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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Senior Pic

Emily asked me if I'd shoot her 'senior portrait.' I have friends who are real photographers, as in they get paid for it and do it for a living.

But here was an opportunity for me to shoot pictures of my lovely daughter without her accusing me of being a paparazzo and intentionally spoiling the shot, something she's been likelier than not to do the past couple years.

Plus, 'senior portraits' share a lot in common with prom dresses in that it's easy to spend way, way too much money on something that's not even really necessary. I take pictures of my kids every chance I get, it's not like her senior year would go undocumented but for this one portrait. I'd say it's slightly more valid to spend a few hundred on a real photographer to take a portrait than on a dress you'll only wear once, but that assumes you have a few hundred bucks that don't need to go somewhere else.

She said her friends were mostly having their senior portraits done at a couple of locations in Gardner, but my house is only a mile and a half from the West Bottoms, which everyone knows is the chonosynclastic infindibulum of the photographic world. I bike-commute through it and if I'm riding through there in the 'magic hour' light at the end of the day, it would be remarkable to not spot any photography sessions. Photographers and their models/clients outnumber hobos in the hour leading up to twilight unless it's raining blue cats, and even then you might find them on the middle deck of the 12th Street Bridge, some girl freezing to death in a cocktail dress but managing to look radiant for the camera.

So the West Bottoms it was. We hit Jerry's Woodsweather Cafe, of course. Saw a wedding going on at the Hobbs Building across the street, some mighty uncomfortable people there because it was freakin' cold. The high had gotten to something like 50º, but the wind was stiff and the temperature was falling fast by the time we got down there, on its way to 27º and a dusting of snow overnight.

Em had originally balked at bringing a jacket, but it wasn't long before she was wearing it except when I was pointing a camera at her. We went over by All Packaging's wall after another girl getting her senior portrait cleared out, then to a courtyard I knew because I'd shot Corinna in it one time, and figured it was sheltered from the wind more or less.

While we were in the courtyard, which is about as urban-decay as it gets, I'm warning Em to watch out for nails sticking up out of boards, there are bricks and mortar strewn in the weeds, not to mention quite a bit of broken glass, I screwed up.

Some birds took off, and not realizing what the sound was, I turned around to look. No big deal, but Em asked me what I was looking for, it was just birds and I was like, 'Okay, but you don't let sounds go unexplained in a place like this.' I didn't mean this to be a scary thing, it's just common sense, you're in the ruins of a building complex where homeless folks might have staked out a home, adjacent to railroad property that is patrolled by railroad bulls, it's not exactly a dangerous situation but you don't want to be snuck up on.

We were suddenly done with shooting in the courtyard. She wasn't having it, any more than she was having the train with the 'SCUM' tag on it as a backdrop. I thought it was perfect, a contrasty thing where you're playing with opposites but no, Dad.

So we went out to Kaw Point where it was even colder and even windier. Then we went downtown, where I tried to shoot her with the Kauffman Center in the background from the Summit bridge by the FBI building. When we were going through the Crossroads, she asked, 'Do a lot of hipsters live around here?' Well, maybe, but mostly they come here to eat. If they're real hipsters, they probably can't afford Crossroads rents these days.

The only real disappointment I had on this whole trip, there's a building with cool green doors that just beg to be used as a photo backdrop, but they're posted 'no photography' and that there's video surveillance. I tried unsuccessfully to convince Em that the green door with 'no photography' posted was the perfect background for a senior picture. I mean, what are they going to do, breathe on me? Disapprove of my taking a picture of their building from the street? Wet their pants in front of me?

Anyway, we had fun. And stopped at Foo's for frozen custard on the way back to her mother's house, which was the place to be since she had to be on shift slinging hash at 7:00 the following morning.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Frozen Custard Party

We love to entertain, so if it hadn't been Corinna's birthday giving us an excuse, we might have just tagged on to St. Patrick's Day.

Corinna has been trying to cut back on sugar, so instead of a birthday cake, I made frozen custard. I know, that sounds like I decided to serve whiskey instead of tequila but there was a big difference.

My stock cake, the Chocolate-Mayonnaise from Joy of Cooking, it's got 1-3/4 cups sugar in the cake itself, plus confectioner's sugar in the cream cheese frosting. It's exactly the kind of thing that, for whatever reasons send her into a tailspin. What kind of birthday treat is that, to feel like shit the rest of the day?

The frozen custard called for sugar, but I was told by friends online I could cut it by half. But since honey doesn't seem to hit her like refined sugar, I used a cup of my 2002 harvest (I used to keep bees) and no refined sugar at all. Two quarts of heavy cream, two quarts of milk, ten eggs, a quarter cup of vanilla extract. That's it, the whole recipe.

