Armchair Peregrinations


April 29, 1999

I've lived in a lot of different towns, and known so many apartments over the years, that it once became a kind of game with some co-workers when we decided to actually count up the many places we've called home.

I'll just say there have been many since my senior year in college, and this includes residences in five states, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Once again this is indicative of how transient and mobile I've been, unsettled with jobs and potential careers. It shows how often I've been uprooted from places I had temporarily called home, but which at the time I wished could have been more permanent.

My first apartment I'll never forget, and it was indeed a place not to be forgotten. It's enshrined in my memory as the first apartment I found on my own following an entire summer of looking through Times-Picayune classified ads and checked out grim little apartment complexes all over eastern New Orleans and Gentilly. The search extended west over to Metairie and the complex mill around Lakeside Shopping Center, an area notorious for the proliferation of quick-buck apartments that had easy access to I-10, in fact they were often located about 20 feet from that awful interstate.

I was desperate to get out of the cubicle tower known as Bienville Hall, the one and only dormitory at the time on the mostly commuter campus of the University of New Orleans. This bleak monolith was my home for two years, I hate to admit, but I met some good people there, joined together by the bonds of our shared imprisonment. But I'll never forget the 12x12 cinder block rooms with the minimalist furnishings and the cold, hard ambience. There was no way out-of-their-minds college students could even begin to trash those rooms, indestructible as they were, and I guess that was part of the philosophy underlying the construction of those abominable concrete boxes.

Thoughts of spending even more time in that dorm spurred me on zealously in the search for an apartment in the summer of 1972. Finally, I saw what I was looking for: a 1-BR apartment near UNO, quiet neighborhood, furnished, $90 per month. It was in just the area I was looking for, off Gentilly Boulevard. A real old New Orleans neighborhood, one of those original outlying suburbs built in the 1920s and accessible by bus to downtown, about five miles away. It was about two miles from the campus, so I could ride my bike to school on good days.

I called the landlord, who owned the house and lived in the adjoining unit, and said I was coming right over. I raced, literally, to get there, and while I was talking to Mrs. S., the phone rang and someone else was inquiring about the apartment. I took a quick tour, and paid the rent on the spot. It was a wise decision. The place would have been gone within hours if I hadn't rented it.

That place definitely had ambience. The furniture had that long-ago, should-have-been-put-out-on-the-street-for-pickup look. Dust clouds rose up from the beat-up sofa when you sat on it. If the house weren't painted on the outside and kept up, one might think on entering that the place had been abandoned for years, that an old Adluh Flour calendar from 1930 might still be hanging on the wall in the next room.

The single hallway led to the kitchen in the back. That was my first kitchen where I actullay learned to bake a chicken, use an oven, and cook a hamburger, boil frozen vegetables and stock a refrigerator with groceries bought at the nearby Economical Food Store at the busy intersection of Elysian Fields Avenue and Gentilly Boulevard.

That was a formative experience for me, finding and moving into that first apartment. Nothing has compared before or since with the feeling of elation and independence I felt those first few months. In fact, it never entirely went away that whole final year of college.

I'd lie in bed with the window next to me open, the big heavy-duty kitchen fan turned on and droning away as it sucked in air from that window and moved it through my bedroom and down the hall -- natural ventilation. I'd turn on the old window unit air conditioner at night when I had to, and it was real noisy, but I got accustomed to the sound.

On pleasant nights, I'd take a break from reading one of my assigned novels for an English class, go out on the narrow front porch, and sit in a chair with my feet propped up on the railing. I could hear the muffled sounds of traffic on nearby Gentilly Boulevard, but it was mostly quiet, especailly by that time of night. I'd look around, sit awhile longer, then go inside and shut the door to the night, grateful that I was on my own, in my own place.


April 26, 1999

For a long time now, over a year and a half, I guess, I've been satisfied with the selection of the matted and framed photographs I've taken over the years that are on the wall in front of me as I type now. Two black and white pictures from the periods when I was doing that kind of photography, and four color photographs. Each of them is a visual narrative of places, scenes and objects that are encapsulated by time in those 16x24-inch antique silver frames. I look at each of them in turn, as I'm doing now, and I find myself remembering and thinking of faraway events and places, situated for a little while in a reverie that I consciously choose to be in now.

