Monday, April 30, 2012

Back to Basics on a Rainy Afternoon

St. Mark Under the Light, 2012

This past weekend I decided to replace the back steps on our screen porch. They weren’t going to fall down. But there were drainage problems that had caused in a lot of wood rot. Besides, I’d wanted to replace them with a design based on stairs I’d seen in Edenton, North Carolina. (I wrote about that here.) 
Friday evening was for demolition. Saturday morning found me at the home center stocking up on lumber. By late morning I had the sawhorses up and a new blade in the saw. A few hours later the new lumber was cut and in place. I even primed all of the parts that will be painted white. By 3:00 p.m. I had all the wood cleaned and sanded and slathered with white primer.
At 3:01 p.m. it started raining. Not just a sprinkle, either. While I grabbed the tools and hustled them into the garage, the rain very quickly became a downpour. Within minutes, and before I could get any kind of cover over the new steps, most of what I’d primed was bare wood again. The primer had washed off and formed a milky white pool at the base of the steps.
During the night, a thunderstorm brought yet another downpour that left everything so wet that it would have been unwise to paint again before the wood had time to dry out.
That’s how I came to find myself with time on my hands on Sunday afternoon. Instead of finishing the steps, I was instead inside brushing up on my basic camera skills.
Given the technology available, it’s easy to depend on the camera to make all the decisions. Some photographers are downright snobby about people who don’t set their exposures manually. I’m not one of them. I believe in using the technology when it makes sense. However, the photography workshop I’m taking this summer may require me to do more manual exposures, and also to make more use of my camera’s flash capacity. So I thought I’d better refresh these skills.
The manual exposure part comes back pretty quickly if you’re old enough to have started photography before automatic metering was common. It isn’t always as simple as the old guideline of “f8 and be there.” But it’s not rocket science, either.
However, I couldn’t for the life of me remember how to get things coordinated for using a wireless flash unit. I read and re-read the camera and flash manuals and was still clueless. I’ll admit this was a little embarrassing because I’ve used a remote wireless flash many times before, just not recently. I finally gave up and found a short instructional video on YouTube. (Is there anything you could want to learn that you can’t find on YouTube?)
I have such a bias for natural light that I’d forgotten how much fun it can be to use a flash. I wish I could flash those damned back porch steps dry, though, and get on with the painting. There are other projects to get done before the heat and humidity of summer set in for real.

Daschund, 2012

Friday, April 27, 2012

That Last Blush of Spring

Rhododendrons 1, 2012

The way the weather’s been around here makes me a bit reluctant to refer to late April as spring. March was more like June. Mid-April was like what early March should have been. February was like April. The climate was clearly playing with us.
I will admit, though, that early or not the azaleas were glorious this year. Our yard is full of them, so many that it’s easy to take them for granted until that moment when they all come together to weave a carpet of pink and white and purple that spreads from the street in front of the house to the river in the back. For that brief period they put on such a show that you can’t help but feel like you’re not doing your part if you don’t do something colorful, too.
The thing about azaleas, though, is that their blooms are short-lived. And all it takes to make their life even shorter is one good storm, which is exactly what has happened over the last couple of days. One day they were a carpet of color. The next they were spread across the ground like nature’s dirty clothes.

New Green, 2012

My father tried for years to grow rhododendrons. They’re relatives of the azalea, and a staple of the Southern garden. But no matter how carefully he prepared and tended his Kempsville soil, not a single rhododendron survived in his yard.
The soil at our house is also not very forgiving. I’ve invested and lost enough plants that I don’t even want to contemplate the total cost. Over the years I’ve planted hundreds of hostas. Hostas thrived at our last house, but are little more than vole feed here.
It’s taken a few years, but I have learned that there are about a dozen things that will do well in our yard. Fortunately, rhododendrons turn out to be one of those things.
Ours is decidedly a spring garden. It’s prettiest this time of year. Once the roses and hydrangeas have done their thing by mid-summer, though, we have little that blooms until fall. The late summer focus changes to keeping things watered enough so that they’ll survive to the next season. I never realized until I moved here just how ruthless the stately trees our yard is so full of and that look so benign are when it comes to sucking all the ground water away from the smaller understory trees and shrubs. Those who think Nature’s all sweet and kind and balanced would do well to spend a season watching the trees and shrubs and perennials in our yard duke it out for moisture. It’s brutal!
It’s easy to focus on the colorful blooms of spring and summer. But for me one of the best parts of spring is the soft green shade of the new leaves that emerge from plants and trees. They’re the new growth, the symbol of rebirth, the sign of nature’s cycle, and the thing that keeps so many gardeners coming back. Later in the season they’ll turn darker. But for now they’re sweet as a newborn baby’s fingers and toes.  
And meanwhile, how about those rhododendrons?

