May, 2013 Archives

Punderson’s Ghost

May 31st, 2013

An ordinary photo excursion between two friends becomes anything but ordinary after a chance encounter.

Kyle was frightened. Was that the ghost of Old Man Punderson disturbing his slumber at 4:00 am?

Nope, it was just me coming back from the toilet.

Let me start over. My long-time photo pal J. Kyle Keener asked if I’d assist him on an assignment down in Ohio this past week. I’ve always been an admirer of his, even more so when I got to be his editor for a short time. The guy’s a master class photographer; he’s given lighting seminars from coast to coast.

I thought I could learn a thing or two and when he told me he treats his assistants very well, I was definitely in.

After a few great meals and a quick trip to the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, how else could the assignment get any better. Oh, I don’t know, how about a stay in a haunted manor?

In 1806 Lemuel Punderson — or as Kyle and I called him instantly, Old Man Punderson — settled the property around one of Ohio’s largest and deepest glacial lakes. We were hoping that there was some insane tale of desperation or heartbreak that led to the so-called haunting of the manor. But the hotel and restaurant, situated incongruously in a state park, had no grisly or shameful past to speak of.

Nevertheless, people claim all sorts of spirits haunt the renovated manor home. It’s mentioned in any number of guide books (on sale, of course, in the hotel gift shop). And the staff likes to share stories of things that go bump in the night (or dump, in my case).

There is even a regularly scheduled Punderson Haunted History tour where you might hear tell of a ghostly maiden climbing the spiral staircase, a lumberjack swaying in the rafters or even the bizarre story of Old Man Punderson himself paddling out into the lake in his golden bathtub, only to pull the plug and drown peacefully.

So you can imagine neither of us slept too peacefully that night (the fact that we both stuffed ourselves silly at the local Italian eatery, Mangia Mangia, had NOTHING to do with it). When daybreak rolled around, there were no tubs in the lake, nor ghosts clocking off duty. We were a bit disappointed, but thankful in no small measure.

The photo assignment went off pretty much without a hitch. I fumbled my way through my assistantship, Kyle all the while explaining what I should and shouldn’t be doing (Note to any new photo assistants out there: it is definitely not okay to let the photographer’s lighting kit fall off a chair.)

We drove home amidst thunderstorms and Burger Kings. All was well. Nothing was out of the ordinary.

But then something fascinating happened. As I was looking at my snapshots from the trip, in among pictures of Kyle balancing a mini flash on a Diet Coke bottle and quick pics from the classic car rally we stumbled across I found a few unexplainable photos.

To say the very least, they were odd and out of the ordinary. I don’t want to prejudice you or interpret the images for you. So let me just present them without comment and let you make up your mind about what you’re seeing. Our reputation as working class journalists is on the line here, so please don’t think I’m espousing one line of reasoning or another.

Like the surprise stuffed raccoon that greeted us as we walked into the room. These bottom two pictures showed up in my photo editing software upon my return.




Pretty spooky, eh?


May 21st, 2013

Manly yes, but I like it too.

My grandfather had a lifelong love of hardware stores. For my parent’s Silver Anniversary, he bought them a whole bag full of things from the local store; silver nails, a silver hammer, a screw driver. I think there may have even been some saw blades in there too. He was a curious ol’ chap.

My wife is having a love affair that’s lasted more than a decade. It’s with Costco. I swear if she could figure out how to make Costco mow the lawn and clean our house, I’d be kicked to the curb faster than you could say, “I’ll take three barrels of Acai flavored Quinoa, please.”

Me? I seem to have spent a lot of time over the past few years in drug stores, wandering the aisles waiting for this or that prescription to be ready. You know you’re a regular when one of the bald pharmacists jokes with you about hair care products and you buy bagels for another who offhandedly commented that she hadn’t eaten breakfast.

It was during one of my meanderings (or Spiritual Wanderings, if you will) that I came across the most unusual thing in the deodorant section. Old Spice has a new scent called Wolfthorn, but it’s only for Nocturnal Creatures.

I thought it was a Photoshop joke at first, then my quick-acting brain reminded me that Photoshop layers don’t apply in real life … yet! Then I was sure someone was just having fun or being silly at my local Walgreens. But upon further examination, the darn things are real.