I've written about these pictures before, but I'll add some more comments about them.

The one on the wall farthest to the left was taken in the fall of 1973, only a few months after I had moved to Columbia after graduating from college. It shows the side of an old sharecropper house, badly deteriorated and weathered, abandoned for many years. Sunlight casts shadows from the large limbs of a tree nearby which frames the top of the photo above a window that is missing all of its glass panes. On the window sill is small clay pot, the kind you'd put a gerber daisy in, or small flowers. Sunlight also illumines the side of the structure, showing the grains in the boards, the deep creases and ridges, the fine texture of this very weatherbeaten and warped wood.

When I was a child, I'd go out there with my brother and father to that farm on land held originally by a distant uncle who was a very prominent man, a politician and lawyer. We'd visit the tenant farmer and his wife, Walter and Nettie, who lived there for many years, working the land on remnants of the larger plantation and paying rent to my grandparents and aunt.

During the Depression years they helped sustain the family in Sumter with produce and other food from the farm. It was located about seven miles from Sumter in what my brother and I thought was truly the deepest and remotest of rural areas.

For us boys from the big city of New Orleans, a chance to take a ride on Walter's old mule was a novelty beyond our comprehension. It was fun also to hold a rope and let the mule pull us on an old wooden sled that could be dragged around to transport various items.

Walter and Nettie were quite old when we visited them in the late 1950s and early 60s. A photo of my brother and I on the mule is dated 1962. That's the latest one I know of.

The one-room house collapsed or was carted away a few years after I took the picture in 1973, and it, along with a couple of other pictures of the entire house, are all that is left to sustain memories of those good times from my childhood. The land was sold and subdivided for houses.

Next to that photograph is a picture taken about eight years later along a country road in rural Saluda County. This county is so sparsely populated, the county seat has only about 2,500 people.

I visited a good friend and her family over the course of many years, and often we'd take long drives in the country just enjoying the rural settings. I'd have my camera along and take pictures. This particular one is of a two-sided barn/storage building. In front of it is a large white oak tree with a mailbox on a post at the foot of the tree. It is what I remember as a classic country scene in Saluda County.

The color photos are these:

A huge oak tree just leafing out in spring along another country road, this one in southern Mississippi about 10 miles from Hattiesburg. My old yellow Sentra is in the lower right foreground, the faithful car that carried me around the country on trip after trip with flawless perfornance. This country road was the final stetch in a loop drive out of Hattiesburg to Purvis, Black Creek and back. The oak tree fills just about the entire frame of the photograph, so majestic a tree is it.

Below that is the creek and woodland scene in northwest Oregon near the Nehalem River that I described and wrote about in some detail in my journal entry of 6/28/98.

The upper right picture in this grouping of four, has very special significance. This is a landscape on the wide open prairie of northern South Dakota, just a couple of miles out of Lemmon on a straight country road. The sky is luminous with light and clouds, and the prairie grass is crystal clear and sharp, as is every detail in the landscape. An enormous, early summer rainstorm of tremendous power had swept through hours earlier. I got into the middle of it on a stretch of road in North Dakota, coming from Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was one of those rains that buffet you in your car with gale-force winds and elemental force. The driving rain rendered windshield wipers almost ineffectual. I could hardly see to pull off to the side, and there wasn't much of a shoulder to the road anyway. It was starting to ease up as I approached the border with South Dakota, and when I entered Lemmon, it was over. (See Kathleen Norris' 1992 book "Dakota").

After settling into a motel room, grateful to have gotten there at all, I got back in the car after supper at a cafe on Main Street, and drove out into the countryside. I turned onto a dirt road, and drove a mile or so, and stopped the car to absorb the wind and the peace of the land. Later, I took a series of photographs. "After the Storm," they could be titled. Little was I to know that this peaceful interlude was to precede another type of storm of a far more terrible sort. I look at this picture now and realize that the fury of storms abate eventually, and the dark skies are blown away off into the distance and light returns.

