Tuesday, November 23, 2010

This Land Is Your Land

I watched the 1992 version of "The Last of the Mohicans" last night.  Ya know, the one where Daniel Day-Lewis gets knocked over by a Huron Indian and for a brief second you can almost see his ballsack?

Wow, I didn't sign up for that when I popped the DVD in...I'm all for realism in movies but I don't really need to know that the Method Actor wasn't wearing any fruit-of-the-looms under his loincloth.

Anyway, I'd forgotten what a good movie it was.

I think it really got the period right.  The struggles between the French and English for control of what is now my part of the country, the Great Lakes region.  How brutal and miserable life must have been like for the soldiers on both sides of the war.  The Indians, who called their Franco or Anglo allies their "Fathers," must have known that the White influence would inevitably run them out of their ancestral lands.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week I pondered on what Daniel Day-Lewis said in the making-of featurette on the DVD.

He seems to have a great affinity for the ancestral Americans that inhabited the Hudson Valley, and I'm sure the rest of this country, prior to the White conquest. He talked about the idea of land ownership; the natives didn't quite understand that concept.

How can you own "land?"  It's something that has been here long before you, and will occupy the same space once you're dust, forgotten in the very ground that you claim to own.  Owning land, I imagine, is about the same as owning sky.

The idea is pure hubris.

Vanity, unchecked.

Indians were grateful for the lands, the abundance of game, and the water that flowed freely and without hindrance.  Not to say that they were innocents; war was quite routine among different nations.  Their methods were just as repugnant as the Whites; I read that scalping wasn't started by Indians, but rather Europeans and later adopted by certain native cultures to scare the wary French and English settlers.

But what I admire of the Indian cultures was the respect that they had for the resources around them.  The bison was hunted by Plains Indians; every bit of an animal they killed was used for something:  its meat for food, the hide for clothing and shelter, and bones for weapons, sewing needles and kitchen utensils.

As Whites moved westward, they realized the Plains Indians relied upon the buffalo for their survival.  What better way to eradicate a people than to kill off their food source?

Bison numbers were estimated to upwards of sixty million at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Sixty million.

By the start of the twentieth century they were virtually extinct.

And so were the Plains Indians, their remnants resigned to reservations throughout the North and Mid West.

White settlers moved in, turning millions of acres of vast prairie into farmland.

For profit.

For greed.

Bison, pronghorn, wolves, and grizzly bears were extirpated as well.  By the 1940s there were no wolves left in Yellowstone National Park, hunted to extinction in lands that they inhabited since the last great ice age.

Since the 1960s people have begun to take notice.  Movements have been established to right what our forebearers did wrong.  The Endangered Species Act of the early 1970s has restored much of the imbalance.

George Bush's reccent defeat in the ANWAR drilling prospect has shown some true progress in the fight to restore some sanity to out-of-control corporate greed.

Preserves in Kansas and other Plains states have slowly been rebuilding prairie; bison, prairie dog colonies, and pronghorn are being re-established.

And wolves, once again, howl toward the full moon in Yellowstone.

I believe the Indians knew it best: We're not owners of this land.

Only stewards, temprorary superintendents.

And, frankly, we don't own it.  It owns us, because whatever we do to it will only affect us in return.

Long after I'm gone the Grand Canyon will still be grand.  El Capitan will still tower over the Merced River, and the Hudson River will flow past the graves of millions of people who thought they had some ownership of the land below their feet and the sky above their heads.

So as it turns out, the only thing they truly owned was the method in which they treated the world around them.

And perhaps, now and forever, a small rectangular vault that houses their dusty bones in a long-forgotten cemetery plot.




*

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lip Goo and Cosmic Shifts

Talk to anyone that knows me and they’ll tell you the singular, and perhaps only, gift that I truly possess is the ability to get an awesome parking space at the mall.

Guaranteed.

I can’t explain it.

It just happens.

Like Mozart composing his first symphony at two or Rain Man memorizing the phone book my gift is that of the awesome parking space.

So, I recently took a new photography gig at a local studio. We have a store at a nearby mall and I, at the ripe old age of 44, am back to working in an institute of higher shopping. We’re surrounded by Sephora, Victoria’s Secret and a litany of other high-end hot-mom stores so it’s not all bad.

I got to work a little early today in the quest for a new 12-volt, 200 milliAmp power supply from the mall’s Radio Shack.

