Bob Cullen Photography: Blog en-us (C) Bob Cullen Photography (Bob Cullen Photography) Thu, 22 Dec 2022 19:07:00 GMT Thu, 22 Dec 2022 19:07:00 GMT Bob Cullen Photography: Blog 120 96 The Streets of Merida There is not, as far as I can tell, an official, data-based ranking of the safety of Mexican cities. But there's a lot of talk. And in that talk, the city of Merida is often spoken of as one of Mexico's safest. That's great, except for the reason the gossip cites for why Merida is safe. It's because, the gossip says, a couple of drug cartel leaders have homes in Merida. And they don't want any violence or drugs in the town where they live.

That may or may not all be true. But I can testify that I spent five days recently wandering Merida's streets, carrying a fairly expensive camera. And everyone I met was friendly. Not once did I feel in any danger. If I had to pick a Spanish word to describe Merida, it might be tranquilla.

That may have been because the bad guys, like everyone else in Merida, were watching Mexico play in the World Cup. The guys above were peering at a screen in a small apppliance store during the second half of Mexico's game with Saudia Arabia. At the time, the score was 2-0 in favor of Mexico, and the sidewalk aficionados were optimistic that Mexico would score the third goal that it needed to both win the game and break a tie with Poland on the basis of goal differential. Alas, Mexico could only win by a final score of 2-1. Poland advanced. Mexico's World Cup was over. Not that anyone seemed to mind too much.

It was the beginning of December, and the official Christmas season was getting underway. Outside my hotel, on the Remate de Montejo, the city erected an official tree, Santa Claus's mailbox, and a stage. There was a Christmas show, and the little girls above left danced in it despite a persistent drizzle. As soon as they saw my camera, they vamped.

The Remate de Montejo lies at the southern end of a boulevard (the Paseo Montejo) sometimes called the Champs Elysees of Mexico. The boulevard extends northward from the center of the city. In contrast to most Merida streets, it's wide--four lanes of traffic and another two for bikes and motorcycles, split by a median. The mansions alongside it weren't built in the traditional Spanish colonial style. That style usually presents a blank wall to the street and passersby. Only the invited get to see the courtyards and arcades within. On the Paseo Montejo, you can see the whole exterior of the house.

There's a reason for this, and it begins with a plant called agave. (That's an agave field above right.) Margarita fanciers will recognize it as the plant base for tequila. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, it had a more lucrative use. Its fibers made good rope, at a time when sailing ships, which require lots of rope, carried the bulk of the world's commerce.

The city of Merida was founded in the 16th Century by a conquistador named Montejo. He built it on the base of an old Mayan city named T'ho. Modern historians aren't sure why Mayan civilization declined and collapsed even before the Spanish arrived. Some people in Merida believe it was because the Mayan peasantry of the countryside revolted and destroyed the Mayan elite that lived in cities like T'ho. In any case, the Spanish rather easily imposed their civilization on top of the Mayan. And they rather easily dominated the Mayan peasants, turning them into a labor force to tend the agave, not very different from the enslaved Africans who worked the cotton fields of the American South.

As long as the agave plant was the source of much-in-demand rope, Merida was a very wealthy city. The aristocrats sent their sons to Europe for schooling, and the sons came back with European ideas about streets and architecture. They built the Paseo Montejo and its mansions as a kind of homage to the grand boulevards of Europe. 

But the agave riches didn't last. Eventually, steamships replaced sailing ships and artificial fibers became more practical than agave fiber. The center of Merida began a slow decline, a decline that lasted until the early years of this century. Merida still had a wealthy elite, but it migrated to the city's northern suburbs, which offered gated communities, shopping malls, and country clubs.

In recent years, however, a process of gentrification has begun. You can see refurbished and renovated houses on the Paseo Montejo and the nearby side streets. There are little cafes and even a couple of wine bars. The Paseo boasts restaurants with pricey menus.

A lot of the gentrifiers are foreigners, judging by the languages I heard in the sidewalk cafes along the Paseo. A sign advertising the sale of an old building ripe for a teardown is carefully translated into English.

And why not? As I write this, the temperature at home is 42. The temperature in Merida is 86. Because it's at least 25 miles from the ocean, and therefore has no beach, Merida has been spared the spring-break culture of Cancun. A gringo looking for a winter home could do a lot worse.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) gentrification Merida Mexico streets Wed, 21 Dec 2022 15:04:08 GMT
Mexico Imports a North American Malady I met the man pictured above in a little park near a marketplace called Lucas de Galvez, in the city of Merida, during a recent trip to the Mexican state of Yucatan. His name was Oscar, and he walked up to me and offered to take my blood pressure. 

Now, there are times when I probably look like I have high blood pressure, such as when my I'm stuck in traffic because someone ahead of me fails to notice that a light has turned green. Or like when I try to get my cellphone to do anything but ring with spam calls. This was not one of those times. I declined.

Oscar politely explained that I wouldn't have to pay for the reading. Though he wore a white, official-looking medical jacket, and had a stethoscope and a blood-pressure gauge, he was apparently not licensed in medicine and therefore not entitled to charge anything for his services. If I got a blood pressure reading and thought kindly toward him for it, he said, I could choose to make a donation. It seemed like a tough way to make a living, until I took a closer look around me. 

The park was full of fat people. Looking around. I almost felt thin--and I am not thin. It was no wonder Oscar did what he did where he did it. If you had a job that required finding good prospects for hypertension measurement, the park at the market of Lucas de Galvez was a target-rich environment. I didn't have to search to find examples to photograph. The woman above left was sitting on the bench opposite me when Oscar approached.

Not every neighborhood in Merida looked this way, of course. There are wealthy colonias on the north side of town where the shopping centers and country clubs would not look out of place in the suburbs of, say, Dallas. And the people in those neighborhoods have what I would guess is a normal weight distribution in the United States. There are overwight people, but there are people of average weight and people who are thin.

Not around the market of San Luca de Galvez, though. and not in many other places I visited on my trip to Mexico. I saw the woman at right struggling to descend the stairs of an ancient Mayan pyramid in the town of Izamal. She barely made it. Another woman, almost equally large, hurt something in her leg as she  descended the same stairs. Someone had to help her cross the neighboring street.

It did not take much time with Google and the internet to confirm what I was seeing. Mexico has become, at least in some rankings, the most obese country in the world. (Other rankings still have the United States as No. 1.) 

There was no shortage of theories as to why. The most plausible, to my mind, were the ones that cited major changes in Mexico's diet and exercise habits, particularly in its working-class citizens. Processed food, I read, hit the Mexican market in a big way in the 1970s and 1980s. Processed food products replaced traditional fruits, vegetables and meats in Mexico's diet because they were cheaper and easier to prepare.

I could believe this because I had seen in a traditional Yucatan restaurant in Merida how hard the Yucatecas once had to work to prepare food. In addition to gathering plants and griding them to make spices, and hunting for game, they traditionally dug pits in the ground and buried the food with burning logs in order to slowly cook it. Now, they can zap processed food in a microwave, getting more salt, fat and sugar into their bodies and expending far fewer calories to do it. 

Or they can eat a big plate of roasted pork, sauce, and nachos in a restaurant like the one on the left, and wash it down with a big Coca-Cola for about the equivalent of five bucks.

Coke is as ubiquitous as bellies in Merida. And I need not tell you in which country fast food, processed food and sugary drinks were invented or perfected. So is  the United States responsible for Mexico's obesity problem?

This question gets into the realm of phiosophy, I think. Is Henry Ford responsible for climate change? After all, he invented an affordable car for the masses, who used it to spew untoward amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Viewed one way, Ford didn't force anyone to overuse his invention. Viewed another way, it was predictable that once human beings got hold of a way to replace the effort of walking, or caring for horses, they would inevitably overuse it. So Ford can be blamed, at least for a failure of foresight.

The American companies that sell products like Coca-Cola in Mexico are, I supposed, partly responsible in much the same way, for Mexio's obesity problems. But I could point to other causes. As Mexico has developed into a middle-income country on the world scale, it has attained a more sedentary lifestyle. And maybe its cultural heritage makes people inlined to eat what's available when it's available, because tomorrow you might be hungry.

Regardless of who, or what, is to blame, Mexico now faces the problem of doing something about it. Almost 10 years ago, the government imposed a special 8 percent tax on the kinds of foods and drinks that are blamed for obesity. There have since been studies that suggest the tax has indeed reduced Mexico's consumption of junk foods, but by a relatively small percentage. And the eyeball evidence in the streets of Merida suggested to me that the tax is not going to eliminate Mexico's problem.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Coca-Cola diet Merida. Mexico obesity processed food Yucatan Thu, 15 Dec 2022 15:32:53 GMT
The Sweetness of the Yucatan State Fair In the news these days, everything Mexico is calamitous. The migrants piling up at the border. The drug cartels. I realize all that is true, but I fear it can obscure another Mexico, a normal country with lots of problems, to be sure, but a country with millions of kindly people doing normal things.

That other Mexico was on display at the Yucatan State Fair. I was visiting Merida, the capital of Yucatan, and the fair was going on in Xmatkuil (pronounced Eesh-ma-kweel as best I could make out), a suburb with a Mayan name to the south of the city.

I took a cab, and the driver and I discussed tipping customs in Mexico and north of the border. Cab drivers, I know, have a vested interest in tipping, but I think this guy was honest with me. He said American visitors to Merida tend to overtip, at least in relations to the tips from Mexican locals. Americans may tip 15-20 percent, but Mexicans max out at about 10 percent. I so enjoyed the conversation and the apparent candor that when we arrived, and the fare was 250 pesos (about $12.50) I gave him 300 pesos and told him to keep it--just like the stereotypical turista gringo.

I passed the group at the top of this post as I entered the fairgrounds, having paid for my 30 peso ($1.50) ticket. Why they were waiting there I do not know. And, yes, the pictogram above them identifies toilets for women.

It was daytime, and the carnival rides had yet to open. The pleasures available were simpler, like the mockup of ET on which kids could pose with their grandmothers and dissolve into giggles while mom took pictures with her cell phone.

My big disappointment of the day was Marbella, La Mujer Lagarto, or Marbella the Alligator Woman. As the picture shows, Marbella has the head of a human and the body of an alligator. A chance to gawk at her was very reasonaby priced at 25 pesos, roughly $1.25. And apparently, this price included a look at other phenomenal animals.

But I had my camera with me, and the woman taking tickets (not Marbella) told me that photography was prohibited. I was miffed. I felt the need to defend the rights of photographers. So I stuffed my 25 pesos back in my pocket and walked away. 

It was time for lunch. I picked a table on the verandah of a restaurant called Eladia. My waiter suggested something in rapid Spanish, to which I could only nod. It turned out to be a lot more food than I needed. Nevertheless, I cleaned my plate.

I heard a band start to play and I went inside. My visit to the fair was on the day after Mexico, by beating Saudi Arabia by only one goal, failed to advance to the knockout round of the World Cup. Though that day's game was on the big screen inside Eladia, most of the patrons, understandably, weren't paying much attention. Some of them got up and started to dance to the band. I took a picture, and then moved toward the livestock exhibition area.

My understanding is that Yucatan's state fair (like, I suppose, Iowa's) was originally a celebration of the cows and pigs and sheep that the Yucatecas raised. Nowadays, the animals seem to be a bit of a sideshow. They're literally off to the side of the fairgrounds, while the main avenues are given over to rides and booths that sell cheap souvenirs. 

And it's true that when I visited, the animals didn't seem to do much, compared to, say, a roller coaster. They stood in their stalls or lay on the ground, switching their tails against flies. Their guardians sat around makeshift tables, drinking Coca-Cola. 

The guy in the picture above right was grooming an animal for an exhibition or contest, using a vacuum hose to suck dust and dirt from the animal's coat. I didn't wait for any later shows. I headed back to Merida.

On my way toward the exits, the two women at left caught up with me and stopped me. I'd taken their picture in the livestock area. They wanted to know if I could send them a copy. (I got Officer Ilse, on the left, to scribble her email on a scrap of paper, and I tried to send it to them. But to my chagrin, the email bounced back. If by chance you see this, officer, send me an email via this website. I'll get you your pic.) Like most North Americans, I guess, I'd been led to try my best to avoid Mexican cops. Now, when I think of the police in Mexico, I will think of these two women and their beautiful smiles.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) ET La Mujer Lagarto livestock Merida Mexico pictogram policia Woman" Xmatkuil Yucatan Yucatan State Fair Wed, 14 Dec 2022 20:54:42 GMT
In Spain, El Paseo Marches On Cultural historians today might tell you that the paseo, as it once existed in the Spanish world, has disappeared. And perhaps they're right. The traditional paseo, or promenade, was encrusted with antiquated customs. Respectable families dressed up and took walks along selected boulevards during selected afternoons and evenings. They greeted their peers. They introduced their sons to their neighbors' daughters, or vice versa, in a carefully chaperoned environment. 

When I was in Spain recently, I saw no sign of formal dress. I saw no chaperones. But on two weekends, one in Madrid and one in Ronda, I did see thousands of Spaniards out for a walk, in couples and in families, seeing and being seen. So I would submit that anyone suggesting that the paseo has disappeared is wrong.

The 21st Century version of the paseo is doubtless a more inclusive event. I don't think the Madrid couple at the top of this post would have been tolerated a century. Now, no one particularly notices them.

On the other hand, the woman in the pants suit, above, might have welcomed the presence of a chaperone to help her fend off unwanted advances.

The modern paseo is still a family event.

The elderly participate, but they may break up the walk with a stop for juice or ice cream.

If there is anything that threatens the existence of the paseo nowadays, I think it is the cellphone. The couple above were only carrying their phones. But countless people I saw were absorbed in their phones rather than their companions. This, of course, is nor peculiar to Spain. I see it all the time in the United States. But why go for a walk with someone, or sit down at a cafe with them, if you're going to be absorbed by your cellphone? You could stay in bed and do the same.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Madrid paseo promenade Ronda Spain Spanish Sun, 13 Nov 2022 20:29:17 GMT
Whining About a Problem of Privilege I will stipulate that what I am about to write is an ill-tempered screed about a problem 99 percent of the world's population would love to have. I will add that it's a problem I brought on myself.

I'm talking about the inevitable crowds at bucket-list attractions. I'm tempted to write "mobs" or "hordes" instead of "crowds," but I don't want to seem misanthropic.

The picture above was made a little while ago at the legendary Alhambra, in Granada, Spain. If you've never been there, it's a series of palaces constructed by the Arab kings who ruled southern Spain from roughly the eighth through the fifteenh century. It's renowned for the delicate elegance of its arches, tiles, fountains and carvings. If you look above the heads of the small throng of people in the picture above, you can even see some of those things.

When I was a boy, I had a card game called "Authors." Each famous author in the deck had four cards representing one of his or her famous works. One of the authors was Washington Irving, and one of his four works was "Tales of the Alhambra." I couldn't imagine then what an Alhambra was, but that is I guess when I first felt the desire to see it.

But by the time I helped plan the itinerary for this year's trip to Spain, I knew better. I'd been surrounded by hordes at Angkor Wat. I'd pushed through crowds of sweaty schoolkids in the Piazza San Marco in Venice.  I knew that in the modern world, mass tourism is a fact of life.

Still, I couldn't resist. I wanted to see the place Washington Irving wrote about. I did.

I saw sights I will never forget, like the one in the picture above left. A father hunches behind his daughter. She holds her mouth open, so that he can take a phone picture that will make it appear that the little girl is drinking from the stream of water emerging from a lion's mouth in a fountain carved by masterful artisans centuries ago. Very cool. Almost as ingenious as the people who hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Or the influencer who gets her pic made in the Alhambra (above right).

I know. I am snobby and stupid to think that I could have the same kind of experience at the Alhambra that Washington Irving had 200 years ago. I should just be grateful that I got to see it.

But if you know me, and you ever hear me talking about visiting other bucket-list places like Machu Piccu or the Taj Mahal, kindly take a blunt object and beat me over the head with it until I come to my senses.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Alhambra Angkor Wat bucket-list overtourism Piazza San Marco Taj Mahal tourism Venice Sun, 06 Nov 2022 01:44:22 GMT
The Streets of Morocco Morocco, which I visited last month, can be a challenging place for street photography. Its cities and towns, at least the ones I visited, are warrens of narrow alleys wihich can plunge from brightly lit to very dark from one step to the next. On top of that, a lot of Moroccans don't like to be photographed. They will turn their faces or say. "No photo," if they see a camera lens pointing at them. I don't speak Arabic, so I had no way to cajole anyone into permitting a picture. I tended to shoot quickly and walk away before there could be a discussion. 

The woman above was walking up a street--or a staircase--in the city of Chefchaouen, in the hills of northern Morocco. Chefchaouen is called the Blue City, because of the way many of its houses and walls are painted. Our guide noted that the women of the city do the painting, three times a year. Women's work in Morocco also includes a lot of toting. In this case, I believe the woman was carrying a container of cooking or heating fuel. 

Her hat and dress indicate that she is a Berber. Berbers are the indigenous people of the area, though Morocco's rulers have for centuries been ethnic Arabs, who conquered in the name of Islam. 

I don't know whether the dog cared about being photographed or not.

Not all Moroccans refuse to be photographed. This man in Tanger cheerfully nodded when I gestured with my camera. It could have been becauze he proudly bears a mark of piety. That is the discolored callous around where his hairline might have been years ago. He got that callous by faithfully answering the call to prayer year after year, pressing his forehead to the floor as he prayed.

This cemetery photo was technically not street photography, since there was no street involved. I shot from a dirt trail approaching a village some miles outside of Chefchaouen. I have been told that under Islam, graves may not be adorned with images or representations of the deceased. So, white painted stones are often used to mark them. These stones look impossibly haphazard and close to be each marking a grave, so I don't know what exactly they are. Nor do i know if the spiky dead trees on the hill were killed purposefully to give the cemetery a suitably stark atmosphere, or whether they naturally died that way.

I was in the town of Moulay Idris (named for an Islamic luminary who was called Idris), when I saw this donkey carring jugs of water, being whipped by a man wearing his baseball hat backwards. My assumption is that this guy's trade is selling water to households that don't have piped, potable water. I further assume that the donkey is his delivery vehicle.

Well, I have never thought highly of the character of men who wear their baseball hats backward instead of letting the visor shade their faces, as God intended. My judgment of this man was confirmed when he scowled and said, "No photo." So I waited until he turned a corner and took this picture. The burro-driver realized what I was doing and scowled again, but he didn't stop to berate me further.

I plead guilty to being insensitive. I guess I'm lucky he didn't turn the whip on me.

Moroccan society seems very gender-segregated. I almost never saw a man and a woman walking or seated together. Men sat in cafes together and drank coffee. Women took their coffee, or tea, in places sheltered from a tourist's gaze. Even when they waited for a bus, as did this group in Fes, men and women seemed spontaneously to separate into gendered groups.

The woman with the eyeglasses, by the way, is an outlier in that she's showing her hair.

These are storks, nesting atop a rampart in the middle of Fes. This is odd, because Fes is in arid country, and storks are birds that need a wet environment. I think the answer is golf. King Hassan II, who ruled from 1961 to 1999, was a golfing enthusiast. He had courses built within the spacious, walled enclosures of his various palaces, including the one in Fes. This royal enclave happens to be  few blocks from the storks and the ramparts pictured above. Its golf course is reputed to have water hazards and the kinds of green, open spaces conducive to stork happiness. The palace walls are no problem if you can fly.

In Chefchaouen, a little girl is escorted to school by an older woman, perhaps her mother or grandmother. Both wear the accepted garb for their ages. Little girls can show their hair and wear pink smocks to school. But women generally cover their hair and wear drab colors and shapeless styles. Morocco's current monarch, King Muhammad VI, is an advocate of universal education, for both girls and boys, and it's easy to spot new school buildings as you travel. Perhaps the king thinks that he can have both an educated populace and a populace that accepts the traditional gender rules of Moroccan society. This little girl, though, may dream of a future in which she lets her hair shine in the sun and bares her shoulders if she wants to, just like the Disney princess, Moana, on her backpack. Maybe that's what the king wants, too.

Three boys whose paths I crossed in Fes, near my hotel. I do not know why they were made up as they were. It was more than a week before Halloween, and I don't know if Halloween is even recognized in Morocco. But they were innocently happy to have their picture taken. Then I gave them the change I had in my pocket and probably corrupted them for life.

On the coastline in Tanger, there is a rocky clifftop with indentations in the rock in the form of graves. It is called the Phoenician Tombs. The graves long ago were emptied and their contents placed in museums. On the morning when we visited, there were half a dozen Moroccans sitting on the rock, gazing silently out over the Straits of Gibraltar. On a clear day, you can see Spain.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Blue City Chefchaouen Fes Morocco Straits of Gibraltar street photography Tanger women Sat, 05 Nov 2022 13:57:23 GMT
The Virgin of the Pillar I heard the music before I saw the Virgin.

It was October 12 in Seville, Spain, and I was trying to pick a path through the maze of cobblestone streets in the barrio of Santa Cruz. (It moritifies me to resort to the cliche of a maze, but I can't think of another way to describe those streets.)

The music came to my ears the way music comes to you when you're approaching a college football stadium on game day. You hear the thud of the drums, and then, as you get closer, you pick up the melody of the horns and the woodwinds.

I realized right away that what I was hearing and beginning to see was a procession in honor of the Virgin of the Pillar. That was because, a few days earlier, in Madrid, I'd asked a taxi driver why October 12 is Spain's national holiday, its Fourth of July. It turned out there is a bit of ambiguity in Spain surrounding the meaning of the date.

My driver replied that it was the national holiday because it was the day on which Columbus discovered Anerica. I replied, in my fluent Spanglish, that Columbus has been getting a bad rap on the American side of the Atlantic in recent years. ("There is not good talk about Columbus in America right now," I think I actually said.) Schoolchildren, I went on, are no longer taught that Columbus discovered America--which of course he did not. They're probably taught that Columbus, on October 12, inaugurated the era of European imperialism in the Western Hemisphere. Which is actually correct.

That was all right, my driver said. Spain had its own revisionist historians. But if Columbus ever became so politically incorrect as to forfeit his role in the national celebration, he said, Spain has long had Version B of the national holiday. That was the Feast of the Virgin of the Pillar.

I googled the story a bit later. It seems that in the year 40 A.D., St. James, one of the original twelve apostles, was in what was then Roman Hispania, trying to convert the local heathens. Things were not going well. One night, tired and discouraged, he knelt on the banks of the River Ebro, outside the city of Zaragoza. He prayed, and the Virgin Mary answered him. Though she was at that time living in Jerusalem, she did what the Catholic Church refers to as a feat of bilocation. She, and an accompanying host of angels, managed to be simulteously in Spain and Jerusalem. In Spain, she was hovering over a pillar. Hence the name.

Not only did Spain become a Catholic country after this appearance. In the 19th Century, as Napoleon's armies besieged Zaragoza, the Spanish forces, inspired by the Virgin, rebuffed them. A year later, the French returned. Though this time they were successful, when they sacked the city they steered clear of the shrine to the Virgin of the Pillar. Except, that is, for one French officer who stole a jewel from the shrine to take home as a present to his wife. In his next battle, one of his legs got shot off. There's no virgin like a virgin that teaches those arrogant French a lesson, right?

Thus the Virgin of the Pillar became a patriotic, as well as a religious figure in Spain. Sometime later, she  also became the patroness of Spain's Civil Guard, the national police force. This put the Virgin squarely on the side not only of the one true Faith, and of vengeance against those arrogant French, but of law and order, as it was practiced in Spain under General Franco. She was, in other words, a right-wing symbol. This raised the possibility that the same Spaniards who disapproved of venerating Columbus might not like venerating the Virgin of the Pillar, either. But that is an argument for another day.

I did not have to walk very fast to catch up to the procession. It was moving very slowly, in fits and starts, through the neighborhood. The statue of the Virgin, garbed in gold and white, rose above smaller figures (St. James and his men, I guess). There was, of course, a silver pillar beneath her. The assemblage was surrounded by white flowers and candles in crystal  hurricane holders, all mounted on a gilded float. Clouds of cloying incense rose through the evening air.

It was difficult to tell whether this was a spontaneous gesture of popular devotion or a carefully staged event. There wasn't really a big crowd. Most of the marchers were members of a band called "The Cigarboxes." Why the name, I do not know. But I found a web site for the group suggesting that the members are at least semi-professional musicians and they specialize in playing religious events. 

Two or three members of the Civil Guard accompanied the float. They wore their dress uniforms, with the black patent leather caps called Tricornios. Despite the Tricornios, they looked stern.

And there were acolytes, both male and female, dressed in elaborate gold vestments and intricate white lace.  One of them, a girl with a red-and-gold (the colors of the Spanish flag) ribbon in her hair, seemed on the verge of being sick as she gamely swung her censer. It appeared to be of silver, and I wondered if perhaps it was silver that Spanish conquistadors, set on the trail by Columbus, had brought back from the Americas.

The city government in Seville hadn't even bothered to ban parking along the parade route, so the procession had to squeeze into the space between parked cars and the opposite curb, which was none too wide. I don't know if this was a political statement or not. I know that when there's a parade in Chicago for St. Patrick's Day (the Irish vote) or Columbus Day (the Italian vote), you will not see any cars parked along the route. But in Seville, the mayor is Antonio Munoz Martinez, a member of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party. Maybe he wouldn't care to remove parked cars for the convenience of a church procession. The antipathy between the Church and the Left in Spain has a long history.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) band Catholic music procession religion Seville Spain Virgin of the Pillar Thu, 03 Nov 2022 18:23:20 GMT
Santa Rita de Cascia Can't Get No Respect I must confess that I had never heard of Saint Rita of Cascia until a recent trip to Seville, Spain. Around the corner from my hotel, I found a little park in a neighborhood of narrow, bumpy streets and many Catholic churches. A parish church with whitewashed walls was opposite the park.

On the church wall across from the park's fountain, I saw a striking portrait of a woman, in tones of brown and gold. Executed on ceramic tiles, it reminded me of Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch. I assumed at first that it was a rendering of the Virgin Mary. But upon a closer look, it turned out to be a portrait of Saint Rita of Cascia, identified as the "abogado de lo imposible." Normally, I would translate "abogado" as "lawyer," but in this case, perhaps a better choice would be "advocate." When I googled Saint Rita, I found that she was more commonly referred to as a patroness of the impossible. Her prayers on behalf of people with incurable diseases, it was said, led to many cures. 

There was no artist's signature. A kind of caption suggested that the piece was created in a ceramic factory named for Santa Ana, in the Triana quarter of the city. But there was no other information. A few feet below the icon was a slot in the wall, labeled "limosna," or charity. Two lamps, adorned with finely filigreed metal, lit the icon at night.

I found a little more information on Saint Rita in a biography published online in Argentina. She was born Margherita Lotti in 1381 in Roccaporena, Italy. As a girl, she wanted to be a nun, but he parents obliged her to marry a man named Mancini. She had two sons, Gingiacomo and Paulo. The biography rather cryptically suggests that she did not so much enjoy as withstand the act of procreation: "She suffered much at the side of her husband, but she shielded herself by means of prayer to God."

In any case, Saint Rita was evidently not given to sentiment regarding her family life. Her husband, it is said, converted to Catholicism, influenced by her example. (This suggests he was not a Catholic when he married her, which seems unlikely in medieval Italy, but this is the way the story goes.) Then, a few years later, he was murdered. The Mancini boys apparently were the "you don't mess with the Mancinis" sort, and they plotted vengeance.  Saint Rita found out about this. Rather than see them commit a serious crime and, worse, a sin, she prayed that God "would remove them from this life." Shortly thereafter, the sons died. I guess this showed that Saint Rita had a pretty direct channel of communication with the Almightly.

The deaths of her husband and sons freed Saint Rita to do what she had wanted to do as a child. She entered an Augustinian convent in Cascia, close to her home village. She spent the rest of her life praying for people with impossible problems and doing strict acts of penitence, the details of which I can only guess at. She died in 1457 and was canonized more than four centuries later. For some reason, devotion to her leapt the Tyrrhenian Sea between Italy and Spain, and she is revered in much of the Spanish-speaking world. 

Or, perhaps, it would be better to say that she was.

I cannot claim to have made a scientific survey, but I spent an hour photographing the interaction of passersby with the beautiful icon in their midst. There was one man on a motorcycle (at right) who put his hand on his chest as he passed, but the hand was not on his heart and he otherwise appeared not to notice Saint Rita. The majority of people who walked past seemed to feel inspired to check something on their phones. No one stopped. No one looked up. No one bowed a head or doffed a cap. No one slipped anything into the charity slot.

This was not really surprising. Spain is no longer the devout Catholic country is once was. Like those in much of Western Europe, its churches are often empty, even on Sundays. Modern Spaniards, particularly the young, are said to attend church mainly for weddings, baptisms, and funerals. 

The Spanish church indeed has some things to answer for. It was a pillar of the fascist regime of General Francisco Franco, who overthrew a democractically elected, socialist government in the 1930s and ruled Spain for nearly four decades. Some of its nuns, who ran its hospitals, dabbled in selling the infants of poor, leftist parents to well-to-do, conservative Catholics who could not conceive. So perhaps the church deserves its current low estate.

But I could not help but think that the icon of Saint Rita deserved better than indifference.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) adoption Cascia Catholic church Franco icon Italy Rita Saint Seville Spain Mon, 31 Oct 2022 21:19:43 GMT
Keeping It Semi-Real in Costa Rica Sometimes, in fantasy, I see myself as the traveler I have never been. Fluent in many languages, dressed unobtrusively, this traveler blends with the environment while he absorbs it. He is charming; the local people like him even when he isn't spending money. He is wise and empathetic in his conversations with them, conversations that often go on long into the night,  He is constantly curious, constantly learning. And he takes photos, again unobtrusively. They are so good that he finances his travels by selling them to National Geographic.

In  reality, however, I am El Turista Gringo.

I am such an obvious tourist when I travel abroad that I don't even have to open my mouth to get the locals to speak to me in whatever English they can command. I'm not quite sure why this is so. I don't wear tee-shirts that say, "I ONLY SPEAK ENGLISH." Maybe it's my blue eyes. Blue is a rare eye color in the warmer parts of the world, where I like to travel. People in tropical climes seem to like blue eyes, if only for their rarity. So that's what I'm going with. It's not my clothes. It's not my paunch or my Nikon that give me away. It's my blue eyes.

(Also in reality: I once got a chance to take pictures for National Geographic. I was writing an article for them and they said, sure, take pictures while you're out there. They even gave me lots of film. When I got back, they developed it. I asked them if they'd seen anything they liked. The photo editor didn't quite manage to hide his smile as he handed me back all my negatives.)

While I cannot avoid being recognized as un turista gringo, I prefer not to be part of a herd of them. Call me a snob if you like. But I am not alone in this. I get e-mails on a regular basis from travel magazines and bloggers, with links that, if I click on them, will connect me to pages of both "content" and advertising. No one writing such click-bait would ever say, "Hordes of people are going to Venice this year, so make your reservations now." No one likes to be thought of as horde material, even if he takes Carnival cruises on boats that can transport small cities. The click-bait artists trade in terms like "hidden gem" and "undiscovered" because everyone likes to think of himself as that sophisticated, worldly traveler who breaks his own trail. Lewis & Clark didn't book a package tour. Neither did Marco Polo. So why should he?

Well, because, as my wife would be happy to point out, he who breaks his own trail sometimes breaks down. Or gets lost. Or runs the rental car off dark, narrow roads. Or winds up sleeping in crummy hotels. Or can't get a table in a decent restaurant. Or gets stuck in places with nothing to do. Or fill in your own most-feared travel calamity here.

To avoid any of that, I decided that for my first trip overseas since the pandemic, I'd book a brief stay in a small hotel in Costa Rica, a spa called The Retreat. It was an inspired choice. The Retreat is a 30-minute taxi ride from the San Jose airport, 2,300 feet up in the mountains near a town called Atenas. (So named by someone who appreciated the Grecian roots of Western civilization.) The Retreat has a kindly, efficient staff, a dazzling view down the mountains to the Pacific, and delicious, mostly vegetarian food. The massage therapists are wonderful, and you can tell you're in a fancy, Zen-ish kind of place because they tinkle little bells to signal the beginning and end of every treatment. The bells speak to one's chakras, I think.

The Retreat offered its guests a couple of brief local excursions, one of them to Atenas. I booked it. A driver named Sergio told me as I got in the car that we'd be stopping on the way for a traditional, authentic Costa Rican country breakfast at a farm called La Casa del Alto, prepared by a great cook named Dona Cecilia. (I know the n in Dona should have that squiggle called a tilde, but putting it there is beyond my competence. Disculpa me.) We drove for a while over the twisting, narrow roads of the Atenas area. I started to feel like this was not the usual trip for El Turista Gringo when Sergio turned from the paved road to a narrow, rutted dirt trail, through dense tropical woodland. And it definitely felt authentic when the car bogged down on a muddy curve, maybe six feet from a precipice. Sergio adjusted the four-wheel drive setting and gave the engine a little gas. I could imagine the tires suddenly grabbing and the car accelerating over the precipice. Fortunately, the wheels just spun.

This being the 21st century, our plight did not degenerate into an episode of Survivor. Sergio pulled out his cell phone and called La Casa del Alto. They sent one of Dona Cecilia's sons, Saul, on an ATV. He tied a strap from the ATV to the car and managed to carefully pull us free of the quagmire. That's a picture, above left, of the rear-view mirror of the car, and the ATV. I might have gotten a better angle and a better picture if I'd stepped out of the car and walked a few paces back, but, hey, El Turista Gringo wasn't going to muddy his new shoes. (That's a shot of Saul, below left, after the car was freed from the mud.)

We arrived at La Casa del Alto and met its matriarch. Dona Cecilia (right and above right) was a soft-spoken woman of 73. The farmhouse was not the one her family lives in now, but she grew up in it, she told me, one of fourteen children. It had beaten earth floors, a couple of rooms that were partly exposed to the air, and pictures of saints on the walls. The cooking area, partly indoors and partly out, had several wood-burning cooking eyes. She showed me how she made a kind of corn cake, which she served us on plantain leaves. It was delicious. 

Seated at a round table that had places for eight or so, Saul and I discussed farming. His family's place had about four hectares (about 10 acres) and it raised many things. I could see a rooster and flowers, bananas, plantains and a basket of limes. There was the corn in my breakfast, a couple of eggs, plus a fresh cup of coffee. Saul said it all came from those ten acres. 

Costa Rica seems to have a few more small family farms than remain in many countries, including the United States. I guess it's because the terrain in many parts of the country is so streep that the kinds of mechanization that make corporate farming profitable in Kansas would be impossible.

Unfortunately, said Saul, the price of seed and fertilizer keeps going up. It's not clear to him how long the family farm will last. Of course, the only farmers I ever spoke to who didn't complain about the cost of seed and fertilizer were on collective farms in the Soviet Union, where the state supplied those things. Nevertheless, I take what Saul said seriously. It isn't an easy way to make a living.

I, of course, was part of their strategy to keep the farm profitable. If enough turistas gringos came from Costa Rican hotels to sample Dona Cecilia's breakfasts, the cash would help. I was happy to provide some. They would have been happier, I think, if Sergio had brought more people, That's part of the conundrum. You may want to be the  independent traveler. They need more customers. Maybe, as the pandemic wanes, they will get them. 

After breakfast, I continued on into Atenas. It's a small town, with a covered marketplace, a few restaurants, and a town square that has a carved stone sign proclaiming that it has "El Mejor Clima del Mundo." (The Best Climate in the World.) I don't know who determined this; the sign had no footnotes. But it might be true, apart from the rainy season. Atenas temperatures seem to be always in the high 70s, and even when the clouds drift from the Pacific up the green slopes of the mountains to bring fog and misty rain, it's a pleasant place to be. So pleasant, in fact, that a lot of norteamericanos have bought land in the area and built little mansions with big iron gates. It's a mixed blessing for the natives, I was told. The gringos spend money but rents in town are going up.

I saw one particularly impressive sight in Atenas: a public high school that offers the International Baccalaureate program. I.B. is a worldwide network of high schools that offer a curriculum with uniformly high standards. Students can attain the I.B. diploma after passing exams scored by panels of educators from outside their particular schools. The diploma commands respect from university admissions directors anywhere in the world. I.B. schools in the U.S. tend to be either private or in wealthy suburbs. To see one in a little town in Costa Rica reminded me that Costa Rica is renowned among Latin countries for its commitment to education.  This is in part, perhaps, because the country did away with its army in 1948, saving money and helping to assure uninterrupted decades of democratic government. For security, Costa Rica gets by with a police force and would, I assume, rely on help from outside if one of its neighbors were to invade.That frees up resources for education. And while there is clearly some poverty in Costa Rica, what I have seen in my visits there is a country with a big middle class. If you ask me, the only real solution to the problem of masses of poor migrants trying to enter the United States via the Mexican border is to somehow help and nudge the other Central American countries to be more like Costa Rica. 

I enjoyed strolling around Atenas. I took pictures of high school kids enjoying their lunches in the plaza. I talked to retired men who gathered there to shoot the breeze. The next day, I was pleased enough that I decided to book one of the other excursions on offer at The Retreat, this one to a coffee farm called El Toledo. That is where I got to know Gabriel Calderon.

Gabriel's responsibilities at El Toledo include hosting visitors, since he speaks excellent English. His father is the farm's patriarch. What sets El Toledo apart from most of the roughly 40,000 coffee growers in the country is that El Toledo is organic. It became so decades ago, when the family realized that Gabriel's father was getting sick because of the pesticides and fertilizers that they used. Raising coffee is manual work on steep hillsides. Growers and laborers can't help but be exposed to whatever is going on the coffee plants. 

The decision to go organic was costly. Gabriel said the receipts of the farm dropped 75 percent in the first year of organic production. Slowly, the bottom line has recovered as the family has learned practices that make organic farming more efficient. 

The coffee growing area at El Toledo nowadays looks almost like a wild forest, with many trees and plants growing in the midst of the coffee. But it's not a haphazard agglomeration of plants. Certain bushes, growing near the coffee plants, attract insects that might otherwise molest the coffee plants. Certain leaves that drop are allowed to lie on the ground, adding nutrients to the soil. 

Gabriel begins his tours in a shed where he can brew coffee. He brews various beans in various ways and asks visitors to rank each of the four cups they sample. Then he invites them to try eating a bit of salty breadstick and taste the coffee again. The rankings usually change, he said, because salt on the palate affects the way the coffee tastes. The rankings usually change again after visitors take a sip after ingesting some sweet marmalade.

Gabriel is an exponent of lightly roasted beans rather than the dark roast most Americans prefer. He thinks a dark roast is analogous to cooking meat well done; just as well done meat has fewer juices, dark roasted coffee has lost some of its elements of taste.  I took his word for it, and bought three bags of light roast to take home as gifts.

I felt once again a citizen of the world.

Then I went back to The Retreat and had a massage. 



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) America" Atenas Central Central America tourism coffee plantation Costa Rica Costa Rica tourism El Toledo coffee gringo Latin America massage pandemic spa The Retreat tour touring Costa Rica tourism Thu, 25 Aug 2022 22:15:27 GMT
Travel in America, August 2021 I have just returned from my first airplane trip since the pandemic started, and I have some good news. The U.S.A. is still a beautiful country, at least if you look in the right places. The picture above is a view of a city park in Colorado Springs called the Garden of the Gods. In almost any light, the sandstone crags are striking, and you can wander among them from early morning to late evening, free of charge. The question, however, is not whether the country is beautiful. It is whether the counry beautiful enough to justify the risks of traveling through it.

My wife and I went to Colorado for a meeting originally scheduled for 2020. There was some deposit money to be lost if we blew the meeting off this year. When we decided to risk it, a couple of months ago, we'd both been vaccinated and the Covid 19 numbers were dropping rapidly. Now, of course, they're not. By the time you read this, the numbers will have changed again. So take this post as a tenttive advisory.

Our flight to Denver was full. So were the rental car buses, the airport subways, the hotel restaurants, and the cog railway to the summit of Pike's Peak. People are so eager to travel. They're climbing the cliffs at the Garden of the Gods. They're putting two quarters and a penny into machines to get a souvenir mashed coin. They're pulling out their cellphones to make videos of any bewildered wild animal that crosses their path.

(They're also pulling out their cellphones and electronic devices at the dinner table, when they ought to be focused on their companions;and on the cog railroad when they ought to be focused on Pikes Peak. But that's another blog post.)

This post is about two questions: Are travelers spreading the virus? Are they catching it? And the answers are: I don't know. 

The people on our flights obediently wore their masks. No one got obstreperous and had to be duct-taped to a seat, leaving me slightly disappointed. I had a secret, guilty desire to see that happen. The flights were boring enough that rather than focus on my fear of disease, I found mysef wondering why United Airlines, with hundreds of channels of in-flight entertainment, couldn't come up with anything more interesting than "Godzilla vs. Kong."

Off the plane, most people seem willing to wear masks when asked, especially indoors. But not all people are. If you go through an airport, you can expect to hear numerous announcements stating that mask wearing is required by law. You can also expect to encounter someone like the man above left, maskless outside Gate B-39 in Denver International, wearing a shirt with a weird version of the American flag. There were, perhaps predictably, crossed rifles on the back of his shirt. I suspect the Venn diagram of people who have a un fetish, who wear weird flag shirts, and who reject masks and vaccines is pretty much just three overlapping circles that blend into one. Can you avoid the exhalations of this guy and people like him? Can they avoid yours? I can only hope so.

And people aren't always asked to wear masks. At our first hotel, the Broadmoor, the bellman blithely advised me as I entered that I could remove the mask I was wearing. The Broadmoor guests in general seemed to think the pandemic was over. In the mornings, they lined up happily for something I did not expect to see in America again--the breakfast buffet. All day long they mingled, outdoors and indoors, mask free. I doubt they were all vaccinated, and I doubt they were all free of Covid.

Like a lot of places in the hospitality business, the Broadmoor was suffering an abundace of guests and a shortage of staff. This meant, for example, that you couldn't just drop into one of the hotel's  restaurants for a meal, even if there were empty tables. The restaurants had to spread the customers out so that the staff could handle them. Reservations were therefore required. Similarly, Hertz did not seem to have enough drivers to run enough shuttle buses at Denver International. We waited 40 minutes to get on a bus. After we finally got our car and drove off, we passed a parking lot with eight empty Hertz buses sitting in it. 

In my Economics 1 class, lo these many years ago, our professor confidently predicted that the result of a labor shortage would be rising wages. He underestimated American capitalism's tenacious desire to minimze labor costs. The Broadmoor has responded to the labor shortage, in part at least, by importing workers from other countries. Genial folks from Jamaica, Colombia, and Afghanistan crafted our cocktails and carried our bags. They did a fine job, although the contrast between their skin color and the hotel guests' skin color did give the Broadmoor a rather Old South feel at times.

Despite the ennervating episodes from the trip, though, the bottom line is that tonight at dinner, I could smell and taste my food. We got to see and re-connect with family members. We saw a beautiful part of the country we hadn't visited. And eight days after we embarked, we're not sick. 

But as they used to say in the automobile commercials, your mileage may vary.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) 19 Afghanistan airplane airport America Broadmoor cog Colombia Colorado covid Denver guns Hertz Jamaica masks pandemic Peak Pikes railway risk shortage Springs staff travel U.S.A. Sat, 14 Aug 2021 13:33:33 GMT
Will 2020 Be America's Worst Year? I've seen some commentary in the last few days saying that 2020 is shaping up as America's worst year since 1968. Martin Walker, the journalist and novelist, suggested as much by linking to a column by James Fallows, who says that it likely is. I respect their opinions.

Certainly, 1968 had a skein of atrocities and tragedies. The killings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy skewed our history in a terrible direction. There were riots in the streets. The war in Vietnam was at its height--or nadir. Mayor Daley's police crushed protesters in Chicago. George Wallace ran for president. Richard Nixon got elected.  

But, as I look back on it, I don't remember feeling that 1968 was terrifying. Part of that is because I was 19, and if one can't be blithe at 19, when can one? Part of it is because I was cocooned in an upper-middle-class suburban family and a conservative Southern university. Part of it was the sense that whatever might be happening at the moment in 1968, America was changing and moving slowly and erratically in the right direction. Simon and Garfunkel won the Grammy that year for best recording. An anti-racism film, "In the Heat of the Night" won the Oscar for best picture. I had my initial foray into public affairs via a spring break trip to Wisconsin, where I canvassed voters for Eugene McCarthy's anti-war candidacy. At the end of that spring break, President Johnson announced he would not run for reelection. The system could work! With the naive arrogance of youth, I felt that when my generation came of age and assumed power, things would be better.

Of course, they aren't. And that's one reason I fear America's 2020 might be worse than America's 1968, worse than any year in my memory. This year, I feel like the country is again going through miserable times, that we're on a downhill slope. But this time I don't see much reason to think that things will change for the better.  

I took the pictures in this post on the afternoon of June 1. I am not, any longer, one to venture down to the White House area during a disturbance to get pictures. I am not nimble enough to get out of the way of a charging cop or a fleeing protester. And, lest we forget, there's a pandemic going on, and how can you be certain to maintain social distance during a melee? Kudos to those photographers who did go there and recorded the event. Just don't cough around me.

But then, on the night of May 31,  the disturbances came closer. I live about a mile from a neighborhood called Friendship Heights, which straddles the border between Maryland and the District of Columbia. It's an affluent neighborhood, which is why once-louche merchant brands like Bloomingdales, Saks and Neiman-Marcus maintain stores there. And it, along with the northwestern areas of D.C. and the inner suburbs like Chevy Chase and Bethesda, had always felt insulated from whatever trouble might be happening in the city. It's an area dominated by liberal white people, who get to have their security along with their political piety.

From what I could gather, there was not that much damage done by the vandals who came to Friendship Heights late Sunday night. The man supervising the boarding of windows at Paul's Liquors in the picture above left told me the store's surveillance cameras recorded a group of about six or seven people who grabbed bricks and smashed windows up and down Wisconsin Avenue. They fled when the cops showed up. Their names and motives remain unclear. Maybe they were rioters who wanted to take the violence to where it would more directly affect white people. Maybe they were provocateurs; I've seen film that suggests white supremacists were among the early window-breakers in Minneapolis. 

Whatever the case, the vandals seem mainly to have helped Fox News proclaim "a nation in flames." As I saw in 1968, when that trope asserts itself in the public mind, it benefits Republicans. Is that what the protesters want? To help reelect President Trump? I get that people are rightfully fed up and desperate. But four more years of Trump is not going to make things better. Of course, maybe the vandals think that only by making things bad enough to discredit Trump and the Republicans for a generation can they effect fundamental change. I can't argue against that idea with the certitude I once might have.

I do know for certain that four more years of Trump can only make things worse. As if to prove that, the only violence that occurred in D.C. on Monday was instigated by Trump, who ordered that demonstrators be cleared from the area around the White House so he could walk across Lafayette Square and pose in front of St. John's Church with a Bible in his hand. The police cleared the way for this photo op with tear gas and rubber bullets. I suppose we should be thankful that he didn't have an AR-15 in the other hand, to energize the other wing of his Know-Nothing base.

I guess it's the persistence of that base that bothers me the most about this country. It's the fact that 40-odd percent of my fellow Americans think that it's democracy in action when they march on the state capitol brandishing assault rifles. Forty percent overlook the qualms they might have about Trump because he's lining their pockets with tax cuts that exacerbate our growing income inequality. Forty percent will gladly let the next generation deal with the effects of climate change as long as Trump rolls back regulations that cut profits by hindering their ability to pollute. Forty percent of Americans are happy to overlook Trump's lies and general amorality as long as he holds up a Bible occasionally and nominates judges who might one day let them prohibit abortion and teach creationism in the public schools. When I see that great numbers of Americans think it's their right to shop in our grocery stores without wearing masks in the midst of a pandemic, I wonder. Who are these people? They're my compatriots?

I see now that many sensible leaders are urging protesters to take their energy and their fury into the political arena, to register voters, get voters to the polls, and remove Trump and his supporters from office. It's the right thing to try. But I fear that what we are going to see is another minority victory in the election. It will be enabled by our archaic electoral college, abetted by Republic efforts to suppress the vote in areas inhospitable to them and skew the results through gerrymandering. If that in fact happens, 2020 will indeed be the worst year America has had in a very long time.





]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) 1968 2020 America Bible Fox News Friendship Heights George Floyd James Fallows Martin Walker protests Trump vandalism Washington Tue, 02 Jun 2020 13:50:12 GMT
Sunrise on the Strip I have just returned from my first visit to Las Vegas, and I guess the first question I should address is how I could reach my advanced age without ever visiting America's fabulous fun capital. One answer is that I am not much interested in boxing, Cirque du Soleil or Cher. Another answer is that I am a lousy gambler. If I want to waste money, I can easily do that by flushing it down the toilet. It's faster and more efficient than betting on blackjack or putting it in slot machines, though I admit that the slots provide a lot of lights and sounds for the buck, while the toilet just has an aspirant swirl.

I went for a convention of wedding and portrait photographers, which is to say an event in which people who actually make a good living at photography offer how-to advice to people who would like to make a good living at photography. As a side benefit, everyone gets to play with the camera manufacturers' new gear. That lady in the desert-sun-resistant sombrero at right was a model hired by the lens company Tamron as a subject for potential customers to aim the company's lenses at. I shot her with a prototype new zoom lens, and I will definitely want one when it hits the market. And, yes, I would want it even if Tamron had offered a potted plant as a test subject. Note the sharpness of her eyes.

I stayed at the convention hotel, the enormous Mandalay Bay, on the south end of the strip. The Mandalay Bay would like its claim to fame to be its Michael Jackson Theater, home of a tribute show celebrating Neverland's friend to boys everywhere. Alas, the Mandalay Bay's actual claim to fame is that in 2017, a man with an arsenal of assault rifles broke open his 32nd floor window and massacred 58 people--country music fans assembled for a festival in an adjoining lot. This tragedy galvanized change at the Mandalay Bay. Today, there is a sign about six inches square bolted into the wall near the entrance to the hotel, stating very firmly: "Notice--No Weapons Allowed." It's even got one of those circles with a slash through it encompassing a silhouette of a pistol and a knife. I guess this is in case an illiterate gunman tries to become the hotel's next mass shooter. He'll be deterred by the symbology. Problem solved, America! Who knew it would be so easy?

It was actually quite difficult to leave the Mandalay Bay. I don't mean that I felt bad about getting out of it. I mean that to get out, I had to hike about half a mile. But I was jet-lagged, and I had trouble sleeping, and I thought some fresh air and exercise would help. In getting out, I found a Las Vegas entertainment option that gives great value for the dollar. No, it's not the Blue Man Group show at the Luxor, or the standup comedians at Brad Garrett's (remember him?) club at the MGM, or some single-zero roulette wheel at a small casino off the Strip. It's taking a sunrise walk on the Strip.

One morning, just after the sun rose over the hills to the east of the Strip, I exited the Mandalay Bay, perforce unarmed. The air was cool and dry. I turned north and just managed to avoid a guy in an orange safety vest who clattered by on a skateboard. Ahead of me, the imposing blue-eyed Sphinx at the entrance to the Luxor gleamed in the sunlight. The Strip's characteristic neon was being overpowered by the sun, but this Sphinx didn't need neon to make an impression. The low light from the East gave his blue eyes an eerie glow. He seemed to be somewhat distraught, in shock, like a man who'd gone all in on a full house, only to lose to four of a kind, and perhaps thinking, "Jeez, what will I tell Mrs. Sphinx when she sees the Mastercard bill?"

At this hour of the morning, I saw the kinds of people you might expect I would see. There were joggers. There were service workers, sweeping up the trash and polishing surfaces. Most of these folks were tolerant, even genial, when I asked if I could take their picture. Then there was the guy at the top of this post, on the lo-rise bicycle. I heard him before I saw him. "Stupid bitch!" he yelled at a jogger he almost ran over. I turned, and when he saw me raise my camera, he raised his finger. "Fucking faggot!" he yelled, before pedaling away.

Well. It's a town with a bit of stress, I guess. 

Speaking of stress, it's a town that can teach life lessons to the youth of America. I encountered the pair in the picture below left just north of a casino-hotel called New York, New York. It is called this, presumably, because its owners needed a plausible motive to build its replica Statue of Liberty even bigger than the Sphinx down the street. The guy on the left volunteered that he had just lost $2,000 at the blackjack table. Which was a problem, he said, because his old man had given him a budget of $50 for gambling. (I assume he was using daddy's credit card.)

"At least we didn't blow it on hookers," said his buddy, the one with the bleached pompadour and the doofus expression. He was presumably going to be his friend's character witness.

"Yeah, that's right. That would be worse," said the failed blackjack player. He looked at me. "Wouldn't it?"

"I don't know," I replied. "Your father might think that if you'd spent it on hookers, at least you'd have gotten something for your money."

The kid looked dubious about that. "Either way," he said, "I think I am going to feel my father's belt." 

Pondering the role of corporal punishment in developing the next generation of Las Vegas regulars, I continued walking. I discovered that a walk on the Strip is a highly efficient way to burn calories. The city makes it efficient. Partly to help automobile traffic move by limiting the number of pedestrian crosswalks, the city has built flyover pedestrian bridges every few blocks along the Strip. (The way these bridges funnel foot traffic to the doors of certain major casinos is, I am sure, a coincidence.) To get people from the sidewalk level to the bridge level, there are escalators. A lot of them don't work, so you wind up walking up and down stairs, getting valuable cardio training with every step. I think Las Vegas uses the same escalator contractor as the Metro system back in my hometown, Washington, D.C. Small world!

As the sun rose higher, I started to see fewer joggers, fewer street sweepers and more guys wearing suit jackets and convention credentials on lanyards around their necks. So I turned around and headed back to the Mandalay Bay. I have read that the old Las Vegas, whose economy was based entirely on gambling, has given way to a new Las Vegas, with an economy based on conventions and family tourism. And that certainly seems correct, based on what I have seen. There's a lot more square footage devoted to retail and entertainment at the Mandalay Bay than there is to craps and roulette. It's actually not easy to spot a craps table; I never did.

Speaking of retail and entertainment, I dropped into the Michael Jackson souvenir store at the Mandalay Bay and found a genuine replica MJ bandleader's jacket, in black with red piping, in my size for only $149. I thought I might go to one of the ATM's on the casino floor and withdraw the cash to buy one. The ATM fee is only $7.99.

Another Las Vegas value! 





]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) casinos Elvis gambling Las Vegas Mandalay Bay Michael Jackson Tamron The Strip Fri, 28 Feb 2020 19:45:51 GMT
Sunday Afternoon in Casco Viejo I'm not exactly sure why the Panama City neighborhood I am presently visiting is called Casco Viejo. According to my English-Spanish dictionary, casco means "helmet," or "skull." But the proper translation of Casco Viejo is the "old town." It's not the original site of Panama City. The original was burned in 1671 by marauding pirates. Two years later, Spain rebuilt on the current site, surrounding the new buildings with a thick stone wall. I guess this is the best possible explanation for the name. The Spaniards figured the wall protected their gold the way helmets and skulls protected their brains.

I first saw Casco Viejo a couple of decades ago, when I visited as a journalist. It had fallen on hard times. Buildings were coming apart and I was warned not to go there after dark. The money in Panama City--and there's a lot of it--had migrated a few miles across a bay and up the coast, where dozens upon dozens of gleaming skyscrapers pierce the skyline. Panama does quite well with discreet banking, even more discreet legal services, and of course, the Canal. Casco Viejo seemed to have been left behind, permanently.

But in 1997, UNESCO declared the old quarter a World Heritage Site. Investment started to flow in. Now, I am told by Google Translate, Spanish has adopted the English word "gentrification." It certainly was needed to describe Casco Viejo. There are narrow streets in the old town where you can buy artisanal cocktails, artisanal clothing, and artisanal cuisine. A horde of tourism police make it safe for foreigners. It seems that every block has a building or two that has been stripped and gutted and will be rebuilt for luxury condos, offices, or shops.

I arrived on a Sunday afternoon and took a walk around. The sun was setting in a clear sky. Freighters waited in a loose line out in the sea for the next time the canal's locks would be open to Pacific-Atlantic traffic. The people of Casco Viejo, it seemed, were spending the last hours of their weekend in the warm air.

To find them, one had simply to get off the main streets and poke around down the side streets, toward the sea. Down one little street, at the water's edge, I found a tiny futbol field, covered in artificial turf that had seen a lot of use. It was literally coming apart at the seams. A small crowd of kids were playing some  version of futbol, though it was hard to tell what the sides and the rules were. Maybe this was because they didn't wear anything to help with identification. Most were in shorts and bare feet. Some were in their underwear. Their lithe bodies gleamed with sweat in the waning sun. 

It was easier to figure out the rules of play down another side street, where someone had placed a ping-pong table. If you won a point, you stayed at the table. If you lost one, you gave up the paddle to someone else. Adults walked by, squeezing around the table. The kids seemed not to notice them. 

A little further down, the street met the sea. Underneath the city wall to the left was a small, gritty beach. A few people swam, a few paddled on boards. A lot sat quietly in beach chairs, or on the sand, sipping on things.

A few feet above the beach level there was a kind of sandy terrace with a low, concrete perimeter wall. A neighborhood party was going on.  Music came from a speaker in one corner. There was dancing, sometimes with couples doing something known best to themselves, sometimes with groups that formed and disintegrated, seemingly at random. Most people seemed content to perch on the perimeter wall, watching the other people, drinking cocktails from styrofoam cups or beer from cans, chatting, maybe avoiding the thought of the work that awaited them the next morning. They were very friendly to a stranger in their midst. If I asked to take someone's picture, that person invariably said a pleasant yes and waited patiently while I fiddled with the camera. 

Some of the women carried little signs, in the form of comic book-style word balloons mounted on little sticks. At the top of this post, the woman in sunglasses is carrying one. It says, in my rough translation, "Single, but not in a hurry." She was sitting next to an eminently presentable man, but if they were connected, or if he was put off by the sign, I couldn't say.  Another woman carried a sign that said, in Spanish, "Busco Pareja Solo Por Este Noche." My rough translation of that one was, "I seek a couple, for this night only." 

I wasn't sure what she meant by that. It could have been she was angling for a threesome, if you took it literally. Or, it could have been an idiomatic way of saying she was looking for a more traditional one-night-stand. Or, more likely, it was a joke, a conversation starter. No one seemed to care. 

I noted, of course, that the people in this part of Casco Viejo had skin colors in various shades of brown. I am not an expert on Panamanian demographics, but I know that the country's elite has traditionally had skin of a paler hue. And I saw people like that, people like the family pictured below, walking on an esplanade atop the ancient walls, with the towers of modern Panama City behind them. 

It would be easy, but perhaps irresponsible, for me to suggest that the people at the neighborhood fiesta represented the past of Casco Viejo, and the people walking on the esplanade represented its future. I don't know. Maybe gentrification will work differently in Panama. 

Whatever happens, I hope that the old barrio doesn't lose its appetite for communal joy.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) barrio Casco Antiguo Casco Viejo cities fiesta gentrification Latin America Panama Panama City UNESCO World Heritage Site Tue, 11 Feb 2020 00:41:41 GMT
The More Powerful Climate Change Story Is in Places Like Miami A couple of days ago, my hometown newspaper, The Washington Post, published yet another report from the Arctic about global warming. It was a well-written, thoroughly reported piece. But I seriously doubt that many people read it in its entirety. I am even more certain that it won't do much to change the minds of people who are in denial about climate change and/or vote for politicians who pretend it doesn't exist.

The reason is that the Arctic, Siberia, Antarctica and other places favored by climate change reporters are too remote to get people's attention. Yes, a photo of a nervous polar bear standing on a melting ice floe may seem visually arresting. But the reality is that when many people see such a picture, they think:

a) climate change is happening far, far away; and

b) if that polar bear drowns before he can eat me, great! 

The only thing that will change the minds of people in denial is reporting that tells them climate change is going to hurt something they care about--their wallets. Stories to that effect are readily available, not in the Arctic, but in places like Bal Harbour, Florida.

My wife and I spent a few days in Bal Harbour recently. It's a wealthy little enclave (three-tenths of a square mile) at the northern end of the barrier island that includes Miami Beach. Bal Harbour has a population of 3,039 and assessed real estate valued at $5.2 billion. If my phone's calculator is to be relied upon, that means the average Bal Harbourean owns property worth about $1.7 million. Much of this assessed value, about $4 billion or so, is concentrated in the high-rise hotels and condos that line the beach. You can see what they look like in the picture at the top of this post.

As my wife and I walked along the beach, we saw fliers advertising an evening meeting at Bal Harbour's Village Hall. A consultant was going to brief anyone interested in a preliminary study of the hazards facing Bal Harbour (and by extension, Miami Beach and the entire Miami area) due to climate change. On the South Florida coast, of course, the most threatening effect of climate change is water.

Out of curiosity, we went to the meeting, along with maybe two dozen residents. The news for Bal Harbour was not good. Over the next thirty years, it can expect a lot more "sunny day flooding," which is already occurring in Miami Beach. Sunny-day flooding is the result of "king tides," which occur when the moon is particularly close to the Earth, in the autumn. Not coincidentally, that's when Venice has its aqua alta flooding; it's the same phenomenon.

Bal Harbour can also expect more and more severe tropical storms and hurricanes. Meteorologists used to talk about a "hundred-year storm" when they described a storm so intense that it could be expected to occur only once a century or so. Now such storms seem to be occurring several times a decade, and meteorologists are warning that South Florida is likely to see what once were thought of as "five hundred year storms." These are hurricanes like Dorian, which laid waste to Abaco in the Bahamas last year, or the storm that squatted over Houston for a couple of days in 2018 and delivered 43 inches of rain.

This would all be on top of the threat to Miami Beach and Bal Harbour caused by melting glaciers and rising sea levels. The water may only be rising an inch or two a decade right now, but Miami Beach doesn't have many marginal inches.  A lot of what is now considered Miami Beach real estate was once a marsh. It was filled in decades ago by dredging out what is now Biscayne Bay and depositing the spoil. The average elevation above sea level can be measured in inches.

