Friday, January 29, 2010

Americans in Paris

Sacré Coeur, 2002

My wife and I considered our first trip to Paris to be something of an introductory course. We were only there for a few days, taking a break from visiting our daughter who was in school in London for the summer. We knew we wouldn’t have time for much more than a cursory look at things.

On our last day, we decided to go walk up to the basilica of Sacré Coeur, located atop the Montmartre hill. Given its dramatic site, Sacré Coeur is an excellent place to get an overall view of Paris. When we arrived, just after lunch, the terrace in front was full of tourists from all over the world. We did a quick walk-through of the basilica and came back out to the terrace for a breath of fresh air. The sky was becoming overcast. The air was muggy. There would be rain later.

This trip took place in 2002, during the summer following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. We had not felt unsafe traveling that summer, but were conscious of increased security measures. We were also aware that the French government was incurring the wrath of the Bush Administration for refusing to allow U.S. warplanes to fly over France on their way from Britain to the Mideast. (Remember “freedom fries”?)

Meanwhile, back on the terrace at Sacré Coeur, we were enjoying the view. All of a sudden, we noticed flying across the low Paris skyline an unmistakably American military airplane, an Air Force tanker, accompanied by two French Mirage jets. Given the icy relationship between the U.S. and France about such flights, my wife and I observed that something must be going on. It didn’t scare us. But I think it’s safe to say it rattled us a little to think that conditions might have changed enough somewhere in the world for an American military plane to be allowed to fly over Paris. We watched the planes as they moved across the horizon.

No one else around us seemed to take note of it. Once the planes were out of sight, we worked our way down the hill and back across Paris to our hotel.

That night we had dinner at a busy bistro near our hotel. There were several other outdoor tables occupied by American visitors. While we watched the street life and listened to the conversations around us, we heard people at each one of the tables of Americans at some point discuss that same flyover we’d seen from Sacré Coeur. They'd seen it from vantage points all over Paris, some out at Versailles and some—yes, I’m afraid—at Disneyland Paris.

Slowly, the English-speaking diners started noticing one another and chatting. We’d all, it seems, had the same startled reaction to the sight of those planes. My wife and I were merely curious. A few had expected to get back to their hotels that afternoon and learn that a new war was under way. As we enjoyed our meal on that warm summer night in Paris, we were all were relieved to have made it through to dinnertime without having heard any such news.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Softly and Tenderly

Knotts Island Methodist Church, 2003

When he was in his 70s, having completed two careers, outlived two wives and fifteen years into life with a third, my grandfather studied for the ministry and served this country church. He’d grown up on the small coastal barrier island where it is located. Many of the parishioners shared our last name or were related to him. His return to the island was greeted with great acclaim.

My grandfather would occasionally press my father and uncle, into visiting the church to sing with him and the aging choir. They were both talented singers who led their own church choirs. Our families would be bundled into the car for the morning drive down through the coastal marshes and across the causeway that connected the island to the mainland. Then, after all the cousin’s faces were scrubbed, we were told to sit quietly in the same pews that our ancestors had used in the little church sanctuary. In time, the organ would begin to wheeze and groan under Mrs. Hardy’s hands and my grandfather would step up to the pulpit. I don’t remember a single word of any sermon he ever preached. But to this day I can still see the pride in his eyes when his two sons joined him to sing one of those good old Methodist hymns, their voices calling the small country congregation to the altar, lifting their souls and inspiring them to continue their quest for life everlasting.

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,

Calling for you and for me;

See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching.

Watching for you and for me.

Come home, come home,

You who are weary come home;

Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling

Calling, O sinner, come home!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Guilty Pleasure

In Print, 2010

I’m reading Harold Evans’ memoir, My Paper Chase. Evans is the former editor of the Sunday Times and The Times of London, and also former president and publisher of Random House.

As he pursued his “paper chase,” Evans became interested not only in journalism, but in the look and feel of newspapers. He goes so far as to claim that he’s “addicted to print.” He describes:

“An addiction to print means that you get your fix by looking at the shapes of letters in type even when the words don’t make any sense.”

To illustrate his point, Evans describes an early assignment to Scandinavia:

“I felt compelled every day to scour the Norwegian, Swedish and Danish newspapers without understanding a word. It was a guilty pleasure to be relieved of the burden of comprehension.”

