Thursday, December 23, 2010

Say Goodbye to 2010

Neutral Places - 5, 2006

I’m going to take a week or so off from What I Saw to be with family, attend to some work assignments and re-charge the mental batteries. I’ll be back on January third.

In the meantime, let me tell you about a couple of experiences yesterday that kicked me into the holiday mood more than anything has yet.

I had lunch yesterday with my mother to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. To be honest, there’s not a lot you can do for someone celebrating her ninetieth birthday at a nursing home. There’s nothing she needs or, at this point, wants. Life in the nursing home doesn’t present many fashion or beauty opportunities. We used to give my mother her favorite perfume for her birthday. But like a lot of things she has liked through the years, they’ve stopped making her favorite perfume. My wife found a replacement, and although I don’t know that my mother will have the presence of mind to reach over and use it, just having the bottle nearby gives her at least the illusion of being able to doll herself up a little.

I describe the food at the nursing home as being designed to make you want to get better and get the heck out of the place. It’s generally flat, dull and not very tasty. So I brought in some Pollard’s fried chicken—the best hereabouts—and side dishes you doesn’t usually see at the nursing home, like corn pudding, a whole sweet potato and a few other things.

I tried to find things to talk about: memorable birthdays, other relatives who lived to ninety or beyond, and so on. Sadly, my mother couldn’t remember much about any other birthdays and couldn’t describe to me exactly how she was related to some of her favorite aunts and uncles. The memory eater in her mind is gobbling up more names and events each day. Still, the lunch was a success.

After leaving my mothers’ room I decided to check in on her roommate from the assisted living center, who also recently moved to the same nursing home. The last two times I’d checked on Norma she was either asleep or unable to have visitors. But today she was sitting up in the dining room having lunch.

When we used to visit my mother at the assisted living facility Norma would always give us a big smile and greeting. She seemed so together that I initially wondered why she was even in the intensive assisted living area. But if you tried to have a conversation with Norma you discovered by the second or third sentence that her frame of reference was some other time or dimension.

So you can imagine my surprise today when I approached Norma’s table and she recognized me immediately and gave me a big smile and a hug. I told her we’d missed her and she told me how much it meant to her to see a familiar face and for me to take the time to visit with her.

Nursing homes can be pretty grizzly places for the uninitiated. Age, accidents and sickness can take a toll on people’s physical appearance. Over the four times my mother has been in this particular rehab/nursing facility I’ve gotten to know some of the long-term residents. The outward manifestations of their conditions can make them a little scary or intimidating at first. But if you can get past those outward appearances, you can often find a kind and thoughtful person anxious to interact with someone who isn’t a nurse, an aide or a food worker or housekeeper. The person might not be able to speak. Sometime just holding a hand brings a smile to the face of someone unable to understand why he or she can’t go home.

I’m sorry if this sounds gloomy. When I left the facility yesterday afternoon I actually felt like I was walking on air for a little while. Without any special effort on my part, I’d brought a little cheer, a little human touch and a little interruption from the tedium of institutional life to two sick old ladies and a handful of other lonely people I encountered in the halls and dining room.

If that doesn’t warm your heart, I don’t know what will.

See you in January!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Oh, the Things She's Seen!

On the Occasion of Her 82nd Birthday, 2002

Today is my mother’s 90th birthday. For a while we didn’t think she’d make it to this juncture. She’s had a tough last couple of months. But there she is now, charming the staff from her bed in the nursing home.

A birthday like this gets you to thinking about all the things someone this age has seen. My great grandparents were born right at the end of the Civil War. One lived long enough to see a man land on the moon.

When my mother was born, children routinely died from sicknesses that we barely remember or take seriously today. Prohibition had just gone into effect. The average worker earned just a few dollars a week. For the swells, it was the Roaring Twenties, a time of speakeasies and bathtub gin. Times were okay until the Great Depression hit at the end of the decade and left its stamp on just about anyone living at the time.

