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Letters Home is on the move! Thursday, October 08, 2009

That's right, after almost exactly three years here, Letters Home is moving to a whole new location on the web: bookmark it now, or change your RSS feed link:

With the move, it's getting a whole new look. It should be a lot better for displaying my photos (bigger too!—click on the thumbnails for a slide show), and it will also be easier to search for specific topics. Plus it just looks better.

One of the main improvements is the ability to categorize posts. I'm still working out the details on that system, and it might take a while for me to sort out the categorization on my backlog of posts, but new posts will have nice neat categories for you to browse through.

And, with the new system, I can create "pages." I'm not sure how I will use that for this blog, but it is a pretty cool feature that will eventually come in handy.

The other major announcement is a whole new "blog." Portland Band Photographer is pretty much what the name implies: the best source for bands, musicians and other performers who need photos for their websites, press kits, etc. You can already see a portfolio of my band and musician portraits (like the one of Mother Mother at right), and another portfolio of live concert photography. I'll be adding stories and examples of my music photography to the blog part over the next few days.

Stay tuned! (Just not here.)

Housewarming party Monday, October 05, 2009

Now that we've been in our house for about two months, we figured it was time for a housewarming party. It was all very prim and proper, until Sam brought out the piƱatas ...

Wheelchair curling at Evergreen Curling Club Saturday, October 03, 2009

Cathy Cummins fires a rock down the ice at a wheelchair curling event hosted by Evergreen Curling Club Sept. 27 at the Lloyd Center in Portland. The club, with the help of the Disabled American Veterans, invited wheelchair athletes to learn the sport under the guidance of U.S. Paralympian Patrick McDonald and Canadian champion Vince Miele.

Last Sunday the Evergreen Curling Club hosted a learn-to-curl event for wheelchair athletes in Portland. With the help of the Disabled American Veterans, the club brought U.S. Paralympian Patrick McDonald up from San Francisco and Canadian champion Vince Miele down from Vancouver to teach the sport to first-time curlers in wheelchairs.

I recently updated my Sportsshooter page with some wheelchair curling photos, including the one above. Here are a couple of outtakes that didn't fit on that page.

[right] U.S. Paralympian Patrick McDonald communes with the ice before teaching the sport to first-time wheelchair curlers. [below] Canadian champion Vince Miele (left) shares a laugh with another curler.

Garage sale Tuesday, September 29, 2009

We couldn't get our stuff together in time to have a garage sale before we moved, so we brought all of it to our new place, added a whole bunch more from another friend, and had a garage sale at our new place. Of course it helped that, unlike our old apartments, we actually have a garage here!

The sale date was picked about a month in advance, and sure enough, we picked the only rainy day in a two-week period. I think the drizzle kept a lot of potential customers away, but we got rid of a bunch of stuff.

The highlight was the pirates who plundered our booty and bought out our supply of decorative skulls and skeletons. "Lickety Split" and "Ugly" were in the neighbourhood from Seattle for the annual Pirate Festival.

Summer Cotillion (and pie fight) Monday, September 28, 2009

OK, so I've been a really bad blogger lately. I'll try to catch up a bit this week, starting with an event that Perrie and I attended almost a month ago. But first the back story...

When Perrie and I got the keys to our new house we had about 24 hours to do some cleaning before all of our stuff got in the way. Washing windows and cleaning toilets isn't exactly a rock'n'roll way to spend a Friday night, but it was urgent and desperately needed.

About 8 that night we heard a knock at our door. The visitor introduced herself as Marilyn, our neighbour behind our backyard, and gave us a flier and tickets to an event they were hosting in a couple of weeks: the "2nd Annual Summer Cotillion (and pie fight)." Naturally we were curious so we looked up cotillion and marked the date on our calendar.

On the appointed day, we arrived fashionably late to find the party in full swing. Judging for the pie decorating contest was under way (right), followed by a live demonstration on how to properly throw a pie (your choice of cream—shaving or whipped). Then the real fun began as kids (young and not-so-young) had the opportunity to throw their creations at one another.