I was astounded that my parking space options were fairly limited; the best I could find was two rows away from the mall entrance and about twelve spaces back.

Wow. Something was wrong. Where was my space?

Was my one singular gift in this universe failing me?

I shook my head, muttered a simple goddammit under my breath and trudged off to the employee entrance of South Park Mall.

I walked past the studio, popping my head in to say hello before making my way to the Shack. I had my HDTV amplified antenna under my arm, confident that they would have the power supply that I needed.

Ten minutes later I walked out with no power supply and an attitude that was getting more sour by the minute.

I got to the studio, peeled off my leather jacket and went to grab my eponymous chap-stick from my pants pocket.

Crap.

I forgot it at home.

It was about one-thirty and my first shoot wasn’t until two.

What to do?

Do I suck it up; not have any life-sustaining chap-stick until well into the night when I got home? Would my lips be able to bear the increasing horror of the dryness I knew would set in quickly?

Or do I jet over to the gas station to buy some overpriced-but-necessary lip balm?

I had twenty minutes so I bolted for the car.

I put the car in reverse, re-traced my entrance to the mall by bopping past Buca di Beppo’s and to the BP station on the corner.

Two minutes later I was back in my car; my lips were thanking me for the life-giving sustenance of the waxy goo enveloping them as protection against the elements, mall air and a cavalcade of three year-olds that I would be inundated with during a five-hour stint as a photographer-of-children-and-lap-dogs.

I pulled back into the parking lot near my normal entrance. As I got closer to the entrance I scanned for spaces.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Then, out of the corner of my left eye I saw it.

First row, first space.

Twenty-five feet from the mall.

The cosmic shift was complete.

The universe, out of balance for about fifty-five minutes, had righted itself.

And the rest of my day was great.





*

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Consumption Junction

Republicans, Democrats, Independents and Tea-Baggers.

White, Black, Hispanic and Asians.

Liberals, Conservatives and Moderates.

Rich, poor, middle-class.

Christian, Jew, Muslim and Atheist.

We all share one common denominator.

I’m sure that I’m 100% right in this assumption.

Philosophically, we may be at different ends of the spectrum and we may not understand the way the other person thinks, but I know we all have one simple thing in common.

In our homes, we all have at least one junk drawer.

Right?

I’m guessing that even Amish folk, albeit not littered with cell phones, power tools, or telephone books, have a junk drawer next to mother’s sideboard. It’s probably filled with candles and maybe even some batteries, but nonetheless those zipperless people have one too.

Where do these collections of junk come from? More importantly, how do they start?

I’ve seen good kitchen real estate wind up being used to store the detritus of our coat pockets, mall-outings, and flea market finds for many years.

I tried to find some chapstick that I purchased two months ago; I opened my kitchen junk drawer and found a sippee cup, three packs of four-year old Burpee flower seeds, and about sixteen keys that I have NO idea what they unlock.

But no chapstick.

I’ll probably find those in a year or two when I’m looking for the flower seeds I just found.

I was helping my son try and find a lost library CD at his mom’s house. We dug through his two dressers—a chest of drawers and a long dresser-thingee—and I was amazed to find that he has six drawers of junk.

Out of eighteen drawers.

I found old issues of Gamepro magazine, two of those oversized sparkly pens, six pieces of rock-hard chewing gum (still in the package), sixteen keys that he has no idea what they unlock, and Jimmy Hoffa’s remains.

But, once again, no library CD.

What does it say about us when we have so much junk it overtakes the practical? Do you think cavemen had a corner of their cave where they threw all of the things that they thought they eventually might use?

Hey, here’s a good stick, thought Og. I can’t use it right now but maybe I can kill something with it some day.

Hmmm, I’ll just toss it over here in the corner.

So the stick took its place with seventeen other sticks, a turtle shell, and a broken piece of mammoth tusk, because you just never know when a mammoth tusk may come in handy.

And, of course, they never did. Which led to archeologists scratching their heads when they found an “important” cache of artifacts in a cave in southern France.

Sorry, Indiana Jones, it’s just Og’s junk drawer.

I’ve got an idea. Maybe we can heal the rift in this country if we start discussing how Americans are alike instead of how we’re so different.

And let’s start with the junk drawer, because we all have that in common.