At Age Two, 1922

Some of the other notable events of 1920 that remind me of what a wide lifespan my mother has had:

  • The Yankees purchased Babe Ruth from the Red Sox for $125,000. (There was big money in sports even then!)
  • A New York Times editorial falsely reported that “rockets will never fly.”
  • President Woodrow Wilson won the Nobel Prize for conceiving the League of Nations.
  • Republican isolationists who controlled the U.S. Senate punished Wilson by blocking the United States from joining the League of Nations.
  • The League of Nations was established anyway.
  • The Senate additionally rejected the Treaty of Versailles (twice) as a show of its distaste for diplomacy and nation building.
  • The Swiss voted to prevent women from voting.
  • Women’s suffrage was passed in the U.S.
  • Greece adopted the Gregorian calendar.
  • Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks got married.
  • The British parliament accepted Irish “home rule.”
  • Arabs attacked Jews in Jerusalem. (Some news never changes.)
  • Joan of Arc was canonized a saint.
  • Eugene O’Neill won the Pulitzer Prize.
  • Transcontinental airmail service began with a flight from New York to San Francisco.
  • The first commercial radio station in the United States went on the air (in Detroit).
  • France cobbled together the nation of Lebanon.
  • A bomb explosion on Wall Street killed 30 people.
  • In Milan, Benito Mussolini was testing the waters for fascism.
  • Jack Dempsey won the heavyweight boxing championship.
  • Bob Hope became an American citizen.
  • Enrico Caruso gave his last public performance.
  • Half of the automobiles in the United States were Model T Fords.

These are distant names and events most of us only learned about in textbooks or in old black-and-white photos and shaky newsreels. But they are actual parts of my mother’s experience. I wonder sometimes whether those of us who came along in the good times of the 1950s and later—for all we have experienced and will yet—will feel that the march of progress we witnessed was half as dramatic.

In my mother’s youth, it was rare that anyone survived to the age of ninety. Work was harder and more physical. Men’s bodies wore out sooner. Women died in childbirth. In 1920 more than a million American children under the age of fourteen still worked full-time in industry, mines or farming. Stray germs and simple accidents took lives. People back then didn’t have the luxury of worrying about the quality of life at age ninety.

Today we have a whole new array of questions to face as we age. The answers to our questions, though, are probably no easier to divine than all of the unexplainable things people experienced ninety years ago.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What If You Couldn't Hear?

Surf, 2005

An Italian Flickr friend who is a wonderful photographer and whose work many of us have admired for years has been losing her hearing. She’s a beautiful young woman. She shouldn’t be losing her hearing. But this stuff happens, you know, and what can you do but make the best of it? Fortunately, this friend is seeing a doctor who may be able to restore some of her hearing.

Many years ago, between years of college, I worked for a prestigious law firm as a lowly “legal clerk.” It wasn’t exactly Dickensian, but for the princely sum of $75 a week each three of us clerks shared a workspace about the size of a walk-in closet where we kept track of hundreds of litigation case files. One worked on power company litigation, another on coal company labor relations cases. I worked on General Motors cases—mostly motor mount liability suits.

When we weren’t trying to determine whether hundreds of thousands of saplings on West Virginia Christmas tree farms were being stunted by ash from a power plant owned by one of our clients or drawing straws to see who’d get to drive a Camaro with worn motor mounts down to Richmond from Pittsburgh, we had the chance to work on interesting cases and watch some really good lawyers in action.

One of the cases I worked on involved a beautiful young co-ed the same age as me who’d been rendered blind through the unintended negligence of an ophthalmologist and a country pharmacist. To make matters worse, the young woman’s college major was in fashion design. When I met her, she had vision in only about 1% of her eye, and that was so peripheral that if she stepped off a bus she might walk directly into someone or something because she couldn’t see right in front of her.

But enough about that. (The case settled just before going to the jury.) The lesson from that experience wasn’t the case, but the way it made me wonder how I’d have coped if I’d have lost my eyesight.