The event was a benefit for the Nomadic Theatre Co., who practice in the old church behind our house. Here are a few more pictures from the pie fight (and aftermath).

[left] Dressed in an outfit made of garbage bags, Sarah Liane Foster braces for the impact of Michael O'Neill's pie Aug. 29 at the 2nd Annual Summer Cotillion in Portland. The two members of the Nomadic Theatre Co. were demonstrating the correct way to throw (and receive) a pie. [below] Nomadic Theatre Co.'s Heather Pearl revels in the aftermath of an intense pie battle.

American beauty Saturday, September 12, 2009

With all of the amazing scenery, not to mention the creative talent in this country, why does so much of it look like this?

Greeting from beautiful Burlington, Wash.

Orchid Highway interview Thursday, September 10, 2009

My interview with The Orchid Highway was published on Northwest CanCon today. It took a while to edit—we talked for nearly an hour, and I edited it down to about 15 minutes. Check it out here. There's also a slide show from their performance, here.

These photos are a couple of out-takes from the concert and portrait session. Below, from left: Scott Perry, Jamie MacDonald, Rory MacDonald, Adrian Buckley, Derek MacDonald.

Health Insurance Costs Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The mailbox was full when I stuck my head outside the door just after lunch today: a magazine, a Visa bill, two movies from Netflix, and a large package from my health insurance provider.

"Dear Health Net Plan Member, Thank you for your continued membership ..." As a self-employed individual, I bear the full cost of my health insurance. Starting in October, that will be $254 per month—more than $3000 per year.

"The primary reason for the rate increase this year is the continuing upward trend in medical costs. In particular, hospitals continue to drive much of our costs, and this trend is not expected to change significantly anytime soon," the letter explains, adding that their hospital costs have risen 128% and utilization of hospital services is up 28% since 2001. It's hard to know whether "utilization" is on a per-member or absolute basis, measured in dollars, days or number of procedures, but the 128% price increase alone is astounding since inflation over the same period has been approximately nil. "Other reasons for rising medical costs include prescription drug costs, expensive medical technology and benefit and administrative mandates passed by the legislature."

[right] My personal health insurance premiums (yellow) and percent increases (green) over the past four years for the same coverage. Note that it does not include dental or vision care, and there is a $1000 per year deductible for most services. After that I'm still responsible for 20% of most care. (Click the picture for a larger view.)

So what can you infer from that? Either the member population is getting sicker and needing more care, they are getting more/more expensive treatments (necessary or not), or they are being charged more for the care they receive. Or a combination of all of these.

Personally, my insurance premiums have gone up by 65% in less than four years (a compounded average of 13.3% per year). And I haven't changed age brackets in that time. The scariest point, though, is that the year-over-year rate of increase is going up exponentially: in 2006 my premiums went up by 8.4%. The increase was 9.0% in 2007; 13.7% in 2008; and 22.7% this year. Next year I move to the next age bracket. That alone will increase my premiums by 6% or so.

[left] Paramedics wheel an injured volleyball player off the court at the state championships in Forest Grove, Ore.

So where is all this extra money going? In 2003, about 6.2-million health care workers earned $342-billion in wages*. In 2008, 7.1-million workers earned $480-billion in wages*. Between people and wages, that's a rather modest 7% increase per year. Over the same period, the total payroll for health care support workers increased by about 6.4% per year*. So I think it's safe to say that neither the number nor the remuneration of doctors, nurses, and therapists are to blame.

So that leaves their service providers. I don't have numbers to back me up, but I doubt that hospital costs are up so much because the price of food, cleaning and waste disposal services have outstripped inflation, nor because electricity, water and gas rates are going off the charts.

What about malpractice costs? I can't speak to the costs of malpractice insurance, but the total settlement costs were actually down 14% between 2001 and 2006*. That may be due to increased spending on defense attorneys.

The cost of treating the uninsured is another big weight on the system, but most sources suggest that it has been fairly consistent around 8% of the cost of insurance, which makes sense when the percentage of uninsured people holds steady. But with the rapid escalation in health care costs in recent years combined with loss of benefits and jobs in the current recession, the proportion of uninsured residents is sure to go up.

