Breaking the web

He always carried a pocket knife, just as his father and grandfather had done.

His was a small one, two blades, both of which were kept sharp and ready for whatever chore befell them.

They whittled sticks onto which hot dogs and marshmallows were pushed, they scraped corrosion from battery posts, cut the tags off the new plaid, flannel shirt and extricated splinters and briers from his tough skin.

They also taught lessons about life.

One evening, when his teenage grandson was visiting from out of state, he told him they would rise early and take a walk in the meadow and forest; he had something important to show him. He’d fix them a breakfast of oatmeal and Cortland apples, then put on their dew gear and take a walk.

The taste of cinnamon and brown sugar lingering in their mouths, they left for the meadow; the man’s aged black Lab led the way down the brown path.

Neither the boy nor his grandfather said much at first. They commented on the chill, the heavy dew and how it seemed as if the dog had slowed down quite a bit from the boy’s last visit, in the spring. Seeing a gall on weed, the grandfather stopped, pulled out the knife, cut open the gall and revealed its contents. It smelled like pepper, the boy observed, and they tossed it aside and continued to walk toward the forest.

Twilight gave way to dawn. The first rays of morning crawled across the meadow. He stopped next to a tall weed onto which a web hung in the motionless air, and invited his grandson to study the complex structure. The sun was at their back, and the web, shaded from the light, appeared dull and lifeless. Then he told his grandson to walk around to the other side. A ray of amber sunlight hit the web perfectly, revealing hundreds of aquatic jewels dancing on the slight breeze.

“Perspective and light,” he said. “Remember that. If your life becomes dull and seems meaningless, try looking at it from another angle. Change your perspective. And most importantly, let the light strike it. See it in the light of God’s love.”

He pulled out his pocket knife and opened it to the small blade. Handing it to his grandson, he invited him to see how many of the connections he could break before the web collapsed.

The boy began his work of slicing through filaments. The web shuddered with the slightest touch and set loose dewy tears that crashed onto filaments below. Each additional slice of the sharp blade was more devastating than the previous to the greater web, which eventually collapsed into a mass of tears.

“I want you to imagine that this web represents our society,” he said. “That every filament that runs between the connecting points represents a relationship between two humans. Indeed, imagine that each one represents marriage, like the vows that unites your mother and father.

“When the filaments are connected, the web is strong. It can hold the burdens of life, the tears that accumulate on the web because we live in a fallen world. But did you notice that when you sliced through those filaments and destroyed the web’s foundation, those tears were released upon other strands? Eventually, when you cut through enough of the strands, the whole web collapsed.

“It’s that way in our relationships, son. When we fail to stay to connected to one another, when we fail to bear each other’s tears, we weaken the entire web. The burden of life’s sorrows and trials are just too great for society to sustain without those strong bonds and committed love.  When we go to a court of law and demand the knife of divorce be applied to a marriage, the web shudders. The emotional universe that connects us to each other and, ultimately, to God, trembles at these actions. Society is built on the concept of trust, of strong bonds that result from keeping vows—even when the weight of tears pulls the strands toward breaking

“Nothing, nobody, not even God, can reconnect strands thus severed. The once beautiful web that held both tears and jewels—it all depends on your perspective—requires commitment, emotional connection and maturity in order to stay strong. Hatred and divorce are the blades in the pocket knife.”

He wiped away the tears from his eyes, took the knife from his grandson, wiped the dew from the metal, closed it and slide it back in his pocket. The Lab nudged the man’s hand; it was time to go back to the lonely house that he bought following the divorce.

 

A garden far removed

The garden is so tired, yet the summer is not done with us, and so it attempts growth.

A green pumpkin hangs tenuously onto the fence, a withered vine feigns support. I have no idea what it keeps it alive.

A tomato plant blooms, as does a pumpkin vine far from its original planting. Bees buzz, searching for autumn pollen.

They do not know that the harvest has past. Their efforts are ceremonial, I suspect.

The yellow cherry tomatoes that, during August and September, burst before they were ripe, hang whole and deliciously on scrawny vines that droop over the wire fence. Blossoms of the garden flower mixture, 60 cents at Buck’s Hardware, press against the wires, faces gaunt and hopeful, like prisoners of war awaiting liberators. Perhaps the kitchen scissors will give them their freedom, if I can find something to hold their stems.

The fence goes back to April, a wall to protect the plot from the raccoons, ground hogs and rabbits that ravaged gardens of prior years. The old gate fell apart several weeks ago and I’ve not been of a mind to fix it. The garden is like the final act of the play, when the ticket taker retires to the back room for his Four Roses, and the passersby are free to wander in and take their pick of the entertainment, to catch the closing scene.

As far as I can tell, not one critter has bothered, save the brown snake I disturbed one day and sent him on his way. All 12 inches of him turned on me, opened wide his venom-less mouth and went on his way, and I on mine. I’ve not seen him since, yet I watch for him. I have learned to always watch for the snakes.

More threatening are the acorns. The mast is heavy this year and blankets the ground like a marble-factory truck overturned on the Interstate. The nuts are massive; they smart when they fall on my noggin and sound like gunshots when they hit the metal roofs of the garage and house. They ping and rattle down the incline six feet above my office ceiling and clog the gutters. Families of wild turkey wander in from the forest  and feast on the bounty in the driveway, where my Scion’s tires accomplished released the meat. There are white-tailed deer, as well, and I suspect they claimed one of the four golden delicious apples the adolescent tree bore this year.