For a long time I couldn’t answer that question. I have wondered through the years whether it would be easier for me to cope without my vision or without my hearing. For someone who loves music as much as I do, the loss of hearing would be brutal. Professionally, it would be career-ending. But upon reflection, I think I’ve concluded that I’d rather lose my hearing than my eyesight.

I suppose there’s something to be said for silence in this noisy world. But it’s one thing to choose it and another altogether to have it inflicted on you.

Sometime in the next couple of months my friend is going to go in for surgery. I hope you’ll join me in wishing her well when that happens.

Monday, December 20, 2010

December Resort Wear Issue

Fashionable Beachwear, 2010

I suppose if you do this blog thing long enough, it's inevitable that you'll loop around to update some of the older stories.

Here it is late December and I was in San Diego the other day hanging around raffish neighborhoods taking pictures. Last December, at almost the exact same time, I was hanging around raffish neighborhoods east of Los Angeles. I even wrote a blog post about a store window I saw there. The blog post was titled the “Resort Wear Issue.”

Normally there would be no connection between these two business trips, except that in this case they both happened to be for the same client and both ended with mid-December trips to California. But even more important, both trips brought me into contact with an apparent California fashion trend I’d not taken seriously before.

Last Wednesday it was overcast and drizzly most of the day. I started with a walk along the Pacific oceanfront in Mission Beach. Mission Beach is one of those places that’s hip enough to have a fancy Urban Outfitters store, drunks asleep on the sidewalk, “old soul” surfers and lots of ironic young hipsters in t-shirts and Vans. In other words, my kind of neighborhood, an eclectic enough place that nobody takes much notice of a guy with a camera.

I was doing my usual reconnoitering, looking at things, looking behind things, walking up and down streets and alleys and so on. Some people prefer to look for pictures on the main avenues. I’m more of an alley person. In a Mission Beach alley it’s possible to see a pair of Bentleys in the garage of a multi-million dollar house on one side of the street and a little bungalow like this right across the alley. (If you’re interested in the bungalow, by the way, one in slightly worse shape just down the alley is for sale for $775,000. Parking not included.)

Not a Rental, 2010

As I was walking back to my car, I happened to look into the window of one of the t-shirt shops and notice the pictures shown above. I’m talking about the ones with the happy couples in matching resort wear.

Indeed, there seems to be something in California to this notion of couples wearing matching resort wear. I’ve seen it now in two different stores in two different California communities.

It’s said that trends frequently start on one of the coasts and move across the country to the other over a year or two’s time. But this matching floral shirt thing is not a trend that seems to have made it to the East Coast yet, though because I haven’t been there I can’t say for sure that this isn’t the case in New Jersey or on the shuffleboard circuit in Florida.

Like many men, my fashion sense locked in sometime between high school and college—thankfully, if it had to be in that era—just before platform shoes got big. These days I can be well turned out if I need to. But I’m unlikely to ever be considered fashion forward. Still, my wife would probably smack me silly if I brought home a pair of matching floral print tops for us to wear anywhere, no matter how many California boutiques I told her I’d seen them in.

My clients don’t pay me for my fashion sense. I did a lot of fashion retailing research, though, when I first started out. And if you’re professionally inclined to notice things—which, as a researcher I am—your eyes and mind don’t turn off just because they’re not on the meter. You notice things, like the time I took note of orange purses in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I went home and told my wife about them. She laughed until a year later just about every women’s leather accessory came out in that shade of orange. Or like in 1989 when we noticed all the hip kids in Britain wearing clunky Doc Martins, a craze that spread to U.S. and became huge here a few years later.

Matching floral resort wear. You heard it here first. Laugh if you want. But you won't be laughing when you see it on the cover of Vogue or Women’s Wear Daily.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Trouble with Waves

Torrey Pines, 2010 (Click on Image to See Larger)

The California coast is full of visual majesty. But a lot of the really dramatic coastal scenery is up north, where the coast is rocky and the cliffs projects high up into the air over the shoreline.

Unfortunately, that’s not where I was this week. Instead, I was in San Diego, where the beachfront is about as flat as it is in coastal Virginia where I life.

