Archive for January, 2015


Blood, Snow, and Tears

January 24, 2015


So the snow has decided to return. Time for shoveling, bad driving conditions, and packed supermarkets. But a snowfall was not always cause for gloom and doom. In the eyes of a child, a day like today can be glorious. I remember this as I think back to the snow-filled winter wonderlands of my childhood.

Winter could indeed be a fantastic time for a kid like me who lived across the street from a public park. A snowfall, especially a deep one like there so often seemed to be, signaled a day of unparalleled outdoor adventure. A quick breakfast and a hurried mandatory Mom-enforced bundling-up, and out the door I could go into a pristine white paradise.

Memorial Park lay between my house on New Bridge Road and Lincoln Elementary School. It consisted of several baseball fields, a kid’s playground, and a small woods bordering two sides. The path to Lincoln School cut across the side with the playground. This area was the backdrop for two particularly memorable events in the snowy winter of 1955.

Snow in the park on a Saturday morning pretty much meant a snow-angels-making, snowman-building, animal-track-following, getting-soaked-to-the-skin-and-changing-at-least-three-times kind of day. It was one such snow-covered Saturday when I went charging into the park to discover quite a bit of unusual activity along the school path. I ran over to investigate, and there, much to my surprise and delight, a snowman building contest was underway. I loved making snowmen, and I was quite good at it for a seven year old, thank you very much, even if I didn’t mind saying so myself.

Well, I dove right in, building my traditional three-tier snowman with speed and precision like I had never done before, stick arms and stone facial features all just so. This was my first contest, and by golly, I was sure that first place trophy would be mine. Unfortunately, two things conspired against me. The first was that the contest had to be entered beforehand, unbeknownst to me, and there was an age limit that I wouldn’t have qualified for even if I had known. The second was the massive galoshed foot of the teenage boy working next to me (constructing what was, in retrospect, a rather magnificent snow sculpture of the Mona Lisa). In the midst of an artistic perusal of his own partly finished sculpture, he stepped back — perhaps for better perspective — and crushed my masterpiece.

I stood in disbelief, lip quivering — how could this have possibly happened? What kind of lout would so disrespect the work of a fellow artist? Then came the tears, exploding forth out of my eyes in the finest example of projectile wailing ever to be seen this side of Dumont, my howls of despair rising from the deepest reserve of my injured little psyche.

The teenager, startled by this emotional explosion, realized that he was the cause and began a desperate and mostly unsuccessful attempt to console me by reconstructing my caved-in snowman, probably fearing some fierce retribution from a nearby parent. Seeing my hopes dashed and not knowing what else to do, I ran home, leaving a trail of tears in my snowy wake.

My mother was not overly impressed with my dilemma. She dispassionately explained to me as she stripped away my drenched snowsuit that I was not really in the contest and would have never won anyway; not exactly the salve I needed at that moment even though she was right. Some warm milk and cookies were much more helpful, but I swore that next year I would return and snare the triumph I had just been so shamelessly denied.

That, as it turned out, was not to be. The contest was never held again. The trail I left through the white snow, however, was not to be the last.

Several snowfalls later that winter I had gotten off to a particularly early start. A couple of snow angels midway across the empty park seemed to bode well for a good morning’s activities. I got to the playground, still the only one around. The idea of trying out the snow-covered swings and merry-go-round was enticing, but first a quick climb on my personal favorite, the monkey bars. The air of danger was present as soon as the slipperiness of the bars under my gloved hands became apparent, but that didn’t stop me from my attempted ascent. About the fourth rung up, my face brushed lightly against the frigid metal, and I noticed a strange and unexpected sensation….stickiness. I stopped and touched the spot with my glove, expecting to find the remains of some other kid’s gum or lollipop. No, that wasn’t it. Another exploratory brush with my face, and there it was again.

My third pass was a bit closer, and my lower lip stuck to the bar. How strange! Now, this was the mid 1950’s, and A Christmas Story had not yet made movie history, so I had no experience with what was to transpire. I began to pull away, but my lip did not follow. I pulled again, the lip stretching out to a length that would have made a Ubangi tribesman proud. At this point, panic struck. A quick glance around revealed no available help. My mom would expect me to be out here all morning. I was trapped!

So I did what any normal panicked seven year old would do; I yanked my head back and jumped off the monkey bars. Immediately a patch of crimson appeared in the snow at my feet. It took a few seconds to realize that it was my blood, but when I did, I took off for home. The trail I left was visible this time, spots of red punctuating the footprints across the once fresh coat of snow.

My mother was at the door by the time I got there, so loud was my screaming. She pushed her ever-present dishtowel against my lip as she led me to the basement sink in order to bleed in relative safety and not sully the upstairs floor. She left me for a moment pathetically sobbing and holding the soggy dish towel to my face. She returned with a clean cloth and bottle of vinegar. The vinegar-soaked cloth replaced the dish towel, and I accepted it readily despite the intense stinging, assuming my mother was far better versed in the medicinal arts than I.