No one in the village hall, though, was talking about letting Bal Harbour revert to marshland. Instead, they were using watchwords like mitigation and resilience. Bal Harbour is going to suffer periodic serious flooding. To survive, it is going to have to spend--and spend heavily--on mitigation and resilience. This means building so that the effects of floods are less severe than they might be, and so that Bal Harbour can bounce back from a flood more quickly than it could today.

Mitigation and resilience come down to some fairly prosaic things. Collins Avenue, the thoroughfare that forms the spine of Miami Beach and Bal Harbour, might need to be raised a few feet to remain passable during what will become routine flooding. Some buildings, the ones built on low lands, might have to be replaced with buildings that are effectively on stilts, with the ground floor limited to things like garages and the living space put higher in the air.

The mitigation and resilience process will have winners and losers. Bal Harbour's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, for instance, was built in the 21st Century, when the effects of climate change were already becoming known. Not coincidentally, I suspect, it was built on an earthen pedestal, a mound 14 feet above sea level. A lot of the newer high rises on the beach are similarly situated. They can withstand a lot of flooding. But the older buildings on the western side of Collins Avenue, including a lot of garden apartments and small motels, are on land only two feet above sea level. They're toast. 

The consultants estimated that Bal Harbour will need to spend $1.5 billion over the next 30 years on mitigation and resilience. Again using my trusty phone calculator, I estimated that this would work out to $16,666 per year for each of Bal Harbour's 3,039 residents. To which a lot of people might say, "So what? It's not money out of my pocket."

And that is where a a lot of people would be wrong. That ain't the way it works.

What will happen? The very same politicians who insist that climate change is fake news will propose spending general tax dollars to mitigate it. Republicans will do this because they're habitual hypocrites. They'll talk out of one side of their mouths about small government and fiscal responsibility. Out of another side of their mouths, they'll deny that the climate is changing and add that we ought to burn more coal and oil.  And out of yet another side of their mouths (politicians have big mouths), they'll vote for resilience and mitigation projects to help home owners and hotel owners (their constituents and contributors) pay for things like raising Collins Avenue.

Democrats will complain that we really ought to do something about carbon emissions. But then they'll also vote for massive federal expenditures to put the hotels on Miami Beach on Art Deco stilts. They'll do it because construction workers might vote Democratic. So might the people employed in Miami Beach doing things like stoking hookah pipes and serving cocktails in birdbath-sized glasses. And Democrats just congenitally like massive federal expenditures.

And that is how we are all going to wind up paying through the nose for climate change. 

Because, you know, no one wants to see tourists in Miami Beach using those big cocktail glasses for flotation devices and the hookah pipes for air hoses during their amphibious vacations. That would be un-American. 

But what I'd like to see is more journalism that tallies the bill coming due for climate change--and who exactly is paying it. If it's going to cost $1.5 billion in tiny Bal Harbour, I am sure the cost for the entire United States will be astronomical. Maybe more reporting on that would get some people's attention.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Bal Harbour climate change flooding Florida global warming Miami Miami Beach mitigation polar bears resilience Tue, 14 Jan 2020 21:14:25 GMT
Can Paint, Cellphones and Instagram Reinvent a Neighborhood? A decade or so ago, a Miami real estate entrepreneur named Tony Goldman had an interesting idea. Goldman was working in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood, a down at the heels place with lots of warehouses. It had been known as Little Puerto Rico, as other Miami neighborhoods of poor, migrant people were called Little Havana and Little Haiti. It had been known for crime, as certainly not a place where Miami's wealthy people and visitors would venture. It was known for graffiti, painted on the big, empty walls of abandoned warehouses.

Tony Goldman saw potential where others saw only vandalism. He began encouraging street artists to come to Wynwood and paint commissioned works on the walls. The artists responded. Wynwood was a great canvas. I've seen street art in places like Melbourne. But there you have to go into alleys to see it. In Wynwood, entire, sunsplashed streets could become street art galleries.

I don't know if Goldman, who has passed away, anticipated two technology-related developments that would act as accelerants for Wynwood. One was the cell phone, which put a camera into every tourist's hand. The second was Instagram. At one point in the dark, distant past, it was considered gauche to push friends and acquaintances to view your vacation pictures. With Instagram, it stopped being gauche. It became trendy.

Thus developed the phenomenon that is today's Wynwood. Five or six years ago, when I last visited, there was art on the walls, but there weren't many visitors. You might see a photo crew doing a shoot on NW 2nd Avenue, and trickles of people walking and observing. But now, Wynwood has become  the urban equivalent of a Disney World ride.  People come to visit in tour buses.

There is a park of perhaps ten acres called Wynwood Walls that the Goldman enterprise maintains, complete with dozens of street art displays, official guided tours, a gallery, cafes and a gift shop.  It may seem strange. But in the gallery, paintings rendered on canvas that are copies of Wynwood street art have price tags as high as $80,000, which is considerably more than I get for my photographs. 

Wynwood fills a need in today's world. People who like to post pictures of themselves on Instagram like to have jazzy backdrops for those pictures. Wynwood Walls is nothing if not jazzy backdrops.

So you see a woman with a white bridal veil on her head posing with four or five women in black tee-shirts that say "Bridal Squad." They're not just posing. They're doing some kind of pantomime that involves the bridesmaids pretending to pull the bride in different directions. Against another wall, a man jumps into a cheerleader's spreadeagle, while a woman crouches with her cellphone, recording the image for posterity. A lot of people seem to be emulating the duck-lipped, coy poses pioneered by Instagram heroines like the Kardashians and the Jenners.

Now, I like it when I see urban neighborhoods revive. Despite all the downsides of gentrification, I think it's a healthy phenomenon. But I am not sure if what's going on in Wynwood is eventually going to be seen as a successful urban revival. It has some of the signs of urban revival. There's a cafe that sells both crepes and art. There's a restaurant with sidewalk tables and valet parking. There's a WeWork space on the eighth floor of a parking garage, which suggests that young entrepreneurs like the Wynwood vibe.

But I didn't see much evidence that actual people are moving in. There's an enormous empty lot across from Wynwood Walls, enclosed by a fence. The buildings that once stood within the fence have clearly been demolished, and a sign on the fence promises that a mixed development of retail and restaurants is coming. In 2019. So that schedule has slowed down, and there's no active building going on in the lot here in the first days of 2020.

Maybe, I think, residential revival is going on beyond my view, in neighborhoods near Wynwood. Or maybe Wynwood just has business and industrial bones which nothing can change.But Wynwood has already proven that art can change a neighborhood. In years to come, I hope to visit again and see what's happening.  



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) cameras cellphone Florida Instagram Miami street art tourism Wynwood Wynwood Walls Tue, 07 Jan 2020 20:22:10 GMT
Endangered Species of D.C. In Washington these days, one cannot avoid signs that a neighborhood is gentrifying. Some of them are obvious, like a bespectacled, helmeted white guy riding his bicycle home in the rush hour streets of a neighborhood that once was entirely black. Others are a little more subtle, like the appearance of a Cross-Fit gym. Gyms appear, I believe, when a neighborhood's population develops a critical mass of residents who work at desks. These new people need gyms to exercise. The displaced population, which tended to be people who worked on their feet and with their hands, felt no need to exercise when their workdays ended. They got as much exercise  as they wanted just earning a living.

When I see these gentrification signals, I think, of course, of the displaced people.  Theirs is a human tragedy, albeit not on the scale of, say, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzogovina. D.C.'s displaced people wind up living somewhere--not where they preferred, probably, but living nonetheless. And sometimes, though not always, they leave the old neighborhood with a significant chunk  of money, derived from the sale of grandma's house to the gentrifiers.

But what about the businesses that served the displaced population? They are the endangered species of this changing urban environment, and for them, the process is unrelentingly cruel. The storefronts pictured above are adjacent to a Cross-Fit gym called Second Wind that opened recently on the upper reaches of 14th Street NW. A little further down the block, there's a new restaurant in a building that was once a dry cleaners. It's got bare brick walls inside, cafe tables on the sidewalk outside, and a roasted acorn squash entree for $16. I wouldn't bet that Delicias Market II and Soap City USA are going to be able to stay on the block much longer.

That's because gentrification has a powerful and heartless ally, capitalism. As the neighborhood around 14th Street gentrifies, the gentrifiers bring different tastes, different needs. Since they have money, capitalism guarantees a response to these tastes and needs. In their renovated row houses, they'll have washers and driers. They won't need a laundromat. They'll drive to Whole Foods, or Wagshal's, or Wegman's, rather than pick up their frutas and vegetales at Delicias Market II, no doubt wary that the produce there might not be certified organic. (Indeed, there's been an announcement that a new Whole Foods will be opening in the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center complex, about a mile from Delicias Market II.) And so the revenue of these businesses will spiral down.

At the same time, their rents and property taxes will be going up. If there's one thing gentrification does, it's drive up property values. The city government in Washington talks a lot about fighting to maintain affordable housing supply. But it doesn't, as far as I know, mess with the system of real estate taxes. That system provides a a roaring, foaming spigot of money to the city government as gentrification proceeds. It also pushes out businesses that don't fit into gentrifying society. So, good-bye, Soap City USA. 

It is the economic equivalent of extinction.

Shed a tear or two for Chinese carry-outs. Like the one pictured above left, on 3rd Street NW, (with its doughty American flag on the counter), they all seem to have the word "dragon" in their names. Poorer neighborhoods all seem to have one. They are on my endangered D.C. species list because, as their neighborhoods gentrify, they'll disappear. In gentrified neighborhoods, as in the suburbs, people expect their Chinese dinners to be delivered. In pre-gentrification neighborhoods I suspect its harder to find drivers willing to walk up to a front door carrying money and food and ring the bell. So the folks there get by with carryouts, at least for a little longer.

Not all of D.C.'s endangered businesses are worthy of tears. I took the picture at right on H Street NE, one of the most rapidly gentrifying streets in the city. The beer and wine store that was known simply as 1101 is already gone. It's boarded up. In this picture, the words tell most of the story. On the left, there's a sign that says something about the neighborhood as it was. "DRUG FREE ZONE," it begins. Then come what Chinese carryout owners would probably call The Four Nos: "No Loitering, No Panhandling, No Drinking, No Drugs." And up above the roofline of old 1101 is a sign that foretells the fate of the building. It's attached to the new building next door, which is called "Eleven Eleven." It boasts of "Unparalleled Style," with one-bedroom units starting in the $400,000s and two-bedrooms in the $700,000s. Presumably, Eleven Eleven will not have a sign in front reminding residents of the Four Nos. People who can afford to live there might do drugs and will most likely drink, but they won't panhandle. They'll use their credit cards to rent a bike from Capitol Bikeshares and pedal to their desk jobs. After work, they'll sweat in the new Cross-Fit gym down the street, jumping onto and off of boxes until they puke.

Alcohol anchored the business models of a lot of the businesses that are going to be or already have been swept away by gentrification. Alcohol, after all, is one thing people will find the money for even when times are tight. These businesses also cashed paychecks and had ATMs for people without bank accounts, charging hefty fees for each service. The financial services will no longer be required. And the new residents will be looking for interesting wines from France, not liquor in half-pint, pocket-sized bottles. I won't much miss such places.

But I do worry about the fate of places like Hillman and Son Barbershop on H Street, with its handsome, mosaic sign (at left). Its window says it's been in business since 1948. The bars over the window, like the sign prohibiting loitering, drinking and drugs in front of the shop, suggest that surviving in business hasn't been without its challenges. But now Hillman and Son are up against perils more powerful than burglars or loiterers, perils that bars can't protect them from.

A sign in the window advertises that the shop specializes in cuts like "The Phillie" and "The Bush." What happens when the new people in the neighborhood aren't into The Phillie or The Bush? What happens when the rent goes up? I fear that Hillman and Son will disappear, perhaps to be replaced by a chain coffee shop or an "upscale boutique." Maybe Mr. Hillman's son, or whoever clips the last Phillie cut in the place will ponder the irony that a shop that survived the hard times, like the 1968 riot on H Street, couldn't survive the neighborhood's revival.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) 14th Street NW capitalism displaced by gentrification gentrification H Street NE real estate small business urban affairs Washington Sun, 15 Dec 2019 17:45:17 GMT
Can Golf and Native American History Co-Exist? To begin this story, I need to go back about 2,000 years. Native Americans roamed the the river valleys of what is now southern Ohio. Historians today call these ancient Ohioans the Hopewell people, but that name comes from a 19th-century Buckeye farmer named Mordecai Hopewell, who allowed some of the first archaeological investigations of the Hopewell on land he owned. We don't know what the Hopewell called themselves; they left no written records. Archaeologists now understand that the Hopewell had villages, crafts, and art. They supported themselves by hunting, foraging and growing crops. They traded with other Native American groups. And they sculpted enormous, astonishing, geometric, earthworks. These earthworks take the form of circles, octagons and other shapes, extending for miles and enclosing many acres. The earthen walls are from five feet high to 14 feet high. Presumably, they were made with wooden or stone tools. 

The Hopewell people, for reasons unknown, declined and, as a group, disappeared. Maybe climate change had something to do with it. Maybe warfare did. By the time Europeans came to Ohio, the Native Americans they encountered professed to have no knowledge of who built the earthworks or why.  Some early Americans saw the earthworks, which are near the town of Newark, Ohio, and recognized their historical value. Daniel Webster wanted them preserved as a national park. But others saw them as an obstacle in the way of farming or building railroads and canals. As Ohio developed, the Newark Earthworks started to vanish.

That, roughly, was where golf entered the story.  In 1910, the Newark Board of Trade leased 125 acres of earthworks land to a newly formed golf club, which soon named itself Moundbuilders Country Club. The leased acreage contained some of the most intriguing shapes in the complex, including a circle and an octagon.

There apparently was some intent to preserve these key portions of the earthworks by leasing them to a golf club rather than letting the land fall prey to other, more destructive kinds of development. (The club property today is surrounded by housing, suggesting what probably would have happened to the earthworks had they not been enclosed inside a golf course.)

The Scottish immigrant golf architect Tom Bendelow, responsible for some notable American courses, including Olympia Fields outside Chicago, was hired to design the course. He kept the earthworks on the property more or less intact, incorporating them into many of the 18 holes he designed. The picture atop this post shows the third green, set inside an earthwork ring. The picture above left shows how the 10th fairway is abruptly interrupted by portion of the earthworks known as the Observatory Mound. From the tee on No. 10, the golfer has to decide if she can carry the mound and reach the portion of the fairway that lies beyond. If she can, she will have a clear shot with a shortish iron to reach the green. If she can't, she'll have a long, blind shot. On the right at the bottom of this post is the golfer's view of the approach to the first green.

Seven of the par fours have a variation of this theme. The mound surfaces are in play, though playing from them is inadvisable. They function more or less like cross bunkers with high lips. A player needs to avoid them, either off the tee or on the approach shot, calculating the shot required either to lay up short or carry them.  Other mounds are used as framing devices near greens, like the ones near the fourth green, at right. (The steep mound walls require some creative mowing techniques by the club's staff.)

Despite the earthworks, Moundbuilders is not a particularly hard track. It is today what it has been for a century or so, a pleasant, well-kept, small-town American golf club--just with some unique features.

The club traditionally offered some accommodations to people interested not in golf, but in the earthworks. At different times during the year, particularly in winter, the grounds were opened to people who wanted to explore. Year-round, there is an observation post reached by a staircase that allows visitors to peer over an earthen wall that lines the left side of the par-three ninth hole. They can see a few of the complex's walls within the course. But the golf course also obscures some of the most significant parts of the earthworks. Trees that line fairways block views that the earthworks were created to show. And, of course, members of the public who want a closer look are barred most of the time.

Archaeologists took relatively little notice of the golf course earthworks in the early years of the 20th Century. This was because they quickly discovered that the earthworks were not burial mounds, and archaeologists interested in Native American culture in those years liked to excavate burial mounds to find and analyze the artifacts interred with the bodies.  But that began to change in the 1980s.

Modern scientists took a renewed interest in the Newark Earthworks. They came to believe that the earthworks were a site of major astronomical and ceremonial significance for the Hopewell people. They theorize that the circle and octagon structures on the golf course were built and aligned in accordance with phases of the moon. Somehow, those lunar phases were integrated with burial and cremation ceremonies that took place in other parts of the earthworks, miles away. (At left is an artist's rendering of the golf course earthworks and the moon, produced by the University of Cincinnati. It's on a historical marker at the edge of the course.) The significance of the entire complex was compared by some scientists to that of England's Stonehenge.

And with that, the golf course became endangered. People in Ohio started to talk about trying to get the Newark Earthworks declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are a lot of good reasons to do so, beginning with the way a World Heritage Site at the earthworks might help people understand that Native Americans were not the primitive savages portrayed so often in American books and movies. It would lend prestige to Ohio and maybe bring in some tourist dollars.  But UNESCO indicated it was not going to have golfers hitting balls around a World Heritage Site. 

Moundbuilders Country Club had a lease through 2078, but now the state of Ohio is pressuring the club to give it up and leave. The club's position is that it would be happy to go if someone paid it enough to buy land and build a new course and clubhouse on it. Ohio's rejoinder has been to file a lawsuit seeking to take the property through eminent domain. Ohio has won the first round in court. The club has appealed, but, as its pro, Randol Mitchell, told me when I visited recently, the state of Ohio is not in the habit of losing eminent domain suits. It seems quite likely that some time in the future, perhaps the near future, a judge will tell the state how much it has to pay the club, the state will pay, and that will be that.

It seems a shame that the golf course and a World Heritage Site can't co-exist. A golf course laid atop an earthworks would be very educational. All over the world, conquering cultures have built their own monuments on the rubble of those they conquered. But it's only at a few places, like the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, that this very common human process is visually evident. More often, as with Etruscan ruins covered by Greek ruins covered by Roman temples, the process of history is submerged and invisible. It's hard to imagine something that would more graphically illustrate the way Europeans imposed their culture on Native Americans than a golf course laid over a ceremonial earthworks. When the golf course goes, so does that illustration.

And the golf course will go, because it's equally hard to imagine whoever eventually takes over the site spending the money required to maintain greens and fairways. That's probably just. The world has a lot of golf courses. It has only a few sites like Stonehenge and the Newark Earthworks.

But I will remember a lovely, very unusual little small-town American golf club, a warm and sunny autumn day, and the happy round I played there.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) archaeology Hopewell Moundbuilders Country Club Native American Newark Newark Earthworks Newark Ohio Ohio science UNESCO World heritage site Thu, 10 Oct 2019 20:12:57 GMT
Monticello: More of the Story When my friend Pat Bradford suggested a road trip to Monticello with her husband, Bruce, I accepted immediately. But I was a little nervous. Pat and Bruce are African-American. I am not. I knew that Monticello in recent years had moved to acknowledge and include the history of all residents of Thomas Jefferson's plantation, the black and the white, the enslaved and the free. Would I find it embarrassing to see and hear this history along with Pat and Bruce? Would they find me embarrassing? I didn't know. I could only trust Pat. 

I've known her since 2006, when I made a late-career switch from writing and journalism to teaching in the public schools of Prince George's County, MD. Pat and I were in the English Department at Central High School. She had a classroom down the hall from mine, and she helped me survive. She told me what to do when most of my class flunked the first exam I gave them (give them another exam, quickly) and what I could do if a student absolutely refused to quiet down. ("You can send them down to my classroom and let them sit with my class for the rest of the period," she said.) Pat is a proud African-American, and she is also a woman who looks for the good in every individual. I was fortunate that she found enough good in a 57-year-old white man presuming to teach reading and grammar to black adolescents that she made me her mentee, and her friend.

Over the years since we both retired, we've stayed in touch. Pat organizes a symposium on James Baldwin each year at her church in southeast Washington. Each year I come and help her out by doing things like leading a discussion group. We'd not made a road trip together, but it turned out to be easy. I picked Pat and Bruce up at 8 in the morning, and Pat and I chatted while Bruce amiably occupied the back seat.

We arrived before 11 and Bruce bought my ticket. Monticello does a very efficient job of shepherding visitors through Jefferson's house, and one of its methods is time-stamped tickets. Our ticket put us in a group that would go into the house at 12:50. That gave us time to take the separate "Slavery at Monticello" tour that began at 11:30.  The starting point is a replica of the one-room slave cabin occupied by the Hemings family, the most historically prominent members of the slave community that worked at Monticello. The cabin is very likely a good replica. It was built on foundation stones that remained in the ground many decades after the original cabin disappeared, and it conforms to the detailed plans and notes Jefferson kept for every structure at Monticello. The interior of the replica cabin is at right. Maybe the contrast between it and the big house, pictured at the top of this post, will suggest the disparities of wealth and power at Monticello.

It turned out that Pat had a nuanced view of slavery. She and Bruce have traveled to much of the world; they'd just returned from a trip to Egypt, where slave labor built the pyramids. She knows that many cultures have featured some form of slavery, and that there can be degrees of evil in any system of forced labor.

Our docent spoke plainly of the history that Monticello now acknowledges, including the fact that Thomas Jefferson fathered six children with a woman who was his property, Sally Hemings. 

It was very different from the first time I visited Monticello, about fifty years ago, when I was a student at the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville. I remember genteel Charlottesville ladies acting as guides, pointing out in soft Southern tones the evidence of his genius, like the device he invented for making a copy of every letter he wrote with his quill pen. Sally Hemings was not mentioned then in Monticello tours. Slavery barely was at all.

This reverence extended to the University, which Jefferson founded in 1819 as the project of his old age. He was referred to in most circumstances as "Mr. Jefferson."  I worked for the student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily,and every day atop the masthead, we ran a quote from a letter Jefferson wrote about the University: "For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." I saw it as a kind of warning to University administrators. If they tried to impose some sort of censoring governing board on the paper, which they occasionally contemplated, we would have Mr. Jefferson on our side in fighting them. That was powerful juju at UVA in the 1960s. (Nowadays, if the University president quotes Jefferson in a speech, there are angry protests about it from teachers and students who believe Jefferson deserves no more respect that any other racist.)

There is still some reverence for Mr. Jefferson inherent in a Monticello tour. The picture on the left shows towheaded children at a table in a Monticello sideyard, learning to use a quill pen by copying phrases from the Declaration of Independence. Visitors still see the alcove bed where he slept, his collection of antlers from American animals and the seven-day clock he invented to tell both the day and the time. Inside the house, he still tends to be the Sage of Monticello. But down on Mulberry Row, where the house slaves and enslaved craftsmen were quartered, there is little or no reverence.

On Mulberry Row, we heard about the careful records Jefferson kept. They included instances where a slave who persisted in running away would be whipped--not by Jefferson himself, but by an overseer. If the whipping didn't end the rebelliousness, the slave's name disappeared from the records, presumably because he was sold, perhaps to the deeper South, where the work was harsher. On the other hand, we heard that there were degrees of enslavement at Monticello. One of Jefferson's paid overseers was a black slave. He got a lower salary than white overseers did, but he was nonetheless paid. Other slaves were allowed to work for wages on a lease basis in Charlottesville or other plantations, and they could keep a percentage of their earnings. Jefferson evidently believed in giving people, including his slaves, incentives to make them work hard.

The docents dealt with Jefferson's attitudes toward race by quoting from his contradictory writings on the subject. He seemed to understood that slavery was wrong, yet continued to own slaves until he died. He wrote that he believed blacks were inferior to whites, but he understood that the reason for this might lie in the generations of bondage and oppression which they suffered. Ultimately, it seemed to me, he lived as a hypocrite because he could not afford the lifestyle he wanted, with its French wines, science experiments, books and entertainments, without his slaves. He was a self-indulgent man.

Monticello deals with Sally Hemings these days by giving credence to the sources that once were scoffed at by "reputable" historians. One such source is an interview her son, Madison, gave to an Ohio newspaper in 1873, describing what the family knew about the relationship. In Madison's telling, Sally was taken to France by Jefferson when she was 14 or so, to serve as a maid to his two daughters. At 16, pregnant, she could have remained in Paris and been a free woman, though how she would have made a living is hard to imagine. So she bargained with Jefferson. She would return to Virginia as a slave as long as he promised that her children would be free. The child she was carrying then died in infancy, but she bore five more of Jefferson's children over the years, four of whom grew to adulthood. In Jefferson's will they were in fact emancipated. Sally Hemings was never technically emancipated, but she was "given her time," by Jefferson's heirs, and spent the last decade or so of her life living with two of her children as free people in Charlottesville.

But neither Madison Hemings nor anyone else could profess to know what Sally Hemings thought about the man who fathered her children, nor what Jefferson thought about Sally. They carried that knowledge to their graves.

Bruce Bradford came to Monticello leaning toward the rape theory of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship. After the tour, he said he thought it might have been more complicated than that. Pat Bradford was, as ever, inclined to look for the good in people. She thought there might have been at least a small part of romance in the relationship. Mainly, she was just happy to see the history of African-Americans finally included at Monticello. After she got home, she posted this on Facebook:

"Today was a righteous day! Thank you, Monticello, for bearing witness to our rich history--not perfect, just human, factual, and finally, fair. Unforgettable!"

I was glad I went.




]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Cavalier Daily emancipation Monticello Sally Hemings slavery Thomas Jefferson University of Virginia Tue, 08 Oct 2019 00:49:56 GMT
Presidential Politicking in the Flesh Living in the state of Maryland, I don't get much personal exposure to presidential politicking. 

It's partly that Maryland is a middle-sized state, and in the American presidential election system, small states are the first battlegrounds. Traditionally, this means that Iowans and New Hampshirites get to be fed up with presidential aspirants interrupting their breakfasts. The rest of us get fed up with fund-raising emails. I understand the advantage of having small states go first. It makes it possible for candidates without national reputations or enormous bankrolls to give it a shot. But wouldn't it be more equitable to rotate the job? How about Rhode Island and Wyoming go first in 2024?

Maryland is particularly underprivileged because it's hard by the District of Columbia, better known, especially in Republican campaigns, as "Warshington DeeCee." Warshington DeeCee plays the same role for conservative campaigns that Sodom and Gomorrah played in the Book of Genesis. It is the locus of evil, and if the Lord weren't presently busy helping Jerry Falwell Jr. turn Liberty University into a football powerhouse, He would no doubt consume Warshington DeeCee with fire and brimstone, just as He did to Sodom and Gomorrah.  Lots of presidential candidates avoid Maryland out of fear they'd be contaminated by proximity to Warshington DeeCee and come down with a case of Beltway Cooties. Some, I suspect, avoid it because they are indeed afraid the Lord will finally finish the football project at Liberty U. and immediately despatch a brimstone storm that will rain on saints and sinners alike if they happen to be in Warshington DeeCee.

Marylanders don't even get to be sick and tired of presidential political ads on television. The state is reliably blue, and no one is going to waste his bankroll on ads in a state that isn't "in play." Marylanders might well wake up on November 4, 2020 and say, "What? There was an election? Why wasn't I informed about this?"

There is a surreptitious way that some Marylanders, among them neighbors of mine, get personally involved in presidential campaigns. They offer their houses for fund-raising cocktail parties and invite their neighbors to pay $2,500 or so to come, have a glass of banal white wine, and get a grip-and-grin photograph with a presidential candidate. If the candidate wins, these folks can then frame the photo and hang it on the Ego Wall in their office. Sometime in the near future, they hope, a new client from North Dakota will come into the office, looking for help getting the damned government to allow him to extinguish a few endangered species (just little bitty ones) in exercising his God-given right to frack for oil on land that his ancestors stole from the Indians. The picture on the Ego Wall tells him, "This woman is a friend of the president. She can help me. It'll be worth paying her exorbitant fee." Thus does Warshington DeeCee earn its reputation as the place where American ideals go to die.

(Note to Doc: Catch my woke reversal of gender stereotypes in that last bit?)

Such fund-raisers, however, are traditionally off-the-record and not covered by the news media, lest the public become alarmed that candidates, especially Republican candidates, are straying perilously close to Warshington DeeCee and risking exposure to Beltway Cooties in pursuit of campaign lucre. Because of the media blackout, I don't know about them in advance and cannot so much as stand in the street to watch the candidate arrive. I certainly don't get invited, perhaps because my neighbors know I dislike cocktail parties, I'd be damned before I'd spend $2,500 on banal white wine, and the Ego Wall in my studio is full of great portraits I've shot for clients, not grip-and-grins with politicians. (Speaking of which, you can have a great portrait made, for a lot less than $2,500, by me. Just call 301-907-8125.)

Anyway, I was receptive when I heard about the special 2019 presidential edition of the Galivant's Ferry Stump. For those who do not, as I am fortunate to do, have friends and family with South Carolina roots, I will explain that Galivant's Ferry is a spot on Highway 501 about halfway between Florence and Myrtle Beach. The Pee Dee River flows through it, so I guess at some point in history, someone named Galivant operated a ferry there. The ferry is long since gone, as is Galivant. Nowadays, and for the past 150 years or so, a family named Holliday has prospered in Galivant's Ferry, running a store, buying up land and generally being very successful. 

Sometime in the 1870s, the Hollidays invited General Wade Hampton, then a candidate for governor of South Carolina, to give a campaign speech. They put up a stump in front of the store and he used it as a platform. This being not long after the Civil War, General Hampton and nearly all white South Carolinians were Democrats; it would take another century for most of them to get over that whole unfortunate thing with Lincoln and embrace their inner Republican. 

The Holliday family somehow did not get this memo. They were true-blue Democrats in the 1870s and they are true-blue Democrats today. So every two years, when the stump comes out of storage and they invite candidates to Galivant's Ferry to speak, the speakers are only Democrats. (That is the beautiful and gracious Russell Holliday, one of the leaders of the clan, wearing a red belt and rising to her feet on the left of the picture atop this post.)

South Carolina has recently ascended to a status nearly equal to Iowa and New Hampshire in the American nomination process. This is because it has positioned itself as the first Southern state to hold a primary, because it's a relatively small state, and because its population more closely reflects the demographic breakdown of the nation as a whole than do Iowa or New Hampshire, which would have to annex the cities of Cleveland and Detroit in order to have many black citizens. This South Carolina demographic factor represents a rare insertion of rationality into the presidential election system, one I deemed worthy of recognition and support.

The Hollidays did, too. They normally hold the stump in the spring of even-numbered years, before the elections for state offices and congressional seats. But the 2020 South Carolina presidential primary will be on February 29, so they decided to initiate a special presidential stump, to be held on September 16, 2019. Five candidates--Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Bill DiBlasio--accepted invitations to speak. At the last minute, Sanders pulled out, citing a sore throat. On his web site, rather than explain the entire situation, his staff posted a note saying, "Event Canceled," as if the Stump would not go on without Bernie. This did not create many new Bernie Bros around Galivant's Ferry.

It did not deter me. With my friends David and Anne Cottingham, I drove down I-95 to Highway 501 and found myself in Galivant's Ferry in less than eight hours. It was quite the  bustling scene. The eponymous stump (actually, a lectern that maybe was made from a stump) was set up on the front porch of the Hollidays' general store. To the right floated one of those big Trump-as-a-fat-chicken balloons. To the left, adjacent to Highway 501, was the capacious canopy sheltering the Hollidays' Sunoco pumps. In between, on the asphalt parking lot, were rows of folding chairs and a platform for TV cameras. There were open tents for candidate organizations, environmental groups and the local and state Democratic organizations.  Lots of smiles. Some hugs. A sno-cone truck and another selling something called "chicken bog." A banjo-and-fiddle band. 

I saw three men standing near the feed shed at the end of the parking lot, watching the goings on. Carefully placing myself so that my shadow appeared at their feet, I took their picture; the shot is above left. Their dress didn't conform to the sneakers and tee-shirts attire of the average Democrat in the crowd and I asked if they were in fact Democrats. "To the core," the man at the right of the picture replied. I guess I was guilty of judging people by their appearance, but in truth, the Stump-goers looked much more like the nice elderly couple in the golf cart, at right.

Then I saw a high school band, dressed in purple, yellow and black, marching onto the premises, complete with majorettes. They're pictured above right. The band had been hired by the Biden campaign to play a rousing tune when his turn came at the Stump.

The Greek letters on their shirts, the priests at Regis High School taught me more than half a century ago, were Rho, Gamma, Iota, Delta and Sigma. Put together, they would have spelled "Rgids." But, the band members told me, they actually spelled "pride." I deduced that they don't teach Greek these days in the schools, and I figured that Biden, when he spotted the error, would instantaneously amend his education platform to call for a renewed emphasis on teaching the classics.  But he didn't. I don't know why. 

I perched on the edge of the general store porch as the hour of the speechmaking drew nigh. Then I noticed a kind of rustling in the crowd to my left, saw a bit of bobbed brown hair and realized that Senator Amy Klobuchar, a genuine presidential candidate, was passing within a few feet of my position. I could have reached out and--I don't know what. Touched her? Not cool. So I just observed while some folks in the crowd pulled out their green-and-white "Amy" signs and waved them up and down. 

Then Amy took the stump. That is she in the picture atop this post. I think the picture shows the moment when she was talking about the similarities and differences between South Carolina and her home state, Minnesota. They both have a lot of farmers, she pointed out. But Minnesota is much colder than South Carolina. They don't have a governor who walked the Appalachian Trail, she said, then grinned. "Oh, that's right. You don't either." 

Good one, Amy. Hard to believe a woman with such a fine sense of humor could actually have temper tantrums and throw salads at aides with whom she was dissatisfied, as has been reported in the newspapers back in the locus of evil, Warshington DeeCee. This is why personal contact with presidential politics is so important. Whom are you going to believe? The lying press or your own eyes and ears? That Amy Klobuchar is a sweetheart, I can attest. 

Watching the candidates up close, you notice things. Like Joe Biden. The guy is in shape. I don't know who his personal trainer is, but I can only hope to have a waistline like his when I get to be his age. Amy, on the other hand, looks a little pudgy. Maybe it was the frumpy blue sweater and the wrinkled khaki pants. This is important stuff that you don't learn from the newscasts originating in Warshington DeeCee.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) 2020 2020 campaign America Amy Klobuchar campaign Galivant's Ferry Galivant's Ferry Stump Holliday Joe Biden presidential campaign South Carolina South Carolina primary Thu, 19 Sep 2019 14:25:54 GMT
Summer in Our Native Hills I’ve noticed a new travel trope this year. Newspapers are writing articles of the “Don’t go here—go there,” sort. The Smithsonian, I’ve read, is offering a course in how to travel without being overwhelmed by crowds. It seems that no one any longer enjoys what were once bucket list items—the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, Machu Picchu, or a gondola ride in Venice. There are just too many people.

These articles and courses offer different strategies to avoid the hordes. One might make a careful list of all the places in the world where cruise ships dock—and avoid them. One might travel only in the off season. One might skip Amsterdam and visit Utrecht instead.

But this summer, it’s occurred to me that my grandparents’ generation might have had the best strategy. They vacationed close to home, up in the hills.

My grandfather, for instance, lived in Rutherford, N.J. He had a summer place--he called it "the camp," though it was a house and a garage-- on a small lake in the Catskill Mountains of New York. It was about an 80-mile drive, and the elevation changed from 66 feet at Rutherford to 1,400 feet at the lake. Those small numbers made a major difference.  Rutherford was close to the miasma of the New Jersey Meadowlands. The lake was surrounded by cooling trees. You could enjoy being outdoors at the lake.

(I pause here to acknowledge that not everyone’s grandfather had a lake house, and not everyone gets to be jaded with Venice. I’ve been fortunate.)

I can remember being at the lake in late August, and it was cold in the mornings, so cold I didn’t want to get out of my warm bed. (I was, and remain, a bit of a wuss when it comes to temperature.) The house at the lake didn’t have air conditioning and didn’t need it.

In my youthful stupidity, I didn’t appreciate this. I didn’t like the traffic jams on Sunday evenings as people headed home for the workweek. I didn’t like the way the muddy bottom of the lake felt when I walked into it. I didn’t like the fact that we were far enough from the New York City television stations that you could only get snow on most channels.  I didn’t like the fact that one of my chores each day (until I was seven or eight) was going to a well in the neighbor’s yard, pumping it, and bringing in a bucket full of drinking water. Maybe that was the etymology of the term “bucket list.” I grew up wanting to spend my summers in places where I didn’t have to tote buckets of water and everything was unfamiliar. That meant flying off to exotic destinations, which I have done as much as I can ever since.

I was not alone. My grandfather’s lake house was not far from the resort hotels of the Catskill Borscht Belt, which catered to New York’s Jewish population. (See the film “Dirty Dancing.”) In the 1970s and 1980s, tastes changed and people sought other destinations. Those once flourishing hotels closed one after another.  Why spend your vacation in the Catskills when you could fly to Paris?

Most of a lifetime later, I know why. Air travel, even if you’ve got the points to fly business class, has become a time-wasting, soul-sucking experience. And when you get to Paris and want to see the Mona Lisa, you'd better have bought time-stamped tickets. Even if you have, as the New York Times reported a couple of days ago, Louvre patrons are “herded like sheep in a long, coiling line.” They get a minute to look at the painting, snap something with their phone, and move on.

During the past couple of weeks, I have seen the future, I think. My wife’s family had a meeting in Asheville, (elevation 2,134 feet) N.C. For Southerners of 100 years ago, the mountains of North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia were the equivalent of my grandfather’s Catskills, naturally cool and pleasant. That’s still true. While I was in Asheville, daytime highs were in the low 80s. And, contrary to the state of affairs a few decades ago, Asheville is now a world-class foodie town. I had a meal at a restaurant called Marketplace that was superb. You don’t have to go to Paris any more to dine well. And in Paris, you can’t get an appetizer of Tennessee peaches wrapped in ham, or a drink made with bacon-infused bourbon.

One morning on this trip, I and a few cousins-in-law took an excursion higher up into the hills, led by Chris and Bonnie Allen of Asheville Photography Tours. We drove into the Pisgah Natural Forest. We saw waterfalls. By the side of the road we stopped and shot a rushing brook, experimenting with different shutter speeds. (The picture at the top of this page was taken with a slow shutter speed.) We drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway and photographed mountain vistas, stony summits wrapped in clouds, learning again why the Smokey Mountains are called that.

Inspired, I took a drive a few days ago up to the northern end of Shenandoah National Park. There were wildflowers, and butterflies, and spiders to photograph. In both North Carolina and Virginia, concessionaires provide some simple, clean lodging and casual restaurants with panoramic views. The sun and cooler air are free. So are the hikes to waterfalls and mountain peaks.

So, while one never says never again, I don't see myself going to Europe so much any more, particularly in the summer. I think I will do what my grandfather did, and stay closer to home, up in the hills a bit.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Asheville Blue Ridge Parkway Catskills crowds" Mona Lisa mountains New York North Carolina Paris Rutherford Shenandoah National Park travel Venice Virginia West Virginia Wed, 14 Aug 2019 17:47:37 GMT
The Red Flag of Socialism I saw the flower pictured above on a recent visit to the Trauttmansdorff Castle Gardens outside Merano, Italy. The gardens are quite beautiful, and for a while I had the notion that they were planted and kept for the amusement of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, who, Meraners like to note, spent seven months at the castle back in 1870. In reality, though, the gardens are an example of what would, in the context of current American politics, be condemned as socialism.

As a carving near the castle explained, they were conceived and built by the government of the Italian province in which they are located, called Sud Tirol if you speak German or Alto Adige if you prefer Italian. A guide explained to me that the castle and its surroundings fell on hard times after World War II and lay in ruins before the government decided to build the gardens as a tourist attraction, which now helps sustain the local economy. The parking lots when I visited were full of cars from Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries, and hundreds of people were having a stroll, eating lunch, and taking pictures.

It happened to be a day when, back in the United States, President Trump and his acolytes were excoriating Democrats as socialists. In the context of American politics in 2019, socialism is an elastic term for tarring anything the Republicans think will make Democrats looks bad, like collective bargaining with campaign workers (Bernie Saunders) or favoring environmental regulations, or whatever it is Trump doesn’t like about The Squad on a particular day. I am afraid that for the next 15 months or so, we will constantly hear abut socialism, expressed as a sneering pejorative, whenever Trump or Fox & Friends open their mouths.

The proper definition of socialism, as far as I know, is a system in which the people, through their government, own the means of production. This would mean, in the American context, that Democrats would be calling for the government to take over General Motors, or Exxon, or Microsoft. As far as I know, even with 24 presidential candidates, no Democratic politician is saying that.

Democrats are calling, in various ways, for a greater government role in health care. They’re calling for more regulation in environmental matters. If your business emits pollutants, for instance, the Democrats don’t want you to be able to dump those pollutants into a creek and forget about them. They’re also calling for the government to spend more money on things like helping people afford higher education, and they’re proposing to get that money by raising taxes on the wealthy.

None of these proposals, in a rational world, would be conflated with socialism. They are, rather, adjustments to what the United States has had for decades—a mixed economy, with the government undertaking to do things the private sector will not or cannot do. It was Republican president Dwight Eisenhower, for instance, who shepherded America’s interstate highway system into existence back in the less fevered 1950s. No one accused Ike of being a socialist. And no one seriously advocated waiting for the private sector to build those highways. Another Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, brought millions of acres into the National Park systems. Nowadays, of course, we would have Republicans fulminating against “guvmint roads,”  or "guvmint land." If you don’t believe this, note that we currently have legislators in Kansas who like to vote against appropriations to operate “guvmint schools.”

There’s obviously room for debate on specific ideas that would give the government power at the expense of the private sector.  I can see a lot of reasons for questioning whether Medicare-for-all is a good idea. But those who oppose it ought to have to explain why it would be worse than America’s private health care system, which study after study shows delivers worse health outcomes for more money than the government-run systems in other countries.

If the Republican zealots against socialism had their way, I suppose, we would have only those amenities that entrepreneurs initiated and sustained because they made a profit. There is a lot to be said for entrepreneurs pursuing profits. They’re innovators. They bring enormous energy to the economy. They cause growth. A smart system wants to make sure they can flourish.

But I think the Europeans, better than we, understand that there’s also room for initiatives that won’t make a profit and that therefore need to be provided by government. My innkeeper in Merano, for instance, told me that in good years, the Trauttmansdorff Gardens operation costs just about what ticket sales bring in. But there are years when an unusually harsh winter kills many flowers, and then the government has to subsidize the re-planting. Which it does. I’m sure there are European taxpayers who would rather not subsidize things like the Trauttmansdorf Gardens, but they appear to be a minority. In Merano, I can report that the laborers and botanists who are employed there, and the entrepreneurs who sell food and lodging to the tourists, did not organize an anti-socialist demonstration while I was in town.

A couple of days after visiting the gardens, I used another subsidized government service, a funicular that rises for several miles from the city of Bolzano to the village of Sopra Bolzano. It’s a beautiful ride. At the terminus in Sopra Bolzano (pictured at right), there’s a little single-track rail line that shuttles between Sopra Bolzano and another village, Kollalbo, a few miles away. Year-round, I suspect a lot of mountain villagers use the service to go to work in the city or to shop. It’s a tourist service in the summer. European families come for the hiking on Alpine trails. They don’t need cars to get there. They stay in guesthouses owned by farmers along the rail line. My ticket cost 30 Euros, but I imagine that the funicular and the little train don’t make a profit even in the summer, to say nothing of the winter.

But a funny thing about Sopra Bolzano and the hamlets along the little train. They look prosperous. The houses are well kept. There are no empty storefronts, such as one sees in the devastated small towns of rural America. Of course, the citizens of those small American towns don’t have to suffer under the curse of socialism and government interference in the economy. Lucky them. 





]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Alto Adige Bolzano botany Bozen" funicular funivia gardens Merano Ober socialism Sud Tirol Supra Bolzano Meran Italy Europe Bozen tourism Trauttmansdorff Mon, 29 Jul 2019 13:57:42 GMT
Still in the Sulky in Pinehurst When I was a boy, harness racing was, if not a major American sport, at least a noticeable one. The sports sections of the New York newspapers had regular coverage of the events at Yonkers Raceway and other harness tracks. There were agate summaries of each race, just as there were agate tables of the stock exchange prices. There were occasional features about the top horses and drivers. Each year, the Hambletonian, harness racing's equivalent of the Kentucky Derby, got lots of attention.

But that was long ago. Harness racing, like bowling, has faded out of the sports pages and the internet sites where a casual fan might occasionally read about it. In the Washington area, where I moved in the 1970s, there was a harness track called Rosecroft Raceway. It disappeared some years ago, and I couldn't even guess when that happened.

I can guess about why it happened. For one thing, harness racing thrived when there were few, if any, legal opportunities to wager. If you wanted to bet, you had to go to a track. Now it's the rare state that doesn't have a lottery, casinos, or both. For another thing, harness racing isn't very well suited for television. Each race has a couple of minutes of action, and then there is up to half an hour of dead time before the next race begins. Television, once it gets its commercials in, abhors dead time. Plus, the horses are the stars, and you can't get post-race interviews from a horse. And then here's the bond between harness racing and a bygone era when more people lived on the land and got around by driving buggies drawn by horses. The smaller that era gets in our rear-view mirror, the more harness racing will be an antiquity.

So I was surprised and a little intrigued when my friend Mike Mitchell informed me that there was harness racing scheduled in Pinehurst, N.C on the first Saturday in April. We were in adjoining Southern Pines to play golf, and golf is the sport I have always associated with that area. I knew there was an old horse track in Pinehurst, because it's visible near a few holes on some of the resort's golf courses. But I didn't know it was still in use.

It is in use and has been since 1915. Harness racing nowadays is centered around places like Canada and the Middle West, which are snow-covered in the winter. The horses, like any athletes, need to train year-round. So the owners, trainers and drivers (jobs that in the harness racing world appear frequently to be held by the same individual) spend the months from November to April in the South, in places like Pinehurst. It can get nippy there, but it rarely snows. 

In Pinehurst, one of the culminating moments of the winter training season is the Spring Matinee Races. It's a pleasantly casual event. General admission is supposed to be five bucks, but Mike, our fellow golfer-photographer Don Tobin, and I got there late because of our morning round of golf, and the ticket-sellers must have gone to the track to watch the races. We got in free. We also didn't have press passes. But when we wandered by the pickup truck that carries the starting gate for the races, the lady operating the gate invited us to shoot up close from the bed of the truck. (It was a mixed blessing to be that close. I had an 85mm lens, which was not wide enough for capturing the whole array of gate and horses at the beginning of the race. It also wasn't long enough t get a good closeup of a horse or driver. The shot above left was the best I could do.)

There's no pari-mutuel betting at the Spring Matinee Races, no prize money, no official odds, no tote boards. There is a little system where you can try to pick winners and get prizes, but no one seemed to take it very seriously. Mostly it was a family-and-friends event, thankfully nowhere near as studiously posh as steeplechase races and polo matches. The railbirds at racetracks I remember tended to be old guys in straw hats, clutching the Racing Form in one hand and a foul cigar in the other. At Pinehurst, they tended to be little kids playing in the dirt or pointing to the horses. I saw one cluster of people who were celebrating a patriarch's 70th birthday. I saw a cluster of young women at the edge of the far turn who were having a bachelorette party.

I went back to the track on Monday morning, just after dawn. It was foggy, and the horses and drivers practicing on the track were partly shrouded. It was quiet, and you could heard the clip-clop, clip-clop of the hooves striking the clay track.

Harness racing is an odd discipline. Though it's a race, the horses cannot gallop. They must maintain either a trotting or a pacing gait depending on the race. In trotting, the horse's legs move forward together in diagonal pairs--left foreleg and right hind leg, for example. In pacing, the legs on each side move together. Trotting in a harness while pulling a sulky with a driver in it is not something all horses take to instinctively, I gathered. The horse pictured at the top of this post was balking against the discipline during his morning training.

Drivers and trainers use a few devices to get the horses's attention and keep him focused. There's the whip, which seem designed not to hurt the horse, but to make a sound and remind him of his job. They use blinkers on horses that can be distracted visually by sights along the periphery of the track. They use ear covers to prevent horses from being distracted by sounds. The red pair on the horse at right gave him a rather diabolical look, I thought. Some drivers talk to their horses as they make their way around the track. One driver sang in a low, nurturing voice. 



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) harness racing horses Pinehurst Spring Matinee Races Thu, 11 Apr 2019 15:07:32 GMT
If Frederick Douglass Really Were Alive, He'd Be Angry It's a measure of the way American history used to be taught that I was well into middle age before I ever heard of Frederick Douglass. He ought to be someone every American schoolchild gets to know well. But when I was a kid, there was no such thing as Black History Month, and my textbooks' chapters on pre-Civil War America drummed into my mind the names of presidents of little merit, like James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce. They didn't mention Douglass.

I first encountered Douglass in 2007, when I was assigned to teach a 9th grade English honors class at Central High School in Capitol Heights, MD. I wanted some books by African American writers for my students. At the back of the school's book storage room I found a few dozen paperback copies of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. We read it.

It proved to be an astounding narrative. Douglass was born a slave in 1818 on a plantation in Talbot County, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Despite never having a chance to go to school, he largely taught himself, in secret, to read and write. As a young man, he escaped to the north. Within a few years he became an abolitionist lecturer, then a writer and publisher, and finally the acknowledged leader of African Americans in the United States until his death in 1895.

(Yes, I have asked myself why, if learning to read and write doesn't require a school, I, in my years as a high school teacher, had such a hard time instilling the rules of grammar. I suspect the answer is that the self-taught Douglass had a better teacher than the kids in my classes.)

Be that as it may, I recently read David Blight's new and very comprehensive Douglass biography. It reminded me that Douglass was born and lived the last years of his life very close to my home. I decided to visit some of the sites associated with Douglass and see if I could photograph them.

As Blight informed me, Douglass's first home no longer exists. It was a slave cabin on a plantation in Talbot County and it long ago vanished. But I Googled "Frederick Douglass birthplace," thinking I might see the spot on the ground where the cabin was. To my pleasant surprise, I saw on the web that Talbot County had recently erected a Douglass statue on the lawn of the county courthouse in Easton. Moreover, there is now a driving tour of places associated with Douglass in Talbot County, beginning with his earliest years. As I drove out over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and onto Maryland's Eastern Shore region, I wondered how Douglass would feel if he could somehow come back and see his likeness in the very place where he was once jailed after the failure of his first escape attempt.

As it turned out, I suspect he would feel less than completely honored, because Talbot County put his statue on the courthouse lawn next to a statue memorializing the county's Confederate soldiers. (In the picture at the top of this post, that's Johnny Reb, wrapped in the Stars and Bars, in the background behind Douglass. A different view of Confederate memorial is above left.) Maybe the locals thought of this juxtaposition as a symbol of reconciliation. But Douglass had no tolerance for the notion of the Confederacy as a cause worth memorializing. He knew that Confederate troops had fought to keep black people enslaved. He knew that even after the North defeated the South on the battlefield, there would be a residue of "sullen hatred toward the National Government." And I suspect he would have seen that Confederate memorial, correctly, as a symbol of that undying hatred.

The Douglass driving tour turned out to be, putting it charitably, embryonic. The actual birthplace, as best it can be determined, evidently lies on private property. There isn't so much as a sign by the road to point to where it was. The driving tour directed me to a boat ramp on the banks of the Tuckahoe River, which turned out to be a quarter of a mile or so downstream from where Douglass was born. A woman was fishing from a pier.

"Are you taking my picture?" she asked as I snapped a couple of shots of the river.

"No," I said. "I'm trying to get a picture of Frederick Douglass's birthplace. Have you heard of him?"

"Heard the name," she shrugged, and went back to her fishing.

Douglass' memory is more revered at his last home, a hilltop mansion called Cedar Hill in Washington's Anacostia neighborhood. Cedar Hill is a national historic site, maintained by the U.S. Park Service. Seeing it, one appreciates that Douglass did well by doing good. It's an imposing house with a view out to the U.S. Capitol in the west. Douglass held several well-paying federal jobs after the Civil War, and he earned lecture fees and book royalties. When he died, the house suggests, he had become comfortably well off.

Anacostia did not fare so well as the city of Washington spread out around Cedar Hill. The neighborhood is cut off from the rest of the city not only by the Anacostia River but by a freeway. It became the poorest section of Washington, plagued by inferior housing, crime, and troubled schools. I don't know what Douglass would have made of this. In his lifetime, he used to say that all black people needed was their freedom, the right to vote, and to be left alone by white supremacists. Had he lived another hundred or so years, I suspect he would have come to the view that overcoming the legacy of slavery would be more complicated than that. 

But I have little doubt that he wouldn't be happy to see what I saw in the streets around Cedar Hill. There's a new Chase Bank branch down the street. Busboys and Poets, a local restaurant chain that specializes in opening outposts in "transitioning" neighborhoods, just opened one around the corner from Douglass on Martin Luther King Avenue, SE. On a Saturday morning, I saw a small group of white people, walking around the neighborhood, eyeing the real estate. 

Directly across the street from Cedar Hill, I saw an Hispanic carpenter working on a freshly painted white row house. A realtor's sign already had been posted in the small front yard. "Coming Soon," it promised. The carpenter told me that he'd bought the house himself and was renovating it to flip it.

These were signs of gentrification, as surely as the first daffodils are signs of spring. Douglass, I suspect, would not be happy to see it in his old neighborhood. He'd have nothing in principle against good restaurants, or access to financial services, or renovated housing.  But I doubt he'd be happy to know that these changes would happen as black residents were steadily priced out.

Donald Trump, in February 2017, famously said that, "Frederick Douglass is an example of someone who's done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice." Trump's choice of verb tenses suggested that he wasn't aware Douglass had died. But it raised the question: What would Douglass think if he were indeed alive?

After visiting Talbot County and Cedar Hill, I suspect I know. Frederick Douglass would be angry.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) abolitionists American history Anacostia Cedar Hill Confederate confederatememorial D.C. Frederick Douglass Frederick Douglass birthplace gentrification Maryland slavery Talbot County Washington Thu, 14 Mar 2019 22:40:39 GMT
Love, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the Times In another career, I taught 11th-grade students a novel called Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This was not for a standard high school class. It was part of the challenging and admirable International Baccalaureate program. True to the first word in its name, IB required schools to teach four or five literary works that were not written in the students' native language, but could be read in translation. This meant that I taught Kafka's Metamorphosis, Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Camus' The Stranger. (If you notice that all of these three are very short, you've got a valuable insight into how to teach high school English.)

I picked Love in the Time of Cholera for several reasons.  I thought it appropriate to have a Spanish-language writer in the course, even more so a Nobel laureate. The fact that Garcia Marquez was Latin American made him still more attractive, because some of my students were Latinos. I knew that Garcia Marquez' work was full of symbolism and magical realism, the sort of literary elements my students needed to be able to identify and analyze.  But the biggest reason was that after spending the first couple of months of the year with Kafka's cockroach and Solzhenitsyn's Gulag, I needed a break, and I thought my students did, too. It seemed time for a little romance.

I had read the novel, many years before I taught it, and I had a fuzzy memory of the plot. In an unnamed Colombian city around the turn of the last century, a hopeless romantic, a teenage boy named Florentino Ariza, falls madly in love with a girl named Fermina Daza. They never date; they barely meet. Their affair is conducted through letters. He spends hours in the Park of the Evangels across the street from her house, just waiting to glimpse her through a window. Her father doesn't consider Florentino an appropriate match for his daughter and when he finds out about their romance, he sends her away from the city for two years to live with relatives. When she returns, in a moment of cold clarity, she tells him she doesn't love him and won't marry him. Shortly afterwards, she meets and marries a more socially appropriate suitor, Dr. Juvenal Urbino.

But Florentino Ariza does not give up. He waits for her for more than fifty years. By waiting, I don't mean Florentino is inactive. In fact, he has more than 600 dalliances with various women. Many of them are widows. But one of them is a 14-year-old schoolgirl whose family has asked him to look after her while she goes to a Catholic girls' school in the city. When Juvenal Urbino finally dies, and Florentino resumes his courtship of Fermina Daza, he tells her he is still a virgin. And he appears to believe it because, despite all of these women, he has reserved his heart for her. He emotionally ghosts the teenager, who commits suicide. Despite that, Florentino and Fermina finally consummate their love and sail off into the sunset.


In its time, the book was widely praised.  The New York Times, in a 1988 review by Thomas Pynchon, dismissed Florentino's sexual adventures during his half-century wait for Fermina as the "folly, imprecision and lapses in taste" that characterize passionate love. "We find ourselves...cheering him [Florentino] on," Pynchon wrote.

And I don't remember any of my students objecting to the content of the book, though that may well have been because they weren't paying attention. I recall having the sense that they were vaguely appalled at the notion of people over the age of thirty having romantic lives, to say nothing of sex. But no one said Florentino was a monster.

Nor did I think he was, to be honest. I thought he was a character who fully embodied human virtues and sins, including those occasioned by lust and love.

As I planned to go to Cartagena this winter, I decided to re-read the novel. I knew that its fictional settings were based on places in Cartagena, as well as the nearby port city of Baranquilla. Both were towns in which the young Garcia Marquez worked as a journalist. I thought it would be fun to seek out the Cartagena sites that were the models for settings in Love in the Time of Cholera. I checked on the Internet and, sure enough, there were guided tours of Cartagena and its places associated with Garcia Marquez. I booked one.

But as I re-read the novel, I was disturbed. Had I really required minors to read this? Less than ten years had passed since I last  taught it, but it seemed that the cultural ground had not just shifted, but had been turned upside down.  I doubt that the Times would publish a glowing review if Love in the Time of Cholera were somehow to be published now, when the word "masculinity" seems joined at the hip to "toxic."    I'm pretty confident that today's Times reviewer would not be rooting Florentino on, but instead be rooting for Florentino to be prosecuted for statutory rape.

Nevertheless I took my tour, and found plenty of Gabo sites around Cartagena. To begin with, he's buried here, in the courtyard of an old convent, now owned by the University of Cartagena. I was told this will someday be a full-fledged Garcia Marquez Museum, although those plans may have been crimped a bit when the University of Texas bought Garcia Marquez' papers from his widow, Mercedes. (That's the grave, above left.)

I saw Gabo murals. The one at the top of this post is on the wall of a small hotel called the Makondo, which is the name of the fictional town in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The caption, if I translate it correctly, says that no place in life is as sad as an empty bed. This, like much of Garcia Marquez, could be read a couple of ways. One is a man's lament for lack of a woman. Another could be a hotelier's sadness at an unsold room. A second mural, which I saw one night walking in Cartagena's Gethsemane neighborhood, features two things Garcia Marquez was known to love, butterflies and an accordion. It's also got a little seat, so people can comfortably spend time with Gabo, perhaps reading.

Then there are sites that are not quite documented. There are houses down the street from an empty building that, I was told, once housed the offices in El Universal, the writer's first newspaper. In the houses, I was told, he frequently rented rooms, then skipped out at the end of the month because he didn't have enough money to pay the rent. 

I was also shown buildings and places that were purportedly part of the story. This building, now owned by Colombia's Ministry of Foreign Relations, was the building Gabo had in mind for Dr. Juvenal Urbino's house. This old place was the model for the house of Florentino Ariza and his mother. And this park, named for Fernandez de Madrid, is in fact the novel's Park of the Evangels, where Florentino spent so many lonely, lovesick hours keeping vigil outside the house of Fermina Daza's father. 

There's no way of knowing about these sites, I guess. l didn't see any lovesick suitors in Fernandez de Madrid Park. I did see a young couple who seemed shyly happy with each other, so I took their picture and it's posted above left. Maybe they're in the Park of the Evangels. Maybe that's just magical realism.

And I don't know if there will ever be a museum in the old convent building and if Gabriel Garcia Marquez's reputation, once so exalted, will survive the scrutiny of modern times. Maybe it will. Or maybe he'll be like Mark Twain, not read as much anymore and a little too risky for a high school curriculum because of terms and ideas that strike the modern ear as too offensive. 

The one thing I know for certain is that were I again a high school teacher, I wouldn't ask my students to read Love in the Time of Cholera. Too risky in too many ways. 

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Cartagena Colombia Gabo Gabriel Garcia Marquez International Baccalaureate literature Love in the Time of Cholera Me Too Sun, 17 Feb 2019 14:15:00 GMT
Colombia's Village of Escaped Slaves The village of San Basilio de Palenque, about 33 miles south of Cartagena, Colombia, should not have surprised me with its history. I live, after all, in Maryland, not far from a main stem of the Underground Railroad, the clandestine network of trails, households and churches that helped runaway slaves escape from the South to the North of the United States in the 19th century. The Spanish Empire in the Americas also had slaves. And it also had escapees.

There were differences, of course.  The most consequential may have been that in the Spanish Empire, there was no line separating slave-owning states from free states. In the United States, escaped slaves for the most part directed their energy to escaping to the North. In the Spanish colonies of South America and the Caribbean, escaped slaves had to create their free spaces where they could. They usually fled to the highlands, hoping that the dense forests between their refuges and the cities and plantations of the Spanish would hide and protect them.

San Basilio de Palenque was founded by an erstwhile African king named Benkos Bioho, who ruled several islands off the African coast before he was captured by a Portuguese slave trader in the late 16th Century. San Basilio de Palenque was a fortified town (palenque is Spanish for palisade), and the Spanish could not muster enough troops or strength to make the long slog through the forests and conquer it.

Here's an excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Benkos Bioho:

Biohó made his first escape when the boat that was transporting him down the Magdalena River sank. He was recaptured but escaped again in 1599 into the marshy lands southeast of Cartagena. He organized an army that came to dominate all of the Montes de María region. He also formed an intelligence network and used the information collected to help organize more escapes and to guide the runaway slaves into the liberated territory. He used the title "king of Arcabuco".

On 18 July 1605, the Governor of Cartagena, Gerónimo de Suazo y Casasola, unable to defeat the Maroons, offered a peace treaty to Biohó, recognising the autonomy of the Matuna Bioho Palenque and accepting his entrance into the city armed and dressed in Spanish fashion, while the palenque promised to stop receiving more runaway slaves, cease their aid in escape attempts, and stop addressing Biohó as "king". Peace was finalized in 1612 under the governorship of Diego Fernández de Velasco. The treaty was violated by the Spaniards in 1619 when they captured Biohó as he was walking carelessly into the city. He was hanged and quartered on 16 March 1621. Governor García Girón, who ordered the execution, argued bitterly that "it was dangerous the extent to which Biohó was respected in the population" and that "his lies and enchantment would drive the nations of Guinea away from the city."