*

Monday, November 15, 2010

Indefinable Bliss

I was driving to work yesterday. Stuck in traffic, I started changing radio stations to find something to make my five or ten minutes stuck behind a caravan of soccer moms in their overpriced SUVs a bearable experience.

Is there nothing worse than a parent in a large SUV, an overpriced Starbucks coffee in the right hand and a cell phone jammed in their left hand, obliviously cutting you off amongst a hundred other soccer moms doing the same thing? It vaguely looked like a sequel to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”


So, I pop on 106.5, “Mix106,” which has been self-dubbed “Your Mixmas Station.”

Yep, Christmas music, 24/7 until the end of the year.

Already.

It seems that Thanksgiving has become a speed bump on the way to Christmas. The only real definable thing about our late November holiday is that it falls one day before "Black Friday," the most ridiculous day of the year, shopping or otherwise. Well, and maybe the mounds of turkey that inhabit your fridge for at least a week after that most important day, Black Friday.

Anyway, as I’m flipping through Cleveland radio and I hit Mixmas, the Carpenters’ version of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” started pouring out of my factory speakers.

Instinctively, I started to flip the channel to something a little less annoying, like Rush Limbaugh or an unused frequency where loud, grating white noise would fill the inside of my car.

But then something weird happened.

A huge smile overtook my face and I felt all warm, like I had just peed my bathing suit in a cold swimming pool.

When I was a kid, it truly wasn’t the holiday season until my mom dug out the Carpenters’ Christmas Album on eight-track. We’d listen to the fifteen or twenty songs over and over, dutifully putting it back into the top drawer of the buffet on January 1st, waiting twelve more months to hear our favorite holiday music.

What is it about a certain piece of music that can bring memories of decades past screaming back into the forefront of your conscious mind? I never listened to any other Carpenters’ music, and my only other knowledge of them is that Karen Carpenter died of anorexia when I was in high school, her frail body wasn’t able to support her huge voice any longer.

Is her weird-looking, Mormon-lite, gay brother still alive?

I dunno.

But every Christmas I hear their album and it brings an indefinable bliss to me. A smile grows upon my face, and my mind, no matter how thick the traffic is, races back to Elyria, Ohio circa 1975 and my mom’s dining room.

It’s snowing outside; a light blanket has carpeted Beverly Court throughout the night and it’s too cold to go outside and play. Christmas vacation started two days ago, and it’s our first weekend of a long two-week break before we head back to Ely School in a brand new year: 1976.

She has just made some chicken. The warm, inviting smells of roast chicken waft through the house, out of the kitchen, into the dining room, and past the Christmas tree in the front window, waiting to be decorated. Karen Carpenter warbles on “Merry Christmas, Darling” as the glass panes frost over from the furnace vent that blows every half hour on the west-facing windows.

My sister and I are sorting through three big wooden boxes of decorations. There are still spider webs on the large crate, dusty from being stored under the basement steps for the whole year.

We’d pull out a giant Frosty the Snowman. He was four feet tall and had a paper belly that was accordion-like; we’d unfold him and hang him on the coat closet door. He stuck out two feet and we’d always catch our coats on him; every day we’d need to right him on the wall as he was dangling to the right or the left depending on how many coats had bumped him since the day before.

The smaller decorations: our six-inch tall snowmen, the manger figurines, and other ancient plastic and metal ornaments adorned our wooden mantle, taking their exact places as they did each and every December from the time I was able to walk until I sold the house in 2003.

As the mashed potatoes were being whipped in my mom’s big blue bowl, the lights came out of their cocoon, tangled like old WWII barbed wire. I hated untangling the long green strands of lights, but my anticipation of getting the tree up and digging into a big Sunday dinner was the reward for seeming hours of my diligence to that particular task at hand.

How do lights, stored delicately the year before, amass themselves into such a giant mess?

Is there a Christmas gnome who lives under the basement stairs whose sole job is to make your lights an unmitigated disaster every year?

The smells started to overtake my Christmas excitement. I could hear my mom putting the finishing touches on our meal. The silverware drawer opened on its hinges, clanking to a stop as the catch grabbed the drawer. She fumbled for forks, knives, and spoons as the metal clashed together as she laid them on the table. Within moments, she would call us and we’d be sitting at the kitchen table; me against the wall, my mom sitting across from me, dad to my right and my sister to my left, under the big window. From time to time my little sister had to untangle the curtains from her blonde hair. On some nights she would give up, eating her meal with a curtain-shawl wrapped around the back of her head.