This morning the breeze is warm and leaves green, I could mistake it for summer, but it is October, and a third of a way through it, at that. Uneasiness is in the air, and the heavy mast and white tips of my fingers, afflicted with Raynauld’s Syndrome, tell me a cold winter is coming.

There will be logs to cut, split and stack, leaves to rake and yard items to put away. That’s the outside work; inside myriad projects beg completion—two books to write, edit, design and publish, video projects and freelance work.

I feel like that old garden. I am hanging on to the past life of the workaday world, but my hands, the carpet of acorns and fence of dying vines tell me that world is past. I was retired in a flash, but the spots of that flash still cloud my vision and perspective. A bit of summer fans the hope that someday I will return to full-time work, but I know those hopes hang by withered vines; come the first frost, the gourd will drop to  white-crusted earth with a thud that will wake nothing, not even the snakes.

Those snakes haunt me, imprison me in my lair. They bit me so viciously in the past, I cannot help but distrust them and fear their presence. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” King David lamented. Like David, I lament, too:

This isn’t the neighborhood bully
    mocking me—I could take that.
This isn’t a foreign devil spitting
    invective—I could tune that out.
It’s you! We grew up together!
    You! My best friend!
Those long hours of leisure as we walked
    arm in arm, God a third party to our conversation.

(Psalm 55:12-14, The Message Bible)

If plants have feelings, I wonder if they will sense betrayal when I rip them from the October soil, drop their bones into the yellow wheelbarrow and add them to the compost pile? Their fruit harvested, their work done, their bodies wracked with the pain of October, devalued, discarded … “We grew up together! You! My best friend!” Will that be their lament, as it was mine?

Or perhaps, like the snakes that I fear so much, the plants don’t feel regret, pain or shame. They just slither about their kingdoms, hissing and going to and fro, seeking who they will deceive next.

If so, I elect to feel their pain. I will feel the pain of October and beyond, to the grave.

unde malum

This much I have learned, pain exists that we might understand the heart of the gardener.

We handle it better as we age, and a good thing, too, for there is much sadness and pain in this garden far removed from Eden.

In good company

Pumpkins rest on the stone wall today. Other hands built the wall, but I grew the fruit, in a garden plot a hundred feet or so south of the wall.

There are less than a dozen of pumpkins; most are small, too small for carving. One small one, perfectly shaped, made it indoors, where it will serve as decor until the weekend after Thanksgiving, assuming it lasts that long.

If I were to take this harvest to market, it would not bring enough money to justify the effort. At best, this crop is worth $8 or so. And what is $8 these days?

The dirt I grew them in cost $200 for the load, and the seeds were 33 cents. I grew other stuff in the dirt, and dirt being recyclable, the expense is a pittance for such pleasure, for I enjoy pumpkins and their company. I like their variations on orange, smooth complexion, curvaceous forms and contrasting, crusty stem. I’ve not a single bad pumpkin memory, and that’s saying something, for by the time we turn 64, we’ve accumulated painful memories of most everything. From salad bars to blue cars; from Prairie Home Companion to Mahler’s First Symphony, I’ve quite a collection. But pumpkins? Not a bad one in the patch.

Judging by the popularity of pumpkin-flavored beverages, soaps, scented candles and sweets this time of year, I am in good company in my adoration of Curcubito pepo. And while I am drinking pumpkin-spice coffee as I write this, I say let the pumpkin be a pumpkin, not a flavor (artificial, at that), color chip or scent. I even prefer my pumpkins au naturel. No face painting, no carving and no sequins or googly eyes. Born a pumpkin, died a pumpkin, not a Jack O’Lantern.

And so I plant them every year, and hope to raise a crop worthy of the stone wall. That wall is one of the reasons I stay here, in a house and yard way too large for our needs. But Ruth and I find comfort in stone and wood. Truth of the matter is, this property is a lot of work, far from her job and the county real estate, city income tax and school income tax make this an expensive place to live. But we have enough to grown pumpkins and display the harvest on a stone wall come late September, then watch as oak, magnolia and oak leaves accumulate around them until only stems are visible. There is joy in all of that.

I’ll never forget Ruth’s joy early in the summer when the first orange horns appeared on the vines, followed by the fruit. One, in particular, showed great promise, and she beamed when we pulled back the prickly leaves to reveal the perfect form taking shape in the compost. It’s hard not to love a woman who gets excited about a pumpkin being born.

We had not gotten around to the pumpkin topic when we were dating, and so it was with great relief that I discovered she enjoys the company of a few good pumpkins as much as I do. She approved my exhibition of the crop, as well.

Lined up on the wall, our harvest is safe from pumpkins smashers and thieves. I can see their noggins from my office window. And down the hill, in the enclosure where they were born and raised, their vines are brown, dry sinew, ready to be discarded. I procrastinate; I would much rather harvest pumpkins and line them up on a stone wall than deal with the withered umbilical cords.

And so I wonder if we subconsciously associate the shape of pumpkins with the womb, and thereby find comfort in their presence? I wonder they take us back to that singular season of gestation? If these premises be true, I wonder why some smash and carve pumpkins, while others are content to place them on stone walls that other hands built?

 

 

Barn quilt marks northern end of trail

Ashtabula County’s latest barn quilt requires a boat to view it.