Marketing significantly outpaced the general rate of medical inflation, increasing by an average of 15.7% between 2001 and 2005*, but it is a relatively small percentage of a hospital's budget.

So what's left? What happens with the extra $100 per month I'm spending for the same coverage I had three years ago?

I can only conclude that the majority of the price increases we've seen in recent years is ending up in the pockets of the corporations that run the system: insurance companies, hospital corporations, drug companies and medical equipment manufacturers.

It's hard to blame them. In a pure capitalist system, companies are supposed to maximize their profits without regard to the effect that has on others. Take, for example, a diabetic who wants to buy individual insurance. The insurance company knows that customer will cost at minimum a couple hundred dollars per month for insulin and supplies alone. Why would a private insurance company ever take them on for less? Why should they?

And because the barrier to entry into the market (money) is so high, the few companies have an effective and sustainable oligopoly. Obviously, it's in the interest of the health care industry to maintain the status quo.

[right] A medical researcher treats samples at Portland's Oregon Health and Science University.

There is plenty of demand for health care because everybody needs it. Perhaps it is a reflection of the optimism inherent in the American dream: people will pay anything for a marginal improvement in their well-being. After all, without your health you have nothing.

Therein lies the problem: As certain as taxes is death, and almost as certain is a stage of declining health before the curtains are closed. At that point, the health care industry has you right where they want you. They can offer you the cure, or at least a stay of execution ... for a price. They could name just about any price, and you'll pay. I mean, what else are you going to do? You could be dead tomorrow.

And yet, therein is also a solution: as certain as death are taxes. I find it highly ironic that otherwise sane Americans who couldn't care less if insurance premiums skyrocket (i.e. the well-to-do and those with employer-provided health insurance), are so fearful of a government-run insurance program that might increase their taxes. A side-effect of the inherent distrust Americans have for their government (warranted or not), they fear that any government-run program will be innately counterproductive—even if the existing systems were still in place. They fear it will be inefficient, wasteful, and they don't know what they would get if they tried to use the program.

Well, fortunately I've never been in a situation where my medical insurance really started to kick in. And I hope that they would cover me if I were—after all, that's what I'm paying them for. But have you ever tried to read one of those contracts? Even in "plain English" the list of coverages and exceptions is extensive, changes every year, and the terms are detailed. If the insurance company ever decided that my claim was too expensive, I'd be in a worse position than David against Goliath if I tried to challenge it.

Fair or unfair, the federal government is about the only institution large enough and willing (maybe) to challenge the oligopoly that is today's U.S. health care system. Is it a perfect solution? Probably not. Is it a radical change? Yes. But you can't cross a chasm with small steps.

The health care system in this country is not healthy. It's time for a real change.

Thomas Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pets in general, and particularly cats, are notoriously hard to photograph. (I talked about that in an earlier post about shooting pets.) But Perrie's cat Thomas is clearly getting used to having me around.

The other day he was sleeping on his "Kitty Hooch" while we ate dinner. The light was decent and he looked pretty cute, so I grabbed a camera. I started out pretty wide. He opened his eyes but didn't seem bothered by the lens or shutter noise, so I kept getting closer. And closer. And closer. He just stayed there and let me get pretty "up close and personal."

Then, when I couldn't really get any closer, he started to pose! He just let me keep snapping away without any concern for the big black thing staring at him. I think his interest in the process outlasted mine.

I think Thomas is about 4 years old. Perrie adopted him shortly after she moved to Portland. Like the orange cat in Calvin and Hobbes, Thomas is named for the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

St. Johns Farmers Market Monday, August 24, 2009

Last Saturday morning we went to the St. Johns Farmers Market to pick up some vegetables and such for dinner. New this year, the market is not as large as others in Portland—only about a dozen vendors—but it has enough of everything including some great produce. Best of all, it's not crowded out with all of the craft artisans that you find in other markets. And it's only about five blocks from our house!

