Summer Motivation

There are a few things that I feel everyone should do at least once to help gain perspective in life. You should work a retail job to better understand what it’s like to stand on the other side of a cash register. Everyone should have to try and run some sort of business to better know the kind of insane workload that entails. People should have to teach an unruly mob of children for at least a year strait to experience not just how rewarding it is, but also how the effort to hold it all together comes directly out of your hide and incidentally, why when teachers come home and grab a beer at 3:30 in the afternoon, it is most definitely for medicinal purposes. Experiencing these things informs you on how to act and react when you encounter the harried individuals who deal with these things on a daily basis. It teaches you empathy and to not stand on their frayed nerves through either obstinance or simple cluelessness.

Mowing a cemetery is one you might want to try some day as well and that is exactly what my wife, Action Girl, and I were doing just yesterday in a vain effort to get through the absurd list of “must do’s” before the time in our island hourglass runs out and the adventure begins. It’s high summer here on the coast of Maine and for us, that means it’s bugout time.

The beautiful islands, sandy beaches, dune grass and quaint villages of where we live acts as a siren song for tourists and they flock here in numbers that boggle the mind and at times, boil the blood. Mostly, they are a good natured lot with smiles, questions and appreciation of everything they encounter here in Maine, just truly happy to be experiencing “They Way Life Should Be”, as our state’s official motto puts it, and they come to experience in droves.

This is where it gets grating.

The produce and dairy sections in our little island market look as though it was attacked by vultures, the once full racks now striped to their metallic bones. If we decide to venture to the mainland for supplies, the time it will take to drive to and get through the big supermarket will be quadruple what it is in the off season due to the slow moving packs of holiday makers looking for lobster rolls, potato chips and sun block. Parking throughout the city is filled up with SUV’s sporting foreign license plates and those giant black hamburger things on their rooves, holding the extra debris of vacation that couldn’t be crammed into the driving compartment. There are people everywhere. EVERYWHERE! And really… I don’t blame them.

Hot Weather

The coast of Maine is wonderful.

Honest!

You should visit some time!

…Just let me get my bag packed, first.

As much as I understand why they come, there are some unavoidable issues that are part of the deal when you live in a place desirable for others to experience. It’s not really the depravations of milk and bread at the local market that makes it aggravating but rather, having to wade through the expanse of humanity on vacation on a daily basis while you, who are NOT on vacation, attempt to get on with your life without having your patience worn down to a painful little nub.

Okay! Okay! Maybe the “not on vacation” thing is slightly disingenuous coming from me. The truth of the matter is that both my wife and I are teachers, and that means that come summer we are in fact out of school, just like our children. This however doesn’t mean that we are kicking back, drinking rosé and eating cheese by noon each day. Summer is when our other jobs kick in and though they may be less intense than our normal school-time gig, they most definitely still count as work. Action Girl, never one to sit still for more than about three minutes, captains a ferry boat transporting clumps of eager vacationers to and from their long dormant island, summer cottages. On her days off, she can be found cleaning houses or teaching boat handling to land lubbers or if the time allows, perhaps doing some fine painting… or possibly fixing the plumbing. Meanwhile, I slide into my other rolls such as working at making our house actually habitable and weather tight using a maximum of noisy power tools and too much lumber. If I’m not making sawdust, I’m carving headstones. If I’m not carving headstones, then I’m desperately trying to make order in our little island house as our children follow in my wake, slowly destroying what was freshly accomplished. It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. You start at one end and by the time you reach the other, it’s time to circle back to the beginning again.

See? Action Girl and I don’t get into the rosé and cheese until at least six or seven, just like normal folk. So how do we deal with the added weight of dealing with those “from away” as we attempt to enjoy summer? We flee. We become the enemy. We become… Tourists!

And that brings us back to the cemetery.

With the grass trimmed back nice and neat to the ancient stones, we can now cross its care off our list of responsibilities before we leave. Mow a cemetery some time and like any other job, you’ll be stunned at how much more work it is than you thought it would be, just like most things in life. We do a lot, and now, it’s almost time for us to go so that we can enjoy some perspective in our life as well. We know what it’s like here, and how nice it is, even with the extra work, but you know what we don’t know? What it’s like to be Dutch.

So we’re off to see the Netherlands in the height of Summer and we won’t be back for a good long while, the time made available to us being the one huge bonus of being full time school teachers. It’s beautiful here in New England and to leave our home empty while we’re away would be nothing short of criminal and so the best part is, our place won’t be wasted while we are gone. All our work: the carpentry, the gardens, the view and the expert plumbing will be enjoyed by a lovely Dutch family with whom we are exchanging homes. We will take their place just outside of Amsterdam and they will ensconce themselves on the rocky coast of Maine, each of us joining the tourist throng. I have no doubt that it’s going to be great and hopefully, with both families well accustomed to what it’s like to be neck deep in foreigners, we can adjust to being the best tourists possible. After all, living is about experiencing new things and I can’t think of a better gift to give ourselves, our kids and in this case, another whole family than the chance to gain the perspective of what it’s like to experience a whole new place full of beauty and good food. They won’t have to mow the cemetery, but they get to water our gardens, feed our cat and enjoy our corner of the world while we do the same at their place and I know that we will both do our utmost to be the best tourists possible. Just like all the others.

Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em…

What’s Cooking?

My Father, good man that he is, is not what I would call, kitchen savvy, and he’ll admit to that freely. For the most part, to him the kitchen is a place containing cupboards, various utensils, pots, pans, and boxes of stuff that magically transform into delicious things to eat. As he sees it, if the right person enters this place and does steamy things over the stove, wonderful dinners and desserts appear which he most enthusiastically enjoys. It’s not that he doesn’t’ appreciate good cooking. He most definitely does! But quote him, “When I look in the kitchen, it just looks like boxes of stuff to me.” And he’s in awe when others take these things and create lovely food. It’s just not how his brain reacts to canisters of flour, sugar and baking powder… with a single exception that I can recall…

Pancakes. Dad and I made a lot of pancakes together when I was a kid. He’s good at those. It was in the Betty Crocker book.