At 4-by-4 feet, the barn quilt can’t be seen with the naked eye from Lakeshore Park. With a pair of good binoculars, you can just discern the outline of the object on the east side of the Ashtabula Lighthouse.

The barn quilt was painted by John Carpenter, who volunteers with the Ashtabula Lighthouse Restoration and Preservation Society. John chose the mariner’s compass pattern, a fitting motif for an object that guided freighters into Ashtabula Harbor for more than 60 years.

The nonprofit group has been in control of the lighthouse since 2007. Grants and fundraising resources were used to the structure/crib and add a staircase and floating dock. But there is much work to be done before lighthouse can open for education/interpretation.

Joe Santiana, president of the group, took me and a newspaper reporter to the lighthouse on Sept. 14 for a look at the structure and barn quilt. I have visited the lighthouse on prior occasions, and each time left wishing that in my younger years I’d turned my lens toward documenting life on the structure before it was automated in 1973.

A bald eagle claims the former foundation of the lighthouse.

On our way out, we passed the lighthouse’s former foundation, approximately 1,750 feet closer to the shore than the current location. Ashtabula Harbor’s docks and railroads experienced a surge of expansion and growth starting in 1908, and that required a larger inner harbor and expansion of the breakwater. In 1916 the lighthouse was moved to its current location and doubled in size. A 50-foot-square concrete crib was built to accommodate the lighthouse, which was doubled in size. Further, future expansions of an emergency generator and air compressor to run the fog horn would need to be accommodated. The stone breakwater was extended from Walnut Beach, and while it is possible to walk the long, jagged breakwater to the lighthouse, it is very dangerous.

Joe Santiana, president of the Ashtabula Lighthouse Preservation and Restoration Society climbs the ladder to the upper lamp room in the Ashtabula Lighthouse.

While an iconic and lovely bump on the west breakwater of Ashtabula Harbor, the metal structure was built for functionality. Its interior is spartan. The first floor is a big, dark empty room that once provided the living and sleeping quarters. Above it are the two levels that accommodated the light and fog horn. The Fresnel lens ended up in the Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum. The fog horn and related equipment were possibly dumped in Lake Erie.

The white structure was recently painted, but the large population of gulls and other birds at this point have coated the lighthouse in white excrement. Not the most pleasant place to be, even on a beautiful September afternoon on Lake Erie.

The view of Ashtabula Harbor from the top of the lighthouse is stunning; perhaps why the spot is so popular with birds!

Then again, the life of a lighthouse keeper was not as pleasant as we might imagine it to have been. The lighthouse lacked comfort facilities. The keeper bathed in the lake, which also served as the restroom facility. The same lake provided dinner, a fresh-caught fish and provisions brought from the shore via the boats that also brought a fresh crew to man the light. In the final years of the manned lighthouse, a transistor radio provided some “entertainment.”

The Ashtabula light was the last on the Great Lakes to be automated . A solar-powered light glows in the top room of the structure and is maintained by the US Coast Guard. Otherwise, it is the society’s responsibility to care for the lighthouse, which was purchased as government surplus.

John Carpenter painted the Mariner’s Compass barn quilt that is on the Ashtabula Lighthouse.

The presence of a barn quilt this far north of the city and at the entrance to the harbor suggests the start of a truly unique barn quilt trail, one that could stretch from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. This 100-mile journey is rich in heritage and stories, not to mention some lovely, well-kept barns in Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbia counties. These four stacked counites have been linked for centuries via the stagecoach turnpike, Underground Railroad, the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads and Route 11. Iron ore that supplied the steel mills of the Ohio River towns came through Ashtabula Harbor, and coal that moved up the river and railroads moved through Ashtabula Harbor.

 

End of Line Junction Barn Quilt

Life at the End of the Line Junction

If you look closely at the roof and siding boards in the former machine shop, you’ll notice evidence of a prior life: charred sections, soot, nail holes indicative of a violent extraction.

And if you walk down the hill from this place, where East Ashtabula Street dead ends in Jefferson Village, Ohio, you’ll see through the foliage massive sandstone blocks in the stream valley.

Sandstone blocks, much smaller and inscribed, stand at this dead end in the Oakdale Cemetery.

A junction for dead ends, 150 North Market Street could be a depressing place. But the owners, Fred Bliss and Carol Utterback, welcome visitors to their “eternal life” at Dead End Junction. A barn quilt measuring 8-by-9-feet hangs on the building constructed from those second-hand boards. The theme of the barn quilt is redemption, salvation and life: A Christian cross with a descending dove to represent the Holy Spirit.

“Neither one of us is an artist,” Fred admits as he shows me the pattern he used for a dove that was cut from plywood and added to the barn quilt using brass screws. “We looked at a lot of doves before we found one we liked.”

The barn quilt expresses the couple’s Christian faith, as well as a new beginning. The Ashtabula County natives fell in love around the age of 9.

“It was puppy love,” Fred says. “But we didn’t miss a chance to be together. We used to meet at the Austinburg Skating Rink. She was always the girl for me.”

When Fred and Carol were 16 or 17 years old, they split up and went separate ways. Carol married Edward Lance Utterback on Sweetest Day, 1969. A mechanic, Edward owned the Texaco Service Station that once stood in the center of Jefferson. In 1974, he went into the excavating business, which grew to the point he needed a garage and land for his equipment. That led to the purchase, in 1978, of the North Market Street building and land. They built their house there in 1985.