The weather on Saturday was perfect: around 80°F, plenty of sun, and not windy. There were plenty of people in the market, but not so many you couldn't move. Just right!

The Orchid Highway photos, interview Monday, August 17, 2009

Last night I photographed and interviewed The Orchid Highway at the East End when they were in Portland for the International Pop Overthrow festival.

This was just my second visit to the East End. Almost exactly a year ago I went there to interview The Pack A.D. (listen to that here).

The basement bar is small and dark—which is cool for a bar, but hellish if you're trying to take pictures. Think 1/25 at ISO6400 (f/2.8) on the brightest part of the stage. Way less on Derek and Jamie MacDonald (keyboards and guitar, respectively) at the edges of the stage. So the pictures have lots of grain and quite a bit of motion blur, but I think they look pretty cool, especially in black and white.

After the concert, I interviewed Derek and Rory MacDonald (they and Jamie are brothers) outside the bar. We did a portrait shoot on the sidewalk, and they also wanted to do something with this photo booth inside the bar. Without some major preparations (and more gear than I had on hand) it was impossible to light properly, especially since the bar was so crowded, so I just stuck the flash on camera and hoped for the best. The mirror and a tired patron turned something bleh into something much more interesting.

Look for the interview and more photos on Northwest CanCon in a week or two.

The new home Tuesday, August 11, 2009

As many of you know, Perrie and I moved last weekend. In spite of the unexpected challenge of the annual Bridge Pedal (which closed or restricted access to numerous roads in the area Sunday morning), with the help of eight awesome friends we managed to get everything from both of our apartments into the house in less than six hours.

Now, surrounded by a sea of boxes, we're trying to figure out a) just how many ladles, waffle irons and VCRs a house really needs, b) where we can put the stuff we're keeping, and c) which box the bath mat is in.

Having been built in 1927 and unoccupied for a couple of months prior to our arrival (and previously inhabited by some college kids), the house has some quirks to be sure. We couldn't get the box spring upstairs to our bedroom, so we just put the mattress on the floor for now. The kitchen cupboards are large, but very low to the counter, so there isn't much practical workspace. The dryer vents into the garage—or at least it will once I reconnect the ducts, which were only secured by good will. But we have an awesome backyard (once it gets watered again), my office is about four times the size it used to be, and the neighbourhood is really cool.

I'll put up some more interior photos once the house gets a bit more organized (it may take a while). Tonight I'll be doing some cleaning up at the old place. Then it's back to unpacking here.

Pierced navel? Thursday, July 30, 2009

For the past couple of weeks, workers have been refurbishing the brickwork on the apartment building across the street from mine. The 5-story, 1931 building is covered with brick on the two sides visible from the street, and decorated with about eight 10-foot tall sculptures I call the "pharaohs." (You might remember that I wrote about them last fall.)

The brickwork looked fine to my untrained eye, but apparently it needed a lot of work. After setting up a working platform, they started by pressure washing the brick and the pharaohs. I thought they were tarnished white, but it turns out they're more a yellowish-brown sandstone. They then started re-mortaring sections of the brick.

Today they drilled four holes into each pharaoh (one of which looks like a bellybutton). They injected resin and set a threaded bolt into the holes. I'm curious to see what's next.

I don't envy the workers, though, having to stand in the sun next to a brick wall all day in record-breaking heat.

New template Wednesday, July 29, 2009

As you can probably see I changed the template for this blog. The content is the same, but it's a fresher look. It might change a bit more in the next few days—there are a few things I have to clean up, add or restore, but I don't have time to do that right now. Maybe tomorrow. Anyway, let me know what you think. —ed.

Photographing bSide6 Monday, July 27, 2009

I got up before dawn Sunday morning to photograph bSide6, a new, seven-story building designed by Works Partnership, at the corner of East Burnside and SE Sixth (hence the name). The building has retail space on the bottom floor, but most of the space is designated as studio space for the city's creative community. bSide6 is brand new but, no thanks to the economy, I'm sure, it is about 2/3 vacant.