I spent a fair chunk of my childhood in the little galley kitchen at my home in New Hampshire. Most of those memories are of me standing on a chair at the edge of our tiny stretch of counter, asking my Mom if I could have a turn with the rolling pin or the cookie cutters or kneading the dough. She was always happy to have me there hogging up what little extra room the tiny kitchen provided. Now that I have inquisitive young children of my own, I utterly and completely understand how paining it often is to answer, “Sure. You have a try.” when all you really want to do is get whatever you’re making into the oven and sit the heck down for a couple of minutes after you race through clean up. She frequently let me have a go at what ever she was doing and I’ll always be thankful to her for that.

I can still see in my mind’s eye the counters covered with dustings of flour, measuring cups spread across the back like little Russian nesting dolls awaiting their chance to be filled, scraped flat at the rim and upended into the big crockery mixing bowl. It was a lot of fun for a kid who was always up for messing about with ingredients and hot surfaces and my Mother has told me on more than one occasion that I informed her from an early age that I wanted to be a chef when I grew up.

Though that never happened professionally, (at least not yet, anyhow) the kitchen has remained one of my favorite places to spend my day, exhausting as it often is. I like cooking and very much love baking and do both often.

In a little, low cabinet in my Mother’s kitchen live the recipe books, and there are many to choose from. Some bound, most assembled with hand written cards and others from torn out magazines articles or snipped from newspapers, but growing up, her master reference tome was always the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book. It had been a gift from her own mother when she and my father set up house together.

Betty Crocker

I can clearly picture it laying open on the counter, scraps of paper protruding from the top to mark various pages dusted with the puffs of errant ingredients. To me, the best part was looking in the margins, many filled with notes in her beautiful cursive script noting substitutions, thoughts on cooking times or more often, when to double the laughably small quantities of frosting allotted for various desserts. On more than one occasion upon revisiting this tome as an adult, I have taken a moment to poke through and see what can be found as far as Mom’s kitchen thoughts. It always makes me smile and there is one recipe in particular I tend to look for. It’s located on the left hand page and it’s for a cookie called “Jubilee Jumbles.”

Jubilee Jumbles are a wonderful little puff of dessert with a delicious butter icing to cap it all off. They have the consistency of something between soft bread and cake but the sweetness of a glazed doughnut… but better. They are special to me for more than just their deliciousness, however.

This is where my Dad comes in. With the approach of some mom specific celebration day, (Mother’s Day or possibly her birthday. I forget now), my kitchen novice Father had the great idea that we should make Mom chocolate chip cookies. Who doesn’t love those, right? Both of us had seen her make them dozens of time and we were sure we could pull this off before she came home from where ever she had gone for the afternoon. After all, we had Betty to guide us! Mrs. Crocker would never let us down! We’d follow her recipe to the letter and it would be great!

With the confidence that only comes from naivety, my dear Father and I launched into the project with gusto. The book was found and “chocolate chip cookies” was looked up and the book propped open to the page. Within minutes, ingredients were pulled from their hiding places, the oven was preheated, mixing happened and flour flew. My Dad, who is not known for his studious direction following ability, bent hard to the task and, against his nature, forced himself to focus with laser like determination on not getting his eye off the ball and winding up with a bowl full of batter only good for setting fence posts or spackling the ceiling. He was going to follow this thing to the letter if it killed him and I did my best scurrying about to fetching him whatever the book said to add next.

We first became suspicious when, as he slid the tray into the oven, one of us pointed out that there had been no chocolate chips added to the chocolate chip cookies. Neither of us were experts in the culinary arts, me being a kid and Dad being… Dad, but we were both pretty sure that chocolate chips were a fairly fundamental part of chocolate chip cookies. It’s right there in the name, after all. This required some reflection. Did we forget a step? Dad looked over the cookbook. He examined the chocolate chip cookie recipe and noted that, yes, it did indeed call for chocolate chips, but… that the recipe for those particular cookies was located on the right hand page, while the recipe we had been following so studiously was indeed, on the left. We were off the map! What had we made?!? This was uncharted territory. Dad’s laser like focus seemed to have been focused on the wrong page.

So, we did what we had to. We kept on rolling and soldiered on and out of the oven came Jubilee Jumbles, just as Betty Crocker had intended. We followed her every instruction and the result was a beautiful and delicious, if albeit, unintentional cookie. When Mom heard the story, she loved it so much that she noted it right there in the margin of her cookbook and it has provided our family an entertaining chuckle for all these years.

In my own kitchen a few days ago, I found my self rummaging around in the cookbooks for something new to make. I was feeling in a rut with my dessert selections and thought it was time to find something else. When this happens, rather than turning to the internet, I tend to look backwards in the browning pages of forgotten recipes. I find that very comforting somehow. I reached for my own copy of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook to see what I could find. My addition, a gift from my Mother some time ago, is a copy from 1950 and she inscribed to me in the front cover in her fluid, perfect handwriting and I love reading that whenever I open its cover. Thumbing through its delicate pages, I stumbled across a cookie called “Butterscotch Cookies with Burnt Butter Icing” and paused to read the ingredients list. I read it again and then skimmed the directions. Ironically, this particular recipe in the Betty Crocker’s “Picture” Cookbook had no picture but since I love to bake and do so often, in my mind I could see what this would make. These were the family famous cookies! These were Jubilee Jumbles! I hadn’t thought of them in years and having long moved from my Parent’s home, hadn’t had those little delightful cookies in decades. Gleefully, I set out to make them and was eventually rewarded with the puffy, sweet cakes that I remember from that day Dad and I followed the wrong recipe. The burnt butter icing, as I quickly found out, was far too little to cover all the cookies and after making a second batch, I pulled out my pencil to scribble just that in the margins.