If you don’t believe me, here’s a YouTube video with three million hits. Getting creative with advertising is one thing. Creating an entirely new product to support that ad is a whole other thing. But which came first the chicken, I mean, the wolf or the thorn?

I did a little digging around and found out the above ad ran during the Super Bowl. Metaphorically scratching my head, I simply couldn’t remember such a commercial. I’m pretty good at keeping track of Super Bowl ads; maybe it ran during the power failure. Nope, it ran alright, in exactly one city, one time. I guess to help stretch their advertising dollars, according to Adweek it only ran in Juneau, Alaska.

I’m told the commercial has hit the national airwaves off and on ever since. I guess I just never bumped into it while watching Mad Men or Wolf Blitzer.

The ads come out of the creative Portland, Oregon agency of Wieden + Kennedy. I don’t know where the actual Old Spice is made though, probably in some … wait for it … sweat shop somewhere.

Recently, I called my wife back from the Costco brink and begged her to watch a funny commercial involving a surgeon who is followed all day and night by his shower and a bar of soap. It turns out it’s Old Spice soap and the commercial is by those zany Oregonians.

I wonder if I missed my calling. If companies can convince their boards of directors and share holders to go out on a flimsy limb and make weird products and commercials just because they’re funny, there’s hope for America yet. I want in on the fun too.

Now I just have to figure out who does Costco’s TV ads and get a job with them. I can save my marriage and maybe pick up a metric ton of toilet paper in the process. Oh wait, Google tells me Costco doesn’t advertise on television … or anywhere.


(EDITOR’S NOTE: Rodney has been rubbing Old Spice and only Old Spice under his arms since the late 80s.
He has not received any paid compensation for this piece … YET!)

Celebrating A Second Chance At Life

May 14th, 2013

Wherein our intrepid photographer documents a bone marrow transplant conference in sunny Southern California and comes away with great connections, conversations and coincidences.

The guy was sitting there all by himself, alone in a crowd. Then I realized that the rest of the people filtering into the first seminar were sitting alone. I understood. I was one of them, even though I was tasked with photographing the event. Welcome to this year’s installment of the bone marrow transplant conference.

This being my second go around, I knew the fears and feelings surrounding a large symposium dedicated to your exact condition. Feeling alone sometimes in a crowd wasn’t new to me or all of the conference attendees. By the end of the weekend, a lot of us broke through the wall that we, ourselves, had constructed.

I remember many fun and fascinating discussions I had during the spaces between my massive undertaking of documenting the entire event and putting together a slide show by the end of it. Conversations usually began with, “Hey, you look great; when was your transplant?”

I ended up doing a series I creatively called “hat guys.” They were a random group of men who went around wearing their hats indoors. I empathized, sympathized, emulated and connected with these dudes.

One evening, I had dinner with a really cool man named John. We were the only ones at our table so I think we both let our guards down. Plus we were equally exhausted. He ate the same way I do, swishing water around his dried-out mouth and we spoke about fear. We shared how we each found out about our cancers, how the transplants went, how it affected our families and what we wanted out of the future. That connection was the reason I went and volunteered my time and photography.

My incredible Aunt Roberta — you may remember her, my “aunt in a cape” — was there as a guest speaker. She was on an Ask The Experts panel so others could benefit from her wisdom. Luckily, I got several one-on-one sessions with her. We even spent ten minutes being interviewed by a local on-air personality and I joked around about how Dr. Roberta spent her whole career studying transplants just in case the need arose in her family.

But the funniest moment I had was late at night, back in the hotel room as I was frantically putting together the slide show. There was my aunt, giving me a much needed break, rubbing her hands across my scalp like a 19th century phrenologist. “Hmmm, there’s a little male pattern baldness …” she said as her hands traced my head whiskers. “But really, with a little cream this all could grow back pretty full.”

Coincidences, the things that follow me wherever I go, also popped like crazy all around me. Stewart Francke — the Detroit singer/songwriter who visited me during some of my darkest hours in the hospital — was the featured entertainment of the symposium. I didn’t know he’d be there until we ran into each other in the lobby. He graciously pretended to remember me, but I’d had a head start; when I was the photo editor for the Features department at the Detroit Free Press, I had to be up to date on all the Detroit area entertainers.

