Monday, August 31, 2009

Letting Go

Old Towne 13, 2009

Those of you who are photographers, have you ever hung on to a picture or series of pictures long after you should have let them go because you were convinced there was something redeemable about them?

(The same could apply, of course, to any artistic pursuit or any idea. Entire books are written about how tacitly we humans fight to hold on to notions not worth saving.)

I take a lot of pictures. Not every day, but in spurts. Sometimes I’m in the “zone” immediately. My eyes see things worth recording without any prompting. But sometimes I am so distracted by other things in my life that I have to loosen up and cleanse my mental palette by taking a bunch of mindless pictures before I become sensitized enough to do something decent.

There’s no way to predict where my eyes will take me. Some days I may spend hours in one place shooting just one thing. I’ll wait patiently for the light to adjust or some other condition to become just right. Dozens of shots may yield a single image I really like. Other days I’m itchy to see what’s around the next corner. I stay just long enough in a place to capture my first impression and then move on, ending the day with hundreds of images of different things and places.

Maybe this is the artistic version of bipolarity, cycling between unshakeable fixation on a single thing and visual mania, the camera just hanging on for dear life as the photographer darts from one thing to the next.

Whatever the case, the result is piles of photographs or, in the modern sense, a computer full of files that you can’t decide whether to keep, or not. The mindless and technically flawed ones are easy to discard. It’s the ones you’re not sure about that haunt you.

One day this past June I found myself attracted to a particular scene near the beach. There was engaging color. There was interesting content and geometry of lines. I climbed up a hill and past a “No Trespassing” sign to knock off a dozen or so shots. I’ve been looking at those shots for about two months now, convinced that if I just looked at them again they would reveal to me what I thought I saw that day. But this morning I concluded that whatever I thought I saw in that scene is not visible in them. So I gave the files the old heave-ho, and felt better immediately. Dead weight off my shoulders.

Old Towne 13, above, is one of the oldest pictures in my “working” folder. I took it last January on a day when the temperature was in the 20s. The sky was clear and the sunlight was striking, though, so I was out on the street looking for some color to highlight. I didn’t intend for this scene to be out of focus. I’d been focusing manually some that morning—an iffy proposition, given my eyesight—and I suppose I was more concerned with composing the scene before the man walked out of it than I was with focusing. I kind of like the result. The arrow and shadow in the street and even the overhead lamp post point to the man in a way that gives the hint of a story. But I wish I’d caught the scene about five seconds earlier when the man’s position would have been a bit more “decisive.” So I might toss this one out, too.

Friday, August 28, 2009

K-A-L-A-M-A-Z-O, Oh What a Gal

Easter Table, 2006

No, this is not a tribute to either the city once described as “the Athens of the upper Midwest” or to Glenn Miller, Tex Beneke or the Nicholas Brothers. (But since I mentioned the latter, watch this and enjoy the athleticism of the Nicholas Brothers.) Rather, it’s another taut drama ripped from the pages of reality, featuring three recurring What I Saw themes: Michigan, silverware and grocery bags.

It was just after the Thanksgiving. I was flying home to Virginia from a business trip to Kalamazoo, Michigan. (For historic sticklers, I was using the “international concourse,” as some of us liked to refer to Gate 2, aka “the other gate.”) This took place after the first World Trade Center bombing, but before 9/11. At that time, the carry-on scanner was located in the gate area.

The gate area was full of people. There was a buzz of conversation. People were anxious to get on with their travel and get home from visiting the folks for the holiday. Seats in the waiting area were hard to find. I was seated right the scanning machine.

A good-looking young couple presented themselves at the gateway to the screening area. They carried knapsacks and two brown grocery bags full of metal stuff that rattled. They probably wouldn’t have been noticed in the crowd had the scanner machine alarm not gone off and the little red light on top started spinning.