Edward died April 20, 2016, at the of 73. Fred took note of the passing and wondered how his puppy-love friend was doing.

“I called her, just to make sure she was OK,” Fred says.

That call opened the door to rekindling the relationship severed back in the 1950s. In May 2017, Fred and Carol were married. Fred can’t help  but feel it was God bringing things full circle at the End of the Line.

He and Carol went to work on the property, clearing decades of mud and stuff from the garage. As is often the case in life, when clutter is cleared, the treasure of heritage emerges. Carol’s research into the building revealed that the previous owner constructed it from reclaimed lumber that came from the New York Central roundhouse in Ashtabula. Constructed in 1906 as part of a massive NYC expansion on the lakefront, the roundhouse stood on West Avenue and was reported to be the second largest in the world.

The advent of diesel locomotives in the early 1950s quickly antiquated the roundhouses. The NYC’s at Ashtabula was razed in 1953, and the lumber was evidently made available to whoever could use it. The soot, charring and prior nail holes on the boards attest to its prior environment.

 

Charred boards with nail holes tell a story of recycling. The boards came from a NYC roundhouse in Ashtabula, razed in 1953.

This discovery was significant for Carol; she comes from a family of railroaders. Her late father, Carl A. Martin, who lived south of Jefferson, worked at the NYC Collinwood Yards in Cleveland. And all his sons worked for the railroad.

The building’s NYC connection fit the landscape around this place, as well. When the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad decided to build a line from its mainline to Ashtabula Harbor, it also built a line from Ashtabula to Franklin, Pa., to connect to the coal fields. This line was called the Ashtabula & Franklin High Grade, or J&F (Jefferson and Franklin) Branch of the NYC. These lines went into service in 1873. (A low-grade line was built in the early 1900s to shorten the route and provide relief for passenger trains on the busy railroad. The high-grade line is used by the Ashtabula, Carson & Jefferson Railroad.)

The high grade trestle in Jefferson, Ashtabula & Franklin Division, LS&MS Railroad. Photo source: Jefferson Historical Society

At Jefferson the high-grade line had to cross a ravine in Oakdale Cemetery. A wooden trestle was constructed, along with a stone culvert to handle the flow of a Mill Creek tributary.

In August 1899 the trestle was the site of a train wreck that was the “end of the line” for the trestle. The wreck occurred amid a labor dispute. A scab brakeman fell asleep at his post and failed to heed the signal from the engineer, who saw the collision coming.

A south-bound train had stopped north of the trestle and unhooked its string of freight cars. The engine was thus freed to proceed to take on water at the depot, across the trestle. The engineer of the north-bound train saw the idled cars ahead of him and signaled for the brakeman to stop the locomotive. The snoozing scab didn’t respond, and the north-bound engine struck the locomotive that had arrived at the depot. It pushed the behemoth into the rail cars; the impact buckled the trestle. Freight cars and locomotives spilled into the ravine

The damaged trestle had to be removed and the ravine was filled with stone and slag to create the rail bed that exists to this day. Photo source: Jefferson Historical Society.

All personnel on the trains were able to jump from the engines and cars before the collision, so there was no loss of life. The railroad decided to fill the ravine with stone and dirt rather than build another trestle. A detour required a month to build and it took a year to fill ravine with slag from Youngstown steel mills and stone from the Windsor quarry. Irish laborers performed much of the work.

As a tribute to the spot’s and family’s railroading traditions, Carol and Fred put a metal pole at the end of the driveway and placed on it a railroad crossing sign, antique finale and flashing signal, which will be electrified and functional (no gate, however).

Fred says he’s doing these things as an acts of love for the woman he always knew “was for him.”

“It’s for Carol. She wanted to have the sign and call this place the End of the Line Junction,” Fred says.

The barn quilt also is for Carol.

“I enjoy looking at them as we drive through the countryside,” she says.

Fred designed, built and painted the barn quilt, which was raised on Labor Day, 2018. He and Carol hope it will draw visitors into the history of the region and the fascinating section of Oakdale Cemetery across their driveway.

Stephen Asa Northway’s grave, and the monument to his wife, are among the interesting stones at “The End of the Line Junction,” Oakdale Cemetery, Jefferson, Ohio. Photos by Carl E. Feather

The stones mark the graves of prominent lawmakers of the 19th century. Abolitionist Representative Joshua Giddings rests here, as does his former law partner and US senator, Benjamin Wade. Family members surround the men’s substantial monuments. The unusual large rock monument to Stephen Asa Northway—a state representative, US congressman, scholar and lawyer—and the metal sculpture of a Greek female figure, are among the unusual monuments in this section. Near the edge of the ravine is the grave of Charley Garlick, the former slave who fled from a plantation in western Virginia, served in the Civil War and lived out the remainder of his life in the Giddings Law Office. And across a small ravine that holds an underground, walk-in crypt is the stone for the child who was the cemetery’s first burial, in 1812.

They all rest here, at the End of the Line Junction. Yet the barn quilt and couple’s story of re-kindled romance suggests endings are only beginnings cloaked in suffering and grief. That a cross somehow pulls together all these stories and gives us hope amid the tears.

What a strange paradox, this spinning junction pieced by a cross.

A newer stone marks the grave of the first recorded burial in the cemetery, Timothy Hawley, a 3-year-old.