“…a guilty pleasure to be relieved of the burden of comprehension.”

I love that line. My work typically calls for a lot of reading. That, added to other interests, often leads me to a point of information overload. When that happens something has to give. It doesn’t have to take long. But I do have to step out and decompress. At times like this I appreciate some kind of entertainment that doesn’t call for much comprehension. Television does that for some people. Exercise does it for others. “Summer books” are, by definition, supposed to be light.

I turn to movies, sometimes documentaries. I prefer stories that will draw me in completely and distract me from whatever overload I’ve been experiencing. But to be honest, I don’t set the bar high. I try to avoid completely mindless movies, though the other day my wife did find me dozing in front of a movie starring the comedian Carrot Top. “I was asleep,” I claimed. “It must have come on after the Benjamin Henry Latrobe documentary.”

“Right,” she answered dryly before leaving the room.

I haven’t yet gotten to the part in My Paper Chase where Evans tells how he decompressed during the first 30 years of his career. It seems he was always traipsing around England rooting out one injustice or another. One day it might be convincing the Public Health Service to provide basic cancer screening testing for women. Another it might be seeking a posthumous pardon for an innocent man wrongly executed. He might be leading a team determined to get the real story of Soviet spy and double agent Kim Philby, or shedding light on the plight of Thalidomide children.

Whatever he did, I’ll be his wife caught him dozing at least once in front of The Benny Hill Show or Coronation Street. No burden of comprehension there!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Personal Inventory

Favorite Things, 2009

The other morning Deb M. shared a thought:

For years, I have collected mementos to remind me that I wasn't just alive, I lived. I looked at some this morn. Mission accomplished.”

I left a snarky remark (“Dear grasshopper….”) about the value of letting go of things.

Later that morning I was listening to an interview with artist James Rosenquist. Asked how he'd coped when his home, his studio and his print archives were destroyed in a fire, he didn’t hesitate for a moment:

“I miss my mother’s family scrapbook. And there was an 80’ long mural I’d just about finished for a client that I had to go back and do all over again. But the other stuff was just objects and things. After the fire I found I just didn’t care about things anymore. I’m not materialistic anymore. Losing everything can do that for you.”

Between the Rosenquist interview and Deb’s comment, I realized I was nowhere near as evolved as I thought I was about “objects and things.” There are all sorts of things I’ve collected to say, in so many words, that “I wasn’t just alive. I lived.”

I’ve written here about some of them before. Heck, in one corner of my office alone are:

  • Stones from Maine, Martha’s Vineyard, England’s Jurassic Coast, the Pacific Coast and Sedona, Arizona.
  • Paper cut-out models of the Radcliffe Camera and Sheldonian Theater at Oxford University.
  • A 1954 Picasso ceramic “Hen Subject.”
  • A model of the Gerrit Reitveld “Red and Blue Chair.”
  • A painting of the Edgartown lighthouse by Amanda Kavanagh.
  • Cards from my daughter.
  • A photograph I took in Richmond in 1971.
  • A miniature reproduction of an Ingo Maurer “Wing” lamp.

I know you’re not supposed to become so attached to things. Deathbed revelations frequently have to do with realizing that life wasn’t about things.

But each of these items has a story. Only a few—the painting, the Picasso hen—have much value beyond the sentimental. But I sure would feel lost without them.

I think this is also why I’m so drawn to photographing places instead of, say, fashion models or pets. Even when my photographs are of very small parts of big scenes, I realize I’m trying to say, “I was here, and looking at this picture enables me to find my way back there and remember some of what I saw and heard.”

I’m pretty obsessive about this, when you think of it. I get edgy if I’m traveling someplace that night be interesting and don’t have a camera with me. It’s as if without a photographic record the memory of having been there will slip away.

So in the end I have to admit I’m as much a sucker for things as the next person. I guess I’d better apologize to Deb for the snarky remark and wipe off those paper cut out models from Oxford. They’re getting pretty dusty.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Photographs. Everywhere.

The Shower View, 2010

I’ve written here before about how hard it has been for me to learn the importance of capturing a scene with my camera when I first see it and not counting on it still being there later when I think to get back with a camera.

Well, I’m getting better. The Shower View is a scene I’ve wanted to capture for about three years. I finally got around to it this past weekend.