It's a remarkable story, but not a unique one. I have read of similar settlements of escaped slaves in the mountains of interior Jamaica. And there were escaped North American slaves who joined with Native American populations living in places like the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina and Virginia or the Everglades in Florida. The intermingling of Africans and Native Americans led white colonists to coin the term Maroons (Cimarrones in Spanish). 

Over the centuries in Colombia, all of the Palenque villages except San Basilio have disappeared or been absorbed into the general population. Maybe San Basilio survives because its people have gone to great lengths to protect themselves against assimilation. They have their own language; it combines aspects of Spanish and of African tribal languages from what are now Angola, Congo and Guinea. The story goes that the invention of this language was critical, because until it became a common tongue, the slaves could not communicate with each other; the tribal language of each sub-group was unintelligible to the others. The Palenque language is being taught today, along with Spanish, to children in the local school. It is written on the walls.

San Basilio has a separate police force that tries to handle local crime without the intervention of the regular Colombian constabulary. It has its oral history and its legends. I was told, for instance, that the village women are very adept at elaborate, braided hairstyles because during the Benkos Bioho era, enslaved women learned to do hairstyles that served as maps for escapees trying to make their way to San Basilio de Palenque. Could hair braids act as a guide through the wilderness? Who knows? I do know that Maria Elida, the hairstylist pictured above, who is the owner of a beauty shop called La Reina del Kongo, showed me how her style contains a convenient slot in which a woman can secrete some money.

Not that there appears to be a lot of money in San Basilio de Palenque.  Their village of 3,500 souls has one paved road; the rest are rutted dirt. The houses are small; some still have thatched roofs. Pigs and dogs browse for food in the dusty lots between houses. I saw television sets in the houses I visited, but I saw more saddled mules than cars. In the middle of the day, idle men sit clustered in patches of shade. The occasional roosters seemed to be the only males with gainful employment. 

I would guess this is because employment opportunities are fairly scarce throughout Colombia, particularly in a rural area like the one around San Basilio de Palenque. It would take a sizable tract of land to run enough livestock to make a profit in this part of Colombia, and sizable tracts of lands are not something poor people are likely to have. Women of the village seemed more likely to be working, whether as teachers in the local school, or doing hair, or sewing colorful head scarves known as turbantes to sell to the tourists down in Cartagena.

The town tries to grow and prosper. It is proud to call itself the oldest free town in the Western 
Hemisphere. It is happy to welcome tourists, who usually come, as I did, on day trips from Cartagena. (My trip was with Cartagena photographer Paola H. Sanchez; you can find her on TripAdvisor.) It sponsors a music festival that features an indigenous instrument comprised of a brightly painted box affixed to tongues of steel like piano keys. A building near the center of the village has a painted sign that says "I [heart] being black," an indication of pride in being part of the global African community.

But I thought as I left that San Basilio de Palenque shows that it can be easier to escape from slavery than to escape from poverty. 

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Cartagena Colombia escaped slaves Paola H. Sanchez San Basilio de Palenque slavery Underground Railroad Fri, 15 Feb 2019 18:10:31 GMT
Disney in the Streets of Cartagena When I am traveling in a city new to me, I like to book a street photography tour. That is, I pay a local photographer to take me, sometimes alone and sometimes as part of a small group, on a camera-driven exploration. I've never been disappointed. A good local photographer always knows the most photo-friendly places in town. She navigates to those places without wasting time.  Sometimes, the photographer will also teach me some new skills.

I got both a guide and a teacher when I booked a tour with Cartagena photographer Paola H. Sanchez. Paola is like many a busy free-lance photographer. She specializes in a lot of things. She does brides. She does portraits. And she's forging a brand in the tourism industry. (That's Paola below left, wearing glasses, with a friend of hers in Cartagena's Bazurto Market.)

Paola tries to make her photo walks challenging as well as interesting. She took me to a neighborhood called Getsemani. It's adjacent to El Centro Historico, the colonial kernel of today's Cartagena. El Centro Historico is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its ancient fortification walls, its Spanish Colonial architecture, and its beautiful, bougainvillea-draped balconies. It's where you'll find the archetypal Colombian fruit vendors, pineapples balanced on their colorful headscarves. Unfortunately, they've all been in the travel industry for a while now, and they expect payment for being photographed. They're accompanied by a small horde of vendors trying to sell everything from ice cream to rosary beads to anyone who looks like a foreigner.

Getsemani used to be the neighborhood for the workers who served the elite in El Centro Historico. It has some of the same charms--bouganvillea, pastel-painted houses, old churches and crooked little streets. It doesn't have  as many vendors or crowds, at least not yet. (It's also got an ongoing battle over gentrification, but that's getting a little off my subject, which involves Disney.)

When Paola was a girl, she loved to watch Disney cartoons, which per parents provided on tapes. When she was eight, she and her family even had a trip to Disney World in Orlando.  In some places in the world, this sort of thing might be the occasion for anger over American cultural imperialism, but Paola is not angry. She uses Disney to give some structure to her clients' street photography.

My assignment, she said, was to select five Disney characters and try to find a match for them on the streets of Getsemani. We discussed this for a moment, using both her memories and my much older ones. We agreed that Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty would be on my list. So would Snow White. I asked for Peter Pan. She suggested Lady and the Tramp. Once the list was agreed on, I had an hour or so to walk around and find the pictures.

I have to confess that I failed this test. The pictures on this page were not all made within an hour in Getsemani. (They were, however, all made within the first 48 hours of my arrival in Cartagena.)

I probably shouldn't have allowed my own nostalgia to put Peter Pan on the list. Even though Colombia can lay claim to being the wellspring of magical realism, I have yet to see any boys who can fly, at least through the air. But I did see the little boy pictured at the top of the page, flying down the street on his legs, wearing a shirt that says, appropriately, RUN. He's holding a paper or sheaf of papers in his left hand, trailing behind him, and he's followed by a bigger, but perhaps slower, boy, maybe his brother. I saw mischief in this scene. Maybe the quick little boy was holding a school assignment done by the trailing boy, an assignment that did not receive an A. Maybe he's snatched it to take home to show their mother. Or something like that. There seemed to be a Pan-ish quality to him.

Nor did I find a young woman wearing a glass slipper. I did, however, see a woman about to marry her Prince Charming at Cartagena's ancient cathedral. This was on a Saturday evening, just after dark. Well-dressed guests began to arrive at the cathedral door.  These folks looked like they could have been direct descendants of the old Spanish colonial aristocracy. A crowd of tourists, peddlers and Saturday-night strollers gathered around the big wooden doors to the sanctuary.

A couple of minutes after seven o'clock, organ music started inside the Cathedral. There was no carriage made from a pumpkin, but a mid-1950s, highly polished, two-tone Chevy Bel-Air glided up to the curb. I had no time to ponder this second example of twentieth century corporate American cultural imperialism. I watched a gray-haired man in evening dress hustle out, scurry around the car, and open the door for what I presume was his daughter. She was elegant in a strapless white gown. She paused for a moment as her father and an attendant put her white veil in place. Then she stepped gracefully over the cathedral threshhold, and the big wooden doors were slammed shut. The crowd moaned softly. No doubt many of them would have liked to stand on the sidewalk and see what they could of the wedding.  I would have, too. So I can only speculate on whether this couple, like Cinderella and her prince, lived happily ever after. 

If memory serves me, Snow White was a maiden who wore flowers in her hair and cheerfully tended to the cooking and cleaning for seven dwarves. I have yet to see any dwarves in Cartagena. But in the Bazurto Market, I saw the young woman in the picture on the right above. She works in a restaurant in the depths of the market, tending steaming cauldrons of fish stew and serving portions to customers who sit at picnic tables. All I can say about the lives of her clientele is that I think they start work very early. It was 9:30 in the morning and they were having lunch. I asked her about herself, and the only thing I understood in her answer was that she was 17 years old. Snow White? Close enough.

To fulfill the Sleeping Beauty part of the assignment, I had to skirt an ethical qualm against taking pictures of homeless people.  The man pictured at right was in a doorway on the Plaza of the Trinity in Getsemani. It was Sunday morning. I rationalized that he might not be homeless, that he might have been sleeping off a rough Saturday night. Anyway, I liked the way he slept with his legs propped up in the door frame.

Thus far, no luck with Lady and the Tramp. I've seen a number of candidates for the part of the wandering mongrel, but those dogs don't seem to run in pairs. I've seen no elegant Cocker Spaniels like the eponymous Lady.

But I have my eye out. Disney is indeed everywhere.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) "Snow White" "Sleeping Beauty" Cartagena Cinderella Colombia Disney Paola H. Sanchez photography photography tours Tue, 12 Feb 2019 14:49:44 GMT
Stolen Portraits  

When I travel, I confess to being a thief. I steal pictures of people.

I know this is unprofessional. I took a photo workshop in Cuba a few years ago from Peter Turnley, who is a consummate professional and a great maker of street portraits. One of my most vivid memories from that trip was watching Peter slowly and gently cajole a Cuban woman--a priestess of santeria--into posing for a picture.  Peter could encounter a burglar in the midst of cracking a safe and convince him that posing for a picture would contribute to human understanding and world peace. And he could do it in half a dozen languages.

I hesitate to say that I couldn't at least try to do the same. If you put a gun to my head, I doubtless could. But I dislike doing it. I don't like being rejected. I could never have been a salesman, since salesmen must overcome multitudinous rejections. If you ask someone for permission to photograph them, there's a good chance you'll be rejected. So, a lot of the time, I don't ask. 

Moreover, there's a good chance that a stolen picture will be better than one with permission attached, because the subject will be unguarded and she or he will leave a true face on. Or so I tell myself.

I observe only one rule. I only take pictures of people in public spaces, where the law says I am entitled to take pictures.  

Take the picture at the top of this post. I saw this man on a train while en route from Paris to Auvers-sur-Oise, where I planned to look at some of what Vincent Van Gogh painted before he died. The man's straw hat instantly reminded me of Van Gogh, who was fair-skinned and red-haired and did self-portraits of himself in a similar chapeau. I also saw that a very nice, soft light from the train window was illuminating the man's face as he gazed at the passing scenery. It was a local, commuter train and I imagine he'd taken it often and was a little bored with what he was seeing.

I could have asked him if I could make a picture. But if he had said no, then what? Or if he had consented, but then put on a very formal face, looking into my lens? I would have missed the moment and the lighting that are what I like about the picture. (The reflection of the man's face in the wall of the train was an accidental plus that I didn't notice at the time, but I like it, too.) So I didn't ask. I just shot.

Similarly with the picture above right. We were having lunch at an odd little cafe in Lourmarin, France, the only cafe I have ever seen that is connected to a putt-putt golf course. Two women came in and took an adjoining table. Judging by their apparent age, they might have been a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother. After a while, the elderly woman ordered an enormous ice cream confection, topped with whipped cream. It was as big as her head. The younger woman watched, seemingly amazed and appalled, as the elder woman dabbed persistently at the ice cream with a spoon. I could imagine her saying, or thinking, "I want to take as much time as I can before you take me back to the home, and I'll eat ice cream till I throw up to do it." I grabbed my camera and took a picture--again, without asking permission. It's not a portrait, strictly speaking. But I like the face almost as much as I like the idea of an elderly person ordering more ice cream than the world thinks is good for her.

Sometimes, it makes more sense to ask. The woman at left works at a vineyard in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, not far from Avignon. I was walking by when she and some co-workers came out of a building and appeared to be waiting for a ride. I was struck by her tattoos, her broad shoulders, and by the bright yellow-and-red flower she had stuck in her hair. There was no opportunity to be unobtrusive. So I asked, in my poor French. The woman very pleasantly agreed; she seemed flattered that I would ask. When she noticed that I was trying to get a good angle on the flower in her hair, she obligingly moved it around toward her face so I could see it better. (In the end, I liked this shot best, even though the flower is partially obscured.) But I wonder what might have happened if I'd been ready when I first caught sight of her and photographed her as I saw her then, laughing and talking with her co-workers, not conscious of the camera.





]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Auvers-sur-Oise Cuba France Paris Peter Turnley photograph photography portrait Van Gogh Tue, 23 Oct 2018 19:57:46 GMT
Latvia Sings as Trump and Putin Prepare to Meet In the early 1980s, when I first visited Riga, the capital of the Latvia, it was part of the Soviet Union. I was a correspondent in Moscow then, and I would go to the Baltic area to gauge the seriousness of ethnic resentment in the U.S.S.R. and the possibility of secessionist unrest. It was never hard to find Latvians who, sotto voce, would talk about the communist regime as “occupiers,” and their dream of an independent Latvia.

By the late ‘80s, that resentment broke into the open, and I would come to Riga to cover rallies in favor of independence. But the rallies surprised me.  I expected fiery speeches. Instead, I heard choral music. The Latvians seemingly could not have a mass meeting without a choir performance that ended in a mass singalong. When I got someone to translate the Latvian lyrics for me, I was surprised again. The choirs were not singing battle hymns. They sang about about fields and forests, about the warm summer sun, about strong horses and the girls waiting at home. Their music seemed at first apolitical. But even an outsider could tell there was more to it than a first reading of the lyrics revealed. I felt the emotion generated on the edge of a big Riga square, seeing and hearing a throng of thousands of people, joining in with the choir and singing their patriotism.

Had I known more about the history of the Baltic area, I would have known that for more than a century, group singing had been essential to the Baltic peoples’ sense of self. Necessity had dictated this. Whether their rulers were  Germans, Poles or Russians, Tsars or Fuhrers, these small nations (Latvia has about two million people in a territory the size of West Virginia) had generally been denied open political expression. So in the 19th Century, they began holding national song festivals every five years or so. (Even the worst totalitarian regimes find it hard to justify a prohibition on seemingly apolitical folklore.) These festivals were all about the subtext. They were a way to band together, sing folk songs in their native language and tacitly express their belief that they, just as much as Germans or Poles or Hungarians, were a nation that deserved to be free.  After they at last escaped from the dissolving Soviet Union in 1991, the Baltic peoples remembered their liberation movement as “The Singing Revolution.”

Since gaining their independence, the Baltic nations have preserved and enhanced the song festival tradition, and this summer I decided it was time to go back to Riga and see one.

The city, of course, has changed since the days when it was a provincial outpost in the Soviet Empire.  It has a few new glass office towers, and the dining and shopping scene is immeasurably better. The central market is full of food, and there are sidewalk cafes and microbreweries. There’s an embassy area befitting the capital of an independent country and the 19th Century Art Nouveau facades of the residences on Antonias Street have been carefully restored. But there are still blocks with bumpy cobblestone streets and wooden houses, their paint weathered and peeling. Fifty years of Soviet economics tend to linger.

It was easy for me to ignore the buildings, though, because on a warm, sunny July weekend, Riga was awash in music.  Saturday afternoon was vocal ensemble day in the Old Town, and revolving groups of singers performed in the shade cast by the city’s old churches and fortifications. Women wore traditional country dress, long skirts and head scarves, topped by garlands made of things like daisies and wheat sheaves. The men had bow ties and jackets. Their voices sounded sweet and pure.

In a temporary band shell in lovely Embankment Park, what seemed like every brass band in Latvia crowded onto a stage and played in unison. The next day, little kids, dressed in folk costumes, took the stage to perform traditional dances. At every performance I saw, thick crowds of people, many of them white haired, listened and watched. Sometimes, as when a choir sang “Blow Wind,” they stood, sang along, and even cried. “Blow Wind,” is an old sailor’s song, a prayer for a fair wind to take him home to Latvia. When Latvia wasn’t allowed to have an official national anthem, it was the unofficial national anthem, and it was a staple of the Riga song festivals. It still is. (The people in the picture at the top of this post were responding to a performance of "Blow Wind.")

If this sounds a little saccharine, it’s because it was indeed sweet and sentimental. Not all Latvians share these tastes, of course. Walking back to my Airbnb rental one night, I came across a little pop-up nightclub in a vacant lot. The cover charge was two Euros. The entertainer was a guy named Abra, who did freestyle hip-hop riffs in English, with lyrics like, “I’m gonna take a baseball bat and hit you on the head and put you to bed.” It seemed very weird, which was maybe the point. Abra raised questions in my mind about cultural appropriation, but he at least demonstrated that you don’t have to play an accordion or wear wheat sheaves in your hair to make music in Riga.

All of this was taking place just a week before Donald Trump was scheduled to meet with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Baltic countries have unpleasant memories of meetings between larger powers. In 1939, representatives of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany met and cordially agreed to carve up the Baltic area. Hitler got Poland and Stalin got Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Decades of trauma ensued.

Putin has made no secret of the fact that he considers the dismemberment of the Soviet Union a tragedy. And he’s steadily gone about reversing it when he finds an opening, annexing Crimea and fomenting a civil war in eastern Ukraine, where a lot of the citizenry is ethnically Russian. It’s not hard to imagine Putin trying a similar strategy in Latvia. For decades, the Soviets pushed Russian migrants into Latvia, simultaneously extracting Latvian dissidents and sending them to Siberia.  The population now is mixed just as in Ukraine; I heard a lot of Russian in the streets and in the market. So there’s an opportunity for Putin to make trouble.

Against this possibility, Latvia has membership in NATO. There is a small contingent of NATO troops stationed here, and there are joint exercises. Until the arrival of Trump, that might have seemed a sufficient guarantee against the Russians. Now, however, Trump seems to consider NATO a collection of grifters and freeloaders, and he wants to be Putin’s friend. Who knows what will happen when they meet in Helsinki? Who knows how seriously Putin will take the threat of NATO retaliation while Trump is in the White House?

At a band performance in Embankment Park, I asked a naval officer in a white uniform about this. (He was a pianist and he performed in the Latvian Navy band.) He shrugged. “Russians is Russians. We know who they are, what they do. They have many weapons, many people.” When I asked whether he thought Latvia could rely on NATO in the Trump era, he declined to say. “That is above my level.”

In fact, I didn’t find many Latvians interested in discussing Trump, Putin and NATO.  Maybe it was a long-ingrained habit of discretion; maybe they could be said to prefer singing in the dark to confronting reality. But as my weekend in Riga came to an end, I decided it was something else. Latvians find strength in choral singing. The massed voices tell them they are not so perilously few in number, and they are united. Singing may not seem like much of a defense against the likes of Putin. But back in 1939, it probably didn’t seem like much of a defense against Hitler and Stalin.

Hitler, Stalin and their regimes lie unmourned in the dustbin of history.  Latvia is still here.




]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) 2018 Latvian Song Festival Baltic Blow Wind choir choral Hitler independence Latvia NATO Putin Riga singing Singing Revolution song Song Festival Soviet Union Stalin Trump Tue, 10 Jul 2018 11:30:15 GMT
A River Runs Through It Rivers, I think, are an essential part of great cities. Centuries ago, I suppose, they provided water and fish to primitive settlements. Then they became arteries of commerce around which cities grew. In the 21st Century, I think, they play a different role in the most fortunate of the world's cities. They're still a bit involved in commerce. But they're more about ambience. They're like parks--they make cities pleasant to live in. Or, at least, they can.

I wish I could say that the picture above was taken in my home town, Washington. It wasn't. I made it in Melbourne, Australia a few months ago, on a lovely summer evening. The Yarra is Melbourne's river, and the city has taken pains to make it its heart as well. There are walker-biker paths on both banks; automobile traffic is shunted away for the most part. There is lots to do along the Yarra. You can watch tennis at Rod Laver Arena or see a match at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds, then amble downstream a bit to a museum and theater quarter. Along the way, you'll find dozens of restaurants and cafes, including a few floating on moored barges and one on the support for a footbridge. The city's downtown business district is just a short walk away along the right bank, and the left bank, once a worn industrial neighborhood, has been revitalized with the now-standard "mixed use" redevelopment palette of apartments, condos, stores, hotels and cafes. And you can watch rowing crews practice.

The Potomac is Washington's river, and like a lot of American rivers, it was long abused. Before Washington was created, there were two Potomac ports, Alexandria in Virginia and Georgetown on the Maryland side, established because big boats couldn't go any further upstream because of rapids and waterfalls. They were incorporated into the original District of Columbia. (The city gave Alexandria and Arlington back to Virginia in 1846.) The Potomac was fortunate in one sense. The major industry of Washington was government, which creates pollution of many kinds, but not the kind of effluent created in river cities that were built around, say, steel or chemicals. But Washington lined the river's banks with what manufacturing it had, and then compounded the offense by using the riverbank as a site for highways to carry bureaucrats in and out of the suburbs. 

When I moved to Washington in 1976, the only attractive part of the river was the one that flowed past the monuments on the Mall. The rest was highways and old and abandoned industrial sites. Much of the Georgetown waterfront was an impoundment lot for illegally parked cars. In the past ten or twenty years, much has changed, thanks to planning by the city and a generally thriving real estate market that has made investors eager to buy and redevelop almost any property within the city limits. 

The Georgetown waterfront got a makeover that includes a riverside park that is a favorite of nannies walking their charges in perambulators. There are some good restaurants and a Swedish embassy building.  A few miles downstream, the city guided Nats Park to a site on the derelict southeast waterfront where the Potomac's biggest tributary, the Anacostia, merges with the main stream. It created a couple of attractive parks on vacated land, like the one four men are strolling through at right.  The ballpark didn't immediately become the redevelopment catalyst the city envisioned, because it opened just as the 2008 economic collapse affected real estate. But in the last few years, vacant lots and abandoned gas stations have started to be replaced by--of course--mixed use. People watching the 2018 All-Star game at Nats Park will see a skyline bursting with building cranes.

This year has seen the opening of the first phase of The Wharf, a multi-billion dollar development on the southwest waterfront, between the Tidal Basin and the Nats Park area. (It's pictured above left.) I don't know quite how I feel about it. I certainly don't miss what it replaced--a row of mediocre restaurants with big parking lots which catered to tourists on bus trips. But I don't know how well the city managed to get the developer to make some of the condos and apartments affordable for people who are being squeezed out of the District by gentrification. There's a lot I like at The Wharf. There are moorings for passenger boats, like the water taxi at left, that hold the promise of someday making it possible to rely less on automobiles to get around the city. It has an eclectic mix of upscale and casual dining options. But, perhaps inevitably, it has an artificial, corporate feel, as if a talented planner had been told to make people think they were in an interesting waterfront neighborhood that had developed organically. Maybe that feeling will wear away. I don't know.

I am fairly certain that the Potomac will never again be a shipping river like the Thames (below right), which I photographed during the 2012 Olympics, looking toward Tower Bridge. And D.C. will never have a unified riverfront like Melbourne's, or Paris's, or London's. The geography won't allow it. There are too many gaps. After the Potomac flows past Georgetown, it drifts for a mile or so past the Mall and the monuments, where there's no place to get a drink or a bite to eat, or to set up a shop. There's a long, triangular piece of parkland called Hains Point, that has some beloved amenities like a golf course and a running and biking track, but also serves as a barrier. Then there's The Wharf area, but the mile or so between it and the riverfront by Nats Park contains a military reservation that prevents a walk along the riverside. 

It seems likely to me that rather than have a single riverfront area, D.C. will have several. The Wharf and Georgetown will serve both neighborhood residents and  visitors. The area around Nats Park is also getting a new soccer stadium, and I suspect Washington sports fans will soon develop the habit of arriving early, having a good meal, and then watching their teams. It's conceivable that as water taxis and bike trails add more travel options, destinations like National Harbor in Prince Georges County and attractions like the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens on the eastern short of the Anacostia will be woven more closely into the fabric of the city.

I am still worried that Washington's new riversides will do nothing to solve the biggest downside of gentrification--the displacement of people of modest means, usually African-American, from places that once were affordable and welcoming to them.

Nevertheless, I was dining a couple of days ago with my wife and brother a couple of blocks from Nats Park prior to seeing the home team take on San Francisco. We were at an outdoor section of a restaurant called Osteria Morini on the edge of the city's new Yards Park. We watched people walk by dressed for a formal event, maybe a wedding rehearsal dinner. We watched kayakers paddle by on the Anacostia. Nearby, a family picnicked. Children frolicked in a fountain. Girls kicked a soccer ball along a boardwalk.

I saw Anthony Williams strolling by. He was the mayor of Washington when the city decided to build Nats Park, gambling that it would be a catalyst for redevelopment that would justify the investment of $600 million in taxpayer money. I disagreed with the mayor and his decision at the time, thinking that millionaire ballplayers and billionaire owners did not need public subsidies. 

I just waved at Mayor Williams. I could have gotten up and approached him to tell him that he was right and I was wrong. I wish I had.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) anacostia anthony williams d.c. georgetown kenilworth aquatic gardens london melbourne national harbor paris potomac rivers thames the wharf urban rivers washington yarra Mon, 11 Jun 2018 18:29:01 GMT
Awesome People at Awesome Con I have to confess that my passion for comic books started to decline when the price of Superman's monthly adventures rose from ten cents to fifteen cents. I was probably a year or two away from fifth grade, when I would learn how to calculate percentages. But I didn't need advanced math to know that this was a precipitous price increase and to feel the first frisson of discontent at the way corporate America treated the lowly consumer.

Not that I actually paid for most of the comic books I read. In Glen Rock, N.J. in the 1950s, comic books were purveyed by the owners of what were called sweet shops. The sweet shop always had a soda fountain and the daily newspapers. It sold cigarettes and cigars, though it would be a while before I succumbed to the temptation of tobacco. There was a shelf full of candy bars. Baseball cards were a seasonal offering. And the sweet shop had a rack full of the latest comic books. Superman and the DC stable were my go-tos, but they also had Archie and his friends and, if I remember, some true romance comics that I did not touch for fear of cooties. Marvel was a blip on the horizon.

Anyway, the preferred practice of me and my friends was to save up till we had a quarter--twenty-five cents was real walkin' around money--and go to the sweet shop with the ultimate goal of buying two comic books and a sweet--a five-cent pack of baseball cards with the flat pink slab of gum enclosed, or maybe a Three Musketeers bar if baseball cards were out of season.  But one didn't relinquish that quarter quickly.

My specialty was the protracted browse. I might scan the rack and, just from the covers, realize that Superman and Action Comics would be my selections. Then I'd take a look at the latest Batman, World's Finest, Adventure, and maybe a Green Lantern or an Aquaman. The goal was to read as many as possible before the man behind the counter said, "Hey, kid! Ya gotta buy something or take off." Thanks to my parents and my teachers (who unanimously disapproved of comic books) I was a pretty fast reader, and I could usually get through two comics for every one I wound up buying. A comic like World's Finest might take a mere two minutes, enough to scan the Superman-Batman joint adventure that was the main piece in every issue, skip over the ads for Charles Atlas's bodybuilding secrets and X-ray glasses--they'd be in Superman, anyway--and give a quick. almost contemptuous glance to the third-tier hero of the B-story in World's Finest, usually something about a jungle daredevil named Congo Bill. I was at the age where I could read fast, make equally fast judgments, but was still too slow to wonder why Lois Lane didn't recognize Superman when he put on his Clark Kent glasses and combed that curly forelock up toward the back of his head.

I don't think kids like me were responsible for the demise of the sweet shop, by the way. I think it was probably the arrival of 7-11 and its volume purchasing power. There was no such thing as a sweet shop chain. It was one of those mom-and-pop operat ions that, regrettably, have disappeared in the general homogenization of the American economy.

Anyway, those days passed. I wasn't a comic book collector, not with younger brothers who wanted to have their crack at whatever I brought home. Thus I escaped the typical fate of a boy who collected comics and kept them, say, in a box at the back of his closet. He'd go off to camp or to college and come home to find that his mother had decided to tidy up his room and thrown them away. I was spared that pain and, thus, the vogue for treating old comic books as valuable collector's items that came and went in the 1990s.

So I wasn't exactly well prepared for Awesome Con 2018, which started a three-day run at the Washington convention center today. But it's been a long winter, and a particularly cold March. I haven't had much chance to photograph outside the studio. I decided to buy a ticket and make some portraits. Turned out I didn't recognize three-quarters of the costumes I was seeing and photographing. It didn't matter.

Asking people to pose for a photograph is not something I'm good at doing. It feels a little aggressive. But the good thing about an event like Awesome Con is that people want someone to pay attention to them. You don't dress up like a Might Morphin' Power Ranger, or a team of them, like the guys in the top picture, unless you want to be noticed and appreciated.

I didn't know whose costumes most people were wearing, but it didn't matter. I just said, "Nice costume! May I take a picture?" and people invariably stopped. They not only stood still for the camera. They mugged, striking power poses, brandishing their light sabres, and somewhat to my chagrin, insisting that I wait until they had their masks on.

I expected to see lots of adults, but I didn't expect the number of multi-generational groups I saw. Lots of dads with sons, passing along the love of comic book heroes. My own father would not have been pleased. He took me to baseball games. He took me to the circus when it came to town. He was a man of his times.

The circus is fading away. Cosplay is taking its place. Well, no animals were mistreated in the making of these costumes. They're strictly synthetics.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) aquaman awesome con batman comic books congo bill cosplay green lantern photography portrait portrait photography superman sweet shop washington Sat, 31 Mar 2018 00:48:24 GMT
Conflicting Narratives on Australia Day The official 2018 Australia Day parade in Melbourne yesterday started off conventionally enough. A navy band dressed in white marched down Swanston Street playing “Waltzing Matilda.” Then came more military types and some kids carrying a large Australian flag. But after that, it got complicated.

A delegation representing Australia’s community of immigrants from India marched by, the women dressed in colorful saris. They carried a big Indian flag and smaller Aussie flags. Then came Chinese associations, including parade dragons. Then Filipinos with parasols, Japanese in kimonos, Solomon Islanders in grass skirts and Sikhs in turba ns.

After them Superman marched past. Actually, he was bearing the standard of the Melbourne cosplayers’ group. He was accompanied by the Flash, Supergirl, Cinderella, ewoks and Imperial storm troopers. Then came Buddhists, Miss Sri Lanka Australia 2017, and a delegation of transgender people and drag queens. By the time a group of people riding antique bicycles and tricycles, the kind with enormous front wheels, rolled by, they looked a little dull.

The parade was a very telegenic display of Australia’s diversity. But it was incomplete. No representatives of Australia’s aboriginal people marched, and that was no coincidence.

Australia Day, January 26, commemorates the day in 1788 when the British flag was first raised over Australia and Britain, as was its imperial wont in those days, claimed the territory for the Crown. This, of course, displaced the existing inhabitants, and it is the original sin of modern Australia, much as the dispossession and near extermination of the Native Americans is the original sin of the United States.

The major difference is that the United States set July 4 as its national holiday, commemorating the Declaration of Independence from Britain. Thus, the Fourth of July can be presented as a celebration of freedom. (There is, I understand, a causal relationship between our national holiday and the Aussies’. After the Declaration of Independence was made to stick by the Revolutionary War, Britain felt the need for more colonies and sent the expedition to Australia.) The date of Australia’s national holiday commemorates colonialization, and therefore every year rubs the noses of the aboriginal people in their historic humiliation and subjugation.

In fact, it’s become a bit of a tradition in Melbourne that right after the official January 26 parade, protesting supporters of the aboriginals march the identical route down Swanston Street. This happened yesterday, and I would have to say that the protesters appeared to outnumber the participants in the carefully orchestrated official parade.

Originally, I have read, the goal of the January 26 protest march was to persuade Australia to change the date of its national holiday, presumably selecting a day not so closely associated with imperialism. However, judging by the chants and signage of the protest demonstration, the grievance goes deeper than that. “Fuck the date. Change the system,” one sign read. “Always was…always will be…aboriginal land,” was the most common chant I heard, followed by “Abolish Australia!”

I’m not sure exactly what would happen if Australia were indeed abolished. Perhaps, all the whites and Filipinos and Solomon Islanders would be deported. An aboriginal government would be established and given the power to decide whom to let back in, if anyone. Or maybe the protesters would want major reparations paid to the aboriginals. I couldn’t ask the protesters, because the same crowd control fences that were used for the official parade were still in use an hour later for the protest.

But it was evident that the two marches presented very different narratives. The official parade was saying that Australia is an immigrant land. In this narrative, the British colonialists may have been among the first to arrive, but they have been followed by many others, and Australia today is a melting pot of respected, equal ethnic groups that allows each of them to thrive.

The counter-narrative, represented by the protesters, holds that the essence of Australia remains white oppression of people of color, regardless of how many ethnic groups the city of Melbourne can recruit to put on colorful clothes and smile for the cameras televising the parade.

I have to say that I find the protesters’ narrative a bit ahistorical. Coincidentally, on Australia Day, the journal Science reported that archaeologists in Israel have determined that some fossils found in a cave there prove that early humans left Africa sometime between 177,000 and 194,000 years ago. That puts the beginnings of humanity’s dispersal from its east African birthplace some 50,000 years earlier than previously established.

If you accept the science, the chant of “Always was…always will be…aboriginal land,” is false.  Australia was uninhabited land (from the human perspective) before the first humans arrived. The aboriginals, if they were first, merely got there before everyone else, just as the people who crossed the Bering Strait and migrated southward were the first to get to the Americas. They may well have killed or assimilated humans or hominids who were there before them, as archaeology indicates Cro-Magnon man did with Neanderthal man in Europe.

But science tends to conflict with the traditional narratives of people who consider themselves the original inhabitants. These narratives usually involve some sort of deity that gave the land to the people. Such narratives are powerful—and impossible to disprove.

So I don’t know what will happen in Australia—or the Americas for that matter. How do we know which people came first to a given territory, since the current claimants may well have obliterated traces of yet earlier inhabitants? If we could determine it, what privileges should come with the claim of having been first? What would justice look like for groups the Canadians call First Nations. Do we organize society on the basis of ethnic groups and ethnic rights or on the basis of common humanity?

Tough questions. You won’t read the answers here. I’m here to watch tennis and play golf.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) aboriginals australia australia day human parades Fri, 26 Jan 2018 23:03:58 GMT
Art, Commerce, and My Australian Cousin Adam I like guidebooks. Before I travel, I like to read about my destination, savoring the reviews of hotels, restaurants and attractions, planning itineraries. The guidebooks are too gushy (“Don’t miss the legendary Joyce Kilmer rest stop on the iconic New Jersey Turnpike”), but still an essential part of my pre-trip routine. So when I read about a Melbourne hotel called The Cullen during my prep work for our current trip to Australia, I was delighted. I had to go. Family pride and all.

My wife Ann, who buys my guidebooks and indulges my traveling whims most of the time, and I set out on foot on a beautiful summer morning, walking past the National Gallery of Victoria in the city’s official Art Precinct along a route full of parks and gardens, tennis courts and cricket pitches, till we emerged onto a street called Commercial Road, the heart of a neighborhood called Prahran.

Prahran (an amalgamation of a couple of aboriginal words meaning place near water or some such) was a 19th Century Melbourne suburb that has gone down at the heels and come back again.  According to what I’ve read, it has trod the path of gentrification, including phases as a hippie haven and a center of Melbourne’s gay community. Now it’s an eclectic, cheerful mix of cafes, boutiques, and Chinese massage parlors. It’s got the requisite badge of funky Melbourne chic, which is laneways (i.e. alleys) full of dark, artful graffiti. But in Prahran’s laneways, you can also spot genuine little old ladies who live in the neighborhood, giving the whole thing a certain authenticity that more celebrated laneways in the city center plainly lack.

The Cullen (or as the hotel’s graphic design team would have it, [THE CULLEN]) is on Commercial Road in the heart of Prahran, across from the central market. It’s a newish building, in a modern architectural palette, maybe eight stories high. There’s no doorman at the entrance, but there are a couple of the hotel’s rental bikes parked there in case a guest wants to go for a spin. And next to the hotel’s name is a rather garish portrait of a dog, a smiling dog with tongue hanging out, maybe a collie or shepherd mix, with strangely insouciant eyes. This is no Hilton or Westin, traveler, the dog seems to say.

And indeed it is not. [THE CULLEN] is part of a small chain of Australian boutique hotels called the Art Series, created by a Melbourne company called the Deague Group. The concept is that each hotel is named for a contemporary Australian artist and decorated with his or her work. There are original paintings in the common areas and prints in the bedrooms. The staff not only run the hotel, but act as docents, expounding on the life and work of its eponymous artist.

[THE CULLEN] is named for a man I have decided to call my Cousin Adam. (Some Cullens emigrated from Ireland to America, and some to Australia. I can’t document it, but there’s got to be a little consanguinity somewhere.) That’s a picture of Cousin Adam above right, which I downloaded from a web site that didn’t credit the photographer. He’s standing in front of a portrait of an Australian actor named David Wenham, a painting that won Australia’s Archibald Prize in 2000. Which I believe is a big deal for an Australian painter.

There’s a lot of Cousin Adam’s work on display. You can sit in the small lobby under a depiction of an Australian outlaw named Ned Kelly being arrested by a constable named Fitzpatrick in 1878. As you wait for the elevator, you can contemplate the backside of a bull that he painted after a fellowship in Barcelona in 2007.  His work features bold black lines and iridescent colors and a lot of dripping paint. The charming young woman tending the front desk explained that the drips seem to correlate with Cousin Adam’s emotional state when he created them. The more upset he was, the more paint dripped.

And Cousin Adam, she said, spent a lot of his life upset. He was either a bit of a nut, or a man who understood how to create the persona of a tormented artist in the post-Van Gogh era. In Sydney, where he studied art, he is remembered for a 1980s performance piece in which he chained a dead pig’s head to his leg and dragged it around for a week, till it stank so badly that he was banned from public transport and had to give it up. He had an unfortunate penchant for booze and firearms and he died young, at 46, back in 2012. (You can read more about him here.)

I don’t know what the deal was between Cousin Adam and the Deague Group, but I hope it paid him well. It has definitely paid off for the Deague Group. Its Art Series chain, now up to nine properties, was sold a few months ago for $52 million to a company called the Mantra Group. And our docent told us that Mantra has immediately flipped the mini-chain to a still bigger corporate entity called Accor Hotels. As part of that deal, she confided, the original Cousin Adam paintings are being removed from [THE CULLEN] and replaced. She wouldn’t call the replacement works copies, but the implication was clear. What was once original is being commodified.

I just hope that Cousin Adam’s heirs, whoever they may be, got a piece of the pie. Somehow, though, I doubt it.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) accor adam cullen art art series australia boutique hotels deague group hotels mantra group melbourne prahran Wed, 24 Jan 2018 21:04:07 GMT
Remnants of a Life That Ended Badly I like a story that begins with the discovery of a box full of old, forgotten stuff in someone's attic.

So I was intrigued last week when my friend Dave Kelly invited me to have a look at the contents of an attic in a house he'd purchased in Chevy Chase. Dave is a builder, and he often buys houses from estates. Then he either renovates them or tears them down and builds something larger on the lot. 

The house he'd bought was a beige stucco Tudor with a peaked roof on Maple Avenue. It had last belonged to an elderly widow named Ann McLaughlin. Her heirs had cleaned out the first two floors, but they told Dave they were leaving the attic and he could do what he wanted with anything he found there. The attic, Dave discovered, was crammed full. There were old books, some scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, some old toys. There was an academic gown, perhaps a faded crimson. There was a tattered pennant from Yale. And there was a framed certificate. The certificate, dated January 21, 1961, stated that John F. Kennedy, reposing special trust and confidence in the prudence and integrity of one James M. Landis, did hereby appoint him a special assistant to the president. It was signed by Kennedy and by Dean Rusk, then the secretary of state.

It didn't take long, leafing through old passports, to figure out that Ann McLaughlin was James Landis' daughter. A little more research established who James Landis was. And it also revealed a plausible explanation for why the certificate and other items--like the old newspaper cartoon below right--might have been forgotten and abandoned by Landis' descendants. His was a tale of a brilliant American life that ended badly.

Landis was born in Tokyo in 1899, the son of Presbyterian missionaries. He was a bright and studious boy, and one with a keen sense of duty. When the United States entered World War I, he was too young to serve in the military. So he volunteered for a YMCA organization that served the troops in Europe. (I am cribbing much of this information from a biography by Justin O'Brien that was published in 2014.) When the war ended, he did his undergraduate studies at Princeton. He was a near contemporary of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and maybe he caught a whiff of the sense of entitlement that Fitzgerald depicted in This Side of Paradise, the sense that the young men of Yale and Harvard and Princeton represented an American aristocracy that was destined to run the world. He would probably have been a scholarship boy at Princeton, so he might not have felt himself quite a member of that aristocracy as yet. But he might have felt, like the title character Fitzgerald would later create in The Great Gatsby, close enough to feel that he someday could be. (That's a picture of Princeton's 1920 football team below left. I don't know if Landis had anything to do with the football team, but he kept the picture and Dave Kelly found it in the McLaughlin attic. The painted letters and numbers on the football indicate that Princeton tied Harvard 14-14 that year, and beat Yale, 20-0. Those, evidently, were the only games that truly mattered.)

Landis went on to Harvard Law, where he compiled a brilliant record. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. By the age of 29, he was a tenured professor at Harvard. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, Landis was one of the people he recruited for his "Brain Trust," the rotating cast of academic advisors who fashioned the New Deal.  Landis, along with Benjamin Cohen and Tommy "The Cork" Corcoran, drafted the legislation that established the Securities and Exchange Commission, which was the New Deal's effort to make sure the Crash of 1929 never happened again. In 1934, FDR appointed him to the commission, serving under the first chairman, Joseph P. Kennedy. That was the beginning of an alliance with the Kennedy family that was to last nearly three decades. He was himself chair of the SEC in 1935, and then became dean of the Harvard Law School in 1937.

Landis was established as one of those men who shuttled between the Ivy League and Washington, lending their expertise to government when Democrats were in power and developing new ideas behind ivy-covered walls during Republican interregnums. During World War II, FDR appointed him head of the Office of Civilian Defense. Then he sent him as an emissary to the Middle East, prompting the editorial cartoon at the right in the Washington Star, which also wound up in the attic on Maple Avenue. Harry Truman asked him to lead the Civil Aeronautics Board, the predecessor of the Federal Aviation Administration.

But somewhere in the late 1940s, the uninterrupted upward trajectory of Landis' life began to wobble. In 1947, his wife petitioned for divorce on the grounds of desertion. That may have been a consequence of Landis working in Washington while the family residence remained in Massachusetts. But whatever public image of rectitude Landis had was dented the next year when he married a woman who had served as his assistant at the C.A.B. In those days, a divorce was more scandalous than it is now. The desertion accusation may explain why the Landis memorabilia gathered dust in his daughter's attic. 

At the end of 1947, Harry Truman declined to reappoint him. Landis maintained it was because he had earned the enmity of the airlines he was supposed to regulate, and the airline lobbyists got to Truman. Maybe it was.

He fell back on his friendship with Joseph P. Kennedy, who wanted someone to manage his family's financial affairs so his sons could pursue careers in public service. That is evidently what Landis did in the 1950s, along with service in the campaigns of John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, he asked Landis to write a plan for revamping the various federal regulatory efforts. Landis did. But then disaster struck. During a background check, it was discovered that he hadn't filed income tax returns for the years from 1956 to 1960.

It's not clear why Landis made such a fundamental blunder for a man in public life. There have been suggestions that he drank too much or that he had psychological problems. The lawyers who defended him said that he'd had a technical problem evaluating some stocks he sold, and then just procrastinated about solving it, with no intent to evade taxes. Landis, upon being discovered, paid his back taxes, plus interest.

If Landis had been just an obscure citizen, that might have been enough to resolve his case. The IRS wasn't then in the habit of prosecuting people who acknowledged failure to file and paid what they owed. But Landis wasn't obscure and John Kennedy chose not to absolve his family's old friend. He told deputy attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach that it wouldn't look proper if his administration appeared to be going easy on one of its own while expecting everyone else to file returns. So Landis was prosecuted.

He received a sentence of 30 days in jail, commuted to a humiliating mandatory hospitalization for a month. He was disbarred. His life was ruined, and very shortly afterward, it ended. In the summer of 1964, his body was found floating in the swimming pool of his house in Harrison, New York, a very Gatsby-esque way to go. News accounts of his death hinted that it was a suicide, but eventually there was a finding that he drowned after having a heart attack. His little trove of memorabilia found its way to Maple Avenue, but not to an honored place of display. It went to the attic.

Landis did not disappear from history, of course. Scholars who study government administration and regulation regard him as a seminal figure, for better or worse, in the creation of the 20th Century administrative and regulatory state. They admire his skill in drafting legislation and respect his opinions about the proper relationship between government and business.

It's impossible to know what caused James Landis to crash and burn. A religious person might take note of the transcript of an oral history Landis recorded. In it, he said that he could never believe in the benevolent God of his missionary parents after the terrible carnage he saw in World War I. So maybe it was the loss of faith that ruined Landis' compass. Maybe it was alcohol. Maybe, despite his brilliance, he just wasn't immune to a mid-life crisis.

But it would be a mistake to say that the life of James Landis ended in total ruin. I asked a presidential autograph collector I know, Doug Wertman, if the framed certificate might have any value on the autograph market. Yes, Doug replied. It might even be worth a couple of thousand dollars, which would be not bad for something left for trash in a Chevy Chase attic.




]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) attic chevy chase dave kelly franklin d. roosevelt harvard james m. landis john f. kennedy new deal princeton securities and exchange commission yale Tue, 17 Oct 2017 15:30:59 GMT
The Stupidity of Abolishing DACA So, President Trump has decided to rescind the executive order that President Obama used to establish the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. In other words, he has started the machinery that in six months (barring action by our dysfunctional Congress) will leave 800,000 foreign-born young people vulnerable to deportation.

Trump has done a lot of dumb things in his brief tenure in office, but it's hard to think of any single thing he's done that is potentially more damaging to the country he purports to want to make great again.

I say this because of what I learned in a second career (2006-2011) teaching at Central High School in Prince George's County, MD. I taught a lot of immigrant kids. I never knew their legal immigration status; I never asked. Some of them might have been DACA-eligible. Others weren't.

But I do know that they were, in the great majority, admirable students and  admirable people. They were excited to have the opportunity to get an education in an American public school of the sort that is too often disparaged by people who haven't been in one and would never send their kids to one. Things that American kids take for granted, like air-conditioning and computers, struck them as infinitely superior to the schools in the lands they left behind. 

These kids did not expect anything to be given to them. To the contrary, they expected to have to work their butts off. Many of them started in American schools speaking little or no English. That was okay with them. They worked hard and caught up. They didn't complain about the essay assignments and grammar lessons I gave them. They asked only for extra help mastering things that didn't come quickly to them.

I am not the first to observe that attitude makes a tremendous difference in what people can accomplish. These kids had great attitudes. 

As the years have passed, I've kept up with many of my old students, thanks in part to social media. I have seen them continue to struggle, to strive, and to achieve. They've gone to and graduated from college, often with honors. A lot of them worked their way through, in menial jobs like taking care of the elderly in nursing homes. Some of them have started families and careers. Some have managed to make it into graduate school, where they're working toward medical degrees and MBAs. I've gone back into my archives and found pictures of some of them, which I am posting here. I won't identify them, though, because I don't want to embarrass them, and I want them to represent not just themselves, but all the kids like them whose futures are at risk.

What Trump and his know-nothing supporters don't seem to get is that America needs these kids. It needs their energy, their talent, and their ambition. It needs that attitude they bring to their lives. In their collectivity, they are not going to take jobs from native-born Americans. They are going to create them.

If we throw them out, some other country will benefit. And Joe Trumpist from West Virginia will still not get his old job in the coal mine back. It's a lose-lose proposition.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) daca immigration trump Wed, 06 Sep 2017 01:44:00 GMT
Not Just "Objects of Remembrance" One of the (many) canards I hear in our political discourse these days is the one that says monuments to Confederate soldiers, particularly Gen. Robert E. Lee, are simply inoffensive reminders of history. Bringing them down, we are told, would needlessly deprive people of their "heritage." Just last week in Alabama, someone erected a new Confederate monument and predictably assured the media that it had nothing to do with race, or politics. It was just a matter of respect for ancestors.

If you believe that, you probably believed that Cersei was going to send the Lannister army up north to fight alongside Jon and Danerys. 

The reliably mendacious ("our new election laws are not trying to keep Democrats from voting, they're just trying to stop fraud") North Carolina legislature recently passed this lie into law. It said that local governments in the Tar Heel state were prohibited from removing "objects of remembrance," including Confederate memorials. This was akin to combining baloney with horse manure, because it also exposed another right-wing lie, the oft-espoused principle that conservatives believe that the government closest to the people, i.e., local government, is the one that's best suited to make decisions that affect those people. In truth, conservatives like local government when they control local government. When they don't control it, they'll use whatever level of government they do control to impose their views.

But I digress. The topic is monuments and whether they are merely "objects of remembrance." And the truth is, they are not. Monuments in public places invariably are intended to support a point of view. They silently tell us to respect, even venerate, the person or cause depicted in bronze or marble. If they were simply objects of history and remembrance, there would still be monuments to King George III in the public squares of our original 13 states, and Russia would still have thousands of statues of Josef Stalin. There aren't, and Russia doesn't.

Last week I took my bicycle and a point-and-shoot camera for a ride around Washington to see if I could find even one memorial that didn't fit the "respect-and-venerate" model. I could not.

Washington has lots of monuments to generals who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. (They don't even have to be particularly astute or courageous generals.) These monuments are saying, in effect, that Washington was the capital of the Union and the Union's cause was not only victorious, but just.  You might agree or disagree with that message, but I don't think you can reasonably deny that the message exists.

For much the same reason, you will not, as far as I could tell, find any Confederate memorials in Washington, DC. That's because the powers that be in Washington, whether local or federal, would not approve a statue that said, in effect, "The Confederate cause was noble and it ought to be revered," which is the obvious message of Confederate memorials. 

Because Washington is home to many foreign embassies, it is also home to many foreigners' statues. They, too, have their messages. There's a statue of Winston Churchill near the sidewalk outside the British Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. The symbolism here is explained by a little plaque on the plinth. Churchill has one foot on British Embassy property (and symbolic British soil) and one foot on American land.  That's supposed to represent both his ancestry (his mother was American), and the idea that Britain and the United States are inextricably linked.

Other countries play this game along Massachusetts Avenue. Directly across the street from Churchill, the South African embassy has a new statue of Nelson Mandela. He is brandishing a fist at Churchill. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the South African government which erected the Mandela statue intended to remind us that whatever else Churchill may have accomplished during his career, he did not end apartheid in South Africa when it was a British dominion.  A little further down the avenue, there are statues of Mohandas Gandhi and Robert Emmett, who also had their issues with the British.

Massachusetts Avenue has a statue and small garden dedicated to Kahlil Gibran, the Arab-American poet and author of "The Prophet." It, too, has a message. The Arab-Americans who paid for it wanted to promote religious tolerance. On one of the stones in the monument, they engraved these words from the poet:

"I love you, my brother, whoever you are, whether you worship in your church, kneel in your temple or pray in your mosque..."

The Gibran monument, by the way, is only a few blocks from the house that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are renting. It would be nice to think that someday they'll be out walking the dog, see the words, and say, "Gee, maybe we should bring Dad here to read this."  Unfortunately, Dad is probably too busy promoting another monumental canard, the one saying that if the Lee statues have to come down, the Washington and Jefferson memorials must be next, because they were all slave owners, right?

Yes, they were. Lee, according to several accounts I have read, was an especially cruel one. His slaves were flogged when they didn't perform to his specifications, and he didn't hesitate to split up slave families by selling some family members to other owners. But to think that Washington, Jefferson and Lee must be treated equally because they all owned slaves is to illustrate the veracity of Ralph Waldo Emerson's observation that "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of weak minds." Washington and Jefferson were not saints. They did own slaves. But that must be weighed against their contributions. Washington led the American forces in the Revolutionary War and was our first elected leader. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, made the Louisiana Purchase and founded the University of Virginia.  Lee chose to side with the states rebelling to preserve slavery. He was a traitor to the duly elected government of his country.

And the silent message of Lee statues is that this was all forgivable, because black people aren't really equal. That was the message of the statues erected during the time when Jim Crow rules governed the South. It is the message of the Confederate memorial erected in Alabama last week.

So I don't have a problem of principle with removing Lee statues, any more than I had a problem with the Russians and Eastern Europeans who tore down statues of Lenin and Stalin. To the extent that they have historical or artistic value, the Lee statues can be kept in museums, where perhaps people will ponder what motivated the people who insisted they belonged on the public square. 

I do have some reservations about the tactics. American liberals are prone to spend their political capital on symbols rather than on policies and laws that will actually benefit society. Removing Lee statues will do nothing to help secure people's right to vote, or their health care, or good public schools, or decent jobs. But it will antagonize a certain number of middle-of-the-road voters who still buy the history-and-heritage argument about Confederate memorials. 

Is it worth the fight? I don't know. Maybe it would be smarter to go to every American park or town square that has a Lee statue and erect a distinctly larger copy of the Nelson Mandela statue on Massachusetts Avenue, brandishing that fist.  

(If you've read this far, you deserve a reward, and here it is. The first reader who sends me an email identifying each of the statues in this post, from top to bottom, wins a free portrait session at my studio in Chevy Chase, MD. Use if for yourself or give it as a gift. I'll even give you a hint. The statue at the top honors Kahlil Gibran.)


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) civil confederate donald trump ivanka trump jared kushner jefferson memorials nelson mandela robert e. lee statues war washbington d.c. washington winston churchill Mon, 28 Aug 2017 21:16:20 GMT
A Summer Morning in Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens Washington has some world-renowned splendors and some that are so obscure as to be almost hidden. Everyone knows about the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin. When they come out in late March or early April, the tour buses line up and unload, and you have to be careful not to be jostled into the water. I like the cherry blossoms, but, like any good Washingtonian, I relish the places in the city where buses never line up. Places like the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in the far reaches of the District, by the banks of the Anacostia River.

A Civil War veteran named Walter Shaw bought the land that now holds the gardens back in the 1880s. According to the National Park Service, Shaw was from Maine and he missed the water lilies he used to see in the ponds up there. He started planting tropical flowers, particularly lotuses and water lilies that need to stand in water. For them, he built a series of ponds delineated by raised dirt walkways, almost like rice paddies in Southeast Asia. In the 1930s, Congress bought the gardens from his daughter for $15,000. They came under the purview of the Parks Service, just like Yellowstone and Yosemite.

But though they were in the middle of a growing metropolitan area, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens were not nearly as often visited as the parks in the remote reaches of the American West. One reason, I am sure, is that the neighborhood immediately around the park became black and poor. It is still black and poor, filled with low-rise public housing, auto body shops, and other establishments that marked it as a no-go zone for many white suburbanites. Despite free admission, the KAG remained a bit of a secret. When I go, I usually see no more than a dozen people,

Recently, the numbers seem to have ticked upward. Maybe gentrification, for all its flaws, has made white people more willing to venture into black neighborhoods. Maybe social media and the internet have spread the word of the gardens more than the Parks Service could. For the last few years, the Parks Service has even organized a little week-long Lotus and Water Lily Festival in mid-July, when the flowers are at their peak.

The lotus is a venerated, even sacred object in Hindu culture. The flower, when it opens, sits high above the murky waters from which the stem emerges. It's easy to understand why, for Hindus, the lotus can symbolize the potential for beauty and enlightenment to spring from the turbidity of human nature. The other flora of the gardens, while perhaps not quite as spectacular as the lotus, are all beautiful in their own ways.

As a photographer, though, I prefer shooting the fauna of the gardens, particularly the winged kinds. The gardens abound in bees, butterflies and dragonflies. They're tougher to capture than a lotus blossom (like the one at the top of this post). The lotus blossoms stay where they are, and it's pretty easy to make a beautiful image. The winged creatures dart about, and the approach of a photographer seems often to make them particularly skittish. 

On top of that, they're tough for my auto-focus lenses to capture. I can point the camera at a dragonfly, but the lens and sensor may see a point of greater contrast behind or in front of the dragonfly and fix on that point. I get a blur red dragonfly. Or I don't manage to get my monopod on the ground and my lens pointed before creatures fly away. On a summer morning in the gardens, I will see a dozen interesting pictures of bees and dragonflies in action for every one that I manage to get into the camera.

Still, at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, it's impossible to spend an hour and not come back with some good images.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) bee butterfly d.c. dragonfly hindu kenilworth aquatic gardens lotus lotus flower national park service washington Thu, 20 Jul 2017 08:47:13 GMT
Smith Island Is Vanishing For hundreds of years, watermen and their families have lived on Smith Island, Maryland. The Chesapeake Bay sustained them, yielding its crabs and oysters to their hard labor. But now the island is slowly disappearing, the victim of two kinds of erosion. The bay is slowly swallowing the land. The population is eroding too, as people steadily move away.

I didn't get the name of the woman pictured above. (Sorry; my reportorial habits are slipping.) But I did learn that she is 86 years old, and a widow. She was born and raised on Smith Island, and she used to run a combination general store and crabcake restaurant called Ruke's. But it closed down in 2015, no longer making money. Her children and grandchildren have left Smith Island, finding jobs on the mainland, or "the other side," as I heard it called. She lives on the other side during the winters, too. But she comes back in the summer, because she likes the peace and quiet of the island.

I encountered her as I was riding a rented bicycle on one of the narrow, blacktop roads of the island, near the largest of its villages, Ewell. I stopped to photograph a house that once contained her neighbors. The owners just abandoned it, not even taking the car that sits in the rising weeds of what was once a front yard. Nature is steadily reclaiming the property.

According to Wikipedia, Smith Islanders once did some farming. I didn't see any farmland or even farmable land on my brief tour. Maybe I wasn't looking in the right places. But maybe the erstwhile farmland has just been submerged by the slowly rising waters of the bay.

That would leave Smith Islanders the waters of the bay as a source of sustenance. And, indeed, Smith Islanders have always been classic Chesapeake watermen. There are a couple of dozen long, low boats in Ewell's little harbor. They're built that way because watermen have to lean out over the gunwhales and reach down near the water surface to haul in their crab traps or use their tongs to rake along the bottom of an oyster bed. 

But there are fewer boats these days, and I heard a few different explanations as to why. One is that the government, in its efforts to make sure the crab and oyster populations can sustain themselves, puts too many picky limits on what watermen can do and when they can do it. Watermen, I was told, do what they do in part because they can be their own bosses. They don't like anyone telling them what to do. (Doubtless the regulators could make a convincing case that left to their own devices, the watermen might pull so many crabs and oysters from the bay that the populations died off, the way cod was fished to death in the waters off New England. But I didn't hear that case made on Smith Island.)

It's also true that pulling crabs and oysters from the bay is damnably difficult. A waterman's back and legs and eyes tend to give out after a lifetime on the water, leading to a short, painful retirement.  Steady jobs on the mainland, even jobs like being a guard at the state prison on the other wide in Westover, start to look more attractive. That may be why, if you look into what was once a shack for processing crabs on the dock at Ewell, you'll see a only pigeon perched on abandoned equipment. 

Smith Island has one famous food item, a ten-layer vanilla cake with chocolate fudge icing called the Smith Island Cake. In 2008, it was officially designated by the legislature as Maryland's state dessert. But when I ordered a slice in one of Ewell's two restaurants, the Harborside, it didn't taste quite fresh. I learned that a few years ago, the Smith Island Cake Co. moved its production facility to Crisfield, on the other side. It's a lot of trouble to haul things by boat or barge to Smith Island, and since there are no bridges, that's the only way to get something there.

That leaves tourism as a way to make a living, and Smith Island tries. There are a couple of B&Bs on the island. Every day, in the summer, there are a several boats that offer day cruises from Crisfield for about $25 round trip. They depart from Crisfield at 12:30 and they leave Smith Island for the return trip at 4. That gives most visitors time for a meal, a quick look at the little island museum in Ewell, and maybe a souvenir purchase in a gift shop. If you stay overnight, you can rent a kayak and explore the marshes, maybe photograph some herons and egrets, maybe fish a little. And that's about it. (The island is dry, so don't count on sipping a cocktail and watching the sun set.)

Other places in and along the bay, like Tilghman Island and St. Michael's, have lately become prosperous as second-home and retirement communities for the well-to-do of Baltimore and Washington. But they're a lot closer to those cities. Smith Island is a trek-and-a-half from just about anywhere but Crisfield. 

Thus, the numbers don't look good for Smith Island. According to the Bureau of the Census, the population has declined steadily in recent years, from 364 in 2000 to 207 in 2010 to 180 in 2015. If that trend continues, the end is in sight. Anyone who would like to see the people of a traditional American village making their living as their ancestors have done since the 17th Century had better go soon. At this rate, in another 25 years, Smith Island's population will be gone.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Chesapeake Bay Crisfield Ewell Maryland Smith Island Smith Island Cake crabs oysters watermen Fri, 30 Jun 2017 00:51:02 GMT
What Annie Leibovitz Hath Wrought Back in my reproductive years--which came so long ago I can't use the phrase, "back in the day" because they antedate the day--it seems to me that women tried to be, if not modest, at least circumspect about the late stages of their pregnancies. It's not that the times were all that repressed in matters of sex and dress. They weren't. (Look up mini-skirts and sexual revolution on Wikipedia, kids.)

But my recollection is that expectant mothers tended to wear loose maternity dresses--smocks, basically--in the months before they gave birth.  And they weren't often photographed. I have one picture of my wife in the late stages of her first pregnancy. She is seated in a rocking chair, dressed in a blue plaid maternity dress, looking slightly bemused at my insistence that she might want to be photographed. I don't recall seeing any pictures of my mother in pregnancy, though history tells me she was pregnant for much of the early 1950s and my father owned a camera.

The moment the culture shifted on this issue can be very precisely identified. It was August, 1991, when the great Annie Leibovitz photographed a nude and seven-months-pregnant Demi Moore for the cover of Vanity Fair.  The photograph was a bombshell, even though Ms. Moore's hand bra made it safe for supermarket checkout stands. (I will put a download of the image here, on the theory that Ms. Leibovitz's lawyers have got bigger fish than me to fry.) The baby bump had its coming out party, so to speak, and the party has not stopped.

