Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Radio Nights

Radio Nights, 2010

A lot of people my age grew up listening to transistor radios under the covers when we were supposed to be asleep or doing homework.

I was captivated by radio. Admittedly, I was pretty naïve as a kid. A lot of what I couldn’t pick up from my friends at school—a dubious source for life lessons, to be sure—I learned from listening to the radio. It was all there. Music of all kinds, sports, news, drama and comedy.

There were a couple of old console radios in the house, the kind you see in old pictures with Grandma and Grandpa gathered around them to listen to Fibber McGhee or Franklin Roosevelt and Fala. I quickly transitioned from those to the first generation of transistor radios, which not only had the caché of supposedly being one of the first consumer products spun off from the space program, but also came with a single earphone, a distinct advantage when you’re trying to be secretive about your listening.

When I was in sixth or seventh grade I received a nice AM/FM box radio for Christmas. (If you’re a child of Depression-era parents, Christmas gifts tended to include practical things like winter coats, oranges and radios.) It was handsome and modern, encased in a rich wooden veneer the color of dark honey. It was probably the last generation of radios with glass tubes and rotary dials connected to strings behind the radio’s face that moved the little station selector up and down the spectrum. It was more powerful than any radio I’d had before and pulled in not only the rich resonance of a few local FM stations but also AM “super stations” up and down the East Coast and out into the Midwest.

In my teenage years I started doing my homework while listening to the DJ known as “Cousin Brucie” on New York’s WABC-AM, the most powerful radio station on the East Coast. Cousin Brucie was to East Coast kids what Wolfman Jack was to American Graffiti, a big loud garrulous guy playing Top 40 hits and sending out dedications to hormonal teenagers everywhere. In 1965 it was Cousin Brucie who introduced the Beatles at their famous Shea Stadium concert.

Cousin Brucie’s still around. I always pictured him as a short, rotund guy, Stubby Kaye with a deep voice. But in fact he looks nothing like that, and from recent pictures I can only surmise that he was in his late twenties when I started listening to him. These days you can hear him on the 60s channel on Sirius satellite radio, which within the musical firmament puts him somewhere between Casey Kasem and elevator music. It’s just not the same listening to him today, what without platters to spin and no dedications to Annette in Teaneck, Gloria in Brighton Beach and a girl in Norfolk who didn’t even know that I liked her.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Frankie's Story

Gay Head, 1980

A true-ish story.

Frankie was the daughter of her father’s third marriage, the one to the striking British woman who shot herself in the boathouse when everyone up at the house thought she was just out for her morning swim.

No one ever expected Livvy do so such a thing. They all knew she was unstable. She was alcoholic. Probably bipolar. Still, Wescotts didn’t do this kind of thing. They got suites at McLean’s when they needed help. They didn’t off themselves in the boathouse where the Portuguese help would find them.

Living with Pete Westcott was a challenge, no doubt about that. He got rich shipping lumber down from Maine. Some said he made his real money running booze during Prohibition. He bought the estate overlooking Narragansett Bay at Hawk Hill from a family ruined during the Depression. People knew his sailing yachts—Zenith, Apogee and Apex—from the Newport Races. He spent lavishly on the boats, but was otherwise cheap, and serially unfaithful. He drank too much. Women flocked after him for his wealth. Four were foolish enough to marry him. Each went crazy in her own way from trying to live with him.

Frankie was his pride, the one good thing that came from the marriage to Livvy. She loved to sail with the old man. She looked more like him than her mother. She had his blond hair, his freckles, his blue eyes, his funny way of cocking his eyes when something interested him.

After Pete died and the two stepsisters from the first wife were paid off, Frankie stayed on at Hawk Hill. She’d never gotten along with Celeste and Oriana. They’d never forgiven their father for driving their mother to alcoholism. Neither cared for Hawk Hill and were easily mollified with parcels out at the front edge of the property, the proceeds from the sale of which allowed them to live comfortably.