But you can still find a little majesty if you’re willing to drive a dozen or so miles to Torrey Pines, just north of La Jolla. Torrey Pines is the site of the Torrey Pines Gliderport, an official FAA-sanctioned glider airport.

Some call Torrey Pines the “Kitty Hawk of the West” in recognition of all the great aviators who’ve flown off these cliffs without benefit of propellers or engines. They include Charles Lindbergh, Airstream travel trailer designer Hawley Bowlus and human-powered aviation engineer and Gossamer Albatross creator Paul McCready. Most days, though, the pilot crowd is made up of a hardy bunch of guys who look like aviation’s version of old surfers.

I first visited Torrey Pines while driving down the coast in the late 1970s. In good weather you can watch glider pilots run up to the edge of the cliff like so many Fred Flintstones and throw themselves and their wings into the warm gusts of the Pacific sky. If you’re feeling especially lucky, you can pay to take a ride off those cliffs yourself. I’m not so inclined, but that first morning I sat for several hours watching glider pilots ride the thermals, dipping and weaving their way up and down the coast. I don’t imagine there’s anything you can do that makes you feel more like a bird than strap yourself into a fabric wing and jump off a cliff.

Scale can be a little hard to gauge here. The bluff at the Gliderport is almost four hundred feet above the beach. From the top of the cliff people walking along the beach appear as little dots. Looking out to sea there’s absolutely nothing to see but more sea. One of the things I’ve always thought defined people who prefer to live along the coast is that we look upon the open horizon of the ocean as something of a psychological expansion valve. It’s hard to feel hemmed in when you’re standing on the edge of an ocean.

Fair Warning, 2010

It can be a little tricky walking along the cliffs at Torrey Pines, riddled as they are by erosion. A deep cut that from afar looks like something you could simply walk across turns out to be wide and deep enough to swallow a car when you get up close to it. I would imagine a fall off the cliff would almost certainly be life-ending.

But if you’re willing to scurry around the cliffs a bit it can be thrilling to stand atop the bluff and let the wind off the Pacific Ocean knock you around some.

Oh, and about those waves. The trouble with photographing water, especially if you want to stitch several pictures together to make a panorama, is that coastal water’s always moving. As you can see in the middle of the picture above, even though the successive images were made no more than a second or two apart, the action of the waves made them almost impossible to line up neatly.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Lesson in Light

Street Scene, 2010

When I was in Providence back in September, I took a lot of pictures at night. One of the challenges of photographing at night is getting the light right. It’s not just a matter of lights and darks, but rather a matter of also considering the various light sources in the scene.

No doubt you’ve noticed that different kinds of lighting fixtures cast different kinds of light: incandescent; fluorescent; halogen, mercury vapor and so on. The first time you took a picture in fluorescent light you probably wondered why it came out looking so green. That was the result of the jittery motion of excited atoms creating light that is amplified by phosphors. In the old fixtures, they cast a green or blue light. In modern compact fluorescent light bulbs, the phosphors are mixed to create a more “cool white” light.

These differences are noticeable to your eye. But your brain adjusts them to make sense to you. Studio photographers compensate by using uniform light. Cameras are smart these days. A long nighttime exposure of the sky will pick up light blues your eyes wouldn’t see. But the camera still isn’t as smart as your brain. To film or the digital sensor, each fixture casts light at a different temperature and consequently shows up a little differently in your image.

In the photo above, there are at least three different types of light: the lamppost at right, the porch light in the middle and the light down the street to the left. Each one casts light of a different temperature and therefore comes across as a different color in this digital image. I’m not up on this enough to remember which is which other than to observe that the lamppost looked like incandescent; the porch light was a bright white light and the streetlight to the left cast an almost yellow shade.

By the time the sensor in my camera saw these different lights, the lamppost became pink, the porch light blue and the street light to the left yellow-green. To be honest, I kind of liked that. As long as there were no people in the scene to be made ghoulish by the blue light, the result was interestingly atmospheric.