My handwriting is nothing compared to my Mother’s.

I’d have to call her to ask for the exact wording of what she has written in her own copy of Betty’s book, but I can tell you this, I bet that in addition to the short note about how Dad and I made these for her by accident, it says to double the icing. As I looked at the page in my own book, I decided to add an additional editorial of my own.

“I know these as Jubilee Jumbles. A favorite in our family for decades. -2013”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think its time for some cookies and milk.

Cast Iron Seagull, part II

“Seagull engines! They’re an outboard motor, from England. The company’s defunct now, but their engines were just wonderful. I find them as basket cases and rebuild them with other found parts. They’re amazing. You should try one!”

This sounded dubious. Outboards are notoriously finicky little creatures and the idea of getting an old one made by a company that no longer exists just seemed like a recipe for disaster. I listened as Ian went on espousing the benefits of his much loved Seagulls and as he explained why he was so enamored of them, (i.e. their simplicity, durability and love of salt water) the prospect of having one seemed better and better. In retrospect, this might also have has something to do with me refreshing my cold compress a few more times at the beer cooler. Eventually, he talked me into it and later that week, I dragged home the scruffiest, most disreputable looking outboard I’d ever seen outside of a Warner Brothers cartoon.

There was going to be a learning curve on this thing, to be sure.

The power plant (and I use the word, “power” gently here) weights only about nine or ten kilos, or a little over twenty pounds and is easily carried in one hand, providing that you don’t mind coating your self in a light sheen of oil and gasoline as you tote it down the ramp to your boat. There are no cans or hoses to deal with since the gas tank is bolted firmly to the top of the whole unit, just behind the flywheel. No pressure bulb to squeeze here! Good old gravity feeds the system.  Meanwhile, on a Seagull, the afore mentioned flywheel does not sport the expected, teardrop sleek cowl over it and the internal guts such as you’re used to seeing on outboards. If it did, you wouldn’t be able to hand wind the starting rope around the flywheel to get the thing running. As I screwed the contraption down to the wooden transom of our little rubber boat, I eyed the whole thing with a mixture of pride and dubiousness. My family and the marina attendant looked on with their own mixture. I believe I detected both amusement and fear.

It was “go” time. Would it work?

Though Ian had gone over the startup procedure with me two or three times, it had been several days since. Now, looking down at it clamped to our boat, the finer bits of the sequence became fuzzy.

I’d just wing it.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

First of all, there’s the remembering what buttons need pushing and what knobs need pulling and then there’s the throttle setting and then… there’s the flywheel. Most of us are familiar with the old yank line that’s used to start up the small engines we’re forced to deal with such as lawn mowers and snow blowers. But even these are now fast disappearing with the arrival of smaller, electric starters entering the fray, and honestly, who doesn’t like an easier to start engine? Still, I had been assured that in this case, my engine would not disappoint. The Seagull’s design is a throwback, even in its day, and uses a system that is the predecessor to the modern pull cord starter. In my hand, I held the starting rope, a knot in one end and a small chunk of hand whittled wood tied to the other. It is detached from the motor in every way. Don’t loose it. The knot fits neatly into a notch on the top of the flywheel and you coil the remaining length around and around in a little groove until you reach the end, which I now did.

“Ready?” I looked up at my family (worried) and the marina attendant (smirking) who were lined up in revue at the dockside. Deep breath now… “How hard do I pull this, I wonder?” went through my mind and I thought back to every 1930’s cartoon I could think of that involved an outboard. Surprisingly, there are really quite a few. “Just a gentle, little yank” I decided.

Bad choice.

With my anemic but long pull, I did manage to start the motor on the first try, but NOT dislodge the end of the starting rope from the flywheel. As the ancient outboard barked to life, it began to swing the chord over its head like medieval knight attacking peasants with a flail. The wooden toggle tied off to the end of the line made an unexpected and formidable weapon, smacking me three times in quick succession right in the back of the hand that started it. It was if I was being angrily punished for waking it from its long slumber. It only took a second for me to figure that this was going to end badly, possibly with me in the water, if I didn’t jump in and try to kill this thing fast. Reaching below the visible arc traveled by the whipping length of rope and wood, I stretched my injured hand toward the throttle switch while covering my face with my good one. With a quick flip, I shut the gas supply off and the mad thing coughed to a stop with what seemed to me, an air of smug satisfaction at having drawn first blood.

I clutched my teeth as well as my injured hand and looked down at my attacker through narrowed eyes. “So that’s the way it’s going to be, eh? FINE!”

I glanced back up at my audience.

My children looked rather worried while my wife and the attendant were doubled over laughing. Soon, so was I. Though the Seagull had indeed laid a good and bruising beating on me that smarted like crazy, I also didn’t want to worry my kids. That, and I could only imagine how funny that whole situation had looked. As it turned out, imagining my self as a cartoon had been closer to my reality than I had expected it to be.

“Okay, let’s try that again, but this time, without the death rope.”

I didn’t wait for a response since the adults were still laughing. This time, it worked. It really WORKED! And I didn’t have to jump back from an angry flail monster or anything! There were still finicky bits to work out on the thing, naturally. Engines of this vintage and level of, let’s be honest here, crude construction always require a “feeling out” period. You have to get to know their quirks, what sounds right and what sounds wrong, when to lean the mixture and how to stay the hell away from that damned flywheel. Also, with a Seagull, you have to get used to having no way of going in reverse. The engine only goes in one direction and you cannot, in any way, turn it farther than about sixty degrees in either direction, let alone spin it all the way around. Riding with one requires some forethought.