You beat the eggs into a frothy state while heating the rest on the stove slowly to 160ºF. Then you start mixing a half cup or so of the warmed dairy into the eggs at a time (this is called tempering the eggs, if you plunge them straight into the hot, you'll end up with scrambled egg chunks in your ice cream). Once you've got about half the hot mixed into the eggs slowly, reintroduce that to the pot and slowly raise the temperature a bit more, to more like 170ºF. I was looking for it to thicken, which didn't happen at those temperatures, but once it cools overnight in the fridge it'll be quite thick.

Then it's into the ice cream freezer with it. About a half hour later, you have a treat that could spoil you for Ben & Jerry's. Five quarts of it. We actually split the batch in two, half of it was plain vanilla, then we did some with peaches and blackberries in the mix. Should have pureed the fruit, it was like chunks of fruit in the ice cream instead of an overall flavoring like we had in mind, but it was still quite good. Actually with the fruit, I think we ended up with more like six quarts of total product. A bit more than our 18 guests ate.

And that's the best part of this whole deal: the homemade ice cream I grew up on, what I now know is 'Philadelphia Style' turns into a rock when you put the leftover in the freezer. It's awesome right out of the ice cream maker, but I've had my ice cream maker for about 20 years and only used it, I think, twice previously because I so rarely have enough help to eat a whole batch at one go. Eggs contain natural emulsifiers, so the frozen custard (or French Style ice cream if you prefer that term) stays edible in the freezer. Not as good as it is on day one, the fresh out of the cylinder thing is still the best ice cream ever gets, but a week later I still have frozen custard in the freezer and I don't need the Navy to run an icebreaker at it before I can suck on a sliver.

Of course, we didn't just make custard. There was smoked Polish sausage, homemade Kim Chi, and a ton of fruit & veggie tray stuff. Corinna had made a City Market produce run, then I did not realizing all she'd bought. I think I spent about four hours washing, sorting, and cutting fruits and vegetables—and making a Greek seasoned portobello-asparagus-bell-pepper stir fry.

And my nephew really enjoyed the cats. He's a bit allergic (not just to kitty-cats) but he's a fan of animals in general. I think I saw a little 'they make me miserable but it's worth it' in his interaction with Bulldog in particular.

Anyway, it was great to see so many friends. I got a little busy with other stuff and barely took any pictures (for me anyway), so that's why there's so much text and so few photographs for one of my blog posts.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Choral Concert

I guess I'm one of those parents. I know as a demonstrable fact that getting good photos of my daughter on stage with her choir is a losing battle.

The lighting is harsh, with lots of glare. Not that there's all that much light to be had. Plus, you're a long, long ways from the subject. What makes it even worse, since Em is tall, they put her in the back row where the acoustic back board hangs over her and puts her in the shadows.

While clicking away (at least I have a better camera these days, I used to do this with a Canon Powershot, but a couple of years ago I upgraded to a Nikon D7000. Not a flagship camera, but in most situations if I'm not getting the shot it's due to my photography chops more than the limitations of the camera.

I had an idea for fixing the lighting during the concert. That overhang, you could mount lights on it that would shine down into the faces of the back rows of kiddos. That and maybe some footlights and it might look less like a place Osama Bin Laden would have tried to hide out.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Refreshing Evening Jaunt

I've been struggling to get back to pre-bypass surgery form. This is the third lease on life for me: survived a heart attack at 32, needed a double bypass at 43, I can just see the Grim Reaper coming up on 50-year-old me and saying Third time's the charm! I started bike commuting again and got a vasectomy that put me off the bike for a couple of weeks. Then got sick repeatedly while the weather turned foul, but pre-bypass me didn't let weather deter him. I've done 2ºF, 107ºF, raining and 35ºF, the only thing that's ever given me real pause is ice, and that's because I don't have a sumo suit to make falling down all the time no big deal.

Cardiac Rehab perversely affected my riding a little, the logistics of getting there on the days I needed to seemed to dictate driving. And it's so damned easy to fall back into that default driving thing. When your wife crashes her bike and gets a traumatic brain injury that means both she's riding less and needing driven places a bit more, there's another pull to that sedentary lifestyle. One thing, then another, next thing you know it's been a couple weeks since you mounted up. And while I wouldn't diagnose myself with anything like clinical depression, I was definitely getting in a funk, binge sleeping on weekends, having trouble falling to sleep on weeknights, even having some appetite issues, and I knew the likeliest medicine for it was to just ride. Which would also be good medicine for the weight I've gained in the past few months. I haven't seen 300 lbs yet, I've seen the 290s and I have XXL shirts I can no longer wear—which has to absolutely delight that Grim Reaper guy, less than a year post-op and the heaviest I've ever been.