As a portrait photographer, it seems this spring that I've had a spate of clients in the advanced stage of pregnancy who want to celebrate their condition and make sure it's recorded for posterity. I like these women. I wouldn't say that they glow, contrary to legend. I have to pay attention to the way their faces are lit just as I do with any client.  But they have pride and serenity that come through in their pictures.

One client told me she wanted to look regal in her pregnancy portrait. The nearest thing to a regal setting that I could think of was the Bishop's Garden on the south side of the National Cathedral in Washington. So we went there, and I photographed her amidst blooming flowers, with the gray Gothic walls of the cathedral in the distant background. She wore a tight white singlet, white pants, and a floppy-brimmed sunhat, and when I thought I'd gotten the shot and suggested we move on, she said, "Can't I pull up my shirt?"

My first response was, "I don't think so." After all, what might the bishop think? But she looked so disappointed that I said, "Okay, one or two quick ones." She tugged up the shirt and revealed that she had had an elaborate henna design painted on her tummy, an adornment that was matched on the back of her hands.  She beamed while I took a couple of quick snaps. We got out of there before the bishop could see us, I guess. As I think about it, I suspect the bishop wouldn't have minded. I was the only one concerned about whether it was appropriate. (I am blurring client faces in this post, though, just in case the culture shifts back.)

White has been a recurring motif in my recent maternity shoots. Indeed, I find more than a little in common between maternity shoots and wedding shoots. In both, the woman in white is the center of attention. The father plays an important, but distinctly subordinate role. The mother-to-be (and in my experience it has always been the mother-to-be who is the paying customer in these shoots) wants individual shots of herself. She also wants shots starring herself, the baby bump, and the adoring dad. It's not uncommon for clients to ask me to shoot the father on his knees, kissing the bump. But there's never been a request for an individual shot of the father-to-be. If the guy gets any individual shots, it's usually because I want someone to stand in front of the backdrop and let me check the lighting while the mother-to-be is changing clothes or fixing her makeup.

I shot one expectant mother on the opposite side of the cathedral from the Bishop's Garden, in a place called the Women's Entrance. (It's a portico, so it has nice, soft light.) After a dozen shots, she told me she felt light-headed. Visions of premature labor and lawsuits flashed through my mind. She sat down, took some deep breaths, and collected herself, though. As we walked down the granite steps and headed for the cathedral's parking garage, I took her hand. I didn't want her to fall. We walked hand-in-hand into a cluster of kids, probably students at the National Cathedral School. They looked at this woman in her 30s, very pregnant. They looked at the old man holding her hand. They looked again. I tried not to smirk.  

I like doing these shoots. There is an infectious joy in these women, and I think it's healthy that they want to show off why they feel that way. I'm flattered that they trust me to help them do it.






]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Annie Leibovitz Bishop's Garden Demi Moore National Cathedral Vanity Fair maternity maternity portrait maternity shoot pregnancy pregnancy portrait pregnancy shoot Wed, 17 May 2017 00:26:35 GMT
Pitchers and Catchers Report In the latitudes where I live, the traditional signal of winter’s end is visual—a robin alighting in the grass, pulling a worm from thawing soil. But for me, the spring of 2017 announced itself with two sounds.  One was the pleasant rustling a warm breeze makes when it flows through palm trees. The other was the solid whap…whap…whap of baseballs hitting catchers’ gloves.

I was in Florida for a golf trip with some friends last week, and the golf ended on the same day that the sports page conveyed some news: “Pitchers and catchers report to baseball spring training camps today.” I’ve always found this phrase very enticing, especially when I was stuck in the snow back home. So I decided to spend a couple of days observing. I would have gone to see my hometown club, the Washington Nats, in their new facility in West Palm Beach. But the facility was so new that it wasn’t finished. A security guard told me that spectators would not be admitted  for several days.

So I motored ten miles up I-95 to Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium, joint home of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins, who are the only team in baseball to head north for spring workouts. I knew I was in the right spot when I saw a line of a six or eight Cardinal fans, decked out in team regalia, sitting on lawn chairs by the players’ gate, basking in the sun, hoping for autographs.

Roger Dean Stadium is a complex with a dozen practice diamonds arrayed beyond its outfield walls. The Marlins’ clubhouse and fields are on the third-base side and the Cardinals are on the first-base side. The gatekeepers to this greenery are gray-haired men,  seasonal workers attired in sky-blue polo shirts with floral prints that say “STAFF” on the back. Their job includes wanding everyone for metal, a sad sign of the times we live in.

But it’s a cheerful process. The guy who checked me in also asked female spectators to give him a hug after he’d checked them for guns and knives.  They complied. Perhaps they were too old to know they were being harassed. Or maybe they were just so happy to be in Florida with fellow Cardinal fans that they felt like hugging someone.

What you see inside is grown men doing baseball drills they’ve been doing since they were little boys. On one diamond, a group of five Cardinal catchers strolled in. A woman behind the chain-link fence said, “Hi, Yadi,” and Yadier Molina gave her a smile.  The catchers gathered around a coach who reviewed for them the Cardinal way to pounce on a bunt and throw to each base. They pantomimed the correct footwork. Then the coach rolled mock bunts in front of the plate and the catchers took turns scrambling after them and throwing to first, second and third, where other coaches waited to catch their throws and drop the balls into gray plastic trash cans. Molina, a pretty good bet for first-ballot election into the Hall of Fame, took his turn with the rookies. That's Yadi, at left above.

On the opposite side of the complex the next day, I watched a Marlins coach instruct a group of pitchers on the art of fielding ground balls at the mound and throwing to the bases. “Protect your moneymaker,” he told them, meaning catch the ball in the glove hand and don’t risk an injury to the pitching hand. The Marlins pitchers seemed to take this to heart. I saw a couple of them bobble ground balls, but no one dinged his moneymaker.

On other diamonds, you could see pitchers practicing holding phantom runners on second, or tossing pick-off throws to first.  The players spent a lot of time just standing around, like the Marlins in the top picture, watching one of their teammates practicing looking dangerously at a runner on second. It’s probably good practice for a game where the action comes in fitful bursts and patience is a requirement.

The spectators are part of the show at this stage of spring training.  At the Marlins complex, 86-year-old Jack McKeon, who managed the Marlins’ World Series winner in 2003, was sitting in a golf cart chatting with a woman from Japan. She was a fan of Miami's Chinese pitcher, Wei Yin Chen, who once hurled for her home town team, the Chunichi Dragons, in the Japan League. She posed for me, unfurling a towel with the Dragons’ name it. Exactly how she got to Jupiter I never found out.

A lot of the fans were multi-generational families. You could pick out the grandfather and the grandmother, probably retirees living in Florida, and the visiting parents and grandchildren, down during a winter school break, all standing behind a chain link fence, watching a coach throw batting practice to some minor leaguers. The kids hawk autographs,  even though in some cases they might not know the player or manager their elders prompt them to go after. It doesn’t matter. The kids show off the autographs they’ve collected, showing off gap-toothed grins as well, because they’re at the age when teeth keep falling out.  And baseball renews itself.

 I passed by a trio of much older fans, fans for whom there is no tooth fairy if a molar falls out. I heard the words, “I’ll bet you a thousand dollars,” and I stopped to eavesdrop. The argument was over the way that Joe DiMaggio, in his retirement years, asked the Yankees to have the public address announcer identify him when he took the field at the annual Old Timers’ game.  “The greatest Yankee of them all,” one guy said. “The greatest living baseball player,” another insisted. Somehow it was decided that the second opinion was the correct one. And somehow, no money changed hands.

“But, hey, you know who was great,” the third guy interjected. “Willie Mays. He could beat you so many ways. With his glove, with his arm, with his speed, with his bat…” Heads nodded, and I moved on without finding out if another imaginary grand was wagered on who was better, the Say Hey Kid or Joltin' Joe.

It's easy, I know, to get romantic about baseball. It is in fact a business. I know that the pitchers and catchers, before taking the field for drills, were scheduled to be taking drug tests to make sure they weren't illegally enhancing their moneymakers or other appendages. And I know that the dreams of a lot of the kids I saw in Jupiter will end obscurely in some minor league town when they discover no one wants them any more. I don't care. For decades I have been feeling a wistful pang upon reading that phrase, "Pitchers and catchers report..."  In 2017, the sun was out, the temperature was hovering around 80, and I was glad I was there.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Cardinals Florida Jack McKeon Marlins Miami Marlins Nats Roger Dean Stadium Spring training St. Louis Cardinals Washington Nats Yadier Molina baseball major league baseball Sun, 19 Feb 2017 21:40:46 GMT
Venice and the Art of Decline A visitor to Venice, as I am now, cannot help but see lions. They adorn the city flag, the Basilica of St. Mark, innumerable doorknockers, the newel post of a staircase in the Rialto fish market and, in paper form, the occasional dressmaker's dummy. I saw the one pictured above on a stage in the ruins of a hospital for tubercular children on the Lido de Venezia. The lions might seem an affectation now, when Venice is a city with a diminishing population, a city that must accommodate mobs of tourists for its livelihood, a city that some fear will disappear entirely beneath the rising waters of its lagoon and canals in the not-too-distant future.

But the lions speak silently to the fact the Venetians once had reason to think of themselves as kings of the jungle, the superpower of the late Middle Ages. Venice dominated world trade from approximately 1200 to 1500. It was the essential commercial intermediary between the West and the Orient, and it knew how to make that centrality pay. It was an aggressive naval power quite adept at conquest, colonization and pillage.

And then it declined.

Historians ascribe Venice's long, slow fall to several factors, some within its control and some not. One factor was the discovery of new trade routes, pioneered by Portuguese navigators who demonstrated that Europeans could import the riches of the Orient by sailing around Africa. In this way, traders could save themselves the middleman's charges and taxes levied by not only the Venetians but the Islamic empires that lay between Europe and the sources of silks and spices. This competition seriously eroded Venice's comparative advantage in world economics in much the same way that the internet has eroded the comparative advantage of newspapers.

There was also the classic dynamic between the rich, status quo power (Venice) and the hungry, up-and-coming, disruptive power (the Ottoman Turks). The Turks were willing to do whatever it took to conquer. The Venetians, not so much. They developed a fatal tendency to want to enjoy what they had. So, in the late 15th Century, under Mehmet II, the Turks slowly and persistently conquered most of Venice's trading outposts and colonies in the eastern Mediterranean.

Finally, some historians argue that Venice weakened itself when its governing body enacted what was called La Serrata, or the closing. This restricted eligibility for membership in the ruling council to families that were already part of the nobility. It put a lid on upward social mobility and diminished the incentive for upstart Venetians to contribute their energy to the commonweal. Whatever the reason, it's beyond argument that some of the hereditary aristocrats given command of Venetian naval forces proved themselves less than valorous in battle with the Turks.

But while its relative economic and political power declined after 1500, it would be an egregious overstatement to say Venice collapsed. To the contrary, it managed decline very well. For one thing, its cultural life thrived long after its geopolitical dominance was gone. Titian (1488-1576) and Vivaldi (1678-1741) were exemplary Venetians of the sunset era. Though forced to surrender its independent republic status to Napoleon in 1797,  Venice always managed to avoid being sacked and burned. Its canals and beautiful palazzi remained more or less intact for future tourists to marvel at. Its industries suffered from global competition, but some of them managed to find niches in which they survived. The woman at right works for Tessitura Luigi Bevilacqua, a Venetian fabric manufacturer in business since 1499. Using wooden looms made hundreds of years ago, she weaves rich fabrics of silk and velvet that, as of yet, the textile mills of China and India either cannot duplicate or don't bother with. The market for Bevilacqua products, I was told, includes Arab sheikhs, Russian oligarchs, and a couple of European royal houses. They cost upwards of a thousand Euros a meter. Venice stopped being a competitive purveyor of mass goods, but it retained a reputation for quality good.

(My thanks go here to Frank Van Riper and Judith Goodman. My wife and I are on one of their photography workshops in Venice, and their contacts have made it possible for me to visit places like the Tessitura Luigi Bevilacqua and ask my questions about Venetian history.)

It's almost impossible for me, especially at this point in American history, to visit Venice and wonder if it is now, or soon will be, America's turn to face the challenge of managing decline. I know there are chest-thumping Americans who would regard this statement as akin to treason. God has chosen America to be the exceptional nation, they would say, and therefore decline will never happen unless Americans turn their backs on God or some such blunder. There are others who apparently believe that America has been in decline for the last decade or so, but it will come roaring back in a storm of blustery tweets.

I don't know. Maybe America will be the exception, but until now the inevitability of great power decline has been a constant in human affairs. I think it's safe to say that the United States has become a status quo power whose leading citizens prefer to dodge taxes rather than sacrifice for the commonweal. (See Trump, Donald.) We are embroiled in a world full of hungry, disruptive powers. (The tactics of Vladimir Putin today bear a striking resemblance to those employed by Sultan Mehmet II against Venice in the 15th Century.) Our system concentrates wealth in the hands of one percent of the population, and social mobility, once our pride, is now worse than in many European countries.

The American political system is increasingly dysfunctional. Twice in this century, the loser of the popular vote has nevertheless become president. Small states, the wealthy, and residents of certain "battleground states" wield disproportionate influence. The art of gerrymandering has advanced to the point where moderates have no influence and the fringes, both right and left, control Congress. Our people are riven into tribes that have diverging views of reality and don't very much listen to, respect, or understand one another any more. 

All of those would seem to be harbingers of decline. If they are, the question is what to do about it. We could choose to exacerbate the factors that have traditionally led to decline. We could choose to concentrate still more wealth and power in the hands of a few. We could have our own version of Venice's Serrata by slashing immigration and letting the public schools drift in futility. We could choose to ignore or remain ignorant of the challenge posed by leaders like Putin. On the other hand, we could choose ineffective, expensive military responses to those challenges until we exhaust our funds and our will to fight.

Or, perhaps, we could learn from the things Venice did right during its decline. We could take care to preserve our culture and our environment. We could recognize that some things are beyond our control, like the new trade routes to the Far East in the 16th Century were for Venice. We might be able to make our decline so long and gradual as to be almost imperceptible, and to preserve our country, as Venice did its city, as a place for the rest of the world to admire. Still a lion, but a lion of a different kind.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Donald Trump Ottoman Empire United States, Venice decline imperial decline Wed, 11 Jan 2017 16:31:53 GMT
Footsoldiers in Hillary's Army

My daughter Catherine and I have established a quadrennial family tradition in the years since she grew up and moved out of our house. We volunteer in the campaign of our favorite presidential candidate. There's not much point in doing this where we live, Maryland and the District of Columbia. They're both emphatically blue jurisdictions in presidential years. So we go to a nearby swing state, either Virginia or Pennsylvania. This year, Catherine arranged for us to volunteer in York, Pennsylvania. We drove up there Tuesday morning.

We were not alone. Dozens of out-of-state volunteers were converging on Democratic headquarters in York, which, with no apparent irony, was located on the first floor of a structure called the Rich Executive Building, just across from the county courthouse. We signed in , were issued clipboards and a packet, and then directed toward the room where we would get our instructions.

The instructions were already underway by the time we squeezed in, so I didn't get the name of the person explaining how to canvass and fill out the forms (see picture above). She was black and, judging by her dress and accent, a Muslim immigrant. That gave her four very good reasons to oppose Donald Trump. She told us that we would be the second wave of canvassers going through York in the morning; an earlier crew had already rung the doorbells in our assigned routes.

That suggested that reports about the thoroughness of the Democrats' ground game were not exaggerated. We were going to be the among the last of many canvassers in York. People in prior weeks had already knocked on doors, identifying likely Democratic voters. We were assigned to a neighborhood of row houses near the center of York. Our job was to remind people to go to the polls, to identify the ones who were on the list of likely Democratic voters who had not yet voted, and to offer help in getting to the polling place.

It turned out that we didn't do much of that. Predictably enough, no one answered the knock on most doors we tried. It was the middle of the day and people in this precinct were working. A few people told us, in either English and Spanish, that they'd be voting later. Some said they'd already voted and somehow, their names had not been checked off our list.At most houses, all we could do we leave a sticker on the door, reminding people it was Election Day.

It wasn't much. But if, God forbid, Donald Trump wins this election and unleashes his malignant ego on this country, we at least will be able to say that we made an effort to defeat him.




]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Democrats Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Pennsylvania York canvassing election Tue, 08 Nov 2016 22:15:51 GMT
Life and Death in Chevy Chase There was a killing this morning in my placid suburban hometown, Chevy Chase, MD. The perpetrator was a hawk (a red-tailed hawk, I believe, but I am open to correction on my identification from more qualified ornithologists). The victim was a rabbit. The killer remains at large.

The crime occurred somewhere near the back of my driveway, as best I can judge from the feathers and bits of fur left at the scene. I did not see it happen. But my wife, Ann, spotted the hawk from an upstairs window. It was trying, unsuccessfully, to get airborne with the dead bunny clutched in its talons. I suppose it manages to do this with mice and squirrels. But this was a rabbit plumped up from a summer preying on Chevy Chase backyard gardens. The hawk had killed more than it could lift, much as it flapped its wings

I got my camera and went into the driveway. The hawk was silhouetted against our standard suburban white picket fence. It was trying to drag the carcass behind the garage, where it could presumably have its breakfast with a modicum of privacy. But even that was proving too difficult. The killer turned and stared at me with yellow-and-black eyes. I thought I detected a hint of embarrassment and confusion in its gaze, but maybe I was anthropomorphizing. When a few moments had passed, and I had come no closer than 20 feet or so, the bird seemed to decide that I was not a threat. Or its hunger overcame its fear. The hawk started to eat. 

He or she straddled the carcass and used its bloodstained beak to tear it open. It picked away for ten or fifteen minutes as I shot pictures. Its beak, talons and leg feathers were stained red. Tufts of fur dangled from the beak.

I am sorry if the photos are too graphic for some tastes. Apologies as well to those who have loved bunnies since they first heard of Peter Cottontail. I suspect there will be others, though,  their gardens denuded of carefully tended flowers and herbs, who will look at the pictures and figure the rabbit had it coming.

When it had eaten enough, the hawk hopped a few feet away and scanned the scene for a few minutes. I got some more pictures. Then it flew off to our neighbor's fence, where it perched for a while. I went back inside to get a garbage bag to help dispose of the bunny's remains; I didn't want crows or vultures to descend upon us. When I came back out, the hawk was gone. But I thought that I ought to warn our next-door neighbors to keep an eye on the sky. They have a dog not much bigger than a rabbit.

As I write this, our emergency generator has turned itself on, a test that it performs once a week. Its rumble normally seems to say that here in Chevy Chase, we're insulated from the vicissitudes of the natural world. Even if there's a hurricane and the power lines come down, we'll be okay. But the generator's rumble is not quite so reassuring this morning.

I know it's a jungle out there.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Chevy Chase death hawk predators rabbit raptors red-tailed hawk suburbs Tue, 11 Oct 2016 20:23:26 GMT
Photographing a Heroine Few books have affected my understanding of the world as much as Jane Goodall's In the Shadow of Man.  So it was a great privilege yesterday to have the chance to photograph her.

For those who don't know of her, Jane Goodall is a primatologist. In 1960, at the suggestion of the paleontolgoist Louis Leakey, she began living among the chimpanzees in what is now the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. No one had done this before, at least not as she did it. She lived in a tent. She spent hours and days sitting quietly in the chimpanzee habitat, until they began to trust that she would not harm them. The chimps began to display their normal lives in her presence.

Most famously, she saw them make tools out of twigs to "fish" for termites in holes. That put to rest the old notion that the ability to make and use tools distinguished human beings from "lower" species. Over years of patient observation, she observed behaviors that were quite human--bonds between mothers and children, mutual support and assistance and brutal warfare and predation. She began to notice personalities. 

She did this unencumbered by by formal academic training. When she started, she lacked even a bachelor's degree. (Ultimately, she got a Ph.D. from Cambridge without having to do undergraduate work.) When she wrote about the chimps, she didn't do it in the dry, off-putting style of an academic. She did it almost as a novelist, creating character and plot that made her observations doubly compelling.

For me, the book was a revelation. Chimpanzees are said to be the closest primates to human beings. The similarities Jane Goodall found between chimpanzee behavior and human behavior suggested to me the extent to which our own behaviors are programmed in our genes.   I admired her insight. I admired her writing. I admired the grit, confidence, tenacity and patience  that enabled her to make dramatic scientific discoveries without any formal credentials. She became a member of my small, private pantheon--the group of people, most of whom I had never met, whom I deeply respected. My heroes and heroines, if you will.

So a few months ago, I was delighted when the Jane Goodall Institute asked me to make some staff portraits for its web site. The institute is the organization through which Dr. Goodall continues her work these days. She is 82, but she spends about 300 days on the road each year, advocating for the rights of animals and the need to conserve the habitats they depend on. That first session went well, and the institute asked me to make portraits of board members during a meeting on September 26.

(The portrait above left is an indication of what the JGI does. It's of Madison Vorva, who as a young girl became a member of the JGI's Roots and Shoots program for kids. Madison was so inspired that at the age of 11, she launched a successful campaign to persuade the Girl Scouts of America to stop using palm oil in their cookies, since palm oil plantations tend to displace habitat needed by chimps and other wildlife. Madison is a JGI board member now, and a student at Pomona College in California, studying environmental management. If past is prologue, I suspect she and others like her will do a fine job of carrying on Jane Goodall's legacy.) 

I was told I would get to meet Jane Goodall, but the only photograph of her that they wanted would be in a group shot. She had enough portraits. That was understandable. A portrait session takes time, and her time was both limited and valuable. And she's been photographed thousands of times in her life.

But when I arrived at JGI Monday morning, there was a new development. The staff wanted one of those life-size cardboard photo cutouts of Dr. Goodall so that when they had a public event she couldn't attend, fans could stand next to the cutout and have a picture made. They had ransacked the archives, though, and hadn't been able to find a head-to-toe shot that was suitable. Dr. Goodall had consented to pose for one if I would be able to make it. I, of course, said yes.

This was not the circumstance I might have created if she had been a normal portrait client. Because the picture would be made into a cardboard cutout, it had to be brightly, evenly lit. I wouldn't be able to create any shadows.  I wouldn't have more than a minute or two with her, and there was no chance to ask her to walk outside and pose in the patch of woodland next to the JGI's office building, even though a wooded setting might have been my first choice. I had brought with me only the black paper backdrop that the JGI wanted for the staff and board portraits, and that would have to do. I would have to use a wide-angle zoom lens to get her entire body into the frame rather than the Sigma 50 mm that is my go-to portrait lens. 

This, I know, is the way that photographers who shoot famous people have to work. They get just a little time, and they have to be ready to improvise and succeed.

So I set up an extra light. I cut off the ragged edge of my backdrop and extended it so it would look smooth against her feet and shoes. Jane Goodall came into the empty office I was using as a makeshift studio. She had no apparent makeup or jewelry. Her skin was clear, almost translucent. She projected a calm serenity. I had a chance to tell her that I admired her books, and she asked which one. I told her my favorite was In the Shadow of Man. She seemed pleased to hear it, and she mentioned that it has just been published in Iran. She posed for about four shots.

I was nervous enough that I damn near blew the shoot. My camera's top flash sync speed is 1/250 of a second. Somehow, fiddling with the settings, I pushed the shutter speed to 1/320. When you do that, a thick stripe of solid black, known as a curtain, begins to fill the frame of an image. I got a curtain in each of the images I shot of Jane Goodall. Fortunately for me, the curtain didn't obscure her, and it's barely noticeable against the black background paper. 

I am pleased with the images that I got. I cropped one of them--it's at the top of this post. I like the effects of time on her face. I like the little hint of an overbite. And I like her calm, yet somehow penetrating gaze.

The full shot is on the right. And, yes, Jane Goodall is carrying a stuffie, a monkey named Mr. H. It was, I was told by a staff member, given to her in 1996 by a man named Gary Haun, an ex-Marine who, despite blindness, learned to become a very good magician. Jane Goodall admired Gary Haun's willingness to become a magician even though people told him he never could. She says some of Haun's persistence and courage will rub off on people who touch Mr. H, and persistence and courage are valuable commodities in the battle to save the planet and its wildlife. Besides, she had stuffies when she was a little girl, and she loved them. And if she wants to carry one now, who's going to tell her she can't? 

Not me.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Gary Haun In the Shadow of Man Jane Goodall Jane Goodall Institute Mr. H chimpanzees photography portrait primatology Tue, 27 Sep 2016 20:07:22 GMT
Brexit and My Breakfast I heard about yesterday's British referendum in a village called Liscannor, in the western Irish hinterlands, hard by the Atlantic Ocean. It's a place that makes me appreciate the European Union and worry about all the possible consequences of the British vote to leave it.

My wife and I had breakfast in a little bakery and coffee shop called Sea Salt on Liscannor's main road.  The shop seemed to symbolize all the benefits that have come to Ireland as a result of the EU.

That's one of the staff members, a baker named Charlie Moraghan, in the picture above. But Charlie was the only native-born Irishman we encountered in Sea Salt. One of the waitresses was from Denmark. The other was from France. The owner was named Fabiola, and although she was too busy to tell me where she came from, I doubt that it was Ireland. 

Some might say that these migrants have taken jobs that might have gone to the Irish, but I doubt it. I think that the influx of European influences into Ireland, of which the Sea Salt is a small example, has created jobs that would not otherwise exist.

Certainly, when I first visited Ireland in the pre-EU days, I didn't eat in any places like Sea Salt. Ireland was a no-go for foodies. You felt lucky if you could get a "mixed grill"--a plate of overcooked meats--and a Guinness for supper in some dreary pub. In Sea Salt, there was an attractive and eclectic array of baked goods for sale. I had a blueberry scone and Ann had a brioche. There were tarts and little cakes and other delicacies. The decor was bright and imaginative, with one window decorated with old millstones that bakers once used to grind flour.

When you see the results of immigration on a personal level, as in Sea Salt, it's easy to appreciate the benefits that come from the cross-pollination of European cultures. It's easy to see immigrants as hard-working, aspiring people who make a big contribution to their adopted countries.

It's when people contemplate immigration from an impersonal distance that they start to worry about dark hordes engulfing their countries. That kind of fear apparently drove the Brexit vote, and I know it's behind the Donald Trump phenomenon in the United States.

I can understand this fear. I am by no means opposed to immigration, and I am contemptuous of Trump's scheme to build a wall along the Mexican border and his ridiculous boast that he'll get Mexico to pay for it. But I do think the United States has to get a better handle on how many immigrants get into the country in a given year and regulate that number with an eye toward improving employment prospects for our own citizens.

The problem is that when people are afraid, and their fears are exacerbated by demagogues like Trump, they can vote against their own interests. 

That's what I'm afraid happened with the Brexit vote. I hope that more level-headed Brits control the separation process and can somehow salvage some of the benefits that came with the EU. I hope that Britain's exit does not, as it now seems likely to do, lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom, with Scotland exiting. I hope it doesn't lead to the further dissolution of the EU. And I hope that if there are any level heads among Trump supporters, what happened in Britain yesterday causes them to think twice about the dangers of what they're doing.  


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Brexit Europe European Union Great Britain Ireland Liscannor Trump immigration Fri, 24 Jun 2016 10:10:44 GMT
Something Republicans Did Right I am not much of a nature photographer, but you don't have to be very good to get some interesting images near where I live. That's because I am blessed to live near a monument to the foresight of the Republican party. I live near Rock Creek Park.

A little less than a year ago, I was riding on the hiker-biker trail that runs along the creek just north of Military Road. I was struck by a particularly lush little stretch where the canopy of trees over the creek created a vivid, deep green reflection in a pool below an unnamed rapid. I came back a little later with my camera. For the last 11 months, I've returned periodically and photographed the same spot as the seasons changed. A few of the pictures accompany this post.

I've seen deer picking their way across the stream in the cold mists of a November morning. I have seen the canopy of trees, bare, spiky and black, frosted with snow. I've seen mallards feeding.  I've seen dozens of city people enjoying the picnic tables and barbecue grills set along the little valley floor between the creek and Beach Drive.

Rock Creek Park at this stage, five or so miles from its confluence with the Potomac, is an engaging mix of the urban and the natural. Thousands of commuters drive by on weekdays, going to and from downtown DC. On the weekends, the drive is closed to cars and becomes a haven for bikers and joggers. People with no weekend country homes, no green to call their own, set themselves and their families up on the banks of the creek to picnic and play, members of the propertied class for at least a few hours. Yet for all this traffic, it's not hard to take a little walk and see no one, to be alone with just the woods and the rocky, tumbling stream, as if wandering in the mountains far from any town rather than well within the confines of the District of Columbia.

It calls to mind the passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in which Marc Antony reveals to the Roman crowds the terms of Caesar's last will and testament. Caesar, he tells the crowd, has bequeathed to them his orchards along the Tiber. They will be urban parks.

He hath left them you and to you heirs forever

Common pleasures to walk abroad and recreate yourselves.

I can't vouch for the historical accuracy of Shakespeare's account, but I believe it attests to the feeling, in Shakespeare's time if not also in Caesar's, that it is important to provide a community with parks, with pieces of natural ground to which the people can repair, rest and recreate themselves.

Fortunately, the consensus in favor of government action for things such as parks still held sway in 1890, when a Republican Congress passed the legislation creating Rock Creek Park, authorizing the purchase of up to 2,000 acres of private land. A Republican president, Benjamin Harrison, signed the legislation into law. 

Sadly, it's impossible to imagine today's Republicans doing anything so wise. Use tax dollars to buy private land? Set it aside so you can't hunt on it? And primarily for the people of Washington? Today's Republicans take it as dogma that government should be "starved," a principle that they are applying with particular zeal to the National Park Service. Buying private land and setting it aside would be construed as socialism or unconstitutional. Some kind of self-appointed militia would probably arm itself and try to seize the park to preserve hunting rights. And no good Republican of today would vote for anything to benefit the city of Washington, a place the party values at roughly the level of Pyongyang, Tehran, Sodom, and Gomorrah.

I guess I should just be grateful that the earlier version of the Republican Party had its day in D.C.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) D.C. National Park Service Republicans Rock Creek Rock Creek Park Washington Washington, D.C. nature photography photography urban Fri, 29 Apr 2016 22:24:42 GMT
Capturing Moments in Havana I expected to learn a lot from Peter Turnley when I signed up for his photography workshop in Havana. I was not disappointed.

Peter is a premier photographer and journalist. He doesn't specialize in studio work. He's known for his news photography and for his work on the streets of Paris, Havana and other cities, capturing "moments of the human condition," as his recent Havana exhibition was called. He got started when he was 16. Until that time, he and his twin brother David had been focused on football. Peter suffered a serious knee injury, and while he was in the hospital, his parents bought him a book of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson. For Peter and David, seeing this book was akin to what must have happened the first time Tiger Woods saw his father hit a golf ball. It lit a fire. Within weeks, they were making a series of photographs in their hometown of Ft. Wayne, Indiana which were so good that they are still exhibited today. Within a year or two, David flew to New York with their portfolio, talked his way into the offices of photo editors and art directors at major publications, and launched their professional career. Peter eventually moved to Paris and served what amounted to an apprenticeship in the school of French photography that included Cartier-Bresson. He is both a natural and very well-trained. (You can see his work at

So the first thing he taught us about making pictures surprised me. He advised us to set our cameras on shutter priority, at whatever speed we needed to make certain camera movement didn't soften our pictures. He suggested adjusting the ISO setting in our cameras to adapt to differing amounts of light and using the matrix metering setting. 

This surprised me. I was in thrall to the story I read long ago about how Ansel Adams made his famous "Moonrise Over Hidalgo, New Mexico," photograph. Adams was driving along late in the day after taking many shots and had one glass film plate left for his box camera. He saw the moon rising and knew he had to get the exposure right the first time, having only the one plate left. Adams, of course, had memorized the proper exposures for a wide variety of images, including a rising moon. He set up his camera and nailed the picture in one shot. So I have always figured that a real pro shoots in manual mode and knows, through experience or memorization, what the proper exposure settings should be.

That's not what Peter taught. The electronics in the modern camera, he said, were far more capable than we could be of assessing the proper exposure settings, at least quickly. He wanted us to rely on those electronics. We were to set or re-set the camera whenever we went outdoors or indoors. We were to be ready to operate is if there were a special neuron between our hearts and the finger on the shutter release button, reacting instantaneously.

I would have thought that if a pro used any auto setting it would be aperture priority. But Peter did not. He values crispness in an image and his first priority is making sure that neither subject nor camera movement causes blur. I usually walked around Havana with my camera on S and my shutter speed set to 1/250th of a second, because I had a heavy 24-70 zoom lens and I wasn't sure I could hold the camera as steadily as needed with a lower shutter speed. 

After a day or two, I could see the value in this practice. But I found myself using the exposure compensation button a lot, kicking the exposure up one or two stops, especially when subjects were back lit or had dark complexions. Using shutter speed priority means the background in most shots is going to be fairly sharp. That suits Peter. He's usually trying to get an image that gives the viewer a sense of both the subject and the environment. When we zoomed in close to a subject, Peter's critique was likely to be, "Step back. Let it breathe." He wanted us to use 35 mm lenses so we'd capture not only a person, but a sense of that person's world.

Far more important than the technical details of how Peter shot was the attitude he brought to shooting. He demonstrated this by example. On one of our first mornings in Havana we went to a neighborhood called Regla to see, among other things, a Catholic church that is hospitable to the local population's adherence to santeria, the traditional African religion the ancestors of many Cubans practiced. In certain parishes, the church has stopped fighting santeria and allows parishioners to blend the two. This was one of them; the statue of the Virgin Mary was black and she was evidently conflated with the santeria goddess Yemaya. Yemaya is associated with the sea; Havana Bay laps at a seawall steps from the church. When Peter saw a woman in a white turban standing at the edge of the bay, seemingly praying, he wanted to photograph her.

I watched as he approached her and I saw her emphatically shake her head no. At this point, I would have apologized for intruding and walked away. But Peter very calmly began a dialog with this woman. He later told us he spoke to her from the heart about how important communication between people and cultures is to the future of the world. After a while, he started making photographs of her. I took a couple of shots of the two of them from long range, but I didn't go closer. I didn't want to interfere in the moment Peter created between this woman and himself. He later showed us a wonderful portrait he made of this woman with the blue sky and the bay shoreline in the background.

So that was the big lesson I took from Peter Turnley. It's not enough to follow good technical practices like keeping your camera ever ready. You have to believe in yourself and what you're doing. You have to have a way with people. And you have to stick with a situation long after most photographers would have given up, until you get the image you need.

I tried to apply those lessons that morning and throughout our week in Havana, seeing people in the streets, or in places like a dance academy which we toured. Some of the images I made are on this page, along with a picture of Peter talking to the woman on the edge of the bay. But I came to the conclusion that photography is a little bit like golf. There is no "ah-ha" moment when the secret becomes clear. You can watch a great player swing. You can even take a lesson from that player and learn something useful to improve your own swing. But you will likely only improve slowly, and only with practice. In the end, you will only be really good at it if you have both dedication and talent.





]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Cuba Havana Peter Turnley Regla photography photography workshop santeria street photography Fri, 26 Feb 2016 01:32:31 GMT
Habaneros I have had the good fortune in the last year or so to visit two places where the people are extraordinarily receptive to being photographed. One was Hanoi, in February 2015. And the second was Havana, from which I have just returned. In both places, I found that all I had to do was walk the streets, point my camera at someone interesting, put a plaintive look on my face or say a phrase or two in the local language, and three times out of four, the person would say yes.

Sometimes, they'd do more than say yes. They'd ham for the camera, or give me a big smile. That's not what I'm looking for. I'd prefer that people act as if I am not there, though I realize that's a lot to ask. 

But someone who hams for the camera is way better to work with than someone who says no, which is what I most often get when I take my camera into the streets of an American city. In fact, I'd say the yes-no ration is roughly reversed. For every one American who consents, I get three rejections. Sometimes, the rejections are rather emphatic.

A while back I was in the street photographing houses for a web site interested in the homes and former homes of famous Washingtonians. I was near Howard University, shooting a row house that once was the home of a famous African-American poet. A guy came out of the house and threatened to call the police, presumably because he thought I was breaking the law by photographing not him, but his house. No, there were no open windows through which I could have photographed the interior of the house. And no, Americans have no legal right to prevent someone from photographing in the street. But a lot of Americans think they do.

It was not that way in Havana or Hanoi, and I am not sure why. Unfortunately, my Vietnamese is non-existent and my Spanish is rudimentary, so I couldn't ask people why they were happy to let me make their picture. But I can speculate.

I suspect it may not be a coincidental that both Hanoi and Havana are the capitals of communist regimes, albeit not as ardently communist as they once were. I don't think communist states instill in their citizenry the concept of a right to privacy. Or, if they do, it's a more circumscribed right than what we in the non-communist world like to think we enjoy.  

On top of that, both Cubans and Vietnamese have reasons to welcome Americans and Westerners even if, not so long ago, we were at war with them. Vietnamese, having driven both France and the United States from their land, are now worried about China, their region's traditional overlord. We can serve as a counterweight to Chinese influence.

In the case of Cuba, there are government billboards around Havana that show the island encircled by a noose, with the legend "Blockade: The Longest Genocide in History." Obviously, the government would like its citizens to be angry toward the United States, or at least its policies. But I didn't sense much anger. I suspect a couple of things are at play. One is that the Cubans know their economy is not healthy, and one thing that could make it healthier is a flourishing tourism business. Cuban tourism is small compared to other Caribbean countries, not nearly what it could be. So they're glad to see a foreigner, especially an American. And I suspect there are a fair number of Cubans with relatives in Florida. They're in touch with those people, however loosely. They know that regardless of whether they think America is a just society or an admirable society, it's a much wealthier society than theirs is. They may not want our health-care system, and they may not think college should cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But they wouldn't mind having a car that runs, and a house that isn't crumbling around them.  Maybe they think that by posing for an American tourist, they are hastening the day when they can move out of communal housing. 

Or, maybe they're just nice folks.

Whatever the reason, I had only to walk around to find good subjects. The woman at the top of this post was just watching the life on her street on a Sunday morning. The man with the bananas works in  market. He winked when I walked past, and then winked again when I asked him to. The girl in the red dress posed, then asked me for a peso. And the man at left, below, standing by one of the pay phones that are still common in Havana, may have been thinking, "I bet that guy with the camera has a cell phone. I wish I had a cell phone."  




]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Cuba Havana photography street photography Tue, 23 Feb 2016 23:28:38 GMT
Ideology Vs. Reality in Cuba I see that both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have denounced President Obama's plan to visit Cuba next month. Obama should first insist that Cuba make “serious concessions,” Rubio says. Cuba is too “evil and oppressive” to deserve a presidential visit, says Cruz.

I note that neither Cruz nor Rubio had the grace to mention that he has never actually set foot in Cuba. Not that it would matter to them. Facts don't generally matter when they conflict with a politically useful tenet of ideology. Their ideology postulates that Cuba is a communist dictatorship, a police state, a threat to American interests. 

Well, I'm sorry. I have only spent a week in Cuba; I'm just back. But I worked as a journalist in Moscow and Eastern Europe in the 1980s. I was spied on and harassed by the KGB in Moscow. In Nicolae Ceaucescu's Romania, the Securitate arrested and expelled me. I know a real, evil, oppressive communist police state when I see one. I didn't see one in Cuba.

Cuba is by no means a liberal democracy. I was reminded of that every time I tried to use the Internet in Havana. Access is tightly controlled by the government and it doesn't work very well. If I were a Cuban citizen, I would know that if I wanted to start a movement to oust the Castros and remake Cuba as a free-market economy, I'd expect an encounter with the police, and quite possibly time in jail. But I suspect for most Cubans, oppression amounts to the strictures of poverty, of waiting in line for rationed goods, of dealing daily with the dead hand of bureaucracy. At the top of this post, there’s a picture I made of a woman, her eyes dull, waiting interminably in a shabby Havana office for a notario to put a stamp on some document. That’s oppressive, but it’s not the Gulag.

Let's review the reasons put forward decades ago to justify the American embargo against Cuba, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and all the tragicomic efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro with implements like exploding cigars.

It was said that Cuba was part of the global communist conspiracy to subvert democracy and export revolution. That may have been true in the 1960s, when Che Guevara went to Bolivia to organize a guerrilla war. It may have been true in the 1970s and 1980s, when Fidel sent Cuban troops to Angola to assist an anti-Western faction in a civil war there. But it has been decades since anyone has produced credible evidence that Cuba is trying to export anything more dangerous than cigars.

That's change.

It was said that Castro's regime took away the people's freedom of religion. That may have been true in the 1960s, and it may still be true that if you want to rise in the Cuban communist party, it would be best to do your praying at home rather than in public. But I have seen lots of active churches in Cuba, and lots of people praying in them. They're not just Catholics. There are Baptists, Russian Orthodox, and santeria practitioners, like the cigar-smoking gentleman at left, who sold me a blessed candle to take into a nominally Catholic church. If the Castros once persecuted the faithful, they're not doing it now.

That's change.

It was said that the Castros took away private property and prohibited free enterprise. And there's no doubt that they confiscated many estates, haciendas and factories that belonged to the Cuban elite, many of whom are still frothing at the mouth about it up in Miami. But I have eaten several times this week in restaurants that Cubans are establishing in private homes.

In the picture at right, you see a man named Perez, whom I found sitting in the doorway of his renovated house on Calle Industria, a few blocks from the Malecon in central Havana. He told me that he had worked 17 years as a cook in a tourist hotel, saving whatever hard currency came his way. His daughter and son-in-law also worked in the tourist industry and saved their money. Under recently liberalized Cuban law, they invested their savings to renovate the house and turn it into a B&B, which they own. It's called 3M Hostal Havana, and you can make a reservation by email. I would recommend it. It’s true that most of the Cuban economy is still government property. But the nose of the capitalist camel is under the tent.

That's change.

It was said that Castro had a totalitarian grip on the Cuban people, monitoring their every word for hints of sedition. That may once have been true. But take a look at the picture at the lower left. It's a family in a park in the Havana  neighborhood of Regla, on St. Valentine's Day. The park happens to have wi-fi availability, for reasons I can only guess at. So Havana families gather there with their cell phones or the occasional tablet, and use the wi-fi to call and Skype relatives in Miami. This particular family was calling to show the baby, at left, to her godmother in Miami.  When a big stranger with a camera (me) came up and asked if he could photograph them, the family smiled and said, “Sure!” They went on with their conversation.

I have been in police states where people were afraid to talk to foreigners, let alone be photographed by them while talking to the enemy. I used to visit a Russian historian, Roy Medvedev, who would surreptitiously slip me an aerogram letter with the understanding that on my next trip to the West, I would mail it to his twin brother Zhores, who was living in exile in London. That was how members of divided families in totalitarian police states communicated with their relatives. They did not Skype on an open internet connection and smile for the camera.

That's change.

Is it enough change? I don't think so, and I don't think the Cuban people think so. They're perfectly aware that their country is impoverished, their mass media are propaganda organs, and that not all of the blame for their condition can be laid at the feet of the American embargo, much as the ruling party would like them to believe it should be.

The question is, what American policy will promote more change? Barack Obama is saying that Cuba has changed sufficiently to justify more people-to-people contact, more diplomacy and more trade, and that these will enhance the prospects for more positive change.

Cruz and Rubio are saying that Cuba is still beyond the pale. There's a certain inconsistency in this. They're perfectly happy, for instance, that America does business with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a dictatorship governed by a single kleptocratic clan. It cruelly oppresses much of its population, especially women. It does not permit freedom of religion, or of speech. It has nationalized American companies. Its extremism gave birth to the mastermind behind Al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks, as well as most of the men who executed those attacks. If there is a more dictatorial and oppressive country in the world, I wouldn't want to visit it. Compared to Saudi Arabia, Cuba is a bastion of liberty.

But that's a fact, and if there's one thing that's evident from this year's presidential campaign, it's that a good ideologue never lets facts interfere with his preconceptions.

Cruz and Rubio, I imagine, might be satisfied if Fidel and Raul were to commit seppuku on the Malecon and leave a note confessing that their revolution was a horrible mistake. That will happen about the same time Donald Trump apologizes for besmirching John McCain's courage, or Rubio says maybe he was a little rash to try to shut down the government over funding for Planned Parenthood, or Cruz decides that maybe his close adviser Jesus doesn't really want him to carpet bomb Syria. Don't hold your breath.

In the meantime, a realist wants to fashion a more constructive American policy toward Cuba. I hope he does.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Castro Cruz Cuba Cuba policy Obama Peter Turnley Rubio Sat, 20 Feb 2016 14:09:27 GMT
The Best Pitcher You Never Heard Of If you go to Havana's Parque Central and ask for directions to la esquina caliente, any Habanero will direct you to a bench in the middle of the park, near the big statue of Jose Marti. There you will find a cluster of men, mostly middle aged or older, engaged in often voluble discussion about baseball. La esquina caliente means “the hot corner,” a bit of diamond jargon meaning third base and maybe containing an allusion to heated debate. It's an institution in a country where, as far as I know, there is no sports talk radio and you can't tune into the palaver and yak on ESPN Deportes. Cubans know how to make do.

If you ask, as I did, if the men of the hot corner ever heard of a pitcher named Yasvani Gallego, the reaction will be a collective sigh. Oh, yes, a man says. Yasvani Gallego was a great one.

I asked about Yasvani Gallego because, as I am not the first to observe, an era is coming to an end in Cuba. The Castro brothers will, one way or another, soon be part of Cuban history rather than rulers of the island. Their revolutionary order, like the revolutionary orders in Russia and China, will give way to something else. The change has already begun.

The timing means that Cubans who are now in school may have lives fundamentally different from the ones their parents and grandparents had. But for Cubans of a certain age, the timing is too late. I think particularly of athletes, artists and others who might, in their primes, have found fame and wealth on the world stage. Because of the accident of when they were born and where, however, their prime was spent entirely on the Cuban stage. If they were athletes, that meant they were amateurs. They made no money. They never played in America's big leagues the way that Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Venezuelans could.

I am here in Cuba for one of Peter Turnley's photography workshops, and as part of the service, Peter engages some knowledgeable Cuban guides. One of them, Marcel Benet, turned out to be an ex-baseball player who loves the game. I asked Marcel if he knew of any older Cuban baseball players I could meet. I wanted to ask how they felt about the changes happening in Cuba and to Cuban baseball. Marcel immediately thought of Yasvani Gallego. When Marcel was a boy, Gallego coached his junior team.

Marcel arranged for me to meet his old mentor on the grounds of what was once a Havana tennis club. In pre-revolutionary days, he said, this club was reserved for the capital's elite. Set close by Havana Bay, it had an impressive white stucco clubhouse, clay tennis courts, and a pool. It was so exclusive, Marcel told me, that Cuba's dictator, Fulgencio Batista, could not become a member. He had wealth and power, but he was a mulatto, and Cuba's pre-revolutionary elite was white.

These days, the former tennis club is a community rec center. There is still one dirt tennis court; the players I saw had to use the butt ends of their racquets to etch the court lines into the dirt. The other former courts have gone to weeds and the pool is empty. The land beyond the clubhouse long ago became a baseball stadium. Now the stadium is decaying. The lights in the light towers are gone, and the grass is shaggy.


To find Yasvani Gallego, we walked behind the small concrete grandstand next to the diamond. We stepped through a small door and descended a wobbly ramp built, precariously, from a couple of boards and a couple of cinder blocks. There, in the semi-darkness under the grandstand, in what was perhaps once a locker room, is the place that serves as Yasvani Gallego's office.

He is a slender, wiry man with gray hair and a ready smile. He wore a sleeveless white baseball jersey with no name on the front and the number 24 on the back, baseball pants with no belt and, incongruously, a pair of dusty pink Crocs on his feet.

I gave him some new baseballs I had brought from the states, and he was very happy to have them. Some of the balls he uses are soft and some are wound up in duct tape. He showed me photos of some of the junior teams he has coached to the Cuban championship.

My Spanish is bad and Yasvani Gallego's English is non-existent, but I was able to obtain some information about him. He was born in 1945, which makes him 71 years old. He started playing top-level Cuban baseball when he was 14, which happened to be the year Fidel Castro came to power and decreed that henceforth, all Cuban baseball would be amateur baseball, and Cuba's best players would stay on the island and play for the national team, for the love of the game, and for the glory of the fatherland--not for Yankee dollars in America.

Yasvani Gallego was not, he said, an overpowering pitcher. If he grooved a fastball, it was likely to be hit hard. He relied on control and on breaking pitches, including a curve, a slider and a knuckleball. The statistics on Yasvani Gallego are startling, though hard to evaluate or compare to American pitching stats. In his best season, both he and Marcel said, he won 15 games and lost 3. In one Cuban championship series, he posted an Earned Run Average of 0.36. It is still a Cuban record. Granted, it's impossible to gauge the level of Cuban amateur baseball when Yasvani Gallego played. Granted, his Cuban ERA cannot be equated to ERAs by major league pitchers. We do know that Cubans play very good baseball, though, and that no Cuban pitcher has ever matched Gallego's numbers. So it seems very likely that Yasvani Gallego is the best pitcher you never heard of.

I asked him if he regretted that fate did not allow him to prove his talent in the major leagues and make a lot of money. No, he replied. He was happy with the career he had. And, yes, he felt confident that he could have pitched well in the major leagues.

I asked him if he thought that the political changes that have allowed younger Cubans like Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman to leave the island for the American big leagues will help or hurt Cuban baseball. It can only help, he said, because it will enhance interest in the game. Yasvani Gallego, like a lot of Cubans, projected a kind of sunny serenity. If he harbors any bitter thoughts about the course of his life, I did not hear them.

He pulled on a baseball hat that said “Cal,” from the University of California at Berkeley. My Spanish was not up to finding out where and how he came by it. We walked up his little ramp and around the grandstand toward the field. Not many kids would be coming for instruction today, he said apologetically. It was an exam period in Cuban schools.

But the half dozen or so kids who did show up while I was there got marvelous instruction. Yasvani Gallego teaches sound fundamentals. When he drills a 12-year-old kid on fielding ground balls in the infield, the kid learns that there is a proper sequence to the way a shortstop is supposed to see the ball into his glove, turn his body, take the ball out of the ball with his throwing hand, and throw it. Gallego slaps ground ball after ground ball to the boy until he's doing it right.

Would be second basemen, one as young as eight, learn that there are two ways to get the ball to the shortstop to start a double play, one for grounders hit at them or to their left and one for grounders hit to their right, up the middle. And they practice both, many times.

I have a vague memory of my time in Little League. It involves fathers supervising “infield practice,” hitting a few ground balls to each player. They were fielded haphazardly. And at the end of the session, the dad might say, “let's get two,” and we boys would try to execute a double play, again haphazardly. And that was it, at least at the age of 11 or 12. We wanted to play games more than we wanted to practice fundamentals. So did our dads.

Cuban boys want to play games, too, I am sure. But coaches like Yasvani Gallego see to it that first they learn how to play right. That may be the reason Cuba punches above its weight in international competition. I'll be curious to see if that Cuban style of sport survives the political changes that loom ahead.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Cuba Havana Peter Turnley Yasmani Gallego baseball photography Thu, 18 Feb 2016 22:19:24 GMT
The Rhythms of Cuba I am in Havana, taking part in a photography workshop taught by a great photojournalist, Peter Turnley. I first met Peter in the 1980s, when we were both covering stories in Moscow for Newsweek. I knew he was a fine street photographer, one of the artistic heirs to Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom he knew. What I didn't know about Peter is that he loves to dance, loves to photograph dancers, and knows Havana's music and dance scene about as well as an outsider can.


So, not coincidentally, my first days with Peter's Havana workshop have been filled with music and movement. Habaneros listen and dance in the open air and the daylight, which is fortunate, since there's natural light in which to photograph them. Bands begin to play in bars and clubs in old Havana around lunchtime, and I have heard the sounds of drums from the streets at around 3 a.m.


The rhythm of those drums, like a big chunk of the Cuban population, has roots in Africa. The Afro-Cubans' ancestors were brought here as slaves to work the sugar fields. They brought their music with them, music often played on the simplest of instruments, like an old kitchen drawer pounded by hand as a drum, or a piece of pipe that becomes a percussion instrument. It's something that no government, whether the colonial government or the present one, can take away from them.


On Saturday, our group went to a kind of rhumba fest in the courtyard of a residential building with no sign to identify it as a dance place. The people of the neighborhood, I guess, knew where it was and when it would start. Hundreds gathered in the courtyard, drinking beer and rum and swaying as dancers and musicians performed on a makeshift stage.


The next evening, Peter took our group to La Tropical, an open air club with a long history as a hotspot of Afro-Cuban music and salsa in particular. La Tropical is a big amphitheater, with a couple of tiers of VIP seating and an enormous concrete pit in front of the stage.


As any wedding photographer will tell you, capturing a dance is not easy. The couple is in motion, of course, so the target is constantly shifting. It's a challenge to capture a fleeting moment that conveys the passion and emotion of the dance.


Fortunately for me, the passion isn't confined to the dance floor. Spectators smile and sway, even if they're standing in the middle of a thick crowd. Musicians and singers sweat and emote. They're often a little easier to shoot, particularly when the late afternoon light illuminates their faces.


Some of that passion, I have learned, is also rooted in Africa, in the religious tradition that Cubans call santeria, a faith that features a lot of dancing. I am not certain what the relationship between Catholicism, which is the formal Cuban faith, and santeria. Apparently, there is some syncretism going on with Catholic saints and santeria spirits cohabiting.


Outside some nominally Catholic churches in Havana, there are people clad in white, both men and women, hang around, smoking cigars. I found one sitting on a low wall, accompanied by two ebony-skinned dolls. For a small donation, which she tucked away under the skirt of one of the dolls, she anointed my palm and told me my fortune. For another donation, she cleansed my body of evil and disease, a ceremony that required the purchase of flowers which a nearby friend of hers happened to have for sale.


My santeria priestess was, if nothing else, blunt. She told me I ought to eat less and take a walk after dinner each night. This was not an observation that could only have come from Divine Guidance. But I was grateful she didn't tell me I had to donate ten percent of my income to some church. I walked to the edge of the seawall, and, per her instructions, tossed my flowers into the murky water of Havana Bay. I felt better.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Cuba Cuba tourism Havana Peter Turnley photography photography workshops rhythm santeria Wed, 17 Feb 2016 00:13:18 GMT
Postcard from Key West As it happens with a lot of legendary destinations, I am afraid I finally got to Key West a little late.

There was a time, in the 1930s, when Ernest Hemingway could come to Key West and use it as a writer's sanctuary, finding the privacy and natural beauty that inspired his best efforts. That time is gone, though the house where Hemingway lived is now a museum.

There was a time, in the 1940s, when Harry Truman made the modest Naval Station here his winter White House and got away from the pressures of Washington. Condos now block the view of the Gulf of Mexico from the white frame building where Truman relaxed and played poker with his buddies.

There was a time, in the 1970s, when Jimmy Buffett came to Key West to escape from a failed marriage and a floundering career, finding respite in an alcohol-infused haze that eventually inspired the song, “Margaritaville,” which made him rich and famous. Impecunious musicians would have a hard time finding an affordable place to crash in Key West today; even a modest room goes for about $300 a night in season. But the tourists line up each evening to get into the Margaritaville Cafe on Duval Street.

There was even a time, sometime between Buffett and now, when gay men took advantage of Key West's reputation for laid-back tolerance and turned it into a kind of winter Provincetown. There are still a lot of rainbow flags flying in town, and there are a couple of drag shows playing on Duval Street. They give straight, white-haired tourists a chance to chat with the friendly drag queens who shill for the shows on the sidewalk, snapping pix with their i-Phones that will definitely wow the bridge club back in Illinois. But I don't get the sense that Key West is on the cutting edge of gay culture anymore.

But if those times are gone, there is still one thing that hasn't changed about Key West--its geography. It's warm, of course. It's sandy. But what sets it apart from all the other warm, sandy places in the United States is this: in the country that has always loved the open road, it's the end of the road. Literally. U.S. Route 1, the spine of the East Coast, ends right about at Harry Truman's winter White House. There's a milepost that says “0”. If Jesus took America in His hands, tilted it to the south, and set all of this country's vast number of oddballs to rolling, a lot of them would come to rest in Key West. There are social scientists who will tell you that geography has a lot to do with determining culture, and that may be true.

Whatever the reasons, Key West even in 2016 is still not Fort Lauderdale. It's a little bit Charleston and a little bit Coney Island. There are some elegant, restored homes stuffed into the old section of town, at the southwest end of the island, reminiscent of the restored antebellum houses packed into Charleston's Battery. And there are lots of fast-food joints and cheap souvenir stands on Duval Street. If you ever need a tee-shirt that says, “I don't need a sex life. The government fucks me every day,” there are at least half a dozen places in Key West where you can buy one.

Rush hour in Key West begins about an hour before sunset, when the crowds start making their way to Mallory Square to watch the sun go down over the Gulf of Mexico. I am not sure why watching the sunset became something of a civic religion in Key West. Some of the buskers who work the tourists in the square will tell you that it all started with a bunch of hippies who got stoned and went skinny dipping back in the 1970s. Soon enough, tourists started coming to watch them, and a folkway was born. It's a nice story. It may even be true.

All I can tell you for sure is that thousands gather in the late afternoons nowadays. Some of the locals try to make a living performing for them, doing acts that range from plaintive guitar solos to juggling and acrobatics. And even on a cloudy day, as six o'clock comes and goes, the tourists point their phones at the sky and snap pictures, confident that the sunset here is magically different from the sunsets back home and deserves to be recorded.

Prior to sunset, if you're looking for something to do in Key West, there are, I am sure, a couple or three beaches in the area, though the weather right now is a little nippy for sunbathing. You can also use the pre-sunset time to visit the place where Hemingway lived. I cannot call it Hemingway's house, because, as I learned yesterday, it was bought and paid for by the wealthy family of Pauline Pfeiffer, Hemingway's second wife. When Hemingway took up with Martha Gellhorn, his eventual third wife, he was obliged to find new quarters, and he decamped to Cuba.

The Pfeiffer-Hemingway marital bed, with a lovely carved headboard from Spain, is still on display in the house. The only one who sleeps in it these days is a dozing black cat named Betty Grable, said by the docents to be a direct descendant of one of Papa's cats. It is possible for a Hemingway reader to contemplate all that happened in this bed and wonder at its connection to the literature Hemingway created. However, I'm not sure most of the tourists filing by are big Hemingway afficionadoes. I think the Chinese kid in the photo was mainly bored and wondering when the hell his parents' package tour was going to make it to Disney World. Maybe someday he'll have a teacher who requires him to read A Farewell to Arms, as I did with a class of 9th graders in 2008. If so, I hope his teacher helps him enjoy it more than I was able to help my class do.

Today's visitor can always fall back on the same thing Hemingway, Truman and Buffett fell back on—alcohol. There are an awful lot of bars in Key West and an awful lot of people staggering around in the daytime. Some of these bars have singers who strum guitars and do their best to invoke the spirit of Buffett, or Willie Nelson, or some other whiskey-infused American troubador. And if their efforts don't amuse the patrons, there's a TV over the bar showing ESPN.

But even if Hemingway's bed, Duval Street's bars and the sunset ceremony prove less than enchanting, the best thing about Key West is the same thing that has always been Florida's main attraction, the weather report back home. I see that it's bitter cold in Washington today and for the next few days. I'm glad I'm here.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Buffett Florida Hemingway Key West Margaritaville Truman tourism Thu, 11 Feb 2016 13:04:06 GMT
Dispatch from the Premier American Sports Event of This Weekend With one round of golf left to play in Groundhog Cup XX, I can make one prediction with great assurance.

I am not going to win it.

(If you clicked here because you thought this weekend's premier American sporting event was a football game, and you wanted to read yet another article hyping it or predicting the winner, I apologize. The confusion is perhaps understandable. Both the Super Bowl and the Groundhog Cup are contested during the first weekend in February. The difference is that in the Super Bowl, young men put their brains in jeopardy to win a championship. In the Groundhog Cup, much older men play for a championship in a way that suggests they have already sustained serious brain damage. Or so it seems to me after two decades of humiliation and futility at this event.)

The 'Hog started innocently enough. Eight middle-aged men, frustrated by the long, cold winter of '97 in Maryland, decided to fly down to Florida for a weekend of golf around Groundhog Day. But then the founders decided to make this modest little getaway a tournament. A stroke-play tournament, strict rules of golf, which means putt everything out and count every stroke. With betting. Now it has 32 players, and we are all older, but the original rules still apply. My golf game is frail enough in the summertime, when I've had some practice, and the rounds are casual, four-ball affairs. Those are the rounds with plenty of conceded putts I tell myself I would have made if I'd had to. They're rounds where on the occasional disastrous hole I can and do pick the ball up and blithely say, “I'm in my pocket, partner. Play well.” There's no picking up putts at the Groundhog. There's no pocket to hide in during a disaster. The 'Hog is merciless. It exposes the flaws in my game the way a hurricane exposes the construction flaws in a cheap Florida condo.

It's always, it seems, a different flaw. Sometimes, at the 'Hog, I drive the ball well. Then my putting collapses. Or I drive and putt fairly well, but can't seem to hit a short iron. One year, long ago, I got to the tee of the next-to-last hole of the final day tied for the lead. My snap hook chose that moment to make an appearance, and my hopes disappeared into a thick Florida forest.

This morning, in the second round of the 'Hog, it was an old and familiar flaw, my short game, that flared up to destroy me. On my tenth hole, I put my second shot into a creek that fronts the green here at Grand Cypress. I dropped a new ball and faced a tough little pitch shot of perhaps fifteen yards that needed to clear the creek but stop quickly. Twitch. Splash. Lunge. Splash. Spasm. Plonk (my fourth ball hitting the retaining wall on the other side of the creek). Splash. I would have done better trying to kick the ball over the hazard. By the time I finally managed to scrape the fifth ball over the creek and onto the green, then take the predictable three putts, I had made an even dozen strokes, and my already dim chances of being in the money for this year's 'Hog were gone.