But I wanted it to be more realistic.

Fortunately, programs like Photoshop can help you here. You can turn your faith over to the computer program’s pre-sets if you have just one kind of light to deal with, or you can adjust the colors separately if you have several kinds of light to deal with. That’s what I did. I reduced the blue saturation in the porch light and the red saturation in the lamppost. Each person's taste is different. I chose to leave a hint of both the blue and the pink to give the picture a little more interest.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Who is That Woman on the Cobb?

The Cobb at Lyme Regis, 1989

I will confess that there are two times I’ve traveled to places I wanted to see because they were shown in movies or TV shows. Actually, there are a lot more if you consider all the movies filmed in places like New York, Paris, London and Venice. But I didn’t go to those places just because I’d seen then on movies or on TV.

I was a big fan of the television series Twin Peaks. It didn’t really matter who killed Laura Palmer. Each week’s episode revealed yet another strange character, plot twist or something just so intriguingly weird that you had to keep coming back to see if there’d ever be an explanation for any of it.

At some point during the run of the show, I found myself on assignment in Seattle with a day to myself. It was winter, rainy and cold, not really suitable for walking around downtown. Instead, I got a map and a rental car and drove out to Snoqualmie Falls, which was either the inspiration or the actual location—I can’t remember which—where many of the Twin Peaks scenes took place. I had lunch at The Salish Lodge overlooking the falls and returned to Seattle. I felt a little silly that I’d gone somewhere to see a TV show location. But there you are.

This wasn’t without precedent, however. In 1989, my wife and I went to England for the first time. After several days in London we headed out for two weeks of driving around the countryside.

Our first night out of London was spent at Lyme Regis, a small Regency-style village on the south coast of England heralded today by the local tourism touts as “the pearl of Dorset.” In 1989, “pearl” wasn’t exactly the word we’d have used. The pub and inn down by the harbor was teeming with a rough and drunken crowd. Fights spilled out onto the lane in front of the place. We thought it better to find another inn up the hill.

Our original reason for going to Lyme Regis was not because we had any connection with the place or historic interest. It was because the seawall at Lyme Regis was featured prominently in the film The French Lieutenant’s Woman. For reasons no one’s quite sure of, the harbor at Lyme Regis is call “the cobb.” If you remember the movie, you’ll remember that the character played by Jeremy Irons is intrigued by a woman named Sarah, played by Merrill Streep, who walks out on the seawall hoping that her French lover will return. “Who is that woman on the cobb?” he asks, only to find that she’s considered the town floozy. You don’t have to guess how the story ends.

We went down to the cobb the next morning and stayed long enough to take a picture and get soaked in the rain. Afterwards we followed the coast west to a place called Beer Head that sounded like it might hold promise. Along the shore there we picked up a bunch of white rocks—one of which is atop my bedroom dresser today—and found absolutely no beer. A little further down the road we visited a botanical garden at Bicton Park and tried to act excited about British palm trees.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


California Manicure, 2010

If all goes according to schedule, I should be in sunny San Diego as you read this, talking to Californians about their various plights.

Despite its proximity to the international border, I find San Diego to be the most normal of the California cities, sort of like the way I find Tampa and Jacksonville to be the most normal cities in Florida. Most people just go about their business here. They didn’t come here to be discovered. They’re not trying to make a statement about something. They’re just trying to enjoy themselves and a pleasant climate.

I know a French newspaper executive who, like a modern de Tocqueville, is fascinated by Southern California, particularly places like Costa Mesa, Laguna Beach and La Jolla. He comes here often to visit. The lifestyles he witnesses are so otherworldly, so narcotic to his Parisian sensibilities that he refers to this place as the “land of the lotus eaters.”

I chose to illustrate this post with California Manicure, above, because it so sums up Southern California for me. Even slum neighborhoods are verdant. And better off neighborhoods seem to be nothing if not well groomed. Bring on the lotuses.