A few young men on the make ventured out to court Frankie. But she preferred her own solitude, especially in the winter when the wind howled off the bay almost nonstop from October through to Easter. When she did desire company, Frankie hung out with the guys who worked on the Block Island Ferry. They were a rough, hard working bunch. Pete would have approved of the democracy of their work ethic, but not of their inability to give Frankie a good life.

Frankie became a seeker. For a period of years she followed other spiritual seekers in an experiential quest for revelation. It didn’t surprise anyone when she decided to try hallucinogenic drugs. One of the handymen who worked at Hark Hill later swore that Frankie told him she’d met Ken Kesey in Mexico one winter and that he was the cause of what became her drug problem.

But the drugs, whatever they were, never got completely in the way. Frankie drove Pete’s old pickup truck into town most days to pick up the mail. She had lunch occasionally at the Dockside with her friend Lucy Cornell. She was generous to the relatives with whom she did maintain contact, welcoming them to summer in the guest cottage at Hawk Hill. As she got older, they sensed they Frankie was losing touch with reality. They invited her to come spend winters with them in Boston, Toronto and Florida. Several times she agreed to visit. The relatives felt good because they thought she was reaching out for help. But she always cancelled her plans at the last minutes or just didn’t show up at the airport when they went to meet her.

One late March day when Frankie had failed to show up for lunch at the Dockside, Lucy Cornell drove out to Hawk Hill to check on her. She found the truck in the barn. Lucy let herself in through the kitchen and wandered around the house calling for Frankie. When got no answer she went upstairs and found Frankie dead in the big-claw footed tub that overlooked Narragansett Bay. The water was still warm, stained red from the blood of her wrists.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Merriam's Geese

Barker House, 2003

They were, without doubt, the best fed Canada geese on the Lynnhaven River. It started with a Christmas present, a 5-lb tin of unsalted roasted peanuts. Merriam Wendell couldn’t stand them, considered anything other than salted roasted peanuts a waste of a good legume.

At first they just piled up in the pantry. Each Christmas the neighbor’s boy would appear with a new 5-lb tin. Because she considered the unsalted peanuts to be such an abomination, Merriam couldn’t bring herself to give them away to someone else lest her own reputation be sullied. And ever the thrifty one, she wouldn’t just throw them away. No one born in poverty could ever throw food away.

The idea of feeding the peanuts to the geese only came about after Merriam saw a feature on television about trick squirrels. Merriam had no interest in enticing squirrels to do tricks for peanuts. But she did call the local extension agent to see if it would be okay to feed peanuts to the Canada geese that took up residence each fall along the river behind her house. Her husband Herb did not take kindly to the idea. “The geese are a nuisance!” he ranted. “They leave a mess all over my dock and webbed footprints all over my boat. I don’t care if I never see another goose.”

But Merriam heard none of this. If anything, it strengthened her resolve. She offered up her entire stash of roasted peanuts that first year. Not being hemmed by the same social conventions as Merriam, the geese loved the unsalted peanuts and swarmed around her whenever she appeared at the dock landing with a tin can in her arms. The next year she expanded her menu to include a smorgasbord of peanuts, barley, rice, beans and corn. The man down at the Fuel & Feed store thought Mrs. Wendell must be feeding a barnyard full of animals.

It wasn’t a barnyard, of course. But what Merriam didn’t know was that it was a growing portion of the Canada geese that use the Atlantic Flyway for their seasonal trips up and down the coast. It was so many geese, in fact, that researchers in Georgia were starting to wonder why the geese were beginning to show up each season fatter and in greater numbers than the year before.