(That's someone else's ball hitting the creek in the picture at the top of this post, by the way. I'm not quick enough to send my own ball toward the creek, grab a camera, and photograph it splashing in.)

There's an old golf saying that applies here. It would be that half the contestants in the Groundhog Cup don't care that I made an excruciating twelve. The other half wishes it had been a thirteen.

That's in part because I am not the only player doing badly in the 'Hog. Indeed, on a per capita basis, the Groundhog Cup each year sees more disasters than France did in 1940. My twelve on the 10th was not the highest score of the tournament. It was not even the highest score in my foursome this morning. For the first time in decades, I posted a score in triple digits. And my score was second-best in my foursome. We are all golfers with handicaps that say we should be shooting in the 80s or, at worst, the 90s. But no one has ever played to his handicap in the Groundhog Cup. The birdies we see each year at the Groundhog Cup usually have feathers, like the heron, above left. And the canny Groundhog veterans are the ones who bring a ball retriever to fish balls out of the hazards. They may dump a few in, but at least they won't have to go back to the pro shop to buy replacements.

I suppose there are reasons for this futility. It's winter and we're out of practice. The courses in Florida are penal, with lots of water. The weather, even though it's Florida, can be cold and wet, as it is this week, and we play our tournament rounds early in the morning so the real zealots can go out after lunch and play another 18.

In my own case, though, I have to say it's the pressure of tournament play. I don't handle it well. As it happens, I have been the co-author of a number of books (assisting Dr. Bob Rotella) on the psychology of golf—how not to choke, if you will. My Groundhog Cup history thus puts me in a position analogous to that of the minister caught in flagrante with the choir director. I am much better at preaching than I am at performing.

I tell myself that I shouldn't care what I shoot at the Groundhog, that the exercise, the (occasional) sun, and the fellowship are what's important. I can't quite make myself believe it, though. The other day, over the golf course, an evangelical skywriter was putting religious exhortations into the blue. (More than likely, this evangelist was thinking of converting not us Groundhoggers, but the crowds at Disney World, a couple of miles away. Groundhog golfers, who tend to miss Sunday morning church with regularity, are considered incorrigible heathens, for the most part correctly.) I took a picture as the little plane labored over its message. “U + GOD = Happy Face,” it eventually said.

Maybe so. I can bear witness that there are not many happy faces at the Groundhog Cup. I am afraid that down here in the pothole bunkers and water hazards, we may be beyond the sight of even the Lord Himself.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Florida Florida golf Grand Cypress Groundhog Cup Orlando Super Bowl buddy trip golf Sat, 06 Feb 2016 21:13:11 GMT
Tulum Makes My Top Five List of Exotic Beach Getaways A great exotic beach is a little like a banana. You have to experience it at the right time. Peel a banana before it's ripe and you get a tough, tasteless fruit. Wait too long and it's mush.

To torture this analogy for one more paragraph, there is a cycle in the life of a beach resort just as there is in the life of a banana. It starts with a suitable strip of sand. For me, this means it must be wide and free of rocks. The water must be clear. Perhaps this pristine plage is adjacent to a fishing village. Perhaps it's set against a virgin rain forest. But in its natural state, it's like a green banana. Not yet ready, at least for me.

I am happy to let the backpackers and campers be the first to take advantage of a beach. I don't want to pitch a tent, camp among the bugs in the sand and relieve myself in the forest.  I will wait until the pioneers have done their work, slowly attracting the developers of some good small hotels, interesting restaurants, wi-fi and indoor plumbing. When they have nurtured the young beach getaway to the prime of its adolescence, that's when I want to be there.

The trick is not to wait too long. Because as with people, the process of maturation doesn't stop when a beach is in what I consider its prime. More hotels and restaurants follow. Then bigger hotels and more tourists. Buses. More people. Purveyors of cheap souvenirs. And so on. It seems that when it's harnessed to a beach, the engine of capitalism can only lead to hordes of people showing off too many fleshy tattoos, pushing into Senor Frog's for margaritas served in punch bowls.

Of course, this is a matter of taste. And if you, dear reader, would prefer to camp on the beach or wear a wife-beater shirt while drinking margaritas from punch bowls, you're entitled. I just hope you won't see me when you're on your preferred beach getaway.

Anyway, I am pleased to say that I've just come back from a place, Tulum, Mexico that meets enough of my personal great beach criteria to make it into my Top Five. Tulum is on the Yucatan coast. It's well south of the overripe resorts of Cancun and Playa del Carmen  (below, left), but not so far south that you need a four-wheel drive vehicle to get there. The beach is wide and the water is clear and turquoise.

Development in Tulum is presently at that sweet spot where none of the hotels rises higher than the palm trees, but you can get wi-fi and a good martini if you want it. It has a reputation for being a resort for New York yoga devotees, and you do occasionally see someone on the beach, facing the Caribbean in the lotus position. But yoga isn't as popular as sun worship, from my observation, and the beach has a cool and casual atmosphere. A lot of the hotels offer seaside massage tents and there are a couple advertising Mayan clay sweat lodges.

A dash of exotic culture is always a welcome touch in my beach stew, and Tulum has this in the form of Mayan ruins. There's one within walking/biking distance at the north end of the zona hotelera. The larger, grander ruins of the city of Coba are 25 miles to the west. That stone ring pictured on the right is part of a ball court built by the Mayans at Coba to play a game whose rules and purpose we can only guess at.

My only quibble with Tulum is that it's a little too isolated from Mexico. The town of Tulum is a wide spot on the highway about two miles inland from the beach. I suspect a lot of Tulum visitors never see it. They turn off the highway just before Tulum town and take the narrow little beach road to the hotels and cafes. You can easily spend a week in a beachfront hotel in in Tulum without ever hearing, let alone knowing, Spanish.

But it meets my major criteria, which in addition to the beach include good, small, beachfront hotels, good food and drink, and an uncrowded, not-too-blatantly commercial ambience.

Here, by the way, is my Top Five. I present it with the proviso that I've visited these places at various times in the last 33 years. A lot may have changed.

5. Half Moon Bay, Jamaica. An elegant resort not far from the Montego Bay airport. The deposed Shah of Iran took shelter here before he died.

4. Tulum.

3. Santorini, Greece. Black sand beaches, Hellenic temple ruins, and cafes overlooking the caldera of an ancient volcano.

2. Grace Bay, Turks and Caicos. Maybe the best pure beach in the group. And the weather in January, as far as I know, fluctuates between sunny and mostly sunny, with high temperatures ranging from 83 to 84. 

1. Bandos Island, Maldives. The closest I've ever come to a Robinson Crusoe experience, albeit with good food and drink close at hand. And a few steps into the water, the reef surrounding the island teems with coral and fish. Or, at least, these things were true in 1983. I looked up the web site, and I see the island now has a convention center. Plus, global warming has the seas threatening to engulf the Maldives, so I can't guarantee what you'll find if you go there.

There were places that could have made my list, but didn't. I've never been to the French Riviera when it was warm enough to lie on the beach, so I reserve judgment. There's a fantastic beach called Playa Hermosa on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, but it's still in the backpackers-and-tents stage. I have high hopes that after some future trip, they'll make the list.

And somewhere out there, I hope, the perfect beach getaway is still waiting for me to discover it.








]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Beaches Mexico Playa del Carmen Riviera Maya Top Five Beaches Tulum Yucatan exotic beaches Wed, 20 Jan 2016 21:02:56 GMT
Antigua's Hidden Charms Maybe because it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I was expecting something dramatically beautiful when I got to Antigua, Guatemala. Initially, I was disappointed. Gradually I found that Antigua indeed has its splendors. They just reveal themselves a little slowly. 
At first sight, Antigua looked stony, cold, almost ugly. I walked from a hotel on the outskirts of town toward the central plaza. The streets were made of cobblestones, rough and uncomfortable underfoot. Riders on bicycles and motor-scooters, or perched in back of pickup trucks, vibrated as if molded from gelatin. The streets and sidewalks, already narrow, are crowded by stout stone walls, usually eight to ten feet high with a fading veneer of painted stucco. There are no softening trees beside the streets. Windows in the ubiquitous walls are usually covered with iron security bars. Flower boxes are rare. Sometimes, one can walk an entire block on a rough little sidewalk, one shoulder scraping a blank wall, its facade broken only by an occasional wooden gate, padlocked shut. The affect, on an empty street, is as warm as a prison.
Much of this design, I suspect, is due to Antigua's history. Spanish colonizers founded it in 1524. Within two years, the indigenous people showed their feelings about becoming part of the Spanish Empire: they burned the place down. When the colonizers rebuilt, they put their houses and their wealth behind high stone walls, hard to get over, impossible to burn. The design of necessity over time, I suppose, became the design of tradition.  (And there may still be some necessity involved. Guatemala, like most of Central America--and increasingly, like the United States--is a country of vast income inequality. It may well be imprudent to flaunt wealth.)
The walls couldn't protect the Spaniards from nature, however. Earthquakes essentially destroyed Antigua a couple of times in the 18th century. The location was deemed so dangerous that the Spanish government moved Guatemala's capital 25 miles to the east, to what is now Guatemala City. Antigua very slowly revived,  but it remains a low-rise city, with no occupied building taller than two stories. When the earth shakes, one- and two-story buildings are less likely to fall down.
Indeed, the highest structures in Antigua today have already fallen down. They're church ruins. Though the campaniles and facades of these churches still stand, the roofs are gone, as are the statues and the furnishings. Inside, centuries of rain have scrubbed the walls free of frescoes. Wooden barriers block the doorways. There are laws, imposed by both Guatemala and UNESCO, against the demolition of Antigua ruins and their replacement by modern buildings. It's even hard to build something new in their vicinity. But neither are they rebuilt and restored. Even if they could be, the undertaking would be prohibitively expensive for a poor country.
So that is the first impression Antigua gives—cobblestones, stone walls, padlocked gates and bare, ruined choirs, as Shakespeare might have put it. The ruins stand as reminders of Spain's determination to impose its religion on a new land and the land's resistance.
But slowly, in my walks around town, I started finding, and looking through, gates and doors that were not locked shut. My impressions of Antigua began to change.
I got glimpses of private courtyards filled with lush tropical plants, trees, and because it was the Christmas season, potted Poinsettias. (The garden at left is in the courtyard of a hotel, the San Rafael.) Antiguan courtyard designs are perhaps in part a product of the climate. When it's hot most of the year, and there's no air-conditioning, you build in a way that allows cross ventilation whenever there's a breeze. The interior courtyards seem often to have shady galleries for sitting outdoors.
The school where I studied Spanish was like that. It occupied a building that once was a clinic. The building had a small garden with a fountain in the middle of the courtyard. Along the courtyard's perimeter was a kind of gallery covered by a roof. The students and teachers sat at small tables, under the roof, in the open air but sheltered from rain and sun. 
Antigua is noted for having one of the New World's first street grids, a concept the Spaniards adopted from Italy. And indeed on a map, the city's blocks are regular and rectangular. The streets have named like "1st Avenue South" and "3rd Street East." But I came to think of the city more as a hive, with much of its life and activity taking place within these courtyard structures, each discrete and private. The courtyards of the poor may be small. They probably have dirt surfaces instead of flagstones, a worn wooden bench and perhaps a small dog, or a cat, or a couple of chickens. The wealthy have topiary bushes, carefully cultivated flowers, sculptures, and a pool, a fountain, or both. But the Guatemalans all live around courtyards, behind walls, hidden from the streets.   
It's a contrast to the streetscapes of the United States, lined by trees, with front yards and porches or stoops open to the world. I don't think Americans are warmer and friendlier than Guatemalans. We're hardly commune members by culture. But maybe there's a bigger zone of privacy in Guatemala. There's an interior space that is private and protected. You can see the contrast in the picture at the top of this post, which shows the exterior wall of an old Jesuit college, which is now a cultural center supported by the government of Spain. Below left is the interior, which can be seen only by those admitted through a portal.
Antigua does, of course, have its public spaces. To begin with, there's the Parque Central, or central plaza. Topiary trees dot the square, a burst of natural green. Children play by a fountain. The city's working cathedral, built next to the ruins of the original, occupies one side of the plaza, and its facade is dotted with sculptures of saints.
This park is a very active place. Mayan women and men walk about, dangling blankets and shawls, beads and necklaces from their arms. In soft voices, they offer to sell them. As darkness approaches, the peddlers emphasize little plastic toys of one kind or another that light up. Their baskets of wares look like glowing plastic bouquets.
At least in the Christmas season, the square and the streets around it are entertainment venues. One afternoon, some kind of kids' gym demonstrated dancercize and Tae-Bo. A woman jumped up on a platform, wearing a Santa hat, and led an exercise class for anyone in the park who felt like participating. There was a singing contest that sounded like a bad karaoke night. Another night, an orchestra from the local arts school played Christmas music. I saw a Nativity ballet performed by little girls from a local dance school on a small stage erected under an ancient arch that once allowed cloistered nuns to go from one convent building to another without being seen by people in the street.
On a Saturday night, another orchestra, along with a choir, played classical Christmas music inside the ruins of the old cathedral, lit up by candles for the occasion. The concert was called “Under the Star of Bethlehem” because, of course, the venue had no roof. For some reason, the music was punctuated by the sound of fireworks going off. It almost seemed as if Antigua was under siege by an invading army, and the performers were determined to finish their concert before heading to the barricades. But when I left the cathedral ruins and walked into the plaza, all was well. Yet another orchestra, this one a big jazz band, was in the middle of a concert that featured American classics of the 1940s. A beautiful Guatemalan women was singing, in English, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Then the band did a Glenn Miller medley, and a few couples jitterbugged on the park's flagstones to the tune of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.”
I was bemused. My first impression of Antigua could not have been more wrong.
]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Antigua Guatemala UNESCO World Heritage Site Tue, 22 Dec 2015 20:34:51 GMT
Childhood in Guatemala I would be foolish, after just a week in Guatemala, to pretend that I have any but superficial insights into the state of childhood in this Central American nation. But mid-December, it turns out, is an excellent time to photograph Guatemalan children. School is out for the equivalent of an American child's summer vacation. (I won't try to explain why Guatemalans, who are in the Northern Hemisphere, consider November and December to be summer.) And though their seasons are not the same as those in Los Estados Unidos, for Guatemalans, Christmas comes on December 25. There are lots of parties, pageants and performances showcasing kids in December. So I've seen a lot of kids, and I have my impressions.


I know that the way kids are raised has a lot to do with the money and education their parents have. Couples with ample amounts of both tend to raise their kids in ways that give them the skills to eventually join the parents in the middle or upper classes. The kids get tutoring, a rich smorgasbord of extracurricular activities, and enough parental attention that they will someday be able to afford to pay a psychiatrist to listen to them complain about how neurotic and smothering mom and dad were. That's true in the United States and it's probably true in Guatemala. The big difference is likely to be that a larger share of the population in the United States has the resources to give kids that sort of childhood. (Though at the rate income inequality is growing in the U.S.A., Americans and Guatemalans may soon have more in common than we do now.)


Parents who struggle to make it can't give their kids as much. Their kids spend more time on the streets and less time in supervised learning activities. They may well be smart; they learn skills that will help them survive the rigors of poverty. But they don't often enough learn the skills needed to complete an education, compete in the marketplace or rise above their parents' class. That's also true in both the United States and Guatemala.


Viewed in that way, the Guatemalan boy playing the violin in the photo at right probably has more in common with middle-class kids in the United States than he has with the boy in the photo at left, even though the boy on the left is also Guatemalan and was photographed within a few hundred meters of the spot in Antigua where the young violinist was performing. The violinist is a member of an orchestra trained at a school of the arts in Antigua. The orchestra was performing Christmas songs late one afternoon in the city's central plaza when I made the picture. The kid on the right was hanging out in the street not far away and asked me to take his picture. He seemed happy just to have an adult pay some attention to him.


It can be particularly tough if a Guatemalan kid has disabilities. The boy with his chin pressed against a window pane, at right, has autism, his grandmother told me. He can't cope with the classes in the public school he might otherwise attend. The public school has 50 kids in a classroom, and the teacher has no time to give him any special help. He attends a private school with smaller classes, but his grandmother says he needs individual help with a tutor trained to work with autistic children. The family has no hope of paying for that.


There are cultural differences at work as well as economic ones, and my impression is that these cultural differences are especially influential for girls. The girl with the little sisters in the picture at the top of this post looked to be about seven or eight years old. She was carrying an infant sister in a sling fashioned from a blanket. And she was supervising a middle child, the sister on the right in the picture, who appeared to be about four.


It turned out that the girls' mother was not far away, trying to sell ice cream from a cart. So it would be incorrect to say that the big sister alone was looking after the two littler girls. But it would still be hard to imagine an American girl of the same age being given even part of the care of an infant.


This, however, is a common sight on the streets in Antigua. And it's not like Guatemalan girls have to be coerced into taking on the care of an infant. I attended a Christmas party for children associated with the teachers and administrators of the school where I was taking Spanish classes. These were all kids from a higher rung on the socioeconomic ladder than the girls I photographed in the plaza. But throughout the Christmas party, the favorite activity of girls from the age of roughly eight to roughly thirteen seemed to be to search out one of the many babies in attendance and persuade the baby's mother to let her hold the baby, sling the baby on her hip, and practice being maternal. They seemed to find this more entertaining than watching either Santa or the clown at the party.

There is, I think, a discernible tendency to push Guatemalan girls into being beauty queens. I can see it in the breathless coverage that the Spanish version of Yahoo, which I get down here, is giving to the appearance and dress of Latin American contestants in the Miss World pageant. I can see it in the way little girls are carefully made up when they act as angels in a Christmas pageant.


This tendency exists in America, too. But it's less pronounced. I don't remember the American girls in my daughter's generation competing to dandle infants when they were young. They rode horses, or they kicked soccer balls, but they displayed only the most fitful interest in being maternal. Not many of them, in my recollection, ever earned spending money by baby-sitting. And none of them, as far as I know, ever entered a beauty pageant.


That was behavior more typical of American girls of my generation, baby-boomers who are now in or approaching retirement. The Miss America contest got massive TV ratings in those days. The most coveted dolls at Christmas were the ones that cried just like a real baby. Getting work as a baby-sitter was a rite of passage. That's all changed. Miss America is on cable somewhere, if it's on TV at all. Now Barbie is a scientist, and if anyone in an American girl's play room these days is going to pretend to soothe a crying infant, it's probably Ken.


I talked to a couple of Guatemalan university students, young women in their early 20s, and they both said that they feel social pressure to get married and have children earlier than they would like. One of them told me she thinks she might have to leave Guatemala and move to another country to find a husband who could accommodate a different concept of adult life, one with a higher priority for education and work.


Still, there is a certain sweetness about Guatemalan culture, perhaps an innocence that I don't sense much any more in the U.S.A. At the Christmas party, the games the kids played were games I remembered from my own childhood, games like musical chairs and a local variant of bobbing for apples in which the girls held an apple on a string and the boys tried to eat it. (Religious and Freudian symbologists, have at it.) The kids were excited to have a chance to get a lollipop or a plastic whistle out of a ruptured pinata.


It wasn't better or worse than America. It was just different.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Antigua Guatemala boys childhood culture economics girls Sun, 20 Dec 2015 00:06:23 GMT
Photogenic Antigua I made a mistake when I decided to go to Antigua, Guatemala, in my long quest to learn at least broken Spanish. Antigua is known for its Spanish immersion schools, which promise to teach even the worst Yanqui dumbbell to stumble along in the language of Cervantes. So I set off for Guatemala with a lot of the Spanish-English phrasebooks and dictionaries I've accumulated over the years – and only a pocket camera.


That was my mistake. In the afternoon hours, when my tutoring sessions were over, I found so much to photograph in Antigua that I wished I had left most of my books at home and instead brought my best camera gear. Antigua is that photogenic.


As in many Central American towns I have seen, the center of Antigua is a plaza dominated by a cathedral. On my first Monday afternoon, this plaza was filled with people. Families took pictures by a fountain. A 12-year-old girl seated next to me on a bench looked after her infant niece, whom she carried hidden in a kind of blanket tied over her shoulder.


On the east side of the plaza, in front of the cathedral, a quincianera, a girl turning 15, was having her picture made. She was dressed in gorgeous mounds of blue taffeta garnished with silvery spangles. A heavy necklace hung from her neck as she sat in a white carriage and posed, the essence of glamor--until she smiled and the braces on her teeth didn't quite match her earrings. The quincianera used to mean that a girl was becoming a woman and ready for marriage. It was her presentation to society, similar to a debut in American and British culture. Now, however, 15 is considered way too young to marry. It's just a reason for a big party, the most lavish the parents can afford. This quincianera's parents appeared to be people of means.


In the plaza, meanwhile, some kind of vacation school or camp was conducting what appeared to be a combination Christmas pageant, graduation ceremony and talent show. Guatemalan kids have their long school break in November and December. Parents in Antigua, like parents in America, want to keep their kids busy. So some apparently send the kids to a gymnasium where they wear their little bodies out doing dance exercises, Tae-Bo and doubtless other things. Kids who seemed to range in age from four or five to eleven or twelve took part in this occasion, with their adult leaders. A big crowd gathered round to watch and cheer.


One group, wearing pink shirts and either Santa Claus hats or reindeer antlers, followed a teacher in what seemed to be jazzercise, accompanied by recorded music. The kids were troupers, though it was tough for some of them to keep up when their shoelaces came untied or their antlers threatened to come lose from their coiffures and droop over their noses.


After the pink shirts finished, a man with a red dojo suit and a black belt proclaiming him a sensei took over a platform. He had a haircut that would have looked fresh on a Marine drill sergeant and what had to be the best sinews in Guatemala. The group he led mostly wore red tee-shirts with “Tae-Bo Kids” written on the front.

I'm not sure, but I'd guess that Tae-Bo means “hard-working.” The sensei certainly worked his kids like a bunch of Marine recruits. For half an hour, to the blaring, tinny sound of driving Latin rock, he had them running in place, punching air, kicking to one side or the other, then running in place some more, but faster. They sweated and sucked air, but they didn't quit. My finger got tired of pressing my shutter button before they finished their routine.

Their reward was a can of soda pop and a sandwich.

I left, alas, without waiting for a group of ladies in black Zumba outfits to take their turn to perform. It was getting on toward evening and there were still pictures on the street that I wanted to take. 

I really missed my good camera.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Antigua Guatemala Spanish camera photography Tue, 15 Dec 2015 18:50:29 GMT
Rapists and Thieves I was was huffing and puffing, biking uphill toward home this afternoon when I saw that Columbia Road, NW was blocked for a procession of some kind. I stopped to watch and take some pictures.

The procession, it turned out, involved a large, heavy icon of the crucified Christ, gilded and adorned with flowers, and mounted on an elaborate plinth. It was borne at a very slow, rhythmic pace on the shoulders of men and women in purple robes with white cinctures. Elderly women, their heads draped in white lace mantillas, walked in front of the icon, swinging censers of smoking incense. A brass band walked behind, adding a sonorous din to the proceedings. At one point, the procession halted. The bearers let the icon down from their shoulders and rested it on the street. People passed infants through the crowd to one of the men in purple robes, who took the children and held them briefly in front of the icon, where presumably they were blessed.

The marchers and those accompanying them all spoke Spanish. My Spanish isn't great, but I think I learned that the procession originated in a nearby Catholic church, La Reina de Los Americas, or Our Lady, Queen of the Americas. It's the joint effort of several congregations, and it occurs on the third Sunday of every October. The people I spoke to were all very kind and tolerant of a big, not particularly reverent Yankee who kept lumbering in and out of their procession, looking for camera angles.

I eventually walked back to my bike and rode home. I would have probably filed this little encounter away in the category of interesting but inconsequential events that still happen in the streets of Washington, a very diverse city despite all of its recent gentrification. But then I thought of the current presidential campaign. We have been assured by the leading contender for the Republican nomination that the migrants coming across the border from Mexico are rapists and thieves, requiring us to build an impenetrable wall, then round up and expel all of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in our midst.

I don't know. The leading Republican contender has no doubt made a lot more money than the people I photographed today. A lot of them will probably be doing menial jobs tomorrow, cleaning offices, cooking in restaurant kitchens and painting houses, which makes them losers in his book. But as I looked at the pictures I made, I tried to pick out the likely thieves and rapists in the procession. I couldn't, but I guess that's because I don't see things as clearly as the leading Republican candidate. Probably it's because I get around too much by bike and don't get the big picture he sees from his personal helicopter.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Republicans Washington immigrants Sun, 25 Oct 2015 23:45:21 GMT
Working the Streets of Vietnam Street photography is both easy and hard. Easy because all you need to work at it are a camera and a street. No clients. The models are, perforce, working for nothing. No artificial lighting, either.

It’s hard for reasons that only begin with the requirements of what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment,” the ephemeral instant when all the elements—the action, the lighting the composition and the camera settings—are in alignment. When I try street photography I often come home with a card full of images—all of them failures in one or more ways.

Looking at some of Cartier-Bresson's most famous images, I'm not sure I can even discern the principles and methods that made him such a great street photographer. Most of the time, for instance, it appears that the human subjects in his compositions were unaware of his presence. Their faces and actions suggest spontaneity, which imparts a sense that whatever the viewer sees on their faces and in their bodies is genuine, rather than manufactured by a model and a photographer. But sometimes the human subjects in Cartier-Bresson's work stare directly at his lens, obviously responding to his presence.

He shot exclusively, as far as I know, in black-and-white. He presumably wasn't attracted to, or distracted by, bright colors. His compositions emphasize lines. He liked to use architectural elements like the arch of a bridge, an allee of trees, or a spiral staircase to lead the eye to the nut of the picture. In fact, those framing elements are so important that I suspect Cartier-Bresson, when he worked, looked for them first. Then he waited for people to walk into his chosen setting. But sometimes, it seems, he just happened to see something or someone, like a couple of lovers on a train, and he photographed them regardless of the setting and its lines.

Until last week, I had never thought much about how Carter-Bresson worked, because I never thought there was much chance I could do anything remotely like his work. Photography on the streets of a place like Washington is not easy. People generally don't like being photographed by a stranger, and they can react angrily to being ambushed, even if the law says a photographer has the right to shoot anything he sees on a public street. When people are disposed to be photographed on Washington's streets, it's often because they're marching in them, perhaps in some form of demonstration. There's rarely much that's genuine or unanticipated in a political rally.

My sense of possibilities expanded when I got to Vietnam. I think it's often the case that a photographer in a foreign country, where he knows few people and to which he may never return, is more likely to shoot things he'd be too shy to shoot at home, to be aggressive. On top of that, in a place he hasn't seen before, he looks with a fresh eye. Vietnam had those factors working for it, but they weren't all that made the streets of Vietnam a particularly propitious place to work.

Maybe it’s because their actual dwellings are cramped and crowded, but the Vietnamese people, in comparison to Westerners,  live an enormous amount of their lives on their streets. They cook and eat on the streets. They exercise and play badminton there. (I saw one guy playing a hybrid between badminton and soccer, kicking a shuttlecock of some kind with his feet. A two-year-old sat placidly on the sidewalk as he played.) They work on the streets and they sell stuff. They’re comfortable enough in the street to sit down next to it, take their shoes off and show the passing world the soles of their tired feet.

Their transportation contributes to the sense that Vietnam puts itself on display in the streets. Relatively few people travel in cars or buses. Most of them seem to get around on motor bikes or bicycles. Quite often, two, three or even a family of five will be clinging to a Honda zooming down the street, open to photography. A flower vendor might have her entire business—buckets, water bottles, and blossoms—on a jerry-rigged platform strapped to the back fender of a creaking bike.  No shop window or closed door stands between her and a photographer. By contrast, a Western city is a world of secrets, of lives lived behind curtains and closed doors.

A knowledgeable sociologist might say that the street life in cities like Hanoi (where these pictures were made) has its roots in villages and rice paddies, where life must be communal to survive. Or it might be that living in a one-party system with no effective limits on police power and spying has left the Vietnamese with no illusions about privacy, and thus indifferent to it. I don’t know.

I do sense that there’s something very communal in the ambience of Vietnam’s streets. Children make their way alone to and from school and no one seems to worry about their safety. The traffic is seemingly ferocious and dangerous. A visitor could justifiably conclude that for motorbikes at Vietnamese intersections, a green light means go and a red light means beep the horn and go faster. Yet pedestrians routinely venture out into the traffic crossing the street, confident that the bikes and cars will see them and somehow flow around them. It seems to work out that way.   

There’s also something about the light in Vietnam. At least when I was there, in late February, skies were usually cloudy, softening the light and gently illuminating faces. Yet it never rained hard. And once in a while, the sun would break through like a spotlight, lighting a piece of an open-air market, making that scene a stage.

Finally, the people don’t seem to mind being photographed. When I pointed my camera at someone and gestured for permission to shoot, people almost never shook their heads no. They either tolerated me or seemed genuinely to like the idea that a big foreigner was interested enough to want their picture.  

This may be due to a government policy encouraging tourism. The people I encountered may have seen me as a walking injection of dollars into an economy that needs them. They may have read that neighbors like Thailand and Cambodia are benefitting from tourism, and they want their country to have its share. Or maybe there’s a kind, hospitable streak in the Vietnamese national character to go along with the toughness and tenacity they show when someone gets aggressive with them.

I did a quick Google search and can't find any indication that Cartier-Bresson himself ever got to Vietnam. It seems odd, because Vietnam was a French colony during much of his working life. A shame, too. He would have done great work there. 

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Hanoi Henri Cartier-Bresson Vietnam street photography the decisive moment Wed, 04 Mar 2015 02:33:36 GMT
Joy in the Hanoi Morning My normally trusty Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam suggested that early each morning around a lake in central Hanoi, devotees gather for outdoor t'ai chi exercises. So as the sky brightened to a dull gray this morning, at around 6 o'clock, I left my hotel and walked toward the lake. It turns out Lonely Planet was wrong. I didn't find practitioners of t'ai chi, which is an exercise routine related to Chinese martial arts. Instead, I found practitioners of joy.

Next to the lake is a towering statue of Ly Thai To, the Vietnamese leader who founded the city of Hanoi a thousand or so years ago and is credited with persuading China to recognize Vietnam as an independent, though vassal, kingdom, rather than a mere province of China. Bouquets of fresh flowers were strewn around the statue. (Later in the day, I walked past a statue of Lenin, which had no flowers, and past Ho Chi Minh's Leninesque mausoleum on Hanoi's equivalent of Red Square. Ho's tomb had a couple of official wreaths and an honor guard, but no evident expression of spontaneous public affection. I got the feeling that in Vietnam, quarrels with people like the French and the Americans come and go, as do ideological fashions. But the looming presence of China is eternal. That, however, is not the subject of this post.)

This post is about a group of about two dozen Vietnamese, ranging in age from the middle years to old and gray, who were gathered in the plaza under Ly Thai To's bronze feet. Some wore exercise clothes. Some wore neckties. They were engaged in an activity that would be hard to imagine in a Western city, an activity that seemed to be one part exercise class, one part prayer service, one part ring-around-the-rosie and a whole lot of parts of happiness.

Their leader was a short, sturdy and very dynamic woman whom I judged to be about fifty years old. She is wearing the blouse with the red and black stripes in the picture above. She would call out something in Vietnamese, and the group would respond by following her movements. Sometimes they seemed to be stretching. Sometimes they seemed to be playing, pantomiming things like wiping their faces. After each exercise, she'd lead them in a round of applause, saying something that contained, if I am not mistaken, the words “Velly good, velly good.” which I take to be a term of approval the Vietnamese have borrowed from English.

Sometimes she would lead them in an exercise that climaxed with a sharp exhalation, as if everyone were trying to blow out a candle (or exorcise bad humors, perhaps). More often than anything else, though, she led them in an exercise that culminated in everyone throwing back their heads and laughing loudly and heartily. Then they'd wave their hands in the air and dance around in a circle for a while. More laughter. More dancing. More clapping.

At one juncture, however, the event seemed to get more serious. An elderly man, dressed in an orange shirt and a necktie, stepped into the center of the circle and began what struck me as a prayer. The others closed their eyes and listened, swaying slightly. I might be imagining this, but I thought his orange shirt was significant. In Thailand, which has not had a communist government, one often sees Buddhist monks in saffron robes, a hue close to that of the old man's shirt. I have yet to see a monk in Vietnam, a country that has both Buddhist and Confucian religious traditions, so I suspect that while Vietnam's government officially tolerates religion, the clergy is not as open as it is in Thailand. Maybe this orange shirt was a discrete way of showing the old man's religious affiliation. Maybe not.

At any rate, the prayer, if that's what it was, soon ended, and there was more dancing, more stretching, more laughter. As the hour approached 7 o'clock, the group moved around in a circle that resembled a conga line, except that in this case, the participants appeared to be offering the person in front of them a bit of massage.

And, in the grand finale, everyone hugged everybody else.

The people in this group didn't mind outsiders. A few pale faces, either tourists or expats living in Hanoi, joined the party and tried to follow along. At one point, early in the hour, a light misty rain started to fall and the group seemed to dissipate. I started to pack my camera. The leader rushed over and, mostly with gestures, informed me that the group was re-forming under the protective branches of a big tree, and I should keep taking pictures. I did.

This was by no means the only group activity going on in the early morning hours. Nearby, a woman with a boombox led a dancercise class that featured “The Macarena.” Around on the other side of Ly Thai To's plinth, another boombox was playing ballroom dance music, as devotees of that discipline waltzed around (at least I think it was waltzed) in a sedate circle. (As I've heard happens in the West, there was a shortage of men and some of the women had to dance together.) Next to the ballroom dancers, a group evidently devoted to some traditional Vietnamese folk art was moving in circles while wielding colorful flags and wooden swords. No one seemed to mind another group's boombox, at least while I was there. Everyone seemed to get along.

The scene reflected, I think, a certain sweet innocence in Vietnamese culture. Make no mistake. These are tough people in a fight, as the United States learned to its chagrin forty years ago. I suspect it would be very difficult to get the better of a Vietnamese business person in a transaction that required negotiation. But, perhaps because they've been a little bit isolated from the rest of the world, and perhaps because the government doesn't allow some of the more pernicious aspects of Western culture to invade here (I haven't seen a McDonald's. The horror!), the ambience in Hanoi has overtones of a time long gone in the West. Boys and girls shyly hold hands in the park around Hoan Kiem Lake. People rely on one another for entertainment. They're not jaded. They seem to enjoy one another.

But Vietnam is changing. Its economy is growing. In a cautious, crusty and communist sort of way, the regime seems to want to be more open to the world. I imagine that in the decades to come, the country will reach the point where its people will sleep in on Saturday mornings. When they want exercise, they'll go to a proper country club or a proper health club and take a proper Pilates class. Then they'll be happy, just like us. 

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Hanoi Hanoi activities Hoan Kiem Lake Ly Thai To Vietnam Vietnamese culture Sat, 28 Feb 2015 13:31:56 GMT
Tell Me Again What We Were Fighting For in Vietnam Coming off the 16th green at the Danang Golf Club the other day, I was distracted from the lovely view of the South China Sea by an unusual structure. It was a squat, square little stone and concrete building atop a dune, with a small entry down a flight of stairs and slits for windows. I recognized it, thanks to some old movies, as a pillbox, a fortification used by armies in the last century to protect a machine gun and its gunners from enemy fire. In this case, someone at the golf club later told me, it was an old French fortification, and I suspect it was probably used by the French to defend against a Japanese attack during World War II. (A corner of the pillbox is at left in the photo above.)

The fortification was a reminder of the many wars fought over Vietnam in the last century, and it was not the only one in and around Danang. Remnants of the American military presence still stand not far from Danang Golf Club, the shells of old concrete airplane hangars that were part of the enormous and unsuccessful American effort to keep the Vietnamese communists from uniting their country at the expense of America's Cold War surrogates in South Vietnam.

As I walked to the 17th tee I found myself thinking about that war and why it was fought. We were told that if South Vietnam fell, communism would roll across the countries of Indochina, with Thailand and Cambodia falling next. And if that happened, the Red Chinese might extend their sway over all of Asia, as governments of smaller countries realized that the West couldn't protect them. And if that happened, the Soviet Union and China would control the Eurasian land mass. NATO would crumble in the face of this power and aggression, and the United States would have to bow to the will of the communists or face extinction. So we had to fight in Vietnam. It was called the Domino Theory.

In a way, the Domino Theory was looking pretty prescient as I stepped onto the 17th tee. We did lose the war, and the Chinese presence and influence are indeed growing in Vietnam. But it hasn't exactly happened in the way John Foster Dulles warned us it would. The golf club I was playing at is a joint venture involving investors from Hong Kong. There's a casino down the road that reputedly is owned by Chinese gambling barons. Chinese money, along with Japanese, Korean, and Western money, is reputedly involved in several of the five-star resorts that have recently been built or will soon be built along China Beach. But I don't think Dulles and his Cold War colleagues envisioned the red hordes setting up country clubs with villa lots and hiring Greg Norman to design their golf course, which is what happened at Danang Golf Club.  I don't think the domino theorists were thinking of casinos and spas when they warned of the red menace.

As I got ready to hit my tee shot, the sounds of a raucous party filled the air. In a villa fifty yards behind me, a bunch of kids were jumping in a pool, shouting and laughing. My Vietnamese caddie wrinkled her nose when I asked her who they were. "Chinese," she said. I sensed that she felt about Chinese tourists the same way that a classic Parisian waiter feels about American customers: their money spends, but do they have to be so uncouth? So maybe that was it, I thought. We had to fight in Vietnam to preserve the serenity of future golf courses.

OK. I'm being snarky, which is a weakness of mine. But the question is a serious one. Was the American war in Vietnam necessary?

It's impossible to tell how the future would have unfolded if the United States had said, "Let Vietnam have an election for a government to rule the entire country, the way we promised it could in Geneva in 1956. And if Ho Chi Minh wins, we'll deal with it." But I would say the probability is that China and Vietnam, along with the supposed domino countries like Thailand, would look pretty much the same as they do now. I believe that nations change and evolve based on their own will, their own circumstances, their own traditions, their own cultures. The most pernicious ideologies and governments tend to burn themselves out. Their people get tired of them. China was not going to stagger under the fanatical misrule of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward indefinitely. The Chinese are too pragmatic, too materialistic for that. Vietnam, once it regained its sovereignty, was going to evolve in a Vietnamese way.

But there is one thing I can say with certainty. Fifty thousand members of my generation of Americans would not have given their lives in Vietnam if the United States had chosen not to fight here. (I, by the way, did not fight here. I got a high number in the draft lottery of 1969 and was spared.) It's possible to speculate that if the United States hadn't fought so long and hard in Vietnam, the communist world would have evolved differently, that the Soviet Union would still be around, that Maoism would still dominate China, etc. But that seems very unlikely, and any such speculation has to be balanced against the certainty of what we lost.

The argument could be made that if America had won the war, and South Vietnam had survived, the southerners at least would now be freer and more prosperous than they presently are. I'm not so sure that's true. I guess the best country to compare to Vietnam in a discussion of what might have been is neighboring Thailand. I have visited both countries on this trip. My impressions are admittedly superficial. I've just been a tourist, and a golfing tourist at that. I don't speak the local languages. I have not done the work I would have done if I were still a journalist.

There are obvious ways in which Thailand seems wealthier than Vietnam. The World Bank estimates Thailand's per capita GDP at around $14,000 per year, putting the country in the lower middle class of nations. Vietnam's per capita GDP is a little over $5,000, putting it among the working poor. Bangkok definitely has more steel and glass, more banks, more obvious wealth than I've seen in either Danang or Hanoi, which are two of Vietnam's three largest cities. Thais ride around Bangkok in a mix of cars and motorcycles, with perhaps as many cars as bikes. In Vietnam, cars are relatively rare, and you see a lot of people pedaling in Danang and Hoi An, an old riverport about ten miles south of Danang. 

On the other hand, Bangkok has terrible traffic jams at all hours of the day and night. Its air made my eyes burn a little. A constant smoggy haze hovered over the city. The Chao Phraya River and the canals that flow into it are full of trash. When I saw some boys swimming in a Bangkok canal I worried for their health. In Vietnam, the air is cleaner. The entire environment is tidier. Streets are swept. Farmer's fields are planted in neat, rectangular rows.  The mountains outside Danang are covered with healthy-looking woodlands. 

Vietnam definitely has poor people, like the elderly, barefoot woman in the picture above right, who makes her living ferrying people across the Tho Buk River in Hoi An. But I saw lots of plump kids in Vietnam's cities, along with busy shopkeepers and restaurateurs. It's officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, but it has a mixed economy that seems to permit a fair amount of private enterprise. People seem to have enough money to gather in cafes for a beer, some tea, or a coffee, to carry cell phones, and to dress decently.

I harbor no illusions that Vietnam is a democracy, but then, neither are many of the other countries in the region. Thailand is governed at the moment by a military junta that seized power in a coup d'etat. Singapore has a famously authoritarian government. Cambodia suffers under a system dominated by one party and a corrupt kleptocracy. Vietnam has a one-party system, but I didn't see any glaring evidence that the people of Vietnam feel oppressed. No one seemed nervous about speaking to me. The police presence was no heavier than one would expect in a Western city. 

So I would say that the retrospective case for the American war in Vietnam is shaky at best. Put more bluntly, it was a disastrous mistake, a war that should not have been fought.

I raise the point because there has always been a class of leaders and opinion-makers in the United States who fancy themselves tough-minded realists. They were the ones who peddled the Domino Theory. Their intellectual heirs were the ones who told us that invading Iraq would be a cakewalk. They're people who mistake prudence for cowardice, who conflate belligerence and patriotism.  They're constantly looking for threats on the horizon, but they rarely look back and learn from the mistakes they've made in the past.

These armchair warriors wield a lot of influence in the United States for several reasons. One is that they got the draft abolished after the Vietnam War. The volunteer army doubtless has its advantages, but one consequence is that most Americans have no immediate personal stake in any decision to go to war. They and their sons and daughters will not be involved. Another reason is that our pusillanimous system allows presidents to finance their wars with borrowed money. There's no immediate cost to the taxpayers for a war. Our people like the easy way out. They don't like sacrifices. Consequently, a lot of politicians sense that belligerence will be popular, at least in the short term, which is as far as many of them are capable of seeing. 

Right now in Washington, the war drums are beating loudly. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is coming to town in a week or so to try to talk Congress into backing Israel's view of what should be done about Iran. Netanyahu plainly wants the United States to start a war with Iran to destroy its nuclear capabilities. He's got a lot of cheerleaders, particularly among Republicans. Then there are the people who warn that we've got to intervene more forcefully in Ukraine. Or we've got to do something about Syria. President Obama plainly would prefer to be on the side of prudence when it comes to decisions on war. But he is pilloried for that preference. Why won't he label terrorists Islamic terrorists? Why won't he stand up to Putin? He doesn't love America.

The Republicans evidently believe that they can play the belligerence card to their advantage in the 2016 campaign. Their leading presidential contenders are being advised by the same geniuses who brought us the war in Iraq. So it would be unwise to think that the Republicans are just playing electoral politics when they talk about "the need for action." If they get into power, they're going to be very likely to start a war or two. The Democrats are not much better. Like Obama, Hillary Clinton may prefer prudence. But if she gets the nomination, she's going to want to prove that she can be just as tough as any male the Republicans put up against her. That's the sort of political dynamic that caused John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to send troops to Vietnam fifty years ago.

If we forget that history, I fear, we'll be doomed to repeat it. 



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) 2016 America Bangkok Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel, Iran, Republicans, Danang Danang Golf Club France Hoi An Vietnam Vietnam War elections" war war in Vietnam Thu, 26 Feb 2015 06:31:09 GMT
The Life Cycle of Tourist Attractions I think many of us have an imagined picture of Angkor Wat. I certainly did, before I actually got to see it. My picture was composed mostly of things I had read. It was supplemented by images from films about tomb raiders and adventure, some of them made on location in and around it. In my mind Angkor Wat was a remote, mysterious place, reachable only by an arduous journey, a place in which spirits and ghosts would definitely outnumber the other human beings you'd see when you finally got to visit.

The reality, I must report, is quite different. I saw Angkor Wat twice in the last week. One day I arose before dawn and pedaled a few miles on a rented bicycle to see it as the sun rose. On the other day I arrived at mid morning with a group of tourists .

Even at dawn, the long stone walkway over the moat and through the ramparts at Angkor Wat was as crowded as a subway platform at rush hour. You had to keep moving or you'd be blocking the herd. At mid-morning a couple of days later, it was still more crowded. Buses idled along the side of the two lane road leading to Angkor Wat as their passengers queued to have their pictures made for the $20 daily admission ticket. Tuk-tuk drivers and cars tried to squeeze past, creating chaotic traffic in both directions. Closer to the actual temple complex, which is roughly the size of Versailles, vendors lined the road, peddling bottled water, soda, beer and fruit on a stick at the top of their lungs. “Sir! Beer one dollar! Beer one dollar! You want water, I got water! One dollar!”

Inside the walls, I wouldn't say that commerce was unrestrained, because otherwise the beer and water vendors wouldn't have been out on the road beyond the complex walls. They'd have been inside. Even so, an astonishing number of vendors had managed somehow to set up shop in the sacred precinct. They sold tee-shirts and postcards and guide books. They sold Angkor Wat paintings of roughly the same quality as those rugs painted with portraits of Elvis I used to see for sale in roadside stands in Appalachia. They use little kids to do the actual hawking, on the theory, no doubt proven in practice, that tourists will more easily part with a few bucks if the vendor is an appealing urchin.

One team comprised of a horse owner and a photographer had its steed stationed about a hundred yards in front of the famed Angkor Wat spires. For a fee, they'd set you up on the horse, put a hat on your head, and pose you heroically, like one of the fabled Khmer emperors who built the Angkor Wat temples (with the uncredited assistance of hundreds of thousands of slaves and tens of thousands of elephants). Then the photographer would snap the picture and sell it to you. The crowds inside the temple buildings were so thick that there was, I heard, a 40-minute line at the staircase for people getting ready to make the steep descent after seeing the highest galleries and carvings.

Upon reflection, the surprising thing about Angkor Wat was that I am still capable of being surprised when I finally get to a place I've long imagined and find it overrun with other tourists. I shouldn't be surprised any longer. That is the way of the world we live in.

Angkor Wat, if it shows anything, shows how rapid the life cycle of a tourist attraction has become in the 21st Century. Places like the Grand Canal in Venice or the Louvre in Paris had decades and centuries of what you could call their tourism prime. Those would be years in which enough people visited to sustain a pleasant network of hotels and restaurants, but not so many that the places felt crowded.

Angkor Wat, by comparison, had a prime of about ten minutes. The temples were built around 1000 years ago. A couple of centuries later, the decline of the Khmer Empire began. Vietnamese and Thai armies sacked the place, burning the wooden buildings. The Khmer kings eventually abandoned it, and the jungle had its way with the ruins for a century or two. Europeans “discovered” the ruins in the middle of the 19th century. But for another century or so, Angkor Wat remained a remote place, difficult to reach. There were no airliners, no railroads. You got to Angkor Wat at the end of an expedition.

Then came the wars—World War II, the anti-colonial wars that drove the French out, the American war in Vietnam that spilled into Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge revolution that drowned the country in its own blood, the Vietnamese invasion to drive out the Khmer Rouge, and a long civil war. It was only in the 1990s that Cambodia was peaceful enough for tourists. Jet travel, by then, was cheap. First came the backpackers, drawn by the prices, the warm weather and the exotic wonder of it all. Then came the real game-changer, the rise of middle classes in China, Korea and other countries, making it possible for vast numbers of people to take a fairly short flight and see one of the man-made wonders of the world.

This confluence of demand factors might have been mitigated if the Cambodian government were other than what it is, a dictatorial kleptocracy trying to maintain power and amass wealth in a country with few natural resources (other than lumber, which the government has already clear-cut and sold to line its members' pockets.) There was never a chance that the Cambodian government would do anything other than try to maximize the short-term revenue streams to be gained from allowing as many people as possible to see Angkor Wat, all the while spending money on hotels, restaurants, bars, massage joints and pony-photo vendors that provide the regime with opportunities for silent partnerships. Siem Reap, once a village a few miles from the ruins, now has a street called Pub Street (left) that every night resembles Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras.

I suspect that the only thing that will control the tide of tourists into Angkor Wat will be a kind of market correction. When it gets a reputation for being overcrowded and overcommercialized, some people will stop coming to Angkor Wat It's possible for a tourist attraction to decline, just as the old Khmer Empire declined. Atlantic City and Niagara Falls were glamorous American resorts a hundred years ago. Now they're struggling. Angkor Wat may someday have the same problem.

But that won't immediately help the traveler who has Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids or any other famed but overcrowded spot on his or her must-see list. In today's world, any place that's famous is going to draw masses of tourists. That's a by-product of two positive developments, the rapid growth of disposable income in places that didn't use to have much and the peace that makes travel safe. There's no point in complaining about it.

If you want to travel and you don't want queues, traffic, and children hawking trinkets, you just have to skip the Angkor Wats of the world, be creative, and find your wonder somewhere else.  

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Angkor Wat Cambodia Siem Reap tourism tourist attractions Tue, 24 Feb 2015 00:04:17 GMT
From the Mouth of a Babe I wanted to keep an open mind about Cambodia.

I am visiting the country for the first time this week, and before arriving, I read "Cambodia's Curse," by Joel Brinkley. Brinkley, writing a few years ago, painted a picture of a benighted land. In the years since the Khmer Rouge killed perhaps a fourth of Cambodia's population, he said, it has been governed by a kleptocratic oligarchy headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen. In the Khmer Rouge period, Cambodians slaughtered their countrymen in the millions. In the years since, though the murder has largely stopped, the country has been pillaged. Brinkley described Cambodia as one of the most corrupt countries on Earth, a place where schoolchildren have to bribe teachers to attend class, peasants must bribe doctors to receive minimal care, and government officials push the people off the land so they can cut down the trees and sell the timber to builders in Thailand. 

Maybe, I thought, Brinkley exaggerated. 

Then, as I sat waiting for my flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap, the pretty young woman in the picture at left asked if she could sit beside me. I said yes, and she started to chatter away in English. She was bright and vivacious. She was a little nervous and wanted some company, she said, because it was her first time flying alone.   She'd been to Bangkok to visit an older sister, who had just given birth to a child in a Thai hospital.

That piqued my curiosity. I knew that the per capita income in Cambodia is roughly $1,000 per year. That kind of money wouldn't permit someone to go abroad for medical care, let alone to pay a visit to a sister. So I asked the girl about herself and her life. She happily responded.

She is 23, and she is finishing her college education, where she's studying accounting. I asked about her family. Oh, she said, it was a "simple, middle class family."

What did her father do?

He worked for the government in Siem Reap, the town built around the ruins of Angkor Wat and the tourism the ruins attract. It would be, she said, hard to describe his job, but he was a kind of counsellor. Her  mother stayed at home. She had an uncle who also worked for the government, and an aunt, married to the uncle, who owns a successful Siem Reap restaurant.

Did her family have a car? Yes, she said. In fact, it had several. Her father has a Toyota, her mother has a Mercedes, and she herself has been given a Prius. 

And did they own a house? Yes, she said. In fact, several. 

And did they have servants? Yes, her mother employed three girls from the country to clean help with the cooking and run errands. They were each paid $100 a month and they shared a room in the main house.

I asked her if she really considered her family middle class, given the possessions and servants she had described. Oh, yes, she insisted. She knew people wealthier than her family in Siem Reap. Her aunt and uncle, for instance, the government official and restaurateur.

I didn't argue with her, and I am still not sure if she was being disingenuous or naive. I rather suspect the latter. I can imagine the child of a government official in a very poor country being raised to think that her family was just middle class, and maybe intuitively understanding that it wouldn't be wise to ask her parents any probing questions about how they can afford all they have on a government official's ostensible salary.  

I have been in Siem Reap for a couple of days now, and I haven't seen much to contradict Brinkley's dismal assessment of the place. For one thing, the countryside doesn't have many trees. But in the immediate vicinity of Angkor Wat, which is a tightly protected UNESCO World Heritage site, there is an impressive tropical forest full of towering specimen trees. I can only assume the rest of the country had a similar forest cover before Hun Sen and his regime started pillaging.

Many people live in evident poverty. They labor. You can see women pedaling on bicycles early in the morning, their bodies laden with some sort of cargo they presumably want to sell in a market. You can see people doing jobs that would be handled by machinery in a more developed country, like the woman on the right, above, who picks weeds on a golf course I played.

And you can see that there's money being made by someone in Siem Reap. The town is full of tourists. By day they jostle into Angkor Wat. By night, they spend their money in the bars, restaurants and massage parlors of a garish district called Pub Street.

I'm afraid not much of that money trickles down. I think most of it winds up in the pockets of government officials, either through bribery or through convenient "investments," just as Brinkley described.




]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Angkor Wat Cambodia Cambodian corruption Siem Reap corruption Sat, 21 Feb 2015 11:30:07 GMT
Fine Feng Shui at Thai C.C.

The Buddhism of Thailand is an eclectic faith, borrowing freely from neighboring cultures. One of those borrowed concepts is feng shui, the Chinese emphasis on design that promotes harmony and serenity between people and their environments. The influence of feng shui is beautifully evident at Thai Country Club, a golf course about an hour outside Bangkok. It's one of the top courses in Thailand. But it would be one of the top courses just about anywhere in the world.


 That's not surprising, given that Thai Country Club is a joint venture between a wealthy and well-connected Thai family, the Phataraprasits, and the Chinese company that operates the famed Peninsula hotel chain, a chain renowned for luxury and meticulous service. It's a successful hybrid that combines the best features of the two cultures.


The feng shui at Thai C.C. begins with its conditioning. The fairways and tees, which have a grass called Seashore Paspalum, are immaculate playing surfaces. The greens are Tifeagle. They have grain, but they roll true. The same attention given to the turf is lavished on the plants and trees that trim the course. They're clipped and molded to compliment the curves of the fairways and greens. The design, by Denis Griffiths, is a gentle one. Contours have of course been shaped on ground that probably once held fields of rice. But the work was done subtly. The result is a course that, while less than twenty years old, looks mature and mellow.


The course achieves a certain harmony with nature. Heron and egrets fly gracefully over its ponds. You might even see a five-foot Thai lizard, its forked tongue flickering from its mouth, waddle across a fairway and into a pond. On many holes, contraptions made from green buckets dangle from trees. They are, I was told, artificial habitats to encourage the presence of bats, which come out at night and devour bugs. I didn't look into any of the buckets, so I can't say for sure that they hold bats, but I also noticed that even though it was a hot, humid day in the tropics, I didn't need insect repellent.


I did, however, need to hit pretty good shots. Thai C.C. isn't a course that challenges the player with long forced carries and enormous bunkers, but it's no pushover, either. From the back tees it can stretch to 7097 yards with a respectable slope rating of 133. From the whites, it's 6034 yards with a slope of 122. The course has hosted occasional professional tournaments, including the Asian Honda Classic in 1997, won by Tiger Woods, and the Johnnie Walker Super Tour of 1998, won by Vijay Singh. If you believe that one criterion of course quality is the quality of the winners who emerge when the course hosts a competition, Thai C.C. deserves respect.


When it's set up for member play, with broad fairways and forgiving rough, pars are not hard to come by. But bad shots are penalized, either by bunkers or the numerous water hazards on the layout. Missing a green can leave an awkward chip, and it's best to stay below the hole. Downhill, down-grain putts are slippery.


The par threes at Thai C.C. are an impressive collection, each with a water hazard for the golfer to negotiate. I particularly liked the beautiful third hole, a mid-iron hole with a back pin location on a segment of green perilously close to a lake.


In other countries, a course like this could, I suppose, be a little stuffy. Thai C.C. members are mainly Bangkok businessmen, both Thai and expats from Asia and the West. (The course is open to visitor play, with rates ranging from about $100 to about $200, depending on the season and the day of the week. Golf packages are available to guests of the Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok.)


But I found the ambience at Thai C.C. to be relaxed and happy, thanks largely to the caddies. Like many Asian clubs, Thai C.C. employs uniformed women caddies in coveralls and enormous bonnets that protect their faces from the sun. There are clubs where the caddies are polite and smiling, but they greet their golfers with bowed heads and hands pressed together. At Thai C.C., not so much.


The Thai C.C. caddies, who drive the carts, rake the bunkers and read the greens, are a giggly, happy bunch. They don't mind rolling their eyes if they're stuck waiting behind a slow group, and they'll give a player a light punch on the bicep to celebrate a good shot. Waiting for a tee to clear, they flop down under a palm tree and chat with one another. I suspect that if I spoke any Thai, I would have heard a good joke or two.


Even without speaking Thai, or playing particularly well, I left the course happy. That's what good feng shui will do.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Bangkok Peninsula Hotel Thai C.C. Thai Country Club Thailand golf in Thailand Thu, 19 Feb 2015 00:16:06 GMT
The Ambivalence of Golf in Thailand I've played my first round of golf in Thailand, and I have to say I am still ambivalent about the whole idea of golf in this part of the world. The game feels different here. It's an exotic import, from lands and cultures much different than the indigenous terrain and society. It doesn't seem to fit in quite the way that, say, a Buddhist spirit house fits in at the entrance to a Bangkok courtyard. And then there's the contribution Asia has made to the culture of golf—the uniformed female caddie.

The pretty woman pictured above is named Muk, and she works at a course called Riverdale Golf Club, about an hour's drive north of Bangkok. Muk is a good caddie. I struggled to an 89, and my score would likely have been higher without her. She gets the yardages right and she's pretty good at reading greens. She efficiently rakes the bunkers (a task I imposed on her all too often) and cleans the clubs.

Shielded from the sun. She also drives the cart, which is where my ambivalence begins. Golf in its ideal form is a walking game, played by friends who chat and talk trash to one another between shots. I'm gimpy enough to use a cart nowadays, particularly when it's as hot as it was yesterday in Bangkok—about 90 degrees and humid. (One thing I'm not ambivalent about is missing out on the weather at home, where it was 16 degrees and snowing as I played golf in Thailand.) But at least when I am forced to use a cart on a course at home, I'm riding with a playing companion, and there's a sociable aspect to the game.

At Riverdale, and I gather in most of Thailand, each golfer gets his or her own cart, and the caddie drives. A foursome consists of four players, four carts and four caddies. Much of the time, the only person a player could talk to would be his or her caddie. But I don't speak any Thai, and Muk's English vocabulary is limited mostly to golf terms. She might say, “O.B. left, water right,” as we stood on a tee, or “160, pin back,” if I was preparing to hit an approach shot. (She also knows the English word “fat,” which she said when I showed her the picture.) There was no chance of having a chat with Muk about her life or my life, no chance of exchanging jokes, no chance that she'd do what great caddies do, which is to act as sports psychologists, telling their player exactly what he needs to hear exactly when he needs to hear it. I am fairly confident that Muk is a sweet lady, but for all I know, she and her fellow caddies, when they talked among themselves, were cracking scabrous jokes about the clumsy farang they were working for.

Then there's the matter of the way the caddies dress. At Riverdale, they all wear gray coveralls with orange trim, topped by a bonnet with an enormous brim. Their caddie number is embossed on the back (Muk was 257) and their first name is embossed on the chest. They wear blue gloves. Sometimes they'll even drape a towel over the bonnet, fastening it with clothespins, so that their faces look as if they're at the end of a tunnel.

I'm not sure why they do this, though I suspect it has to do with a few aspects of Asian culture. One is that the men who own golf courses like the idea of uniformed women performing what they see as a subservient job. When players arrive at the clubhouse, their caddies converge on the car to take the clubs from the trunk, all politely performing the Thai "wai," a respectful greeting with bowed head and pressed hands. There's a certain status affirmation going on. I'd be comfortable with it if I were a teacher and the person doing the wai were my student. But it doesn't seem quite right when the person doing the wai is, in theory, an independent contractor.

Another factor in the local caddie culture is an evident preference in at least some areas of Thai society for light skin. (There's a billboard along the Chao Phraya River for sunscreen in which the model looks absolutely chalky.) Muk and her cohorts don't want to get burned or tanned. Maybe they're worried about skin cancer.

But the upshot is that, dressed in shorts and a polo shirt, with maybe a baseball cap to cover the head, the golfer on a Thai course starts to wonder how much his caddie is sweating underneath all that clothing and whether she might be in danger of dehydration. It's not the best swing thought.

And the course I played yesterday demanded good swing thoughts. Riverdale is tough, stretching to 7001 yards from the back tees and full of bunkers and ponds. I don't know what the land was used for prior to the construction of the golf course, but the architect made liberal use of bulldozers to shape the each hole. The greens have a lot of tiers and runoff areas. The fairways are seldom flat.

The bulldozed contours leave the place with a slightly artificial look, which I guess is only appropriate, considering that golf is a game Thailand has imported.

I've got nothing against cultural cross-pollination in sports. But I worry that in this exchange, Thailand has been picking up some of the worst elements of American golf and culture instead of the better ones. Riverdale Golf Club is owned by a Thai conglomerate called MBK, which has enterprises ranging from goat's milk production to shipping to an enormous, enclosed mall with 2,000 shops in the center of Bangkok.

MBK apparently intends to make Riverdale (there is, by the way, no sign that the name was given to the club in homage to the hometown of Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica) the center of an exclusive, exurban residential development. Though no homes have yet been built, lots have been laid out around the edge of the course, demarcated by low green hedges. There's a security guard at the entrance to the development and another at the exit.

I was left with a vision of wealthy Thais emulating wealthy Americans, living in a gated community with a walking-averse lifestyle and getting to work via a long commute on highways already choked with traffic. In Bangkok, it's bumper to bumper at all hours. If you go to see a temple in the dawn light, the sun struggles to break through the city's constant shroud of smog.  I'm just  not sure about the way golf is affecting Thailand's karma, or the West's.

But maybe that's just me. Maybe if I had shot 79 instead of 89, I'd feel differently. We'll see.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Bangkok MBK Riverdale Golf Club, Thailand Washington portrait photographer golf golf in Thailand Wed, 18 Feb 2015 00:31:26 GMT
Dispatch from Street Food City Bangkok is a city that doesn't only have restaurants. It is a restaurant. It may be the street food capital of the world.

