Update and apology…

I’m sorry. I’ve been very quiet for a while now (and TOT is almost on hiatus) for a couple of reasons, one of which I’m STILL not at liberty to discuss just now, and the other being the visit of a very ugly critter name of Hurricane Harvey – a seriously obnoxious guest who quite comprehensively wore out his welcome before he moved on.

But It’s not been a totally unmitigated disaster. Mostly, sure, but not totally.

First, the not-so-devastating news: I live in Sharpstown, which is a small suburb (I guess by now it’s probably considered “near town” or even urban) just about four miles outside Loop 610. As I told several people, there’s a small neighborhood in the middle of Southwest Houston that had less rain than almost anywhere else in the area and no flooding, and I live right smack in the middle of that neighborhood. The nearest major street to me is Fondren, and during TS Allison and Hurricane Ike, the last two major rain events to hit this part of Houston, Fondren flooded. Badly. As in waist-deep on me, so almost 3 feet in the center of the road and close to 4 feet at the edges. Damaged a bunch of houses and townhouses in the area and ruined dozens of cars, mostly because of people trying to drive through several feet of flowing water in vehicles equipped for, at best, a couple inches of the stuff. Just for clarity, this is a really bad idea and you shouldn’t even think about trying it yourselves. Trust me. If your vehicle doesn’t have a chapter in the manual about Fording a Stream in Your Vehicle, do NOT attempt to ford streams in your vehicle. It doesn’t end well.

Anyway, as a result of this, the city of Houston rebuilt Fondren, from below the ground up. In the process our storm drainage here went from two 32″ cylindrical culverts to three 6-foot square culverts. This time, although my street got a foot or so deep in spots, Fondren never closed and the water in my area never got further than the main sidewalk a few feet off the street. This is good for me and for my neighbors – none of our homes, none of our cars, nothing was flooded. The only water that got to Rommie was coming down, and she shrugs that off. She does want a bath now, but otherwise…

So I don’t think I get to complain about bad luck for my next two or three lives…

And for the last several days I’ve had something of an insider view into how a major news organization works, which if nothing else has taught me that I DO have the skills and the ability to play this game. (Yes, I know, most of you have told me that and told me that and TOLD me that, but it’s never so clear from the inside… until now. )

And now for the devastation part of this…

Several of my friends and friends of friends weren’t NEARLY as lucky as I was.

I’ve spent a couple days in the aftermath helping friends who live in that complex document losses for FEMA and insurance companies, and salvaging what few bits and pieces could be retrieved after most of a week under Buffalo Bayou, which at the worst of it was about three feet deep where I was standing to shoot this. (I was there days later when the water was back where it belonged; my bootsoles got wet but that was all.)

These folks, most of whom were retired or close to it, are almost entirely wiped out. One of my good friends, who lives under the tall windows at the left of the frame above, managed to salvage a few bags of clothes and a handful of knick-knacks, but lost all of her furniture (including family heirlooms and antiques), her appliances, her books, her electronics, and her car.. She’s a writer and a movie buff, and much of her personal history, and almost everything she owns, was drowned. About half of her neighbors are in the same situation, along with tens (or hundreds) of thousands of other Houstonians, and a much greater number of Texans and, now, Floridians as well. This hurricane season is beyond horrific; none of the words I know really reach on this. There are miles and miles of these scenes. Tens of thousands of people have popped up here from all over the continent to help us, and we are truly grateful (you have no idea), but the recovery will be massive and will take decades. For many it probably won’t happen at all.

There’s just not much to say. As I said, I’ve been doing my photodocumentarian and local “fixer” schtick for the last several days, so I haven’t had time to shoot a lot of images myself, and when everyplace looks either normal or totally devastated… well, there’s not a lot of motivation. It’s too big and there’s just no way to really get an emotional or visual handle on it. We’re devastated, we’re collectively shocked out of our minds – this complex and many other parts of Houston had never flooded before and got several feet of water this time… but, well… Like the guy who hung his flag here, we WILL be back. It may take a bit, though, and if we’re a bit self-obsessed just now, this is why. Bear with us.

(And thanks for the well-wishes and all that, but seriously, not to worry about me. I really WAS quite unconscionably lucky on this one. I’ll take it.)

27.7445N: 95.3860W

One of the great things about Houston is that despite the miserable climate we have sizable groups of people from everywhere living here, and sometimes they throw parties. For everyone.

Yesterday, it was the Brazilian Women Foundation. (Their spelling, not mine.) They took over Avant Garden, a local bar and music venue, for the afternoon/evening and held a festival.

Fortunately for me, I know a few Brazilians on social media and one of them clued me in, early enough that I was able to get down there for a little bit.