I’m a big believer that there are interesting things to photograph, draw or paint in your own backyard if you just look close enough. This picture is a good example of that. Even since the bathroom was painted green, I have been charmed each morning by this impressionistic composition of color and shapes. There are no Photoshop tricks here. This is what it looks like if you’re in the shower looking through the door out into the bathroom.

So there’s my excuse. I only think about this scene when I’m taking a shower, and by the time I get out of the shower, I’m usually distracted by enough other things that I go on about my day without ever capturing the scene.

Now, if I can just remember to get over and take that picture of the three trees by the hospital I’ve been wanting to take…

Friday, January 22, 2010

It Happened Here

Ici est Tombé André Pradat, 2006

When I told my friend Laura that my wife and I were planning to go back to Paris in 2006, she recommended a hotel in the 7th Arrondissement. It turned out to be a wonderful place on the quiet Rue de Bourgogne, a narrow street running between the National Assembly at one end of the street and the Rodin Museum at the other.

It isn’t uncommon in Paris to find small plaques on the sides of buildings commemorating Frenchmen, usually resistance fighters, who died nearby during World War II. I’d seen these plaques before and had associated some vague sense of honor and patriotism with them. But during our 20o6 trip I became more interested in learning about them.

I was fascinated with these plaques not because I knew any of the dead, but merely because the plaques existed at all. We Americans tend to honor our war dead in parks and cemeteries. But these sporadically placed plaques reminded me that the quiet streets my wife and I walked along in Paris were once alive with the sights and sounds of war. The very streets we walked on, the walls we brushed up against, all had stories.

In the languid August of 1944, German occupation forces in Paris were getting edgy. Also trigger-happy. More than a few French nationals who dared leave their apartments had become victims of random strafing by nervous German soldiers.

Just around the corner from our hotel, on the Rue de Grenelle, was the building where French forces had installed a rudimentary radio transmitter that they intended to use to announce the liberation of Paris when approaching Allied forces arrived. Resistance fighters were charged with protecting this building and had constructed a barricade of sand bags at the intersection of the Rue de Bourgogne and the Rue de Grenelle.

On the afternoon of August 23, 1944, a German tank and platoon of soldiers were dispatched to the area to destroy the barricade. A shell from the tank quickly blew the sand bags apart and also killed a French policeman who was walking home from work.

That evening, André Pradat, 40, a corporal in the resistance forces, was shot in the stomach during a skirmish with another German tank and infantry patrol outside 24 Rue de Bourgogne. Pradat died the next morning (a day earlier than stated on the plaque).

The part that always gets me when I look at this picture is the phrase, “Mort Pour La France.” Not just "Died for France," but for La France, the mother, the oldest and most elemental kind of relationship. Such is the tie the French have to their country.

In America we venerate the ground in which our war dead are buried. We attach strong values to our country. Perhaps because of the way the Germans made so much of their concept of the mutterland, though, Americans tend to be somewhat more gender neutral. Yes, some refer to the USA as “her.” But more often you hear “it.” And when we do attach gender to our country, it’s usually in the context of something like the Statue of Liberty, that enduring symbol of our country’s open arms, that is, not coincidentally, a gift from the French.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Witnessing, 2007

The other morning two nicely dressed ladies came to the door wanting to know if I’d been wondering why God “is punishing the people of Haiti.”

I don’t know if it happens much elsewhere. But here in the South rarely do a few weeks go by that someone doesn’t knock on the door seeking to “share God’s word” with us. I suspect the lady the other morning was one of the regulars trying to see if some new topical material would increase her hit rate, the traditional promise of burning in hell perhaps having lost some of its heat. She and her companion were, in any event, polite and weren’t visibly rattled when I offered that the tragedy in Haiti had more to do with a clash between tectonic plates than with the wrath of God.

It’s possible she was inspired by Pat Robertson’s recent cockamamie explanation about long dead Haitians’ deal with the devil. (Robertson, by the way, is another hallowed resident of, and broadcasts from his 700 Club tele-pulpit in our dear city here.)