Corinna pointed out that I didn't have to bike commute to ride my bike. Which is true, but less obvious than you'd probably think. When I first trained for a Bike MS, I rode strictly in a way that was pointless except as a build up to riding Bike MS. I thought of my rides as training. I devised challenging routes and went on ambling, wandering adventures. One of those adventures was how I met my wife, actually. But the more I rode as a commuter, the less I rode for the hell of it (and when you log 100 miles in a week without riding for the hell of it, it's hard to see the point of just riding in a circle or out and back).

So I'd taken my bike in to work with me this morning with the plan to ride home and then back in in the morning, back on the commuting trail. But Corinna needs a ride to a doc first thing in the morning, so she asked me to come home and ride from here so I'd have my car at home in the morning. This is not the sort of request the woman I married would ever make, but traumatic brain injury can be a real game changer (he typed remembering he still needs to either find a bike shop that can get him a MIPS equipped helmet or break down and buy the sucker online).

I had been so looking forward to the ride home that when I got home, I wanted to go out riding immediately, no delay. The temperature was dropping and there was a front blowing in with wicked northwest winds, so I figured the sooner I got out the better as far as riding comfort, and besides, if I stopped to eat a dinner I wasn't yet hungry for, maybe do a couple things that needed doing, the next thing it'd probably be seeming to get late, get unpleasant out, and the momentum getting me on the saddle would be lost.

So I basically put on riding shorts under my pants (no way I have the ass callouses to skip that at this point), and saddled up. The wind out of the northwest was pretty strong, so I read that direction, figuring I'd get a tailwind coming back which would be fun. North and west of my house, there's a pretty dodgy neighborhood, and I passed a house owned by the sort of shitheads who let semi-feral dogs run around without a leash or a fence and had to spray this pup four times before he got the message and let me climb the hill he lives on. He wasn't that menacing, but he wasn't 100% benign either, and he triggered all my PTSD type adrenaline issues related to dogs. But having got past him, damned if I was going to let anything stop me from having a good ride.

And past the seedy section, across an Interstate, it gets real suburban and normal. Hilly, too. Going out Georgia, I found myself actually needing my granny gear a couple of times—a ridiculous gear, I think I have 24 teeth up front and 34 in back or something like that. Then up 59th, north of Leavenworth Road, until I got to what might be the highest point, topographically speaking, in Wyandotte County. I can't be sure, there was enough tree cover around me to make it hard to tell, but I sure didn't see how anything could be uphill from where I was. Looking at Google Maps, I saw that the downhill ahead of me probably did indeed go through. Down near the river, around the Quindaro Museum, and eventually over to the Fairfax area more or less, or maybe just to Quindaro.

Decision time: it was a tempting adventure. Some shit I've never seen. But it'd be fully dark by the time I go there, so maybe not that much to see. I'm out of shape, so it might be more miles than I really should attempt. A few rain drops came down and I noticed the temperature had dropped enough I needed to put on a shirt with sleeves, and I did so. No problem, I had my rain suit, too if it got really pissy, but while making this wardrobe adjustment I got a vision of myself riding slowly up a steep hill from the river into the Quindaro neighborhood, in the dark, alone, with a fairly expensive phone and camera on my back. Take one of those risks out of the equation and I'd probably have plunged down the hill—a riding companion, say, or daylight for hours to come, but taken together it sounded like a big bowl of Stupid.

So I turned tail and reveled in both a tailwind and a prevailing downhill. There were plenty of climbs to do along Georgia, but the wind was at my back, and it's not for nothing, that line in the old Irish blessing. I was flying. Around the time I got over by Super Bunny's, it started to rain in earnest, and it was really pretty pissy when I got back (if I'd had an hour to go instead of ten minutes, it would have been rain jacket time). But it didn't seem pissy, it seemed exhilarating and refreshing. I realized that somewhere between when I settled back down after the dog and when I'd almost plunged myself into an epic adventure but thought better of it, the fog, malaise, depression, whatever you want to call it, had evaporated.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

A Little Tomatosaurus Rex Prep Work

The tree stakes I got last year for my heirloom tomatoes worked great. Except for one problem. Late in the season, the weight of the plants started causing them to slip down the poles they were tied to.

The result was tomatoes that had been seven feet tall being three feet tall, damaging the plants and making it hard to harvest fruit. I hauled them up as best I could, but it was a problem.

Most of the vinyl sleeves are loose enough you can slide them off the steel pole—and that steel pole might not be as slippery, but I bet the same thing would happen if I went with bare poles. With wood, I used to drive nails in to give hang-holds. For this, I figured drill holes in the sleeves where zip-ties can go through, then tie your cloth strips to a zip tie loop in the sleeve. I've never seen a tomato plant heavy enough to break a zip tie.