They couple had loaded their belongings onto the radar conveyor belt. But it seems their grocery bags were full of silver. There were silver serving trays and ladles, silver flatware and heavy silver carving knives. All of this stuff would have looked normal in someone’s dining room, carefully swaddled in Pacific cloth and nestled in a wooden silver chest.

It did not look normal loosely thrown together in a couple of brown grocery bags.


You have to give it to security guards. They don’t quibble about the provenance of things. They only know what can and cannot go through the scanner and onto the plane. And they were telling the young couple that they’d have to check the carving knives.

Only the young couple didn’t seem to care whether the carving knives got checked, or not. In fact, they seemed conspicuously interested in avoiding a paper trail of any kind. “Oh, that’s okay,” the young girl told the screener. “We’ll leave them here. You could take them home if you want.”

Is that how you’d be with grandma’s heirloom silver? I didn’t think so. And as others in the gate area started paying attention to what was going on, they didn’t seem to think so, either. But being polite Midwesterners, no one intervened. The security guard dropped the silver carving knives into a box on the floor that contained other contraband. Sure, there were whispers. A few ladies wondered out loud if they could buy the carving knives. But when the plane loaded, people gave the couple a few once-over glances, watched them shove the clanking grocery bags into the overhead storage bin and started counting the minutes until we landed in Detroit.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Three Versions

What Just Happened, 2003


The homeless man came to Florence’s back door asking if there was any work he could do around the house in return for a hot meal. A widow of more than ten years, Florence asked the man to bring down several boxes of Christmas decorations from the attic and clean up the debris in the yard from a recent storm, then invited him back in while she fixed lunch. While she was out in the kitchen, the man stole a silver tray off the sideboard and slipped out the front door. Florence called her son Carl to express disappointment over the man’s behavior. Carl called the police and the man was apprehended walking on the road out of town. That night she heated up the uneaten lunch and took it to the jail, explaining to the amazed sheriff, “He’s still hungry, I expect.”


All the authorities would say was that the old man was already dead when they got there. There were no signs of a struggle. The deceased was known to be in good health. Yet, there he was, alone and dead from no obvious cause on the floor of the front room of his home on Market Square. There had been wives. But they rarely came out and each eventually left him for other men. He’d been a powerful man. He owned many farms and most of the property around the Square. But he was more respected for his power than liked as a person. He was not known as a kind man. Few people beyond the cook, the maid and the handyman had been inside the imposing mansion. His death might have gone unnoticed until the next day had the cook not returned to bring him a mincemeat pie to have with his Christmas dinner.


She crept up to the house quietly and left the basket at the foot of the door, hoping the sound of the baby crying would not arouse attention until she was well away from the grand house. She hoped that by leaving the child the night before Christmas the family who lived there would take the infant in and give it a good life. She knew they had children. When she passed the house on her way to and from work music and the sound of children spilled out. She hoped she’d be able to walk by the house every day from now on and watch her baby grow.

Feel free to add your own version.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Flyover Country

Flyover Country, 2008

I met a young man the other day who surprised me by being so disconnected from the world around him. I feast on information. It introduces me to places and people. It stimulates my thinking and keeps me from becoming, well, disconnected. So being around someone who is so out of touch was both a challenge and a curiosity.

This young man is happily unaware. He goes about his life, fully faithful to his family and job, but avoids further responsibilities. He rarely reads a newspaper or watches the news on TV. He doesn’t text or Tweet. If there’s something important he needs to know, he figures it’ll catch up with him.

All this insight came about as a result of a simple remark. I don’t even remember what we were talking about. But out of nowhere came this comment:

“Yeah. Right. You wanna know when I last voted? I don’t know when I last voted. I don’t know if I’ve ever voted. Ask me if I care.”

There’s some bliss in being so carefree. It’s the same bliss I find among some extreme Christians; they’ve purposely stepped away from responsibility for the world they live in, a world of such shades of gray that it’s hard to find absolute blacks and whites, and instead focus on abstract notions of bliss in the hereafter.