Time to eat, mom bellowed.

I dropped the spider web of lights and ran into the kitchen. Back in those days we didn’t wash our hands. I guess my thoughts were that if I didn’t pee on them they were clean. To a large degree, I still feel that way. My sister and her kids use Purell like oxygen; their hands constantly smell like rubbing alcohol and each time a hint of dirt comes anywhere near their digits the hand sanitizer is there in an instant, pushing back the Ebola and H1N1 lurking within every perceived nook and cranny of planet Earth.

Funny how these diseases weren't there when we were small.

The aromas were everywhere. Chicken clashed with potatoes. Cauliflower fought with pumpkin pie to get a grasp on your nose. We said grace, I dutifully bowed my head even though I thought it was all a load of crap.

Once my mom finished making the sign of the cross I dove into the chicken. I smothered my mashed potatoes in butter and watched the thick, real butter cut from a stick ooze down the side of my heaping white glob of potatoes. I stirred it in and mushed them up, giving the whole pile a slight yellow tint.

For the next twenty minutes I stuffed myself. My stomach swelled; my olfactory sense was overwhelmed.

And as I finished my pumpkin pie the eight-track clicked over. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” emanated from our little dark walnut, wood-cabinet speakers in the dining room.

Karen Carpenter’s voice was almost as sweet as that pie.

And two hours later the tree, full of lights, garland, and forty-year old ornaments, looked great.



*

Project Journey On

So, I started this whole idea about doing something new and, hopefully, positive every day. I thought I’d take a little bit of time each day to add some good juju to the mix.


It needed a cool name. Kind of like Trans-Siberian Orchestra, that band that plays for like six weeks a year around Christmas time and then sits on a beach for the other ten months drinking egg nog mai-tais, has themselves labeled “TSO;” I thought that my moniker sounded cool when shortened as well: PJO.

"Project Journey On."

Cool, huh?

I tried other names, things like "The Sojourn Project" or "Moving On" but they sounded faintly like military operations or a Jessica Alba dance movie.  Or a Nicholas Sparks novel.

The results so far have been pretty good; I don’t want to give y’all a play-by-play but here have been the results so far:

Monday: It was a sad day. I had to take poor little Buster to the vet and have him euthanized. I can’t say “put to sleep” because that sounds like there’s a chance that he’s going to magically wake up someday. My mother came into town to help; we spent the day together afterwards and she tried to cheer me up. We had an awesome pizza from Ace’s in North Ridgeville. Damn good pizza.

But I really miss my cat.

Effort: A+

Experience: Mom and pizza? A+, Losing Buster? F

Tuesday: Started reading Stoker's Dracula. Got about twenty pages in and realized why, at age 44, I’ve never read it. It’s boring as hell. Stick to the movies. Either the Francis Ford Coppola version with Gary Oldman or the 1922 German Nosferatu, a Symphony in Horror. Good stuff both.

Good experience, though. I learned that although I like to read, there’s probably a good reason why many of the “classics” have remained unread.

Effort and Experience: A-

Wednesday: Walked down to the metroparks and the site of my “hidden” bald eagles’ nest. It was only a twenty-minute sojourn but I got to peer into the valley without being blocked by all those pesky summer leaves.  No eagles.   They abandon the nest once the chicks fledge, but the nest was intact. They'll, hopefully, be back in March to bring some more eaglets into the world.
Effort and Experience: Solid B

Thursday: Found a stash of old pictures and started to catalog them on my computer. I scanned in some really old photos from our family. It wasn’t fun scanning them in; it took hours. However, it was memorable going down that road and reliving people long since dead and buried.

Effort and Experience: B-/C+


Friday: Went to the zoo. By myself. It was fantastic walking around in the chilly air and seeing some of the North-of-the-Equator animals digging their type of weather. However, I’m more of an African animal myself and less of a reindeer. Got some great shots and heard the cheetahs “click.” They make some really cool sounds when they’re aggravated.

Effort and Experience: A+ (Except the cold. My nose started running…)

Saturday: I started reading another book, a non-fiction book about the raising and history of the HL Hunley, the Confederate submarine raised from Charleston Harbor in 2000. Good book so far. Maybe I’ll post some of the pictures I took of the Hunley when I was in Charleston. They expressly forbade me from taking them but, oops, I took them anyway.

