other awesome people in order to have something to turn in for my cultural sensitivity project. So, Tracie (in her usual incredible self) took me back to Watts on another feature hunting excursion where we met Cindy and Steve.

They live in a field with a lot of trash and trailers sitting on it. It's quite a ways from the road, but Cindy waved at us anyway, as she does to every vehicle that passes. So, we drove up to meet them.

It went something like this. Tracie gets out, calls the man over and says:

"Hey. Is this Watts? Do you live here? We're photographers, and we're doing a story about the area, trying to find some cool/interesting people that live around here. We heard that you were the best people to talk to, so here we are."

And somehow, it worked.

Of course, they were a little skeptical. They apparently couldn't shake the feeling that we were cops. When they asked for credentials, Tracie replied, "Credentials for what? Being nobody?"

Cindy is a sweet older woman in her 50s who just likes being able to sit, smoke and drink beer on her porch made of particle board and plywood. And that's about all they do. She's had six children; four of them are living, but not with her. Her husband is in a retirement home, and she lives with her best friend Steve, but they're just friends. She promises.

She collects lots of random crap and puts it on the mantle that her television sits on. Everything, she says, came from overseas and is very old and expensive. She tells me this as she holds up a plastic horse that was part of a popular toy set when I was younger.

"This comes from North America, but they don't know how old it is," she says. I smile and nod.

Steve is in his late 30s, and graduated from Siloam Springs high school. Anything Cindy says, he contradicts. "This place fucking sucks," he tells me while Tracie and Cindy are inside the trailer. If he had it his way, he would open up a mechanic's shop because "95 percent of the time he can fix anything that doesn't run." He and Tracie later go on a beer run for some Natty Light because, of course, that is what Cindy and Steve do.

It can be fairly frustrating to shoot with Tracie because she always gets great stuff while I'm so on-again/off-again that I often have problems just making a correct exposure. But it's so good for me at the same time, because she helps me see what I could have done with the situation instead of what I did do. And ultimately, I really am enjoying it.

It's a process. Taking it a step at a time. Focusing on something I'm good at. Doing it. Then taking other things to improve on in steps. Clean backgrounds. Lighting. Composition. It will get better.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The dynamics of a hurried life

One thing about college: I don't suppose I've ever really felt quite at home here. I'm not so sure this has as much to do with the particular school as it does with just the process of early college life coupled with a hectic subject of study.

The dorm has a motel feel. The cafeteria is like the small-town diner you stop off at early in the morning before you get on the road again.

Life here is rushed, hasty. I sleep in a bed that I hardly know; I am transient. Just about the only place I feel I truly know is the newspaper office.

No time to think, no time to breathe.

My life consists of two disproportionate days: the week and the weekend. My week begins in earnest on Tuesday, which fades into Wednesday without fanfare. Wednesday is my day off. Then I start again on Thursday and work through until Friday afternoon. Then it's time to relax on Friday night and Saturday during the day. Sunday, I usually awake late with great plans to get stuff done. Those rarely come to fruition. Then Monday is my day to half-ass things.

Is this healthy, really? Probably not, but I'm stuck in it until I can figure out a way to be more effective.

Rising and falling on the waves of college life, all the while trying to hold the dumbbell of school in one hand and the barbell of the newspaper in the other. The newspaper is usually heavier, so it takes more concentration to keep it hoisted above my head. I try to continuously tread water to keep my head out, but I usually end up spluttering when the crests of the waves hit me in the mouth.

Maybe walking a lot is a good way to make things feel more like home.

Suddenly I am struck by a desire to wake up earlier, at the start of the day, when it's still cool and dawning outside. As if that will make me somehow magically more productive. Maybe I'm tired of being sleepy and waking up when the day feels already half wasted.

In any case, I'm certainly looking forward to having my own room, a living room and a kitchen.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Roller Derby

Last night was super fun: getting to hang out with friends and see something interesting and new around the area.

But at the same time, it was also fairly discouraging. I came away with not much to show except for these two attempts--and they're really nothing to write home about.

This was one of those nights where I was having a hard time just making a proper exposure. Couldn't get the settings right, couldn't fend off the overly warm tones, couldn't stop action.

Doubly frustrating when you see someone else doing really nice work. Blah. On again, off again.

Tomorrow: John from Watts, Part 2.

Friday, April 11, 2008


This is what I'm seeing this week. Tomorrow: ro
ller derby.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The eclectic pagan

Welcome to my first experience with feature hunting. This is John, and he's what surprised us coming out of the house.

After his nearly identical brother vanishes into the house, John appears around the corner.

He has fishnet sleeves and some tattoos that he later tells us he can't show us. He has two braids of hair that are capped off with a couple of polished wooden skulls woven into the ends.

"What was it you were wanting to talk about?" he asks, seeming a little wary or perhaps skeptical.
"Oh, well we're just wanting to find a little bit about Watts," Tracie says.
"How come?"
"Well we're both photographers. See, it all you know Jean down the street? They call her Aunt Jean?" she artfully dodges the question.
"She's got some bird things hanging from her garage; only lady on the whole block with a manicured lawn?"
"Oh, yeah."