Finally, the last picture I've chosen to write about tonight is one of recent vintage. It was taken about a year ago, in the spring of 1998, at the Beidler Forest about 40 miles from Charleston . I photographed tree reflections in the tea-colored and clear waters of Four Hole Swamp, imperceptibly moving in a flat sheet toward the nearby Edisto River. In the scene are sunlight filtering through tupelo gum trees. Close by are ancient cypress trees, some of them ten stories tall and 1,000 years old, protected in a nature sanctuary that is a priceless treasure to all who come to see it.(See my journal entry of 12/15/98).

Each spring I try to visit this swamp, which I first wandered through on its long boardwalk nearly 20 years ago. It is a place like no other in the world, and has been recognized as such and protected for future generations.

Thus, the pictures on the wall in front of me span a period of 26 years. They take me through most of my adult life. They are pictures that speak to me very intensely, if I can but listen.


April 25, 1999

I've written a good bit lately about my English teaching experiences, including posting some work students wrote, and talking about the process of creative writing, as one new teacher attempted to put into practice with 7th and 8th graders nearly 20 years ago.

A few years before that, I had been quite completely caught up in the world of community journalism at several papers in North and South Carolina. In applying for jobs in the field in subsequent years, I sometimes included with my resume a "statement of philosophy" about community journalism, which, in a sense, was an attempt to sum up some of my experiences and some of the things I had learned as both a reporter and editor.

I include some excerpts here:

...I lived in small towns, each of which influenced me in profound and unmistakeable ways. Each town had a definite "sense of place" -- that special quality of belonging and protectiveness that held the community together...

I was able to put into place many of my ideas about what a good local newspaper should be...I was a reporter, photographer and editor. Everyone who came in the front office with a story idea, news release or picture knew that this was their local paper. Virtually no story was too inconsequential for respectful consideration, at the least. In Davidson, N.C., summer children's news pages were produced by local kids. Columnists in a creative writing class contributed regularly. I was able to enlist an excellent sports writer to call in stories, and a free-lance writer did a series on historic houses. I covered education and municipal government extensively.

I added, somewhat portentiously (but I still like it), A community newspaper is close to home, immediate, personal and responsive to the needs of the community. In many towns, the local paper is a trusted friend to generations. It may have angered, but it is usually accepted for the vital role it has to play. It maintains worthy traditions, but experiments as well. It can be the conscience of a community...

The lcoal newspaper helps ensure that a town holds onto its sense of place and identity in the larger world around it. Its back issues are recorded history. Clippings from its pages find their way into countless scrapbooks. It can be a steady and reliable force for good. It informs and elucidates. As much a part of town as Main Street, its traditions and influence should remain intact, even as the community changes and evolves over time.


This was written some years ago, and reflects a certain, shall we say, youthful idealism, but they are ideals I really did try to hold onto, even as I became somewhat more cynical and too caught up in what was wrong about the communities later on. That is a natural evolution for journalists, and is one reason, particularly on medium and large dailies, they burn out after five or ten years and either move up to a slot on the copy desk or news management, or leave for jobs in public relations.

If you want to read what it was really like for me as a newspaper reporter and editor, I have posted here a story based on my experiences at those small newspapers I mentioned earlier. It was written in early or mid 1978, I believe, but I'm not sure because there isn't a date on it.

I don't think anyone has ever read this before. I guess at one time I thought about trying to get it published, but who knows, I didn't have enough confidence in its merit, or I just lost interest in sharing it with the larger world.

Now, I share it with you, if you want to read it. I think it portrays my circumstances those many years ago well, and every incident in it actually happened. I just compressed events and changed some names.

Life and Times of a Community Newspaper Reporter


April 24, 1999

I want to share with you the work of a photographer I have long been deeply interested in, one whose images, as a critic once said, plumb "the deepest and most fundamental emotions."

Jerry Uelsmann's photomontages are surrealist and richly compelling, beckoning us into the farthest and deepest recesess of a private world, real and not real, full of symbolism and allusions, but at the same time approachable, understandable and transcendent.