Sunday: Started a second book as well, “Jesus and Gin,” a look back at fundamentalism and how the roots of modern Republicanism-Religious Fundamentalism started not in the 1980s, but during the Roaring ‘20s. Good stuff. Boy, President Harding made GWB look like George Washington in comparison.

Overall, it was an interesting week. Although there were no alligators anywhere to be seen, I did glimpse a turtle down in the metroparks as he sunned himself on a log. I guess Ohio’s just not as epic as some other states.

What’s on my PJO short-term list?

I don’t have a clue.

Maybe that’s the beauty of it. But I’m thinking Times Square on New Year’s Eve. That would be a great way to usher in 2011 and a slate of new things for the next decade of our new century.

What do you think?




*

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Particular Yesterday

I'm laying in bed in a comfy condo in Myrtle Beach reading about the HL Hunley

What?  You've never heard the story of the Hunley?


The soft light next to my berth illuminates the pages of my book, a beacon to a particular yesterday.  I am enthralled by this story; by the brave men who built her, the three crews who died inside her iron belly and the team of men who found her, giving her a permanent home back in Charleston.

Just where she belongs.

Tomorrow afternoon I'm going to see her.  She's in a 90,000 gallon conservation tank.  Every inch of her is being pored over by archeologists to preserve the best time capsule to Civil War life, and one of the best-preserved shipwrecks, ever found.

And I'm giddy with excitement to see a treasure that's beyond description.  Beyond mere words.  And, unfortunately, as I would learn the next day, beyond photographing.

In 1863, the Hunley, a privateer submarine built for use by the Confederate government, is shipped to Charleston from Mobile, Alabama, to try and break the union blockade that is slowly strangling the nascent Confederacy of Southern States.

P.G.T. Beauregard, the commander in charge of Charleston, is desperate to try something, anything that will stop the non-stop Union shelling of Charleston.

Prior to the war, Charleston was the jewel of the South.  Its streets were lined with cobblestones; the springtime breeze sweet with magnolia blossoms.  Gorgeous Georgian homes lined the Battery and the sea always provided fresh air to cover the stench of horse droppings from the wagons and buggies that patrolled the streets of the Holy City, as she is called because of the numerous church steeples that pepper the skyline.  Among other things, Charleston is the home to North America's oldest synagogue.  Hmmm, who woulda thought that?

But no longer.  By the summer of 1863 Charleston is a ghost town.  Anyone who could leave fled months before to remove themselves to safety and get away from the daily bombardment of union shells being lobbed from the outskirts of the harbor.  The sweet smell of magnolia has been replaced by a pungent odor of death: rotting trees, destroyed homes, and the torpidity of a stagnant city, slowly dying from the anaconda-like constriction of the Union's blockade.

The Hunley is to be Beauregard's secret weapon.  It would, stealthily, creep underwater to an unawares ship and lunge a torpedo into its side from a twenty-foot spar attached to the front of the submersible like some metal narwhale. After implanting her payload into the side of a ship she would back away from the crippled victim; the captain would then pull a rope, detonating the torpedo.

This, Beauregard imagined, would break the stranglehold on the harbor.  Then supplies, food, and Confederate soldiers could flood into Charleston and save the jewel of the South.

On February 17th, 1864, seven brave men crawl into the coffin-sized hull off the little fish-boat.  They man their stations and hand-crank the sub from Mount Pleasant to the USS Housatonic, a blockade ship a few miles offshore. 

Everything is going as planned.  The men, oxygen-deprived and exhausted from cranking for almost an hour, silently glide the spar of the Hunley into the side of the Housatonic.  Upon seeing a strange sight near their ship, startled Union sailors start targeting small arms fire towards the sub.  The bullets plink off the steel hull of the submarine as the Hunley slowly backs away.

As she reverses, the rope governing the torpedo becomes taut and a huge explosion, powered by ninety pounds of gunpowder, mortally wounds the big Union ship.

Five union soldiers are instantly killed as the Housatonic, crippled, starts to sink into the brackish, murky waters off the Carolina coast.

The Hunley starts to make its way back to port.  As agreed upon, she is to flash a blue signal light towards the beach to let the awaiting support crews know she has been successful in her mission and is now heading home.  Upon that blue phosphorous beacon a signal fire is to be lit to guide Captain Dixon and the six others back to the beach.

The bonfire is lit; it grows hot and bright with its intensity.

