And Things That Go Bump in the Night…

My basement is a bit funky. There’s the usual cellar stuff: bags of potatoes; shelves of canned tomatoes, jam and such; two freezers; woodworking tools, extra plumbing and electrical supplies; an old mini-port-a-potty; a retired foozball game; the water pump; clay pots and potting soil; a washer and dryer and – this time of year – about six inches of water in the low end that was created by pouring a level concrete floor across the cellar’s higher parts.

I don’t give the water situation down there much thought. Usually I pump it out, but if ignored, eventually the water seeps back through the cracks in the bedrock from whence it came, and things dry up. This is an owner-built-home, and we owners are pretty tolerant of its idiosyncrasies.

Last week I went down there to fetch a few potatoes for supper and was startled by the kerploosh of some fairly sizable critter doing a running swan dive into the deep end. “Holy shit. What the hell was that?!?” I wondered aloud. The red squirrel that’s been coming to the bird feeders crossed my mind, but as much as I scanned the water for waves or movement, nothing further happened. There is a sort of platform above much of this low area, and the mystery diver must have quickly found a good hiding place (or maybe – I hoped – an exit), so I took my potatoes upstairs and started dinner.

For the next several days, whenever I needed something from the depths of the cellar, I would quietly sneak down the stairs, hoping to get a glimpse of the invading creature, but no sightings rewarded my stealth. The furry Greg Louganis had apparently moved on, and I forgot about him.

Last night, tired and hoping for a good night’s sleep, I worked a crossword puzzle until my eyelids drooped, and then turned out the light. At that moment, all was peaceful and quiet.

Some little time later, I was startled wide-awake: there was an animal – a fairly large, gray animal – walking along the edge of my mattress!

Now you who read here often know that I like animals; I respect animals, but I don’t fear them. Even so, let me tell you that the unexpected presence of a critter about the size of a small beagle strolling along the edge of your mattress in the middle of the night is a pretty unsettling sight!

I grabbed the sheet with both hands, creating a sort of barrier between the critter and my bare hide. “Omigod!! Bob!! Turn on the light!! There’s an animal in the bed!!” I screamed.

Bob (never at his best upon awakening) eventually noted that something was amiss and mumbled, “Can’t you turn the lamp on?” to which I answered with the obvious – and high volume – reply: “I’ve got both hands on the goddam sheet!!!” Finally he managed to turn on a flashlight and then eventually an electric light, but by then there was nothing four-legged in sight. It was as gone as last week’s diver.

I reiterated that there WAS an animal “right there on the mattress beside me!” to which Bob asked (with a measure of concern appropriate to such a dire situation), “What kind of animal was it?” and I say (still a bit wide-eyed), “An armadillo!… then realizing how nuts this sounds, “…or something that LOOKED LIKE an armadillo. My husband, reasonable to a fault, asks, “You saw it in the dark?”

“Uh, hmmm, uh, gee, I don’t know… uh… good point…” and suddenly it dawned on me that I must have dreamed the whole thing. Nevertheless, remembering the basement diver, we did a thorough search under the bed, finding nothing.

Eventually the whole episode began to strike us very funny and soon we were laughing hysterically. It took another crossword puzzle and at least an hour before I was sleepy again.

All this “wholesome living” sometimes gets under your skin, I guess, but this is the life we chose…

Say goodnight, Gracie.

Scottish Prayer (traditional)

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

What’s in a Word

Have you noticed what animists young kids are?

When I was little, there were mice and ducks and dogs that talked. We took for granted that a certain yellow canary was verbally sassy: “I tawt I taw a puddy tat! I did! I did taw a puddy tat! Bad old puddy tat! ” and that Sylvester would answer with a salivating, “Sufferin’ succotash!” These days, cars are anthropomorphic.

And so it is that my four-year-old grandson is terrified of … THE BOILER… The boiler “lives” in our mudroom, making vague firing noises when water needs to be heated or if the woodstove goes out. Grandson is absolutely scared to death of the thing. Luckily, there is a door between the “play room” and that mudroom, apparently making the play space safe for four-year-olds (when the door is closed).

Saturday the little guy was here and headed for the play room when he saw that someone had left the protective boiler shield open. I was busy in the kitchen and didn’t notice his distress as he asked – more than once – “Gramma, will you shut the door?”

Finally, in desperation he yelled, “Shut the damned door!!!” which launched me to explain to him that “shut the damned door” isn’t a good way for little boys to talk. He listened, looked at me sweetly and said, “Gramma, please shut the damned door.”