As it turned out, that’s fine. For all its idiosyncrasies, Ian has been proved one hundred percent correct about the little, stinky marvels. Mine has been humming and sputtering along the bay on the back of our rubber boat for three years now and considering that it was manufactured some time in the sixties, that’s pretty impressive. We’ve come to rely on it, if not for needed transportation services, then a source of summer fun. With the imminent end of the warm seasons upon us, it was time to consider pulling our rig out finding it a home for the winter in a corner of the basement. But first… we needed to have just one more outing. The day was beautiful, the air crisp and the last of the mixed gas for the Seagull, just begging to be burned. Plus, it was a drainer.

Everywhere you looked, islands showed off their lower reaches and what normally are no more than a few rocks even at low tide, were now throwing open hidden beaches, most often reserved only for sea life. How could we resist?

With the tourists mostly gone, the boat traffic was sparse to say the least. Even the ubiquitous flotillas of sea kayaks had fled the waters around our island home. It was heaven. We packed our life jacketed kids into the boat and putted off. Visiting a near by, tiny uninhabited island, we marveled at how it has grown with the receding big tide. We poked about, found hermit crabs, saved a beached fish and skipped rocks on the glassy surface of the ocean. The kids were in their element as they charged around and around, making a circuit of the beach. The low light of the end of the day lit up the trees on the coast like they were in spotlights and the whole world seemed to just stand still. It was amazing. I guess that’s what having a boat is all about, really.

Motoring home, I hummed happily to myself, assured that my family wouldn’t be able to hear me over the thrum of the Seagull. It’s a loud little sucker, but it runs and runs reliably. I was a very happy boater and tried not to think about having to wait a whole season before doing this again. I don’t know how or when exactly it happened, but I had turned into a boat guy. “What we need,” I caught myself pondering, “is something bigger. Something that we can take out a little farther. I wonder if I can find a longer inflatable?” Naturally, we’d need a bigger engine.

Luckily for me, Seagull made them.

I guess it’s time to go talk to Ian again and see what he’s got hiding on the work bench. I don’t’ know how I’m going to make time for this new hobby, but at least I can justify it. Hey, I live on an island, after all!

I NEED a boat!

Cast Iron Seagull, part I

There is something just amazing about a super-duper low tide when you live on the ocean. It’s as if all the land has taken a deep breath into its lungs and floated just that much higher than it usually does, giving you the chance to go and gaze at its normally water covered navel. In local parlance, it is referred to as a drainer (pronounced: drain-ah). Our little corner of the coast takes up a diminutive bite in the greater Gulf of Maine and goes by the name, Casco Bay.  The particular island we live on is flanked by a few small, uninhabited islets, which offer adventure, discovery and poison ivy galore if you’re careless. To visit these little, cut off worlds though, you have to possess the means to get there.

That is to say, a boat.

Boats… Ah, boats. They are wonderful, fun and thoroughly evil little things. They are problematic right off the scale and unless you are a boat person who thinks of nothing but bobbing on the waves and smelling the sea breezes AND doesn’t mind pouring all their time and money into a hole in the ocean, then boating really isn’t for you. Owning a boat in freshwater is hard enough. Owning one that sits in salt water compounds the issues by a factor of about a hundred. The corrosive nature of the water, unexpected storms smashing the hull against the dock, filling with rain water and even just the relentless sun pounding on them does exhaustive damage requiring constant maintenance to keep them ship-shape. And that’s not even mentioning the engine!

Boats are one gigantic pain in the butt.

They are also, admittedly, fun and my wife wants one in the same way an eight year old girl wants a pony: with every fiber of her soul.

The problem is, the buying of said boat is the cheap part… and even that, if you’re careful, isn’t very cheap. If you want something that isn’t going to need to be completely overhauled from stem to stern before it’s safe to try floating off the boat trailer, then you’re going to need to pay up front for quality.

Then there’s the whole “ocean” aspect to consider. We do not live on a pond or lake and if you want to use a boat for transportation rather than just fun on a sunny and calm day then size, I assure you, does matter. Also you need to consider the hull shape, the type of drive system, the ability to get under some sort of shelter when it gets snotty out and how much fuel it burns per hour. All of this I let wash over me like a figurative wave as I listen to Action Girl enthusiastically expound on the latest boat for sale she’s found and how this one would be the perfect match for our needs.

The problem here is two fold:

Firstly, I am most definitely not a boat person. What I know about boats, I have pretty much learned from her. There is no doubt in my mind that she knows her stuff cold, don’t’ get me wrong!  Being a commercial boat captain, she’s out on the sea almost every day and after years of familiarity, can read the waters like a book. She knows where to go and when. She can make a many, many ton vessel dance like a dry leaf in a dust devil and not put down her coffee while doing it. She is incredible at her job. She is also at it quite a lot and thus, not exactly rich in free time. This means that caring for the boat will fall to… me, the “not-a-boat-guy” guy.

Secondly: I need a new hobby like I need a disgruntled porcupine in my underpants. Even if I was so inclined to dive head first into the deep, bottomless chasm that is being a boater, there is no way on God’s green Earth that I have time for it. When a person looks at taking a shower as a significant portion of their “me” time for the day, that’s an unmistakable indicator that the candle might just be burning not only at both ends, but a touch in the middle as well. I had hobbies once. I had lots of them. They all now sit in my basement with about eight centimeters of dust on them. I only hope that when the day comes that I again have the opportunity to get back to them, I won’t be so soft and squishy to get back to it all.