For years, Merriam fed the geese without attracting much attention and certainly escaping the notice of the Georgia researchers. After her boys were long grown up and Herb died, she continued to feed the geese. She enlisted her grandchildren to help haul the sacks of feed out to the dock. The first year after Merriam died, the geese waited in the river near her home. The new people who bought her house were puzzled. They never did figure it out. The geese, too, eventually moved on.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Degas à la Plage

Degas at the Beach - 99, 2010

This is about a new series of photographs. I hesitate to talk about it too much before I get further into it. But talking about it helps me keep focused, especially knowing that some of you who read this will bug me later on to make sure I stick with it.

In the summer I like to work on photographic subjects that are bright and colorful. Not that I’m against bright things the rest of the year. It’s just that a lot of brightly colored things come out in the summer and the summer light is so warm. It’s the season of Kodacolor.

A lot of my photographs from last summer were pretty straightforward. I think there were some interesting results-- particularly like these and these--but little that broke any new ground for me beyond geography. I’ll probably have a lot of predictable work this summer, too. But somewhere in the mix I want to do something a little more thoughtful.

Specifically, I want do something unexpected with a familiar subject. In the interest of proximity, the familiar subject is going to be the beachfront near where I live. I’ve taken a lot of pictures of the beachfront before. You can see some of them here and here.

I know where the inspiration for this comes from. Among my favorite paintings are Edgar Degas’ Racehorses at Longchamps and Eugene Boudin’s pair of beach scenes from Trouville. (There’s a framed print of one of the Boudin paintings in my office as I write this.)

My daughter, the pedigreed art historian, tells me that my interest in Impressionism is bourgeois. The two Boudins were once owned by Claude Monet. So if my daughter’s assertion has any credence, at least I’m true to the style.

What I like about these paintings is that they work with everyday subjects—horses at the racetrack, the beach and, since I mentioned Monet, water lilies—but in a way that is different, slightly unexpected and personal. They are what the artists saw, impressions, which is why, not coincidentally, I named this blog “What I Saw” in the first place.

Degas at the Beach – 99, above and Degas at the Beach – 15, below, are test shots for this new series. I mistakenly shot them using an older digital camera that has a light sensor covered with dust spots. A little digital retouching makes them presentable here, but wouldn’t be adequate for a larger reproduction.

Degas at the Beach - 15, 2010

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Recreation Leadership

Recreation Leadership, 2010

This little cutout with the flag was in the parking lot of an Episcopal church day school in Gwynned, Pennsylvania. (I was shooting pictures in the adjacent graveyard.) Presumably it alerts people driving in the parking lot to a place where children might be crossing. Or vice versa.

I couldn’t look at it, though, without remembering something from an old episode of the NPR radio program Car Talk. If you listen to the show you know that hosts and brothers Ray and Tom Magliozzi can be lovingly brutal with some of the people who call in, especially the no-nonsense types who have little humor and actually expect to get quick, practical advice. If they sense your weakness, the brothers will tie you in knots asking whether you’re Cathy with a C or a K, or whether your broken Volvo is green or gray. If you’re a Saab driver, lord help you.

You have to be careful when you call Car Talk. A few years ago a woman called in and had a question related to the fact that she had been using a toll bridge near Philadelphia for years in a way that enabled her to avoid paying the toll. I don’t remember the details of how she did it, only that she was feeling guilty and was wondering whether she should fess up and start paying the toll, and in doing so possibly draw attention to her past free crossings, or just keeping cheating.

Tom and Ray reacted by getting the bridge administrator on the phone. Everything came out fine. But you know the woman had to be squirming in her seat for at least a few minutes.

Anyway, with regard to the little man shown above, there was a caller one day who you just knew was a little too serious for the show. Probably some young guy who thought he was pretty cool. Only he wasn’t on to Tom and Ray’s humor.

As they often do, Tom and Ray asked the young man what he did for a living. He responded that he was about to finish college with a degree in Recreation Management.

This was just too much for Tom, or maybe it was Ray. After a few barely suppressed chuckles, they asked the caller, “What the heck is “recreation leadership”? And then, without missing a beat, Tom (or maybe Ray) blurted out, “Oh, I get it, you’re the guy that stands up and shouts ‘FORM A LINE HERE!’”