As nice as it is to drop off the “grid” every now and then, I don’t buy this argument.

Years ago, I had the chance to talk to a lot of people in farming communities across the country. Farmers’ lives are prescribed by the seasons. They had more than enough to keep them busy minding their operations than to be worried also about the world beyond their fences. They had a peace about them, a resignation to their condition, acceptance of the cycle of life and death, and a respect for others and ability to endure hardship that was admirable.

One day it hit me. They were content to be. They didn’t want more than they had or want to be more than they were. They appreciated the beauty of nature, the love of family and friends, the merit of hard work and the value of a good apple pie.

It might seem like they live in an insulated world. But the difference between these people and the young man I was with recently was that when it came time for them to be involved in the life of the larger community of mankind, they stepped up, whether that meant helping a sick neighbor, serving on a committee, voting in an election, or sending a son or daughter off to war.

As you can probably tell, it bothers me when I meet people, especially young people, who chose a life of such voluntary isolation. It’s a coping mechanism for them. I realize that. They’re overwhelmed, and this is their way of scaling life down to something that fits them. And I have no right to inflict my values on them.

So who's the innocent here?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I Say You Say We Buy E-Bay

Toshkent Phoenix, 2009

My wife received a package in the mail the other day. It was some hand-made fabric she’d purchased from a designer on E-Bay. It was rolled up in butcher paper wrapping, looking for all the world like a slightly oversized braunschweiger.

It came by regular mail. Okay. From Toshkent. Huh? From Uzbekistan. Wait a minute! Where?

I had to run to the atlas—okay, I clicked over to Google Maps—to make sure I even know where Uzbekistan is.

In case you didn’t know, Toshkent (aka Tashkent) is a city of some three million people. It’s the capital city of Uzbekistan, one of the -stans, as in Afghanistan, a place that prior to 2001 was so remote and unknown that media referred to the concept of stories about places so inconsequential to us that we didn’t care what happened there as Afghanistanism. Anyway, if you want to know more about Toshkent, you can look it up on your own.

What really impressed me about this was that 1) my wife was trading on E-Bay with someone in a rather unknown region of Central Asia where they may still wear wooden shoes and ride on yaks, for all we know, 2) that the package was sent from Toshkent to Virginia Beach in about two weeks using regular mail, and 3) that the cost of shipping was just a few dollars.

How’s that for modern times? (And why does it cost me $36 to send an overnight letter to Chicago via FedEx?)

It used to be exotic to make long distance calls, or private calls at all, what with all the other people on your party line. Then it was just exotic to call Europe. Now we do it on cell phones and Skype like those faraway people are right next door. It connects us nicely. But it also, to my way of thinking, makes different cultures a little less foreign. It saddens me that so many regional cultures in America have been smoothed out by television. I hate to think I’ll be talking to someone in, say, Sweden some day and they’ll casually toss out an “It’s all good,” or “Tru dat.”

Marco Polo spent years going back between the Mediterranean and Asia. It could take months to cross the Atlantic in sailing ships. Transatlantic telegraph cables weren’t laid until the mid-1800s. And now we can send regular braunschweiger–sized mail from Uzbekistan to Virginia Beach in short order for little money. Talk about a human-scaled global economy!

I guess I shouldn’t act so surprised. Last summer I needed a plastic cap for one of my cameras. Nikon doesn’t sell them any more. I found one on E-Bay and bought it for less than five dollars, including shipping. Not until it arrived did I realize it had come directly from China, not some warehouse in New Jersey. Bought and delivered from the far side of the world for less than five dollars.

If you’re under the age of thirty, you’re probably thinking, “Poor guy doesn’t know he paid too much for that cap.” But if you’re any bit older, I’ll be you’ll agree that it’s pretty darned impressive that we can move and shake and trade wherever we want so easily.

Tru dat.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Summer Travelers. Summer Not.