The only problem is a few of the stakes have such fat poles that there isn't room for the zip tie to go through. A few others are so snuggly jacketed I can't even get the sleeves off, but I think by doing the ones I can, I'll at least be able to get vertical support from a neighboring stake. Perhaps run a horizontal pole though zip ties on neighboring poles, too.

It was going really slow at first, I couldn't get the drill bit to bite into the vinyl. I switched bits to a saw drill bit thinking it felt sharper, but still. I ended up making pilot holds with a small bit and then really having to lean on it with the larger bit. This went on for about an hour, I think, when I realized the drill was set to reverse. No need for pilot holes, and I got a dozen sleeves knocked out an probably a half hour.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Portrait of a Vanilla Gorilla

When I did the purple mohawk last summer when I was going to be off work for surgery, the first step was to bleach out the hair. I almost stopped and didn't to the purple, I liked the look of the bleached hair so much. So it'd been on my mind ever since to maybe just try doing the bleach, no purple and no mohawk, I just don't think that'd fly with my bosses.

I'm not as nuts about how it turned out this time. Maybe it seems too yellow, I don't know. It'll either grow on me or I'll let it grow out and buzz it off in a few weeks.

Recently I found some photo accessories online that were too cheap to pass up, an LED light with a diffuser, a set of reflectors that fold up to fit in my camera bag, and I wanted to play with them to see if I could get a decent portrait shot in my living room, something that has always seemed nearly impossible.

I'd say the LED array helped quite a bit. I experimented with different placements for it, realized that I really could use a couple of them. I wouldn't say the results I got are pro portrait stuff, but it was a good learning session. I prefer photographing other people, I'm pretty much never happy with my own self portraits—other photographers' pictures of me tend to seem more flattering for some reason.

I learned, for one thing, that those reflectors pose their own hazards: you can see the reflector in my glasses in some of the shots, instead of getting catchlights in my eyes I got a big foil disc in the corner of my specs.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014


I have a friend, I'll call him Bob. Both because he made it clear he wished to remain unknown, unseen and anonymous if I was going to blog about his collection, and because Bob is actually his name. I guess it's convenient if you want to be anonymous to have a name like Bob. And what a collection Bob has.

What does he collect? Kitsch, especially kitsch that has a 1950s flavor to it. He's not that much older than me, if at all, I don't think, so this is fueled as far as I can tell by nostalgia for a world he never experienced.

I don't think it's an uncommon impulse. A world we only experienced through imagination and retelling is bound to be far superior to a world we actually inhabit.

Bob's a big fan of estate sales. I think when his marriage broke up, he found estate sales in the same way Ed Norton's character in Fight Club discovers 12-step recovery groups.

This kitsch includes Hawaiian statues sold to the tourist trade, glassware that promotes the booze industry, and crazy exercise devices. But mostly, Bob collects ashtrays.

He doesn't smoke. He did put in a dip while we visited, but if anyone ever collected an item they had no direct personal use for, it's Bob and his ashtrays.

Local interest guides his buys to a great extent. A lot of these things promote businesses that are or were in the Kansas City area back when smoking was so universally accepted that nobody thought twice about using paraphernalia for a deadly drug habit as ad specialties.

I suppose it just depends on the context. These ashtrays were minted in the Mad Men world, and if you can drop Alka-Seltzer into rye whiskey at 10:00 a.m. at work and nobody thinks intervention, well what's an ashtray with your restaurant's logo on it. You're going to have an ashtray on every table in that restaurant, or eventually only the ones in the smoking section, so why not an ashtray that reminds people exactly whose turf they're on?

Bob has a story behind pretty much every purchase. Sometimes it's the thing that distinguishes the ashtray specifically, like it being made to look like a violin or being so large you would only have to dump it after smoking a whole carton. Others, it's the fact that he got it for two bucks and later saw one just like it sell for five or ten, proof that he's made a wise investment.

Ashtray or otherwise, and distinguished or not (he has quite a few plain glass ashtrays which might have been cheap enough but aren't particularly interesting), each one comes with the tag line 'I just couldn't resist.'

I'm not judging, there are plenty of things I can't or don't want to resist, and it's a pretty interesting collection. So much so that at first, I was thinking, I've got to come back sometime and photograph all this kitsch, and that morphed into, why not now?

My product-shot photography skills are lacking, I know. I should go back sometime with my camera and some decent lights, maybe a backdrop.

I thought at first Bob's ashtray collection was inspiring me to want to collect ashtrays myself, but that was wrong. What I think I want to do is develop a website dedicated to the art of the ashtray, start it off with some much better photographs of the cream of Bob's collection, then see where it leads me. Because you can buy an ashtray for $2 at an estate sale, sure, but you can probably get away with photographing it for free.