Robertson is just one of many “extreme Christians” in our community. Virginia’s new governor is a protégé of Pat Robertson. There are more than a few people who were drawn here to live close to Robertson, but then determined that he’s not extreme enough for them. I don’t think it’s exaggerating any, therefore, to suggest that our local faith spectrum is a little wider and more finely segmented than those of many other communities. If nothing else, it makes for interesting politics and school board meetings.

Most of us who don't share an extreme faith perspective look upon those who do as a generally harmless and self-involved lot. This is meant as no disrespect to people whose faith is sincere and enduring. I’m referring to that category of people who aren’t content to let their life be an example. You know, the people who’ve got to be in your face, reminding you that God’ll smite you just as he did the firstborn of Egypt if you don’t get your shit together with Him.

One thing you learn putting on any large public gathering around here is that there are lots of extreme Christians anxious to hijack your function for their own purposes. They pop up like a jack-in-the-box at most any public occasion, especially during the tourist season. The young man shown above kept setting up shop here and there at a boardwalk history festival in 2007. I didn't see many people interact with him. Click on the picture and see a larger version. I think you’ll agree that his expression says he wasn't exactly looking for conversation.

I, for sure, didn’t have anything to say to him. I was even a little concerned that he might be one of those purpose-driven people who looks only too harmless until he pulls out a gun and mows down all the sinners in his midst.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Do You Mind If I Sing?

Unhinged, 2010

Act I:

When we first got married, my wife and I worked for the same newspaper company. At first we worked different hours. But later on we both had jobs with the same working hours and rode the bus to work and back together.

In those days, the #2 Patterson/Monument route went right through downtown Richmond on Broad Street, once downtown’s grandest commercial avenue, but by then a pretty woebegone looking strip.

Act 2:

In the mid 1970s, when we were riding this bus daily, Virginia was clearing a lot of people out of state mental hospitals who could, thanks to advances in medication and outpatient treatment, be more inexpensively treated closer to home in outpatient settings. The only problem was that state legislature had not provided adequate funding to the community service boards charged with picking up the slack. So a lot of patients weren’t getting necessary ongoing medication, treatment or case management.

Besides, a lot of communities couldn’t cope with the flood of returning mental patients. As a result, many patients were sent to cities and towns with large supplies of rooming houses. A disproportionate number were placed in rooming houses on Richmond’s West Grace Street.

Act 3:

I mention West Grace Street because it was in those days the major street used by downtown executives and others to get to the upscale western suburbs. Westbound Grace Street also started literally at the gate to the state capitol and, as such, was heavily used by state legislators.

To connect the dots, you might have correctly begun to wonder whether there was a method to the madness of placing all these former mental patients in rooming houses on West Grace Street? The answer to this question would be a resounding “YES!” The idea was that if legislators could see first-hand how unhinged untreated mental patients could become, and what a nuisance they would be in their respective neighborhoods, more funding would be provided for community service boards.

In the meantime, it wasn’t uncommon for untreated mental health patients to wander the streets of downtown Richmond. Most were completely harmless and some were wonderfully colorful.

Act 4:

One snowy winter’s night, my wife and I were on the bus headed home from work. Just before the bus left downtown, an obviously unhinged man wearing a raincoat and clutching several dirty shopping bags stepped onto the bus. At first he took a seat up near the driver. Then he stood up, swept his arms majestically enough to reveal that there was no clothing beneath his raincoat, and addressed the entire bus:


A few people nodded. Others look away. Neither fazed the man. He launched into a boisterous a cappella rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Five verses, though I'm not sure about the last one since it mentioned something about free bus passes.

When he was done, there was a smattering of applause. He rebuttoned his raincoat around him, gathered his bags, pulled the call string and stepped off the bus at the next stop.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Late Afternoon of Life

The Late Afternoon of Life, 2009

The late afternoon of life can be tough. Your memory’s not what it used to be. You get lost in familiar surroundings. You don’t get asked to make many of the decisions that impact you.

I was thinking of these things last night as I visited my 89 year-old mother at the rehab facility where she is supposed to be recovering from a broken ankle, the fifth such break in as many years. Only she’s not recovering well because she’s lost the will to recover. She’s been through this so many times that her resolve to get with the program is about as fleeting as her short-term memory.