Keep Off Walls, 2008

It’s August, the season of summer travelers, those irregulars who wander down onto the plane without knowing where they’re sitting, who become indignant when there’s no movie or hot meal, who grab your arm like a lifeline when the plane takes off, talk incessantly, and generally slow down things.

I wrote earlier about a road trip to Marquette, Michigan that exposed me to pasties, the Upper Peninsula’s gastronomical treat. After my work was done in Marquette, I flew home. It was a circuitous journey back to Virginia by way of Green Bay, Madison and Chicago. I showed up for my first flight in Marquette just as the sun was rising on a beautiful clear summer day. The air was crisp as passengers lined up at the ticket counter for boarding passes, the back end of the line spilling out onto the sidewalk in front of the small airport. Normally these lines moved pretty quickly. But this morning there seemed to be a snag. Eventually, those of us in the back of the line started peeking around the people in front of us to see what was going on.

Two elderly ladies, a mother and daughter, stood at the counter. Their belongings were gathered into a clutch of brown paper bags like the ones you got at the grocery store in those days. There was some dispute about their things. The gate agent, an earnest young girl obviously new to the job, was having a hard time resolving the problem.

“Mam,” she kept repeating insistently, “you can’t carry that aboard the plane.”

“Why not?” the incredulous older woman responded, while revealing that what she has rolled up into a bath towel in her grocery bag was a large pistol. That’s right, a gun.

“Honey, how long have you live in Marquette?” the older woman quizzed the gate agent, one part curious and one part grandmotherly.

“I just moved here.”

“Well, Hon, a girl on her own in Marquette needs a gun. There’s bears that come to your back door in the winter. And there’s some men who don’t take ‘No’ for an answer, either.”

About this time, a supervisor arrived and shuffled the elderly lady off to the side to resolve the gun issues. Her daughter, meanwhile, reached down into her shopping bag and withdrew another rolled up bath towel and laid it on the counter.

“I guess if you didn’t like my momma’s gun,” she said with resignation as she unrolled the towel and revealed a matching pistol, “you’re not gonna like this one, either.”

Other than the usual regional airline casual attitude about schedules, which caused me to miss both of the next two connections, the rest of the trip home was uneventful.

Friday, August 21, 2009

More Stuff of Travel

Carlo Moretti Tumbler, 2002

My wife and I try to find some token piece of affordable artistic expression when we visit a new place. Sometimes it’s a drawing or small painting or something hand made. We came home from Paris one time with almost a bolt of fabric gathered from various shops around the Marché Saint Pierre.

In 1989 we came home from England with two carefully wrapped panes of flat bubble glass purchased from an commercial glazier near Stratford-on-Avon. We had no idea how we’d use it. We just liked it. (It took a decade for us to have a place where we could actually use it.)

You can tell what we treasure from our trips because it’s usually what we’re carrying on our laps or under our feet on the airplane. We’ll leave all sorts of routine valuables to the netherworld of checked luggage. But don’t you dare touch that fabric from Paris or the old photograph of farmers at Garsington Cottage that I bought at an antique stall in Oxford.

In Venice, it’s glass we look for. Not the gaudy horses and frilly sea serpents that recall Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie more than anything Venetian. We gravitate toward the smaller studios and look for things we can actually use. My wife found a quite simple and inexpensive glass bracelet that draws such attention that we could probably retire if we could remember where she got it and get some more to bring home to sell.

But more often our Venetian glass habit has been satisfied with drinking glasses. You know how some women melt when confronted with a soft blue Tiffany box? For us, it’s the sturdy orange-colored box from Salviati. If such a box finds its way into your life and you’ve got half a sense of design, you’re going to like whatever’s inside. I’m partial to these.

I’m the same about Carlo Moretti, whose shop on the Campo San Moisè is one of my favorites. If you’re like me and never thought you’d find yourself talking about door handles and drawer pulls, visiting the Moretti shop will change you into a door handling, drawer pulling freak.