Maybe you had to be there. When I saw this little guy with the flag, I felt like I was.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On the Other Hand

To the Fields, 2004

My friend Tim Connor and I share many of the same sensibilities when it comes to photography. We both wish we had more time for making photographs. We both wish we’d taken more art classes when we were in college.

The first college I attended didn’t look upon photography as anything more than a hobby, and offered scant encouragement for even that. When I moved down the street to the big public university, the one with the respected art school, I was too naïve to realize that I could use the opportunity to move from the business school to something more artistic. (After a stretch of some tough years, I was focused on studying something that offered at least the prospect of regular paying work.)

Maybe Tim and I turned out okay. We’re both voracious observers of other people’s art. We read a lot. We’re self-taught students of the history of photography and the work of many photographers.

We don’t look upon our choices as regrets so much as missed opportunities. On the other hand, if we’d turned out like people who write the following, I’m not sure our artistic callings would have been much of an addition to civilization. Speaking of photography, the writer comments:

“The fact of its indexicality—the subject had to have existed to be photographed—has been an enabler of this perception, at least to the extent that photography continues to straddle a position whereby it is neither unequivocally true nor properly figured.”[1]

In all fairness, this is just part of a lengthier essay by a well-regarded critic and popular portfolio reviewer. I mean her no ill will. It would probably be best, though, that I not run across her at a portfolio review. She’d probably be trying to give me good advice and I wouldn’t understand a thing she was saying.

[1] PQ, a Journal of Contemporary Photography, Number 99, Volume 1, Number 1

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

You Think You Know Them

Father, 2007

My father died in his own bed in his own home in late July of 1995. We couldn’t have done this without the help of several home health aides who came to help during the last two weeks of Dad’s life. Dad hadn’t liked the idea of having “strangers” in the house. But after realizing that my sister and I alone couldn’t provide the level of care needed, he reluctantly agreed to allow one aide in for a couple of hours. The first one didn’t work out. The second woman, though, was a charm. She day she came and got to know Dad was the last day he had many lucid moments. Dad was a lifelong flirt. Fran knew how to throw it right back at him. They were like a loving couple. Fran became very protective of Dad.

Dad died of prostate cancer. He lingered for weeks longer than anyone could explain. He began hallucinating. Then the hallucinations lengthened and eventually connected to one another and overtook his verbal consciousness completely. Sometimes he revisited moments of regret from his youth and tears would roll down his cheeks. Other times he laughed and talked to people who weren’t there.

About six weeks earlier Dad had been in the hospital because his kidneys were failing. Death was said to be imminent, perhaps in hours. But even after his kidneys stopped functioning, he hung on. A thoughtful nurse finally pulled my sister and me aside and asked, "Are there any unresolved issues?" We didn't think there were. But we still marched everyone we could think of past his bed just to be sure. No change.

The nurse then carefully asked, "Could there be any other children you don't know about?" We were confident there weren't any extra children, but canvassed the older relatives just the same. No resolution there, either.

Against the odds, Dad survived to come home from the hospital, where family and neighbors looked out for him until he required more professional support. One day we were jokingly describing to Fran how the hospital nurse had asked us if our father had any other children we didn’t know about.

Fran was momentarily quiet. She is a strong, tall woman, a Navy wife and mother of several children. She grew up in Memphis, where her father ran a successful business and her mother was said to be the first female African American oncologist in the South. Her mother died young. When her father was dying, Fran’s husband was out on sea duty. She gathered up her young children and returned to Memphis to take care of her father. She enrolled the kids in school there, cleaned up the big family home and generally got things in order. When her father died she made all the arrangements and cooked and cleaned when her brothers and their families came to town for the funeral.

