Posts Tagged ‘photography’

Along with being a writer, I teach, coach, work in the Writing Center, and run the literary magazine at an all-boys’ prep school here in Chattanooga. (Maybe that sentence should be reversed. Unless it’s summer, carving out writing time is quite a battle. I’m following a proud tradition in that camp.) My coaching duty is fall novice crew, which I affectionately think of as “rowing kindergarten.” The other novice coaches and I show up in the Student Athletic Center in August and meet about three-dozen ninth-graders who have never even sat in a racing shell. By November, they’re trucking down the course at The Head of the Hooch, one of the largest regattas in the country (Actually poised to become THE largest regatta in the country this year. I’m not sure if the numbers are out yet.)  It’s a steep learning curve, and I could certainly write an essay or two about what happens to your heart rate when you put 9 14-year-olds in an expensive boat and turn them loose on the Tennessee River. By the end of the fall season, however, a lot of the “crap-are-they-going-to-crash-into-stuff?” stress is gone and replaced by the fun of strategizing for competitions, soaking in the slanting golden light as I putt down the river in a jon boat, and enjoying the personalities of the rowers and coaches around me.

I have not posted much this fall, nor have I done a lot of writing (though I have been reading/researching, so that’s good). I sent my dog off to be with my parents in Florida because I was too busy to take care of him. The lazy, languid days of summer ended with a full sprint into the school year, and I’ve been going ever since. Still, I’m not gonna’ lie, coaching novice crew here in Chattanooga is a blast. From the initial rowing instructions to frightened and adrift novi in September (“Okay, now straighten your knees …. no, your knees….your knees….. Those are your elbows.), to  the overheard conversations as I drive the mini-bus (We have a boarder from Westchester, New York, this year. Listening to the Southerners and the Yankee trying to sort out their mutual misinformation has been so funny that I’ve nearly crashed the bus), to the general chaos around regatta preparations (last week, after rowing all of our boats down to the staging area for the Hooch in the rain, I ended up walking all the way from downtown back to our boathouse with about eight guys, one of whom was barefoot because he couldn’t find his shoes), to the sprinting-cowbell ringing-dock catching chaos that the Head of the Hooch always brings, it’s been a satisfying and exhausting autumn.

I’ve done other stuff this fall, too, like realizing my lifelong dream of being a part of the Southern Festival of Books. (I was even mentioned in the Nashville Scene!)More on that and other events in future posts. For now, enjoy a few pictures from my life in rowing kindergarten.

By the way, if you enjoy these shots, want to learn more about rowing, or are interested in how I got into crew and why I love it so much, check out the essay I wrote for the Pittsburgh in Words project a couple years ago.

The Novice 8 in late fall 2009

Rowing with the Novice 4+ in November 2009

The recovery dock at the 2011 Hooch in Chattanooga. Thanks to my mom, Margaret, for this shot!

"My" Novice 4+ coming under the Walnut Street Bridge at the 2011 Head of the Hooch. My mom took this awesome shot. I was too busy whooping and hollering.


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Six years ago, when I first started work on the essays that would become Confederate Streets, I spent a lot of time in the Civil Rights Room in the downtown branch of  the Nashville Public Library. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, only that I had finished an analytical essay on busing for racial balance and that I wanted to, perhaps, write some narrative essays on the same topic. I was also interested in the outdoors and the Cumberland Plateau (subject matter I am pursuing now), and the room next to the Civil Rights Room was full of books on that topic, so I filled a few blistering summer days by wandering back and forth between those cool and pleasant rooms, reading about the sit-ins in one and Beersheba Springs in the other.

The Civil Rights Room is decorated with iconic photos from the movement in Nashville. I spent some time examining each one, but one photo in particular captivated me. You can see it at this link – it is the one at the top of the page. See the woman standing between the children and the crowd as she walks them to their first day of first grade? The girls holding hands? The white children lining the streets, barefoot, perhaps because they were being held out of school that day? I studied each face, each posture, wondered what everyone in that photograph must have been thinking at that moment – a late summer morning, September 9, 1957, the first day that blacks attended Nashville schools which were previously closed to them. However, the reason this picture really, really resonated with me is that exclamation point floating above the crowd – the sign which reads “GOD is the author of segregation.” I was born in the late 1970s and always thought of God as the author of the civil rights movement, of peace, of loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. The idea that someone would invoke the name of God as they harassed a couple of six-year-olds on their first day was school was both repulsive and darkly fascinating. Who was that person?