Moretti’s not for you if your taste runs to dainty glass frills and curlicues. But if you like good proportions, clean, simple lines and boldly colored patterns on clear crystal glass, this is your place. My wife is beholding to a lot of antique dishes we’ve gathered over the years. They don’t do much for me. But I protect the Carlo Moretti tumblers as if they were my children.

Glassware from Salviati and Carlo Moretti can strain the idea of “affordable art.” But each is a masterpiece that delights the eye while also holding a good gin & tonic.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

It Just Wants to Get Out

Holly Famous Barber Shop, 2009

If you are a determined photographer, you will find something to photograph no matter where you are. I take it as a challenge to make something of what others walk past. As long as there’s light, I figure you’ve got a starting point.

I’ve photographed broken windows, empty bottles, blades of grass, a lawn mower. More than once I’ve photographed my own foot when I was stuck on a long conference call. I’ve photographed curbs and cracks in the highway. I once shot a dozen or so pictures of a hotel room air conditioner just to keep the juices flowing. As the picture above shows, even if I’m waiting for a haircut and have nothing more than a phone cam, I’ll take pictures with it.

Crazy? Yes. But what good’s having an artistic obsession if you can’t revel in it from time to time? Sometime you just have to let that energy out, no matter how it manifests.

I like people with vivid interests. They can’t not do whatever it is they do, whether that means painting, drawing, making photographs, writing, singing, dancing or even writing marketing plans. (Yes, there are people apparently born to write marketing plans.) It’s hard-wired into them. They’re going to do it whether they have an audience, or not.

When I was a kid, I was uneasy and insecure. I didn’t see things because I wasn’t looking. When I bought my first serious camera, it gave me a reason to be places. I moved more comfortably among people and places where I’d previously been uncomfortable. Martine Franck, the Belgian photographer and widow of Henri Cartier-Bresson, has described how a camera brought her alive, too, and gave her a reason for being places when she was young and shy.

Once I had a reason to break out of my shell, my eye became attuned to seeing things. Big scenes. Small moments. The world was alive with visual opportunities. Years later I learned that a lot of people in my very small high school class had no idea what I looked like because, as one put it, “You always had that camera in front of your face.” Just goes to show, God’ll get you, especially when you’re trying to impress cute girls.

After college there followed a long stretch during which I didn’t “see” anything. My interests wandered. I was uncertain in my life’s direction. In time, I got married. We had a child. I worked on my career. I pulled out the old camera during the baby picture phase of things, and occasionally took a few other pictures here and there. But the latter were mostly unremarkable.

About the time my daughter headed off to college, I noticed that I’d started “seeing” things again that I wanted to record in photographs. For whatever reason, the long foggy veil was lifted. Nowadays, there are still periods when that fog reappears. But I know I can make it go away by lifting the camera in front of my face and clicking away.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

You Have to Start Somewhere, Right?

Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1974

My first published photograph appeared in an international non-profit organization’s newsletter when I was in high school. I received no payment for the use.

My second published picture, above, was of an overturned truck carrying forty cows. You have to start somewhere. Why not with dead cows?

Needless to say, this shot was not planned. Gregory Crewdson was only ten years old at the time. The idea of meticulously arranged photographic tableaux like his hadn’t come along yet.

I took the picture on a steamy Sunday afternoon in late June, when the Mid-Atlantic takes on more of the humid feel of, say, Southeast Asia. Sensible people—Richmond was full of them in those days; you recognized them because they wore seersucker in the summer and, legend has it, never perspired—were indoors or under the shade of a tree. I, having no common sense and living in a damp, un-air conditioned basement apartment, was out in the sun taking pictures.

I was on my way home from taking pictures at a festival in Chimborazo Park when I saw the accident from an overpass. I quickly found a place to park and ran back onto the bridge and snapped the picture.

I took my film to the newspaper building. One of the security guards took my film and my name and address and said they’d get the negatives back to me.