Unfortunately, the vacancies meant there were "For Lease" signs in the windows, and to my dismay a Jeep had parked in front of the building overnight. But the weather cooperated, as did the local crazies wandering the streets in the early morning hours.

One gentleman in particular stood out. Dressed in jeans and a tired white t-shirt and drinking God-knows-what from a reused Gatorade bottle, he paced around the intersection where I was working—thankfully not in front of the building—and up and down the surrounding streets. All the while, the overweight, 40-something, balding-with-a-ponytail guy kept saying in a character voice something to the effect of "Getthatcameraoutofhere" in such a hurry that he could hardly enunciate it, followed by some kind of surprised response: "What?" like he was having some kind of conflicted scenario playing over and over in his head.

It was loud enough that I could hear it across the street. Naturally, I ignored him and kept working while the light was good.

There were a handful of other people who passed through, most hanging around the bus shelter kitty-corner to my subject. Apart from the white t-shirt guy, though, none made any comment or asked me any questions other than what time it was. Meanwhile, the monologic call-and-answer continued:
Finally, as I was packing up to leave, he approached me and, in a perfectly sane voice, asked "Excuse me, do you know what time it is?"

Come to think of it, I had my back to him the whole time this bipolar discussion was going on. Maybe it was just voices in my head.

RAA photos on Northwest CanCon Sunday, July 19, 2009

Nils Edenloff of the Rural Alberta Advantage belts out a tune July 7 at Backspace in Portland.

Today I posted a slide show of photos from the Rural Alberta Advantage concert on Northwest CanCon. You can check it out here. At left is one of the photos that didn't make the cut.

The travails of travel Monday, July 13, 2009

A bartender mixes drinks July 11 at Brewery City Pizza Co. in Lacey, Wash. The picture has nothing to do with this blog post.

First of all, let me say that I enjoy traveling. That is to say, I like seeing new places and discovering different cities/states/countries, meeting people from NotHere. As far as I'm concerned, last weekend's trip to Lacey, Wash., barely counts as travel as my hotel was a straight shot up I-5, less than 120 miles from home. However, it proved to be more challenging than one might expect.

I was up there to shoot the 30th annual Seattle-to-Portland Bike Ride, in which 10,000 riders make a 204-mile journey from the Emerald City to the Rose City in their choice of one or two days. Two people have completed all 30 rides. Over the weekend, I saw more bikes than I've ever seen in one place before, and just about every conceivable configuration. Well, I didn't see a penny-farthing, but there were racing bikes, mountain bikes, cruisers, tandems, recumbents and more. There was one three-person tandem. One kid rode by on a skate board. One guy did it on a unicycle. But I digress.

In the Portland area there are only two bridges across the Columbia River, and they are notorious choke points during rush hour. I left home around 6:30 on Friday evening, figuring that the afternoon commute would be well finished. After quick stops at the grocery store and gas station, I entered the freeway around 7.

And just about stopped right there. In spite of the late hour, the freeway was still packed with traffic. Seven miles and 45 minutes later, it finally eased up as I crossed the Columbia. Right after the first exit in Vancouver, Wash., there was a sign warning motorists of "event traffic" about 7 miles ahead.

[left] Ken Leon, Scott Campbell and Bhaskar Amancharla toast after a long day of shooting the Seattle-to-Portland Bike Ride June 11 in Lacey, Wash.

I knew immediately that the sign referred to the Clark County Amphitheater. Built in 2003, the 18,000-seat facility is quite nice but perennially loses money, in large part due to the challenge of getting to the venue. (See this recent Oregonian article for more details on that.) It turns out that my trip to Lacey coincided with a sold-out Coldplay concert. Sure enough, after about seven miles of smooth travel I could see traffic backed up again. I hadn't eaten yet, so I pulled off at the next exit for dinner.

Once I resumed my trip things went smoother, and the remaining 100 miles passed by at about the expected pace. I pulled into my hotel in Lacey (on the outskirts of Olympia) just before 10 p.m., anxious to check in to use the facilities and get some rest before my 5:30 wakeup call.

