Staying busy

I find myself in a rare state: alone, and with little to do.   Eleanor and Emma are off on a trip without me, and they’ve left me alone in the house with a stack of ready meals in the fridge. I’m hardly ever left on my own these days, and for the past month I’ve contemplated what I would do with the time.

My first thought was to pack up the Airstream and go somewhere, but at the moment I’m actually finding Tucson more appealing.   This is spring in Tucson, meaning excellent weather, lots of local events, and no reason to leave.   This is peak season for hiking, camping, bicycling, browsing, and projects.   So instead of the Airstream, I’m trying a “staycation” here.

I do still have work to do, but I’ve settled into a routine: up at 6:30 or so, work steadily until after lunch, do some projects around the house, then go out for some air and exploration.   Each day I try to examine some previously-unknown aspect of Tucson, preferably something that nobody else in the family would enjoy being dragged around to.


Tuesday’s expedition was to the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, which is where world class telescope mirrors are being made.   These days all the big telescopes use gigantic mirrors to collect light from the very edge of the universe and literally the beginning of time.   Making a perfect mirror of perhaps 8.4 meters across such as the Large Binocular Telescope project requires, takes a couple of years and about $23 million dollars.

dsc_9404.jpgThe tour is conducted in a white box that is hunkered down in the shadow of the U of A football stadium. It’s rather academic, and I felt like I was back in college.   The docent started in a conference room with a 40 minute discussion about how the mirrors are made, with bits of astronomical fact tossed in, until I felt that I was prepared to make a mirror myself.   It turns out that you don’t need a fancy “clean room” at all, you just need a big warehouse and a gazillion dollars of specialized equipment, plus a staff of couple dozen wizards.   Far more important than dust control is temperature and humidity control.   We were welcome to just walk in and stare without any special concern for cleanliness, which surprised people on the tour, considering that the polished surface of the mirror will be accurate to a few atoms when it is done.   In the photo you can see an 8.4 meter off-axis paraboloid mirror (part of the future Giant Magellan Telescope) being slowly polished.   That’s one of seven such mirrors to be made.

I can recommend this tour to geeky folks like me who get a kick out of science projects.   It’s a bit too long and too academic for younger kids (unless they’ve got a Science Club badge on their shirt and a pocket protector).

Wednesday’s outing was to explore Tucson’s camera shops.   As you may have heard, Ritz Camera, the nation’s largest camera chain, is closing hundreds of stores across the country. In many towns, the local camera shop is a thing of the past, and with them have gone many of the knowledgeable staff.   Now people mostly buy cameras at Ritz (or Wolf, which was part of the same company), Best Buy, or online. It’s hard to get the same level of service and information from the chain stores, so I’ve always been a bit disgruntled at the homogenization of camera stores.

Now, with Ritz shutting down both locations in Tucson, we were left with a bit of a vacuum.   So I went out to check the local places that deal in cameras to see who would fill the gap.   Our local Tucson Camera Repair has stepped up to become a Nikon dealer (full retail price across the board, but at least they have selection and service). Monument Camera is sticking with its specialty of used and often ancient gear, so no joy there.   Greg’s Camera And 1-Hour Photo is stocking a small amount of Nikon and Canon gear, and Jones Photo is still just a film-processing shop.   Overall it was a bit disappointing but still better than Ritz.   If I want a large camera store with tons of selection, I’ll still go to George’s Camera in San Diego, or try to find something suitable in Phoenix, and for low-low price via mail order or Internet it’s hard to beat the prices of the NY stores (of which Adorama and B&H Photo/Video are the majors).

I’ve found that exploring the city is best done slowly.   In each category of shopping or entertainment I am methodically working through as many options as I can and making mental notes, as I did with the camera shops.   Partially this is because we have a lot of guests from out-of-state and they always want to know where to go for things.   I’m expected to know the best pizza place, the best camera store, the best hardware store, RV repair, auto service, Mexican lunch, steakhouse, hike, bike trail, RV park, etc.