Remembering My Mother

There she is: the redhead in white in the middle of the fun. Behind her, in the white cap, is my father. This was a newspaper photo from the 1930s when she was Rochester, NY, city speed-skating champ and he was the city’s men’s tennis champion.

And here is a poem written by a friend:

A wish

May we all find our
way to our mothers
today, or some day.
May we find
the mothers
we miss,
the mothers we wish we had,
and the grandmothers of our
where the love waits
And may we be wise enough
to say thank you for the gifts
they were able to give.

Written by Becky Harblin,  May 13, 2007, used by permission.

The Housewife of Webster, N.Y.

“Have you been to that new home shop in The Commons?”

“Dan and I just bought a king Beautyrest, and we adore it.”

“Don’t you just love this dip mix?”

“You want the side-by-side FrigidaireIt’s just so much easier.”

“Who did you get to decorate?”

“I just let Jim deal with the lawn. I have enough to do keeping the house neat.”

When I think back to that time, those office cocktail parties remember like a Robert Altman movie where you catch bits and snippets of conversations, getting the suggestion of substance without ever really experiencing it. Other times I remember them in the clear focus of Woody Allen when he totally mis-fits at a WASP dinner party. In both cases, those years seem like they were lived on another planet in a galaxy far, far away.

Beginning in the summer of 1968, I was an IBM salesman’s wife. I bought the right things (or at least the ones that we could afford), mimicked suburban dress, and lived in a new split-level house. I’ve always been a bit of a chameleon, so although it was a change from anything I’d ever experienced, it wasn’t a difficult role to play.

On some days I longed for wall-to-wall carpeting and coordinating drapes, but the colors and patterns that appealed to me weren’t “the latest fashion” and so couldn’t be found in the stores that sell such stuff (or maybe subconsciously something deep within me was repulsed by the idea of conforming). In my little suburban castle, wooden floors peeked out around remnant rugs, and windows were hung with home-made curtains. Our house wasn’t shabby; it was – like one of its occupants – just a little schizophrenic.

One thing that had enamored me of this particular house was that the lot was large and backed up to the remains of an orchard. In fact, our back yard had been part of that orchard, as the apple tree outside the dining room window attested, and the large barn that once graced the acreage-turned-housing tract straddled the two “vacant” lots next-door. I secretly loved this weathered, elephantine “eyesore” and sometimes took my 2-year-old daughter into it to explore and play.

The neighbors were nice folks, although they always struck me as being adults. The women and I had mom-hood in common. None of us worked “real” jobs, so we did the things suburban women do – swapped recipes and potty training strategies, watched each other’s children, kept house (to varying degrees), and shopped – but that was about where our commonality ended. They did crafts; I tore the boards off another old barn and paneled my family room. When it was finished, I framed up a darkroom beside it. I dug up some evergreen trees from a nearby wood and planted them in my front yard.

Subconsciously at least, I fought this IBM wife role. At social events my skirt was too short, my hair too long. I tried to convince myself that the other salesmen and their wives were swell people (which they probably were) even though they reminded me of what we called “the clique” back in my high school days.

My husband was a good salesman, in fact, one of IBM’s top 15 rookies nationwide that year. My husband also drank. He always had, but in college everybody drank and it was considered normal. Now he drank more. We argued about it, and his drinking began to fit into a pattern of drink too much, promise not to drink any more, have “just one drink” (which the next night became two, and then the following night three), and then he’d make the same unrealistic promise and the cycle would start again. On day four of these cycles, things got thrown and smashed. As he was wont to point out, my upbringing by a pair of tea-totalers didn’t help matters. For the first time in my life, I began to experience a long stretch of unhappiness, worry and fear.

Depression crept over me like a fog. Self-pity and anger tangled up with love and despair. There were weeks when yesterday’s dirty dishes littered the place until I had to use them again, and there was the night we stood together in the kitchen, separated by only a few feet and his drunkenness, and I edged closer to a chef’s knife lying on the counter with the intention of plunging it into him, stopped only by the more rational thought that he was big and strong and that I, the mother of a toddler, couldn’t afford to chance dying.

I’d seen the dysfunctional families of my foster sisters, watched them struggle and self-destruct. Some were just way down on their luck, but most were pathological and made poor choices or allowed other people to beat them down. I somehow reasoned that if I remained in my current situation, I was as sick as they were. It wasn’t any brilliant motivator, but that thought – that I was as sick as those poor people if I stayed where I was – somehow gave me the strength to take action.