As in most things, there is some humor in this stage of life, or should I say, comic relief for the caregivers. My mother has lived at an assisted living facility for almost five years. It’s a pleasant place, safe and clean, with a cheerful and kind staff. It’s not a big place, but big enough that some of its residents’ doors are marked with stuffed animals, photographs, wreaths, military caps and other recognizable personal memorabilia that help easily confused people distinguish one door from another. Living there has preserved my mother’s life and health long beyond what she could have done on her own and longer, truth be told, than she wanted it to be preserved. She knows she’s slipping, but copes with it by joking that “My standards are lower than they used to be.”

My friend Marjorie’s mother was in a similar state a few years ago. Her mother was living in a nice assisted living facility where she, too, was also beginning to experience significant cognitive decline.

Marjorie liked to take her mother out to lunch or shopping. Occasionally she would arrive and find her mother neatly dressed and ready to go, but wearing an item of clothing that didn’t belong to her. And every now and then Marjorie noticed other women at the facility wearing items of clothing that she could have sworn belonged to her mother.

Some of this you just learn not to worry about if you’re the adult caregiver. My mother once had a house, then an apartment, then a smaller apartment and now a single room, very little of which she actually uses. Her life is pared down to a few familiar things and places. We don't fret over the small stuff.

Marjorie’s mother was in the same boat. She had closets full of clothing, but stuck to the same few comfortable outfits. If something new showed up in the laundry or if something disappeared, Marjorie didn’t become too concerned.

But finally her curiosity got the better of her. It wasn’t that anything particularly valuable was missing (or, as we’re wont to say in the South, went missing). It was just that items of her mother’s clothing would disappear from her closet on one day and at her next visit Marjorie might find several new items that she knew weren’t her mother’s. Marjorie went to see the facility administrator, who chuckled knowingly at Marjorie’s account and then explained to Marjorie the concept of “shopping.”

According to the administrator, a lot of older people, especially women, miss the act of shopping. As they settle into senility, some of them lose their geographic bearings, as well, and, in a facility where halls and room doors look alike, they sometimes unintentionally wander into other people’s rooms and start to dress in or undress from whatever clothing they find in the closet.

When I first heard this story, I didn’t know whether to laugh or be concerned that the facility would let this “shopping” occur as casually as it apparently does. I’ve never known it to happen at my mother’s place. But by the same token, as my mother would probably put it, in the late afternoon of life when you’ve stopped caring about such trivia, it costs you nothing to let your standards down a little.

Monday, January 18, 2010

All The Ways The Light Comes In

All The Ways The Light Comes In, 2007

In the spring of 2007 I’d been going through one of those periodic creative droughts where I'd been so distracted by work and other things that I didn’t “see” things I wanted to photograph as naturally as I do at other times.

Then, one morning I was standing at the sink shaving and it was as if a veil was lifted. I started noticing all the ways the light was coming into the room. There were little points of light, intriguing silhouettes, and shimmering shadows all over the place. I grabbed the camera and, before I knew it, had taken forty pictures. It wasn’t exactly a creative breakthrough. But I felt better immediately. (And by the end of the day my wife had just about forgiven me for leaving dabs of shaving cream all over the bathroom and bedroom. Not everyone understands that this photography's a messy business.)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Shrimp & Grits

Shrimp & Grits, 2010

At our daughter’s wedding last spring, guests were given gift bags containing the dry ingredients and a recipe for making shrimp and grits, one of the Low Country dishes served at the wedding dinner.

During the months leading up to the wedding, our daughter found a shop near the Garment District in New York that sells nothing but buttons. She and one of her friends spent a couple of Sunday afternoons covering the buttons with fabric and then shipped the lot of them down to Savannah to be fastened with the recipes onto the individual bags of grits and spices. Very few of the newlyweds’ friends are Southerners. So they had fun taking home a taste of a regional cuisine they don’t see much.

My wife finally got around to making our shrimp and grits the other night. She’s a wonderful cook and also one of those people blessed with the ability to remember the taste of just about every good meal she’s ever had. I, on the other hand, can remember the taste of about three meals in my lifetime. It’s not like I don’t have taste buds. Smells can immediately take me back to places in my childhood. But I just don’t have a good sensory memory for taste.

I have to admit, though, that having shrimp and grits the other night took me immediately back to that beautiful and most happy of days in Savannah last spring.

Update: The recipe for "General Oglethorpe's Shrimp & Grits" can be found here.