I have been blessed with chances to visit most of the places you'd expect to hear mentioned if the Jeopardy category were "Gastronomic Capitals." But nothing I have seen before is quite like Bangkok. It used to be said that the streets in America were paved with gold. In Bangkok, they seem to be paved with cooking grills. It's as if the mythical horn of plenty spilled all its contents in Thailand. You don't need to make reservations for lunch. You just need to take a walk.

I took one on my first afternoon in Bangkok in the company of Timon Haringa, a Dutch expat who's been working as a freelance photographer in Bangkok for 17 years. Timon does a lot of catalog work, but in between shoots, he leads street photography walks for Photography School Asia. They're a great way to see the city and learn something new about photography.

Timon took us by subway to the city's main train station, and from there into the narrow warren of streets and alleys that make up Bangkok's Chinatown. Chinese Thais reputedly hang onto their property tenaciously enough that developers can't get their hands on it. So Chinatown hasn't been demolished and rebuilt in steel, glass and concrete the way so much of the city has. McDonald's, Starbuck's, KFC and 7-11 have consequently yet to gain a foothold as they have in other parts of town. When it comes to meeting the needs of casual diners, Chinatown does it the old-fashioned way.

Maybe there's some kind of permit system at work, or maybe cooks just squat on a likely piece of curb and sidewalk. The sidewalks are, of course, crowded already. So making your way along a Chinatown street is like making your way through a noisy, crowded kitchen. Cooks of all sizes and both genders work over open grills or hot fryers. They're cooking vegetables, fruits, noodles and meats of all kinds, sometimes on skewers, sometimes in patties, sometimes in bowls. On top of that, food is hardly the only commerce going on on the sidewalk. People are selling everything from sewing machines to coffins to amulets shaped like tiny penises that, I assume, safeguard the wearer's male potency.

When it's time to eat, a customer can grab his food and walk away with it. Or, if it's close to an actual meal time, the proprietor will open a folding table or two and somehow squeeze it into the chaos--an instant cafe that may never be featured in a Michelin Guide or even on TripAdvisor, but which may nonetheless offer great food.

It will almost certainly be fresh food, because Bangkok's streets also serve as food and grocery markets. When my kids were young, and I was in thrall to a certain Western squeamishness, I had a few rules I thought were necessary to assure civility at the family dinner table. One of the rules was, "No talking about what the food was before it was food." (PETA would doubtless say this was an effort to stifle my kids' natural horror at the non-vegan lifestyle I was inflicting on them. Perhaps PETA was right.) This rule would be hard to enforce in Bangkok. The origins of your food are much more apparent than they are in, say, my local Whole Foods Market. Sometimes this can be quite attractive, as in the array of cardboard boxes full of mushrooms in a mushroom vendor's place of business. Or a fruit vendor's stall full of mangoes, papaya, and dragon fruit. Or a spice vendor showing off the three key colors of Thai spice--red, yellow and green. 

And, sometimes, it's less attractive, as when a pickup truck, horn beeping, pushes its way through the pedestrians in a market and comes to a stop, its cargo bed full of legs of something or other, with only the hooves detached. You can watch as a guy with a hand truck comes out and unloads the cargo, then wheels it a short distance to a grimy workbench, where he zealously whacks away at it with a greasy cleaver.  

Therein lies the rub with Bangkok street food, and I am not talking about rubbing a leg of lamb down with a mixture of spices and herbs before grilling it. Sanitation precautions are not always evident around Bangkok street food. Sometimes you'll see a garden hose being used to wash down the equipment. Sometimes not. Even if you do, it's not entirely clear where the water in the hose is coming from. You have to hope it's not coming from the fetid canal by the market where you just saw a guy standing on the embankment taking a leak.  A woman working in a little corner of the market prepares a bowl of noodles for a customer, then wipes her hands on a dirty towel. Next?

I have heard different opinions about whether a noodle-loving farang like myself would be  well advised to step up and eat the next bowl. My friend Bruce Stewart is a frequent visitor to Thailand, and he tells me that he's never had a problem eating street food in Bangkok. But Bruce's daughter-in-law is Thai, and when he's in Bangkok, he's usually being escorted by someone from her family. I suspect that a local has ways of assessing the safety of a street food establishment that a tourist can only guess at.  Others, including Timon Haringa, tell me they haven't indulged since an epic bout of food poisoning. So I am being a timid farang. I take pictures of Thai street food, but I eat in places with wait staff and tablecloths. 






]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Bangkok Chinatown Washington portrait photographer food street food Sun, 15 Feb 2015 01:00:09 GMT
Gentrification Comes to My Old Neighborhood I was reading a review of an art exhibition in the Washington Post recently when a detail startled me. It was the address of the gallery hosting the exhibit, a gallery called Civilian Art Projects. I looked again to make sure I had read correctly. I had. The gallery is located in the 4700 block of 14th Street NW in Washington. The address startled me because I used to live around the corner from that block, and in the days when I lived there, if someone had told me there was a gallery on 14th Street, I would have been afraid it was a shooting gallery. 

Gentrification, I know, is an old story by now. But my old neighborhood was, I had thought, so far from the epicenter of DC gentrification that it seemed unlikely to be touched. It was a place of solid, two-story dun brick rowhouses with front stoops and sleeping porches, built early in the 20th Century; that's the sort of housing stock gentrifiers like to say "has potential." But it was much too far from downtown to walk to work; it was too far from a Metro stop to make using the subway very practical.

It was a neighborhood of blue-collar African-American families when I bought a house in 1976. I wasn't so much a gentrifier as poor. I worked as a reporter for the Associated Press, and the salary wasn't great. My wife and I paid $59,500 for a rowhouse at 1508 Crittenden St. NW. It had four small bedrooms, two baths, one of which leaked, mice, and a fireplace in the living room. There was even a garage. There was no place else in the city where that sort of space was available for that sort of money, at least not in a neighborhood that seemed halfway safe.

Our immediate neighbors were solid citizens. George Dodson and his wife owned 1510. They were fastidious homeowners; the furniture in their living room was covered at all times in clear plastic. Mr. Dodson was retired from a career in the federal government; he had been the chauffeur for Earl Warren, the Supreme Court chief justice who presided over the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that ended (legal) school segregation in the United States. I figured that Mr. Dodson would have had a soft spot in his heart for Earl Warren because of that, but when I asked him about it one time, he said Warren was a mean man who made him work on Thanksgiving and Christmas. I guess few men are heroes to their drivers.

We sold the house for about $90,000 in 1985, in part because of a temporary move to New York, but mainly because we had, by then, a son quickly approaching school age. None of the neighbors spoke well of the local public school, so there didn't seem to be any point in holding onto the house. There were no charter schools in Washington then, and private schools seemed unaffordable. We became suburbanites.

Over the ensuing years, I would occasionally drive through the old neighborhood. Not much of anything looked different. The maroon paint on the trim of my old house was never replaced; it just flaked.   So it was startling to think of an art gallery in the neighborhood. My curiosity piqued, I went down to an artists' talk at the gallery. A few days later, I came back to take some pictures.

The signs of gentrification encroachment were easy to spot. The gallery has taken the space once occupied by a hair salon that catered to African-American women.  Next to the gallery there's a used furniture store called "Rough and Ready," meeting the needs of young couples on a budget trying to furnish big row houses. In front of the furniture store there's a new dock for the bright red bikes of Capital Bikeshares. The corner store that was occupied by a Korean grocer who did business behind a bulletproof plexiglass shield when I lived in the neighborhood now houses a business that sells solar heating panels to renovating home owners.

In the 1400 block of Buchanan Street, NW, there is a house with a popup under construction, a third story being added to a two-story rowhouse in a block of two-story rowhouses. Popups are becoming gentrification's architectural signature in D.C. They signify that speculators think the underlying land is too valuable to hold only the square footage in an old row house. They can't build out, so they build up.

The Buchanan Street popup, I noticed, had instantly spawned another phenomenon I never saw when I lived in the neighborhood, a NIMBY protest. People with existing renovated homes like the one pictured at right, apparently don't like popups.

As I photographed the popup, another sure sign of gentrification rolled by on 15th Street NW--a little white boy on a scooter. His father, named Damon, was walking his dog, Ned, as his son, Eliot, rode. Damon, who moved in in 2008, said that he operates an export business from his house. His wife works downtown.  The neighborhood is full of kids, he said, and neighbors get along well for the most part. (He also gave a sensible reason for opposing popups. He and his wife had invested in solar panels for the roof of their rowhouse. If someone erected a popup, the shadow would block his solar energy.)

Based on what Damon told me, I would guess that the demographic transformation of the neighborhood is all but inevitable. The house I sold for $90,000 three decades ago would sell for $600,000 or $700,000 today. As the older African-American residents age and pass away, their houses go on the market. The pool of people interested in living in the neighborhood (which, by the way, realtors now call 16th Street Heights) and possessing the means to buy a $700,000 house is going to look different from the pool of people who moved in with George Dodson. 

It's worth noting that this would not be the first sweeping change in the neighborhood. One would have to have a sharp eye to see it now, but the neighborhood was once largely Jewish. There was a mezuzah case attached to the doorpost of 1508 Crittenden Street when I bought it. Up on 16th Street is the imposing gray stone home of an African-American congregation called, incongruously, the 19th Street Baptist Church. There is a cross atop the building now, but you can still see menorahs and six-pointed stars carved into the stone over windows and doors. The building was originally a synagogue. I guess that the 19th Street area downtown became too pricey for a black congregation at about the same time that the members of the original synagogue were moving to the suburbs. So the black congregation bought the building as the neighborhood was becoming black.

I would have asked George Dodson what he thought of all this change , but I know he passed away many years ago. However, as I was photographing on Buchanan Street, an African-American man with a white beard and a cap that said "Baltimore" walked slowly up toward me, carrying a brown-paper shopping bag, aided by a cane. I introduced myself, and we chatted. He said his name is Danny Goodwin, and his picture is at the top of this post. Mr. Goodwin is 72, probably about the same age George Dodson was when I moved in in 1976.

I asked Mr. Goodwin what he thought of the changes taking place in the neighborhood.

"I think it's wonderful," he said.

Did he mind the popup and renovations? 

"No, it's progress. Everything around here is improving."

I asked him whether he was bothered that white people were moving in. He smiled.

"We're all the same," he said.

I thought about the sort of reception that black people got in America when they integrated white neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s. I don't think too many white people were telling black people that they represented progress and that all people were the same.

I understand that the black homeowners in what is now 16th Street Heights probably figure they (or their heirs) are going to profit from gentrification, while whites in the 1950s reacted to the assumption that their property values were going down.  But still.

I just hope that as new owners move into 16th Street Heights in the years to come, and the neighborhood transitions peacefully to whatever its new identity will be, the new people realize how fortunate they were that the people they displaced were people like Danny Goodwin. 




]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) 16th Street Heights Civilian Art Projects Washington Washington gentrification Washington, D.C. gentrification popups urban issues Wed, 04 Feb 2015 23:35:28 GMT
What Should UVA Do Next? As I write this, I don't know how much of the November 19 Rolling Stone article on rape at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, will ultimately turn out to be true. It's possible that "Jackie," the accuser in the story, actually was gang-raped in a fraternity house, but that some of the details she seemed to recall so vividly in the article were erroneous. It's also possible she made the story up, in part or entirely. About the only thing I know for sure is that Rolling Stone is guilty of journalistic malpractice, and I hope someone at UVA has the standing to sue the magazine and drive it out of business for the damage it has so recklessly done to the University's reputation.

Apart from that very desirable outcome, there are two things I hope, wanly, can come out of this mess.

First, I hope the University gets out of the business of adjudicating rape and sexual assault. They are violent felonies, not academic code violations, and the criminal justice system, however flawed, is the best place to sort them out.

To begin with, anyone employed by the University has an inevitable conflict of interest when it comes to investigating or judging a rape. It's in the interest of any university to sweep bad news under the rug, lest it upset donors and prospective students. (Or, as in the case of Florida State University, lest it weaken the football team.) Any process monitored or led by a university employee is tainted. On top of that, the investigation of a rape allegation requires expertise that only the police have. Deans are not investigators or forensic scientists.

Right now, though, the trend is going in the opposite direction. Under pressure from both the Obama administration and advocates for the survivors of rape, Virginia, like many universities, has created quasi-judicial, internal procedures that survivors can choose to handle cases of rape and sexual assault. These procedures may protect the accuser from being interrogated by investigators or cross-examined by a defense lawyer about her allegations. They may allow her to make her accusation without worry that her name is going to be made public or that she'll have to confront her attacker. They may prevent the accused from calling witnesses about the incident, or even from having an attorney. They may stipulate that the standard of proof for an allegation is not "beyond a reasonable doubt," as in a criminal trial, but whether a panel students and administrators think the charge is probably true. 

The argument is that these internal, quasi-judicial processes are more likely than criminal trials to afford justice to the survivor and punish the transgressor, even if the punishment is "only" expulsion. The argument is that student rape survivors just cannot be expected to go to the police the way all other crime victims are expected to go to the police and avail themselves of the criminal justice system. Rape survivors have been too traumatized, the argument goes, and the criminal justice system will traumatize them further without any guarantee that the rapist will be punished.

I don't buy that argument. Survivors of rape on campus doubtless wish to avoid investigations, trials and cross-examination. Incidents of rape on campus typically involve drinking; a lot of them involve friends. Survivors don't want to be grilled about how much they had to drink or what exactly they said and did before they decided they were not giving consent. But lots of other people would rather not be grilled about their behavior before they became crime victims. If you, for instance, were defrauded by Bernie Madoff's investment scheme and lost your savings, you might just as soon not seek restitution in a public forum where you'll be held up to ridicule for being both gullible and greedy. But that's tough. If you want justice, you have to be prepared to go to court.

I understand that rape is not financial fraud. But there's a reason why adversarial, public trials, for all their flaws, have been a mainstay of enlightened justice systems for going on a thousand years. They are the best mechanism we seem to be able to come up with for the protection of both the accuser's interests and the rights of the accused. And the rights of the accused are very much at stake in any internal, quasi-judicial process. A conviction for rape by a campus tribunal may not lead directly to jail time, but it can certainly ruin a life.

As this episode--like the Tawana Brawley case and the Duke lacrosse case before it--shows, not every accusation is grounded entirely in fact. Innocent people can be accused and any appropriate system has to protect their right to defend themselves. The advocates for rape survivors don't generally want to give the accused the same due process rights he would have in a criminal court, and they attempt to dismiss this problem by saying that false accusations make up a small percentage of rape allegations. I've seen figures ranging from two percent to twelve percent. I don't know what the actual percentage is, but I know that the rape victim advocates shun the very idea of questioning an accuser's story. Jackie, the purported victim in the Rolling Stone piece, told her factually flawed story to many members of the UVA survivor advocacy community. None of them questioned her veracity. One of them, an alumna named Emily Renda, has told reporters it's not her job to verify a rape accusation; her job is to support the accuser. Ms. Renda introduced Jackie to the Rolling Stone reporter, who also apparently didn't consider it her job to verify the story. Now both the reporter and the victim advocates are complaining that the story's factual flaws must't be allowed to divert attention from the urgent need to attack "rape culture"  by supporting accusers in tribunals where the rights of the accused are truncated.

But I don't think you can build a system around the idea that if a few innocent men get expelled, they're just collateral damage that has to be tolerated for the greater good. (For a comprehensive account of the collateral damage being caused at many universities, see this report in Slate.)

I think the university's role in this process should be referring all rape allegations it receives to the police and using its considerable influence to make sure that the police have a very competent, very professional unit to investigate them and prosecute them. It should suspend students who are arrested or indicted for crimes of violence, sexual or otherwise. It should expel them, permanently, if they're convicted. It should advocate for judges and courtroom rules that prevent defense attorneys from putting accusers on trial while allowing them enough leeway to defend their clients. The university should do anything it can to create a social climate in which the victims of sexual violence are supported, not shunned, when they make an allegation.

None of this would, I know, satisfy the rape survivor advocacy groups. And, admittedly, it would be an imperfect system. Survivors would have to testify about their attacks in court and re-live those terrible experiences. Sometimes rapists would be acquitted. But I would submit that simply by making a criminal charge, survivors would be getting a measure of justice. The accused would have to hire an expensive lawyer. That would mean going to his family and asking for the money, letting his family know what he had been accused of doing. And his name would be in the public record. For the rest of his life, anyone with internet access, whether a prospective employer or a prospective girlfriend, would know he'd been accused of rape. Those are not trivial consequences.

Rather than creating quasi-judicial tribunals, the University ought to be about the business of changing its culture to one which better cultivates and supports healthy, mutually respectful social and sexual relationships. From what President Sullivan has said, there is likely to be a concerted effort to make students safer. There will doubtless be lots of lectures and training sessions about intervening to protect kids who get drunk, about understanding that a woman's "no" must be respected whenever it comes out of her mouth. And those will be useful exercises. But I hope the University's effort doesn't stop there. I hope the University undertakes a massive effort to displace fraternities in undergraduate social life.

When I was an undergraduate at UVA many, many years ago, fraternities were central to the University's social life, just as they are today. I was a member of one of them for about two years. What I saw was not the "rape culture" that Rolling Stone accused UVA of fostering. But it was not a healthy culture, either. I would call it a seduction culture.

This was back in the days just before the University became fully coeducational, and a lot of the dates men had were with women from colleges like Mary Baldwin and Sweet Briar, who came to Charlottesville for the weekend. The ideal fraternity man was not, in those days, a rapist. He was a seducer. His suave charm, elegant clothes and silver tongue--along with the contents of the bottle that he always had close at hand--lured girls into his bed. The archetype was captured well in the 1974 film Animal House, in the character of Otter. Seduction was so ingrained in fraternity life that I can remember earnest discussions about whether the University's Honor System prohibited telling a woman something you didn't mean in an effort to get her into bed. The consensus was that it didn't.

I never saw, or heard about, a rape in my undergraduate years, but I saw and heard about a lot of encounters where women were targets of seduction. I saw tears and bruised feelings on Saturday and Sunday mornings. And, of course, I saw a lot of drunkeness, some drug use, and a lot of racism and snobbery. There were, on the other hand, positive aspects of fraternity culture. I made some good friends. I had some good times. I went to a lot of boozy, riotous parties that I now recall with a sort of rueful fondness. I got a boost into journalism and writing because the members of my fraternity were entrenched, at the time, as leaders of the student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily. But by the time I graduated, I had come to hope that fraternities would, in the new era of coeducation, wither away.

They haven't. They've flourished. Fraternities at UVA today doubtless have some of those same positive features I found; plus, I understand, they now polish their images with community service projects that do some good for someone. But from all the comments that have been posted recently by women who have graduated from UVA over the four decades since I did, I have to believe that in some crucial aspects, fraternities have gotten worse, rather than better. Rapes and sexual assaults occur within their walls. They occur way too often. I suspect that they will always be a problem in all-male organizations ruled by adolescent testosterone and a sense of elitism and privilege. 

I say that I think the University should displace fraternities rather than ban them because I believe that displacement is the best we can hope for. Fraternities thrive because they fill a perpetual need among students. Eighteen-year-olds come to a big university and they're suddenly a little lost. The friends and family that knew and valued them for the first years of their life are gone. The eighteen-year-old is just an anonymous face in a big crowd. He is naturally going to want to belong to something, to a smaller group that can give him an identity. If that group has social prestige, all the better. If it throws raucous, boozy parties, better still.

No conceivable UVA administration is going to ban fraternities, if for no other reason than that their alumni are generous donors in positions of power. But it may just be that the scandal caused by the Rolling Stone article will provide the motivation to create something better--small residential and social units that take in students of both genders. These units would offer good living quarters, a good place to eat, and good parties. They'd be expensive to build and they'd probably need some sort of action by the legislature to be able to compete with one of the big attractions of fraternity life, the provision of alcohol to minors.  But maybe, if they were done well, these units would become more attractive than fraternities to the vast majority of students and would, over time, replace them. I know the University has tried fitting residential colleges into some existing dorms. I don't know how successful they have been. Maybe the University hasn't done the job the way it needs to be done.

This is the time to come up with a vision and start raising money to make it reality. Then, maybe, something good will ultimately come out of the Rolling Stone disaster.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Rolling Stone UVA University of Virginia fraternities. rape rape culture Sun, 07 Dec 2014 21:00:23 GMT
Eagles 252, Photographer 1 When I was a kid, the only place I ever saw a bald eagle was on the tail side of a quarter. The symbol of the United States was then a seriously endangered species, thanks to hunting and the widespread use of DDT, a pesticide which caused unsupportably thin eggshells. (The eagles would try to lay on their eggs to keep them warm and instead would crush them.) When I was in school, there were only a few hundred mating pairs of eagles left, and the chances that my kids would ever see an eagle seemed slim.

It's worth remembering, in these days when conservatives say there's nothing we can do about climate change, that the environmental movement saved the bald eagle. (If you want to read a good account of how, here's an article by my friend Larry Van Dyne that will tell you.) Environmentalists lobbied for laws designating the eagle an endangered species and making it illegal to hunt them. Environmentalists lobbied for and got a ban on DDT use. And those measures worked. Today there are more than 100,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in North America, and the birds range from Alaska to Florida. They're no longer considered endangered.

But in my mind, bald eagles remain rare, almost mythical creatures. So when I read a couple of years ago about the eagles at Conowingo Dam, where U.S. Route 1 crosses the Susquehanna River in northern Maryland, I was intrigued. It seems that every autumn at the dam, eagles hold what amounts to a party, climaxing in November. They feed on fish, like shad, that move downstream as winter approaches. The fish get trapped in large numbers by the dam. Then they're flushed through when water is released, and they float in a bit of a daze near the surface. For eagles, as well as many other predatory birds, it's like an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet.

The power company that operates Conowingo Dam sponsors an eagle photography contest each year, and I have seen some of the winners. They're impressive--close-up images of fierce eagles in soaring flight, backlit by the sun so their white tail feathers glow. I had no illusions about winning any contests, but I wanted to capture an eagle on the wing.

I tried a couple of years ago to do it. But I had only a light, 270 mm lens. On that day, the eagles in the Conowingo area were over on the far side of the river, maybe a quarter of a mile from the little park on the south bank that is the best vantage point for photography. At least, someone with high-powered binoculars told me there were eagles off the opposite bank. Through my lens, I could only see specks in the distance. But I learned one thing. The photographers who had gathered had serious equipment--big, high-powered lenses with several times the magnification of my lens, mounted on heavy-duty tripods The little riverside park where they gathered looked like a Civil War artillery battery, bristling with cannon.

So, this year, when I decided to try again to get an eagle photograph, I obtained some major gear. Ritz Camera in Bethesda, MD, has inherited the rental equipment stock that was once owned by the bankrupt Penn Camera-Calumet Photo stores. I rented a 400 mm lens that was about three feet long and weighed about ten pounds. I also got a gadget to screw on to the lens that multiplied its magnification by 1.7 times, so I'd have an effective 650 mm. I got a big tripod with the advanced swivel head. I got some instruction on how to put all this together, along with a sobering lien on my credit card--a deposit of $2,100. The gear I was renting retails for upwards of $8,000, and the deposit was what I'd be liable for if I broke or lost it.

I met up with my friend Mike Mitchell and we drove north for about 90 minutes. We got to the little park, and we saw the usual battery of long lenses. The photographers who chase eagles look like artillerists in another respect. They often wear camouflage and their lens are covered in camouflage fabric. I guess if they're shooting in the woods, it makes them less conspicuous. Lined up on a terrace overlooking the river, though, they couldn't be more conspicuous.

Not that the eagles, gulls, heron and other birds feeding below the dam that day cared at all. They were intent on their prey. Mike and I staked out a sliver of empty space, and I assembled my big lens and my tripod. "Here comes one on the right," someone called out, and a hundred lenses swung downstream. An eagle, its wings beating imperiously, flew toward the dam, soared upward to its left, flew over a stand of tall trees behind us, then came back down for another pass at the river. I could hear the sound of motorized shutters clicking furiously like angry bees. I aimed and shot.

And I got nothing. It turns out that a big, long lens like the one I has isn't easy to use.  I didn't know how to aim it. I'd point in what I thought was the direction of an eagle flying over the river. But in my viewfinder, I'd see only gray water or gray clouds or the brush on the opposite bank. On the rare occasions when I actually saw an eagle in the viewfinder, I'd try to focus. But by the time I got the little focal point on the bird, the bird would have flown on. I got a lot of nothing. I got smudgy bits of wing or beak on the edge of the frame.  Nothing was in focus, except, once in a while, the wires that carry the electricity generated at the dam. I shot more than two hundred frames and they were all more or less wasted.

After a while, I all but gave up trying to photograph the eagles and just watched them as they soared and swooped and went about their business. It was the smartest thing I did all morning.

Finally, an eagle caught a fish in front of me, then flew into the trees behind me to eat it. I turned my lens around and managed, after many mistakes, to find it in the tree, perched on a limb, digesting its food. The eagle stayed there for many minutes, moving only its head, which seems able to swivel 180 degrees. I got the shot below, the best of 253 frames I shot that morning. I like it, but it's not what I set out after. It felt almost like I'd shot it in a zoo. It felt like my effort wasn't worthy of the great bird I wanted to capture in flight.

The next time you see a brilliant photo of an eagle, or any wild bird, in a magazine or on a web site, don't take it for granted. The photographer who shot it doesn't simply have good equipment. The photographer has patience and skill.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Conowingo Dam Ritz Camera, Maryland bald eagle eagle photography" photography, wildlife Sat, 29 Nov 2014 12:39:44 GMT
Preserving Washington's Memories, On Its Walls For men of a certain age, few childhood memories are as vivid as the ones created on a trip to a big league baseball game. I can remember my first game better than I remember what I had for lunch last Tuesday, even though that game was many decades ago, in a ballpark long since demolished. So a couple of days ago when I saw Jarrett Ferrier's new mural on a building at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Livingston Street in Washington, I was immediately charmed. Ferrier's subject is the nostalgia of an aging man for a time and a team and a ballpark that, along with his youth, have vanished. 

The boy with the hotdog is based on an old photo of Richard Cohen, owner of the building where Jarrett Ferrier installed his mural on Washington's original team. In this case, the ballpark is Griffith Stadium, from 1911 to 1960 the home of the reliably mismanaged, perennially woebegone Senators. The Senators were bad enough to cause a wise guy in the press box to coin a saying, "Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." They also inspired a novel by a local boy named Douglas Wallop, "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," about a scenario in which the Senators beat out New York because a fan sells his soul to the devil. The book begat the Broadway musical and movie "Damn Yankees," which undoubtedly made more money than the ballclub did for its penurious owners before they moved it to Minnesota.

The aging fan is Richard Cohen, whose company owns the building. Fortunately, Cohen has memories happier than the won-lost record of D.C.'s original baseball franchise, and those are the ones he commissioned Ferrier to preserve. Cohen remembers riding the streetcar down Georgia Avenue to the stadium (which was located on the land now occupied by Howard University's hospital). He remembers buying bleacher tickets for fifty cents apiece and hot dogs for a quarter. He remembers the sight and smell of the freshly cut outfield grass and President Truman throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day.

So those, rather than the Senators' actual play on the field, are what Ferrier set out to depict in six panels that run for perhaps twenty-five feet along the southern wall of 5513 Connecticut, adjacent to signs hawking the wares of one of the building's principal tenants, Circle Liquors. (The building is also home to a Korean-owned laundry I patronize, which means that on a single visit I can now get a good bottle of wine, properly cleaned shirts, a chance to appreciate art and baseball nostalgia--a game-winning four-bagger if ever there was one.)

I'm not sure that kids today will ever remember baseball in the soft, bright colors that Ferrier used to render Richard Cohen's memories.  Back then, kids listened to baseball on the radio, or they watched fuzzy images on the tiny screen of a black-and-white television set. When a father or a grandfather or an older brother actually took them to a game, the sight of real, emerald-green grass on the field and the snowy uniforms of the home team took a kid's breath away. We were dazzled the way, I guess, that the masterworks painted in the cathedrals of Italy during the Renaissance were meant to dazzle the peasants. Kids today are introduced to baseball via big screen, hi-def television, and I assume they'll be harder to impress when they have the live experience.

Nor are the kids of today likely to recognize some of the faces and places Ferrier painted into the mural at the request of his patron. The kid with the hot dog on the left above is based on an old photo of Richard Cohen. Another panel shows, in the background, a Georgia Avenue store called Dox Liquors, which was owned by the parents of Cohen's wife, Judi. And Cohen was a big Elvis Presley fan. That accounts for the face of the guy selling tickets on the right.

This is what a muralist like Jarrett Ferrier does. He gives the customers what they want while he gives the city what it needs--art and a sense of its own past. It's in the nature of the job. A standard-issue artist can buy canvas and paint whatever he wants. A muralist like Ferrier has to wait until someone who owns a suitable wall approaches him. (This applied as well to fresco artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo, who gave the owners of the ceilings and walls they painted what the owners wanted.)

Sometimes, Ferrier says, the customer is a restaurant, or a hospital. They might want a scene to soothe patients or make customers feel like ordering another bottle of wine. Sometimes the patron is a parent with a desire to have a circus scene painted in a child's bedroom. Ferrier's done mural work on the side of a little barbecue joint on 37th Street, NW.

And he's got a new work decorating the side of a staircase in that connects the two segments of  W Place around Tunlaw Road, NW. It's a mural tribute to Charles C. Glover, a major figure in Washington in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but a man who is now, I suspect, largely forgotten. Glover, the president of what was then Washington's largest bank, was instrumental in the creation of the National Cathedral, Rock Creek Park, the Embassy Row area of Massachusetts Avenue and the National Zoo. Ferrier's home neighborhood in D.C., Glover Park, is named for him. The patron for the Glover mural was the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and Ferrier obligingly painted faux stonework into his work to mask the bare concrete walls of the new staircase.

Ferrier actually painted the Glover mural in situ, and it will be subject to the vicissitudes of light and weather. Happily, the Griffith Stadium work will be more durable, or at least easier to restore. Ferrier did the paintings for the work in his studio. They were then scanned and rendered digitally by his wife Jodi, a graphic artist. The digital versions were used to make enlarged versions that were then pasted to the panels on the side of Circle Liquors like wallpaper. (Ferrier's got a time-lapse video of the painting process on his web site, on the blog page.) So if the mural fades, a new version can be printed and installed.

Or, copies can be made and installed elsewhere. There are new buildings being constructed on Half Street SE between the Navy Yard Metro Station and Nats Park. They seem like a natural site for a mural that reminds the new generation of Washington baseball fans of the simple pleasures that an older generation once took from the game.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Charles C. Glover Circle Liquors Connecticut Avenue Glover Park Jarrett Ferrier Richard Cohen Schwa Design Group Washington Washington Senators Washington, D.C. art baseball murals Wed, 26 Nov 2014 12:37:51 GMT
Museums and Propaganda I made the picture above in the National Museum of the American Indian on a sunny Saturday morning recently, at an hour when many of the museums on the Mall in Washington were crowded. As it suggests, there were not many people in the Indian museum. It wasn't because the museum is striving to evoke the lonesome openness of the prairie. There haven't been  many visitors in the decade since the museum opened. As this recent article in the Washington Post reported, the NMAI gets about a fourth as many visitors as the Air and Space Museum a few blocks up the Mall. The figure might be lower were it not for the NMAI's excellent cafeteria. 

There may be a lot of reasons for this, but my own opinion is that the NMAI suffers from a modern misconception about what a museum is supposed to be. Washington of late has a plague of museums that were conceived as propaganda devices. The worst example is probably the Newseum, on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was established by the same genius who gave us the mediocrity that is USA Today. Its mission is to tell all who enter its portals that America is just so gosh darn lucky to have a free press, and don't the big media corporations do a great job?

But the Newseum is only the worst because it has the gall to charge the rubes who visit a $20 entry fee for the privilege of being propagandized. The NMAI is free, in a sense. We pay for it with tax dollars--$35 million in operating expenses in the most recent year reported on by the Post. But you can walk in without a fee.

In an older, unenlightened era, a National Museum of the American Indian would have been curated by white people, which I understand would have been scandalous. They would have displayed what they considered the best of their collection of Native American artifacts. They would, assuming they were your normal guilty liberal type of white folks, have included exhibits on the shameful history of genocide and broken treaties between the United States and the Indian nations. They might have included exhibits on the environmental disasters that wiped out the Anasazi in the Southwest, and what they might tell us about our own environmental issues. They might have included exhibits on the living conditions of Native Americans today, touching on everything from poverty and alcoholism to casinos.

But that wouldn't do in the 21st Century. Native Americans were given the major role in determining what would be in their presence on the National Mall. They decided that the various tribes would be given the opportunity to present their stories in displays. The displays had the predictably upbeat, sanitized tone that you might see in brochures handed out by the Detroit chamber of commerce: "We're still here! Respect us!" The Native Americans also really wanted to sell stuff, so the museum is full of places to buy Indian handicrafts, which is great if you happen to be in the market for a genuine, hand-carved Muscogee flute like the guy at left was selling. I don't blame the Native Americans for wanting to make a little money and amplify a positive message about themselves. I might want the same thing if I were an Indian.

But, as a result, a walk through the NMAI when it first opened felt a little bit like walking through one of those college fairs where institutions of higher learning set up booths to tell prospective students what idyllic places they are. It also felt a little bit like one of those itinerant art markets that feature painters and artisans who pitch a tent, peddle their wares for a weekend, and move on to the next festival. People stayed away. 

The NMAI reacted this year to the sparse crowds by installing a new exhibit on its fourth floor. It's about the history of treaties between the United States and the various tribes, and it's pretty good. But to get to it, a visitor must still pass through three floors of the old stuff. When I was there most recently, the Muscogee nation from Oklahoma was being featured in the museum's ground floor showcase space, the Potomac Atrium. The Muscogee chose to open their presentation by emphasizing their American patriotism and their service in the American military. The photo shows the Muscogee honor guard presenting the colors to an array of empty seats.

I know. The old-fashioned museum to which I am comparing the NMAI also has a political subtext. If you go to the National Gallery of Art, the curators there may purport to be presenting the best works they could collect. But they're also presenting the notion that certain countries, and artists of a certain sort, produce the greatest human cultural achievements. If you go to the Air and Space Museum and touch the rocks that American astronauts brought back from the moon, you're also touching a message of American technological supremacy and exceptionalism that may or may not have anything to do with the actual quality of American life.

But it seems to me there is a line, on one side of which are museums that try to be about science, or art, or history, in an unbiased way, however imperfectly. And on the other side are those that make no pretense of being unbiased. They exist to sell a message. I don't care for that concept, and judging by the wide open spaces at the NMAI, neither does the public.

Nevertheless, it appears to be the wave of the future. Construction is underway across the Mall from the NMAI on a museum for African-Americans. And the guy who owns the Hobby Lobby stores (yes, the same guy that attacked Obamacare for requiring companies to include contraception coverage in their employees' medical insurance) has bought an enormous building a couple of blocks from the Mall, in which he intends to build a museum of the Bible.

Just what we need. Can't wait to see the gift shop.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Mall National Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian Washington museums propaganda Sun, 16 Nov 2014 12:35:52 GMT
Saturday Morning at UVA I was in Charlottesville Saturday morning for an alumni meeting at the University of Virginia, a planning session for my class's reunion next year. It gave me a chance to stroll around Thomas Jefferson's Lawn late in the morning. The skies were blue and the air was warm with a last, sweet kiss of summer. Mr. Jefferson's columns gleamed pure white in the dazzling light, and the bricks looked warm and mellow.

Thomas Jefferson was a very prescient man, but I don't think he could have imagined the academical village he designed being re-purposed as a party venue on a football weekend. But there it was.  The students who are selected for rooms on the Lawn and the Ranges understand that they are, for one school year, tenants in a sublime space. They host parties to show it off on weekends like this one.

Under the colonnade  of the West Lawn, a sorority member was setting up a bake sale that would be an adjunct to a pre-football gathering. A couple was hanging an orange-and-blue banner on the weathered brick wall outside another room. It would be a party backdrop. I saw tables that would become bars and cases of drinks, staged and waiting for the afternoon, ready to displace the rocking chairs the students keep outside their rooms so they can sit and read outdoors on warm afternoons.

One thing has not changed on the Lawn since I was a student. The plumbing in Lawn rooms is not much advanced from when Jefferson designed the place. Students who live on the Lawn must shower in bathhouses tucked away behind the colonnades. They still, as they did when I lived there, don bathrobes that make a style statement as they trek to and from the shower. I noticed that the guy in the picture above was sporting an official-looking Lawn resident's robe, something that did not exist when I was a student. Nor did pink, polka-dotted robes, probably because women didn't live on the Lawn back then.

All the residents now seem to have an elegant, oval bronze door plaque with their names engraved on it. (Some of them, like the student presently living in my old room, have an abundance of names. Hey, Kurt Traeger Finck Lockhart, enjoy it. From the vantage point of many years, I can tell you that you may never again have a front yard quite so beautiful.)

When I was living on the Lawn, elegance was defined by an engraved calling card one could slide into a little frame on the door, under the bronze numbers. I, being an ardent proletarian at the time, didn't have an engraved calling card. I wrote my name on a piece of loose-leaf paper, cut it to size, and stuck the paper in the slot. Very non-elitist.

There's a line in the lyrics to the University's alma mater, the "Good Old Song." It says "We come, from old Vir-gin-i-a, where all is bright and gay." Strolling around the Lawn on a Saturday morning, the lyric seemed truthful.

It's not entirely true, of course.

In one of the gardens between the Lawn and West Range, I saw a couple seated on a white bench, looking far from gay. They didn't touch, or make eye contact. They sat and stared straight ahead, arms folded. Their body language spoke for them. Maybe their relationship had run aground at a party on Friday night, and here they were on Saturday morning, committed to a attending a football game and another round of parties and barely able to stand one another. It happens.

Not far from the Lawn on this particular Saturday, the Charlottesville police were still looking for a second-year student named Hannah Graham. She went out with friends a couple of weeks ago, got a little disoriented, texted someone that she was lost, and then disappeared. A Charlottesville man has been charged with abduction with intent to defile, but no one has been able to find Hannah, and the chances that anyone will seemed to be dwindling. Perhaps, at the parties that Saturday afternoon and evening, students would think of Hannah and restrain themselves around the bar. But perhaps not. I probably wouldn't have, when I was 21 and living on the Lawn.

It's not really that I thought I was invulnerable then, though I may have acted as if I did. It might have had to do with the atmosphere at a college, an atmosphere accentuated at UVA. The buildings age gracefully, and the students are forever young. There's a mix of youth, and privilege and in this case, Jeffersonian genius in the air that can't help but be intoxicating.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Jefferson Kurt Traeger Finke Lockhart The Lawn Thomas Jefferson, UVA University of Virginia Sat, 27 Sep 2014 21:55:09 GMT
An Elegy for Eastham's Exxon The dreary construction site pictured above once housed the best gas station I ever saw. It was a landmark on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda called Eastham's Exxon. (I guess it was originally called Eastham's Esso when it was established in 1929.) The owner I knew, Robert Eastham Jr., was a football star at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High. He went to the University of Virginia for a semester before he came home to work at his dad's filling station when his dad had a heart attack. He was there for 53 years until he died in 2010. Two years later, the station died. This year, it was obliterated.

I don't know if it was the father or the son who established the service standards at Eastham's. But if you pulled up to the pump, an attendant ran out of the station--he never walked--to fill the tank, clean the windshield and check the oil and water. Meanwhile, you could have had a picnic on the asphalt in the station; it was that clean. This cost some extra cents per gallon. If you brought your car in for service, it also wasn't cheap. But you knew that any problem would be fixed properly the first time, and you wouldn't be charged for any problem that didn't exist.

For a long time, Eastham's model of enhanced service worked well. The station pumped millions of gallons of gas a year and the wall of its little foyer was full of awards from Exxon.  But the station's lease on the land expired in 2012, and the developers who own the land want to put a 145-unit apartment building on it. Soon the site will look like the other mega-apartment projects already underway in Bethesda. There will be a couple of gas stations left, but they'll be the sort of place where you pull in, swipe your card and pump your own gas. The cashier won't check your oil or wash your windshield, but for a minimum wage, you really can't expect him to do more than sell you a pack of cigarettes or an overpriced Coke to go with your gas.

I have already decided I am generally in favor of growth through redevelopment of existing towns rather than growth through the destruction of open land for exurban subdivisions and shopping malls. So I can't complain about the land owners' decision to replace the gas station. But I do mourn the loss of service that Eastham's represents.

It's not just Eastham's. In Bethesda these days, the hot new eateries are basically cafeterias where you walk down a line, order what you want for your salad, and bus your own table. They're replacing restaurants with waiters who made a decent living on the tips they collected. My wife went into Saks the other day looking for something or other and left empty-handed. She couldn't get anyone to wait on her. The service standards at Saks evidently have descended to the standards of Filene's Basement.

We used to hear that service jobs would seamlessly replace manufacturing jobs as the American economy transitioned from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. But it turns out that the economy is just as ruthlessly efficient at erasing service jobs as it was at erasing manufacturing jobs. Whatever the business, owners feel compelled to reduce labor costs to the barest minimum. That means eliminating jobs where possible, and paying minimum wage where possible. It means reducing service.

I don't really blame the owners. We are all complicit. There was a story the other day that Marriott is going to place envelopes in its hotel rooms, prodding guests to tip the maids. One might think that if Marriott were truly concerned about the welfare of its maids, it would raise their wages. And one would be right.

But I suspect that Marriott is afraid that if it raised its maids' wages, it would have to raise room rates. Then travelers using Expedia or Travelocity would book at the Hilton because it was $5 cheaper. So we all get slightly cheaper rooms, and we all get worse service. Airlines show where this leads. And, of course, maids remain unable to support their families decently. People want good service, but they don't want to pay for it.  We all spiral downward.

I think this is why polls show that Americans are dissatisfied with the economic recovery even though indicators like the unemployment rate and the stock market are moving in the right direction. We sense that the jobs the economy is creating are worse than the jobs it is erasing. We sense that even if we have money in our pockets, unless it's private-jet-type-money, the economy is offering us a less pleasant and  often downright degrading experience in return for that money.

I don't know what to do about this. I wish I did.

I do know that before he died, Bob Eastham created a little park on a tiny triangle of land, maybe a tenth of an acre, half a block from the station. He named it in honor of his father. When he was alive, the little park was as immaculately kept as the station. Now it's getting a little weedy. I suspect that in a few years, residents will be walking their dogs past the little park and seeing the name and the plaque. I'm afraid they won't have a clue about what Robert L. Eastham did to deserve a monument.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) American economy Bethesda Eastham Eastham's Exxon service service jobs, Thu, 18 Sep 2014 15:15:53 GMT
Street Fair in Adams Morgan When I moved to Washington, lo these many years ago, and needed a place to live, there weren't many options. I couldn't afford Georgetown, or even Capitol Hill. So Ann and I rented a place on Kalorama Road, NW (a two-bedroom apartment for $300 a month!) in a neighborhood called Adams Morgan. I could walk to my overnight shift with the Associated Press downtown. As I left the apartment, I often found myself humming Paul Simon's "The Boxer," the song about "seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go."

Adams Morgan (named for two old elementary schools, one for whites and one for blacks) was then one of the poorer quarters in a city full of poor quarters. The scars of the 1968 riots were still visible. On 18th Street, NW, then as now, there were a lot of bars. But in 1977, they tended to be the kind that store owners installed to protect themselves against looters. The neighborhood, I knew, was on the cusp of change. Its housing stock was solid and it was very close to prosperous DuPont Circle and downtown. The ragged people were not going to have it forever. But even though I knew change was coming, when a cafe called La Fourchette opened that year, it seemed as alien as a flying saucer.

La Fourchette was in fact a harbinger in Adams Morgan. Ann and I were not there for the transformation. We moved as soon as we could find a house we could afford, which even then wasn't in Adams Morgan, but further north in a neighborhood that is now called by real estate agents 16th Street Heights, but which was then just another Washington place for ragged people. Every time we drove down Columbia Road or 18th Street, though, it seemed as if Adams Morgan was changing, with La Fourchette getting a lot of company.

Now, after decades of change, Adams Morgan is no longer a poorer quarter. It's one of the most intriguing urban environments I know.  I'm not saying it's a place I'd like to move back to. The 18th Street strip where La Fourchette homesteaded has become the go-to spot for binge drinking in the area. Every now and then you hear about some poor kid who wandered up onto a roof and fell down an airshaft. Or another poor kid who got stabbed by some thugs who wanted his Helly Hansen jacket. Those aren't, of course, everyday occurrences. But, alas, I'm a little too old to enjoy live music at 2 a.m. 

In the sunlight, though, I can appreciate the abundant charms of today's Adams Morgan. They were on display Sunday afternoon at the annual Adams Morgan Day festival. 18th Street was closed to traffic and thronged with people. Adams Morgan today is known for its diversity--a mix of Latino immigrants, white gentrifiers and black people who have been living in Washington's inner city neighborhoods for generations. They were all well represented on 18th Street. 

Sunday was a crisp, sunny, autumny afternoon, and that may have helped make everyone's mood buoyant. Folks sat on the curb to eat food dished up by the neighborhood eateries. Vendors set up tents and tables. One guy was selling porkpie hats that he guaranteed would spare you from the curse of being taken as a Bama. (A Bama, for those who don't know, is what you would call a hayseed if the hayseed were African-American.) D.C. politicians had tents and people handing out buttons and flyers. Music blared from an official bandstand at the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Roads and from unofficial "indie" bandstands set up on stoops down the street. I met a couple of Austrian tourists (left), taking in the scene with a girl from Florida. There weren't many Austrian tourists around when I lived on Kalorama Road.

D.C. may yet make this diversity thing work.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Adams Morgan Adams Morgan Day D.C. Washington diversity gentrification people urban issues Mon, 15 Sep 2014 14:51:06 GMT
The American Newburb I live these days in a newburb. (Yeah, I made that word up.)

My neighborhood, the center of Bethesda, Maryland, is technically a suburb, since it's seven or eight miles from the center of Washington and lots of the residents commute to work in D.C. But it's so different from the suburbs of my youth that it is a new form of habitat, and it needs new nomenclature.

In my newburban neighborhood, you can get Portuguese or Peruvian chicken, but you can't get the old suburban staple, Kentucky Fried. You can buy a new Mac at the Apple store, which is at the end of a faux mews called Bethesda Lane (above), but you can't buy a Big Mac--there are no golden arches in the newburb. You can buy yoga pants from Lululemon, but you can't find Levi's. You can buy a million dollar condo in a mixed-use building, but you can't buy a split-level with a lawn. My own mixed-use building doesn't have a barber shop, but it has a men's grooming center called Roosters, which features a $76 deluxe treatment. I assume this involves a haircut in some way, but I'm not sure. 

Apart from its expensive shopping and barbering, I think that a newburb can be distinguished from the common American suburb by two things. One is its transportation infrastructure. Bethesda has a stop on the Washington region's late 20th-century Metro system; soon it will also be an end point for a light-rail line that will link it to close-in Maryland suburbs in Montgomery and Prince Georges counties. If you live within walking distance of the Metro station, you could, at least in theory, get along without a car. Not many Bethesdans give up cars entirely, but the car is not nearly as dominant in the newburb as it was in the New Jersey suburbs of my boyhood. Cars are tucked away in multi-story garages that occupy the interiors of the newburb's blocks, with shops and restaurants along the perimeters. There's also a leafy little hiker-biker path called the Capital Crescent Trail (left), built long the trackbed of the defunct Georgetown Branch railroad. You can commute from downtown Bethesda to D.C. on two wheels, wearing spandex, feeling fit, green and superior to the suburban slugs sitting in their cars out on the Beltway.

The second distinguishing newburb attribute is the fact that no farms are injured in the making of a newburb. It doesn't contribute to sprawl and the destruction of the countryside. New structures in the newburb are built on the site of old structures. A newburb is the opposite of an exurb.

I suppose that if you delve further, feeding habits help distinguish the newburb from the old-style suburb. My mother, in the '50s Jersey suburbs, drove to the supermarket once a week, brought the groceries home and stuck a lot of them in the freezer. She cooked supper nearly every night. That's not done so much in Bethesda. There are still a couple of chain supermarkets limping along, but newburban hearts belong to the farmers' markets that come to town a few days a week. They offer fresh produce from stands with cute names like Moody's Blues, (blueberries) sold by apparently genuine farmers, with none of the taint of the industrialized, packaged food in the Safeway or Giant. Every Sunday morning at around 9 a.m., you can see newburbanites walking along Arlington Road, clutching their recyclable bags as Bethesdans of old might once have clutched hymnals, heading to join the congregation at the Church of Organic, Locally Grown Produce.

When they're not cooking the stuff they buy in the farmers' markets, newburbans eat out a lot. But they don't eat in good old American burger places like the one where I bussed tables in the 1960s. I live over a restaurant called Lebanese Taverna, and within a couple of blocks of my building, you can get tapas and Thai, moules mariniere and montaditos, which is a Spanish style sandwich. There's a restaurant specializing in chocolate and another in wine. In the summer, these establishments crowd the sidewalks with their tables, and Bethesdans get to pretend that they're in Europe.

The novelty of the Bethesda newburb is accentuated by its proximity to a well-preserved prototype of the old-fashioned American suburb, the Village of Chevy Chase. Chevy Chase is a mile or so away geographically, but in another century conceptually. It was perhaps the first American suburb, and in many ways it was the archetype for what was to follow across the country. A senator from Nevada, named, appropriately, Francis G. Newlands, his pockets stuffed with money from the Comstock Lode, bought up a wide swath of land stretching from what was then the developed part of the District of Columbia (around what's now Florida Avenue) up eight miles or so into the farms and woodlands of Maryland. In the 1890s, Newlands and his partners paved a road (Connecticut Avenue) built bridges over Rock Creek, built a street car line and started selling lots. It became possible to commute from the government center of Washington to the countryside of Maryland.

Newlands dictated the terms of what the American suburb would become. Homes had to be spacious, with lawns. There would be a country club. And black people, had there been any who could afford to live there, were not allowed. Today, he'd recognize his suburb. The street car did not survive the advent of the automobile; residents now commute by car down Connecticut Avenue. But the homes are still spacious, the lawns broad and green, the country club is going strong, and while the restrictive covenants are gone, the population is still predominantly white. 

There is one common thread between the Village of Chevy Chase and the newburb of Bethesda. They both have cold, corporate genes. Bethesda's character is best seen through its carefully curated restaurant mix. The exteriors are thoughtfully designed to suggest that they are all artisanal eateries, owned by the creative people who cook in them. And there was a time, 10 or 15 years ago, when Bethesda had a lot of such places. But rising rents, I assume, have driven the artisan chefs out, back largely into gentrifying D.C., where the hot spots of the metro food scene can now be found along one-time slum arteries like 14th Street, NW and H Street, NE. The truth is that Bethesda places like Nando's Peri-Peri and Mon Ami Gabi are chain eateries just as much as the Outbacks and Olive Gardens you'd find in Kansas. You might not recognize the newburb restaurants as chain outposts because they're too small to have national advertising. They depend on their location to market themselves, and judging by the numbers of SUVs and minivans that descend on Bethesda each evening to be tucked into the parking garages during dinner, that strategy is working. For folks in the outer 'burbs like Gaitherburg and Germantown, going into Bethesda is like going into the big city, only it's not quite so edgy. That, it seems, is the overall strategy of the corporations that own and develop land in the newburb, the biggest of which is called Federal Realty Investment Trust. It's sort of like a city, but it's not.

All of this newburb development is predicated on a population with a lot of money. You will always find Bethesda in articles and web pages that rank American towns by metrics like household income and average education. You don't see newburb development in the poorer quarters of D.C.'s close-in suburban areas. I'm not sure you ever will. In that sense, the newburb is just another iteration of the suburb of the 1890s that separated the haves from the have-nots.

There's a certain irony in this. Though it's a cash machine of the sort that would warm the cockles of any free enterprise Chamber of Commerce type, the Bethesda newburb would never have happened without big government. Montgomery County built the parking garages and zoned the land within walking distance of the Metro station for offices and multi-story, mixed-use buildings. The federal and state governments built the Metro and the Capital Crescent Trail. Government will play still a bigger role in coming years as the new streetcar transit link, the Purple Line, is built. Conservatives like to complain that “The People's Republic of Montgomery County” is too intrusive and puts too many restrictions on property use. But in Bethesda, the county's efforts seem to be paying off in a big way for the propertied class. The skyline is full of cranes building condos. Outside Bethesda, developers are striving to replicate its newburb archetype by redeveloping traditional, 1970s malls like White Flint (in Rockville, MD) and Tysons Corner (in suburban Virginia).

But it would be a mistake to let my cynicism about the newburb's corporate essence carry undue influence in my assessment of it. In the most critical respects, the newburb is a big improvement over the trend that went before it. That would be the exurb, one of the major American lunacies of the late 20th Century. If you had told me forty years ago that the American response to the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the ensuing sharp rise in fuel prices would be the creation of huge new suburbs ever further from the center of our cities, I would have said no country could be that stupid. Yet now I look around the Washington area and I see interstate highways clogged with traffic as commuters struggle to get to work from suburbs that were farmland when the embargo hit, places 40 or 50 miles from D.C. that are now home to tens of thousands of people.

The newburb, whatever else might be said about it, is not an exurb. The new, multi-story, mixed use buildings of downtown Bethesda have taken space once filled by gas stations and strip shopping centers. (In Bethesda neighborhoods that are still zoned for single-family houses, in-fill development takes the form of small houses on big lots being torn down to make room for more and bigger houses squeezed onto those lots.) I live in a five-story apartment building with shops and restaurants on the first floor and two levels of parking underground. It replaced a one-story supermarket with a big, open parking lot.

And that makes a lot more sense to me than a pod of tract houses-with-shopping mall in the middle of nowhere.









]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Apple Bethesda Federal Realty Investment Trust Maryland Mon Ami Gabi newburb suburb Sun, 27 Jul 2014 13:46:20 GMT
What Doesn't Work in Our Schools--And What Might The New Yorker has just published a riveting and important piece on the lavishly funded school reform effort in Newark, N.J. The gist: Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg famously pledged $100 million for a crash effort to remake the city's woeful public schools. Now Zuckerberg's millions and a lot of public funds are gone. Many consultants have grown fatter as a result, but very little has changed for Newark's public school students, at least judging by their academic achievement.

Conclusions will be drawn from this, and they will probably be the wrong ones. On the right, certainly, it will reinforce the belief that the problems of urban public schools are the fault of the students who attend them and their parents, and no conceivable amount of money will solve them. On the left, the article seems likely to exacerbate the growing enmity between teachers' unions and advocates of charter schools and other devices to take away teachers' tenure and seniority rights.

The real lesson, in my view, is that any effort to reform schools by changing the way they're administered, or simply by making it easier to fire teachers, is doomed. It will be either a failure or a very expensive failure, depending on how it's funded. Here's why:

Changing the outcome in urban public schools depends on changing one or both of the only two factors that really matter--the fannies in the seats or the fanny standing in front of the classroom. 

I say this as someone who spent five years as one of the fannies standing in the front of an urban classroom. Mine was an English classroom at Central High School, just past the border with Washington, D.C. in Prince George's County, Md. (The photos in this post were made when I was teaching. Hi, kids!)

Private schools, charter schools, and public schools in wealthy suburbs tend to be successful because they influence the characteristics of the fannies in the seats. Private schools screen applicants and their tuition rates tend to assure that with a few exceptions, their students come from homes with wealth and education.  Wealthy suburban public schools are selective in that only kids whose parents can afford the homes in those suburbs are permitted to attend. Charter schools, even in urban neighborhoods, practice a subtle form of selectivity because their kids by definition come from the sub-group of urban parents who are intensely involved in their children's education; otherwise, they wouldn't go through the process of identifying and applying to a charter school. The charter schools then can further cull this pool by slowly eliminating kids who misbehave or don't want to do extra work to improve deficiencies.

Public schools are left with the rest. And that's not going to change. 

Those kids will bring a heavy burden of environmental problems to school with them, unless, somehow, America discovers a way to give well-paid jobs to every adult in poor neighborhoods, to influence those adults' reproductive choices, and to enrich the early lives of their children. I don't believe this is a job government can do.

Which brings us to the characteristics of the people standing in the front of the classroom, the teachers. Our national policy, codified in the No Child Left Behind Act, is predicated on several fallacies about teachers. One is that the credentials some of them acquire in schools of education have any bearing on their ability in the classroom. They don't. Some good teachers have degrees from schools of education. A lot of ineffective teachers have the same credentials.

A second fallacy is that there's a pool of great teachers on the streets of America who could succeed in urban public schools if the public schools could only fire the deadwood and hire them. The truth is, no such pool exists. The No Child Left Behind Act can be compared to a novice baseball team owner who goes to his general manager and says, "I have a plan. We'll fire all the guys hitting under .300 and bring in only .300 hitters!"

Any baseball fan could tell that owner that .300 hitters don't grow on trees. People who can effectively teach in urban public schools are equally scarce. What we need to do is what that putative baseball team would need to do--design and implement a plan to identify talent, acquire it, develop it, and ultimately, give the team a pipeline full of good hitters.

At present, the American teacher pipeline does pretty much the opposite. Schools of education tend to have the lowest admission requirements on their campuses. Bright kids aren't often attracted by the wages and working conditions of public school teachers anyway, so the education schools don't get enough talent to start with. Their courses don't do enough to impart teaching skills. The graduates who are skilled gravitate toward schools that are less stressful than urban public schools. Urban public schools get the rest.

If you want to envision a successful teacher development program for America, go back to the baseball analogy. Baseball devotes a lot of money to scouting and identifying talent. It invests in acquiring that talent. Then it invests more in coaching and developing it. Stars are brought to the big leagues, where they make big money. Duds are let go.

We could, in this country, try to use those concepts. Suppose the government offered to pay for the educations or pay the student loans of very bright and talented kids in return for their pledge to teach for, say, ten years in an urban public school. (Teach for America does something somewhat similar in that it identifies and accepts only very bright kids. Teach for America requires only two years of service, though, and at Central High, this meant that teaching was basically a way station on the road to law school.) You'd have to train these recruits much more effectively than the average school of education currently does. Our present education schools stress theory way too much. You can make As in education courses without having anything like the personality, temperament and passion required to actually teach in an urban public school. We have to change that.

Finally, once good teachers emerged from this pipeline and proved themselves in urban public schools for a couple of years, we'd have to pay them like the scarce commodities they are, regardless of their seniority or paper credentials. (Identifying effective teachers is a big problem in itself; suffice it say that both the old system of principal evaluations and the newer system of using student test scores are seriously flawed and would have to change.) You wouldn't even have to fire teachers to make room. The staff turnover in troubled schools is sufficiently high that there would be more than enough open classrooms for our new .300 hitters.

This wouldn't solve all, or even most, of the problems of urban public education. Too many of those problems are outside the schools' control. But it would make a difference, and that difference is probably the only one  public policy can hope to make. It would be expensive, but it would be better than pouring money down a rat hole the way Mark Zuckerberg just did.






]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Mark Zuckerberg N.J. Newark No Child Left Behind Act education education reform public education teacher development teaching urban public schools Thu, 15 May 2014 13:27:38 GMT
Gun Violence and T-Shirts On Old Georgetown Road I took the photos here this morning on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, Md. at St. Mark Presbyterian Church. The congregation at St. Mark has decided to bear witness to the local impact of gun violence. Each of the 176 shirts on the church's lawn represents one of the people killed by firearms in the Washington area in 2013. I guess it's a testament to the times we live in that the church's gesture seems admirable but quixotic.

When I got home from making the picture and turned on my computer, there was yet another story about a mass shooting in America, this one at a Fed Ex facility in Georgia. You can read about it here. Six people wounded, three critically; the gunman then shot himself. One might  think, if one had just returned from an extended vacation on another planet, that this sort of event would prompt Americans to consider whether guns are too easy to obtain. But as experience repeatedly has told us, one would be wrong.

Indeed, the opposite seems to be the case. The more people die from gun violence, the more the NRA and its legislative allies make it easier to get guns and use them. Ten of the t-shirts in the church yard on Old Georgetown Road represent people killed by a shooter at the Washington Navy Yard last summer. He bought his gun at a Virginia gun store a few days before the shooting, despite a history of mental illness and run-ins with the law. The Virginia legislature's response this year was not to tighten up gun sale rules, but to pass legislation backed by the NRA making it easier to carry a gun in your car legally.  Georgia's legislature last week passed a law extending the right of gun owners to carry concealed weapons into bars, city halls, even churches. I am sure that the legislators who voted for that law will insist that if only more people had been packing at Fed Ex today, the carnage would have been lower. That's what they said after Sandy Hook. Let's arm the teachers!

One reason the NRA types have their way, I suspect, is that they care viscerally about guns, while most people don't care that much about the deaths inflicted by guns. The t-shirts on the lawn at St. Mark's mostly have a name, an age, and a date of death. But some are marked simply "Unidentified Male," presumably because no one has yet cared enough to identify a body. Unless people know a victim personally, it's easy to shrug and dismiss these deaths. Just a few ghetto gangbangers blowing each other's heads off before the cops have to do it, we think. Or just another loser who shot herself and relieved society of a burden. We've become numb to the spectacle of mass carnage. The people at St. Mark would like to think we have a better nature, and we really do believe in human brotherhood. I wish I could think they're right.

But it seems to me that Americans instead are governed more than ever by atavistic emotion. The New York Times yesterday had a piece about Dan Kane, an investigative reporter at the News & Observer in Raleigh who has been uncovering scandalous activity in the athletics program at the University of North Carolina. That same hypothetical visitor recently returned from another planet who thought mass shootings might lead to gun control might think Kane would receive some public approbation for his work.

Wrong again. Kane is being pilloried. One kind soul wished him a lingering death from bone cancer. What kind of person would say that? A person who has become completely unmoored from rational thought. A person whose life is hollow enough that he cares passionately and perhaps exclusively about whether a squad of jocks wearing light blue shirts beats a squad wearing different colored shirts. A person whose response to anything he perceives as negative about those light blue shirts is snarling and hateful. A person who lives in a world of us versus them, unchanged from the times when human beings displaced Neanderthals.