I can’t say I’ve been as mythologically inspired by California as my French friend. (I also, as it turns out, don’t have the allure of a Southern Californian mistress to be my SoCal siren call.) Over the years I’ve had the chance to visit a lot of California. I like a lot of it. But I go there, do my business and am happy to come home. And I won’t be looking to the gods on Olympus to get me back to the East Coast safely. This time I’m depending on US Airways.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Lost Sock

Long-Term Care, 2010

You come into life with nothing but potential. You leave with…well, who really knows? If you’re lucky, you’ve loved and been loved. Maybe your presence left a legacy of some kind. Along the way, you consume a lot of stuff, some of which probably seems very important at the time, but most of which won’t matter in the big scheme of things.

My mother’s quietly walking to the end of the line with fewer and fewer things. It started years ago when she moved from a house to an apartment. Then she went to a single spacious room in assisted living, then a smaller room and then a shared room. She’s transitioned in and out of hospitals and nursing facilities enough to be down now to where her sphere of interest extends little further than the end of her bed.

Each time she’s moved she’s let go of things. Furniture. Television sets. Window air conditioning units. Linens. Silver. China. The grand piano. Now she’s down to a dozen or so photographs of her siblings, her children and some of her grandchildren and great grandchildren. Aside from that, it’s mostly nightgowns, tops and underwear.

And even some of those things seem to be going on their own walkabouts.

When she admitted to the hospital about six weeks ago she had just one shoe with her. We don’t know what happened to the other one. By the time I arrived at the hospital, the shopping bag containing her personal items held but the one shoe. By the time she discharged to the nursing home, was readmitted to the hospital and was once again discharged to the nursing home, even the one shoe had disappeared. Not that she’s going to be needing it. But it’s the principle, you know.

When she was sent back to the hospital, the nursing home bundled up her things—some clothes, a desktop Santa figurine, a bag of hard candy—and promptly lost them. When she returned a week later, we rummaged around the housekeeping department and found most of it.

Yesterday we moved her things out of the assisted living facility where she’s resided for the past five and half years. Several things turned up missing there, too, not the least of which was her roommate. (Turns out she’s in the same nursing facility as my mother.) But how do you explain the missing left footrest for the wheel chair, especially when it’s the left one she needs? What about her world-class collection of nail clippers, tweezers and toothpicks? And her powder bowl? Like a lot of Southern ladies of a certain age, my mother was nothing if not well powdered.

Like that matching sock that never seems to make it back from the dryer, things disappear. Maybe they’re quietly gathering in some parallel dimension for a mismatched afterlife wardrobe. I don’t know.

Fortunately, none of these losses are noted by my mother, who even though her sphere of control is geographically short still has strong ideas about where things should be. We spent ten minutes yesterday afternoon deciding where to place the little desk clock we brought her to replace the broken wall clock in her nursing home room. We spent another ten minutes reminding her that the desk clock is accurate and the wall clock isn’t. I don’t know why it took us that long to realize we should just take the wall clock down and hide it behind the Santa figurine. But it did. Sometimes we just overthink the obvious.

Friday, December 10, 2010

On Freemason Street

Freemason Street Ginkgos, 2003

It’s funny how pictures trigger memories. I went back into the files the other night looking for older pictures that gave me great joy when I took them.

It turns out there are lots of them. They aren’t all great pictures. What defines them, though, is the way they surprised me at the time I took them. Freemason Street Ginkgos is a good example.

From the early 1930s until the late-1950s, my widowed grandmother operated a large boarding house on Freemason Street. She and her three children lived there, cooking for and helping a small staff look after a changing roster of shipyard craftsmen, government workers, traveling salesmen, clerks and others, some of them war veterans, who really didn’t have any other place to call home. (The boarding house occupied the two residences in the middle of the newspaper picture below.)

Freemason Street Boarding House Profile

Boarding houses were a more respectable category of lodging in those days. They didn’t have names. People just got sent around to see Mrs. Jones when they needed a place to live. Some stayed long enough to become part of the family. One of the boarders married my mother’s older sister and they lived at the boarding house with their first child until they could afford a place of their own. My mother and father met in the choir at Epworth Methodist Church, just down the street, and were later married there.