The day after the funeral, the house was a mess. Fran and her brothers put their good clothes back on and went to the lawyer’s office for the reading of their father's will. They were startled to learn that the old man had left everything to a child they never knew he had. The child, by then a grown woman Fran's age, was the result of a brief fling. Later on one of Fran’s uncles admitted that he'd known about the infidelity, but not the child. Fran's father had supported the child--she lived with her mother in California--and paid for her college education.

Fran said she left the lawyer’s office, went back to the house and packed her bags, stopped by their schools to pick up the kids and drove straight back to Virginia without so much as pulling the door to her father's house closed behind her.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Once Again I Am a Cautionary Tale

Boardwalk Art Show - 72, 2010

Look, if I’m going to make mistakes in the course of my brilliant artistic career and not learn from them, somebody ought to benefit. Why not you?

I went to the Boardwalk Art Show this past weekend. Twice, in fact. My wife and I went one day. I went back alone the next day.

The Boardwalk Art Show is a Virginia Beach institution. This was the 55th. By that standard I’m something of an institution, too, since I’m three years older than the Show. But we’ll leave that alone. I’m not happy with the increasing frequency of references to my age lately.

I didn’t take any pictures the day I went to the Show with my wife. I saw some I should have taken. The young African American woman eating fresh pineapple would have been a superb color photograph, the bright yellow of the pineapple contrasted with her coal back skin. The old man with the elaborate tattoo, an unexpected combination of age and contemporary body art. But you know how I am about approaching people. Regrets, I’ve had a few, as Frank said.

I used to take pictures of some of the art that caught my eye at the Boardwalk Art Show. I never did anything with them, tough, and to be honest a lot of the work shown this year just wasn’t very interesting to me. There were a few interesting conceptual works in the Show. There was only one painting I saw that I would want to bring home and live with. Maybe I’m expecting too much of a show whose audience seems more interested in $29 art like they used to sell at “starving artists” sales at motels on weekends. (I once had a boss who was immensely proud of having scored just such a piece of “sofa size” art.)

Photography has exploded on the regional outdoor art show circuit. There were more photographers exhibiting at the Boardwalk Art Show this year than I’ve ever seen before. A few were showing work that is thoughtful or engaging. But most of it….well, let’s just say that if I see another Tuscan villa, beautiful sunrise at a tropical beach or the gargoyles of Notre Dame overlooking Paris, I’m not going to pay $600 for it. I probably won’t even go into the booth to look at it. Isn’t it interesting how a site like Flickr that gives us access to such a rich array of interesting and engaging photography only makes the sameness of so much photography obvious?

So let’s tally my mistakes so far:

  • I passed up the chance to photograph the woman eating pineapple.
  • I passed up the chance to photograph the old man with the tattoo.
  • I let a friend I haven’t seen in a long time walk by without saying hello while I was composing a picture.

Boardwalk Art Show - 72, 2010

On the plus side, I did get started on a new series of beach images I’ve been wanting to do. But even there I made a mistake. You’ll have to wait to hear about that one.

I sprained my right foot while working in the garden about a month ago. (I know this seems unrelated, but hang on.) My guess is that I was using the shovel while wearing shoes that didn’t provide enough sole support. The sprain’s been a nuisance, but lately it seemed to have been getting better.

Until Saturday, that was. The final error I’m willing to admit to is that I gave no thought to what walking for several hours on the cement Boardwalk in flip flops would do to my sprained foot. Upon hearing of this, one friend advised giving the foot a rest. Another got right to the point, saying, me to, “Take care of the foot and don’t be stupid.”

Stupid is not learning from my mistakes.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Photographic Bucket List

Painter, Virginia, 2010

So many things to photograph. So long the list.

We live in a culture that likes lists. The hundred places you should go before you die. The five top hotels. Twenty-one things you should ask someone before marrying them. The twelve steps to sobriety. Four ways to know the Thanksgiving turkey is done. And so on.

When I returned to photography, I used to take long drives outside of the metropolitan area where I live. I savored the places I came across, especially the old commercial structures. I contemplated doing a book of photographs of places that were barely standing but which had once been somebody’s brand new pride and joy.