Food, music, clothing, more food, pretty rocks, pretty jewelry, ladies’ lingerie… a little bit of everything.

Not sure what she was serving, but look at that dress…

Doris, Sergio and the Unknown Drummer.

Mobile Clothing Store, aka Fashion Truck…

Pao de mel is a Brazilian Honey bread made with some sort of dark flour, dark honey, a bunch of spices, and chocolate.

That silver platter in the middle of their table is a sample tray. It is, you will note, empty. There’s a reason. YUM. I got the next to last piece and I had to block someone else out to do that. (Sorry, friend, but I’m a reporter; this is for journalism.) If it’s not the best sweet bread I’ve ever had, it’s that close. These folks, Honey Honey, are out of Austin. They don’t seem to have a website but they are on FaceBook and email. (Just ask. They’re in my contact book for DAMN sure.)

“It’s a geode. This batch is mostly turning out white quartz, not purple amethyst, but they’ve all got crystals and they’re all turning out beautiful.”

Handmade Jewelry byGumi…

Gulmira Heyl is yet another Facebook website only artisan, but either way that’s beautiful work.

It looked to be a pretty good turnout, all in.

29.72202 N, 95.38975 W,

I’ve never been to Peru, but it’s only one line on the map away from Ecuador, where I may end up, so when the folks at the Houston Museum of Natural Science announced that Peru would be the focus of the February “World Trekkers” gathering, I decided “Eh, close enough!” and sprung for a ticket. So last Friday evening I hopped a bus to a train and then started walking…

A bit of background…

Every few months HMNS hosts “World Trekkers,” a sort of Cultural Night for Members (and Their Kids). It’s mostly for young families to bring their younger persons to the museum, where they get to “experience” a little of another part of the world, in the form of children’s crafts, edible goodies, and usually a folkdance or music group. And, with luck, they learn that there’s more to the museum than a big room with a bunch of old dusty bones and rocks and such.

Mind, a big room with a bunch of old dusty bones and rocks and such was always enough for me as a kid, but back in those days we didn’t have iPads or virtual reality – we only had fire after big storms, and nobody really trusted those “wheel” things anyway… But the world’s changed, mostly for the better, and getting kids to think of learning and having fun in the same sentence is always a good idea.

I digress. Frequently. (Old folks do that. Deal with it.)

As I expected, the event was mostly “kid stuff” – paper mask making, a “Help paint a blanket on the llama” booth, a “Make your own quipu” table, (which drew as many adults as younglings) and so on.

For adults, there was music to listen to, and kids to watch, and a display of incised gourds, hand carved and colored. This is an old Inka art form, now mostly sold to tourists. I stopped to admire.

These are about three inches across, which makes the carvings about as intricate and precise as you think they are. The tops of these are geometric patterns, but if you look down the sides you’ll see traditional scenes of rural life. Others had illustrations of animals, landscapes, and jungle scenes. Sure glad I don’t have to carve those, but I suppose patience is a cultivated skill.

And then, over the speakers – “dancers start in five minutes, right here in the main hall…” and I started looking for a spot.

The performance troupe, Raices del Peru, is local. They’ve been around for years.

This is Roberto Cubias and Beatriz Rozo performing La Marinera, the “National Dance of Peru.” It’s from the northern Highlands.

Most of the dancers in the Raices troupe are young, and the little Panasonics I had with me aren’t really good for fast action in low light, so that part didn’t work so well. The shots that weren’t blurred were out of focus, the shots that were in focus were blurred. I wasn’t getting anything, but couldn’t get to a spot where I could work within the cameras’ limitations without disturbing most of the audience, and I hate it when people do that… so in the end I put the cameras down and just enjoyed the dancing.

I did grab the “shoot the dancers in front of the backdrop” moment, though, because these clothes are so beautiful that I wanted to show them to you.
Textiles and tapestries are one of the major art forms in the Andes, and these are nice examples of the better work.

On the way out I stopped to meet the petting zoo… a squirrel monkey, a guinea pig (cuy), and a chinchilla, and over to the side a young vicuña. I gave some thought to photographing them but I would have had to use flash, and they were skittish already after two hours of being petted, poked, and pestered by a small horde of younglings, so I decided to leave them alone.

Next time for that, too.

Anyway. Reality calls. Time to get back to it.

Fiestas Patrias

It seems sometimes that close to half the countries south of Texas celebrate their independence from one colonial power or another within a very few days. Some of this is history, some is coincidence, but what it means is there’s a really big party. In Texas and most of the United States it’s generally referred to as “Fiestas Patrias.” We throw parades.

