Racism in 21st Century America

The year is 2016 and racism still exists? It is incumbent upon us to figure out why, and to try to solve it.

Like many, I reeled in despair and disbelief at the news of the murder of nine innocent people in Charleston, South Carolina, by a delusional young person whose motive was racism. My primary response is concern and compassion for the victims, their families, and the community of good people in Charleston. Beyond that, I am concerned about what the crime says about the current state of racism in the United States (as Jon Stewart so eloquently describes). I’m appalled that racism still exists, and I consider it a failure of our education system and collective upbringing that people still manage to make it through school and into adulthood without being exposed to the perspective that people are equal regardless of their skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. Continue reading “Racism in 21st Century America”

Springing Forward, Falling Backward

All of this time zone switching is upsetting our circadian rhythms. Let’s pick one time zone and stick with it.

A traffic sign outside of the local fire station flashes a reminder: “Change your clocks, change your smoke detector batteries.” It’s a clever association, but I would argue that only one of these periodic tasks is necessary. Smoke detectors save lives. I’m happy to spend an hour per year installing fresh batteries so that I won’t be awoken at 3:00 in the morning by a periodic chirp from who knows where in the house. But “springing forward” and “falling backward” jars our circadian rhythms. Why do we continue to do this to ourselves?

There are several urban myths purporting to explain why we change our clocks. One has it that shifting clocks forward gives farmers more daylight to work their fields in the summer. Another theory has it that changing clocks back in the fall makes it lighter—and therefore safer—for school children to board buses and walk to school early in the morning. Flashlights, anyone? Yet another story has it that we save energy in the summer by leaving our lights off until later in the evening. This seems to be loosely related to the legend that Benjamin Franklin advocated for people to arise earlier, so that they would make better use of morning light, and consequently burn fewer candles. But I have yet to see any compelling evidence that changing our clocks helps us. A growing body of evidence suggests that it does not.

Checklist of clocks to change
Checklist of clocks to change

How many clocks do you change twice per year? I change seven (not including my iPhone and my computer, which are smart enough to change themselves). I’ve got a watch. An old digital clock radio. The clock in my camera. My microwave oven. My regular oven. A manual wall clock in the kitchen. The clock in my car. Don’t get me wrong—I’m deeply grateful for each of these luxuries. But each of them has its own peculiar way of setting the time, and some of them are less intuitive than others (I’m looking at you, Hyundai).

As silly and monotonous as this chore seems, I’m not opposed to doing the work. I like to tinker with things, so I find messing around with clocks to be enjoyable on a certain level. But I am loath to endure what amounts to bureaucratically imposed jet lag twice per year. We humans are sensitive creatures. Furthermore, we are not the only things that are impacted by this biannual ritual–consider all the time-dependent software that stands to go awry. A few years ago my iPhone’s calendar events got mixed up for days after a time change.

I agree with Tom Emswiler, who argues that we in Massachusetts should defect from our time zone, and join the Atlantic Standard Time Zone (one hour ahead of Eastern Time) year-round. It makes sense—New England is farther east than many other states on the Eastern Seaboard. Among other sound arguments, Emswiler cites a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine which found that heart attacks increased for three days in the spring following the start of daylight saving time. That “lost hour” may be fraught with deeper repercussions than the modern productivity-oriented mindset understands or wants to admit.

I realize that time is an abstract, and that nothing is really changing but our “framing” of it. Clouds, trees, fish, and birds (apart from the cuckoo) don’t pay attention to what clocks say. But when society decides that a store opens at 9, employers say that work starts at 8, and a friend wants to meet for lunch at noon, we have little choice but to adopt the new frame when it changes.

But what if we didn’t? What if we stopped trying to change time? We would do well to heed the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” In the context of timekeeping, we could be more patient with the short days of winter and the long days of summer, accept the strengths and limitations of each part of the cycle in the particular place where we live, and embrace the ebb and flow of light through the seasons without jolting our biological rhythms in the process.

A Tree for All Seasons

A fond farewell to my old friend, the oak tree.

This is the last photograph I will ever publish of this old oak tree, and the lovely meadow over which it presides. I’m not bored with the subject; who could ever tire of looking at clouds like these? No, the reason I will never photograph this place again is that it is slated to become a Walmart store.

I was devastated when I learned the news. I have come to revere this old tree as one would an elderly person sitting on a park bench, seemingly marginalized and passed over by a fast-paced world, but exuding a quiet confidence that tells a thousand stories.