Then I realized that every photographer and his/her brother was doing the same thing. Maybe not the book. But we were all traipsing around the rural landscape looking for stories and signs of old life. It’s like we were all busy crossing the Walker Evans line off our photographic bucket list.

The photograph above demonstrates an intersection of two recurring themes here at What I Saw: places that were “once new” and places I meant to photograph but never got around to.

I don’t know how many years ago it was that I first saw this building. It’s located in Painter, Virginia, on the Eastern Shore, and was once a bank. I initially thought the building was abandoned. But the first time I stopped to photograph it I discovered that it was still a working bank. Customers and employees eyed me suspiciously as I stood outside with my camera. They came and went from the front door and parked so haphazardly around the building that I couldn’t get the clean view I wanted.

So for years we drove past this building every time we went back and forth to New York. We always seemed to be too anxious to get where we were going for me to stop. Besides, the façade of this building needs to be photographed from either the south or, preferably, the west, which means you have to time it so that you’re there in the afternoon or evening.

Over the years, I watched the building sit empty. Before moving to a brand new building right across the street, the bank put that ugly aluminum and glass portico over the front door. I could sense my chances for getting a shot of the original structure were slipping away. Yet on any of the dozen of so times a year I drove past this building I didn’t stop to photograph it.

Just recently, though, while driving up to Baltimore, the stars aligned for me. It was late afternoon. I was in no hurry. There was no one around to eye me suspiciously. I pulled off the highway and took a few shots of the building. They’re not the pictures I’d always thought I’d take of this building. So I guess I can’t cross it off my photographic bucket list just yet. That’s okay. There are several other structures along Rt. 13 I want to spend more time with. Maybe next time.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Traveling Mercies

First Boat Over, 2005

We started taking our daughter to Martha’s Vineyard when she was barely six months old. It was mid-December and cold. The gale force winds off the Atlantic Ocean at South Beach were blowing the sand hard enough to pit eyeglasses and camera lenses.

December, South Beach, 1980

Our daughter wasn’t a very good car rider when she was an infant. As a result, we began making the trip from Virginia to Cape Cod as an overnight drive. We’d get our daughter ready for bed just after dinner, put her into her car seat and drive through the night, arriving early the next morning at the ferry landing in Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts. It was a long drive, especially boring in the dark, and even more tedious because we were in a little diesel VW Rabbit with barely enough power to make it up those long inclines on I-95 just before you get to Providence, Rhode Island. But if you ever had a baby who wasn’t a good car rider, you’ll understand the logic.

One July we rolled into the Wood’s Hole ferry landing parking lot just after sunrise. Our ferry reservations weren’t until the evening, so the car went into the standby line, a sunny asphalt lot off to the side of the main loading area. If space came available, you might catch an earlier ferry than your reservation. If not, you’d spend the day sweltering in the standby line.

Because they could walk on the ferry as passengers without reservations, I sent my wife and daughter over on the first morning boat and called friends on the other side to arrange for them to be picked up. I stayed behind in the standby lot with the other husbands and fathers who were tending cars laden with beach chairs, canoes, coolers, kayaks, tents, food, pets and all other manner of summer house supplies.

There’s a predictable rhythm to waiting in the standby line. First you stand outside and stretch. They you clean all the trash out of your car. Then you neaten up what’s left. All of that takes about 20 minutes. There’s too much noise and distraction around you to read. So the rest of the time you’re hot and bored, hoping every time a ferry arrives that you might make it onto the next trip.

The worse part is that you can’t leave your car. If you leave it and the line moves, Steamship Authority personnel will use a tractor to tow your car away. Sometimes, if the line’s moving slowly, standby line people will join forces, swap keys and look out for each other’s cars so that you can rush off to the men’s room or to the tavern at the edge of the lot for cold drinks for everyone. But mostly you just wait.