The Hunley, like the Flying Dutchman, sails away into history. 

The crew, and submarine, was never seen again.

Rumors persisted among Charlestonians that she was in Norfolk.

Or Wilmington.

Or Mobile.

But she was gone, sunk in thirty feet of water and not to be seen again for a hundred and thirty-one years.

Over the ensuing decades several searches were mounted; no one was successful in locating the fish-boat. Everyone had looked between the wreck of the Housatonic and the shoreline.  It never occurred to anyone to look elsewhere. 

Maybe further out to sea.

A new expedition was mounted in 1994.  They looked everywhere; the search was concentrated in the same old spots as before, but a few sonar pings were checked out on the seaward side of the Housatonic.

In 1995, a dive team checked out an anomaly knowing that it was just another waste of time.  They were professional divers, paid a full day's wages for two hours of work or ten hours. They knew that this wasn't her; they had dove this site once before and had pretty much checked it off the list as a possible target.

Their employer was kind, and they didn't want to take advantage of him.  They suited up, went down, and gazed through the murky water.  They plunged their rods into the thick sand.  Something solid.  A little more exploration may be necessary...

At first it looked like an old steel tube.  Worthless. 

Then, something caught their eye.  A conning tower? 

This shouldn't be here.

After 131 years of surging, camouflaging sand, the HL Hunley had been found.

And in a spot that no one had expected.  Had the currents carried her out to sea?  The tide?  How did the crew perish? 

Most likely, the lack of oxygen in the sub and the incredible amount of carbon dioxide that had no way to escape from the cramped quarters had created an anoxic environment where the men just fell asleep.  They probably died a peaceful death as the little fish boat, minus a navigator, sank into the sandy bottom of Charleston harbor.

She was raised in 2000, carried home in a cradle built especially for her, passing Magnolia Cemetery on her way to a conservation lab.  Her first two crews, including Horace Hunley, her namesake and financier, were buried in that cemetery.  And within a year, George Dixon and the other crew members of the HL Hunley would join them in a full military burial, attended by thousands.

Her forty-foot length teemed with crusty growth and her innards were filled with sediment, mud, and the remains of seven men who had been the first men, and submarine, to successfully sink an enemy ship in combat.

I read that whole book in one night.

The next day I drove into Charleston and toured the sights and smells related to the HL Hunley.  I went to Fort Sumter, a pilgrimage of sorts, as the fresh October sea air filled my lungs.  Dolphins played at the prow of our boat, and on the horizon lay the fort where the War Between the States began.  I toured Sumter and then made my way on to Fort Moultrie, where Rebel soldiers fired the first shots at Fort Sumter, under Federal control in April of 1861.

Then, finally, at about two in the afternoon I made my way to the Warren Lasch Conservation Center on Charleston's old navy base.  It was a non-descript building, holed up in a decaying part of town.  There wasn't much fanfare announcing the Hunley.  As a matter-of-fact, I wondered if I was in the right place. 

When I pulled into the parking lot I had to ask a passerby if this is the place where the Hunley was.

Yes, he nodded and said it was right in there, pointing a gangly finger to the white warehouse.

I made my way into the building.  My heart was beating pretty quickly. I gave the lady my pre-paid ticket and walked into a large museum and gift shop, of course.

Where was she?

I walked through a small steel door to be greeted by my tour guide, a fast-talking Charlestonian who probably emigrated from the North.  No one talks this fast down here, I thought.

He chit-chatted his way to my group with a bunch of facts.  He was telling me everything I already knew. 

Shut up, dude.  I just wanna see the sub.

So after the previous tour group came down the stairs we were led up to a viewing platform that overlooked the Hunley in her sling, still lying at a forty-five degree angle in her tank. 

I got goose bumps as I peered down at the greenish hulk lying no more than ten feet from me..

No pictures, I was told as I walked into the viewing room. 

Sure, I thought.

As the group descended the stairs to leave the room I lagged behind.  I peered into the tank and made several coughing noises as I clicked away my noisy Canon shutter, capturing seven images of the sub in its murky fresh-water bath.  Juvenile?  Yep.

Did I get my shot?

Of course.

As I left the Lasch Center I was drunk on the experience.  I had just seen a ghost ship.



More importantly, the book that I had devoured the night before suddenly sprang to life in my fever-gripped imagination.