Months of separation and counseling followed. During the separation I moved “home” to my parents’ house in a neighboring town. I found a part-time job waitressing and another in the community services office of a juvenile detention center, enrolled my daughter in daycare, and bought a car, all steps to regaining some measure of the independence I had lost to the marriage. In early September, we reconciled and I returned to married life under the conditions that I would keep my day-job and I would take an already-planned trip to Norfolk to visit my old singing partner. Counselling continued, and things were better, but by Thanksgiving I knew they were not good enough. I would wait until after the holidays…

Christmas came and passed, and then New Year’s, but inertia had me in its grip and married life continued.

Three days into the new year, a man walked into the probation office where I was working. I happened to be alone, so we talked for some time about our respective programs and then strayed to sharing a little of the paths that had led us to our current jobs. I off-handedly mentioned that I was getting a divorce and that the working hours my job required were convenient for my child and me, as we would be beginning life on our own. The sound of those words emanating from my mouth surprised me. Later, while locking the office door, I spoke aloud to myself: “There. You’ve said it. Now go do it,” and that night I told my husband I was going to file for the divorce. We had tried. Counseling had helped, our marriage was somewhat better, but it was not the way I wanted to live the rest of my life. My days of being an IBM salesman’s wife were over.

Just before leaving my suburban split-level for the last time, I made two discoveries. In a paper bag under some things in a closet, torn to shreds, was my favorite dress. It was one I’d made of a blue handkerchief cotton print, a dress I’d worn to usher for a local summer stock theatre, my counselor-suggested “independent activity” that left my husband home to baby-sit and gave me an occasional night out. The other discovery was something hidden above my head on top of the kitchen cupboards: his wedding ring, the one he’d told me he must have lost when emptying the trash.

About two years later I married the man who had stopped in my office on January 3, 1971, the stranger who heard me mention off-handedly that I was getting a divorce. We will celebrate our 40th anniversary in a couple of months, but of course that is another story.

One Singular Sensation

(Begin with the right foot) BRUSH-BACK-STEP,

(now the left) BRUSH-BACK-STEP,

(right) BRUSH-BACK-STEP-(now step on the left!) STEP,

(now right again!) BRUSH-BACK-STEP.


Thus began my dancing lessons, red-haired Miss Byrne calling out the instructions, and an ancient, stooped woman named Sylvia pounding an old, out of tune upright piano.

     (Up a steep and very narrow stairway,
To the voice like a metronome,
Up a steep and very narrow stairway,
It wasn't paradise,
It wasn't paradise,
It wasn't paradise,
But it was home) 

The place was the “Val Mates School of Dance,” up a long and very narrow stairway above a storefront on East Avenue. I was a very pigeon-toed, skinny kid, and my parents were hoping that dancing lessons would straighten out my feet. 

(Dance: ten; Looks: three…)

True, Val Mates wasn’t paradise, but neither was it anything like my home. The man Val Mates, though seldom seen, looked like his painted portrait on the sign that hung in the window, albeit a bit older: an oddly (to me at the time) pretty fellow with very curly hair slightly longer than was the masculine style of that day. The rest of the faculty was made up of women unlike any of my friends’ mothers. Except for Miss Byrne and the grumpy-looking old pianist, they were bleached blondes, noticeably made up and wearing fishnet stockings, low-cut leotards and very short dance skirts. As young as I was (probably about eight), the prevailing lack of wholesomeness made an impression. This was a fascinating place.

(Give me somebody to dance for,
Give me somebody to show.
Let me wake up in the morning to find
I have somewhere exciting to go).

There was a small lobby with a curved black sort of desk/counter where you paid your money. The lights there were dim, and it was where The Blondes hung out when they weren’t teaching in one of the two maple floored, mirrored studios. It didn’t seem to me that pretty, freckle-faced Miss Byrne fit in there, and I must have been right, because one day she was gone. I arrived for my lessons, and she had been replaced by one of The Blondes.

Sylvia disappeared too. Her piano pounding was replaced by a small record player, one of those old 78 rpm portable models that looked like a small suitcase, the top unlatching and opening to expose the turntable and needle arm. Perhaps in boredom, perhaps for the shock value, The Blonde put a vinyl disk in place, turned it on, and proceeded to play the record using her long, red fingernail instead of the needle!!!

(Play me the music! 
Play me the music!
Give me a chance to come through!
All I ever needed was the music and the mirror 
And a chance to dance– )

Not long after that, Miss Byrne called my mother. She had opened her own dance studio in the basement of her home, or more likely, her parents’ home. I left Val Mates and resumed tap, acrobatic and ballet lessons next to a furnace beneath a low ceiling and neon lights, eventually graduating to “toe” (nowadays known as “on point”) and modern jazz. I thought I had talent, and maybe that was why I didn’t feel I needed to practice. (If I’m honest here, I guess I would have to admit to having more laziness than perceived talent). I’d gradually learn the numbers as new steps were added week after week, eventually suffering through each lesson as poor Miss Byrne must have suffered in teaching a student with little motivation. One day she announced that she was going to get married, and her underground dancing school closed.