Our little car was finally beckoned to fill an available spot on a cargo ferry late in the afternoon. The ride to Vineyard Haven was refreshing and the final run to Edgartown uneventful. I arrived at the house just before dinnertime.

I took a shower and was handed a stiff drink with dinner. Because I’d been up for almost 48 hours and was running on little more than vapors tempered by gin, I excused myself to go to bed shortly thereafter. I don’t remember much after sitting on the edge of the bed and pulling my shoes off.

My wife came up to bed several hours later. She still laughs at the memory of finding me out like a light, still sitting straight up on the side of the bed with a shoe in my hand.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Blue Bench

Through the Front Door, 2010

Were you to visit our house, you might conclude a lot of things. But one thing you wouldn’t conclude is that we’re shy about using color.

The first place we owned, a 13’ wide townhouse on the edge of one of Richmond’s historic neighborhoods, was in a row of Georgian-style residences painted white on the outside with dark green trim. We set the neighbors there on end by hanging a set of bright red blinds in the front window.

In the next place we owned we painted the family room bright yellow. Too bright, really, by two shades. But when we put that home on the market, the eventual purchaser said it was the yellow that sold her.

The next house was a single-story brick ranch. The brick was ugly and the shutters were peacock blue. But when we stepped inside, we found that the sellers had taken out walls and extended the back of the house out into the garden. Best of all, the kitchen and dining area were painted a rich aquamarine, which helped to draw the garden into the house. Not everyone would like this color, but we fell in love with it instantly. We bought the house, got rid of the peacock blue and had the whole brick exterior painted a light yellow.

One morning not long after the painting was done, we noticed a friend parked out in front of the house. I went out to make sure she was okay and found her weeping. It turned out the yellow we’d used on the house was the same color of the house in which she’d grown up. Coming upon it unexpectedly, she’d been flooded with fond childhood memories.

Our current home is so traditional that some neighbors call it “the Martha’s Stewart house.” Just before selling it, the previous owner repainted the entire interior. The walls, ceilings, baseboards, paneling and chair rails were color coordinated in no fewer than twenty-seven different colors, most of them variations on “pistachio.” (We assume the antiseptic green palette was pleasing to the former lady of the house because was a nurse.)

Over time, we’ve covered most of that green. The family room is yellow, the dining room is best described as “burnt coffee,” and the living room took on a Tuscan blood orange red.

Living Room, 2005

Our neighbors are perplexed by our fascination with color. They're quite conservative. Except for the couple who are Coca Cola memorabilia collectors—you don’t have to guess their favorite color—the neighbor’s homes are painted in colors from the same narrow beige palette. After eleven years I think they’ve come to believe, since they’ve known so few before, that maybe our predilection for colors is just another peculiarity of Democrats.

We really got them talking last fall when my wife decided to repaint the storm door and the front door a light apple green. They tut-tutted about that for weeks.

The Front Door, 2010

The other day we took color a little closer to the street when we installed the bright blue Lutyens bench shown above in the front yard. My wife bought the bench second-hand from a local nursery. I spent several evenings repairing the structural parts, sanding all the surfaces and then putting on several coats of paint and sealer.

It didn’t take long for the first neighbor to screech to a stop in the street and back up her car so that she could peer up into the driveway and get a better view at the bench. One by one, the rest have followed suit, trying to be nonchalant as they check it out. You can almost see their lips puckering at the bold color.

The Blue Bench, 2010

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Santa Barbara Mollusks

The Queen Mary, 1978

Years ago I went out to California, to attend Sea Fare, one of two big annual trade shows for the American seafood industry. Some of my associates got to go to the big Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. I went to Long Beach.

Even back in the 1980s CES exhibitors spent millions on their displays. They spared no expense displaying their products and entertaining customers in lavish hospitality suites where they might meet stars like Paul Anka or Joan Rivers.