We obviously needed a solution that all parties could get something out of. A way that would keep me from getting devoured whole by a task not of my making or wanting, yet also get my sea loving wife out on the water when she wasn’t at work… out on the water. Hmmm…

Our answer came smunched and flattened in a huge, impossibly heavy and ungainly nylon bag. It was a boat, some assembly required. Happily for me, all the assembly entailed was adding air. Through a series of events both odd and unexpected, we had wound up with a rugged little inflatable boat. We couldn’t use it to commute, but it would be a lot of fun AND easy to take care of! Living with two, small children, if there’s anything I know how to do, its patch holes. The boat’s tiny, measuring only about three meters long and of the type that would be dragged behind something much, much bigger and more impressive as its dingy, but still, it was ours! It even came with a broken, non-fixable engine!

The engine was going to be a problem.

Calling it unfixable isn’t really fair. After all, everything is fixable if you sink enough cash into it. In this case, according to the marine engine mechanic in town, that number was going to be in excess of seven hundred dollars. That’s a lot of cash for a free, five horse power, two cycle outboard of unknown abilities or hours of use. It’s also indicative of how price structures work when talking about anything that goes on a boat. Every figure needs to be shot through the magical “boat pricing prism” so that a doodad that would normally cost ten bucks will now run into the hundreds. It’s magic, I tell ya! Fixing a lawn mower might have set me back a couple of hundred bucks, but THIS thing touches WATER! Needless to say, there was no way we were going to repair it and in one fell swoop, the dead engine graduated from “outboard” to “anchor.” Not literally, of course, but you get the point.

So, there was a lot of rowing to be done and row we did. We rowed here and there and the kids seemed to really enjoy their mini-adventures even if they did need to stay low and clear of the swinging oar ends as my wife or I pulled away hard on them. We got some fun use out of the little inflatable. The reality of the situation though, was that rowing is something more fun to watch than do, especially if the boat you’re rowing is essentially a beach ball that is at the utter mercy of both the wind and tide. I has no keel and so, doesn’t track well at all and because it’s only floating perhaps an inch and a half down in the water, any good breeze will move you where it’s blowing, regardless of where you want to go. With those two factors close in your mind, you stick pretty close to shore and none too far from the dock. After all, you need to have enough oomph not just to row where you want to get, but also to row back. Enter our friend, Ian.

Ian, like me, has a weakness for poking at broken stuff. The advantage he has over our affliction is that he’s managed to focus that weakness to just one kind of broken thing. He rebuilds antique outboards. I had no idea about this until I was chatting with him at a summer barbecue and telling him about my rowing related blisters as I cooled them with a cold beer.

For medicinal purposes only, naturally.

“What you need, is a Seagull!”

This is not a sentence you often hear used in Maine. In the past, I’ve heard people refer to pigeons as being, “sky rats” and to extend the analogy to seagulls, I think you’d wind up with perhaps a sky badger or maybe, sky weasel. In short, they are not pleasant creatures.

“Beg pardon?” I took another long pull from my cool pack.

 

To be continued…

Drag races and thermoses.

Deep in the back of my fuzzy, aging memory, I can still conjure up the surroundings of the school bus line as we waited semi-patiently in front of Saint Joseph’s primary school. The line up spot was at the side of the building in the nearly totally neglected basketball court, with a massive wing of the red brick school reaching out and around us like an arm, keeping us corralled. When I picture myself there, two things jump out in my mind. The first is the utterly massive maple tree that stood over us at the edge of the sidewalk with its muscular branches holding out uncountable, wide leaves that blotted out the afternoon sun and, in the spring, showering us with tons of seed gladdened propellers. I have no idea how many times we scooped them into piles and threw double fistfuls of them back into the air for the simple joy of watching them spin back to earth and, if lucky, getting stuck in the hair and down the collars of fellow classmates. Good times.

The other piece of that halcyon memory comes with color, texture and sound. The brightly illustrated and rattling metal lunchboxes that were clung to, sat on, banged around and generally abused, but loved dearly. They were a statement of whom we all individually were and we guarded them as a miniature outpost of our personal territory. That, and we didn’t want another kid stuffing them full of maple seeds when we weren’t looking.

The beginning of a new school year always began with the long dreaded afternoon dedicated to acquiring the new year’s supplies. An empty, cold, melamine desk and chair was calling us back and it was time to buy all the binders, pencils, erasers and crayons with which to cram them full. There was not a lot of room for individuality in these choices. Pencils were all pretty much yellow. Pens were blue. Those little essay booklets that looked as if they were made from itty bitty Holstein cow hides were all identical too, at least until you started coloring in the white bits, which obviously, you were bound to do. Leaving them white was just un-kiddish. Even the backpacks of the 70’s were mostly devoid of any kind of cool print or deviation of design, it was going to be simply be a matter of picking a color and writing your name on the inside cover. That was about it.

The lunchbox though… that was a different story all together.

Picking a lunchbox took time. There were a lot of angles that needed careful consideration and above all, and to the exclusion of any other concerns, it had to be picked by you. Never, EVER by your parents. The crushing shame that could result in that going wrong could prove fatal. You can be embarrassed to death, you know. All children know that.

It wasn’t the parent’s fault, naturally. Well, I mean it would be. It’s just that they couldn’t understand. They are grownups, after all.

Lunchboxes, as I think back, were really the first inroad of commercialism in the schools. It was the only place we could flout our allegiance to a favorite TV show, type of sport, movie, hobby or interest. I suppose that printed t-shits were another viable front for this sort of commercial intrusion into the world of academia, but back then, t-shirts were still mostly blank or sported simple designs like a rainbow across the chest or a star or something. Not much in the way of advertising. That, and in my case, due to the strict dress code at my little Catholic school, wearing a t-shirt to school was simply never an option for us. You might as well have tried to show up just in your underpants and tube socks. The reception you would have gotten from the Sisters and lay-faculty would have been much the same.

For us, it was all about the lunchboxes.

