Snake Charmer

Travel is sometimes uncomfortable. This experience, on our first evening in Marrakesh, was one of those. It had nothing to do with the snakes. I have no beef with snakes.

Jemaa el Fna is a nice place to stroll, get a glass of orange juice, or visit a cafe, but the performers are downright predatory. These guys saw my camera, steered us over and thrust a snake into Michelle’s hands. Like any logical person, I asked, “What’s this going to cost?” He answered, “Donation, whatever you want!” Mm hrm.

I was onboard, at first. I knew I wanted this picture before I even got to Morocco, and I knew it was going to cost some money, but I was unprepared for the audacity of this snake handler and his friend: “Give us each 400 dirhams,” he said. That’s about $42. Each.

I may have actually laughed out loud. “Absolutely not!” I said. Are people really paying eighty dollars to play with a snake? He pressed. I stayed firm. Finally I gave them 200 dirhams (about $20) and walked quickly away.

It was like this everywhere. As soon as I turned my lens towards some musician or mystic or monkey-owner, his partner would sidle up and demand an outrageous amount of money. It didn’t take long for me to get fed up. I know they’re trying to make a living, but I’m not paying anyone $20 for a few quick snaps of a maltreated ape. Fuck that. Uncomfortable.

Jemaa el Fna

This is the Jemaa el Fna, the public square at the heart of Marrakesh, Morocco. Michelle and I spent ten days in Morocco in October. I’m still processing my photos but there are sure to be a few more updates.

Well, it’s been way too long since I posted again. Just coming down off a busy summer wherein the company moved offices and I launched a major new site. Took lots of pictures, but I’m several months backlogged. Cooler weather’s coming soon, and I hope to get mostly caught up before our big trip to Morocco in October.

Anyway, today was the big American Eclipse of 2017 (not to be confused with the even darker American Eclipse of 2016), so here are a few pictures from temporarily-not-sunny downtown Toledo.

Eclipse 2017

Eclipse 2017

Eclipse 2017

Eclipse 2017

At the beginning of May, Michelle and I went to check out the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield. I found it while searching one of those “things to do you in your state” sites, and of all the things to do on a cold, dreary Saturday, it seemed like the most interesting. I knew the reformatory existed, knew that it was where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed (pretty neat), and knew that it had a reputation for being haunted (yawn). I wasn’t sure Michelle would want to spend her Saturday morning at an abandoned prison, but she was completely onboard.

The Reformatory is a beautiful from the outside, huge and imposing in the Romanesque style. It was built in the late 1800s as a place where young male first-offenders could pay off their debt to society without being exposed to the horrors of the state penitentiary. We passed under the brick arch, up the wide stairs, and into the vaguely Art-Deco vestibule. It was $12 each to enter, and a few more dollars for the behind-the-scenes tour (which we left for another time).


Based on the beauty of the exterior, I was totally unprepared for what lay inside. The prison (despite its progressive beginnings, that’s what it became) is dank, menacing, and thoroughly ruined. The museum staff are working hard to restore it, but they have years of work ahead of them. Behind the well-maintained façade, the place looks looks like it’s been abandoned for a century.

West Cell Block

In reality, there were inmates here until 1990. Overcrowding elsewhere in the system forced the Reformatory to convert to a maximum-security prison. Generations of men languished here in increasingly wretched conditions. A 1978 lawsuit ordered the prison closed by the end of 1986, but it took another four years for the Mansfield Correctional Institution to open in its new location just north of the old Reformatory. Signs on all the north-facing windows strictly forbid taking photos of the operating prison.


You can tell the cells that were occupied in the last years. They are clean by comparison, but you still wouldn’t want to run your fingers inside the sink. The wide-angle lens makes it hard to tell, but these cells are tiny. Like, walk-in closet tiny. There are hundreds of them in two long, double-sided cell-blocks, stacked up to six(!!) tiers high.


Below is an older room. Most of the prison looks like this. Worse, actually, since most of the rooms are empty except for the bed and a corroded metal stool. The walls look diseased, and it goes without saying that the peeling paint is lead-based. The beds have been repaired again and again, using whatever materials were at hand.

Don't Touch the Walls


Walking the catwalks on the higher floors was a claustrophobic experience. I shuddered imagining the guards patrolling the narrow walkways, never more than an arms’ length from the nearest cell. Somehow we ended up going backwards on the tour route and we had to duck into cells to let groups of people going the other way pass.

Claustrophobia


Upstairs was an recreation area and a hospital-turned-library. Some old gym equipment and chairs were all that was left behind. Broken windows and cracked walls up here let the cold breeze flood in.

Abandoned Rec Room


The next floor down was “the Car Wash”, the old prison shower. Once a week the inmates were marched into this room, instructed to strip, and allowed a brief walking shower.

The Carwash


I checked the empty magazine racks in the library to see what the prisoners read. Mad magazine, LifeMotor Trend, and the National Enquirer, among others. On what had been the librarian’s desk, a copy of a 1980s Sears Catalog lay open to a page full of fancy lamps. There were books and magazines in some of the cells, too. Criminal law and psychology were popular topics.

Fundamentals of Psychology


Solitary confinement was a horror show, located in the basement, with no windows and bare bulbs for illumination. The ceilings were so low that a tall man couldn’t stand up straight. It’s no wonder that many inmates, confined in the dark with nothing but a cold metal slab for a bed and a combination toilet/sink, attempted suicide. After a riot in 1957, 100 inmates were crammed into the 20 cage-like cells for a month. Fewer than 100 emerged; at least one hapless man was murdered by his cellmates.


Mansfield Reformatory is a profoundly spooky place. I don’t believe in haunting, but it’s easy to feel that something is off here. Even in the daytime, it’s hard to walk these halls without imagining the suffering of the men who were confined here. It’s a claustrophobic, cold, uncomfortable place, and a stark reminder of the awful conditions we tolerate for people we think of as less than fully human.

East Cell Block

Mansfield is just off Interstate 71 in north-central Ohio, an hour from Columbus and about two hours from Toledo. If you’re ever in the area, or looking for an interesting day trip, stop by for a visit. It’s open 11 AM to 4 PM, 7 days a week from April to September and weekends the rest of the year. Learn more at www.mrps.org.

I got a new tablet a few weeks ago (it’s an Acer Switch Alpha 12), and I’ve really enjoyed it. I never thought I’d be a “touch screen guy”, but it’s so much more comfortable to lay on the couch with tablet in hand than it was to balance my big old Dell laptop on my knees. At the risk of sounding cliché, it’s actually changing my life. I’m reading more and spending less time tied to the computer in my office.

Windows 10 works great on a tablet. Everything is well-designed and the transition from mouse and keyboard to touch and back is pretty seamless. Even that giant full-screen Start menu everyone made fun of in Windows 8 starts to make sense when you’re using your PC as a tablet. The Universal apps (formerly “Metro”) are comfortable to use in tablet mode, too; I’m particularly fond of the Fitbit and Facebook apps.

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I love the holiday season! I love Christmas music, the food, and most of all, the all-pervading feeling that it’s finally time to relax and be of good cheer.

Last December we spent a long weekend in Las Vegas. We wanted to see Sin City all done up for the holidays and get away from the Strip to see how everyday Vegas lives. We drove downtown to Fremont Street on a Saturday to see something special: The Great Santa Run.

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