Then suddenly I am lost in translation. I regain awareness after Ann and John are already friends and he's showing us around his place. I still have no idea how she navigated through the questions and won his confidence. Good thing we're going feature hunting again tomorrow.

He takes us on a brief tour of the land he's been working on. He walks over to a branch and picks up a gargantuan leather trench coat--he calls it his "Sith coat"--and drapes the flowing hood over his head.

It turns out he sets up the lighting departments in Lowes stores across the country but is taking a year off to come back to Watts from California and clean up some of his parents' property. He intends to put a new trailer home on it that will later be modified into a two-story house.

The main hindrance to the completion of this project is the massive accumulation of stuff that occupies the space. It's just like the rest of Watts. Another rundown shack is there, and there are the remains of stumps everywhere.

He tells us that his father is a packrat (which explains the mangled chicken cages and other various and sundry items littering the place), and his mother is a shut-in. His brother David, the first guy we talked to, turns out to suffer from high-achiever autism and spends most of his time in his room playing online role-playing games.

Why is he doing this? He says it's bad karma, how his parents are abusing the land, and he's afraid something catastrophic will happen to his family if he doesn't step in and rectify the situation.

This is a source of disagreement within the family.

Next week, he's going to napalm the shack by suspending balloons full of gasoline and diesel from the ceiling, spreading styrofoam pellets across the ground and lighting it. (What was all that stuff about abusing the land?)

He tells us that he's an eclectic pagan, which means he can pick and choose bits of other religions to craft his own. He prefers a Sumerian theological foundation. He's 30 years old and well educated: He studied philosophy and other "useless" information at UCLA and Berkley.

After that, he spent some time traveling in Europe.

One of the most curious things about him is his love life. He maintains an open relationship with a woman named Tasha. Originally from outside Frankfurt, Germany, Tasha is a "busty," redheaded carhop who works at Sonic in Siloam Springs. (We went to Sonic afterward, and she does indeed work there.)

Tasha is his alpha. He's allowed to have a "pet," also. At first, we wonder if he's talking about bestiality. His pet's name is Rose, and she's from the Ukraine but currently works as a model in Bella Vista. She's the beta in the love triangle, and if the alpha says the beta has to go, she's gone.

"Does she know this?" Tracie asks.
"Oh yeah, it's very clear."

We're going back next week to shoot the inferno festivities. We ask for his phone number so we can call and find out when this is going on. He gives it to us and, leaving behind his badass alternative personality for a moment, cautions us not to call after nine.

The armpit of the Midwest

In conjunction with a recent class assignment (evoke noticeable emotion through a photo story on a cultural issue in a week and a half), Tracie Faust took me to go stumble upon ideas.

Stumbling on ideas is tough. It involves driving around the area and stopping random people on the road and making friends with them. So that's what we did.

Watts is quite possibly the poorest town in Oklahoma. The roads are a patchy mess of decades-old asphalt and gravelly clay. Trash is everywhere. Any kind of garbage you can imagine: old lawn chairs, wrecked cars, dilapidated houses, scrap metal, tires. As you're driving down the jolting roads, you look over and see a trailer home that has been added on to with siding and a makeshift porch.

In another part of town, there's a house with a roof pieced together with tin scraps, particle board and shingles that looks like it has undergone several makeshift repairs. Its cracked paint, which at one time may have been some shade of blue, hangs off of it in a gray, splintery mess. Random items are strewn all over: in the yard, on the porch, on the roof, coming out the windows, blocking the door. Everywhere, there are forgotten items that once, when they were new, cost hard-earned money and may have been sources of pride or pleasure.

In the yard, an oily-haired, shirtless man with a cowboy hat perched on top of his head and a cigarette balancing between his lips climbs on top of a tractor.

This is Watts, the armpit of the Midwest. We drive on.

We come to a stop sign. On my side of the road, the passenger side, a medium-sized man with unkempt hair and an overgrown beard is holding a box on his head. He's wondering if he should cross. He goes for it, scuttling across the road in an odd chicken-like sort of way, looking furtively at us from behind his uplifted arms.

We turn parallel to him and drive halfway up the will before realize that this is a perfect opportunity to offer him a ride and find out a little bit about Watts. We reverse, joking to ourselves that he must be thoroughly skeptical by now.

"Hey, do you live in Watts?" Tracie asks.
"Yeah, all my life," he replies, eying us.
"Where are you headed?" she asks.
"Just right over there to my house," he points to an untidy plot of land with a living structure that looks like it was ejected from a tornado and happened to land within the confines of his property.
"Well, can we come talk to you?"
"Why, what's up?" His perplexed tone, suggests that he's wondering if something might be wrong.
"Oh, we just want to learn about Watts," Tracie says.
"Oh, well okay, I guess."

He continues his poultry scurry and disappears inside his house. Tracie parks the car, we grab our bags and are approaching the property when we are surprised at what we see come out the door...