At the time we were making these earth shattering, deliberative, lunchbox-ly decisions our choices were seriously limited, and it made for some interesting choices. Lunchboxes back then were metal. All of them were metal. There wasn’t a plastic box to be seen anywhere. They were rugged, didn’t crack and if need be, could be used offensively as well as defensively in the blink of an eye. They were always at hand, ready for use and up to the punishment they took. An unusual and amusing aspect of these painted and embossed lunch carriers was that often, the images that adorned them were just so… random. You never knew what they were going to plaster on those things. It was one of the great side effects of adults having absolutely no clue what kids actually like. They tried everything. Naturally, there were the predictable choices with images of television shows plastered all over their metal sides. The Star Trek boxes, The 6 Million Dollar Man and Space: 1999 all come to mind as well as many movies of the era.

Still, there was a danger here in picking out the obvious cool ones when making your fall selection. Everybody liked Star Wars, or at least, anyone who mattered. Picking the box with the giant X-Wing fighter on it felt good, but could easily make you just one of the five other kids in the classroom with the exact same one, and that would never ever do. It showed poor planning and invited mockery, especially if you all ate at the same table at lunch. That’s where the random, genre based designs came in.

Back before they made it law that any thing that could at some point come in contact with child’s line of sight be covered with Disney and Pixar characters, there were the wild groping’s of lunchbox designers everywhere trying to figure out what might possibly appeal to children and were copyright free. Airplanes! Kids like airplanes, right? Let’s put a bunch of F-4 Phantoms on a Lunchbox. Hmmmm. Oh! How about Horses? Girls love horses. We could give it a vague Little House on the Prairie look, but with more horses!

In my case, it was the drag racers that got me in second grade. I likely spotted it at the five and dime and that was it: I wanted drag racers. I’m betting that this had to have confused my mother a bit. I have no idea what compelled me in this choice. My dad wasn’t a motor head, I had never been to a drag race, let alone any other kind of car based event in my life and I knew exactly none of the famous drivers. It just looked… cool, I guess.

Believe it or not, back in the day, toys didn’t have to have movie advertisements plastered all over them to look cool.

So, the trusty Drag Racer lunchbox joined in the miniature conga line of used, loved and abused food carrying devices that saw me nourished all those years at my little elementary school. They did their duty and then, with each new selection made in the following fall, the veteran would disappear into the basement or, if badly scrunched, into the waste bin, to be forgotten. As an adult, I knew that there were still a few of these kicking around at my folk’s house, hiding behind layers of cobwebs on high shelves in the darker corners of the cellar, but honestly, gave them little thought, until…

“I’ve had it with these things!” This was my remark to my wife one cool, September morning. In my hand was the leaking, sweating, heavily dented and chipped drink container that was supposed to go into my son’s backpack. Its thin, stainless steel walls were already sweating profusely due to the cold milk I had poured in a few minutes ago and, though I was sure I had put the cap on tightly, it had already leaked in the soft sided lunch (I can’t even call it a box. It’s a bag with a zipper) container, its crevices eagerly syphoning off the spilled liquid into every crack and corner to curdle and stink.

She looked up with that, “What now?” gaze I seem to get an awful lot of these days.

“You know what I want to get for the kids? A real lunch box with a real thermos. Remember those? Ours didn’t do this! They didn’t sweat because they were insulated. They kept the drink actually cold until lunch. They didn’t spill everywhere.” I put on my best look of high confidence and resolution.  “I’m going to fix this today.”

Guess what they don’t make any more? Can you guess? Not lunchboxes. The novelty lunchbox market has actually seen a bit of a resurgence, believe it or not. What they don’t have… are THERMOSES!

Seriously.

When you bought a lunchbox, it came with a matching thermos. Always! It was a given. But now, your only thermos option seems to be buying a leaky, sweaty, non-dishwasher safe number like my kids have OR to cruse Amazon for a bullet proof, top of the line model that costs as much as a new smart phone. Anyone who has seen how fast children can loose even the most glaringly obvious items, (kids can misplace their pants in a snow storm if you let them) will know better than to hand over a $32.00 milk container and hope to ever see it again. There had to be a better solution.

Time to call Mom.

Mom always knows.

Ring, ring…

Ring, ring…

“Hi, Mom. Do you think you might still have any of my old lunchboxes in the basement? You do! Could you do me a favor? Can you see if any of them still have a thermos in them? Thanks, Mom!”

Moms are the best!

As it turned out, there were three still living quietly unused lives down there, just waiting for a chance to see a peanut butter and honey sandwich and some carrot sticks again. With one, we hit the jackpot. On the outside, were the still crisply painted details of the drag strip, tires smoking as they spun at the green light. On the inside, its matching thermos! I was almost as gleeful at seeing this as my son, who looked on with a sort of awe. He knows nothing of drag racing, but he knows cool when he sees it.

Good boy.

The lunchbox its self was in rather tough shape and since we each had doubts whether it could survive another tour or duty, he elected to use is old, soft sided bag to transport his lunch in stead. The thermos though, fit nicely. After a good wash, I filled it with milk for the first time in well over thirty years, screwed on the lids and sent it off to school. The dragsters looked awesome. My boy looked proud and he informed me that he would point out to his teacher that this was his DAD’S and he had had it when he was a KID! Now that I think of it, that thermos is most probably older than his teacher.

Whoa.

As things turned out, my perfect solution turned out to be much like most of my “perfect solutions.” Short Stack came home with a report that, guess what, the thermos leaked. Milk had oozed into the cracks of his lunchbox yet again and I needed to do some scrubbing and cleaning before it could be put back into service. I think he could see that I was disappointed with the report.

“Rats. I was really hoping that would take care of it. Well, I guess that its just gotten too old to hold a tight seal anymore. We can use your old one, I guess.”

“No, Dad. I think I’d like to use your old one still.” He looked thoughtful and I realized that he was trying to formulate a good reason why he should continue to court sour smelling disaster on a daily basis. “After all, my other one leaks and the milk is always warm by lunch. This way, what doesn’t leak will at least taste good and cold!”