The coolest coincidence for me occurred at the very end as I sat down, bleary-eyed, to munch some lunch and watch as my slide show played across two giant screens. Sitting next to me was Amit, the gentleman with glasses in the red cap atop this blog. “When was your transplant?” we asked each other, as was custom. And we launched into a conversation about our identical cancers and diagnoses.

We got onto the topic of what we did for a living, both now and before everything went haywire. It turns out that he owns and runs Photojojo, an online photography newsletter and store that’s been written about by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, MSNBC and many others. But I didn’t need to be told who he was; I was already on his mailing list. Heck, I’d even purchased some fun items from him in the past (my favorite is the case and magnetic lens attachments that make my iPhone look like an old-fashioned range-finder camera).

His mother, who accompanied him to the event, was impressed that I knew him and asked if I’d snap a shot of them together. She told me she’d buy my book and Amit and I parted as compatriots in the war against a stupid disease that nearly killed us.

As the final strands to Coldplay’s “The Scientist” (graciously given to me by EMI Records and Universal Music) played at the end of my slide show, I’m told there were many a teary eye at the luncheon. I would take that as a compliment, but knowing the type of conference I was attending, it was just as likely that those eyes suffered the same affliction as my own and poured out excessive amounts of tears to combat the ubiquitous dryness many of us experience.

Still, I’ll take my compliments where I can steal ’em. My photos produced tears aplenty. And that’s all anyone needs to know.

Conversion Aversion

May 7th, 2013

Remaining even keel while being evangelized.

It happened again. I was sitting there minding my own business when somebody tried to convert me. Maybe I look like someone who needs to be saved or changed over to a particular type of religion. Maybe I have “LOST” tattooed on my forehead, but I don’t think so.

When my daughter walked into her doctor’s appointment, the couple across from me said, “She’s so beautiful, you must be a proud papa.”

Not wanting to be rude and say something like, “I am very proud of her, but not because of her physical attributes,” I just thanked them instead and went back to trying to figure out what the obscure cartoons in The New Yorker magazine meant.

The couple was older than me, not significantly so, but a good 10 years maybe. They asked where we were from, what high school she went to and then BAM, what church do we attend? I’ve dealt with this on many, many occasions in my life. People who adhere to a certain strain of religion consider it their right and duty to make others aware of their particular leanings. More to the point, they want me — whom they’ve just barely met — to attend their congregation even if it’s in another county.

I don’t pretend for a minute that they care about my soul or saw some sort of yearning, heathenistic look on my face. They just wanted me to join their singular, select sect. I explained that I was a spiritual wanderer and didn’t adhere to any one specific set of guidelines. Oh yes, they agreed, they found churches to be too limiting. Then they went on to explain how their church was nothing like all the others.

I kept trying to look away and decipher page after page of New Yorker sketches, but it was no use. The onslaught kept coming. The couple told me how one of their mothers attended this one church after she converted from Islam to Christianity in the old country. Then she prayed with this young man who would be perfect for her daughter and on and on.

My daughter’s appointment didn’t last too long and other people kept coming into the office, but they kept it up, assuming that their path toward the holy was the best way. I should really be saved by their proselytizing. The word “relentless” comes to mind.

Politeness now had flown out the windowless office. I reasoned that if they were going to be that pushy, I could ignore them and not make any response or eye contact. What business was it of theirs how I felt about the divine? I have conversations like that with people I know and love, not strangers whose only goal is to ram their philosophy down my esophagus.

With dozens of major world religions and hundreds of offshoots from them, the billions of people on this planet practice faith in a myriad of ways, or not at all. I am continually perplexed at how those few adherents of any one way of thinking try to force those around them to share their belief structure.

This is not a new phenomenon. We’ve all faced this sort of in-your-face religiosity. There are times when it doesn’t bother me and I let it slide. Other times I’m offended by the audacity of people who think they know what’s better for me than I do. I subscribe to the live and let live philosophy. And you should too. Let me tell you about my way of …