 

A date with Marilyn

During a recent trip back to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Ruth’s hometown, Ruth and I did a senior portrait session with her niece, Alaina. The plan was to shoot some images in downtown Wilkes-Barre in the evening, then go to a park on Sunday morning and try to re-create some of the iconic Marilyn Monroe portraits.

Alaina bears a strong resemblance to Marilyn and is very photogenic. She’s got a great personality, as well, and it comes through in her sparkling eyes and great smile.

The session would give me an opportunity to apply my Fuji X-system camera and lenses to portraits rather than the photojournalism project for my next book, “Pleasure Grounds.” I used the Fuji XH-1 with the 35mm f/1.4, 56mm f/1.2 and 90mm f/2, along with a 16-56mm f/2.8 on a second XH-1. My four-month old Nikon D750 had bit the dust and required a major repair, so Fuji was the only option for this shoot. And it performed flawlessly.

I have always loved Fuji’s skin tones, and aside from taming the contrast and toning down the reds in some shots, very little processing was done to the color images in this series (I took more than 600 images over the course of the two days, tossed out 200 of them and delivered the rest). One standard W126 battery was sufficient for both sessions.

We started along the Susquehanna River about 30  minutes before sunset. The day had been overcast and the soft light continued into evening. I’d spotted a lovely chandelier hanging from the ceiling of a building with marble columns, and we started our session there. The 90mm threw some foreground foliage out of focus and helped soften the lights in the background, as well.

We moved to the front of the building, which faces the riverfront commons. The lamps on the wall provided soft lighting for a series of portraits. Fuji’s auto white balance did a superb job of maintaining the warmth of the incandescent lights without creating an unnatural skin tone.

Across the street, some teen boys tried to impress Alaina with their bicycle and skateboard tricks. When one of them fell off the bicycle, it sent Alaina into a fit of laughter.

I was using the Across film simulation setting at the time. I overexposed about a stop to create a natural skin tone.

We moved across the street to the park. When Ruth and I were scouting a location earlier in the evening, we noticed the metal sculpture and wondered if Alaina would be game for curling up in it. She took it a few poses beyond that.

The Wilkes-Barre Market Street Bridge is a stunning stone structure and would easily steal the show if included in a portrait. Using the 35 f/1.4 wide open, I was able to minimize its presence without destroying the beauty of the setting and model.

The symmetry of the street lamps that line the concrete paths on the riverfront drew my attention away from the bridge. The wind was picking up and her hair took flight.

The in-camera image stabilization of the XH-1 is incredible. I found myself comfortably shooting at 1/15th of second throughout the evening and getting sharp results.

We wrapped up at the park as the light levels had reached a level that even the IBIS couldn’t compensate for. Our destination was two blocks away, downtown Wilkes-Barre. We opted to carry the gear rather than drive and try to find a parking spot. On the way, we stopped in a vacant lot and waited for the traffic to back up at the bridge. A few frames were all I was able to get before the traffic and  its colorful lights cleared from the background. Although it repeated the previous pose, I had Alaina hold out her hair to catch the background color.

I had planned to use the Godox wireless flash system for this part of the shoot, but it failed out of the bag back at the bridge, and I went with plan B: a long softbox on a Buff Einstein 640 monolight. Ruth volunteered to carry the monstrous flash head, light stand and softbox (I think she was counting on it for a weapon just in case). Alaina’s mother carried the power pack, and I carried the cameras and lenses. We marched down the dark streets in search of golden light.

Our first stop  was the front of business that had circular neon lights in the window. Alaina sat on the iron grate under a tree (in her brand new outfit, at that) and I waited for the headlamps of a car to paint her face with light. Once again, Fuji’s white balance nailed the scene accurately without creating a nasty skin tone. The 56mm was made for this scene and light.

The marque of a theater across the street provided a warm background glow for a series of portraits lit with the softbox/monolight combination.

We moved across the street and under the marque lights for a series of moody images.


We headed back to the car, but the perspective of street lamps down a lonely street caught my eye. Ruth set up the monolight, the traffic light at the end of the street turned green and 10 cars raced toward our shoot. We scurried out of the street and waited until the same lonely scene that had caught our attention a few minutes earlier returned.

All of the monolight/soft box exposures were manually balanced with the background lighting, based upon my experience of working with the equipment at weddings. I wasn’t prepared for just how well Fuji handled the range of colors in the scene without compromising the skin tones. These are definitely people cameras.

The next morning was our Marilyn session at a park. The woods were infested with mosquitoes and one nailed Ruth on the forehead. With blood trickling down her face (OK, it was more like a little smear), we decided to move to another location, the front yard of a bank on Mountaintop, Pa., where we could use the fence and shady yard for the Marilyn Monroe reenactments. A lily from the park served as a prop.

The colorful side of a Chinese restaurant caught my eye as we were getting out of the car, and we took a detour.

Marilyn!

Next came the scene on the lawn, except Ruth protested when I suggested a strap of her dress fall off the shoulder.

Next came a few shots at the fence.

I backed off a bit with the 56mm and had Alaina wrap up the session with some playful expressions. Ruth suggested the strap off the shoulder in a few. We both wondered where she got that look from.