So, that’s our solution. This school morning, I filled up my old drag racer thermos, capping it and then, stuck it in a plastic bag as an added precaution. I slip it in the lunch bag and point out to my son which way it’s pointing and remind him to keep it upright. Then… it hit me. A flash of an image of milk smearing the inside of a metal lunchbox. MY lunchbox. The more I thought about it, the more solid the memory became.

These things leaked.

Ooooooh right.

Later, as I watched my boy happily walk through the school door with the rest of his lined up class, I hoped he’d remember to keep it tilted upright and prevent another dairy swamp from forming in his bag. He might. Or he might not.

After all, he’s a kid and mostly I’ll be happy if he remembers to come home with his shoes on. Remembering the thermos is asking for a heck of a lot. At least it will look neat and, what ever’s left in that race car decorated cylinder will be cold to drink.

That’s at least half a solution, I suppose.

The Junk Whisperer. Part III

My folks had discovered an actual camera store in Dover, New Hampshire at some point and when I told them about the Brownie, they were kind enough to stop in and pick me up a couple of rolls, ready to meet my sander and get resized to fit. Now with everything I needed to go put this old beautiful box into action, only one question remained: Color or Black and White.

Hmmm.

Black and White film holds a special and dear place in my heart. Many years ago, a much younger and substantially more awkward version of me could often be seen stalking interesting shadows and high contrast compositions with my trusty steel body Minolta. It had belonged to my father when he was young and now I had taken to it with enthusiasm. It shoots 35mm and though it only has one lens and is not a snazzy SLR, (i.e., Single Lens Reflex, meaning that the range finder lets you look right through the lens of the camera and not out a separate little range finder in the upper left corner of the camera) it still took the best Black and White photos I’d ever seen. I spent many a happy hour, late at night in the campus dark room developing and making prints of my black and white images.

Color though, offered another, special possibility.

In this crazy-fast, laser like perfected digital age, the phones we have crammed in our collective pockets can take pictures of stunning resolution and clarity and for some odd reason, this ability has kicked off the craze of the “retro-ing” of pictures. The ability to saturate the colors, fade the edges and fake a little light bleed at a corner here and there has become increasingly popular. I have to admit, I find it somewhat perplexing.

I’m looking at you, Hipsamatic and Instagram.

Without a doubt, the images made with these bits of software do indeed look genuinely old school and  the filters and effects used on each uploaded image are often dutifully stamped into the accompanying text of the Facebook post by the shooters.

Lens: Edward Q

Film: Kobe’s 1971

Flash: strobe

…Or some such thing.

I mean no offense to the legion of happy iPhone photographers out there, but when I see these images, my mind quickly drifts to of all the actual filters and lenses that still lurk to this day in dark and dusty, forgotten drawers and backs of closets in homes across the world. They sit unused and unloved and it somehow seems a cheat to let the computer oldify the photo if you have the tools to do it the right way from the very beginning. To me, it feels like buying carrots at the store, sticking them in the ground only to pull them out and call them homegrown. Sometimes, doing something the hard way makes the end product that much better.

To my mind, anyway.

It also makes me slower on the draw, so I guess victory can be claimed on both sides.

Carefully loading the black box with my precious eight frames of ISO 200, color film, I carried the Brownie out side, trying to look at the world with my dusty, rusty photographer’s eye. Something I hadn’t done in far, far too long.

What initially came thundering back to me was the realization that I had eight shots and that was it. For the first time in a long time, I had to really consider my shot rather than just blaze away. It was going back to hunting with a muzzleloader after having used what is essentially, a machine gun. I had become used to snapping off a double fist-full of pictures, looking at what I had, and the culling the duds. In the end, I’d still have three or four pictures that were worth keeping of any given object or situation. Unless your funds are limitless, it doesn’t work that way with film.

I thought about subject

I’m drawn to photographing stuff. I like stuff! It doesn’t move, it’s timeless and you can fiddle with it to get the best effects. The problem is that it can also be impersonal. A photo of a boat on a beach is great and all, but it doesn’t get coveted by your great grandchildren, it doesn’t solve a family mystery and it probably won’t be attributed to you if you’re not there to claim attribution. This time around, I was shooting for something to go in a family album. I was remembering the picture that Great-Grandma took of her child and husband

Scooting around in the flower garden next door, a fancily dressed fairy princess and a serious butterfly hunter caught my eye. My son, Shortstack is six now and his sister Lulu Belle is four and to our great relief and enjoyment, they are each other’s best friend as well as sibling. I also tend to have a slightly biased eye when viewing them. They were the perfect subjects

In this case, their near constant movement would only add to the image. It is how I see them nearly all times unless they are asleep. Blurry.

Holding the camera at chest height and looking through one of the range finders, I lined up my subject.

The shutter swings. SNAP!

What a sound.

I catch her again as she flies along at the edge of the garden.

SNAP!

After a few seconds of cajoling and kindness, I get both of them to stand still long enough to line them both up, capturing a moment of their youth to celluloid.

SNAP! Number three out of eight taken.

The day is beautiful and breezy as the chilly afternoon wind kicks up off the Atlantic and blows the treetops. The three of us head out for some adventure and the Brownie comes with us.

As my two dear children enjoy their time with some kites at a nearby field, I stand off to squeeze them into the tiny field of my camera lens.

SNAP!

Sun at my back and turning the Brownie on its side, I look through the landscape range finder and take one more picture, just to be safe.

SNAP! Number five.

The kids are very interested as I take each photo and are more than a little bugged that I can’t show them the image like on my phone. I wonder if they think I’m making it up. To temper them I take a few more with my digital and we talk about which ones came out best.

That evening, I can’t resist the siren song of low angle sunlight and I joyously give in and search out my last three images. These are for me.

SNAP!

SNAP!

SNAP!