Rhododendrons 2, 2012

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Summer People. Summer Not.

The Season’s Upon Us, 2012

They’re back.
I’m talking about the summer people, the tourists who flock to our sandy shores.
Tourists don’t bother me. Some locals resent them. I don’t have a problem. Most of our overnight visitors are nice people anxious to enjoy the sun and surf and have a little fun. I’ve watched people I know are local residents spit on the street, drop cigarette butts wherever they go, curse in public and then have the nerve to complain about how the tourists are ruining our beach.
The people who promote tourism around here work very hard to set a good tone. The quality of beachfront hotels has improved considerably over time.
Still, our tourists aren’t haughty gourmands. They like free breakfasts and all-you-can-eat fried fish and shrimp dinner specials. They don’t worry about where food comes from.
My friend Tom, who lives in Marin County, California, was here recently. I had to caution him not to ask a waitress how happy the chickens were whose eggs contributed to our breakfast, or whether they were free range chickens, or not.

Looks like Vacation, 2012

Our tourists aren’t particularly fashion-conscious, either.  A lot of them consider t-shirts and team jerseys to be suitable dinner attire.
From years of doing tourism research, I know that shopping is Americans’ second most popular vacation activity (right behind eating). But it looks to me like our resort area retailers set a low bar. It’s understandable that a beach resort would have a lot of shops that sell t-shirts, bathing suits and sand buckets. But do you really have to have one in every block? And do they really have to feature t-shirts that say, “Don’t Ask Me. I’m Drunk!” And what the heck is the allure if hermit crabs?
A quick walk down the resort strip that past Saturday morning revealed that little has changed since last summer.  We have the usual attractions where you can squeeze an image of the ocean onto the face of a penny, have your name engraved on a grain of rice or get a henna tattoo of Kurt Cobain or Angelina Jolie. There seem to be more bodega-like convenience stores. Rare is the street corner on Atlantic Avenue that doesn’t have a kiosk and clean-scrubbed kids selling timeshares.
There’s a Facebook page where people who grew up here like to complain about how things have changed. But their memories are more idealized than real. It was never so innocent. We’ve always been a place with a raffish edge.
I don’t know the derivation of the phrase “Summer people. Summer not.”  I first heard it attributed to a couple of old Maine lobstermen watching yuppie weekenders. I don’t think it’s a very kind thing to say. But when it comes to describing people I have to admit there’s a hint of truth to it. And I’m not just thinking about tourists.

I Put Ketchup on my Ketchup, 2012

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Reading Deficit

The Pile, 2012

There’s a day some people celebrate—I believe they call it Tax Freedom Day—when, as I understand it, you are theoretically no longer earning income just to pay taxes. After that date, celebrants say, everything you earn is yours.
I’ve never worried about that day because, all things considered, I think I get a pretty good deal for my taxes. And contrary to the prevailing mantra of the Tea Partiers, there are things I’d gladly pay more taxes for.
But enough politics. In my little world there’s another, more meaningful, break-even day. It’s the day each year I break even on the stack of books by my reading chair.
Even in this Kindle age, I still welcome and receive a number of “real” books for Christmas. This year was no different. Combined with the usual daily reading, work-related reading and reading related to other interests—all told, a stack of books, magazines, newspapers and reports that would probably make an ardent environmentalist cry—it usually takes me until well into March to break even, to have put all that Christmas gift reading in the past and be ready for something new. But here it is late April and the pile is still over a foot tall.
Believe me, it’s not like I haven’t been reading. Were you to follow me around for a day you’d find little piles of reading material wherever I alight for so much as a moment. I always have a book or magazine with me when I go to an appointment or meeting lest I arrive early, as I’m wont to do, and have not have any way to use the time.
Since Christmas I have worked the pile down some. Most of the books in the picture below that aren’t about photography were once in that pile beside the chair. But I’m beginning to accept that I’m not likely to get rid of this pile before Christmas rolls around again.

The After Pile, 2012

Tax Freedom Day hangs like a millstone on people who don’t like government. I think a lot of them are just contrary sorts. They won’t allow themselves to be happy. Anything they don’t like is just another symbol of oppression. My issue with this stack of books, on the other hand, is good old-fashioned guilt.  They’re not just a pile of books; they’re opportunities to learn and for my mind to be stretched with new ideas, new people, fresh emotions and maybe even some thrills. For me, those books are like the short stories at the back of The New Yorker magazine. I know they’ll be worth spending time with. But some days I just can’t get started.
Still, you really can’t put a price on anything that enables your imagination to stretch, can you?  As long as those books are there by the chair, I know I’ll never be alone.