When I went out to the street the next morning to get the paper, I was pleased to find my picture above the fold on the front page of the main news section. Hundreds of thousand or so other people around Virginia also saw it. I did not become an overnight sensation, however. It turns out that pictures of overturned cattle trucks are not the makings of greatness.

But quite by surprise I got my negatives and a check for $100 in the mail the next week. That proved a lot more useful than celebrity.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

For Your Viewing Pleasure

Tina, 2004

From time to time my wife and I attempt to watch pay-per-view movies on television. We love going to the movies. But at $10 a ticket, we’ve become more selective in what we choose to see. We have a whole rating system, worked out over the years, that goes from “Worth seeing on the big screen” to “Worth seeing on pay-per-view” to “A good HBO movie” to “A waste of time, even if free.”

Considering how briefly some movies stay at the local multiplex these days, we miss some first-runs. Enter pay-per-view. You miss out on the group viewing dynamic, so important, say, when you’re seeing a movie like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and you’re the only person in the theater who’s not Greek. But at $4.99, pay-per-view is not such a bad deal. Plus, the popcorn’s cheaper at home.

The fly in this ointment, as it were, is that our cable company control box doesn’t like us watching pay-per-view movies, or at least watching them all the way through. Within the last week, Milk stopped streaming onto our set just ten minutes before the climactic ending. (Don’ worry. We knew how it ended.) In the case of Gran Torino, we had no idea how the story would end, and had to go to bed wondering what became of Clint Eastwood’s growling Walt Kowalski and his Hmong neighbors.

When Milk came to a standstill, I called the local cable company, which bills itself as my “friend in the digital age.” After getting through the phone tree, ten minutes on hold and a good two dozen VERY LOUD commercials for the cable company, I was greeted by an earnest technical representative.

Usually these tech reps are competent and constitute, in striking contrast to the bland regular customer service operators, an efficient, humane and professional face for the cable company. You describe your problem and they send a signal down the line that zaps your converter into compliance.

That’s how it usually happens. But this past Saturday night it didn’t work. When it didn’t work the first time, the tech rep politely said he’d zap it again. When it didn’t work that time, either, he announced, “I’m doing it again. Watch out.” From his tone you’d have thought he was bringing out the defibrillator paddles. Paddles or not, that didn’t work, either.

Stymied by the failure of the usual fix-its in his arsenal, the tech rep next had me resort to the oldest repair strategy in the book. “Unplug the converter. Stand back for ten seconds. Then plug it back in.” We did this twice. Each time it restored power, but little else. When I relayed this news back, the tech rep got edgy and questioned whether I was even in the same room with the converter since what I was describing, he crisply informed me, “isn’t supposed to happen.” We agreed to disagree on that point, at which time the tech rep said he’d done all he could do.

By the time you read this, I’ll probably have a new cable converter box. I just hope I’ll have been able to figure out how to watch both “Entourage” and “Mad Men.” Grrrrr…..

Monday, August 17, 2009

Deep Thoughts and Feeble Personal Insight

Eastville, 2005

A Flickr friend wrote to me about my “Haunted Furniture” post. “I never thought of furniture as Witness before,” she commented, before going on to describe how she realized that she does in fact think of furniture as a constant presence in places where everything else changes.

After a brief and scary bit of imagining the stories that some hotel furniture could tell, my friend’s insight got me to thinking about how I sometimes attribute sentient feelings to inanimate objects.

Other people look at things and see or sense nothing. I see stories and history. I sometimes hear sounds. I don’t think of myself as having unusual powers. I don’t believe the computer screen I’m looking at as I type this cares much about me. I don’t believe plants talk, either, though I wouldn’t rule it out of the realm of possibility that science may prove me wrong on that some day. And you have to admit that Nature is one crafty mother when it comes to communicating between species on other than verbal bases. (If you don’t buy this argument, you need to read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.)