This is not an indictment of Walmart. Despite criticisms that one could (and many do) levy against the giant, Walmart is a business. It is doing exactly what it is supposed to do; exactly what we the people tell it to do. Nor is it an indictment of the host city. Holyoke, one of the poorest cities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, would benefit (at least in the short term) from the jobs and the tax revenue. This is more of an indictment of a modern society that values convenience over open space and natural beauty. And in this sense, it is an indictment of myself. I have shopped at Walmart before, and at some point I probably will yet again. Every dollar I spend is a vote for the kind of world I want to live in. In my own small way, I will have helped to kill this tree.

I generally prefer to support independent local retailers over “big box” stores. Sure, the service at a small business might take longer and cost a little bit more, and the selection of products may be limited. But the overall quality of the shopping experience feels more human, as does the sense of shared connection with our community and respect for our environment. But is it enough to support our local retailers? Or do we need to more closely examine the impact of satisfying all our commercial desires? At some point way back in the Twentieth Century, Walmart started out as the quintessential local retailer with one store: Sam Walton’s Five and Dime. And now, scaled up by orders of magnitude, look what “shopping local” hath wrought.

I am under no illusion that I’ll be able to stop the relentless forward march of the bulldozer. Our modern, convenience-addicted society demands more goods, lower prices, and stores that are closer to us. Never mind that we already have everything we need: the Holyoke Mall, a CVS pharmacy, a Kmart, a Bed Bath & Beyond, a Petco, a Barnes & Noble, and a Stop & Shop grocery store are all located within a mile of this soon-to-be Walmart. Competition is the name of the game here. My hope is that Walmart and its developer will see a little bit of the same magic that I see in my friend the oak tree, and will find a way to spare it. Can you imagine parking lots peppered with old-growth shade trees? I can.

To be perfectly honest, my photos of this meadow are somewhat fictional. What you don’t see—what I prefer to exclude with my camera’s lens—is the yucky stuff: the “no trespassing” sign at the field’s border, the impenetrable brush, and the doubtless thousands of mosquitoes and ticks that it harbors. The surrounding neighborhoods are nothing special either: some modest ranch houses on small lots; a few downtrodden apartment complexes; a handful of businesses; a fire station. And hidden beyond the precipice at the far end of the field is yet another shopping center. The whole place is sort of an oxymoron: a busy road in the middle of a pseudo-industrial limbo that used to be farmland.

But I find such oxymorons intriguing, and I have learned to train my camera on them at every opportunity, building a repertoire of images of a fleeting world I’d love to hang on to.

When the world exasperates me (as it often does), I like to invoke the wisdom of others to guide and inspire me. There is one thought in particular that has been resonating with me lately, in all sorts of situations:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

—Richard Buckminster Fuller

What, then, will be the new model that I build? Will I relocate next to a cemetery, an ocean, or even further out into the sticks where no one would possibly want to plop a big box store? Will I simply acquiesce, accepting thoughtless commercial expansion as an unavoidable by-product of a cancerous capitalism? Or will I intensify my efforts to photograph the dwindling natural beauty that I find in unlikely places, creating an illusionary cut-and-pasted paradise that represents “the way we could have been”? I’m liking this latter approach.

It is with much gratitude and great respect that I have had the privilege of photographing this particular meadow over the years. Now I will move on and find another willing subject. Farewell, my friend the tree. I will see you in the cosmos.


A portrait of a New England farmhouse under a blanket of snow.

Snow in October is rare in Western Massachusetts. A foot of snow this early is unimaginable, but it is what we have received. Freshly-fallen snow is beautiful and peaceful, but it can also be destructive. Tree carnage is everywhere. And where there is tree carnage, there are downed power lines and power outages. A website reports that 2.3 million homes and businesses throughout New England are without power.

I have often wondered why we in the United States don’t bury our power lines underground. In addition to aesthetic concerns, elevated lines seem so vulnerable. Experience confirms this: every year some combination of tornado, hurricane, and frozen precipitation causes widespread power outages. My friend Jean-Pierre—who is from Switzerland—says that the Swiss bury their utilities, and that in his memory they rarely if ever had power outages. I assume that the reason we don’t follow this example is cost. But if you factor in the cost of lost productivity associated with repeated power outages, and the dangers of potential electrocution by downed power lines, undergrounding starts to seem more attractive. Further, if such a widespread outage had occurred during a brutally cold snap, hypothermia could have become an issue.

For now I will focus on the beautiful aspects of the snow. I will slow down and appreciate all of the things I take for granted that are made possible by electricity: freshly ground coffee beans, hot water to make coffee with, a hot meal, and a hot shower. The ability to do laundry, work on the computer, and charge my phone.

I took this photo in 2010, not far from where I live. It was night time, so I put the camera on a tripod, and left the shutter open for around fifteen seconds to capture enough light. It was snowing when I took the picture, but the flakes were moving quickly enough that they did not appear in the long exposure. Here’s to more snow, but maybe not until December.