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.

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.


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

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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Following up on my post about the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London, I wanted to write about its descendant, the Zoological Society of London (or Z-as-in-Zed-S-L) in Regent’s Park.

London Zoo is a bit out of the way by public transportation. The Underground skirts the edge of Regent’s Park, making a single stop at the southern gate before veering off north for Camden. From there you board a crawling bus headed up some charmless back street, or take a pleasant (but very long) walk to the northern edge of the park. Michelle and I did both one May afternoon and got to the zoo about an hour before closing time.

ZSL isn’t a big zoo, but it manages an impressive collection. The exhibits are all very modern and as natural as they can be given the limited space. We spoke to a few of the keepers and they seemed enthusiastic and knowledgeable.

As is often the case in London, ZSL has some unique history. It was the first zoo opened specifically for scientific research; for its first twenty years it wasn’t even open to the public. Charles Darwin became a fellow of the zoo in 1839 and one resident, an orangutan named Jenny, inspired him with her near-humanity.

With limited time to look around, there was one animal I knew I must see: the okapi. It’s not much to look at, but this awkward, donkey-like ungulate, native to the Ituri Rainforest of central Africa, is famous for managing to elude science until 1901.

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The British Museum is one of the world-class museums. Except for the Louvre in Paris, I can’t think of any other place with such an impressive collection of world-famous artifacts. It’s consistently ranked Britain’s #1 tourist attraction; last year almost 7 million people came to see such famous artifacts as the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Marbles, Greek and Roman sculptures, golden treasures from around the world, Samurai armor, an Easter Island Moai, and much more.

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The Tower of London has been many things in its thousand-year history. Built immediately after the Norman conquest, its first incarnation was as a symbol of power, a proto-Death Star from which William the Conqueror could exert control over his new capital.

William’s successors were increasingly reluctant to live in central London, never more than a drawbridge away from the fickle mob. As the monarchy left for greener (and more isolated) pastures, the Tower was turned to darker purposes; it served as an armory, a prison, an execution ground, and surprisingly, a zoo.

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For no good reason other than it’s January, here are three photos from my trip to London last May. What a different time that was. Pre-Brexit, Pre-Trump, everything just seemed so normal. Now it’s 17 degrees and I’m stuck at home drinking tea and remembering warmer, better days.

City on the Thames

City on the Thames

Here’s an interesting comparison. I took the photo below on my first trip to London in 2003. It’s the same scene, from essentially the same spot (looking west from Tower Bridge), but a lot has changed. That big pointy building (The Shard) wasn’t there before. Neither was London City Hall (the half-circle shaped building on the left), along with a lot of the buildings in the background.

I’d also like to think that the 2016 photo isn’t half as terrible as the one I took with my first digital camera and its mighty 2x optical zoom!

The Thames

Houses of Parliament, Morning

Houses of Parliament, Morning

Parliament and Westminster are so damn British it hurts. You walk around and see all these things that couldn’t exist anywhere else, that you’ve seen a hundred times on TV and on movies, but there it is. This was taken early in the morning, before the stream of tourists had really coalesced, from a quiet embankment across the Thames in front of St. Thomas’ Hospital Gardens. Off to our right, just off camera, an Asian couple were having their wedding portraits taken.

London from the Eye

London from the Eye

Last time I was in London, I absolutely refused to go on the Eye. I probably ranted about how it was ridiculous to pay £9 to ride on a damn Ferris wheel. This time around, admission was something like £33. We paid it, plus extra to go in the “fast-pass” line. This is what happens when you have more money than you have time. It was still just a damn Ferris wheel.