In those days the Norfolk waterfront was not the tourist attraction it is today. There were no fancy condominiums lining the shore. My sister and older cousins spent a lot of time playing at the boarding house and remember that they weren’t allowed to play in the street, for example, because so many rats wandered in from the passing ships.

Along Freemason Street, 2003

My grandmother closed the boarding house just about the time I was old enough to remember much about it. But I can still remember the taste of the fried chicken that was a staple of Sunday dinner at the boarding house. And I know that I have a life-long affection for iced tea glasses with horizontal colored rings around them because that’s what the iced tea glasses at the boarding house looked like.

Our family’s connection to Freemason Street continued for many years. One of my cousins and his girlfriend lived in the next block during the 1970s. I worked just a block away during the 1980s.

Converted to Offices, 2003

During the late 1700s and through the 1800s, Freemason Street was one of Norfolk’s most stylish streets. There was a Carnegie library in the next block up from the boarding house, and the Elizabeth River was at the end of the next block after that. The street fell on hard times during the 1950s and 1960s, the victim of “white flight” and the suburbanization that occurred following WWII. By the late 1970s, though, the neighborhood started coming back. Upscale residences started being built there again. Professionals began to move into the old family mansions.

In the fall of 2003, I had just purchased my first digital SLR camera. I was anxious to find something to shoot with it and happened to be in downtown Norfolk. So I parked the car and walked those familiar blocks of Freemason Street. The ginkgo leaves has just started falling and I knelt down and captured this low perspective shown above.

I don’t know if it was the composition, the color of the leaves or the thrill of seeing the photograph so fully realized on the computer screen later that day. It’s not a great picture. But it was and remains a favorite shot that gives me great satisfaction whenever I look at it.

Roper Residence, 2003

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Our Mind's Best and Last Gift

Berkley, c. 1924

In the course of the decline of my mother’s health, I’ve learned some surprising things. The easiest thing to notice is the shortening of the attention span. This becomes evident when you start repeating stories just a few minutes after you last told them. Your children and the other people around you can become frustrated, even angry, about this. But over time they adjust and recognize that something’s going on with you, that maybe they have to keep a little closer watch on you. (And by all means, take away the car keys!)

My mother wasn’t always an easy person to be around. She carried the baggage of some tough personal history heavily. She was on a first-name basis with depression. She nursed grudges for decades. Her choices cost her comfort and relationships. But she marched on defiantly to the beat of her own drummer, searching for answers and explanations for her life.

Rather than these behaviors becoming more extreme as she aged, though, advancing senility washed a lot of the hostility away. An ever-shortening attention span narrowed her focus and memory. No longer the proudly independent and fiercely reclusive person that she was for much of her mid-life, dementia made my mother into the sweet little old lady that everyone at the assisted living facility liked to stop in and chat with. That she’s held onto her good looks made her a favorite among some of the older single guys at the facility who still have a few stirrings of romance.

My mother’s condition has recently declined seriously. She’s at the center of a perfect storm of adverse health conditions, any one of which could be fatal, but none of which has quite tipped her over yet. It’s really quite sad, especially because even the most humane approach to her treatment has the potential to be more arduous than a person of her age and condition should have to suffer.

But it turns out there’s something of a silver lining to this stage of life. I’m not an expert on these things. But I gather than senility gradually transitions into dementia. It’s not an insane thing, but rather a deterioration of cognitive capacity that makes thoughts bounce around the head like ping-pong balls rather than follow a logical path. Names come into conversation that you haven’t heard in years. She sees and has conversations with people who haven’t been alive for decades. Sometimes if you walk out of her room and then back into it a few minutes later, she’ll greet you as if she hasn’t seen you in ages.

This can be a little disconcerting the first few times you experience it. You can easily become frustrated that the important conversation you just had with her has just as quickly left her verbal mind. But over time I’ve come to recognize that dementia might just be our body’s last and best gift to us as we approach the end of life.