Consider, for a moment, the fact that each year, about 30,000 Americans die from gunshot wounds. That's more than ten times the number of people who died on September 11, 2001. Americans after 9/11 willingly gave up a lot of personal freedom to laws that will, supposedly, prevent terrorists from attacking again. Those laws were easy to pass, because on the visceral level, they seemed to be directed at a target the atavistic among us could readily despise--those Muslim foreigners. Us versus them. But when it comes to gun violence, the atavistic response is to resist any measure to control guns. We get Charlton Heston vowing that the government will have to take his guns "from my cold, dead hands."

The folks at St. Mark are not, by the way, asking to take away anyone's gun. The flyer they're distributing on the church grounds says they're pushing for action to end straw purchasing, which they define as someone buying a gun for the purpose of re-selling it to someone who's barred from buying a gun because of age or criminal history. Making it more difficult to put guns in the hands of criminals and children might seem like a no-brainer. But the cold-dead-hands folk tend to see any restriction on gun sales as an apocalyptic threat to their sacred right to bear arms.

So while I am rooting for the people at St. Mark to succeed, I am not betting on them.






]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Bethesda St. Mark Presbyterian Washington firearms deaths gun control t-shirts Tue, 29 Apr 2014 21:06:28 GMT
The Island Fish Fry in Turks and Caicos A year ago, the people who run the Tourism Board in Turks and Caicos had a good idea. On a Thursday evening, they invited local restaurants to set up booths in the parking area of an oceanside park on Providenciales, the most populous of the country's 40 or so islands. (The park has a sign at the entrance that says its name is Bight Park, but seems to be known locally only as Kids' Park.) They invited a local band to play.  They invited tourists and locals to come. The event was called the Island Fish Fry, and it was such a success that it immediately became a weekly fixture.

Last night's fish fry marked the first anniversary, and, as such, featured a few too many speeches given when people could have been dancing. But you'd have to be churlish to complain about the Island Fish Fry. It's a sweet, mellow event.

I like to get there early, before the sun sets. Not only is there beautiful, golden light to use for photography. It's imperative to get there early if you want a spot at one of the picnic tables. Later arrivals have to eat on their feet. It's nice to grab a couple of Presidentes from one of the smiling Dominican ladies at the first booth on the right, make a few pictures, and watch the crowds file in. You smell the aroma of fish being grilled and fried as it wafts over the park, carried by the gentle westerly breeze. Or, maybe there's someone circulating with a tray full of little rum punch samples, and you try one of those. 

When it's time to eat, you could go to one of the booths offering jerk chicken or pork, but there's a reason they call it a fish fry. The three seafood staples on Turks and Caicos are grouper, lobster and conch. The lobster and the conch are creatures of the many reefs around the islands. When you go snorkeling, you can see them.  (Conch, for those who are uninitiated, is a big sea snail. It builds itself a beautiful spired shell, which the locals break open with a little hammer. Then they use a knife to slice the snail out of its home. Brutal, yes. But then they make conch fritters, or conch ceviche, either of which will justify the process for any but the staunchest vegans.) So you get your fish of choice, maybe garnishing it with a little rice and peas, another local staple.

All this time, the band is warming up. It's a local band, of course, which means that it features a guy playing the rip saw. By the time the amplified sounds of the guitars and the drums are accounted for, I really couldn't say what the rip saw adds to the band's sound. But it looks cool. And as it gets dark, the band starts to play in earnest.

The first dancers are generally little kids. Turks and Caicos is a very kid-friendly place, particularly in January. This is partly because most of the island's accommodations are condo units; they have kitchens and extra bedrooms, so they're good for families. At this time of the year, a major sub-set of the island's visitors are couples with kids who are young enough that they don't need to be in school. And then there are the local kids. Sometimes the children hold hands and dance in circles that form and unform. A lot of times, the kids just respond to the music by themselves, twirling and swaying. Then, perhaps as the rum punch kicks in, the adults start to dance, too.

I have heard that there's an island dance style that involves simulated marching, accented by a loose twitching of the tucchus. But if that's the case, I can't say I have seen it. Most of the adult dancers at the Island Fish Fry just let the sounds and the smells and the breeze flow over them, swaying, their flip-flops making little circles in the sand.

I have the feeling that the Island Fish Fry is a little fragile, just like the reefs that support the conch and the lobster. At this moment, it seems like just the right sort of event for an island that still has a lot of empty land and unpaved roads. But how long that will last is hard to say.

Providenciales was only sparsely inhabited until 1985, when someone built a water desalinization plant and Club Med opened a hotel on the broad beach of Grace Bay. It's a lot bigger now. There's an international airport and several dozen hotel and condo developments line Grace Bay. But either economic forces or the powers that be on the island have not let development run amok. There are no chain hotels and no chain restaurants on Providenciales--no Hilton, no McDonald's, no Walgreen's. There isn't a cruise ship dock, and there are no buses. The tallest buildings on the island may be eight stories. So it's not Cancun. But I think it would be foolish to think it can resist Cancunization forever. 

And if Cancunization comes, that will probably be the end of the conch and the lobster, if not the grouper. It will probably be the end of the Island Fish Fry. The event seems a perfect match with the island at this stage of its development. You have to have a certain number of tourists to make it work. But I don't think tourists in buses and free rum punch samples could long coexist. So I'm glad I was there to see the first anniversary last night.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Island Fish Fry Providenciales Tourism Board Turksd and Caicos Turks and Caicos Turks and Caicos Island Fish Fry Fri, 31 Jan 2014 14:50:18 GMT
A Saturday Evening Manifestazione in Rome It was a particularly mild and pleasant autumn Saturday afternoon in Rome, so I took my camera and set out to photograph Romans taking their pleasures. I expected to see people dining al fresco, couples in parks, people strolling with their dogs. I was mistaken.

Somewhere in the neighborhood just north of the Termini train station, I saw police cordoning off streets.  In my pitiful Italian, I asked a man who was leaning against a barricade, smoking, what was going on. "Manifestazione," he shrugged. "Per che?" I asked. He shrugged again. I don't think he really cared.

I followed the sound of a beating drum toward the ruins of the baths of Diocletian. Walking up the Via Luigi Einaudi were thousands of demonstrators, waving flags of red and black. It was not the slice of La Dolce Vita I had set out expecting, much less Anita Ekberg bathing in a fountain, but I suspect that Fellini, were he still with us, might have been there, recording the scene for background material in a movie about Rome circa 2013.

The demonstrators appeared to be the Italian cousins of the Occupy Wall Street protestors  from 2011. My command of the language was not sufficient to  decipher all the banners I saw. But I think it is clear that if the protestors had their way it would be basta to capitalism, basta to the European Union, and basta to austerity. Basta as well to high-speed trains, for reasons I cannot begin to understand. But there was a significant faction waving banners against them. And judging by the number of people wearing Yasser Arafat signature model kaffiehs as scarves, I don't think the protestors included many Likudniks.

That is not to say that the protestors felt like basta to everything. Beer, it seems, will still be okay after the revolution; there were a few vendors pushing carts full of cold Peronis alongside the demonstrators, and they appeared to be doing a brisk business. Tobacco is also likely to make the cut in the new order of things. And whistles. The crowd was full of people with whistles. They seemed to take particular pleasure in blowing them as they marched through residential areas. Perhaps the idea was to notify the bourgeoisie that it was time to wake up. The bourgeoisie representatives whom I saw standing, silently watching demonstrators go by, did not seem particularly grateful for the disturbance of their weekend. (See them at left, bottom.)

I noticed a distinct gender difference among the demonstrators. Women seemed almost casual about the whole thing. Some of them wore grim faces and a few even had bullhorns, which they used to lead chants and songs. But there were many others who could have been attending a block party. 

Young men, on the other hand, were grim, as if they were soldiers marching into combat. Some wore kerchiefs pulled up over their noses, like stagecoach robbers in an old Western. Some of them carried their motorcycle helmets, as if they expected the carabinieri to pounce at any moment, swinging guillermo clubs. When they saw me raising my camera, they would shout, "No photo!" as if they really believed that the police had cleverly disguised one of their number as an aging American tourist, whose photos would be used to identify the protestors and send them to jail.

Could it be that they thought the women in the crowd might be impressed by a little macho display? ("Look at me, ragazza. I sneer at danger in my quest to build a more just world for your bambini, a world without the curse of high-speed trains.") Or am I just being cynical?

Certainly it did not look to me as if the police were itching to bust a few heads. They were out in force--not just the carabinieri, but the Guardia di Finanza, or tax police. Italy is the only country I am aware of that has a tax police force equipped with helmets and clear plastic riot shields. (That's them, on the right, standing in a side street near the marchers' route.) I believe this is because Italians like paying taxes as much as your average Tea Party Texan.

The difference between Italy and Texas, evidently, is that Texans express their disdain for taxation by shutting the United States government down, bringing the world to the brink of financial catastrophe, and holding their breath till their faces turn blue on the floor of the House of Representatives. Italians, on the other hand, express their disdain for taxes by evading them and, where necessary, beating up the Guardia di Finanza. Thus, perhaps, the helmets and shields issued to the Guardia police. And thus, perhaps, the austerity measures the European Union has imposed on Italy.  But I did not see any banners calling on Italy to let the tax collectors do their jobs. In Italy, tax evasion seems to be an idea that builds bridges across the political spectrum.

In any case, I did not think the crack force of the Guardia di Finanza looked particularly eager to wade into the fray against the anarchists. Look at their faces. If these are not men thinking wistfully of the pasta and pinot grigio they thought they would be enjoying with friends and family on a Roman Saturday night, I am badly mistaken.

I heard some booms and saw some smoke and for a moment I thought that police more steeled than those of the Guardia di Finanza had opened fire with tear gas cannisters. But on closer examination, it appeared that the smoke was coming from the kind of flare you would carry in your car in case it broke down, so you could alert oncoming traffic. The flares burned a bright red for a few moments in the encroaching darkness, then guttered out.

The demonstration was still going on, but I didn't have any equipment to enable me to make good pictures in the dark. So I headed back to my hotel, stopping for pizza and beer in a cafe. As I ate, a couple of demonstrators, their banners neatly furled, took the table next to mine and ordered a bottle of wine. The German tourists sitting at the next table showed no indication they had any idea what sort of company they were in. Somewhere a church bell pealed. Rome, it seemed, had returned to its normal Saturday night pursuits.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Guardia di Finanza Italy Rome demonstrations photography protests Sat, 19 Oct 2013 20:25:40 GMT
Taking License, and Light, in Umbria The Italian province of Umbria offers a smorgasbord (or whatever the Italian name for smorgasbord would be) for photographers. There is an endless array of attractive subjects--cathedrals and campaniles, ancient hillside towns, vineyards and fecund valleys. But I like to photograph people, and what Italy offers me is a sort of license.

I don't normally approach strangers in the United States and ask to photograph them. Perhaps I should, but there are inhibitions. Lots of Americans think that a guy with a camera is intruding on their privacy, or fixing to scam them, or worse. In Italy, I don't feel these inhibitions. Perhaps I am imposing on the innate hospitality of the Italians, but I am fairly confident that when I approach someone and ask "Per favore, posso fare le una photo?" they know I'm just a dumb tourist who mangles their language but probably won't commit any additional crimes. So they genially cooperate. They'll even sit still while I fiddle for the correct exposure and mangle the language further: "Uno in piu, per favore."

So it was today when I visited Bevagna during Frank Van Riper and Judith Goodman's Italian photo workshop. Bevagna is an ancient town, founded when Etruscans held sway on the Italian peninsula. It sits astride the river Topino, which eventually becomes a tributary of the Tiber, flowing through Rome a hundred miles to the southwest. I have been in other Italian towns like Bevagna, with old stone walls and fortifications along a river. Sometimes, it turns out, those walls and fortifications defended points where the water's flow could be dammed, conquering downstream towns by cutting off their water supply. But if there is any such cruelty in Bevagna's past, it seems certain that the statute of limitations has expired.

It is today a peaceful place. On a Sunday afternoon, older men sit on stools in patches of sunlight, watching more nimble folks amble by on the narrow stone streets. In church doors, men wearing purple shawls, emblematic of membership in a Catholic confraternity, gather for a procession through the town. Children in scout uniforms march past the fountain in the central square. A woman buys two gelato cones and feeds one to her dog. In a side street, a young man welds something for an improvement project in a home that looks many centuries older than he is.

Because the people are so peaceable, and kind to strangers, I am free to look for light. I am not sure that there's any truth in the notion that certain places have light with unique qualities. It's all coming from the same sun, after all, and passing through the same atmosphere, more or less. But it may be that there are places that encourage one to appreciate their light, and if that is true, then Bevagna is one of them.

It's a different orientation. Instead of looking for a subject, and then trying to make the light work, I look for the light, confident the subject will both appear and be cooperative. It can be direct sunlight, glowing through a mane of white hair. It can be reflected light, bouncing off an old stone facade into the open doorway of a dark church. It doesn;t even have to be sunlight; it can be the light from a welding torch.

Italy is an enlightening place. I wish I could work this way more often.





]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Bevagna Frank Van Riper Italy Judith Goodman Unbria photography portraits Mon, 14 Oct 2013 05:27:45 GMT
Caravaggio, Chiaroscuro, and Me I write from Rome, which is, by the way, a very pleasant way to begin a blog post.

There are lots of good reasons to come to Rome, and to Italy, but I am here to take a photography class from two of my photography gurus, Judith Goodman and Frank Van Riper, who happen to be a world class Italo-philes as well as world class photographers. For the next week or so, I'll be with half a dozen fellow photographers at a villa in Umbria, learning how Frank and Judith do things. (I admit up front that pasta and wine will be part of the curriculum, too.)

Frank has encouraged me to think more about shadows when I work, and so it seemed appropriate to start the trip with a day in Rome devoted to looking at paintings by Caravaggio. That's my smuggled snapshot of his "Judith Beheading Holofernes" above, taken at the Palazzo Baberini today.

(If you, the reader, have ethical problems with taking photographs where there are "No Photos" signs, you might want to pass this post by. I committed this crime, for no better reason than that I wanted a record to study. I didn't use a flash and I don't see the harm in it. But others may.)

Caravaggio, who died more than 400 years ago, had a great 20th Century, reputation-wise. He was lifted from relative obscurity into the pantheon of immortal artists. Today, the room that houses the Palazzo Barberini's two Caravaggios was crowded. At 4 p.m., when Church of Santa Maria del Popolo opened for evening visitors, hordes of tourists surged through the doors and crowded into the side chapel that has two famous Caravaggios, one showing St. Peter being nailed, upside down, to his cross and the other depicting St. Paul, thrown from his horse by a the shock of a vision on the road to Damascus. That's a fragment from the St. Paul painting above right.

The vogue for Caravaggio is due in part to the growing appreciation for his pathbreaking genius for chiaroscuro, which is an Italian word for shadow and light. In the Caravaggio works that I looked at today, none of the principal subjects is fully, directly lit. Their faces are rendered against dark backgrounds. Parts of the face are shrouded in shadow. But the most telling elements of those faces, often the eyes, are bathed in light. This emphasizes them and the emotions their subjects are feeling.

Of course, he was not the first artist to use shadow and light. But I didn't see any paintings that did it better than he did. His shadows are abrupt and realistic. Fine details are still visible, even as the image fades almost to black.

That used to be an effect that portrait photographers strived to emulate. Nowadays, the fashion is the opposite. The trendy portrait photographers use large-format camera and flat, even harsh, lighting to capture every pore and every beard hair in the subject's face. I guess the idea is to make a statement about the banality of human existence. 

But I prefer Caravaggio's style. That's an image I made earlier this week on the left, for a client's web site. It's unretouched, since I don't have all my editing tools available on the road. But even when it's polished, it won't have a fraction of the drama Caravaggio captured. I just wish I could do it half as well as he did.

Update: The day after I posed this, I was photographing in a farmers' market in Rome when I saw a flower vendor speaking to a customer. She stepped into a wash of cloud-filtered sunlight coming in from the broad, open doorway of the market. It illuminated her face, and I got the picture at right. Maybe part of Caravaggio's secret was just the sunlight in Rome.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Caravaggio Frank Van Riper Italy Judith Gooodman Rome chiaroscuro photography Fri, 11 Oct 2013 16:29:32 GMT
Should Liberals Teach Kids to Compromise? On Sunday, a week or ten days before the United States government was due to shut down, I watched future liberals learn to compromise.

I observed this in West Virginia, at a rural retreat camp being used by an organization called Learn-Serve International. LSI is a non-profit that runs excellent programs for high school kids in the Washington area. During the school year, it trains them to become social entrepreneurs, forming ventures to address problems they themselves identify and feel passionate about. During the summer, LSI takes kids on trips to Zambia, Paraguay and Jamaica,where they live in communities with acute poverty and do volunteer work. I was the LSI faculty sponsor when I was a teacher at Central High, and now I do some volunteer work for the organization.

On this particular Sunday, I took some pictures for LSI to use on its web site.The 2013-2014 LSI Fellows, about 50 sophomores and juniors, were getting their first immersion into LSI's philosophy and teaching. They slept out in tents or under the stars. They helped each other traverse ropes and did other physical team-building challenges, including a very complex leap-frog game. Indoors, they talked about who they were as individuals. They talked about what bothered them in society. They planned imaginary joint ventures to raise money to aid a hypothetical cause.

Learn-Serve Fellows are a diverse group. They come from private, charter and public schools. Some are from immigrant families without a lot of money. Some are from the sort of established Washington families that used to be called cave dwellers, because they'd been around forever. They come in all hues--black, brown, yellow, white. And, of course, they're kids, still breaking in their adult bodies and still trying out adult personalities. Some of them, as I watched, were like nervous turtles, sheltering in their hoodies. Some were brash, confident talkers. But gradually even the little turtles stuck their necks out and participated.

As they worked through their training exercises, two themes emerged--cooperation and compromise. The kids had to work together with people they might otherwise have never encountered. Where they had differences of taste, style or opinion, they had to find common ground. This notion was specifically taught by the training staff. The kids had to learn to compromise. And they did.

Learn-Serve, I should note, does not have an explicit political agenda or ideology. It doesn't purport to be a liberal organization, much less an admirer of the Democratic Party. Its ideal of service to society and the world is non-partisan. But I would be disingenuous to suggest that LSI is just as likely to be training the next generation of Young Republicans as liberals. It isn't. When you take a bunch of kids who volunteer to join a very diverse service organization, then ask them what pisses them off, you're not going to find many who say that what pisses them off is the way the government harasses the oil industry. LSI hasn't, in my experience, had any kids who say they're vexed because their family's tax dollars are wasted on food stamps. You get kids who want to do something about pollution, or hunger. You get kids who want to help the less fortunate. You get, in short, liberals in the making.

And organizations like Learn-Serve teach them to cooperate and compromise, to value the opinions and desires of others, even if they disagree with them. There was nothing exceptional about this, among liberals. I might not even have noticed it had I not been listening to discussions about the government shutdown on the radio as I drove up that morning. Cooperation and compromise are ingrained in liberal culture.

Maybe that's one reason Republicans in Congress think they can steamroll the government into defunding Obamacare. The Republicans lost the White House and the Senate in the last election. They won the House only because they're so successful at at gerrymandering House districts. You would think this modest electoral record might cause the Republicans to think they needed to compromise with the majority to get some of what they want. You would think that if they were truly conservative and they wanted to roll back Obamacare, they would do it the conservative, constitutional way. They'd wait until they'd won enough elections to control the government and then repeal it.

If you thought that, you would be wrong. The Republicans are going to shut the government down and refuse to pay the country's lawful debts in an effort to get what they did not earn at the ballot box. Maybe they'll hold their breaths until their faces turn blue, too.

Cooperation and compromise are not part of the Republican culture any more. I'm not sure why this is so, but I suspect part of it is the influence of religion on that culture. Religion divides the world into believers and infidels, the righteous and the damned.  When young future Republicans go off to church camp, they're not taught what the kids at Learn-Serve are taught. They're taught to deal with disagreement by either converting it or smiting it.

This gives the Republicans some major advantages. When they control most of the government, the Democrats, liberals that they are, instinctively cooperate and compromise. That's how Ronald Reagan got tax cuts for the wealthy. That's how George W. Bush got the No Child Left Behind Act and the police-state provisions of the Patriot Act. When the situation is reversed, and the Republicans control, say, one chamber of the legislature, they block whatever they can block and throw lots of tantrums. Liberals are like a guy who brings his fists to a knife fight.

Too bad we can't require that all Congressmen spend a weekend retreat with Learn-Serve International.






]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Tue, 24 Sep 2013 20:14:10 GMT
American Families, Summer, 2013 At the beginning of this summer, I tried something new in the way of marketing. I put up a deal on Groupon, offering a one-hour, on-location portrait shoot for $59. The folks at Groupon and I pitched the deal to individuals. I was hoping I'd get clients who needed pictures for their resumes, for LinkedIn, for social media sites on which they'd grown tired of representing themselves with a selfie taken with their phone and a bathroom mirror. (You can see the deal by clicking here.) And I indeed got some of those kinds of clients, and I've enjoyed photographing them..

But from the beginning, the majority of people who bought my deal would email me and begin by saying something like, "I know your ad says you do individual portraits, but I was hoping you'd shoot my family." Well, I couldn't tell those people to try the photo studios at Wal-Mart or Sears. First of all, I was flattered that they'd ask me. And secondly, I'm a sucker for families.

Mostly, women initiated these shoots. Sometimes it was a mother with two small kids. Sometimes, it was a baby sister trying to take advantage of a rare reunion of her and her older siblings. Sometimes, it was a daughter wanting a family picture for her mother's birthday. In once case, the father of an infant bought the Groupon, but that was a family with two dads. For the most part, I get the sense that men tend to think if they show up at home each night, pay the bills, and spend time with the kids, they're doing their bit for the family. Women seem to want to be more. They've got a vision of what their family should be like, and if that vision includes a family picture hanging on the wall or standing on the mantel, they're going to get that picture. Their families may not look exactly like the iconic, non-existent American families--the Nelsons, the Cunninghams, the Simpsons--but they believe fiercely in family and in the talismanic value of the family portrait.

A quick look at some of the family pictures I have made this summer will show the validity of the stories you read in the papers about the growing rate of inter-racial marriages and the growing number of same-sex marriages. I've photographed a lot of kids with beautiful, cafe-au-lait skin this summer. I used to work with an assistant principal at Central High School, Dr. Cathleen Rozanski Cruz. She was a blonde with Polish ancestry, and she'd married a Hispanic man. She once told me she thought the American racial problem would be over by 2050, because the whole country would be brown. I'm not sure her date will prove right, but after this summer, I wouldn't bet against it.

I have to say that shooting families, especially families with small children, is tough. With an individual portrait, I like to try to vary the mood and tone of an image with different lighting and shadow combinations. I can take the time to consider whether the subject will look better with the broad side of the face lit, or the short side. With a family portrait, I can't do that, particularly when the family wants the portrait done outdoors. I can usually only manage to get the pose right, to get all of the faces lit reasonably well, then hope no one blinks. I take a lot more shots of each grouping, because quite often, someone blinks.

Kids are a particular challenge, one I am still learning to cope with. A few nights ago, I shot a family that included a five-year-old boy and his four-year-old sister. Initially, the boy refused to open his mouth when he smiled, and I got a series of pictures with his mouth in a tight-lipped grimace that looked like someone had shoved something unpleasant into the back of his pants. Slowly, dim-wittedly, I realized that he was embarrassed because his front teeth had recently fallen out. He finally relaxed a bit and opened his mouth when I asked the family to pose lying flat on the grass. I guess it amused him. But I wish I had had the presence of mind to forget for a moment about exposure speeds and white balance and simply say to him, `Jamari, people who see the gap in your teeth are going to think, `There's a boy who's becoming a man.' " Maybe he would have bought it.

His little sister's mood swung between sweetness and boredom, unaffected by anything I said to her. We were moving from one shooting site to the next in a park when she told her parents, "I'm going to walk with Bob." She caught up to me. I sensed the possibility for a working connection.

"Would you like to hold my hand?" I asked.

"No," she said.

I told her it was all right. Many pretty girls had spurned me. But she was the first one born in the 21st Century to do it.

She stared at her shoes for most of the next series of shots.

I occasionally worry about what more established photographers might think about doing family portrait shoots for the steeply discounted price I am offering on Groupon. Maybe they'll think I am undermining their price structure. I prefer to believe I am like a dealer selling Vespas and they're like a dealer selling Harley Davidsons. I'm offering the entry-level in professional photography. Maybe someday my Vespa riders will want to trade up to a Harley.





]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Groupon Washington photographer photography portrait portraits Thu, 19 Sep 2013 16:19:57 GMT
What Wild Birds Tell Us About Ourselves I am not much of a wildlife photographer. I enjoy doing it when the opportunity arises. But being a good wildlife photographer requires a commitment of both time and money I am not prepared to make. You have to be ready to sit and wait for long periods of time, in all kinds of weather, for the subjects to show themselves. And you generally have to have some very expensive equipment to make the sort of images that appear in National Geographic. A site where photographers gather to shoot roseate spoonbills, for instance, resembles a Civil War artillery battery, with the long lenses pointed at the target like so many cannon.

But I have enough expertise to know that the image above, though I rather like it, stands no chance in the marketplace. It's a good picture, but it shows a bird that, however doughty and resourceful, has three strikes against it, pictorially. It's common--some kind of sandpiper or curlew, I think. (Update: Anne Cotttingham, who knows her birds, tells me this is likely a willet, a member of the sandpiper family.) You can find this bird on any beach. It's small. It's brown. Strike three.

The picture at left, on the other hand, almost qualifies as marketable. It's not quite sharp enough, because I was shooting in low, cloudy light with a lens and camera that just can't deliver tack-sharp resolution in those circumstances.  But it's a roseate spoonbill, coming in for a landing in the salt marsh at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

A spoonbill picture attracts interest for several reasons. One, the bird is relatively rare, particularly to North Americans. Its normal habitat runs from South America to Florida; I was told that a group of spoonbills showed up in South Carolina a few summers ago, for reasons known only to themselves. They've returned for a few summers now, though regulars at the Huntington salt marsh tell me there are fewer this year than there were last year.

They're also big. The spoonbills I saw were about the size of great blue heron or wood storks. We like our birds big.

But I believe that the main reason the spoonbills draw crowds of tourists and wildlife photographers when they appear in South Carolina is their coloring--a soft, dusky pink in the case of this bird. Others are a deeper, brighter pink. They get that color, I'm told, from eating lots of shrimp. Their bills are well-suited to their diets. When it's feeding, a spoonbill looks like someone running a vacuum cleaner over a rug. Its bill sways back and forth through the shallow water, sucking up its prey.

You might think it's the weird bill that makes the bird photogenic, and you are doubtless partly right. But I think it's mainly the color. I believe we're hard-wired to be attracted to bright, vivid colors. This applies to all kinds of birds. People travel to Panama and Costa Rica to see birds like the scarlet macaw or the blue cotinga. At my local grocery store, the bird seed available for feeders is labeled with pictures of bright red cardinals and yellow goldfinches. No one would buy seed that was guaranteed to attract humble brown sparrows, though for all I know, sparrows are more interesting birds. People will occasionally stop on a causeway in South Carolina to watch a big, bright white egret, like the one at right, stalk its dinner. They won't slow down to watch much more ingenious crows figure out how to open a food container in a garbage can. They barely notice common, grey-and-white seagulls on the beach, even though that bird, like the one at right, can be graceful and beautiful.

I will not speculate on all of the ways that this instinctive color preference plays out in human society. I believe I can say a few things about the way it plays out in pictures. It's predictable, for example, that a woman who studied the way men responded to women on dating sites found that women photographed in red dresses got more hits than women in other colors. I believe it's why a spot of color can be so effective in a portrait.

But it's tough luck for willets.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) birds color egret nature photography roseate spoonbill sandpiper wild Tue, 27 Aug 2013 20:05:37 GMT
How Much Enhancement? The subject today is enhancement.

I am in Litchfield Beach, S.C. at the moment, not far from a gallery in Pawleys Island called Lens Work. Lens Work sells the photography of a talented group of Low Country artists. It also offers photography instruction. The stock is almost all wildlife and landscape photography; the folks at Lens Work have been taught by experience that the market in a resort area like Litchfield isn't interested in pictures with people in them.

People are my preferred subjects. Nevertheless, good photography is good photography. So I dropped in and arranged for a lesson for myself and our houseguest, Mike Mitchell, from the co-owner of the gallery, Phil Duwel. Phil is a tall, enthusiastic guy from Lexington, S.C. He loves what he does and he loves teaching what he knows to others. Mike and I had a marvelous half day or so. Phil took us down to Georgetown, S.C. as the sun rose to make pictures around the harbor. We met him again late in the day and went to Huntington Beach State Park to photograph the marsh birds as the tide came in.

In between, Phil took the images we'd made in the morning and showed us what he does with his computer. From my shoot, he selected the picture at the top left. It shows a shrimp boat called Stormy Seas, sitting at the dock. When I shot it, I was reacting to the way the morning sun broke through the clouds and bathed the white hull with light. I was also aware of the boat's reflection in the still water of the harbor.

Phil saw the image and worked it over in Photoshop and a program called Nik, which he absolutely loves. It's a plug-in from Google. It quickly deletes noise, enhances colors and does a lot of other stuff to change and "enhance" the original digital file. Phil's enhanced version of my image is at right.

I have no principled objection to enhancement. Like, I think, nearly every other photographer, I do it all the time. Photographers have been doing this since the medium was invented. If you or I were to be given an opportunity to print one of Ansel Adams' negatives from the collection at the University of Arizona, we'd probably come out with only a dim likeness of the images Adams made with the same negative. That's because he dodged and burned and enhanced the way his image came out on paper.

Obviously, manipulation can become dishonest. I don't advocate cropping key individuals out of news photos, obviously. And I am appalled by the way fashion magazines manipulate the images of their models to make them look impossibly thin. 

But Phil's enhancement effort wasn't about distorting the news, and it wasn't about promoting anorexia among the modeling class. He wanted to bring out the best image that could be made from the information my camera recorded. In the case of my shrimp boat picture, Phil first of all worked over the sky and its reflection in the water. He made the blues deeper and the sky much more dramatic. His changes to the other colors in the image are a little  more subtle. When I looked at his version, the green color of the shrimpers' net jumped out at me. It's become perhaps the focal point in the composition, whereas my original idea had been about the way the sun hit the white hull.

I took the original image and did what I would normally do to it. I added some contrast, upped the color saturation a bit, did a little cropping. This version is at the lower left. I'm curious to learn what readers think. Is Phil's version clearly better? If so, I may have to get Nik and learn how to use it. Or do people prefer an image with less manipulation? Is there anyone who thinks the original, untouched image is best?







]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Fri, 23 Aug 2013 21:50:08 GMT
Golf, Pure and Simple At the Lagavulin distillery on the Scottish island of Islay, a tour guide will tell you the counter-intuitive secret to making the complex, smokey whiskies for which Islay is famous. It's simplicity. The whisky comes from just three ingredients--water, barley and yeast. Nothing is added, unless you consider the peat smoke from the barley malting process or the skill of the distillers to be an additive.

The same principle, I think, applies to another of Islay's many attractions, the golf links known as the Machrie. The Machrie is also a skillful blend of just three ingredients--terrain, turf and wind. It's pure and simple golf.

The Machrie was laid out by Willie Campbell in 1891 in duneland by the shore of Laggan Bay.. From high points on the course, on a clear day, a player can look across the North Channel and see the low, green hills of Northern Ireland. The wind is a nearly constant factor, generally, but not always, blowing in off the sea.

Campbell didn't have bulldozers when he laid out the Machrie, so he left many of the dunes and hills in place, even when that place was directly in the line of play. About half of the full shots a player will hit on the Machrie are blind. On a couple of par fours, the 7th and the 17th, both the tee shot and the approach are blind. That's the tee shot on No. 7 at right. The black and white stake atop the dune marks the line of play; the player aims toward the stake and hits his tee shot toward a fairway he cannot see. That fairway is filled with humps and hollows. The line to the green is indicated by another signpost atop a dune. The green itself is hidden from view in a deep hollow.

The hole, it should be noted, looks more difficult than it is. In truth, it's usually not hard to carry the dune off the tee, provided a player hits it high enough. That's partly because the prevailing wind is helpful, but partly because it's not such a long shot. Other blind shots at the Machrie are similar. They look harder than they are (at least once a player knows the course a bit). But there's tremendous satisfaction in hitting a blind shot toward a green, walking around the obstacle, and finding the ball sitting close to the flag. It's like coming downstairs on Christmas morning and seeing just the right presents under the tree.

There are no bunkers on many of the holes Campbell laid out. (For a variety of reasons, the course has changed somewhat over the years; perhaps half a dozen of Campbell's original holes have been replaced.) He knew he didn't need them. The turf provides hazard enough if it's not cut. Stray very far from the fairways at the Machrie and your ball may disappear into wild grasses that grow to somewhere between ankle- and knee-high. These areas can be worse than water hazards. If you hit into a water hazard, you know your ball is gone and you drop one, take the penalty, and play on. When the ball disappears in the high Machrie rough, it may or may not be found. But finding it can be worse than losing it. It can take several strokes to move the ball out of the high rough to the fairway or green.

In recent years, the course has changed hands a couple of times, and the new owners have decreed that the high rough be cut down in some places to make the course more enjoyable for average players and quicker to get around. The course is undoubtedly softer as a result; but there's still enough high grass to keep a herd of goats busy for weeks.

The layout is blessed with wonderful, natural golf terrain. There's very little flat ground. Nearly every fairway has some mounds or hollows that demand thought off the tee. Some holes have ground rippled like a washboard. The greens are similar, if gentler. 

The wind adds to the fascination of the course. There are holes where the wind seems determined to push anything but a very solid shot into he high grass. But the wind also facilitates some of the most exhilarating moments in golf. You can hit a bad tee shot and find yourself 230 yards from the green on a par four, but you've still got a chance to reach it if the hole is downwind. There's nothing like a well-struck wood that catches a stiff breeze and soars, unless it's the feel on an iron shot that's properly cut or drawn into a cross-wind so it holds its line and finds the green.

I like the Machrie better as a match-play course than a stroke-play course. I make a lot of pars and birdies on the Machrie, especially when the wind is favorable. But I also seem to make a couple of triple-bogies in every round. Those triples only cost a hole in match play, but they stain the score indelibly in a medal round.

Fortunately, the Islay Golf Club's premier event, the Kildalton Cross, has a match play component. Cross contestants play a couple of medal rounds and, if they quality, compete in a knock-out match play draw. Held each year in the first week of August, the Cross is a wonderful reason to make the trip to Islay.

It's not the easiest trip. There are ferries from Kennacraig on Scotland's western coast that make the crossing in about two hours. And there are puddle-jumper flights from Glasgow that take half an hour. But the Machrie is well worth the journey.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Islay Islay Golf Club Machrie Scotland golf Fri, 16 Aug 2013 13:30:40 GMT
Of Bagpipes and Scottish Independence There are two things, in my experience, that indicate a journalist is floundering. One is quoting a taxi driver. This is a sign that the only person the reporter bothered to interview, or could find to interview, was the hack who drove him in from the airport. The other sign is quoting anyone in a bar. This is like quoting taxi drivers, except that the reporter was probably intoxicated when he wrote his dispatch. So be forewarned. This piece is going to rely on the opinions of a taxicab driver and a woman I met in a bar.

My wife and I were in Glasgow at the end of a Hebridean holiday, a time devoted mostly to  links golf, single-malt whisky and her ancestral history. After we checked into our room at the Blythswood Square Hotel, we had an evening to spend in the city before catching an early flight toward home the following morning. We walked down a hill to Buchanan Street, a pedestrian mall. We noticed a lot of "To Let" signs in the windows of five- and six-story office Victorian-era buildings. Unlike London, Glasgow doesn't have tall, flashy glass towers. Maybe the Scots don't want them. More likely, I think, the city hasn't made money the way London has in the post-industrial era.

Our attention was arrested by the appearance of a band of dark-haired musicians--drummers and bagpipe players--walking up the street, dressed in proper kilts, knee socks, and campaign hats with little red pom-poms on the top. I made a picture. We talked. They were members of the Battalion de San Patricio, a pipe-and-drum corps from, improbably, Mexico City. They were in town for an international piping festival.

We looked down the street and saw a big white tent just below St. Enoch Square. We went in and caught the end of a great performance by a group called Barluath. Their lead singer, Ainsley Hamill, has a high, pure, haunting voice that floated in and around the melodies woven by the fiddler and the piper.

When their performance was over, we wanted to hear more. We grabbed a brochure and learned that there would be an open mic night for pipers at a bar called Cooper's on Great Western Road. So we hailed a cab.

The driver was an entirely charming, white-haired gentleman who had once worked in television. He had some definite opinions. We talked a little bit about golf. He'd once had a five handicap, though it was presently higher. He'd played all over Scotland, and his favorite links was Crail, in Fife, one of those Scottish courses that you hear about but never see on television because it's a bit too short for modern pros. To him, golf was intended to be played in the rain and the wind, "not at some place like Augusta."

Against the backdrop of bagpipes and "To Let" signs, it seemed appropriate to ask about Scottish independence, which will be the subject of a referendum in 2014. We had been asking people about it, and no one we'd spoken to was for it. But that might have been because the golfers we'd been talking to tend to be a conservative lot.

Our driver was a definite pro-independence vote. He said he would die happy if he knew he had lived in a free Scotland.He had some good arguments. He believed Scotland had done well handling its own health care, education and other functions that London has handed over to the U.K.'s constituent nations in an effort to appease separatists.He ticked off a list of great Scottish inventors from Alexander Graham Bell (telephone) to Arthur Fleming (penicillin) to J.L McAdam (macadam). "We're ready to give the world more," he said as he dropped us off at Cooper's.

We had a few pints and listened as pipers and drummers, individually and in groups, came in. The barmaids muted the sound of the telecast of the Ashes cricket test between England and Australia, though the cricket announcers would have had to shout and scream to be heard over the sound of the pipes. I took some pictures of the performers, which was when Kerry Brown (above left) introduced herself. She said she liked the images, which was kind of her. The lighting inside the bar was what you'd expect in a bar, and my pictures showed it..

Kerry is a flight attendant from Kirkcaldie, and her partner, John, is a member of the Inveraray & District Pipe Band, one of the heavyweights in the festival competition. The band was still out somewhere rehearsing, and Kerry was waiting for them to appear and blow the crowd at Cooper's out into Great Western Road. The pipes, she said, were John's life. He made his living creating bagpipe reeds for players around he world. He played the pipes himself.

Kerry herself was devoted to pipe music. It often brought tears to her eyes to hear it, she said. It reminded her of her grandfather, now old and frail, whose great pleasure in life had been playing the pipes. It reminded her of John. It reminded her of her beloved Scotland.

I expected that someone so immersed in Scottish culture would be equally devoted to Scottish independence, but Kerry surprised me. Her reasoning was personal. She had English friends whom she liked, though she thought the English as a whole did tend to be arrogant. She hated the way the London press and the BBC referred to tennis player Andy Murray as a Scot when he lost and "Britain's Andy Murray" when he won. Yet she rooted passionately for Team GB at the 2012 Olympics.

She thought that Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party and the pro-independence First Minister of Scotland, had dreams of glory and grandeur, fancying himself not just a regional politician, but a head of state. And that seemed decisive to Kerry. She would probably, she said, vote no.

And so, I thought, would Scotland. If Alex Salmond doesn't have the support of a woman who tears up at the sound of bagpipes, what chance does he have?



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Glasgow Scotland bagpipes independence Thu, 15 Aug 2013 13:34:52 GMT
Daring Death on the Isle of Mull I generally don't have a problem switching to the left side of the road when I drive in the British Isles. Or, to be more accurate, I've done it several times and I am still here to write about it. But the Isle of Mull may put an end to that. Or to me.

The picture above shows a stretch of the road between Tobermory, the island's largest town, and the village of Salen, where I'm staying at the Glenforsa Hotel. This is not, by Mull standards, the hinterland. It may be the most heavily-trafficked route on the island. Outside Salen, two lanes squeeze to one. And for about ten miles, it's what the Scots call a single-track road.

This means that on a road roughly the width of a driveway, cars come right at you. They're not supposed to hit you, of course. Every few hundred yards or so, the road has what the locals call a "passing place." This is a bulge in the pavement, making it look like a snake that's swallowed half an apple. The idea is that if the passing place is on your left, you slide into it if there's an oncoming car, letting him by. If it's on the left side of the oncoming car, he's supposed to slide into it and let you by.

There's a certain courteous, sociable aspect to this. The driver who sees the first place to slip in to often blinks his lights to tell the oncoming car it's safe to proceed. The custom is to give the oncoming driver a wave as you squeeze by the passing place. It's basically just a quick, open palm at the top of the steering wheel. It's like the open-palmed salutation that the Indian characters in old Westerns gave, along with the greeting "How."

This system isn't unmanageable when the road is straight and flat and it's possible to spot an oncoming driver when he's still hundreds of yards away, locate the next passing place and decide who's supposed to pull into it and give way. But the road to Tobermory  is by no means straight. It winds around and up and down a stretch of dramatic hills. The vistas would be quite striking if one didn't have to keep his white knuckles glued to the wheel and his eyes glued to the road, wondering what will happen if a bus is coming when the rental car reaches the crest of a hill along a blind curve.

When this happens, there's a wee standoff. Then someone has to put his car in reverse and back up until a passing place appears in the rear view mirror. There's a bit of a strained quality to the social wave in these cases. And the ruts and tire tracks I saw along the side of the road suggest that some standoffs end less than well. Even when the system works, a bit of traffic can cause so many waves that a driver's arm gets tired.

I wonder why the people of Mull let this continue. The island seems prosperous enough to afford a two-track road, so I don't think the people can't afford it. I've rejected a few hypotheses. It can't be that a guy who owns a body shop and a tow truck controls the local government. That doesn't seem British. It can't be that the people of Mull are engaged in an effort to purge the reckless chromosome from the local gene pool. Too much collateral damage.

I asked my host at the Glenforsa, Allison Busch, and she said she likes the present system just fine, thank you. It would indeed be expensive to add a lane, especially when the winter population hardly needs one. It would mean that tourists, who now make their way around very slowly, would whiz along at 60 miles an hour. "You don't see anything at that speed," Allison said. The tourists might even zip around Mull in a single day and leave on an evening ferry rather than stay overnight. And another lane of pavement would consume some of the prettiest land on the island.

So I don't think the traffic patterns on Mull will change any time soon. The people seem to like things the way they are.





]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Mull Scotland driving in roads single-track Mon, 12 Aug 2013 15:45:00 GMT
Game of Thrones, the Beta Version On the island of Islay, off the western coast of Scotland, there is a small blue lake, Loch Finlaggan. Near the shore of the lake is an island, with perhaps three acres of land, called Eilean Mor. It holds the ruins of several buildings, weathered gray rocks that once formed walls and now support encroaching turf. Sheep graze placidly in the shelter of the rock.

I don't know if George R.R. Martin, the creator of Game of Thrones, has ever visited Loch Finlaggan, but if he hasn't, I suspect he's read about it. The ruins on Eilean Mor, and others like them scattered on seaside cliffs and ancient graveyards throughout the Hebrides, are the remnants of an earlier, true game of thrones, one whose episodes prefigure some of the most startling events in Martin's books and the television series that is based on them.

The ruins pictured above were part of the chapel of Eilean Mor, and the chapel was part of the fortress headquarters of the Lords of the Isles, pirates and raiders who acted as kings over as much of present Scotland as they could grab and hold. In 1156, according to a history of Islay written by Norman Newton, a local warlord named Somerled defeated Olaf, the Viking governor of the isles. Somerled claimed dominion for himself. His grandson, Donald, is the man for whom Clan MacDonald is named. (Why it isn't called Clan MacSomerled is a question I will leave to more learned historians.)

The layout of Eilean Mor silently testifies to the nature of life and power in those times. It's a site chosen for defense. There is a wooden walkway for tourists now, but in the days when the Lords of the Isles ruled from here, it was surrounded by water; a hidden causeway gave access to those who knew the path and sloshed over it in water up to their ankles. (Martin created an underwater causeway for the tower in which Bran Stark and his friends hid from the wildlings in Game of Thrones.) If they couldn't find an island site, chiefs and warlords built their castles at the edge of narrow points of land that jutted into water, preferably atop a high cliff. Apart from its island headquarters, Clan MacDonald had a naval fortress on the sea at little cove on Islay called Lagavulin. They called the fortress Dunivaig Castle (above left). From this stronghold, the MacDonald launched raids against other islands and into Scotland.

Their bitterest enemy was Clan Maclean, based on the nearby island of Mull at Duarte Castle. Here's an example of the way it went: In 1588, there was an apparent effort at rapprochement. A MacDonald ally, MacIan of Ardnamurchan, was to marry the mother of Lachlan, chief of Clan Maclean. At the wedding, Lachlan ordered all of the MacDonalds present, save for the bridegroom, to be murdered. After the massacre, Lachlan raided the islands of Rum, Eigg, Canna and Muck, with the help of some Spanish mercenaries whose galleon had fled to Mull after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The population of the four islands was exterminated. It was an operation worthy of Tywin Lannister, and viewers who saw the "Red Wedding" episode during the last season of Game of Thrones will find it resonant.

There are other episodes in the clan histories that have their counterparts in Martin's books. As the kings of Scotland, and then Britain, strove to extend their dominion to the Hebrides, the clans bore the brunt. At one time, a penitent chief was required to come to Edinburgh and crawl through the streets on his hands and knees. For the sake of television viewers who haven't read the books (the TV series lags behind the novels), I won't say which episode of Game of Thrones this prefigures; suffice it to say it involves a prominent member of House Lannister. 

I was at Castle Duarte yesterday and read about another telegenic apisode of Clan Maclean history. It seems that one chief married a Campbell. But the marriage was an unhappy one, made worse by the lady's failure to produce an heir. So the Maclean chief had her placed on a small rock in the sea in front of Duarte Castle and waited for the rising tide to drown her. Unfortunately for him, some fishermen passing in the night rescued the lady and restored her to the Campbells. The Campbells waited until they received word from the Macleans of the tragic passing of the lady in question from an untimely disease. The Campbells invited the grieving Maclean widower to their stronghold for some sort of memorial service. When he arrived, and saw his wife, he knew he was in big trouble.

I don't know if these events will become source material for Martin, but if I were one of the women in the story, I would be careful about accepting any Lannister invitations to take a little boat ride.

Ultimately, of course, these Scottish warlords were brought to heel. The Clan MacDonald strongholds on Islay passed into the ruins that exist today. Clan Maclean apparently fared a little better. One of its chiefs, Fitzroy Maclean, had the wherewithal to restore Duarte Castle (above right) in 1910, and it remains the seat of the clan. It's stuffed with artifacts, including a candelabra whose base is three preserved hooves from the last British cavalry horse left standing at the Charge of the Light Brigade. (Unfortunately, you're not permitted to take pictures of that stuff.)The upkeep costs, however, must be imposing, and the option of raiding MacDonald lands and stealing their stuff no longer exists. Nowadays, the castle is open to visitors at £5.75 a head. The 28th chief, Sir Lachlan Hector Charles Maclean, is often about to greet them; he's an amiable fellow, 71 years old, dressed in plaid pants in the clan tartan.  

The cove that once sheltered the MacDonald navy has passed to other uses. In 1816, it became the site of the Lagavulin distillery, which makes one of the world's great whiskies. It's said that the cove was handy for shipping whisky out under cover of darkness, evading the king's tax collectors.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Clan Game George Islay Lagavulin MacDonald Maclean Martin R.R. Scotland Thrones of ruins whisky Sun, 11 Aug 2013 09:49:38 GMT
The Islay and Jura Agricultural Association Annual Show A long time ago, there was a Broadway musical called Camelot. In one of its songs, Queen Guinevere promises a knight of the Round Table  that, if he will only smite Sir Lancelot for her, he can take her to the cattle show. (She's at this point trying to resist Lancelot's charm.) I was never quite certain what sort of show she was referring to until this week. Now I think I know.

I first heard of the Islay and Jura Agricultural Association's Annual Show a few days ago, when I was trying to get a flat tire on my rental car repaired. This was a complex operation. The tire had to be ordered from the mainland (as the people of Islay and Jura refer to the bigger part of the British Isles). And I was advised that I had better get the work done quickly, because on Thursday every business in Islay, including the one that repairs tires, would be shut down.

The show, of course.

So come Thursday afternoon, my wife Ann and I honored the maxim "When on Islay, so as the Ileachs do." Along with the better part of the island's three thousand souls, we drove to the mid-island village of Bridgend. We turned off the main road at a hand-lettered sign that said, "All Show Traffic" in red letters. And after paying an admission fee of twelve pounds, we parked on a gently sloping, grassy hillside.

In front of us was the show. Most of it, I am sure, Guinevere would not have recognized. There was the display of vintage and modern tractors. And the tent occupied by an earnest guy whose business is selling renewable energy systems to Ileachs for heating their houses. (They don't need air conditioning. On a lovely summer day in Islay, the high temperature might be 68 degrees Farenheit.) There was the inflated moon bounce-with-slide for children and the inevitable booth for people willing to wager a pound that they could toss a ring over a jar and win a prize.

But around the corner from the renewable energy guy was something Guinevere would have recognized--the cattle show. In temporary pens, the farmers of Islay and Jura were preparing their livestock to be judged. I was drawn to the enclosure for Highland cattle, a breed that features so many layers of long, hairy fur that it is practically impervious to rain, which is a handy attribute to have in Scotland. Apparently, the exemplars of the breed must have the topmost layer of fur arranged in bangs that descend elegantly from the forehead, past the curling horns and over the eyes. Owners in white lab coats were working over their animals like pageant mothers at a beauty contest for six-year-old girls. I saw one man with reddish hair working over a cow with hair of a slightly lighter shade. He used combs and spray to get the banks to hang just right.

"This is Isabella," he said. "She gets more attention than my wife."

Isabella's right eye, partly visible under her hair, widened. I snapped the picture above.

In a nearby pen, the sheep judging was going on. Men and boys struggled to hold their sheep still until the judge, wearing a tweed jack and a tie and carrying a shepherd's crook like a bishop's crozier, could make his assessment. As in the Highland cattle competition, there was a high and strict standard of appearance. Part of it required dying the sheep's fleece until it had a tawny orange coloring that naturally occurs only inside tanning salons.

It might have been a county fair in America except for the fact that Islay's most important agricultural product was also represented--whisky. The Bowmore distillery had a van parked near the sheep pen, and a couple of cheerful ladies were offering free samples in plastic dram glasses. They did a brisk business.

There was much more. The show presented an eclectic mix of performing arts and sports, some new and some very traditional. Islay's pipe and drum corps performed. A couple of young men did astounding tricks on bicycles. If I had been able to stay longer, I might have seen Highland dancing and caber-tossing. I admire the way the Scots value their traditions and take care to preserve them. Parents held their children in their arms as they watched these events. Thus does a culture renew itself.

But I had to go to honor one of Scotland's greatest traditions. I had a mid-afternoon tee time.




]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Highland Islay Jura cattle sheep show Fri, 09 Aug 2013 16:42:15 GMT
What Improves with Age I write from the island of Islay, in the Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland. I thought I was coming here to play in a golf tournament and try some of the island's renowned, peaty, single-malt whiskies at their source. But what I inadvertently have found myself doing is surveying the effects of time and age. I've found that some things, like the harbor at Port Ellen (above), seem unaffected by the passage of the twelve years since I last saw them. Others, like my knees, have not fared so well.

I first came to Islay in 2001 to write an article for a now-defunct magazine called Travel & Leisure Golf. I had a romantic notion of finding the perfect Scottish isle with a challenging but playable links course--Brigadoon with golf clubs. Since it was the early days of the Internet, I packaged that notion with the concept that an American could use the web to scout out Scottish clubs that offered overseas memberships and had tournaments in which overseas members could play. It turned out that there were quite a few such clubs, and when I saw the web site for the Islay Golf Club, I knew I had found what I was looking for.

For more than a century, the club has staged a tournament called the Kildalton Cross  on the island's links course, the Machrie, which I believe is a Gaelic word for "blind shot." It's a beautiful, quirky eighteen, on the shores of blue Loggan Bay. I don't believe that Willie Campbell, the architect, had bulldozers at his disposal back in the 1890s. So he set flags and tees where he found relatively flat ground and left the dunes and hills where God put them. God put them in the middle of a lot of golf holes.

The tournament was named for the island's most important historic landmark, the aforementioned cross, which sits near the ruins of a church called Kildalton (I believe it means "Church of the Foster Son," a reference to St. John.) The cross was carved by an anonymous Christian stonemason around 800 A.D., and if you believe the theory that the Scots and the Irish saved civilization, you would probably consider it a very important relic.

To my eye, the cross has aged well, and so has the church, though some believers might wish that it still had accoutrements like windows and a roof. The golf course, now well into its second century has mellowed a little with the passage of time. In the dozen years since I last played, the owners have cut back some of the high, wild rough that swallows a ball almost as surely as a lake. Even if the ball is found in the stuff, it might take two or three swings to chop it out onto the fairway. I suppose the cutting of the Machrie rough must be blamed on the softness of the modern golfer in comparison to the traditional Scot, whose response to a complaint about high rough would have been, "You're not supposed to hit it in there."

Even though the penalty for my off-line tee shots wasn't always as severe as it was in 2001, I found that my golf game didn't compare well to my game from a dozen years ago. I have gone from mediocre to worse, from the low 80s to the high 80s.

Given the ups and downs of the course, and the way Scots look askance at golfers using a motorized riding cart, I would have been hard-pressed to do that well without an assist from the children of Islay. I took a caddy in 2001 as an extravagance. This year it was a necessity. Fortunately for me, the Islay Golf Club is willing to find a local boy or girl who'll carry the bag of a visiting American whether he's extravagant or just gimpy. In 2001, I worked with a 15-year-old girl named Kirsten Lawrie, who told me she was going to spend her earnings on things for her pony. Kirsten is all grown up now, too old to caddie. I noticed that Islay was having a Festival of the Sea when I arrived and Kirsten, who has a job with the regional development authority, was in charge. This year I got Gregor Mitchell, a 13-year-old center-midfielder for the Islay boys' football team. Gregor has already played for Islay in competitions in Spain and Sweden, so he's an experienced international athlete. He told me he'll probably spend his earnings on new football boots, which at his age, I suspect, have to be replaced every six months or so. Gregor, I believe, stands to improve with age, at least for a long while.

Sometimes, the change due to time can be a trick of perception or memory. Most of us are familiar with the feeling that the old elementary school has shrunk since our childhoods. Islay Golf Club has an edifice that tricked me in a similar way. It's a bit of a joke, or folly, a circle of "standing stones" that was erected by the course superintendent when he laid out the new practice ground fifteen or so years ago. There are tourists who spend their holidays exploring ancient Scottish ruins. When one of them sees the stones and stops to inquire, the club members like to say that the stones were put there by the pagans thousands of years ago. I was taken in by the joke when I first saw the stones in 2001. With the passage of time, they grew larger in my memory, until they loomed like Stonehenge in my mind's eye. When I saw them again this week, they seemed to have shrunk, though it was only my perception.

When I renew friendships I made in 2001, though, the effects of time are more than a matter of perception. I see people I vaguely remember, I'm reminded of their names, and I wonder, "has he changed, or is my memory fuzzy?" And I know they are looking at me and suppressing the same thought.

But there are some things on Islay I am expecting to be much improved due to the passage of time. The whiskies I saw being made in 2001 at the island's distilleries will be 12 years old now. I am looking forward to renewing our acquaintance. They should be just about in their prime.





]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Tue, 06 Aug 2013 08:56:17 GMT
Kids and Plays I like kids putting on plays. I wish it happened more often.

Last night, a young relative of mine was performing in Seussical Jr., a  musical based on the children's books by Dr. Seuss. It was the culminating event of a four-week summer camp for kids in the middle school demographic, run at a downtown D.C. church by the Theatre Lab School of Dramatic Arts. The production, before a capacity crowd of parents and friends, was everything you'd want in a play. The songs were catchy. The dances were snappy. Everyone had a good time.

Afterwards, I thought a bit about plays and the educational process. I have been at a wide variety of schools in my time, and in retrospect it seems to me that the quality of a school can be gauged fairly well by the number and quality of the plays produced by its students. I spent a year at Stanford as a professional journalism fellow, and during that year so many student groups presented so many plays that I could have spent every evening watching one. I even acted in one--there was a high demand for actors who could handle, shall we say, mature roles. Much later in life,  I taught for five years at Central High School, which struggled then and struggles now to get its kids to pass the standardized tests that are, unfortunately, the metric we use to measure school performance. Central could barely muster a school play--there was one in my time there.

That was in part because all of the energy and resources the school had were poured into test prep. I wish that somewhere, someday, a struggling high school could experiment with a dramatics-based school improvement program. Make every kid in the school participate in at least two publicly performed plays each year. Don't promote kids who decline to do this. Don't let kids play sports until they've first succeeded at plays.

This would have a variety of salubrious consequences.First, the kids would have to memorize lines. Kids don't memorize enough, it seems to me. Second, as they rehearsed the play, they'd start to understand the layers and nuances of the text. This happens automatically when a student carefully goes over a good play again and again. It is exactly the sort of critical, analytical reading skill kids are supposed to be learning but too often aren't. Third, they'd be responsible to other kids for mastering important skills like showing up on time and prepared. Fourth, as they found out that they could actually pull off a play, their confidence would soar. They'd take that confidence into everything else they did.

And not least, it would give them the joy of working together with their peers on a project that received and deserved the plaudits of the adult community. Look at the two kids at bottom left, during their curtain call last night. They're happy and proud, and they should be.

But we won't do this. Instead, in our public schools, we'll try to teach reading skills by relentlessly drilling kids in the multiple choice questions that were on previous years' tests. And we'll save our applause for the football team.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) :Theatre Arts" Dramatic Lab School Seussical kids of plays reform school the Sat, 27 Jul 2013 19:12:07 GMT
How the Nats Really Beat San Diego Saturday In my continuing effort to provide behind-the-scenes explanations for the puzzling inconsistency of the 2013 Washington Nats, here is what really happened in their 5-4 victory over San Diego on Saturday, July 6, a game that may finally have turned their season around.

In the sports pages, you can read that the Nats were leading, 3-1 in the sixth inning when Ross Ohlendorf relieved Jordan Zimmermann. Ohlendorf promptly gave up a three-run home by Jesus Guzman. San Diego led 4-3, but the Nats came back in the seventh inning, plating two runs for the eventual margin. All of which, I can attest, is true as far as it goes. I was there, and that's the untucked-shirt celebration at the end of the game, above. That's Ohlendorf (left), miserable, after giving up Guzman's homer. Ohlendorf graduated from Princeton, Class of 2006, with a degree in something called "Financial Engineering," and I believe that at this moment he was thinking,  "Lots of my classmates have already made their first ten mil in hedge funds and they've NEVER had to go through this sort of public humiliation."

But I digress.

What really happened is that my wife Ann suggested we go to this game, and when she takes the initiative to let me attend a baseball game, I make sure we get good seats. For this game we were right behind the visitors' dugout.

Some people, when they get this close to the action, can't quite handle the temptation to say something the players can hear. I, for instance, was quite tempted to make loud, disparaging comments about the mullet sported by a San Diego pitcher named Andrew Cashner, who was standing on the first step of the dugout maybe 15 feet away. But I didn't. I didn't want to mess with the Nats' karma.

However, the guy next to me lacked my self-restraint. He decided that it would be humorous to start riding San Diego first baseman Jesus Guzman on the basis of his first name. "Hey Jesus," he would yell as Guzman walked into the batter's box. He pronounced it Gee-zus instead of the proper Hay-zoos. "I usually like you, but now I'm rooting against you, Gee-zus."

This was blasphemy. I can deal with blasphemy, but I cannot deal with riling up a cleanup batter with a .250 average. It was worse than blasphemy. It was stupidity. Sure enough, Guzman, who is probably Catholic, reacted by getting two hits, including the aforementioned three-run dinger that left Ohlendorf contemplating higher uses of an Ivy League degree.

So I immediately took action. I didn't actually say anything to the dope or punch him out or stuff a wad of hot-dog napkins down his throat. But silently I WILLED him to shut up with the Gee-zus thing. I really willed hard.

And he stopped.

After that, the entire complexion of the game changed. Bryce Harper stopped swinging at slow curves low and away (see photo at right). The Nats bullpen shut the door, sort of. The Nats, as mentioned, came back to win. Today, as I write this, they've scored 11 runs.

Maybe they've finally turned the corner, as the sportswriters like to say. I certainly hope so. If they have, I'm not saying it was ALL my doing.

But now you know the inside story.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Bryce Harper Jesus Guzman Ross Ohlendorf Washington Nats behind-the-scenes inside story Sun, 07 Jul 2013 20:54:14 GMT
Could America Become a Police State? Maybe I don't move in the right circles, but I have heard only a little chatter in the last week about Edward Snowden and the government surveillance programs he disclosed. And what little I have heard revolves around peripheral questions. Is Snowden a hero or a traitor? Will they catch him? I'm beginning to think that our culture has been so consumed by cops-and-robbers television and fascination with personalities that we're incapable of addressing the issue of overriding importance: Could America become a police state?

Years ago, I lived in a police state, the Soviet Union. So I know what a police state is like and I know the United States is still a long way from being one. I don't think anyone presently in power wants to create a police state. But the wall that separates a limited government from a police state is composed of bricks, if you will, bricks like the right to private correspondence and a free, investigative press. I see bricks being taken from the wall, one by one. The wall is still there, but it doesn't look impregnable any more.

I should explain what I think a police state is. It's a state in which the police have untrammeled power to pry into the communications and personal lives of the citizenry.  It's a state which lacks a free press, and therefore a watchdog against the abuse of government power. It's a state in which opposition to the established political order is criminalized. And it's a state that controls the courts, a state in which the executive gets its way in any trial of consequence, regardless of the evidence. I could throw in a few more attributes of a police state, like restrictions on the right to travel, but those first four are the hallmarks.