When I entered the lobby, there were two or three uniformed Marines checking into the hotel so I lined up behind them and admired their close-cut hairstyles. A couple more arrived as I waited. When my turn came I gave my name to the harried-looking clerk, who couldn't find my name on her list. Given my non-conforming hairstyle and lack of uniform I never expected to be confused for a Marine, but when I explained that I wasn't with that group she asked me to wait while she checked in the rest of their group. Fair enough. I stepped aside as she continued to deal with the rest of them.

Meanwhile, men (and a couple of women) in uniform kept piling into the lobby. And I'm stuck waiting. I can't go up to my room because I don't have one yet. So I wait. Some of the Marines aren't on the list. Some of the ones that are on the list aren't here yet, but their roommates are. I check my email with the lobby computer. I read the local newspaper. I watch a bit of the too-loud TV in the lobby. I wait.

Finally, all of the Marines except the man in charge have disappeared, and he's trying to sort out something with the desk clerk. He suggests that she check me in because I've been waiting so long. I give her my name again ... I'm not on her list and asks if I'm supposed to be checking in at the hotel on the other side of the parking lot. I'm not. I explain that I'm with the photography group and perhaps I'm listed under my roommate, whom I've never met and has a long, unusual Indian name that I can't remember. And I left those details in the car.

So I run out to the car, grab the information package and return to the desk where she's working with the Marine guy again. Once they finish, I give her the name of my roommate, she looks him up and says that it doesn't have my name there. So she calls him and hands me the phone. Sensibly, he was asleep.

"Uh, hi, I'm Matthew ... I guess I'm supposed to be your roommate this weekend."

"If you say so."

"Well, I guess the desk clerk doesn't have my name, so she phoned you for me."

"Uh, ok."

"Um, yeah."

I handed the receiver back to the clerk who hung it up without speaking to Bhaskar. She gave me a key, and finally my journey was over. First seven miles, 45 minutes. Last seven yards, 35 minutes. Ugh.

Ken Leon lines up a shot at O'Blarney's Irish Pub in Lacey, Wash.

RAA rocks Rose City in record release recital Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Rural Alberta Advantage (from left, Amy Cole, Paul Banwatt and Nils Edenloff) perform July 7 at Backspace. The Toronto-based trio drew about 100 to the show, their first visit to Portland.

OK, so maybe "recital" isn't quite the right word, but the show wasn't exactly a "revue" nor a "rendezvous"—any better suggestions?

Anyway, I had the opportunity to interview and photograph the Rural Alberta Advantage (say that three times, quickly) last night at Backspace in Portland. It was really just a normal show for them, but it coincided with the official release of their debut full-length record, Hometowns, so they called it a record release party.

Look for the interview and concert photos on Northwest CanCon in a week or two.

At left is one of the outtakes from the quick portrait session we did. I'm not sure if I like it or not—Paul looks really cool with no fill light, but a lot different from the other two. What do you think?

Recent portraits

As mentioned, it's blog catch-up day. A week or so ago I did a portrait session with Perrie at her lab in OHSU. Here's one of my favourites from the session (right). After shooting in the lab, we took advantage of the beautiful weather and gorgeous view from her building (below).

The art of construction

I've been a bad blogger of late, but that doesn't mean I haven't been shooting. Among other things, I am in the midst of shooting a construction project in the Pearl District (yes, there still is some of that going on). Here are a couple of "arty" images from the Broadstone Enso Apartments (Yorke & Curtis, General Contractors).

In the photo at right, you will notice that the floor joists are not 2x8 or 2x10 or even 2x12 that you might expect. They are engineered wood joists: essentially wooden I-beams. The flanges are made of laminated veneer lumber and the webs are oriented strand board. Apparently it was invented in 1969, but I don't think it was in common use until the last 10 years or so.

It's a pretty good idea, though: it's lighter and stronger than dimensional lumber, more consistent, can be made to any length, and comes with pre-cut holes in the web for wiring and such. You can see a better view in the photo at right.

Below is a photo from the basement of the building (it may be a garage). It doesn't really go with the rest of this blog post, but I like it.