In the end, it wasn’t that long a wait to get my film back from the photo place in town. The hardest part was just getting around to driving it over, and then back to pick it up. I had forgotten how exciting it is to open that little glued envelope. Things could go so wrong. You won’t know until you fan them out and see for your self. There is no going back.

The Garden Series:

The Kite Series:

The Boathouse:

There they are. All eight in all their glory.

I still have the roll of black and white, but that will have to wait for another time and a different method of printing. The photo place I had brought this roll to only develops and prints black and white about every six months, so I’m left with a problem. I could leave my used rolls of film with them and wait like a patient little soldier, or…

It’s a thought to terrifying to think.

Should I?

I know how, after all.

There’s really not that much to… developing it all… my self!

 

All I need is an enlarger.

Oh, and a developing can.

Well, I need the chemicals too. And lets not forget the baths and a timer. Not to mention tongs, a water supply, drying racks and a bunch of other minutiae I’m no doubt forgetting.

I wonder what corner of the basement would make the best dark room?

 

Uh oh…

The Junk Whisperer, Part II

The word, “camera” is a squishy little noun. It can mean so many totally different objects these days. To my children, the word, “phone” is synonymous with camera. To them, it’s something that lives in your pocket at all times and is capable of taking movies as well as stills and then send them effortlessly to the other side of the planet as fast as your wireless carrier can charge you. When I was their age, the manifestation of the word “camera” might have meant the Polaroid. It was capable of taking hideous, blurry, square snapshots that faded dully with the passing years, BUT let you actually see what you had snapped a photo of with only a few minutes of mindlessly waving the picture in the air in the strange and vague hopes that this would somehow produce a better image. They were great!

What I had picked up was different.

Hanging in my living room is a picture of my Great-grandfather and my Grandpa. It was taken in about 1917 and in it, my Grandfather, whom I only knew as an old man, is perhaps three or four. My Great-grandfather, whom I never knew, looks to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He would not live to become an old man like his son.

There are several reasons beyond the obvious why I love this photo. One is that my Great-grandfather is an unbelievable match for my own Dad when he was that old. If you had shown me that picture as a child, I would have wanted to know why Daddy was wearing those funny clothes. Another reason is that my Grandfather and my own son don’t look alike. They look identical.

Seriously.

There is no question in my mind what my little boy will grow up to look like. The match is pretty much perfect.

All this is enough to crank up the voltage on the sentimentality-o-meter but the last reason for my attachment is the photographer. It’s my Great-grandmother. Saying that they didn’t have much money is a huge understatement, but one of the very few indulgences they enjoyed was a Brownie camera, and from what I understand, she enjoyed it mightily.

For those of you who’ve never seen a Brownie before, it is quite the interesting little box. Made for much of the twentieth century in one incarnation or another, it brought photography to the masses. They only cost three or four dollars and took, if not wonderful, then reasonable pictures. For the first time, almost anyone could chronicle their lives on film. It was a huge change and really started in earnest photographic record keeping for average families.

Now Great-great uncle Horace wasn’t just a name in a list, but a face you could spot familial connection with. I know that’s what it does for me, any way. The moment I bought my very own Brownie on that internet auction site, it somehow made me feel that much closer to the people in that family portrait as well as my Great-grandmother. I liked that. My problem, I knew, was that there was no way I was going to be contented with simply leaving it on the book shelf to gather dust.

Don’t get me wrong. It’ll do that too! But I was going to need to take this little bit of history out and see what I could get with it as well. It needed it to work.

A handful of days later, it arrived. The auction photos had been less than clear and the item description was seriously… sparse, so it was with some trepidation that I opened the package. It’s probably the main reason I has no competition in buying it. TO my elight, other than some surface rust on the front, some smudgy optics and a sticky shutter, it looked surprisingly sound. Like a giddy eight year old with his father’s pocket watch, I quickly took it down to parts, cleaned everything that looked cleanable and added a little bit of thin lubricant to the moving bits. After reassembly and a few dozen cycles of the shutter release to break it back in after who knows how many decades of neglect, everything was moving happily and snappily! Now all I needed was film.

Ah… film.

It’s a little startling to realize that the word, “film” is very quickly becoming a forgotten word that will eventually slide into anachronism. Buying film? Whoa! Do people still do that?

A few do, as it turns out.

Film for a camera built in nineteen-thirty-something though, is harder.

Back in the celluloid days, film came in a zillion different sizes and formats and the choices were aplenty. The Brownie’s particular type is called 620 and it was sold everywhere and even cheap, compared to the more modern 35mm which most of my contemporaries are familiar with. 620 is a large format film with each negative bigger than some prints that I own and a fresh roll providing a paltry eight exposures. It has also not been commercially produced since the 1980’s.

I never let stuff like thirty-five years of obsolescence deter me. That just makes it more satisfying when you get it all running.

Many professional photographers still shoot actual film in their cameras and for really posh portraits, they use a format called 120. Luckily it’s almost exactly the same size as 620.

ALMOST.

The film its self is the same, but the spool that the film is wound on is just ever so much bigger. Just bigger enough, in fact, to not allow it to work in a Brownie. Don’t think for a moment that this didn’t happen by design.

Ugh.

Solution number one is to strip off the film and hand wind it onto an old 620 spindle. It sounds simple except that it needs to all be done in perfect darkness, there’s a finicky little tab at the end of the film that you need to get in just the right placement and… you need some old 620 size spindles. Solution number two is to ever so carefully use a belt sander to grind down the oversized spindle without ripping the film still curled around it.

Given a choice, I will always go for the belt sander. Always.

Who wouldn’t?

So, a little time in the basement and a scun knuckle or two and, poof! Film for an eighty year old camera!

How would it work? Would it work at all? Does it leak light? I had no idea. Even if the pictures didn’t come out, snapping them would be part of the fun.

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