Periscope 3: Railways

This post is part of the Periscope Project.  The photograph is mine, immediately followed by a written response from Katie Rose Guest Pryal.


In the south, as everyone knows, trains don’t work right. We barely have public transit, and certainly not public rail (Atlanta notwithstanding). And you don’t take an Amtrak without planning to arrive at least two hours late for every six hours of travel time.

But I have this strange love-hate relationship with cars. I love them—I’d have been a race driver if that had been more of a path for women and something my family was into. But despite my love of cars, I hate commuting. Driving to get from point A to point B isn’t really driving. It’s a chore. It’s work. So I really like transport. I like buses, and I love trains. Even slow, broken southern trains.

I love trains for the reason that most people do, I think. I love looking down at a book, and then looking up and seeing the landscape—seeing it close, right there, changeable and real. Not the toy-like miniature landscapes you see from a plane window, but the real earthy landscapes adjacent to the tracks. And then I look down at my book again, knowing that forward progress is happening (well, usually, this being the south), knowing that when I look up again, the landscape will have changed. That’s the magic of trains.

Cities with subway transit have this same kind of magic everywhere. You step below, the train whips you away, and you emerge in a different world. From Inwood to Soho. From the Loop to Lincoln Park. From Union Station to Dupont Circle.

Yes, I know I’m romanticizing here. But sometimes we need to step back and recognize what a gift it is to be able to put our motion in the hands of greater power, a power serving the greater good.

Even if that power is the Red Line.


Periscope 2: Interconnectedness

This post is part of the Periscope Project.  The photograph is mine, immediately followed by a written response from Katie Rose Guest Pryal.



Many people who knew us, Laura, when we worked together at the university knew that we were childhood friends. What they didn’t know—and what they would likely never have guessed—was that you and I were separated by our families when we went off to high school. Your family moved away farther south; I went off to boarding school farther north.

We didn’t reconnect until a year before you came to the university where I worked, as I recall. But no one would have believed it. They wouldn’t have believed it because we were as we’d always been—very close, finishing each others sentences, each other’s thoughts. There’s a reason why we were, and are, such good friends, even across distances and time.

A coral reef is one massive living ecosystem, but it is composed of massive number of tiny animals encased in their tiny homes, like you’ve captured in this photograph. The interconnectedness of the reef reminded me of the interconnectedness of us. How, even though we’d been apart for twenty-two years, you could still get me in trouble in a faculty meeting by smirking at me across the table to make me laugh.

That’s just not that different from sixth grade social studies, as I recall.


Dear Katie: Regarding Periscope 1

This is not what I expected a city to feel like.  That’s what I wanted to show you.

Growing up in our small, Southern town, I pictured something so different. I thought a city would be endless contact — people living all over me. Their languages, their ambition, their fashion: suddenly mine to take in. There would never be privacy and that would be perfect. I am no introvert. 

And then I moved to that first city, and the next, and the next, and found I had been wrong. 

Yes, there are bodies pressed against mine on the bus. The smell of green beans down the hall. Yes, I share every elevator and sidewalk and evening on the beach.  The fire trucks blare down my street and I know that someone’s catastrophe is unfolding nearby.

The people in the high rises surrounding mine leave their blinds open, like I do.  Their windows are movie screens my family cannot help but watch, so we name them according to their habits.  Dancing Man hops from foot to foot in front of his tv, willing his team to score. Lonely girl sits in the same spot on her tasteful couch, always with her legs folded under her, always facing the same direction. The Indian stayed up late cooking herself elaborate meals until she started dating Mr. Indian.  Now they go salsa dancing on Friday nights. He wears a white fedora and practices his steps in the mirror while she dresses in the bedroom. She is beautiful, and moves like she knows it.

It occurred to me sometime back that I know far more about the residents of these buildings than they know about each other — more, even, than their own friends do.  I see the unguarded moments and the messy kitchens.

We speculate about what they call us.  Maybe I am Ratty Bathrobe, my husband Black Socks.  They must know that our children wrestle on the carpet after dinner, that we love cereal, that I chew my cuticles, that we have a deaf son.  Yes, I am surrounded.

But there is a difference between surrounded and together.  That is what I know now, what cities have taught me.  City life is not a dorm.  It’s a constant effort to create mental space in an environment that lacks personal space.  Even in the Midwest with its generous, friendly, practical ways—where anyone on the street will stop to give directions—life in any city requires that one pretend not to notice who is doing what.  I’m inclined to talk to everyone, but feel intrusive when I do so. 

So here, crammed in with all these people, I am more silent than ever before.  Some days I might as well be on Pluto.  There is no lonely so lonely as surrounded can be.

I passed The Indian on the street once and found it so odd — like seeing my elementary school teacher at the grocery.  I hoped she didn’t recognize me.  Talking to her would be too intimate.


Periscope 1 - A World Away

This post is part of The Periscope Project.  The photograph is mine, immediately followed by a written response from Katie Rose Guest Pryal.

"A World Away" 

This is not what I expected from you. I know you take some photos of urban landscapes, but they do tend to be landscapes.

This is a still life. A beaten-up pair of binoculars with a reflection in one of the lenses is not what I expected. So perhaps this first blog post is about our expectations.

What does one expect to see when one looks out the window of one's home?

You used to live here, near me, in our small town in the south. But you don't anymore. Now you live there, in a massive city farther north, farther west. You live in a city where, in a reflection out of the window of your home, I might see through the metal bars of your windows the tall scape of a brick building, much taller than anything that exists in the town where we used to live together.

I still expect you to be here. You haven't been gone long enough for my expectations to have changed. You haven't been gone long enough for my expectations to reflect your new reality—your new life in your new city.

I still expect to be able to pick up the phone and call you and have you be here. I do not expect to be required to travel a great distance to see you.

So perhaps this is a perfect photograph for the first photograph of this series. Binoculars, a telescoping set of lenses intended to bring far things closer.  


Introducing: The Periscope Project

The parameters of The Periscope Project are these:

On a regular basis, I send a photograph to Katie Rose Guest Pryal. Katie cannot look at the photograph until she is ready to write. When she is ready to write, she opens the photograph and spends no more than fifteen minutes writing a response. That 15-minute response becomes a blog post. We simultaneously post these blog posts on each of our blogs. The photographs in the Periscope Project are mine, immediately followed by her response.  At times, I write back to her and post that separately.

The Periscope Project blog posts will be numbered thusly: Periscope 1, Periscope 2, etc. They will be tagged so that you can see them in order if you would like, however, you do not need to see the posts in order to enjoy them.