It’s hard to walk through Pompeii, where centuries of cart traffic have formed ruts in the stone, and not feel some connection to those long ago people. I mean, you’re walking on the same stones and your sounds are echoing off the same walls off which their sounds echoed. This is not some Colonial Williamsburg reproduction. It’s the real thing.

My wife and I eat off a wooden breakfast table my father found in an old barn up in the Roanoke Valley almost fifty years ago. It became the center of kitchen life in dad’s house, as it is in our house now. We wonder what stories its various nicks and scratches tell.

Remember in Patton, when the outspoken general stood alone and heard the sound of distant trumpets speaking to him across time? This wasn’t just some theatrical device. It’s said by some who knew him well that General Patton felt he had a gift of clairvoyance.

Go stand in front of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, look at the way people feel compelled to touch it, and try to tell me that wall and the people whose names are inscribed on it aren’t talking.

Man-made things reflect the energy and dreams of the people who made them. Whatever their present condition, somebody was probably once proud of them. Every one of those derelict commercial building you see along the road once had an opening day, when the future was bright and everything seemed possible. That the normally unseen spaces behind and between the walls of the great cathedrals of France remain as clean as they are is, in my way of thinking, the indelible voice of the stonemasons who built these great places telling us today that their faith was so great that they would leave no part of their God’s house unclean.

So in the end I conclude that I do believe things and places can serve as both witnesses and voices because they are the expressions of man. Combine a little knowledge of history with a little sensitivity and the circuits in your brain will take you on a rich journey.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Sanitary Advantages

TIP, 2005

There are many ways to spend a delightful summer afternoon. But I can think of few I’ve enjoyed as much as spending time in the company of friends on this pier on the St. Lawrence River.

Certain places make it easy to become attached. We’ve only been to Thousand Island Park three or four times. But I know could spend every summer there. Our friend Marjorie has been spending summers at “camp,” as she refers to her cottage at Thousand Island Park, for more than fifty years.

Back before the age of air conditioning and income taxes, Gilded Age tycoons with names like Pullman, Singer, Boldt, Abraham and Strauss came north to the Canadian border in the summer in search of cool breezes. They built elaborate stone mansions, some of them big enough to be considered castles, on private islands in the St. Lawrence River.

Regular folks hopped trains and steamers to stay in boarding houses and hotels along the river. Ads for the Gananoque Inn touted its “modern improvements and sanitary advantages.” Lots in nearby Edgewood Park were leased to “prospective cottagers under strict by-laws regarding hygiene, morality and good order.”

Thousand Island Park is located on Wellesley Island, which is essentially a big rock with a thick head of forest growing on top of it. In the summer it’s a vacation playground. In the winter, when the river freezes, it’s a place of such brutal cold and isolation that Chicago Seven member Abbie Hoffman hid out there for years under an assumed name and was apprehended only, so the story goes, when he decided to run for public office.

The star of this show is the St. Lawrence River, which connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean and runs so deep that there is said to be a fully intact sunken Great Lakes ore carrier so deep in the water under the International Bridge that it presents no hazard to navigation in the narrow shipping channel above.

The river’s also cold, take-your-breath-away-and-don’t-give-it-back cold. When we visit Marjorie and her husband Robert Wagner—his name is neither Robert nor Wagner, but we’ve given him this nickname lately in recognition of a swank Robert Wagner-brand sports coat he wore to our daughter’s wedding—the guys usually bathe in the river. The cottage has a very nice bathtub upstairs. But being models of modern chivalry we graciously cede that to the ladies. Or at least we did the first time.

I bathed in the Maury River when I went to summer camp in the mountains of Virginia when I was a kid and thought that was cold. I’ve been in both the Pacific and the North Atlantic and thought they were cold. But until I grabbed a bar of soap and did a belly flop into the St. Lawrence one August morning, I clearly didn’t know what cold was. Up to then, I’d have never believed I could wash every part of my body and be out of the water in less than two minutes. In more recent visits I’ve waited in line behind the ladies to use the tub.

The Thousand Island Park series. Here.