My mother’s dementia prevents her from feeling the cumulative weight of all she’s been through. She lives in the moment, and as long as she’s comfortable in the moment she has no fears about the future. When you’re preparing to leave her room she remembers the manners her mother taught her and thanks you for coming to visit.

In describing the way dementia is protecting his mother, a good friend writes:

“… she would certainly be severely depressed at her condition and prospects if she could think beyond the moment. I would never have thought such a thing was a blessing, but I do now.”


I was not around in 1924 to take the confused picture shown above. (I suspect it was taken by my maternal grandfather, who would himself leave the scene not long thereafter.) It shows my grandmother with her three children and what may be her sisters and their children in front of her house in the Berkley section of Norfolk. The double (or triple) exposure seems a good metaphor for the slipping memory of old age.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

None of the Comforts of Work

Unnamed Omaha Hotel, 2010

There was a story in yesterday’s New York Times about how hotels are tuning into the needs of business travelers. (Haven’t we heard all this before?) This time, the story says, they’re zeroing in on workspace.

In my experience, a few of the national chains have done a good job on desks, lighting and power supplies that make it easy for me to work in my hotel room. But they’re clustered at the upper end of the hotel market and are not always within my clients’ travel budgets.

I do a lot of writing in hotel rooms, so it’s important for me to have someplace where the desktop ergonomics work well.

I actually have a few beefs with hotel rooms. I have been known to check out of otherwise respectable places that didn’t seem to understand why anyone would want more than a 40 watt light bulb to read and work by.

Like many regular travelers, I’m also increasingly attuned to the hygiene of hotel rooms. No details needed there. I’ll leave a comment at Yelp in a flash, too, if a hotel promises in-room wi-fi and then doesn’t have it or only has it in the lobby.

The picture above demonstrates one of my biggest beefs with hotel rooms; namely, elevation. This is a respectable chain hotel near the Omaha airport. It’s clean and well kept. Its staff is friendly and attentive. But the people who fitted out this hotel seem to have believed that their business guests would all be six feet tall, or at least have elongated upper bodies.

Let’s just say I’m neither six feet tall nor do I have an elongated upper body.

I travel with a laptop. It’s thin. But even with its low profile, hotel room desktop surfaces are often too high above chair level to be accessible without creating a lot of arm and back pain.

And let’s not get me started on hotel desk chairs. The worst kind is the kind that teases you with the prospect of adjustability and then doesn’t work. I’ll endure a hard wooden chair if its seat is high enough for me to have my elbows at desktop level. But that’s only rarely the case.

The picture demonstrates my usual solution, which is to pile bed pillows onto the chair to lift me to the right level. I feel like the princess and the pea when I do this. Depending on the kind of pillows available, it can be a precarious perch. And after I’ve been resting my tush on them for a few hours in the chair they make for pretty flat bed pillows.

Oh, the travails we endure in the pursuit of a living!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Place Bourbon, 2006

Regular readers know that one of my favorite photographic motifs is the “portal perspective,” pictures taken looking out a window or doorway. But I hadn’t realized until I looked back through some pictures from a recent trip to Providence, Rhode Island, that I seem to be pretty shameless about taking pictures that look in, as well.

I’m not so much of a voyeur that I would think to photograph people in their privacy of their own homes. But when I am somewhere where interiors are visible from the street without any mechanical amplification or violation of privacy, I do like to imagine stories that take place in the rooms I see.

I can easily envision stories in each of these:

Red & Blue Rooms, 2010

Window Lace, 2010

Keeping Watch, 2010

Ceiling Shadows, 2010

Seeing these reminded me of Place Bourbon, above, which is just down the street from the hotel where my wife and I stayed during our last trip to Paris. It’s kind of a swank neighborhood with a surprisingly affordable little hotel in the middle of it. A lot of the apartments were dark during the time we were there. (Do Parisians all leave town in late May?) But every now and then you’d look up and catch a scene like this and wonder what lush life might be lived there.