Sometimes it just all comes together. The light, the model, the equipment. Perhaps I enjoyed photographing Alaina so much because the backdrop options were so amazing and fresh. Or perhaps it was because Alaina’s beautiful eyes remind me of Ruth’s. Like Ruth, Alaina is super smart and wants to go in the medical field. She’d also make a great model, but we all know those careers are short-lived. I’m grateful for being the one who got to capture it if she sticks with medicine.

I don’t want to be a rock star

The following line is from a job description:

This is a fantastic opportunity for a rock star creative who wants to help …

We don’t need another rock star. And I sure don’t want to be one.

Frankly, I’m sick of rock stars and divas, stand-up comedians and YouTube daredevils.

I’d like to just go to work, get the job done and come home and read. And listen to music. But not rock.

This rock-star mentality has gone too far. I recall some 15 years ago, when I was attempting to make it as a professional photographer, being told by a very successful one (he got $1,000 and up just for the sitting fee on a family portrait), that you had to think and act like a rock star if you wanted to succeed with that clientele ($250,000 and up annual income).

I don’t know what happened to him and his business during the Great Recession, but I know what happened to me and my freelance portrait and wedding business. It hit the rocks. I don’t think being a rock star would have changed any of that, however. A lot of rock stars were on Wall Street back then, and we saw what happened. The rock star politicians bailed them out, and they are back at it.

Ten years later we have a president who thinks he’s a rock star. Or a TV game show host. If he had an electric guitar, he’d be all set. He doesn’t need it. He plays the voters.

We have a lot of politicians who think that because the majority of voters narrowly chose them over the other candidate, they were suddenly elevated to queen, rock star and diva. Divine appointment. A mandate from the people.

What’s missing?

Rock stars don’t serve. They entertain. They are all talk and noise. They glitter and glam while they are on stage, but back in the dressing room, the miserable person behind the mask craves that next round of applause, that next mention on Facebook, that cover, review or Tweet.

All of this may be fun and games for those who live in the world of social  media and post 30 selfies per hour. But when that person has his fingers on the nation’s self-destruct buttons, it’s not a game. And that holds true for every political office below the Oval one. Perhaps it is because my father is veteran, a distant grandfather crossed the Delaware with Washington and an uncle went through the hell of Korea, but I find it disgusting when elected officials take a rock-star approach to the office. It’s not about them. It’s not about making appearances, handing out kudos and keeping up pretenses.

Blood was spilt, misery endured and limbs lost so that we can have these elections, offices and, hopefully, committed, sincere and transparent individuals to fill them. When an elected official treats the office with the contempt that comes with a diva or rock-star mentality, he or she spits on the flag and the veterans who defended it.

It’s the same way with jobs. Are employers really looking for rock stars these days? Do they really want the grief of dealing with a narcissist on the job, day in and day out? Being a rock star or diva is a competition in deception. What business wants to hire a liar? Evidently, quite a few. I’m seeing that “rock star” mentality requirement in many of the job openings that come through Indeed.

But I don’t want to be a rock star.

 

 

Life’s wrinkles get ironed out with prayer, steam

I still use the same ironing board I used from my childhood home.

Growing up in a house with 5 brothers I learned to iron shirts at an early age. I was very young when my mother showed me how to use an iron. I remember that I had to stand on a chair to see what I was doing. I was not quite tall enough at the time. During my first lesson my mother taught me how to iron my father’s handkerchiefs. He had the big red patterned ones for work and smaller white ones that I think he used on days when he didn’t work. I am not sure why a man would need a wardrobe of handkerchiefs.  But I do remember that it took me all day to press about a week’s worth of them. We called them hankies back then. I don’t think they are used very much today. In today’s disposable society, I guess tissues are standard.

Thinking back, I may have pressed each one more than once. I thought it was fun. But I mastered that assignment and I was ready for more. Remember, I was young; I didn’t realize what was in store for me. Back then everything was made of cotton and dried on the clothesline. This made for plenty of ironing.

The next day I moved on to learn how to iron a man’s shirt. I was so proud to show her how well I had done. Little did I know that as of that day it would be my responsibility.  I remember feeling special because she never showed my brothers how to do this. In my young mind I considered it a privilege to iron clothes.  I felt I was helping my mother and that was a good feeling for a little girl who so wanted to please. That lesson has stuck with me for several decades. I still iron shirts the same way today. The only difference is modern fabrics. They do not need as much attention as they used to require.

Thankfully I do not need to stand on the chair anymore.

Of all the things that need to be done around the house, I do not consider ironing a chore. I find it very relaxing. Perhaps it helps this recovering perfectionist make wrinkled things crisp and neat. I really don’t know but, on some level, it brings me pleasure. Monday evening, I found myself, once again, ironing clothes. I thought about how I really enjoy the time I spend ironing Carl’s shirts. I know that it sounds crazy, but I do enjoy that time spent with the Rowenta and the antique ironing board that once belonged to my mother.

Several weeks ago, I was planning my day and setting aside the time I needed to get the ironing done. I started thinking about all the downloaded sermons and Podcasts I seem to collect and never find time to listen to them.  I had a plan for the afternoon and decided to start catching up on my audio treasures. Soon after getting started, I found that my mind was wandering from listening and I found myself thinking about the person that would be wearing the clothes I was ironing. I thought about my husband and how nice he looks each day when he goes off to work. I started picturing Carl in each shirt and I started thinking about how I always want him to look his best. I realized how important it is to me that everyone he meets knows that there is someone at home who loves and cares for him.