I never look at his work the same way each time I study it, but that is what you must do. Study his compositions. They don't call for just a passing glance. Even if you do linger only momentarily on one of his multiple image photographs, you will want to go back to it; you will make a mental note. Or, you leave one picture for another because you can't possibly absorb the inferential meaning Uelsmann has invested in it. You sense he is a deeply private person who is nevertheless compulsive in his need to share his poetic vision. There are recurring motifs in his work: the seamless merging of land and water; interiors with elements of the outside within; floating spheres; granite boulders with openings leading to worlds within; hands emerging from water into clouds and sun. The possible variations of meaning are endless. We see water and trees as symbolic of life and mystery, and also scenes of aging, loss, death and visions of possible afterlives.

I won't say anymore. The work speaks for itself.

Jerry Uelsmann's Official Web Page


April 22, 1999

I'm home and don't go into work until 12:30 today, so I'm getting some chores done, such as laundry. As much as I like to ignore some of the mundane realities of life, they keep beckoning to me. Attend to me, they cry out.

Doing laundry is not all bad. I remember when I was in college, spending time in the laundry room with my books and assignments was sort of soothing to frayed nerves -- you know, the rhythmic, spinning of the dryer, the chugging of the washing machines, people sitting around with dazed expressions or looks of boredom, or maybe they were just lost in thought. Or else they were industriously folding clothes, nice and neat. I never could understand that. I get them folded real quick -- what I have to fold -- and then get out of there after stuffing everything else in the laundry bag.

Laundry rooms are great places for contemplating the human condition. Everyone's got to have clean clothes. There's something nice and cleansing about the process of washing away the dirt in our lives. The laundry room itself may be a mess, but not the end product.

Also, it's a certain kind of person who uses commercial laundry facilities, or "laundrymats" as I saw a sign in Sumter announce once. Generally, it's people who won't put in their own washers and dryers, can't afford a house where they'd most likely do so, live in apartments such as myself, are students, the down on their luck, the itinerant, the hapless, and the perfectly comfortable middle class -- all are briefly united in the common bond of the spin cycle.

Rarely does some poor soul return to find a flooded, soapy machine. If you follow the instructions, they tend to work real well. They're industrial strength, after all.

Every now and then some inconsiderate person will leave his or her clothes packed into a dryer long after they're dry, but these kind of people are just being true to their deeply self-centered natures. They don't even give a thought to the fact that someone else just might want to use that same dryer.

Well, I must finish editing this as my dryer cycle is just about to finish up.

*****

It's another of those perfect spring days, so far. There's a nice breeze blowing. It's about 78 degrees. The air's dry (not a good sign, really, as I'll talk about next). The trees have that early summer look about them already.

The weather, though, has been just too nice. The droughts here in South Carolina, as elsewhere, I'm sure, have a way of slipping up on you. It's that way now. We just don't realize how little rain we've had because the days flow by in a seemingly endless succession of idyllic blue skies and fresh breezes. I just don't even want to go inside sometimes.

Then you look at the newspaper and see headlines like "No end in sight for droughts across U.S." and "Dry, windy weather fuel to Everglades fires." An AP story had this lead the other day: "You know it's dry when Sunbelt retirees start watering the cactus." And then, "When mountains lions emerge from the pinon scrub of the Sonoran Desert to lap greedlily from chlorinated swimming pools. When a wall of wildfire 10 miles wide blackens a swath of Nebraska prairie as big as Rhode Island, stampeding cattle and forcing the midnight evacuation of a ranching town."

The other day at the sanctuary on the Edisto River, I reached down into the sandy soil beneath some pine straw to see what the ground was like that day, and could feel only a hard crust and dry dirt underneath. It was as if it hadn't rained there in some time. The lush greenery of the forest all around gave no clue to the incipient drought we are experiencing.

Driving back to Charleston, I noticed a field of corn just starting to come up, some of it turning brown already. Clouds of dirt and dust blew across the field.