My mother sought out other studios, and after a nasty encounter with a teacher who used my ponytail to yank me into a back-bend, I gave up all but the tapping and took dance in the home of a young man who was the nephew of our local town druggist. I’d ride my horse to his house for lessons, transforming from Annie Oakley to Bo Jangles and back in the space of an hour.

And then came hormones, Jr. High, and the realization that even if I wanted to be (which I didn’t), I would never be a dancer.

(Hello twelve,
Hello thirteen,
Hello love! )

It was time to let my tap and toe shoes gather dust.

(Everything was beautiful at the ballet.
Graceful men lift lovely girls in white.
Yes, everything was beautiful at the ballet.)

Well, not really everything. I had seen that.

I quit.

There was no reason to continue. My pigeon toes (the reason my parents sent me to dancing lessons) had straightened out, maybe (as hoped) from those many weeks of forcing them into first, second, third, fourth and fifth position. Or maybe it just would have happened anyway as I grew.

The many “routines” I’d learned were soon forgotten, but I can still do the steps – and sometimes do. The beauty of having had all those dancing lessons is that to this day I can still punctuate a wise-crack with a shuffle-ball-change.

…..(And I can’t forget, don’t regret, what I did for love pigeon toes).

The Tale of the Photography Workshop (or, Why I am Up in This Tree)


I spent the first week of October at a digital photography workshop near Eagle Bay, NY in the Adirondack Mountains. It was taught by an R.I.T. photo prof. and his photographer wife, two great and greatly talented people. It was a wonderful opportunity.

Covewood Main Lodge

As the teacher explained, the average digital camera has been configured to take pictures of smilin’ white folks at a picnic. It’s turned on and shot in the camera’s pre-set JPEG mode, auto-exposed and auto-focused by a tiny Japanese man (let’s call him “Yoshihiko”) who lives inside the camera. If you ask him to, the Yoshihiko in many cameras will take weather conditions into consideration: choose “sunshine” or “cloudy” or “incandescent lightbulb” (most often seen as tiny representative icons). He will – if asked – acknowledge the camera operator’s directive to shoot an “action shot” or in “macro (closeup) mode” – although the average digital camera user doesn’t want to be bothered with such variables and generally lets Yoshihiko just do his thing on full AUTO. Ditto the use of AutoFocus. Connect a wire between camera and computer, and the resultant image can then be attached to an email and sent to Cousin Minnie who didn’t make it to the picnic so she can laugh at everyone in the photo. All of this works and makes many, many people happy.

Part of Covewood’s Dock on Big Moose Lake

I know some basics about photography, i.e. the fundamentals of exposure (Northern, ass, celluloid and image sensor). I understand the focal length/depth of field relationship. Many people have told me I have “a good eye.” There was a time some years ago when I knew how to choose my film camera’s exposure settings by looking at the available light in any given situation.

I confess that although I often manually focus, and I do usually control the shutter speed, I just as often let Yoshihiko do his thing. He is a pretty smart guy, after all. I use a tripod on occasion, almost always for indoor shots that require a long exposure because of low light levels. I have a “nice” tripod bought at the “nice” mall camera store, but not a particularly clever one capable of getting close to the ground.

Last week, all of this was about to change…

I arrived at the workshop, and the first thing I learned was that my “nice” tripod should probably go to the scrap-pile. I was loaned an older good one that had twice the weight and flexibility of my own. On the first day (when we were just turned loose to take shots around the beautiful old Adirondack great camp), I decided to do my usual thing sans tripod on the excuse that it would be my benchmark: the “old” way of doing things, to be compared to what I would be doing by week’s end. (Everyone else headed out with cameras mounted securely to their three-legged devices).

On Tuesday morning, armed with loaned Bogen tripod, I set out with ten others for a creek some miles away. We got there by car, then began walking up the creek, along the creek, and IN the creek. (This was a bit unsettling to me because I was using Husband’s camera, borrowed for the week because my own had gotten doused by a small container of soapy water and drowned Japanese beetles and was at Pentax Repair). The place was pretty: rocky with small waterfalls and the beautiful reds, yellows, greens and oranges of Adirondack autumn. Of course, the rocks were also slippery and the embankments steep, so I was clinging to camera and tripod with more than the normal paranoia. Yoshihiko stayed back at the lodge.