This was the moment that I began to pray while ironing his shirts. Sometimes, during this time, I get so involved and deep in thought that I get startled if an animal or person walks in the room. Of course, to the person walking in the room it must seem strange that I would be surprised. It looks like I am just ironing. Why on earth would I jump?  I just seem to get into the process and become oblivious to everything else around me. Just me talking to God and ironing shirts.

I pray for the day he chooses to wear each shirt that I am ironing. Asking God to watch over him and to give him wisdom and to protect him from all harm. I pray that he will have a good day and that maybe God will use him in some way that day. I know it sounds strange, but it has become an important time for me.  I understand that the shirts themselves have no power. But I believe that God does hear and answers our prayers. In fact, He wants us to ask. Even though He knows the desires of our hearts, He wants to us to ask in faith and believe. So, each time I heat up my trusty Rowenta and start ironing Carl’s shirts, God is going to be hearing from me.

 

This is how things end …

They say the stuff of which you are afraid rarely happens. Like being tossed into a pit full of snakes, developing an inoperable tumor that will bring a painful death, or being an empath locked in a room full of narcissists.

I always worried that I’d get to be this age and lose my job and health insurance.

And it happened. Out of the blue. One minute, I am working on a project for the Ashtabula County Board of Commissioners. The next minute, the boss and HR administrator are in your office with a stack of papers for you to sign and boxes for all your personal items.

Fifteen minutes later, you are heading down the road wondering how you are going to tell your spouse that your employer can’t afford to pay you and has no work for you to do. She married a reject, a loser.

The biggest fear, of course, is health insurance. It is insanely expensive, especially at this age. It’s become one more way that big business takes advantage of the downtrodden. The flurry of phone calls at all hours of the day and night regarding my online inquiry is like the harrassment a man receives after winning the lottery. Except I didn’t win this lottery. I held the pink, losing ticket.

The first matter of business was finding a way to protect our assets by having some manner of health insurance in place. Being a Christian, I was able to buy into the cost-sharing ministry of Christian Health Care Ministries. That and faith will be my “insurance” for $150 a month. It’s not insurance, but at least I won’t have to pay a penalty for not being in the system.

Searching for a job is a depressing job at any age, but when all the decision makers are in their 20s and 30s, and you are 63, it is a futile exercise. They are conditioned to believe that the only persons capable of doing and thinking are those of their own camp, who hold master’s degrees and have no value or knowledge that was not gained at great financial cost to their parents and themselves.

Yes, my  hair is gray. No, I don’t have the bachelor’s or master’s that the $9-an-hour, part-time job demands. But what of the 40 years of experience? The projects completed? The race almost run?

Some application processes immediately reject your online application if you don’t have the requisite degree. A person I once knew and who encouraged me to apply for jobs in a university told me to just go ahead an lie about the degree and then explain in the interview. That’s wrong and it tells the employer that you are a liar.

Then again, in our culture of looking out for Number One, of getting ahead at all costs, of doing what is right based upon the situation, lying is commonplace, even expected. Indeed, it might tell the employer, most likely a 30-some with a master’s and $150,000 in school loans, that you are resourceful.

Authentically phony. That seems to be gold standard for success.

We elect presidents and congressmen and other elected officials upon information that has very little truthfulness. We purchase products based upon reviews that are slanted by the reviewer having received free goods in exchange for the favorable review, and we sign up for services marketed with flashing lights, swooshes, motion graphics, starbursts and explosions. Life and selling the goods of living have become a video game.

Those who market the stuff of which this life is made specialize in superlatives, frosted air bubbles, perfect arrogance and pick-pocket, carnival barker tactics. I am as fearful of delving into that culture as I am of being unemployed at 63. Even as I write this, I feel a twinge of embarrassment and hypocrisy; why should I, as a writer, ask of you the most precious things you possess at this moment, your time and at least partial attention?

You may be on the clock and reading this, in which case I am stealing not only your time but your employer’s money. Or you may be reading this rather than spending time with your spouse or children. Stop reading if these are the cases. Focus on what is important.

I think that is the message that Ruth and I speak here, finding and focusing on what really matters. As INFJs, we struggle with defining that. It is always just on the tip of our tongues, but we can’t speak it. It will be an epiphany of purpose when that day comes.

We’re frustrated by the fact that there is so much clatter and noise out there, so many social media channels filled with time-wasters and attention grabbers that being quietly authentic is as scary as losing a job at the age 63.

My lovingly, beautifully ironed shirts and handsome ties have hung in the closet unworn now for six weeks; I am a T-shirt and jeans writer these days whose greatest ambition is to find a check in the mailbox or email offering a job interview. I live in the aftermath of a fear realized and navigate my way around the snakes in this pit and narcissists in the room, praying that the inoperable tumor will not be the last act in this drama.

All our working years we dream about that day we will retire, the party and the “gold watch” that will tick off the carefree hours of our retirement. An economy of instant gratification and short-term profits, buoyed by mass marketing and lies, has pretty much wiped out that dream for most middle- and lower-income Americans. We were always expendable, disposable commodities, and as we age, we are all the more so. One can always find a reason to discard that old thing and replace it with the new one that just arrived in an email pitch.