I first started to notice how much drier the summers were becoming in South Carolina during the summer of 1977 when water levels dropped considerably, crops were lost and people were wondering if it would ever rain again. The pattern has continued during many of the ensuing years, particularly the last few.

In Columbia in the early 80s when I lived in a place that was surrounded by woods, I recall coming home from work each day, watching the grass get browner, the leaves a little limper and drier. The earth seemed to be thirsting for a long, soothing rainfall, the kind that builds up on a hot, summer day into an electrical storm and lets loose with a soaking rain late in the afternoon or early in the evening.

On June 6, 1983, I wrote this in my journal: Finally, after two dry months, it rained today. Heavy, wind-lashed rain that soaked the parched ground. When I stepped outside the air was heavy with the thick scent of woods after a rain, of wet, humid earth and moisture.

I don't know. I think we're having too much of a good thing right now. The days are too perfect, the nights just right. Nature will readjust somehow, and we'll know it.


April 20, 1999

One of the things I've liked to do for many years, being a former working journalist, is find and bring home to read any and every free newspaper put out in the city where I happen to be living. These invariably include weekly or monthly alternative newspapers such as the old Vieux Carre Courier in New Orleans and, now, Gambit, and here in Charleston, the weekly City Paper. I also like to pick up the local New Age publications, the progressive or left press, if it's available, and neighborhood weeklies if I'm in a big city like Seattle or New Orleans. Not to mention the college newspapers and an assortment of print freebies when I visit a university campus or bookstore.

The mother lode, so to speak, for free publications for me was the University of Washington Bookstore lobby on 45th Ave. N.W., the "Ave," adjacent to the campus in Seattle. Every Sunday afternoon I had a routine I adhered to faithfully when I lived in Edmonds, north of Seattle, in 1992 and 1993.

I'd make the 12-mile trip down I-5 to the University District at about 1 pm after a morning spent reading the Sunday New York Times over donuts and coffee (Today, I read the online New York Times, but it's not the same experience by any means).

I'd arrive at the bookstore, which is the single largest volume bookstore in the country, I believe, just before it opened and wait with the crowd that came about the same time I did.

Once inside the entrance, to my left, were racks for free newsletters, newspapers, brochures -- you name it. I loved it. I'd skim over the latest offerings and see what was new, head into the bookstore for an hour or so of browsing (I didn't have much money then, so I rarely bought anything). On the way out, I'd pick up about 8 or 10 publications to read at home later that afternoon.

Most of them ended up being tossed out after I had glanced at them, but every now and then that little nugget of an article or story from one of the publications would appear amid all the dreck and dross, and there would be someone's unique view of the world out on the streets for anyone who cared to pick up the publication.

There isn't as much available in Charleston by a long shot, but the College of Charleston is a nice place to visit, and I always find something to read at the student center. For instance, I always like to pick up the George Street Observer, the weekly student newspaper, for years known as the Cougar Pause, until the name changed a year or so ago. On the opinion page of the latest issue (4/7) are the musings of a somewhat traditional thinker and writer who penned a piece called "Generation X'er's truly lost: Today's youth lack stability that past generations have enjoyed." That point is debatable, but he makes some good points.

By contrast, there is the paper's more unorthodox, self-appointed free-thinker whose latest piece is titled, "Atheism the only intelligent choice." I include here a passage from the beginning to give you an idea of the thrust of the piece:

Atheism, a word which for many of our Extreme-Right-Conformity-Conservative-Christian-College-Brethren has many negative connotations attached to it, is the only choice left to any intelligent, modern, honest person.

Look through the lens of truth: logic, math, science, and medicine, do you see God there? No, you don't. Nobody does. But you may pretend you do in order to give you a thin buffer to protect you from the realities which are uncomfortable or inconventient for you: responsibility, evil, violence, death, inconsistency....

The other writer had this lament:

Unlike past generations, we do not have the economic opportunities that our parents and grandparents had. It is true that certain industries, like computers, are pretty much a guarantee right now. But it is also true that more people than ever are attending college and that the pool of professional jobs is limited. Everyone cannot be a professional. It's that simple. The unfortunate result of this dilemma is that we have some of the best-educated waiters and waitresses in the entire Western World.