How many books do you get to read and then follow up that one-dimensional black-and-white paper page with an historical, 3-D rendering of it? 

The real thing? 

Not some model or replica of it, but rather the living, breathing entity that the book was written about in the first place?

The story was trumped by the experience.

And I'm still high from it today, three weeks later.




*

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Journey On

I sat on the beach by myself about mid-way through my South Carolina vacation a few weeks ago.

We had done and seen so much in just a few scant days that it really took a moment for me to digest all of the cool sights, sounds, and smells that I had taken in.

Our condo was beautiful; three pools, a plethora of activities for the kids and two-or was it three?-hot tubs to lounge in a few feet from the rolling Atlantic surf.





The view was fantastic...it reminded me of my oceanfront condo in Hawai'i.  I could get used to this view again.

Except for all the damn hurricanes and, I've already been through two of those, I could say that this is damned near paradise.

We arrived on a Friday, and by Saturday morning I was knee-deep in wild alligators.  I went to one of the best wildlife preserves I had ever seen and was shooting away at a stable of lethargic 'gators, sunning themselves in the warm October sun.

There were ibises, storks, ospreys, herons and egrets everywhere.  As a photographer, it was a delight.

On Sunday, I spent a magnificent day in Charleston, soaking up some good Civil War geekdom and finally getting to see the HL Hunley, the first submarine to sink a ship in battle.

It was a crusty relic, plucked from the bottom of Charleston Harbor after sinking a Union ship, the USS Housatonic, in early 1864.  She never made it back to port after the Housatonic's sinking and was raised with much fanfare in 2000, finally making port after being on eternal patrol for 136 years.

For me it was geek heaven; I peered into the 90,000 gallon preservation tank holding the sub and my imagination took over.  Just to see it in person was fascinating; a true piece of American history was sitting before me.

We left the Hunley and explored downtown Charleston after having a Gullah-inspired dinner at a local restaurant.  Outside of true Hawai'ian cuisine, I gotta say that down-home Southern cooking is the best food anywhere here in the states.

We saw all of South Carolina's national park sites.  My traveling companions weren't quite as enthusiastic as I, but they indulged me and saw some great sites.

Anyway, back to the beach.

So I sat there, awash in a technicolor overload of senses.  Most days are boring, humdrum, and end as they began: with the same boring routine. 

Right?

I thought to myself: Why can't every day be as exciting as the past few?

Well, I don't expect to see alligators within spitting distance or ancient submarines at my beck and call, but what if I could experience something to break that routine, that monotony of every day existence?

Something, that when I crawled into bed every night, would give me pause and let me be thankful for being alive?

I told myself that when I got back to Cleveland life would go on pretty much like it has.

However, I would take a few moments each day, make sure I saw something unique, and appreciate that time spent in the moment.

Maybe a sunset, or a pretty girl walking by, or a piece of music that I hadn't heard in awhile.

Or a book that I've always wanted to read but just never gave myself the time.

We got back, and I implemented my plan right away.

However, like most things in life, an incident came up and threw a wrench into the whole damn thing.

Buster got sick.

I held him.

I nursed him.

My book idea got tossed on the back burner.

But, you know what?

His sickness only tempered my idea into reality.

We spent every available moment together...and I ignored some other responsibilities to make sure he was comfortable.  Laundry?  Who cares?  The dishes could wait as well.

I must have caressed his forehead a thousand times in those seven days between my return home and his death.

He was a special cat and our week together only reinforced that notion.

So now I'm reading a book that I've owned for years.  I have no idea if I'll finish it but Bram Stoker's Dracula is sitting on my nightstand.

And I'm smelling the flowers even as they wither under the cool nights' chill.

Every day is a gift that I don't want, and can't afford, to squander.



I hope that you can sit on a beach some night and look at the immensity of the ocean and realize that time is immemorial.

But we're not.




*

Monday, November 1, 2010

One More Somersault.

Would a man allergic to bees walk up to a bees’ nest and smack it with a baseball bat?

I hope not.

Why would a man with a passing allergy to cats adopt three of them?

My whole life cats have made me sneeze; I had felines when I was younger but learned to live with the occasional runny nose or puffy eyes. Once I got my own permanent place I enjoyed the freedom of a goldfish bowl.

Feed the fish every few days, change the water weekly and relish the ability to come on go as I please.