In another photograph, this sign shows up again and the woman holding it is visible, though the children are not. Her face is contorted. She is waving the sign and shouting.

One evening in the summer of 2005, I told one of my friends in Nashville about the picture and she said, “It makes me wonder what that woman must think now when she sees herself in that picture.” I’d been obsessing over every detail the photograph, but I had been thinking of it as something buried in the past, something encapsulated in the 1950s. Leila’s observation changed my perspective. I started wondering, “Where are we now because of where we were then?”

When I returned to Morgantown for the school year and started writing, I remembered those photographs as one in the same. As I wrote what would become the title essay of my collection, I pictured that woman shouting, the children mustering up an awful lot of resolve for six-year-olds, that sign invoking God and waving above it all. I devote about a page in the book to wondering where the woman with that awful sign might be today. I imagine that the sign is long gone, burned. Or, perhaps, it’s waiting in a closet, waiting to be used again. I imagine that the woman who held the sign is either completely mortified or silent and angry whenever she sees children of all races going to school together.

One thing I never did was actually try to find that woman, or the girls being walked to school, or anyone else in the photograph. I merely wondered where their lives had taken them since the morning of September 9, 1957.

Apparently, author David Margolick wondered the same thing when he saw this iconic photo of the day nine African-American teenagers began classes at Little Rock Central High School. Like my friend, Leila, he recognized that the lives of each of the women in that picture would have continued off the frame and forward through the ensuing decades. But, rather than hypothesize, he actually did extensive research, conducted interviews, and wrote a book – Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, which was just published by Yale University Press.

I have not yet read the book, but I did read the review in the New York Times on Sunday. It sounds like a book I should read, as should you, dear reader, if you are a fan of Confederate Streets. In the photo, the white woman, Hazel Bryan is apparently shouting, “Go home, nigger!” Her face, like the faces of so many white people in so many shots similar to this one, is contorted. Her ugliness in the shot is a manifestation of the ugliness of the time.  The black teenager, Elizabeth Eckford, has always seemed like the picture of grace to me. She’s smart and brave, with things to learn and no time for the likes of ignorant bigots like Hazel.

According to Margolick, however, Elizabeth was “terrified behind her dark glasses.” Although she did, ultimately, go to school at Central, she did not make it into the building that day. The governor blocked the door, the black teenagers were surrounded by a mob calling for a lynching. The National Guard had to be brought in to get those children into their classrooms. Once they were in, Hazel transferred out, but the Little Rock Nine bore constant abuse for the entire school year.

I’ll spare you all of the “where are they now?” details, but the essence of what I read in the NYT is this: By the time Kennedy was President, Hazel already regretted her actions. She apologized to Elizabeth, who accepted it, and went on to live her life. According to an interview I read in the Christian Science Monitor, Hazel has, for the most part, led a life of moral conviction for over 50 years. The depiction of the self in the photograph is, thankfully, not the self Hazel grew up to be.

Elizabeth, who clearly developed a sense of moral conviction before Hazel, has had a difficult life. She suffered from an undiagnosed case of PTSD. She’s had a hard time sustaining relationships in her life, even with her own children. In the 90s, after getting the PTSD diagnosis, things started improving for her, but there’s no denying that Elizabeth has struggled since walking through the doors of Central over half a century ago.

It hardly seems fair. I look at the pictures of Little Rock and Nashville and I want the bigots to be the ones suffering today. I’d like to think that the woman defiling a just and loving God with her sign in Nashville has been paralyzed by guilt, while those two black six-year-olds have gone on to lead pleasant and fulfilling lives. Then I think, “What good does it do me, or anyone, if that’s actually the case?” I should want what Martin Luther King wanted – “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars,” he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” So, I feel guilty myself for wishing bad things on the woman with the sign.