Now I have to tell you I winced a little when I read this piece. I could see myself writing something very similar when I sat down to write my weekly column for the University of South Carolina student paper one summer when I was an associate editor. I loftily editorialized about the dire situation of liberal arts graduates in an increasingly technical and credential-oriented job market.

Later, as a weekly newspaper editor, I had to write a column on deadline, and many an afternoon was spent staring at the typewriter waiting for inspiration. So, I can sympathize with these student writers. It's tough work, but when it's done and published with your byline, Wow! what a feeling. You almost can think of yourself as learned or scholarly. Anyway, I cranked out quite a few columns in my newspaper career.

Then there's the entertainment and creative writing supplement to the George Street Observer called Ferrago, which has feature stories, reviews, columns, as well as short stories, poetry and photography.

This is a well-conceived effort and does offer a platform for the writers, poets and photographers on campus. Everyone needs an audience, right? There are some revealing articles which clue the reader in on the psyche of certain kinds of college students today. One guest writer's column was titled, "How to destroy your GPA in six easy months." She writes, "first: the student must begin in a graduaal manner to skip a class or two a week at first. Stop doing all the homework required, but still do a little bit to show you're trying." Needless to say, she has more advice.

D___titled his column that week, "Perspectives from a dumb freshman." He criticized students who whine and complain about getting up in the morning for classes. "I was too tired to make it to class. There was no hot water again. I didn't feel good so I slept in. You mean we had to read all that? I have this paper due next week."

Comparing them to the handicapped and disabled students who make every effort to get to class, he writes of the lazy freshmen who have no apparent physical disability: "Maybe some people shouldn't have stepped off mommy and daddy's magic carpet ride so soon. Or maybe people need a reality check and need to place themselves in someone else's shoes."

I also pick up a copy of the Charleston Free Time entertainment tabloid which announces where all the groups will be playing in all the bars and clubs and which also has some regular columnists who write about such topics as "Fast food is getting harder to come by." There's always the weekly rant of Noonan in his "Broke and Brilliant" column. He also has a Web site and is getting known beyond the confines of Charleston. Noonan is a kind of local character/institution on the free rag scene, I guess you could say. He does write some funny stuff on occasion.

Finally, there is Further: Your Magazine for Personal Transformation, in which you can find an interview with the noted New Age scholar and researcher Jean Houston. Also, in the latest issue is an article by Stefan Gerganoff titled, "Energy Matter: Part Two: Air Elements." In this publication you can also find the ads for clinical and therapeutic message, acupuncture, new birthing classes, holistic nutrition and various articles on an assortment of New Age topics.

I like these publications because they are quirky and individualistic, and help some people follow the ideal of having their own newspaper and being their own publisher. Even at the college-controlled student newspaper, I bet there's a heady sense of idealism about the role those students have assigned themselves in the world of the press and media.

These papers allow for a diversity of viewpoints, and that's good. I appreciate what they do. Sometimes I've thought about writing for the City Paper or one of the other publications, but I just don't think there's a niche for what I have to say. Besides, I'd rather be writing in this online journal. The fact that there are so many online magazines, e-zines, newspapers and other publications may mean the gradual demise of these print pubications, but I hope not. Still, there are the formidable cost associated with printing whereas electronic publicaition means far fewer expenses. And, anyone can publish on the Internet. But what's really worth reading? That's the difficult part.

April 19, 1999

I finally managed to visit the nature sanctuary on the Edisto River about an hour's drive from Charleston that I've wanted to see for the past couple of years. For some reason, there was always some excuse not to go: the weather, too late in the afternoon, too long a drive for an afternoon, etc., etc.

But yesterday was such a beautiful spring day that shortly after noon I prepared a picnic lunch, put film in my camera, got my notebook, pen, and outdoor atlas, and headed out the door.

Miles later with the new green of spring unfolding before my eyes, Highway 61 just didn't seem as if it could get any prettier. I was going t 1

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