I also want to explore slowly to find the best places for our needs.   For two years I’ve been trying different places to get my hair cut.   I’ve tried barber shops, chains, swanky salons, and hole-in-the-wall hacks.   I haven’t been the same place twice in two years, and finally I think I’ve found the right place.   The guy who cut my hair is named “Nino” and right there he’s got approval from Eleanor, who believes that only Italian men can give really good haircuts.   Nino is friendly but not too talkative, mature but not too old to deliver a stylin’ cut, helpful but not pushy with “product.”   Best of all, when I come home with a fresh haircut I get fast approval from the ladies of the household, rather than the disdainful, “Who cut your hair this time?   Don’t go back!”   (To which I usually reply, “Hey, it was only six bucks!”   Nino is $20, which is way over my usual cheapskate limit, but if it makes the wife smile then I guess it’s worth it.)

dsc_9612.jpgThursday’s outing was to the International Mariachi Festival, which is held annually in Tucson in April.   This is a unique and fantastic opportunity, so I had to go. (I’ll bet they don’t have a mariachi festival in your town!)   I love mariachi.   It’s fun, colorful, and always makes me think of good times on the road.   When I hear mariachi on the radio I know I’m near Mexico, and the sun is shining and the air is dry.   It makes me want some roasted chiles for lunch.

On Saturday they have a big concert with all the professionals, which costs $40-84 for a ticket.   This year Linda Ronstadt will be there. On Thursday they have the concert of students who have attended the festival, and that’s just $10, which is more my price range.   The mariachis started very small, with kids who appeared to be as young as six or seven years, and gradually worked up in age to the more accomplished musicians.   No matter — all were entertaining and the costumes were spectacular.   Mariachi is much more varied than I had thought, so each musical presentation was a pleasant surprise.

Photographically, it was a challenge to get usable shots.   The lighting was fairly dim and the colors kept changing.   I shot over 200 images at ISO 1600 and considered myself lucky to get a couple dozen worth keeping.   (What I really needed was a long lens faster than my f/4-5.6 200mm zoom, but the pro f/2.8 version weighs three times as much and costs as much as a used car.)   Still, some of the better shots can be seen on my Mariachi Flickr album here, if you’re interested.

I have a week to go before the ladies return home, so that means a lot of time left in my staycation.   I wonder what else Tucson will have to show me?

Garage sale day

It is unbelievable that after selling our house and giving away half the contents (2005), then culling what was left in our storage units (2006), culling again (2007), then moving the remains to Tucson (2007) and culling again (2008), that we still have stuff left in our home that we don’t want or need.   And yet, the heap of un-opened boxes in our middle bedroom tells me that it is true.

Since we have returned to living in a house, most of those boxes have not been opened.   We have passed the holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Valentine’s Day, Easter, and two birthdays, plus we have done just about everything else that we expect to do in our suburban lifestyle.   Thus, I know that whatever remains in the dozens of boxes that still have intact tape seals is stuff we really don’t need.   And I want it out of here.

Yes, it is doing no harm filling an entire bedroom.   In fact, it provides a useful service: we have no guest bedroom in the house, and so anyone who cares to visit must either stay off-site, bring their own Airstream, or sleep in our Airstream in the carport.   That weeds out the less hardy and keeps home invasion to a bare minimum.   But still, dust is collecting on whatever it is we have stored, and it is impossible to get to the things we actually want because of the clutter.   I spent hours recently digging through piles of empty picture frames and warm winter sweaters (never needed here in Tucson) to locate all my tent camping and backpacking equipment, for example.

When my neighbor Mike announced that his recently laid-off wife was “on a tear” cleaning up the house, I knew I had my opportunity.   She had two weeks to find all the junk in their house before her new job started, and she did an amazing job.   We announced a “multi-family” garage sale on Craigslist and filled half a dozen tables in their carport with stuff.

You would think that this was a great time to have garage sales, because people need to economize and should be looking for bargains, but the turnout was only fair.   The people who showed up were the usual gang of extreme bargain hunters (“Will you take fifty cents for this color TV?”) and vultures looking for things to re-sell. Still, we cleared out about a dozen boxes of stuff and that gained us enough space in the middle bedroom to at least move around and re-organize what’s left.