The best thing, I suppose, would be that everyone in that photograph hanging in the Civil Rights Room in the Nashville Public Library has found some sort of peace. True peace, however, won’t come without reconciliation, and reconciliation won’t come without people acknowledging the truth of what happened that day, as well as either the ugliness or bravery they were demonstrating when the photographer captured a moment in time. From the NYT article, I get the impression that Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryant have made such an acknowledgement. They’ve even become friends. Their lives are far from perfect and they currently are not speaking to each other but at least they did reconcile to a degree.

Margolick’s work with Elizabeth and Hazel has me wondering more about the people in the photograph I wrote about for my book. Does anyone know the people in the photo at the top of this page? I don’t know much more than the caption tells us – the shot was taken by John Malone for the Nashville Banner.  I believe the girls are being walked to Buena Vista Elementary, though I could be wrong. I’d like to find them and learn whatever they have to teach.

It’s easy to look at black-and-white photographs and think, “That’s over. That happened a long, long time ago.” What we can learn from books like Elizabeth and Hazel is that nothing is so tidy as to ever really be over. Good photographs capture the truth, but they can only capture a moment. Life, with all its chaos and sadness and redemption, spills over the frame.

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I get many ideas for my writing while I’m riding my bike – a steel-framed Jamis Satellite which I bought during the first summer I lived in Chattanooga. Biking is a lot like writing – I feel like I’m gliding through the world, observing and taking it all in, but keeping a bit of distance between myself and the goings-on of daily life. When I’m riding (or writing, for that matter), I see things I normally wouldn’t and I interact with the people around me in a more intimate way than I would if I was in a car or just not paying attention, but then I move on.

These are some shots from the ride I take most often here in the ‘Noog – a 20+ miler down Main Street, through St. Elmo, and out to Flintstone, Georgia. These photos are from late July. I’ve been busy with school lately and not riding as much as I would like, but this is a quick, easy ride, and I do always come up with new ideas or solve problems while I’m out there, cranking my way to North Georgia and back.

Starting the ride:

On Main Street

Across the street:

Houses on Main Street, Chattanooga

Near the turnaround point:

Sunset over Lookout Mountain

Flintstone United Methodist Church

Nearly home again as darkness falls:

Pardon me, is that...??

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I’ve yet to meet a Southerner who doesn’t welcome autumn. Summers in the South, with their ever-present humidity, bugs, and heat, are oppressive. This week in Chattanooga, we’ve finally started getting fog in the morning, and stepping onto my front porch in 55-degree chill, smelling the mist rolling off the ridge, is positively thrilling.

But here’s the thing: Summer is also glorious. Where would hardy Midwesterners be without their winters? Where would the South be without this spate of 100 or so days that force us to find solace on porches with sweating glasses in our hands, the season that drives us inside with our books during the day and outside to play or socialize in evenings? Where would we be without the collective suffering of sweat trickling down our spines as we go about our summer business?

As you can probably tell from the precipitous drop-off in blogging, I had a fantastic summer. Along with my much-publicized (on this blog at least) book tour, I worked with a writer’s group of fellow teachers and managed to write two new essays. I also conducted much research on my new topic – the American phenomenon of the drive-by wilderness. This research consisted mostly of reading John Muir, learning to kayak, hiking in the Smokies, and spending a week at Sewanee.

Fall has rolled in, and I sure hope it’s not going anywhere, but this first post after a long blog hiatus will devote some pictures to the summer that was.


Solstice sunset from the cross at Sewanee.


Malaprop's promoting my reading in Asheville, North Carolina!

A hiking friend and I strike our best Lewis and Clark in the Great Smoky Mountains.


My friends' "garden" on fire escape in Madison, Wisconsin.

Corn on the cob - Madison, Wisconsin.

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Summer is in full swing now and I have been busy writing, recreating, and setting up readings.