Then, one day in early 2002, I stumbled upon Spencer. I didn’t go to the pet store with the intention of becoming a full-time animal steward; it just happened.

Within a few years my dog had two ferrets as companions and, eventually, the feline herd that lives with me.

Allergies be damned.

I live with it.

Buster, a little seven-pound tuxedo kitty, joined our clan in February of 2007.

He was a scrappy little kitten, recently neutered and pedigreed from the harsh streets of Cleveland’s industrial river flats.

Although he was domesticated and adopted from a local PetSmart store, he maintained the temerity of a cat borne of the streets. He’d hang back, shy away from strangers and would only give you a passing grade once he thoroughly checked you out.

I love my cats for different reasons; Salem, the old man of the bunch, is the gentlest cat you’ll ever see. His eyes are deep and kind.

Beast, the Maine Coon, is kind of like me. He jumps into most situations without thinking and only then gauges if he’s done the right thing. He’s a shit-disturber as well, hopefully unlike me.

And Buster was the sage of the bunch. He’d take the high ground when he entered the room. His instincts were sharp, his wits keen. Only when he felt reassured that you provided no danger would he enter, gingerly stepping toward you.

Then he’d jump on your lap and demand fealty. He would offer me his head, much like a mob boss would offer his ring for you to kiss. Once that little black cranium was offered up it was my duty to scratch it.

When I would, he would tumble forward head-first in a somersault that would end with his head now facing away from me and his butt and tail squarely in front of me. On more than one occasion did I have a feline Q-tip tail stuck up my nose as one of his gymnastic feats ended in epic fail.

Well, for me at least.

He would then sit on my lap and purr uncontrollably, drooling like a crack whore during a back alley late-night fix.

On the rare occasion when he made his way into my bedroom without my knowledge, I would feel a small tremor as four little feet pitter-pattered across the comforter. When I would turn the lamp on I’d see a little tuxedo furball quietly waiting twelve inches from my face with his front paws tucked underneath him, demanding the eponymous bowed-head-ring-kiss that he loved. And two seconds later, the tip of his perfectly-formed tail stuck in my face.

Annoying?

Sometimes.

But it was a routine that I loved. Especially the feel of those two pairs of white paws dancing across the comforter in quiet tip-toe fashion.

Quintessential Buster.




I lost Buster today to the ravages of lymphoma. His little body became more frail with each passing hour. I stayed up with him each and every night until I could no longer stay awake. I would wake up every few hours, startled by some imaginary cue, to make sure he was still with us. And there he would be, tucked underneath my arm as he always was in good health, sleeping soundly.

Since last Tuesday he’s been at my side at every waking moment. We watched TV together this weekend and he sat on my lap as I photoshopped about two-hundred pictures for a waiting client.

He slept with me, curling up at my side every night. I awoke Thursday morning to see him stretched out on his back, purring away. I thought maybe the diagnosis was wrong and we had a fighting chance. He looked happy, content even, and didn’t seem to be bothered by his condition. He was eating like a horse; he regained a little strength.

But, his weight dropped after spiking a bit last week. The steroid and antibiotics the vet gave him last Tuesday wore off, and he was slowly shutting down.

As my pocket kitty, the fierce little warrior who stared down Beast a thousand times in a feline gladiatorial arena, stood up this morning and wobbled when he walked.

I made the call to my vet.

I took him in this afternoon.

I held him, cradling his head and body as the kindly Dr. Speck administered the cocktail that made his suffering come to a peaceful end.

I sat there in that sterile room, crying like a little girl and caressing my limp kitty. I closed his eyes and took comfort in the thought that his suffering was over.

I put his paws together and ached for one more somersault.

My mom made the drive from Youngstown to help us get through this afternoon. She drove me to the vet’s office while I cradled Buster in my arms on a big white pillow.

I came home. Mom gave me a huge hug and then left for Youngstown.

There was the Lumley herd, waiting for me. Salem meowed at me in his high-pitched mew. Beast looked at me quizzically, his giant fluffy tail fanning the living room as he walked toward me. Spencer barked his anemic little bark.

Birds were chirping in the backyard.

I sat down.  Spencer wagged his tail and put his head into my lap.  Salem jumped on the couch and purred softly in my left ear. Beast nudged my head while perched on the back of the couch.

I was surrounded by my companions.

There was life everywhere. Nothing had really changed.

But everything had.

My house has never been more empty.







*