And I generally try to shoot them… because, well, they’re parades. There are bands. There are dancers. There are floats. There are veterans and celebrities ON the floats. There are old cars, with politicians and celebrities in them or on them. There’s music. Lots of music. This year there were high school ROTC units practicing for Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving. There are flag-wavers and vaqueros and vaqueras and… it’s just a big noisy crazy spectacle and a heck of a lot of fun.

Also, for photographers, it’s what we might call a “target-rich” environment.

As always, the gallery is behind the picture.

The Queen is dead. Long live the King.

As some of you know from Facebook mentions, during the last run down to Space Center, I discovered that my favorite walking-around camera, my little Panasonic GF1, wasn’t working. So I took a deep breath and bundled her up (I dunno, some of my cameras are hims and some are hers, and I don’t know what the difference is, but the PanaLeica* is definitely a her) and sent her off to the Panasonic Factory Service shop.

It was too late. Apparently when you sweat as much as I do in the Texas summer, with a camera hanging off your neck, some of the salt gets into the camera and corrodes the internals. So she’s gone to an honorable “remember when?” spot on the shelf above my desk with other bits of personal history – things I’ve run across and can’t bear to part with. When I die someone’s going to wonder “what did he save all this stuff for?” and junk the lot… but until then they’re memories and they stay.

Thing is, I’ve gotten VERY used to having a small inconspicuous close-work camera and my Canons, wonderful tools that they are, are noticeable from half-a-mile away. So the loss of the PanaLeica leaves a noteworthy gap in my working bag.

Enter the GX-7 – the latest update in Panasonic’s scaled-down Micro 4/3 line. It’s essentially a GF1 with several years’ worth of development and refinement. And as a friend/inspiration source dude comments, it’s not nearly as pretty as the GF1 but with the new features and changes, it’s worth it. The friends at The World’s Biggest Camera Store were able to hook me up without leaving the rent unpaid…

Yesterday about 4:00 a new UPS guy swooped across the porch and dropped off a box. (The old guy was a shooter himself, and would usually stick for a few seconds to see what was in the box with the interesting return address…. This one’s not nearly so much fun.)

It took a few minutes of figuring out where the controls went and what some of the new settings do, and an hour or so to spruce up the charge on the battery, and then I tucked the new kid into the camera seat and went out to work. After the pay gig, on the way out, there was a quick stop for this:

The new kid and I are going to be friends. (Yup, this is a “him.”)

*When Panasonic decided to get into the digital camera field, they realized fairly quickly that they had some of the finest electronics engineers known to man, but they didn’t know much about building cameras or lenses. So they turned to the finest camera and lens designers known to man, the guys at Leica. And at about that time Leica had realized they needed to get into digital cameras (thousands of fans banging on the door screaming “Go Digital, Dammit!” will do that for you…) so they were agreeable to several kinds of collaboration – and the results of that were magnificent digital Leicas for the nobility and pretty damn superb digital Panasonics for the peasantry. Digital Leicas carry Leica-based price tags… worth it if you’ve got it but unreachable if you don’t. Digital Panasonics lack the famous Leica Red Dot, but they make first-rate images and they’re priced for peasants. So, since I am at heart and in wallet a peasant …

To The Moon! (1 of 2+)

It’s important to remember that while we (the Good Guys) were sticking tin cans on top of missiles, and stuffing brave young men into those tin cans, and launching them out into the big fat middle of nowhere, we were NOT alone. The Soviet Union (also known as the Evil Commie Bastards) were attaching little hollow balls to the top of their big heavy rockets and stuffing some of THEIR brave young men into those little hollow balls, and launching them out into the big fat middle of nowhere TOO.

And, in fact, that was a big part of our reason for doing it… because when the Evil Commie Bastards put Sputnik into orbit while we were still fiddling around with Cold War missile systems, it occurred to the brightest minds here, as it doubtless did to the brightest minds THERE, that where there was a beeping little satellite there could almost as easily be a bleeping big BOMB, and our geniuses and political leaders (the distinction matters) decided that if there was the possibility of death and destruction being rained down from on high, it should absolutely be US doing the raining down, since being the rained ON was not going to be particularly popular.

So we went full-bore into the “To The Moon!” effort… and having proven that we could blast men into orbit and bring them back home still functional, the next step involved building vessels capable of controlled flight. See, though most of us didn’t really realize this, the Mercury capsules were mostly ballistic. The astronauts had some attitude and pitch controls, but orbital trajectory was largely fixed at launch. Getting to the moon would require much more sophisticated equipment.

Thus Mercury Mk II (better known as Gemini.)