I didn’t blog much last week because I was in a super secret undisclosed location, researching and writing for my latest project.  I bet you can’t guess what I’m focusing on for my next essay collection:

and now for something completely different...

I say it’s a “completely different” project from Confederate Streets, but really it’s not. Like CS, this project allows me to focus on my own interpretation of cultural geography – how we 21st Century Americans, especially Southerners, perceive place, space, and cultural issues, and what external and internal factors drive our perceptions.

For my next project, I’m taking it outside. And that’s really all I can say. It’s so new that it is completely nebulous. Along with reading lots of books (or parts of lots of books), I’ve decided that an important part of the research process is learning how to kayak.  I’ve chosen to intensely research what it feels like to go through rapids while upside down, so I’ve been doing that a lot. It’s all for you, dear reader.

My next project also is not completely different because race will be a factor. Why? Well, because race is a factor in every facet of American life, no matter where you live or what you do.

One of my favorite funny blogs, Stuff White People Like, gets (or got, since it hasn’t had new material in about six months) a lot of comic mileage out of the fact that one rarely sees people of color perusing the aisles of the local REI. But to say that “the outdoors” is purely the domain of middle class whites is pretty myopic. The 7th book up in today’s picture, The Colors of Nature, is a fantastic literary nonfiction collection by writers of color. I highly recommend picking it up, and I’m sure I’ll blog more about it later in the summer as I continue reading  the essays.

Do you know of another work of “nature writing” by a minority author? Please post a comment about it!

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Zzzzzzzzz….wha? How’zit?  Wha’ time is it? What? It’s summer?? Niiiceeeee.

Okay, so as the school year ended and I developed a summer routine, this blog lay neglected.  I’m back now. By this time tomorrow, I will have some exciting announcements regarding summer reading dates.

For now, your PhotoWednesday comes a day early.  Last night was the Bessie Smith Strut in Chattanooga.  The Empress of the Blues was born here in the late 1800s, and the festival which bears her name is a celebration of blues, BBQ, summer, and the historically African-American neighborhood where the festival occurs. It is, in short, the best day of the Chattanooga year.  I’ve been on summer break for over a week now, but it’s not officially summer until I sit on a curb listening to blues, digging into a rib plate, and sopping the sauce up with a piece of white bread. After I’ve had my fill of that, I grab a cheap cold beer and join the throng of people “strutting” up Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Now, last night, I had to hustle over to the Strut from a kayaking trip on the Tennessee River (perfect day? I think yes.), so I didn’t have my camera. These shots are from the 2010 Strut, but that’s okay, because, like Christmas and other great days of the year, the best thing about the Strut is how it much it stays the same.

smoke from grills wafts over the entire length of the Strut

smoke from grills wafts a haze over the entire crowd

a gap in the crowd along the Strut

A gap in the crowd along the Strut

I believe this man is in the Task Force for Getting Down

I believe this man serves on the Task Force for Gettin’ Down

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One thing I really, really enjoy about being a teacher is the fact that there is a definitive beginning and ending to the year. It’s a profession that lends itself to renewal, yet each year also has its rituals and routines.

For this week’s PhotoWednesday, I have chosen pictures that represent each season of my 2010-11 school year.

For fall, I have a photo of freshmen rowers tossing their coxswain in the river after winning their first race in October. It’s a tradition for gold medal boats to send their coxswain for a swim, but I have to say, these guys did an especially good job with the launching.

Winter 2011 brought the greatest spate of snow days this Southern school has ever seen. Lacking sleds, the boys improvised with kayaks.

For spring, a photo that one of my students took with his cell phone. Since March, this little sparrow (I think it’s a sparrow) has been visiting the windowsill of my classroom. It’s always an event when he shows up – lots of clamoring to get pictures of him. We named him Pedro.  At this point in the year, Pedro reminds us of how close our freedom really is. Agonizingly close. Pedro, why must you taunt us??

Gold medal coxswain toss. Tennessee River. October 2010

Kayaking down three flights of stairs.

Ask not for whom the sparrow sings. Pedro sings for thee.

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