The real irony of a garage sale is that is often much worse than simply giving things away.   Don’t compute your average hourly wage for the day, because after 3-4 hours of prep and then 6-8 hours of watching people paw through the items you paid good money for, whatever cash you received won’t be nearly enough.     It’s a form of slow torture, watching people paw through the items, knowing that most of them are unwilling to spend more than a buck.

Sure, the cash at the end of the day seems better than nothing, but that’s only if you don’t think about what all that stuff cost you in the first place.   I personally sold about $500 worth of items, for which I barely received $50.   In the interim I filled the time by setting up a photo station, snapping pictures of the expensive items, and posting them on Craigslist.   Maybe I’ll do better on those.

The other danger associated with a multi-family garage sale is that you might acquire somebody else’s junk.   In the slow hours of the midday, after the early birds have gone, it’s tempting to browse the tables yourself and start finding “interesting,” “cute,” or “potentially useful” items.   I was on the lookout for that, but still one or two items slipped by me and into the hands of Emma or Eleanor.   Emma was intrigued by the vast array of stuffed animals on one table, but we have a rule: one comes in, one goes out.   That may seem cruel but her stuffed animal collection is on the verge of requiring its own bedroom, and as you know, we don’t have a spare bedroom.

We have to remember how to live with less because we will shortly be traveling again.   We may be gone for up to five months, traveling north and east for the summer.   The principles of full-time RV travel are simple but they have to be respected, and one of the keys is to bring only what you need.   Divesting or acquiring things on the road can be done, but it’s very inconvenient.   We’ve discovered that if we continue to live light, we have a lot less upheaval when it’s time to get back into the Airstream for a long trip.

Since I’m on the subject, the plan is to head north through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, then east the usual boring route along I-90 all the way to New York.   All the best stuff on this route is west of Rapid City SD.   We could spend a month just getting there, but there’s a compromise involved: I don’t want to miss out on too much of Tucson’s hot weather.   We’re just getting into the low 90s now, where I’m most comfortable (in the dry desert), and it seems a shame to bail out in the next couple of weeks.

We also need to drop in on the International Rally in Madison WI in late June and early July.   So we’ll stay in Tucson as long as possible and yet still allow at least a month to get back to Vermont by mid-July.   While we are based there, we’ll have side trips to Michigan, Massachusetts, and possibly Maine (no, we’re not just doing the “M” states, there are better reasons for all those trips).   We’ll leave Vermont again at the end of August (after the Vintage Trailer Jam), possibly visit Newfoundland, and then go west for the Grand Canyon thru-hike.   And then we’ll come back to Tucson and get back to work on getting rid of the rest of the stuff we didn’t need while we were gone …

Photo lessons from the Tucson Tattoo Expo

Our friends Alex and Charon flew in from their frosty home up in the northeast, to spend a week in Tucson enjoying our fine spring weather, and not incidentally attending the Tucson Tattoo Expo.  Our friends are best known as sword swallowers, fire breathers, and practitioners of other carnival sideshow specialties, but it just so happens that in their off-hours they pursue relatively typical activities as well.  Alex embalms dead people and Charon tattoos live ones.  (What?  Not normal enough for you?)

tatto-expo-013.jpgBeing fellow Airstreamers, they were happy to spend the week in our Airstream in the carport.  I put only one condition on their use of the Airstream: I had to go to the Tattoo Expo.  You just can’t pass up a photographic opportunity like that, and besides, I’m always interested in alternative cultures. Charon spent three days basically working non-stop on tattoos while Alex and I roamed around the booths of 30 or so artists who were also there.

I discovered that tattooing is part of a larger culture of “body modification,” which includes piercing, hair dyeing, and breast augmention.  People seem to regard the body as a canvas to be tweaked and altered to suit fashion or personal taste, which really isn’t as odd as it sounds.  After all, don’t you know plenty of people who dye their hair, wear makeup, or have had some sort of cosmetic surgery?  This culture just takes it a step further.  Sometimes two steps further.  There certainly was a lot of cleavage about.

tatto-expo-012.jpgNaturally, this was photographically a rich subject area (more photos on my Flickr album), but there were some complications.  I had to carefully ask permission before taking photos of anyone or any art.  Also, the lighting in the hotel ballroom was a mixture of the worst that I encounter at indoor trade shows and conventions:  fluorescent lights alternating in rows with tungsten lights.  That means it was impossible to come up with a reasonable white balance, because the white balance would change with every step across the floor.

