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!
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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.

(REPEAT!)


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)

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 12, 2007

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.

Escape From Danemora

Last night I had a very funny conversation with THE FIRST ESCAPEE FROM DANNEMORA, some fifty years ago. Gerry has been a Canadian since the Vietnam era and is the owner of the pub we frequent.

He told about being in the States visiting his daughter on June 7, 2015, picking up a newspaper, and seeing a full-page story on the prison escapees going out through the steam tunnels and exiting via a manhole. “I thought, holy shit! There’s only 3 of those manhole covers in the whole town! One of them was in my back yard! I’ve stepped on that thing dozens of times!!!”

Gerry’s dad spent many years inside the prison as a guard, as did every other resident of the tiny town with the exception of a couple who owned a small grocery store. Dannemora is the place where the worst of the worst criminals are sent, and Gerry commented that Richard Matt and David Sweat were “horrible men.” Dannemora is mentioned in an old movie set in Alcatraz. An older inmate tells a young one, “You’d better be careful or you could be transferred to Dannemora.” It’s a bit creepy just driving through the town, passing right next to the massive cement walls with their guard turrets.

Anyway, dinner and beer were excellent – as always. ‘Chatted with Jeff, the part-time bartender we’ve come to know over the past nine years. He’s passed his nursing exams, quit smoking, and was great to catch up with. We also met a new “friend” who was reading Richard Fry’s book, “Mythos”, a retelling of Greek mythology as only the former butler to Bertie Wooster could tell them!

A perfect evening.

Marilyn

For many years, I thought she might have been Meryl Streep. There was definitely a resemblance. Marilyn was shy and blushed easily. She was blonde and pretty and from the mid-west, and we both spent a year together (with about 50 other college kids) in Bregenz, Austria. The “men” in our group lived with Austrian families, while the women were housed on the top two floors of the town’s finest hotel, floors 4 and 5.

Behind the hotel was a cobblestone courtyard and some buildings that probably were once carriage houses. Also accessible to that courtyard was the back door to the local hofbrau haus or pub.

It was a fine spring evening. Five or six of us were in the courtyard, probably about to enter that back door for a stein of good Austrian bier, when shy, blushing Marilyn called to us from a 5th floor window. Our attention gained, Marilyn turned around and mooned us!

I have many memories of Austria. Being mooned by Marilyn is one I’m not likely to forget!

Grampa Louis

Louis, my husband’s grandfather, was born in 1888 in Lithuania/Russia. Women frequently died of complications in childbirth in those days, and so it was that Louis was the son of his father’s second wife – who was also his first wife’s sister.

An older half-brother had immigrated to New York City and then had the incredible good fortune of winning $7,777.77 in a lottery, a small fortune in those days, enabling him to pay for Louis’ passage – if Louis could escape Russia.  Louis must have traveled quite some distance to reach the border, as Krekenava was in central Lithuania, and his destination was Antwerp, some 1,745 km to the southwest.

On his first attempt to cross,  he was caught and jailed for trying.  Louis was a good checkers player, and so was an imprisoned Cossack captain, and they became friends.  Louis was a small 17-year-old (5′ tall and 122# is recorded in his “Declaration of Intention” to become a U.S. citizen), and the Cossack looked out for him. After his release, Louis then succeeded in sneaking across the border disguised as a girl going to market with the village women.

As he neared Antwerp, Louis was hungry.  He approached a street vendor selling fruit, but they spoke different languages.  The vendor used gestures to convince him to buy a banana, something Louis was completely unfamiliar with.  After biting off a portion of it, Louis spat it out, concluding that the vendor had fooled him.  He didn’t know that he was supposed to peel it!  Years later he would laugh as he told the story.

Louis reached New York City in December of 1905.

Have You Driven a Ford Lately?

Today “the boys” will come over to pick up our old Ford 8-N tractor. Built in 1952, it has served us well since the fateful day in 1979 when we bought it. I say fateful, because it was a day I’ll never forget.
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The owners, back-to-the-land acquaintances not very unlike ourselves, were splitting/divorcing, and the stuff they’d accumulated for working the land had to go. A divorce is divisive in more ways than one, and apparently this divorce was leaving the male half of the sketch – whom I’ll call Exhibit A – with a strong need to show he knew what he was doing.
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It was a chilly March day, and we arrived around 10AM with the F-600 flatbed truck we used in our firewood delivery business, expecting, as we’d been led to expect, to back it
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up to an embankment or ramp of some kind, but Exhibit A waved off this necessity. He said there wasn’t anyplace we could do that, and he had some planks we could use to drive it up and onto the truck bed.  Keep in mind that this bed was a good four feet off the ground.
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He produced the planks: 2x10x12s. (If you can do the math, you find that two planks twelve feet long rising to a height of four feet is… well, pretty damned steep). Exhibit A was very hard to dissuade, but there were three of us telling him it was an extremely bad idea, so he hauled out two more planks and some cement blocks with which to make a longer – and therefore less steep – ramp, and this time there was no dissuading. Finally, anxious to get the thing done and get out of there, we caved, and he mounted the tractor. I tried to get him to wait for us to nail the planks to the truck bed, but he drove on.
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Up the ramp he went – the three of us holding our collective breath – past the cement block support and joint between between planks, and about two feet from his destination atop the truck, and to our amazement, it looked as though he’d been right, that he could just drive the 8-N onto the truck.  He stopped…, calling out, “Am I okay?” Collectively we shouted, “KEEP GOING!!!!!”  He yanked down on the throttle, the burst of speed spun the tractor’s back wheels, sending the planks flying backwards and out from under the tractor, and as it fell, it’s bucket-loader caught on the right side rack on the truck! Ford and driver swung back and forth wildly as he tried to jump off, not sure which way it might fall, as we gasped a terrified breath.  Slowly it stopped swinging and was still. Exhibit A stepped gingerly onto the truck bed and then jumped down to Mother Earth.
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No one spoke. Silently, we all walked to the house. Tea was made in silence as our minds re-ran the near tragedy we had just witnessed.
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Eventually, we returned to the yard and the dangling tractor.  Its rear wheels were nearly three feet off the ground.  We chain-sawed a vertical line down the side rack of the truck, separating the tractor-hanging section from the rest of the rack, and then I took over the engineering. Exhibit A wisely kept his mouth shut.
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The task involved a lot of used tires and a rope, and it’s a bit long to describe, but several hours later my husband was driving an empty Ford F-600 and our two kids the 35 miles back home, and I was learning to drive the other Ford.  It had to be that way because my legs weren’t long enough to reach the pedals in the truck.
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