At Sea Fare, exhibitors set up card tables, tacked up posters and plugged in Fry Babies to cook samples. The most excitement was when someone let a couple Dungeness crabs out on the floor to fight with each other. A hospitality suite was a boom box and a hooker.

One of the more interesting booths near ours was for something called “Santa Barbara Mollusks.” They were giant scallop-like things, presumably from the Santa Barbara Channel off California. They were quite tasty, too, after a little breading and dunking in the Fry Baby.

But the longer I stood over in our Virginia seafood industry booth watching the action at the Santa Barbara Mollusk booth, the more I began to wonder just how they cultivated and harvested such big “mollusks.” And why did they use a generic term like “mollusks” to describe them rather than a more familiar name? I’d also wondered how clean these “mollusks” were given that they come from an area rife with oil wells.

As the show was shutting down one afternoon, I wandered over and asked those very questions of the guy manning the booth. He drew me in close, looked both ways to make sure no one else was listening, and explained:

“You’re a smart guy. You see, we’re not really in the seafood business. My company has the contract to scrape the marine life off the oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel. We discovered these giant mollusks growing on the legs of the oil rigs and wanted to see if we could make a little money selling them. We’ve had them tested. They’re safe. But we can’t call them anything but ‘mollusks’ because they’re not officially scallops. We don’t know if it’s something from the oil rigs or something else in the channel that makes them so big and tasty. But the big seafood restaurant chains attending this show are buying them up like there’s no tomorrow.”

That, as they say, was more than I needed to know about Santa Barbara Mollusks.

I didn’t carry a camera with me when I traveled for business in those days. But years before when I stayed in Long Beach while on other business I did catch this blurry sunrise shot of the Queen Mary at her permanent berth in Long Beach Harbor.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Menemsha, 2003

I first saw Menemsha, Massachusetts, in a magazine advertisement for Polaroid film some time in the 1960s. The ad didn’t identify the location. But the image of a quaint New England fishing village stuck with me.

Menemsha’s one of several places in New England that are commonly used in films and advertising when you want an authentic “New England fishing village” motif. It’s a quite small place, no more than a few blocks long. Fishermen’s shacks and a few cottages line the steep shoreline around the narrow little harbor near the northeast end of the island of Martha’s Vineyard. (Thomas Hart Benton painted this nearby.)

Help a Poor Fisherman, 2005

We started visiting the Vineyard in the late 1970s. On that first trip we were introduced to Menemsha and some of its more colorful inhabitants, like Everett Poole, whose family had been fishing out of Menemsha for several generations. Poole’s Fish, the family business, was a Vineyard institution. Everett’s a wonderfully warm guy with a flinty New England accent that brings to mind a line I read this morning in Paul Harding’s book, Tinkers:

“[Ezra] talked with a strange accent George had never heard before and would never hear again, and who seemed to have stepped out of a bank of mist on the other side of which was, perfectly preserved—or, not even preserved, but still actual—the previous century.”

Poole's Fish, 2005

As you can imagine, Menemsha suffers a flood of tourists, mostly daytrippers over from the mainland. But since there’s not actually much to do in Menemsha, most daytrippers step off their tour bus, snap a few pictures and move on to towns where there is better t-shirt shopping.

Menemsha Shack, 2005

If you stick around a little longer, though, especially in the fall and winter, Menemsha will work its way into your soul. You’re become aware of the birds overhead, the fish swimming in and out of the harbor, the burbling and chug-chug-chug of old commercial fishing boats and the swift flow of water in the channel leading to the Menemsha Pond. You might even notice the few jagged metal pieces of one of the “Bruces,” the mechanical great white sharks used in “Jaws,” sticking out of the sand on the side of the channel. If you have time, you can get a lobster roll from Larsen’s and sit beside the harbor and watch the fishermen work. If it’s late in the day, you bring some wine or beer and enjoy that lobster roll while the sun sets over Vineyard Sound.

Al Fresco, 2005