The focus was on building systems that could actually serve as working platforms, rather than simply experimental curiosities. Immediate goals were maneuverability, rendezvous and docking capabilities, better life-support, power supply, and long-term living arrangements. (There were conceptual plans for Mercury and Gemini-based orbital stations, though nothing ever seems to have come of them…)

And, of course… spacewalks. Which meant spacesuits.

There are a couple of panels in the Astronaut Gallery at Space Center dedicated to the rocket science involved in space suit building, because they’re essentially unpowered mini-ships and quite complicated to design and build. Rocket Science really IS more complex than most of us tend to think.

This is an exhibit suit described as “identical to the one Ed White wore when he performed the first U.S. Spacewalk.” It had to provide thermal protection, a pressurized atmosphere, maneuverability, and protection from micrometeorites… turns out space vacuum comes complete with lots and lots of itty-bitty flying rocks zipping around at a good clip. So the engineers came up with this version, which is basically an upgrade to the standard Gemini suit. It’s 10 lbs heavier (it weighs 34 lbs) and 22 layers thick PLUS a heavy felt layer for rock padding. The waist pack provides attachment points for the tether and umbilical package which kept White breathing and tied to the Gemini capsule while he was floating around. They put an emergency oxygen supply in the chest pack, just in case something went wrong.

For maneuverability, he had this gadget

which is basically a handheld spray jet with two nozzles about a foot or so apart (you can’t really see the one in back, but it’s there…) and a modified 35mm Nikon F camera on top. (As a strong proponent of “never go out without a camera because you just never know,” I heartily approve. Even if it IS a Nikon.)

And, over in the museum is White’s actual Gemini IV capsule hanging from the ceiling with another of the training suits used before the mission.

I love museum exhibits like this. To me, they give a better feel for what it might have felt like to do the “floating among the stars” thing. White floated in space for about 20 minutes, during which he also set some sort of record for the fastest coast-to-coast flight in history. While he was floating around (and what a trip that had to have been….) he told the pilot, James McDivitt, “I’m not coming in… this is fun.”

At the end of the programmed walk, when he was scheduled to climb back into the capsule, he radioed back to Mission Control (in Houston, for the first time) that it was “the saddest moment of my life.”

But he DID crawl back inside, came back to Earth, and finished the mission.

Which means I DO get to learn (and write) more of this.

******

Incidental note: I’m a member of a facebook group – “You Know You’re a Writer When…” and my latest contribution was “You know you’re a writer when you do crazy stuff just so you can write about what it’s like to do crazy stuff.” That much is autobiography.

Last time I was down at NASA I did the crazy stuff. Got into a spinning chair and let the guy turn my inner ears inside out, (surprisingly not too unpleasant until I tried to stand up afterwards and the floor just would not cooperate). Took a fast bouncy walk in 38% gravity (not too bad this time but I really like my feet to stay where I put them). Actually climbed to the top of a 9-meter (that’s a little less than 30 feet for you Old School USians…) scaffold, let somebody hook me to a cable that was supposed to reduce my “felt weight” to roughly 80 lbs, and yes, in a moment of total batshit insanity, actually jumped off the top of the tower. Honestly that was probably not the single craziest thing I’ve ever done, but at that particular moment my subconscious was really not interested in comparison shopping.

It was an interesting experience. I think.

The part of my brain that analyses and discusses these things is still mad as hell at me for shoving him into a closet long enough for me to tell my legs “Jump. NOW.”. He’s not really speaking to me at the moment. (Either that or he was just so freaked that I actually DID it that he really missed the event.)

The half-a-second of freefall before the cable caught me was simply wordless – not really long enough to have any emotional context at all, except to observe that a big part of my subconscious does NOT like freefall even a little bit. Then the cable caught, the winch screamed, and I kept falling just about as fast as before (None of this “float down like a ball of thistle” stuff for ME). About that time, the ground person looked up and said “bend your knees!” I did, and about that time my feet hit the ground and stopped falling. Unfortunately the REST of me kept on falling for another couple of seconds. When your feet stop and the rest of you doesn’t, it’s awkward. It left me half-sprawled on my butt at the bottom of the tower. I assured the ground crew folks that I was okay, then climbed right back up (Easier than you might think when you weigh a third of normal) with nothing broken but my dignity, and carried on.

I’m still not sure how I feel about having done this, but I have a new buff and polish job on my “crazy writer” credentials.

For whatever that’s worth.

Truck Stop

So I mentioned the car show in the last episode, and while I was processing the pictures I decided I liked a few more and wanted to share them, and since I shot them for the fun of it on nobody’s dime but my own, I get to do that…

So…


we’ve done this before, you know the drill.

Clik the pik.

Me, I think it was worth stopping for.