Not much else to say on this matter, it hangs like the scent of dung in the humid air of a summer day in dairy country. You eventually get used to the stench, the idea of being “prematurely retired” rather than unemployed, of realizing that not all journeys end with a party and that most of our fears are realized eventually, otherwise we have wasted our lives fearing and not really living.

The view from Mount Wood

It is dusk and haze hangs over the Ohio River as the wide serpent slithers into its den between distant mountains. I have an amazing view of the legend and its urban child, Wheeling, from Section A of Mount Woods Cemetery. The view makes me particularly grateful to still be on this side of the grass.

Adjacent to the Mount Wood Hebrew and Jewish Orthodox Cemetery, the rural cemetery is entrenched on Wheeling Hill, where Ebenezer Zane paused long enough to survey the landscape and declare that this place would become a land of promise. The valley, yes, but the hill was reserved for those whose promised land is just beyond the sunset.

To enter this place you pass by a sign warning “Restricted Area Authorized Personnel Only.” I assume, by virtue of being a mortal, I am authorized to enter, and so I make my way up the patched road of sorrow toward the summit, past crumbling, fractured headstones, the stumps of oak trees and mausoleums inserted into the hillside. And I ponder the odd sign, wondering just what it means.

Mount Wood is an example of what was a national movement in the mid-19th century, the rural cemetery. Replacing the crowded, urban-church graveyard, rural cemeteries featured carefully planned lots interacting with the natural beauty of the setting. The rural cemetery thus became both a place to mourn and find comfort, to listen to both the sermons in stone and songbirds in the boughs.

“The flowers are beginning to bloom beautifully and the shrubbery is showing forth its sweetest livery of green,” stated a Wheeling Intelligencer article written in 1866. “In the evening, when the sun has gone down, and when the air is cool and pleasant, you can wander amid the tombs of Mt.  Wood Cemetery and examine the monuments which mark the spot where different bodies are interred, or you can stand in the grounds and obtain a most excellent landscape view.”

Little has changed in the ensuing 150 years, but Mount Wood has a tired and battered look this March evening. For all the planning and planting, everything feels crowded, stilted and exhausted. Around the lower perimeter are the graves of the Jewish interments—the Finegolds, Katzes, Friedmans, Weissmans and Malts. The concrete rectangles that mark their graves lean toward the distant serpent, as if pulled by the river’s supreme authority over this land and all who would live and die upon it. Graves are packed together so tightly one suspects the entire cemetery would slide into the river should just one corpse be raised at the final trump.

Above the Hebrews’ graves rise the gaunt oaks, no doubt some of them among the 110 that were planted in 1933 in collaboration with Oglebay Park. It is unreasonable to expect even the mighty oak to withstand the buffeting winds, lightning and erosion of this exposed face. The living deciduous cell, no matter how noble, cannot survive in a place where stone erodes and concrete gives way to the forces of gravity, ice and time.

On the summit, however, the sense security is stronger amid the towering obelisks, “white bronze” markers, marble stones and mausoleums. The trees are more numerous here, so too the graves of the affluent, the famous, the celebrated Wheeling citizens of the 19th century.

Such distinguished company in which I stand: Eliza Hughes, the first female doctor to practice medicine in the new state of West Virginia; Col. Joseph Thoburn, a member of the First West Virginia Infantry and mortally wounded at the Battle of Kernstown; Noah Linsly, founder of Linsly Military Institute; Edward Norton, early city leader.

The most intriguing burial, by virtue of his epitaph, is Dr. Simon Hullihen. Rare is the man who lives in such a way that the citizens of his city raise the marble obelisk to his memory and thereupon declare his death “a public calamity.”

“Eminent as a Surgeon the wide fame of his bold original genius was everywhere blended with gratitude for his benefactions,” states an inscription on one of the four base panels.

The stone, however, goes into no detail of what great deeds Hullihen (Dec. 10, 1810-March 27, 1857) performed. The answer lay not in a grave on this knoll, but in the Wheeling Hall of Fame, where Hullihen’s brief life is summarized as one of both “prejudice, scorn and skepticism” as well as “bold, creative, inventive work and his tremendous contributions to mankind.”

Dentistry, in the days when Hullihen became a doctor, was not considered a profession and specialization was “tantamount to quackery.” Yet, in Hullihen’s time, he saw the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery open, and in 1843, he received an honorary doctor of dentistry degree from the school.

His fame as an oral surgeon drew patients to Wheeling to seek his surgical intervention for defects of the mouth and head. He has been called the “Father of Oral Surgery,” and rightly so. Hullihen performed more than 1,100 operations in an era when “neither anesthesia nor asepsis were in use.” Patients with cleft palate, crossed eyes and damaged lips and noses were given new leases on life through his pioneering surgical methods. Because he was developing the specialty as he went along, Hullihen invented many of his own instruments, and the designs of some remain in use today.

The growth of industry in the riverfront city brought with it many horrendous industrial accidents that required advanced medical care, but community leaders did not Hullihen’s demands for a hosptial. It was only after combining forces with the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Wheeling Diocese that Hullihen was able to see the city’s first hospital chartered in 1850.

Worthy, indeed, is this man of the obelisk, the accolades and a city’s appreciation for his “Tremendous contributions to mankind.”

The haze becomes dusk, the veil falls upon the city and creates the illusion of down-river lights burning more brightly than before. The air at the lower elevation chills my skin and teeth as if death itself exhaled it. My old tooth tingles in the chill; I must remember to see the dentist soon.