The previous evening, we had been lectured on using histograms to judge proper exposure (new to me; I had heard of histograms but had no knowledge of the why and how), and we were expected to manually focus and expose (full manual exposure being another thing I had not done previously with my digital camera). The Pentax manual packed in my bag turned out to be the camera software manual, not the actual camera instructions, adding another straw to the camel’s back.

Before shooting, and as the light conditions changed, we needed to “custom white balance” our cameras with a white card instead of choosing “shade” or “cloudy” automatic settings (another procedure I knew the value of but not the mechanics…). To sum up, the game was to climb around the creek looking for a good subject, set up and level the tripod in the desired location (balancing its legs on slippery rocks, in water and mud), figure out all the camera settings, check white balance, be sure you were focused, fire the shutter, then check to see that the histogram was appropriately placed. My brain was on overload, and being the owner of ONE drowned Pentax, I was really nervous watching water flow between my feet.

 Tuesday’s Best Shot

The other half of my workshop time – because for me, it did take almost half of my time and energy during the week – was computer technology. A new-to-me notebook computer, never-used camera software, a key drive that refused to save my files, a network configuration that wouldn’t accept the lodge’s wireless network when I tried to download a photo file converter (somehow the notebook wanted to talk to my office…), the unfamiliar organizing part of Adobe Photoshop Elements, and a program for converting RAW files to DNGs all fought me tooth and nail. It was embarrassing and totally stressful to be so mind-boggled by these things, and I had to use them. My teachers were incredibly patient as we spent the evening hours struggling with this stuff.

By Wednesday I was taking some decent photos. I spent an hour in one part of another leaf-strewn stream, and I am fairly pleased with the pictures. Technically I was making some progress, and although I was still nervously hanging onto the camera and tripod for fear of another water disaster, I was handling the custom white balancing, manually setting exposures and checking histograms, and generally enjoying myself.

On Thursday we traveled up Big Moose Lake by boat and then hiked and photographed everything Nature had to offer along the trail to Russian Lake. By late afternoon I reached the lean-to at the trail’s end, and then took some shots across and into the lake. I was about finished, and stood camera and tripod near the shore, watching another photographer work on a shot of some pine needles floating on the water. A fly landed on her subject, and I suggested that I go find a branch to chase it so she could take her shot. I turned my back on the camera for less than a minute… and during that minute, the one minute of the entire week that I was not carefully clinging to either camera or tripod, the leg of the tripod facing the water telescoped slowly into itself… and with a splash, my husband’s camera fell to it’s watery grave.

On Friday, I drove the soggy camera to Old Forge and FedEx-ed it to Pentax Repair before joining the others for lunch and a shoot of Ferd’s Bog. I was an observer.

On Saturday, the workshop over, I drove to Brown’s Tract Pond where we had scattered my parents’ ashes eight years ago. There were no campers or boaters anywhere near the lake; only a lone photographer (not from the workshop) stood on the shore where I had planned to launch my kayak.

I paddled to the island and climbed onto the flat rocks on its southern shore. For an hour I was alone with my memories. I sang “Scarlet Ribbons” for my father and then “Feels Like Home to Me” for my mother, and gradually the ache of loss – loss of camera, loss of childhood times, loss of beloved parents, loss of control, loss of sanity – lessened; lessened but was not ready to leave me.

Back in the kayak, I circled the island. An otter slipped silently from the rocks on the far side and disappeared into the water. A breeze was picking up and gray clouds were now blowing across the sky. Returning to the deserted shore, I put the kayak on the car and turned back onto the dirt road past the now closed State campground where I stopped to briefly visit our family’s favorite campsite; then went on to Raquette Lake where I paused to pay my respects to the faded old general store where generations of campers with canoes have gotten their supplies. It was the last weekend of the “summer” season.

I drove the remaining two and a half hours north in silence.

At home, my husband greeted me warmly. The house was clean and he was preparing a wonderful dinner featuring quinoa-stuffed squash. I opened the notebook and began a slideshow of the week’s photos, pouring out stories as he poured a fine bottle of shiraz.

After dinner the slideshow resumed… to the point of a photo taken at 4:38 PM on Thursday, and I said, “At that point, during the one instant of the entire week when I wasn’t clinging worriedly to either the tripod or the camera strap, one leg of the tripod telescoped in, and your camera fell in the lake.”

Just Before the Dive

It is quiet and peaceful up here in the tree. I am watching the leaves change color and fall, and I am contemplating Fate.