Consider the question of a free press. American newspapers and magazines are being gutted by internet-driven economic change. Investigative journalism, the kind that unmasks corruption and abuse and holds government accountable, is expensive. In today's economy, fewer and fewer reporters and newspapers are in a position even to consider watchdog journalism, let alone practice it. Thus far, internet journalism seems quite good at producing opinions (like this one), but I don't see it producing much penetrating, investigative reportage.

There's probably nothing that can be done to restore the financial health of the print media. But now the government is piling on. I refer to the Justice Department's recent subpoena for the home, cell and office phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors involved in a leak about an intelligence operation. I don't mean to be naive about the Washington press of thirty years ago, but there was a time when reporters and their sources had a reasonable expectation that they could talk on the phone without jeopardizing the confidentiality of the source. Now the government is telling all its employees, If you talk to the press about things we don't want you to talk about, we can identify you, we can take your job, we can bankrupt you with legal fees, and we can put you in jail.

I'm not saying there won't still be occasional leaks. There's always going to be someone at the Pentagon who thinks the State Department is full of wimps and can't resist helping the press to understand this. But we now have a situation where fewer and fewer reporters are trying to penetrate beyond government PR and fewer and fewer sources are willing to talk to them.No law has been passed explicitly restricting the press or imposing censorship But we are, nevertheless, closer to a situation where the people know only what the government wants them to know, a situation the old Soviet leaders would have deemed otlichno. Excellent, comrade.

We also have the National Security Agency hoovering (pun intended) vast quantities of information about our telephone calls and emails. J. Edgar Hoover only dreamed of capabilities like this. He had to assign actual people with actual wires and tea kettles when he wanted to listen to someone's phone calls or steam open their letters. Which he did, zealously, when American citizens had the temerity to organize in opposition to the Vietnam War or in favor of civil rights for black people.

I get the sense that most Americans don't much care that the government knows whom they're calling and emailing. Maybe they figure that Verizon, Google and Amazon already know these things, so what's the harm if the government does, too? Maybe they figure it's okay because they think the little needle of their private communications can't possibly stand out in the haystack the government's computers suck up every day.  Maybe they don't care because they can't imagine themselves saying or doing anything that would irritate the government. Or maybe they trust the government not to abuse its powers. But history tells us that as surely as Richard Nixon ordered the IRS to audit the tax returns of his political enemies, a power the government attains will sooner or later be abused.

Consider, for instance, David Petraeus. Suppose his affair with his biographer had not been made public. Suppose he ran for president in 2016 against Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. Would his emails to his inamorata remain buried in some government data storage bank? I doubt it. I think that with the power of the White House at stake, somehow or another those emails would surface. And that's only one of countless ways I fear the government could soon be using its surveillance powers not to fight terrorists, but to rule.

We can see, in the Snowden case, the way that dissent can be criminalized. Not all dissent, of course. The government need hardly worry about another bloviator spouting opinions. The genuine threat to the political order comes from someone who discloses information the government doesn't want disclosed, the kind of information that could potentially alter the public discourse and sway elections. (I am not an admirer of Edward Snowden and I understand that he violated the law and a sworn obligation. But I hardly think that terrorists were heretofore under the impression that their electronic communications were inviolate. And I also believe that what Snowden did has to be seen in the light of the fact that our government was actively deceiving us about its activities, as in James Clapper's testimony to Congress.) A bureaucrat with a classification stamp, therefore, now has the power to criminalize effective dissent.

I understand that there must be a balance between necessary secrecy and open debate. I know that in time of war, American civil liberties have been suspended and then restored. Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus. Franklin D. Roosevelt interned American citizens of Japanese descent. Those measures ended when the wars that prompted them ended. But when will the war on terrorism end? Won't there always be some group somewhere in the world that would blow up an American airliner if it could?

It's not as if we have a major political constituency arguing for the preservation or restoration of civil liberties. The age of Sam Ervin, when being conservative meant being vigilant against threats to constitutional rights, is long past. Most of today's conservatives are enthusiastic backers of a powerful, corporate state (except when it comes to guns, tax rates and benefits for poor people). The Democrats, under President Obama, have evidently decided that they don't care about civil liberties, either. They're not going to expose themselves to attacks from the right that they're soft on terrorism. This is one of the great disappointments of Obama's presidency.

And we have, as a nation, lurched closer to being a police state because of perhaps 3,000 lives lost to terrorism since September 11, 2001. That's roughly one-tenth of the number of American lives lost each year to gun violence or motor vehicle accidents. What privacy and what civil rights will we willingly give up if the nation comes under real stress and some politician promises to keep us safe if we just cede them to him?

I hope I'm wrong about this. I understand that some of the privacy we've given up in recent years has been for the good. I've got no problem, for instance, with cameras in public places helping the police catch rapists and thieves. I hope that future presidents won't abuse the powers taken by Bush and Obama in the name of fighting terrorism. I hope those powers are rolled back as the threat of terrorism recedes. I hope that future governments don't give us cause to form organizations to demand change, the kinds of organizations that J. Edgar Hoover deemed subversive.

But I wouldn't count on it.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) America National Security Agency Snowden civil liberties government govrnment surveillance police state privacy war on terror Tue, 25 Jun 2013 17:30:06 GMT
Where Ralph Lauren Got His Brand Polo is, shall we say, a sport with certain connotations. Not for nothing did the television character Chatsworth Osborne Jr., back in the 1950s,. carry a polo mallet when the producers of "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" wanted a foil to show that Dobie was a solid, middle-class American guy. And Ralph Lifschitz of the Bronx, when he changed his name and created an upscale apparel line, didn't call it Stickball by Ralph Lauren. Let's face it. Any sport where a participant needs three horses and acres of empty ground is not going to involve the masses.

But that's not to say polo is without its charms, many of which are on display on summer Saturday evenings in The Plains, Virginia.

Polo matches once took place on a grassy field near the Mall in the center of Washington. But that was in the day when the city's equine culture and its official culture were more closely intertwined. Half a century ago, the Army still considered riding skill an ornament on an officer's resume. Jacqueline Kennedy rented an estate called Glen Ora in Virginia's horse country, so she could ride each weekend. The nation knew the name of Caroline Kennedy's pony, Macaroni. For the current generation of politicians, an affinity for more plebian sports seems better advised. It probably didn't help Mitt Romney last year that his wife owned a $250,000 dressage horse, especially when he was trying to convince the voters he understood the concerns of folks who think dressage probably has something to do with apparel.

But though it may have faded from the national spotlight a bit, Washington's equestrian world has hardly faded away. It's flourishing in the exurbs of Virginia and Maryland, where subdivisions and strip malls give way to wide, rolling pastures, rail fences, barns, and long driveways lined by allees of stately oaks.

At Great Meadow, out Route 66 near Middleburg and The Plains, the polo season runs roughly from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Classic polo is played by teams of four riders on enormous grass fields, but at Great Meadow, it's an arena sport, played on dirt by three horses and riders per side, in an enclosure that's perhaps 75 yards in length. The matches are played on Saturday evenings, beginning as the sun sets and extending into the evening, under lights.

Polo was invented centuries ago as a pastime for cavalry officers between wars. Its military roots are still readily visible, though the players wield mallets instead of sabres and lances. The players and their horses have got to be able to maneuver deftly in close quarters and switch in an instant from defense to attack. They've got to be able to stay atop a galloping horse while leaning down to swing at the ball.

There are rules to polo, and there are intricate skills required of both horses and riders. But spectators need not understand either to have a sense of the game. When the white ball rolls into one of the closed gates at either end of the enclosure, a bell rings. That's a goal. When the siren goes off, a chukker, or period, is over. There's no equivalent of the infield fly rule.

Maybe that explains why the spectators take such a casual approach to the game. They chat. They eat from picnic baskets or buffets laid out in the box seats along the side of the arena. They use the rail to hold their cocktail glasses and their wine bottles. They text. They chat some more. And when they hear a bell or a siren, they politely applaud. Once in a while, a spectator, usually a girl, leans on the rail and peers intently at the action, mesmerized by the grace and agility of the animals But for most folks, it's a social gathering more than a sporting event. No one turns a cap inside out to urge Polo Yacht Club to mount a final chukker rally against Destiny Stables.

Great Meadow abets the party atmosphere by suggesting a costume theme for the spectators each Saturday evening. On May 25, the theme was "preppy in pink,"  a theme that lent itself to a trip to the Ralph Lauren boutique. (See above right) The following Saturday was hippie night. The Great Meadow crowd seemed to take more naturally to preppy in pink than it did to hippie night, though a team called Guarisco did observe the latter occasion by wearing tie-dyed polo shirts (above left). Somewhere in a San Francisco graveyard, an actual, original hippie may still be rolling over.

Despite its association with wealth, polo is bargain entertainment, whether at Great Meadow or at the Capitol Polo Club  on the Maryland side of the Potomac, in Poolesville. Great Meadow charges only $30 for a carload of spectators. That's less than the Nats get for a single seat in the Red Porch beyond the centerfield wall, less than Wolf Trap charges for a perch on the lawn. It's a visually arresting spectacle for a warm summer Saturday.







]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Great Meadow Polo Club Ralgh Lauren Washington polo Wed, 05 Jun 2013 13:16:08 GMT
Sunny's Legacy I saw a commercial recently for some financial services company. The pitch revolved around the idea that by putting their dough with this company, customers are not merely amassing big piles of grubby money. They're building a legacy. Despite it being the same thing Tywin Lannister is trying to do on Game of Thrones, passing on a legacy seems somehow more elegant and tasteful than just leaving behind a big stack when you exit the table. It has connotations of gratitude, as if the heirs of a man with a legacy are going to spend their lives remembering the old guy fondly and respectfully, as opposed to people who inherit cash, then presumably spend it without a thought for the guy who actually earned it. There's a whiff of immortality about the concept of a legacy.

I doubt this. Cash is cash. If a man's children have been blase and ungrateful about receiving it while he's alive, I don't think his death will change that, even if his will stipulates that they call their windfall a legacy.

What I think is that a person who wants a legacy ought to plant a garden.

I live in a house that my wife and I bought 17 years ago from a widow named Assunta "Sunny" Willis. She was a sweet old woman who had become fearful of living by herself. (She had a rod attached to the door to the basement stairs that she propped in place each night, lest some intruder enter from below.) She accepted a bid that was quite a bit below her asking price after I showed her a picture of our two children, taken when they were at their absolute cutest At the closing, she handed us the keys and said, "Good luck, kids." It was the last time anyone called me a kid.

We bought the house in the dead of winter, so it took another five months for us to understand all that came with it. Sunny had passed along a garden.

In our front yard, daffodils blossom around the dogwood tree each spring. In the back yard, we've got azaleas, hastas, roses, peonies and some pretty things whose names I don't know. Along the back fence, there's a clematis vine. I don't know if Sunny planted it or whether it just happened to be there, but it's a hardy thing. It's survived the replacement of its original fence. It's survived the callous indifference of a lot of guys with pickup trucks who stack firewood over its roots. Something seems to be blooming during most of the year in our yard, but its best month is May, right around now, when the roses and the peonies come out, along with the clematis.

Sunny's favorite color was, I think I can safely say, pink. If there was such a thing as a pink daffodil, I suspect we would have some. There isn't, so we get a little yellow. And we've got some white peonies and the purple clematis. Otherwise, it's as pink as the inside of a bunny rabbit's ear. Pink roses, pink peonies, pink azaleas. If she planted anything besides pink perennials, I don't know about it. Neither my wife and I are gardeners, but every year, Sunny's flowers have come back. I know perennial doesn't mean they'll last forever, but I suspect they may outlast us. I realize it's possible that Sunny's husband, whom I never met, actually planted the flowers. Or some hired help did. But I'm pretty sure Sunny was the one who preferred pink, and every spring I think of her.

Now that's a legacy.




]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Assunta Willis clematis garden legacy peonies roses Thu, 23 May 2013 13:52:13 GMT
Natural Light With the coming of warmer weather, I'm getting a chance to shoot more often with natural light. It's a good thing. No matter how much I learn about using speedlights, umbrellas, reflectors and all the other tools I have, I still find myself liking best the results I get using the sun. Under the right circumstances, of course.

The picture at the top of this post is of was made at the Carriage House Studio in Washington. The subject is Seseg, a young woman from Russia who was interested in expanding her modeling portfolio.

The Carriage House is fortunate to have a couple of windows that face east, fitted with translucent glass. At certain times of the day, when the cloud cover is right, they allow a lovely, diffused sunlight to stream into the studio. This was one of those times. I asked Sesegma to sit on a stool and turn her face to the windows. I set up a tripod and used a shutter speed of 1/40 of a second, with an aperture of f2.8 to throw the background of studio lights out of focus.  I liked the result.

At other times during the shoot, I tried to create a dramatic, chiaroscuro effect using lights. Thus, the picture at right. I used three lights and had to fiddle through several arrays before I got what I was looking for. It's satisfactory. But I don't think it's as good as the image made only with natural light. And it certainly wasn't as easy.

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Carriage House Sesegma Studio natural light Tue, 14 May 2013 15:30:10 GMT
Error on the Writer You may have seen the Washington Nationals play the Chicago Cubs on Saturday, May 11. If you did, you watched Stephen Strasburg shut out the Cubs into the fifth inning. Then, with two outs, Strasburg got Wellington Castillo to hit a bouncing ball that Ryan Zimmerman gobbled up at third base. The inning should have been over, but Zimmerman's throw sailed wide right and pulled first baseman Adam LaRoche off the bag. Castillo was safe and Strasburg seemed rattled. He walked the next hitter, gave up a double to the opposing pitcher, and the debacle was on. By the time the inning ended, the Nats were down 4-0, a deficit from which they would not recover.

The Washington Post this morning assigned blame in equal measure to Zimmerman and Strasburg in its game story. What the Post didn't know and couldn't report was my own role in costing the Nats this game. I am confessing it here.

I don't do much journalism any more, but there is a magazine called Where:Washington for which I am an unofficial sportswriter. It's run by a neighbor named Jean Cohen, who is an expert on museums, restaurants and other attractions for visitors to the city. (The magazine is distributed in hotel rooms.) But sports are not part of Jean's expertise; she out-sources the coverage. I used to write an occasional guide to local golf courses for her, and last year she turned to me when she decided that she wanted the Nats on the July cover. I interviewed Gio Gonzalez for her. It was a light piece, in which I asked Gio about his favorite restaurants and how his dad taught him to throw a curve. Gio was very friendly and easy to work with. So, when Jean asked me to do a similar piece this year, on Ryan Zimmerman, I happily agreed.

I've been a Zimmerman admirer since the Nats signed him out of my alma mater, the University of Virginia, in 2005. For several seasons, he was the only star on some very bad teams. Now he's one of many stars on a very good team. In good years and bad, he has always behaved impeccably.

I met Ryan in the Nats' clubhouse three-and-a-half hours before the game. He was standing in the middle of the locker room, teasing a couple of teammates who were working on their putting strokes with a rubber mat and a plastic golf hole. He hadn't put on his uniform yet, and was dressed in a red pullover, shorts and shower clogs. I introduced myself and reminded him that the club had set up an interview. He amiably took me downstairs and into the home team dugout, which was empty at the time.

(And, yes, I am way past boyhood, but I took a boy's pleasure in being in these environs.)

Ryan was professionally pleasant as I asked him a series of very predictable questions. They ranged from his work with the ziMS Foundation, which has raised over a million dollars for research on multiple sclerosis, a disease which afflicts his mother, to his favorite restaurants. It wasn't exactly hard-hitting journalism.

Then, at the end of the interview, I just had to ask him about his shoulder and the throwing problems that have crept into his game since he injured it back in 2011.

Ryan replied that his shoulder felt fine. He said he'd fallen into some bad habits throwing when he was injured. But he considered it a learning process, one was was still working on.

I should have shut up, but I didn't. Instead, I picked at the wound.

I asked him f he felt that he was thinking too much about throwing mechanics as he played, reminding himself how to throw instead of just seeing the first baseman's glove and hitting it. It's akin to a golfer whose putting stroke has deserted him standing on the green and giving himself a lesson on how to stroke the ball before he hits a putt. That golfer often gets twitchy and misses.

He didn't disagree. I'll save the exact quote for Where: Washington. But he said that over the last year or so, the struggle with his errant throws has been the hardest mental challenge he's dealt with in sports. Four hours later, he made the error that started the Nats' downward spiral against the Cubs.

Would he have made the error anyway? He's made seven throwing errors this year. But he hadn't made any since May 3, when he came back from a two-week layoff due to a pulled hamstring muscle. Did my questions poke a hole in the confidence he'd been building up through eight days of flawless performances? Did I plant the seed of doubt that blossomed as an ugly weed in the fifth inning? I am afraid I did. Ryan didn't say so after the game. He took the responsibility on himself. He's a stoic. The Romans would have liked him.

But I still feel guilty. I just hope the season doesn't come down to the final day, with the Nats losing the division title by a game.




]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Nationals Ryan Washington Zimmerman baseball sportswriting Sun, 12 May 2013 15:49:01 GMT
A Gym for Spartans My wife comes from a family of entrepreneurs in Greenville, S.C., a small city that has evolved from a mill town to a place of many cosmopolitan charms in the years I have been visiting. I suspect it's safe to say that in the long history of successful ventures that family members have started in Greenville, there hasn't been one that's involved quite as much sweat equity as the newest one. 

It's called Swamp Rabbit CrossFit, and it's the baby of William R. Timmons IV, who is the young man performing the dead lift in the picture lower left. (It hurt my back just to watch him do this. If I had tried it, I suspect there would be a new reason to call it the dead lift.) William saw an opportunity when the Greenville Hospital system built a hiker-biker trail, called the Swamp Rabbit Trail, on the banks of the Reedy River. The trail cuts through an area of old, largely abandoned warehouses and industrial facilities just west of downtown. William found an old warehouse and re-purposed it as a CrossFit facility. You can read more about CrossFit on his website.

I didn't have to read anything to know that CrossFit isn't like the country club gym I frequent in Maryland. Before I visited CrossFit, I would have written "the country club gym I work out in," but now I understand that my humble gym routine doesn't really merit the word workout. The difference was immediately evident.

At CrossFit, there are no carpets and no mirrors. The walls are bare brick and the floor is concrete, except for the areas with rubber matting so the members can drop their barbells when they complete their last military presses, just like they do at the Olympics. There are no old guys walking at a stately pace on treadmills, watching Golf Channel on television. There are no treadmills and no televisions.

In my gym, people who want to work their quads sit on the padded seat of the leg extension machine, adjust the weight to something that won't hurt too much, and do twenty reps on a heavy day. At CrossFit, if you want to work your quads, you stand in front of a wooden box. If you're really fit, you jump up and down, onto the box and back to the floor. You go up and down to the point of exhaustion. Then you do some more. (If you're a mere mortal, you can step up on the box, then step back down, as my wife's cousin, Rick Timmons, is doing at right. Rick is a loyal and enthusiastic member of his son's facility.)  Also unlike my country club gym, Swamp Rabbit CrossFit has a few buckets out on the floor, which a member's workout partner will discreetly slide into range if it seems that the person working out is likely to lose his or her lunch.

The staple offering of Swamp Rabbit CrossFit, or any CrossFit gym, is the Workout of the Day. It changes from day to day, but it's usually done in a group. There's a coach, and a prescribed set of exercises. The participants warm up and stretch. The coach demonstrates the exercises in the W.O.D., perhaps pointing out the safest postures for each. Then the participants split into pairs. One works and the other counts and spots. Then they reverse the roles.

The W.O.D.  on March 14 called for each participant to lift and press a barbell five times; the weights varied, depending on the age, gender and fitness level of the member, but the average seemed to be well over 100 pounds. Then they dropped the barbell and did dead lifts with it. Then they went to the box for up-and-downs. Then they did it again. And again. The W.O.D. was timed, and there's a competition to see how many reps of each kind the member can do in the allotted time.

It's intense. Muscles are exhausted. Sweat pops out. Eyeballs bulge. Teeth are bared. When time expires, people fall to the floor and lie there, unable to move. There's a Spartan, military ambience at a CrossFit facility. It's like basic training without rifles and combat boots. All of the movements are described as functional, training the body to do the things it does every day better.

I had a money-making idea as I left William's gym. He sells SwampRabbit CrossFit tee-shirts, and I thought if I bought one, he might pay me not to wear it. Sort of reverse marketing. Then I thought better of it. I don't think I want CrossFit people mad at me. 

]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) CrossFit Greenville Swamp Rabbit CrossFit William Timmons exercise gym Fri, 15 Mar 2013 14:35:47 GMT
Rancho La Puerta Has the Last Laugh I am sitting in my room at a spa called Rancho La Puerta in Baja California, just south of the Mexican border with the United States, and I am looking at a most unusual item of resort room décor. It’s a facsimile of the front page of the San Diego Union of July 13, 1949. On the top left side of the page (across from a hair restoration ad featuring Gene Krupa) is an article headlined “Romanian Professor Founds Cult Across  Border at Tecate.” The subhead reads “Essene School of Life Springs from Brain of Visiting Cabalist.”  And there’s a slug that says “Fourth in a Series on Strange Sects.”

The article, by Edmund Rucker, goes on to describe a visit to what is now Rancho La Puerta, which was then a collection of wooden shacks and tents clustered around two creeks in a dusty valley near Tecate. The guests, to the writer’s evident amusement, walked around in bathing suits, growing their own vegetables, swilling grapefruit juice, claiming that they had the secret to a long, healthy life. He interviewed the founder, Edmond Szekely, who expounded on his theories.

The San Diego Union couldn't seem to decide which to disdain more—Szekely’s European pedigree or his refusal to eat meat.  The article lurched from alarmist-- calling the little operation the seed of a “world girdling, crypto religious health cult”—to scornful, opining that Professor Szekely was selling snake oil.

It’s easy, though, to see why the current owner of Rancho La Puerta, Edmond’s 90-year-old widow  Deborah, would enjoy the idea of her guests reading it. It’s a way of lauding herself and her late husband’s vision. In 1949, their endeavor was easy to disparage. But now, I suspect, no one at the San Diego Union is laughing. The paper is probably wistfully wishing that Rancho La Puerta would throw a little more advertising its way.

Ranch La Puerta has become a huge success. The little encampment has grown into a complex resembling the campus of a prosperous small university. On the map guests are given so they can find their way around, I count well over 100 brick buildings with red-tile roofs spread over hundreds of acres. The guest casitas are tastefully luxurious; mine has polished tile floors, a patio, and a fireplace in the sitting room. There are gyms and classrooms, saunas, heated pools and hot tubs. All of this is enhanced by a thoughtfully designed array of oak trees, cactus, flowering fruit trees, and aromatic herbs like the stand of blue-tinted rosemary growing outside my door. The food is delicious, and there’s still no meat.

Guests move from one class to another through the day, like freshmen pleased to have been admitted and ambitious to succeed. For the last couple of days I attended photography classes taught by a wizard landscape and wildlife photographer from Seattle, Don Paulson. As I write this, I could be taking a Pilates or a yoga class. I could be taking a Spanish class or listening to a visiting lecturer named Emily Boorstein deliver a life-coaching lesson called “Powerful You.” I could be taking a "sound healing" class in which the guests lie on the floor around a Persian rug and an instructor produces deep sounds by striking an array of quartz crystal and Tibetan metal bowls. As part of the sound healing process you’re supposed to imagine that you grow a root from your glutes, down through the floor and deep into the Earth. I couldn’t quite do that when I took the class yesterday. Maybe that’s why my knees still creaked when it was over.

That’s not to say Rancho La Puerta doesn’t deliver on its promise of better health. After five days of meatless, calorie-controlled meals, no alcohol, swimming, walking, stretching and massage, I do feel better. I may even be able to stave off the use of a golf cart for another season.

I can understand why the San Diego Union might have failed to foresee all of this back in 1949. The Essene School of Life, after all, was founded by one of those candy-assed Europeans the U.S. of A. had only recently beaten or bailed out in World War II. More importantly, the rise of Rancho La Puerta was due to some tectonic cultural shifts that were hard to anticipate.

How could the San Diego Union have envisioned that in the coming decades, a significant number of Americans would cease being satisfied with mass-produced, processed food? Californians had grown up with textbooks that lauded the invention of frozen food and the chemicals that made it abundant. How could it have envisioned that Americans would grow tired of growing fat in an automobile culture? Californians were too busy inventing the freeway to think much about its consequences. And how could the newspaper have foreseen that Americans would grow disenchanted with having their spirituality administered in 45-minute doses each Sunday at the Protestant church of their choice, or come to distrust their doctors and the medical-industrial complex?

The newspaper failed to foresee the feminist revolution in American culture, a revolution very important to the success of Ranch La Puerta. It created a class of women empowered to choose and pay for their own vacations.  Women make up about nine-tenths of the spa’s clientele, and their tastes dominate. Men are accommodated, graciously, but there is no golf course, there is no bar, there are no big-screen TVs.

The San Diego Union also failed to anticipate another revolution, the advent of the internet. It has hollowed out the American newspaper business. When I Googled the San Diego Union this week, I found that it has laid off half its staff in recent years and is struggling to stay alive. The internet, I imagine, has been a net plus for Rancho La Puerta, another effective marketing tool.

Somewhere in vegetarian heaven, I suspect that Edmond Szekely is drinking grapefruit juice and smiling about that.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Baja California Diego La Mexico Puerta Rancho San Union newspapers spas Fri, 22 Feb 2013 21:44:28 GMT
A Pink Panther Grows Up A couple of decades ago, I was asked to coach my daughter Catherine's soccer team. I didn't know anything about soccer. Fortunately, the girls, then around nine years old, were too young to understand that. My defensive scheme was based vaguely on the zone principles I'd observed back in my days covering  college basketball for the Associated Press. On offense, my only "game plan" was to spread out and pass the ball around in hopes something good would happen. It worked for a couple of years. By the time the girls were old enough to figure out how little I knew, the better ones were moving on to select teams and the less adept were taking up other pastimes.

I enjoyed working with all of them, in particular a girl named Meg Jensen. That's Meg on the left and that's also Meg, fifth from the right in the team picture I have had hanging on my office wall for 18 years. (Thank you, Kathleen Rose, for taking it.) Meg was a pretty good player, but it was her attitude that made her special in my eyes. She never complained that it was too cold, or too wet, or too hot. She never whined when she got knocked around on the field. She always paid attention and tried to do what I asked. Suppose, after three quarters, the Pink Panthers were being shellacked, 6-0, and our goalie needed a break. I knew I could ask Meg to be the keeper for the final quarter, and I knew she'd say, "Okay, Coach," and try her best. At the age of 10, she was a rock.

I sometimes wondered, during those years, what the girls would be like when they grew up. But, as was inevitable, I lost track of most of them. People move, and they go to different schools, and then the girls go away to college and for some inexplicable reason, they fail to check in with their old soccer coaches.   

A few years ago, I learned that Meg was teaching elementary school in Prince George's County, where I was working. Then, a year or so later, I heard that she was dating Peter Stewart, the son of some old friends. I had a chance to talk to Meg a couple of times at the Stewarts'. Not surprisingly, she was doing very well as an educator. She's now the assistant principal of a charter school in Philadelphia. From all I can gather, she's dedicated to improving educational opportunity for kids who could use a break. And she's very good at what she does.

So I was pleased when Bruce Stewart asked me to take pictures at the rehearsal dinner the night before Meg and Peter's wedding on February 9.

It was a great occasion. The food was spicy, and so were the toasts. The parents were justifiably very proud. The bridegroom, who's become an engineer, was handsome. Meg's happiness was evident on her face and in the way she hugged her friends and relatives. (That's Meg with Peter, listening to a toast by their friends, Tripp Pearce and J.P. Finlay. From Peter's expression, I think I took this shot while Tripp was describing the time Peter tried to throw a firecracker out of a car--through a closed window.) Jed Seifert, one of the groomsmen, even was magnanimous when he recalled the pre-school grammar class that Bruce and I organized and helped to teach when the boys were in the fourth grade and not, it seemed to us, learning to write well enough. (I didn't recall Jed or Peter or my son Peter being magnanimous when they actually had to attend the class, but it was a night for nostalgia.)

I was pleased that in a small way, I was part of the village that raised the couple. I was pleased that Peter Stewart grew up to be a lucky man. He's marrying a beautiful girl--who's still a rock.





]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) it takes a village weddings Sat, 09 Feb 2013 17:20:05 GMT
The Joys of January An article in the Times the other day caught my eye. Under the headline "January Is the Cruelest Month," it stated, as if this were news, "By late January many of us residing in northern latitudes aren’t sleeping well, overeat and are looking forward to the long sunlit days of July."

Well, duh. I've known that for years.

Not sleeping well? Check.

Overeating? Check.

It might have gone on:

Grouchy? Check.

Blue? Check.

Procrastinating? Check.


Huh? Oh, yeah. Check.

The article attributed this seasonal malaise to lack of sunlight and the way that the sun's absence disrupts internal mechanisms that are rooted in our DNA. I've suspected this for a long time. My great-grandparents were all Irish. But I believe that my more relevant forebears were natives of a tropical isle who got shipwrecked in Ireland for a couple of generations before heading to the U.S.A. My body is not designed to endure long, dark winters.

Which is, so it seems to me, what we get in Washington. Our winters are pernicious. They're not so severe that you can cheer yourself by feeling that you've accomplished something by surviving. They're just long enough, and cold enough, and gray enough to be depressing. It's been worse this month because my back went out a few weeks ago and I had to cancel a trip to Italy that was supposed to alleviate my blahs.

I know. There are billions of people in poor parts of the world who would gladly exchange their problems for mine. Right now, I don't care. Let them get their own blogs.

My rampaging Seasonal Affective Disorder (the medical term) got so bad this week that I decided to go to Nats Fest. Nats Fest is yet another manifestation of the genius of American marketing departments. They're starting to persuade us to pay them to market to us. I pay money to wear a hat that advertises a golf course. The golf course should pay me to wear the hat, but it doesn't. The Nats had the audacity to charge $20 to come to the Washington Convention Center to let them try to sell you game tickets, souvenir jerseys and autographed baseballs. Had I been in my right mind, I would have sneered. But I was so desperate for reassurance that winter will end that I went. The Nats are, after all, the boys of summer.

I walked to the Metro station at Friendship Heights. There was a damp, chill wind and the sun was a vague smudge behind lowering gray clouds. Travel by Metro on a Saturday is almost as excruciating as January. If the Metro system gets any more decrepit, it might as well tear up the tracks and turn the tunnels into bicycle trails. One track was under repair between Union Station and DuPont Circle. There was a delay and then another delay. And when I got to Metro Center, the escalators were out of commission. The picture above and left, of the egress from the station, is as close as I can come to a visual representation of the season.

Evidently, I am not the only one suffering from the January malaise. Thousands of people paid their way into the convention center, standing in long lines to get pictures taken, to pay for autographs, to watch the Nationals unveil the latest racing president: William Howard Taft. I am not a fan of the Taft decision, I should add. I agree that the racing presidents bit needed a makeover. But I would have liked to see a quartet of recent presidents: Bush II, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton. That lineup could cause some bile to flow. Or maybe an all-obscure quartet: Van Buren, Buchanan, Pierce and Fillmore. Fans could win prizes for identifying the winner.

At least a thousand fans pressed into a makeshift press conference enclosure for the chance to ask questions of Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Christian Garcia and Tyler Moore. They were toughies. What's your favorite restaurant? (Harper favors Guapo's.) What sort of car to you drive? Werth said he had a monster truck. Moore had a sports car whose precise brand was indecipherable to my non Mississippi ears. Harper had a Mercedes. So did Garcia, and he was a September-call-up rookie relief pitcher last season. Werth said he had a Mercedes, too.

Werth, by the way, looked like he's been spending the off-season in a cave in the North Woods. His hair flowed down his back. His beard obscured his neck. To say he looked like Ted Kaczyznski would be to insult the Unabomber's standard of grooming. Indeed, it appears that a lot of Nats pass the off season staying in shape by running away from razors. Second baseman Danny Espinosa (signing autographs at left, above) looked like he was trying to get traded to the House of David.

I thought about standing in line for half an hour for a chance to have my picture takern with the Nats' new centerfielder, Denard Span, at right. But I didn't. Span and the rest of the team may have only a couple of weeks until it's time to begin spring training down in Florida. I don't have Spring to look forward to until Spring. 

So I went home. There's an exhibition down on the Mall at the Hirschorn Museum by the dissident Chinese artist Ang Wei Wei. From what I understand, Ang took tons of twisted rebar from the wreckage of poorly built schools in which thousands of children died during the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. Ang  and his staff straightened the rebar and re-fashioned it into abstract sculpture which is said to remind some viewers of prison bars and others of seismic faults. 

I think I'll go see it tomorrow. It might cheer me up.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Affective Ang Disorder Fest January Nats Seasonal Washington Wei Wei. blues Sun, 27 Jan 2013 01:28:58 GMT
What School Reform Ought to Look Like I shot the young woman above in the traditional theatrical director's pose, because she is, in fact, a director. Her name is Olivia Delaplaine, though she prefers to be called Chewey, a nickname she picked up at the age of three, when she had a passing tendency to gnaw on her sleeves. Now she's a high school sophomore. Her production of a play called "4 A.M." will be on the boards at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School on Friday evening, January 25, at 7:30.

I write this in part to suggest that readers in the Washington area could do worse than to stop by and see it.  Tickets cost only half of what a movie goes for these days and "4 A.M." is a fast, funny comedy, written by Jonathan Dorf, about what adolescents are thinking in the wee hours of the morning. The list is not that different from what I remember thinking about at that age: the opposite sex, homework, the tribulations of the high school cafeteria, the opposite sex. There are, however a couple of characters who, for some reason, have an urge to go jogging at that hour. I don't remember having such an urge when I was 15. 

I ran (figuratively) into Chewey and her cast and crew a week or so ago, when I passed by a bake sale they were having to raise funds for the play. I am a sucker for both sweets and good kids doing good things, so I bought a piece of cake and then volunteered to make some pictures at a rehearsal to help them publicize their effort.

But I write this not so much to help Chewey and her friends sell out their performance. I write it because what they're doing exemplifies the way public school reform ought to be going in this country--and generally isn't. 

Chewey's production of "4 A.M." is part the Middle Years Program at B-CC. The idea is to give students in grades 6-10 a more challenging curriculum, culminating in what's called the "Personal Project" in 10th grade. For their personal projects, students have to pick a faculty adviser and write an acceptable proposal. Then they execute the project and make a detailed presentation.

Chewey decided that she wanted to direct a play.  She picked "4 A.M.," which belongs to a genre I didn't know existed: the play written with high school performers in mind.  She got her faculty supervisor's approval. She recruited a cast and crew, managed rehearsals, and booked B-CC's well-equipped theater. When the play has run, she'll prepare a presentation for the big event in April when all the school's personal projects go on display. And she's doing all of this pretty much by herself. There is no faculty director for "4 A.M."

B-CC's Middle Years Program is designed to prepare kids for the International Baccalaureate curriculum the school offers to 11th- and 12th-graders. What the kids learn from their projects, of course, is not so much what they put down on paper or, in Chewey's case, on stage. It's initiative. It's organization. It's creativity. It's time management. They'll need those skills to succeed in the rigorous I.B. program. They'll need them to succeed in life.

Those skills, of course, are in the very air at elite private schools like Sidwell Friends in Washington, where Sasha and Malia Obama are students. I know this in part because a few weeks ago, I watched my nephew, who is a year behind Sasha at Sidwell, put on an impromptu play with two of his fourth-grade friends--in Chinese. These skills are instilled in at least some quarters of elite public schools like B-CC.

But although Sasha and Malia's father made the required genuflection to public school reform in his Inaugural Address, the actual policies his administration is pushing are moving most public schools down a different road than the one Sasha, Malia, and Chewey are traveling. Obama has essentially bought into the Bush administration's notion that standardized tests are the appropriate measure of performance for students, teachers and public schools. The Obama administration is sandpapering a few of the rough edges on the Bush model, but it's not really changing it.

The result is that at struggling public schools like Central High in Prince George's County, MD, where I had a five-year second career teaching English, little or no thought is given to whether students are, or could be, producing plays. The school's every effort is devoted to raising test scores. In practice, this means that teachers and students are compelled to spend ever growing blocks of time on the tests--studying and re-studying the limited slice of grammar rules and algebra functions that past tests suggest will be on future tests. Studying things (and God save me, I taught this) like the smartest strategies for answering multiple-choice questions and filling in the appropriate bubble. The distance between Central High, east of D.C., and Sidwell and B-CC to the northwest, is not much on a map. In practice, it's huge.  

I know. B-CC and Sidwell are working with different kids than the ones at Central. Sidwell is both very expensive and very selective. B-CC has a diverse student population, but the core comes from a wealthy suburban area. That was evident at the play rehearsal I attended. For their costume sleepwear, several kids in Chewey's cast selected tee-shirts and sweat pants emblazoned with the names of colleges like Duke, Colby and Michigan, places their parents or older siblings attended.

It wouldn't be easy to establish a Middle Years Program at Central High and expect the sophomores there to do year-long personal projects. (And not every sophomore at B-CC does a project; it's an option for kids who choose to take it, or for those whose parents prod them to take it.) The reality at Central High is that students arrive in the 10th grade with a load of unhelpful ballast dragging them down. That ballast includes some poor teachers and poor schools in their past. It includes a radically different home and neighborhood environment from the one that produces students for Sidwell Friends. Successful 16-year-olds are the products of an almost infinite number of helpful inputs, only some of which can come from the school. Unsuccessful 16-year-olds have a different history, and they aren't as fun to work with as Chewey's cast. One year I divided my 10th grade English class into three "troupes" and assigned each troupe to stage an excerpt of 60 lines or so from Act One of "Julius Caesar." In my rubric for the project, I told them that to get an A, they would have to memorize their lines.

"Mr. Cullen, you can't expect kids here to memorize lines," I was told by Danaya Brown, perhaps the brightest student in that class.  I challenged that. I pointed out that all around the world, kids whose first language wasn't English were memorizing and performing Shakespeare. I tried to goad them. Was the "here" in Danaya's statement, I asked her, a proxy for saying that minority kids like Central's students couldn't be expected to memorize Shakespeare? In response, they only glared at me. And when the time came for their performances, all but one of them carried a text and read their lines.

No doubt Chewey Delaplaine is a better motivator of sophomores than I was. But the difference between my experience and hers, I think, is the difference between what our public schools should be and what they too often are. The task of compensating for that kind of gap is indeed a daunting one, one that dwarfs the actual ability of a school system to deliver compensatory teaching and social services. That's why public school reformers resort to forcing schools to meet certain targets for standardized tests. The tests are relatively cheap. They generate reams of the sort of data that give bureaucrats something to chew on. They probably have jolted schools that were too long complacent about low student achievement.  They may even have rooted out some incompetent teachers and principals, which is good. But in the end, I fear, all of this will lead to a situation in which kids like Chewey, Sasha and Malia finish their educations prepared to lead and succeed and kids at schools like Central graduate prepared to fill in the bubbles on standardized tests.

I don't begin to think I could sit down and write out a public school reform program that would address this gap without spending inconceivable sums of money, money that simply isn't available. And money alone wouldn't solve all the problems. But I do wish, rather wistfully, that the president and his education secretary would order up the limo on Friday evening, drive up Connecticut Avenue to B-CC and see Chewey's play. Maybe it would give them a sense of what successful public school reform would look like.     







]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School education school reform Thu, 24 Jan 2013 15:56:15 GMT
Good Kids It's impossible to pick up the newspaper these days without reading something grim or horrifying about American public schools. One day it's declining test scores. Another day it's the massacre in Connecticut. This morning the Washington Post featured a story about a six-year-old who's been suspended from a school in Silver Spring for pointing his finger at other kids and saying, "Pow."

So it was a pleasure for me today to visit Central High in Prince George's County, Maryland, where I taught English from 2006 to 2011. The occasion was an awards ceremony for Central's International Baccalaureate program. The program's new coordinator, Dr. Cathy Jones, wants to make this an annual event, and I hope she succeeds. This was an occasion that showcased the kids who are too often overlooked in the media discussion of public education, the kids who do well.

The picture above shows two students who did exceptionally well, Nikki Barlow and Tobi Oke from Central's Class of 2012. They earned the International Baccalaureate diploma by making high grades on a battery of six diifficult, comprehensive exams. Each exam takes several hours. The answers are written, not bubbled in. The papers are graded not in the school but by an international panel of educators. Nikki and Tobi were the first Central students to achieve this honor since 2006. In addition to their diplomas, they got letters of congratulation from President Obama. I hope their success inspires the current Central I.B. students, who attended the event. It's helpful for students in a school like Central, who hear from society in so many ways that they're likely to fail, to see proof that they can succeed.

But Nikki and Tobi were not the only students from Central's IB program who are doing well. Dr. Jones invited alumni of the program to attend, and a lot of college kids, at home for Christmas break, showed up. Renee Plummer, the valedictorian of the class of 2010, was the keynote speaker. She is a Dean's List student at Howard, on a pre-med track, working toward her goal of becoming a pediatrician. She spoke about how the study habits she learned in IB, plus a lot of firm proddding from her mother, have helped her succeed in college. That's Renee at right.

I had a chance to catch up with many wonderful kids whom I had the privilege of teaching. The group on the left below is from the Class of 2011. The young lady in the middle, Ruth Tyson, is a sophomore at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Ruth told me she's doing well academically and has become a vegan. She's also discovered a way to get around the biggest problem she had in my English 11 class, which was being late for the 7:45 am bell. At St. Mary's, she doesn't take any classes that meet earlier than noon. That's fine with me. It shows that Ruth is taking advantage of the freedom and opportunity college affords her to learn and grow--and sleep in, too. 

The Central honors event affirmed a few ideas I took away from my stint as a teacher. The first is that parents, not the school, nearly always deserve the credit for a successful child. Tobi and Nikki both had parents who were well educated and insisted that their children do well in school. Good parenting is a combination of setting a good example and mixing love and support with discipline. Nikki and Tobi were both blessed in this regard. So was virtually every kid in the Central High auditorium today.  I've met nearly all their parents, and I respect them enormously.

And, yes, of course, I know that the kids themselves deserve a lot of credit. Just having good parents guarantees nothing. At Central, I saw way too many kids whose parents watched them constantly and badgered them to do their homework--and who still wound up in jail or on the street. A kid at Central is never far away from an opportunity to get into trouble--or to have trouble find him. It takes character to keep on doing the right thing.

Nikki's and Tobi's success also underscored for me the critical importance of teaching children to write. (Both of them came to my 11th grade class already knowing how to do this; see comments above re parents.) Nikki and Tobi are very bright, but I had kids equally bright. Nikki and Tobi are both diligent, but I had other, equally diligent kids. But I didn't have many smart, diligent kids who wrote as clearly and grammatically as Tobi and Nikki did. And that's a disgrace.  Our public schools for too long have mimimized the importance of spelling and grammar; they have placed too much importance on golden calves like "teaching children to express themselves" or "showing critical thinking." Even worse, they now tend to sacrifice the teaching of writing in favor of teaching kids to fill in the right bubbles on standardized tests. It wasn't always this way. Kids at one time started their educations in what were known, for good reason, as grammar schools. I wish they still did.

But enough ranting. And back to the good news. The I.B. program also deserves some credit. It's criticized by some as being elitist. There's a group of right-wingers who regard it as part of the international conspiracy to undermine the independence of the United States. But it's a great program. I wish every public school had one. It gives kids who want to strive an arena conducive to striving.

And, last, the teachers and administrators at Central deserve a pat on the back. I know that the principals and I.B. coordinators under whom I worked tried very diligently to improve the program. They helped me to improve my own teaching substantially each year I was part of the program staff. In general, schools and their staffs get too much of the blame and too much of the credit when student performance goes down or goes up. But all of the folks at Central High had reason to be proud today.


]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Central High International Baccalaureate education public schools Thu, 03 Jan 2013 23:35:01 GMT
Buying Local for the Holidays VII: Hand-Crafted Sea Kayaks The Washington area is blessed with an abundance of great paddling water. There is whitewater just outside the city to the west on the Potomac River and many of its tributaries. And there's flatwater closer to Atlantic, especially along the Chesapeake Bay. It's no accident that many of America's Olympic paddlers live and train in the area. So I asked a friend of mine, David Cottingham, to suggest a locally produced gift for the paddling enthusiast.

Cotton knows what he's talking about. He grew up paddling the Chattooga River on the border of Georgia and South Carolina. That's the river that starred in the great  1972 film, Deliverance. He's paddled the Grand Canyon in an open canoe, which he knows how to roll. Back in my paddling days, the only thing I could do with a canoe that flipped over was fall out. So I respect Cotton's opinion.

He suggested a kit for building a wooden sea kayak. The kit is produced by a company called Chesapeake Light Craft in Annapolis. "I have two," Cotton said, "and they're beautiful."

Yes, they are.

I went to the Chesapeake Light Craft showroom and workshop in a little industrial park not far from where Route 50 enters the city from the west. Maybe a dozen boats hung, gleaming, on the walls. There is something elegant about the look of real wood, bent to a purposeful, graceful shape, sanded and varnished. It just looks good. And, I learned, it's practical. It's got a better weight-to-strength ratio than plastic or fiberglass. You wouldn't, of course, want a wooden kayak for whitewater paddling--too many rocks. But for a sea kayak, it's ideal.

Joey Schott, the sales manager, showed me around. That's Joey in the photo above, doing a little filing on a personal project, a 17-foot kayak called a Petrel.

You can't generally order a finished Petrel, or any other boat, from CLC. The company sells kits. It licenses designs for kayaks, canoes, sailboats, rowboats and even a couple of small motorboats. It takes raw lumber from Maine and Washington state and turns it into all the pieces that you'll need to build your boat. It offers classes to teach you to build the boat. You supply tools, a workspace, paint, varnish and anywhere from 80 to 250 hours of work.

So a CLC kayak isn't a gift for the person who needs instant gratification. Maybe you should get that person the new iPhone. The person who receives a sea kayak kit will need patience and resolve. But if he or she has those virtues, there will come a morning when the gleaming, burled-maple prow of a hand-crafted kayak slices smoothly, noiselessly, gracefully into still, pellucid water. Maybe a mist will be hanging over the surface. And your gift recipient will think, "I made this."

Can't do that with an iPhone.




]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Chesapeake Light Craft Christmas buy local kayak Thu, 20 Dec 2012 19:31:26 GMT
Little Havana: The Ghetto as Tourist Attraction There are distinct stages in the evolution of American urban neighborhoods. First, I suppose, is the real estate boom phase. Someone makes money turning farmland into houses, streets and stores. I don't know exactly when this happened in the life cycle of Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, but it must have been a long time ago. It's hard to imagine who first owned the little cinder-block-and-stucco houses in the neighborhood--retirees from the North? Blue-collar workers in World War II Miami? But someone did.

It's a little easier to guess when the neighborhood became Cuban. Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, and the exodus of Cubans who hated or feared him began shortly after that. I suspect many Little Havana residents would not like to hear their neighborhood described as a ghetto, because of the connotations of crime and social disorder that word carries. But Little Havana became a ghetto in the sense that people of one ethnicity crowded into it.

This, too, seems a standard American development. It's happened in countless neighborhoods across the United States.

In the next stage, the new ghetto becomes somewhat alienated from the rest of the metropolitan area. In the minds of the majority white population, there's a red line around it. (That red line probably was more than imaginary in the offices of banks and mortgage lenders.) It seems dangerous.

The neighborhood residents, meanwhile, demarcate their turf. Little Havana has countless streets and pieces of sidewalk dedicated to heros of the anti-Castro movement, including one named for Ronald Reagan, who didn't dislodge Castro but pleased the locals by talking a good fight. It's got its famous park for playing dominos. It's got its Spanish-language theaters and its cigar stores, and its cafes offering Cuban cuisine.

From this point, the next stage for most American ghettos might be decline (see Detroit or Baltimore) or it might be decline-followed-by-gentrification (see Manhattan and Brooklyn). But Little Havana has gone in a different direction. It's becoming a tourist attraction. I suspect this is because so many Europeans visit Miami Beach. You can only sit on the beach or in the bars of Ocean Drive for so long. Then, if you're a European, you'd like a quick, guided tour to a piece of Americana you've seen on television. If you're at the Grand Canyon, you might go to a rodeo. Since you're in Miami, you go to Little Havana. Nowadays, tourist buses make their way slowly along Calle Ocho, Little Havana's main drag, stopping frequently so the visitors can gawk. Or shop. Little Havana these days looks like the major industry of Cuba in the 1950s must have been trinkets and paintings, because Calle Ocho is full of galleries and gift shops.

There's a lot to gawk at. In front of the cigar stores, there are cigar-store Indians. Both cigar stores and cigar-store Indians have been disappearing from most American neighborhoods; there's the whole tobacco-and-health thing, plus the whole racism thing when it comes to the Indian. But Little Havana evidently gets a minorities-can't-be-racist exemption for the Indians and an indigenous-culture exemption for the cigars. Nowadays, there are old Cuban gentleman wearing cowboy hats and smoking next to the Indians. They gladly pose for pictures, and a photo op can quickly turn into a shopping op.

Down the street, an artist works on a canvas, surrounded by a friendly little knot of onlookers. He's painting a big, brightly colored scene, but it's not the scene in front of him. It's a romantic picture of a boy, and a girl, and a guitar player in what appears to be a stylized, Latin American city. Perhaps it's the Havana he remembers. Perhaps it's the Havana his parents told him about. Perhaps it's what he thinks the tourists think Old Havana looked like. Hard to tell.

A little further down the street, there's Domino Park. Foursomes of Cuban-Americans play their favorite table game. Along the wall, there's an old man, who beckons to the guy with the camera. What country are you from? he asks. He seems a little disappointed to learn that the photographer is from the United States. He says he knows the capital of every American state--challenge him. South Dakota? Pierre. Nevada? Carson City. He also knows the names of every American president from Washington to Obama and the states in which they were born. Okay. Who was president after Franklin Pierce? Buchanan, the old man says, the only bachelor president. His sweetheart died when he was young.

Then he wants to play the game for $20. Ask him a question and if he gets the answer right pay him the money. But he's cheerful when the photographer demurs.  Lets the photographer take his picture anyway. Little Havana is a mellow tourist trap.

Across Calle Ocho there's a shop that deserves, in my opinion, to attract visitors from around the world. It's called Azucar, and it sells terrific ice cream. That's a kid called Alex, on the right, who works there. Alex provided my wife and me with a cup of rum raisin and a cup of a flavor called eggnog (to mark the season). They were both infused with rum, and they both melted quickly, but while they lasted, they were delicious. Alex was wearing a tee-shirt with "Alabao!" written across the front. He told me it means "Badass" in Spanish. I don't know if it does or not. He seemed like a nice kid, and the woman behind him in the photo wore a shirt that said "La Jefe," which even I know means "The Boss." So how much of a badass could Alex be?

But the shirt was for sale, of course, and I bought one. It'll be a present for my son. It's corny, but it would have been worse. It could have said, "My parents visited world-famous Little Havana and all I got was this lousy tee-shirt."











]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Little Havana Miami tourism Thu, 13 Dec 2012 00:07:46 GMT
Buying Local for the Holidays VI: Bespoke Golf Clubs Buying golf clubs used to be like buying a suit at a department store. You went in, they pulled a suit off the rack, a tailor hemmed the pants. And that was it. With golf clubs, the process was similar. Maybe you went to a sporting good store. Maybe a pro shop sold them to you. You might get to hit a few shots off a sheet of hard plastic with some paper attached to the clubhead so the salesman could at least set you up with irons that lay flat on the ground when you addressed the ball. But that was about it.

Technology has so improved on that process that nowadays a self-respecting golf pro would no more think about using off-the-shelf clubs than the Prince of Wales would go to Marks & Spencer and buy an off-the-rack suit. The prince has a tailor to make him bespoke suits. And the golf pro has bespoke clubs.

For the latest in my buy-local-for-the-holidays series, I am suggesting a purveyor of custom golf clubs, Wade Heintzelman of Golf Care Center in Bethesda.  Wade and his partner, Jack Goldsby, don't make clubs from absolute scratch; they use components, many of them made abroad. But the real product they're selling is indeed local. That product is the expertise they bring to bear in helping their clients acquire clubs that are made to measure for their golf games.

Measurement is one of the first things Wade does with a customer. He measures, among other things, the size of the player's hands and the distance from the tips of the hands to the floor when the player has her hands at her sides. Then he has the player hit balls off a mat into a net. Various monitors observe, record and analyze the process. I watched Wade work with a woman who was hitting 7-iron shots into the net. "That ball traveled 106 yards, it was low, and it had a draw," he told her after one shot. The customer nodded. That was roughly her 7-iron distance. She didn't think she had a characteristic ball flight. But the low draw was among the shots she hits.

After each swing, Wade consulted a computer that was hooked up to the various monitors. It recorded and graphed data on swing speed, the ball's spin rate, etc. These data determine a lot of the recomendations Wade will make for a customer, including the things most golfers know about: the basic weight and length of the clubs, the flexibility of the club shafts and the angle of loft on the driver. They'll also help determine specifications that are more arcane, like the kick point on each shaft. I've read half a dozen explanations of kick point and I am still uncertain what it means or why it's important. But I have faith in its importance. I've had too many pros tell me how much proper fitting has improved their games to believe otherwise.

Some stores and club pros these days have some of the observation tools Wade has. They can at least measure a player's swing speed.  But few, if any of them, can match what Wade and Jack do for customers after the measurements are taken. That's because stores want to sell you what they stock. Pro shops specialize in a couple of brands, and they are basically middlemen between the golfer and the manufacturer. Golf Care Center isn't wedded to any stock items or any brands. 

Golf Care Center assesses the client's needs and matches them to the best combination of shafts, clubheads and grips from the myriad of choices out there. They may, decide, for instance, that a Taylor-Made clubhead is right for the customer. But they don't think that the shafts that Taylor-Made puts in its clubs are the right ones. So they recommend shafts from a company that doesn't do business with Taylor-Made. When the components come in, Jack cuts, grinds, wraps and assembles them. Then the clubs are ready.

Wade and Jack will also work with customers who want to be fitted but wish to remain loyal to their club pro. Golf Care Center will provide specs that the club pro can use in ordering a new set of clubs.  Choosing this option may mean foregoing the possibility of letting Golf Care Center mix and match components from different manufacturers. But a lot of players feel they owe their business to their club and its pro.

I can't say how much custom clubs will improve a player's game. It depends in part on the equipment that the custom clubs replace. If the old equipment was badly mismatched to the player's swing, big improvements are possible. If a player's already got well-fitted clubs, the possible improvements are smaller. And no set of clubs is going to turn a player who can't break 90 into a club champion overnight. The tools are important, but not as important as how they're used. You can dress Quasimodo in a bespoke tuxedo, but the other kids at the prom will still see a guy with a hump on his back.

Still, if you've got a golfer on your Christmas list and you want to buy local, a gift certificate from Golf Care Center is hard to beat.  






]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Bethesda Golf Care Center Maryland buy local fitting golf golf clubs Sun, 09 Dec 2012 15:18:13 GMT
Buying Local for the Holidays V: Biography of U Street If Washington has an archetypal product, it is verbiage. Detroit produced, or used to produce, cars. Pittsburgh made steel. Los Angeles turns out movies. The industry of Washington has always been words--political rhetoric, legislation, regulations, and, on occasion, words worth reading. So the next in my series of suggestions for Washingtonians who would buy locally for the holidays is a book. Specifically, an excellent book by Blair Ruble called Washington's U Street: A Biography. As local gifts go, it's a twofer, both about Washington and written by a Washingtonian.

The author is one of Washington's true polymaths. When I met him, many years ago, he was director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution, a long title that boiled down to running an academic organization for the study of the Soviet Union. He helped make the Kennan Institute perhaps the world's preeminent venue for discussing issues between the United States and the Soviets. He could do this because he quietly maintained excellent relations with academia in Russia and the other Soviet republics; a steady stream of interesting experts came to Washington for stints as guest scholars. Now his title at the Wilson Center is Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience. I can only guess at what it does, though I am sure it will be useful. Blair is also an expert on urban issues and jazz, and he takes a strong interest in the Washington Nationals.

Jazz led him to U Street, a place that encapsulates much of the city's history, for better and for worse. U Street runs between 16th Street NW and 7th Street NW. 16th Street was once Washington's most elegant avenue, a place of castles and embassies and, needless to say, a place where white people resided and black people served. At the other end of U Street was Howard University, the nexus for Washington's black intelligenstia, and Griffith Stadium, where the Washington Senators and the Homestead Grays both played. In between, Blair writes, U Street served as a kind of crack between the white world and the black world. For a brief time, it was a neighborhood for both whites and blacks, at least insofar as whites lived in the townhouses facing the street and blacks lived in the shanties back in the alleys. But its diversity didn't survive the end of Reconstruction and the rise of the Jim Crow era. U Street became a black neighborhood in a largely segregated city. (One example of the times: At the end of U Street, the hapless Senators remained all white well into the 1950s, while the Homestead Grays had Hall of Fame talent that never escaped from the old Negro Leagues. That was Washington.)

U Street thrived, in its way, through the middle of 20th Century. It was a center for black entertainment, "the Black Broadway."  Duke Ellington grew up in the neighborhood and performed at the Howard Theater, at the eastern end of the street. Artists from Pearl Bailey to Harry Belafonte could be heard in U Street clubs. Those clubs first drew Blair Ruble's attention to U Street. 

But the street suffered from violence twice in the last century. Blair describes how in 1919, mobs of whites, angered by the Great Migration influx of blacks into the city and incited by inflammatory reporting in the Washington Post, stormed through the U Street neighborhood, beating up blacks. In 1968 rioting erupted in the neighborhood after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Much of U Street burned.

This is an event still vivid in the memories of many Washingtonians. As I was setting up to photograph Blair, a woman named Sandy, who was waiting for a bus, volunteered to help. As we worked, Sandy told me that she moved to Washington from North Carolina as a girl, in 1967. She and her mother lived near the corner of 12th and U. She remembers the heavy smoke that hung in the air for days after the rioting began. She remembers having to stay in the house until she could barely stand the confinement. She remembers looking at troops patrolling her street. She decided they looked thirsty, and she wanted to go outside to give them some water. Her mother told her to stay inside. (That's Sandy, on the right in a shot I took before Blair arrived.)

U Street stayed dangerous long after the smoke cleared, the troops departed, and Sandy grew up. When I moved to Washington in 1976, the corner of 14th and U was the most notorious outdoor drug market in the city. I considered it a no-go zone on foot, and I drove through with the windows rolled up and the doors locked. 

Slowly, though, U Street has changed. Gentrification began sometime in the 1990s, and U Street is now home to gyms, cafes, boutiques, louche condos and other signs of yuppie culture. For the moment, it's a neighborhood that continues to host many of the landmarks of black Washington, like Ben's Chili Bowl, where President Obama dined with Mayor Adrian Fenty after his election in 2008, and the restored Howard Theater, which reopened in 2012 after 32 inactive years. (Both Blair and Sandy are posing in front of the restored theater.) But it remains to be seen whether U Street can pull off the very difficult feat of becoming a neighborhood that is both diverse and stable.

Blair ends his U Street history on a hopeful note, recounting what happened on the night Obama was first elected, when black and white residents alike made U Street the epicenter of a spontaneous outdoor celebration. But he's too careful a scholar to make any bold predictions about what U Street will look like 20 or 30 years from now.

I can predict, however, that Blair's book will be a welcome gift for anyone interested in Washington or urban issues in general. You could get it from, of course. But the giver with a real interest in buying locally will pick it up at a store like Politics & Prose on Connecticut Avenue. That would make the book a local gifting trifecta--by a Washingtonian, about Washington, and sold in a store owned by Washingtonians. What could be better than that?  





]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Blair Ruble Christmas U Street Washington Washington history Washington's U Street: A Biography buying local gentrification history urban affairs Fri, 07 Dec 2012 10:00:00 GMT
Buying Local for the Holidays IV: Function and Beauty If I had to list the characteristics of a good holiday gift, functionality would be one of the first items. A gift should reflect the tastes of both the giver and the recipient. But it should also serve a function, even if that function is as intangible as providing pleasure when the recipient sees it hanging on the wall. Nothing speaks of the excess of Xmas more than a present that has no function, like bedroom slippers for someone who likes being barefoot in the morning.  

Artisanal pottery fits that description. Done well, it's beautiful. It also serves a function in the home. I wanted to add some potters to my list of suggested local sources for Christmas gifts, but I am by no means an expert. So I asked my brother-in-law, Richard Pelham, who is an expert. Richard studies pottery and makes his own. He's also run a business importing ceramics from Mexico. Richard recommended Blair Meerfeld and Allison Severance. He's studied with both of them in workshops and classes.

They're in the picture above, which I took at the Art League of Alexandria. Obviously, they enjoy one another's company. They're partners in a concern called Highfield Pottery, some of whose products are in the photograph. Blair is the chair of the Ceramics Department at the Art League. Allison teaches there and at other schools.

They've both won a lot of recognition for their art, which you can read about on their web site. I like Allison's artistic philosophy, which she expressed on the site:

"When someone sips coffee from one of my mugs, or has their morning oatmeal from one of my bowls, it is my hope that I communicate to them the feelings of contentment and peace I felt when making the pot. I hope that my pots might enhance the daily rituals of preparing, sharing and eating food."

When I photographed Allison and Blair, the Art League was holding a major pottery sale in its building at 305 Madison Street in Old Town. That sale will be over by the time this is posted, but  it won't be any trouble to contact Allison, Blair or any of the other Art League potters thought its web site. Another good venue for purchasing pottery and other art in the Old Town area is the Torpedo Factory.



]]> (Bob Cullen Photography) Alexandria Allison Severance Art League Blair Meerfeld Highfield Pottery buy local pottery Wed, 05 Dec 2012 10:59:04 GMT
Buying Local for the Holidays III: My Favorite Beer