One solution in such situations is to overpower the ambient lighting with flash, so I mounted up the trusty Nikon SB-600 and bounced it off the ceiling.  I was lucky that the ceiling was white and relatively low (about 12 feet).  Still, it was a struggle to get usable photos with my Tamron 10-24mm superwide lens.  It needs to be stopped down to at least f/6.3 to get sharp images and there were situations where that just wasn’t possible.  After a few hours I gave up with it and switched to the Nikon 18-200mm lens, which takes sharp photos at lower F-stops.  That helped during the fast action of the Saturday evening pinup contest.  (Now I bet you want to see my Flickr album!)

Alex is a walking encyclopedia of obsolete photographic methods.  His collection at home includes large-format 4×5 and 8×10 cameras.  He was once a professional photographer, and even taught people how to make their own emulsion for glass-plate cameras.  Digital, he knows little of, so we were happily exchanging knowledge all day. At one point he opened up a box of camera equipment and I was delighted to see an old Nikkor (Nikon) 50mm f/1.4 manual-focus lens in there.

Now, if you’ve gotten into SLRs only since the digital age, you may not have seen such a lens.  Like a lot of people, I learned the basics on a film camera, when everyone carried an f/2.0 or faster “normal” lens, but these days such lenses are ignored by most people (you young whippersnappers!) in favor of big zooms.  There’s good reason for that: today’s zooms can give you a lot of utility for not a lot of cost.  Inexpensive zooms are rather poor at gathering light, but digital SLRs can easily be cranked up to high ISOs (meaning fast “film”) to compensate.

But hey, one day you’ll be in an dimly-lit room trying to capture people moving around, and you’ll find that it’s a tough slog to get images without blur or adverse flash.  You’ll also find that the flash alerts everyone to your presence, and so it is harder to get good candids.  That’s the situation I found myself in at the Tattoo Expo.

tatto-expo-014.jpgSo I popped the old Nikon lens on and tried it out.  Wow, what a difference! I could shoot a full three F-stops faster, which meant no-flash images.  But the varying lighting, and dark shadows on faces, forced me back to bounce flash and the zoom Nikon for the balance of the day.  Still, I was intrigued, and so I’ve borrowed the lens from Alex for a few months to see what I can do with it.

I have to admit that I had some trepidation at going back to this old-tech lens.  It has no internal microchip, and pre-dates digital cameras by at least a decade, so all of the advanced features of the camera are defeated.  No auto-focus, no light metering, no distance information, no automatic aperture, and no readout on the camera.  All the camera can do is sort of electronically shrug and tell me “There’s a lens there and I don’t know what to do with it.”  The rest is up to me.  I wondered if I’d still remember how to manually focus and set aperture/shutter speed quickly enough to get photos before they got away.

I needn’t have worried. It’s like putting on a well-worn old pair of shoes.  In fact, it’s darned fun.  The lens takes beautiful pictures, and once again I can control depth of field indoors with precision.  I’m having a blast running around the house and snapping away at everything, just marveling at the visual effects I can create with de-focused backgrounds and shallow fields. Having this much fun with an ancient lens worth perhaps $25 is like a kid playing with the box his toy came in.  It just reminds me of how sometimes simpler is better.

The Tattoo Expo is over now, and we have two days in which to explore Tucson with Alex and Charon before they wing it back to the northeast.  Our primary mission, however, is already accomplished: they will be coming back to spend the winter here.  That’s the second couple we’ve converted from northeasterners to southwesterners (at least for the cold season).  My plan for world domination is to convince as many good friends as possible to come down here in the winter, so we have lots of people to play with.  It’s working … who will be our next victims?

New photoblog

I’m trying an experiment.   I’ve started a new photoblog, with some of my favorite images from the past four years.   It will be updated daily.   See it here.