I don’t remember how long it took for my lip to heal, but I did learn, in spite of my sister’s chuckles and my father’s head shakes, a valuable lesson. Years later when I saw for the first time the scene in A Christmas Story when Flick engaged in his verbal duel with Schwartz, my stomach grew queasy, for I knew where this was going. And when Flick reentered the classroom with his gauze-wrapped tongue, I could only sigh in sympathy at the chagrin of my comrade-in-pain.

A good friend recently told me he read somewhere that nostalgia is the file that removes the rough edges from the “good old days.” This may indeed be the case. Perhaps my romanticized recollection of the winter snow was a bit premature, although after an afternoon of shoveling, I’ll take it.


A Spy in Their Midst

January 20, 2015

the reader

I have tens of thousands of photographs. They come in all forms and sizes — prints and slides and digital images — stored in shoeboxes and plastic containers and computer files. They are the consequence of five decades of taking pictures of everything imaginable: natural and man-made wonders, creatures great and small, flowers and plants, mundane objects of various shapes or colors or textures, and all manner of oddities that just happened to catch my eye. However, I have taken relatively few photos of people.

The reason is simple. I have always felt uncomfortable invading the privacy of others. A photograph of someone (other than one who is willingly posing) is — at least in my mind — stealing a moment of his or her life and preserving it without consent.

street artist, Rome

street artist

On rare occasions I have taken a chance with those who are not aware of my camera pointed in their direction. The safety of stealthily stolen shots does not much ease my conscience, though, for it still violates the principle.

Sometimes when I walk around in a city, I feel almost invisible and find the boldness to capture a few images of those around me. Much like a spy in their midst, I secretively aim my camera, take the shot, and then make a hasty getaway into the crowd. Every so often, I am caught in the act, and the look on the face of my subject still startles me each time I see it.

boys at play

caught in the act

Even though I have trouble taking them, I very much admire such photos. Somehow the frozen moments of these other lives caught in the act of even the most ordinary activities can be fascinating. But it takes a particular set of skills and personal traits to be able to do so effectively. Few photographers have mastered this art. I envy those who have the ability to capture these sometimes haunting images of others as they inhabit the world around us.

Whenever I go to a museum, I seek out their photos in the exhibition spaces: Weegee, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand. A wealth of common human experience is seen through their lenses and enshrined in perpetuity for the rest of us to observe in wonder.



Vivian Maier was one such photographer. Everywhere she went her camera would be strapped around her neck. She too took thousands of photos — strange photos, wonderful photos, most of them photos of people, children playing and ladies standing on their block and down-and-out men on the street and anyone else that caught her eye and her interest. Hers are brilliant.

This amazing talent remained undiscovered until after her death in 2009. A Chicago man named John Maloof bought boxes of her negatives at an auction. When he began viewing them, they revealed the work of an immensely talented — and totally unknown — photographer. This led him on a journey of discovery to find out who this mysterious person could be.

As it turned out, Vivian Maier lived a strange life, one shrouded in privacy. Serving as a nanny for many different families, she was a recluse, a hoarder, and an eccentric individualist. Watching the documentary Finding Vivian Maier about Maloof’s exploration of her life and art affected me deeply. The same qualities that allowed her to be a great street photographer caused such isolation and loneliness in her personal life. I greatly admire her work, but I am saddened by the troubled soul that was the source of its creation.

In spite of that last fact, she has inspired me to go back into the street to try my hand again at this type of photography. Once when asked what she did, she replied that she was “a kind of spy,” and it is that mindset which I think may be necessary to allow one the permission to engage in this endeavor. So a spy I shall be, and if in doing so I can accomplish a mere fraction of the artistic level she attained, I will be a happy man.

great view

great view



On Thin Ice

January 8, 2015


My memory seems to operate in quite an illogical manner. Perhaps everyone’s does, I don’t know. There have been some experiences of supposedly great significance about which I hardly remember a thing (my high school and college graduations, for example). However, certain insignificant and seemingly meaningless ones somehow stick in my brain as clearly as if they just occurred the other day. My head is filled with these kinds of memories. One that is triggered by cold winter days such as this involves some thin ice and a childhood friend named Steve.

I knew Steve all the way through school though we didn’t really have much close contact until junior high school. Ah, yes — junior high school, the quintessential American repository for awkward adolescence. This was a period of time that many of us would just as soon forget. Indeed, much of it has been forgotten on my part (or purposely blocked out) for that very reason. But this particular recollection involving Steve has never left me.

Steve Meadows was the poster boy for the young absent-minded professor. He had pale skin and unkempt hair so blonde it was virtually white. Fashion was clearly not his focus. Rumpled half-out-of-his-pants shirt accented with a pocket protector and his ever-broken glasses perched on his nose were his standard fare. Had we used the word “nerd” back then, he would have been the king. I liked Steve in spite of this. He had a creative mind, was quick to laughter, always shared, and was nice to a fault. It was this last virtue that played a critical role in what occurred.

One of my best friends, Teddy, would walk part of the way home with me from Roy W. Brown Jr. High. This happened to be the same route Steve took, so we often walked together. The street we went down crossed over a stream that cut through town and was always the source of some form of amusement like bombing the leaves that floated downstream with pebbles or betting on which stick we dropped in would pass under the bridge first. Gawky thirteen year old boys really got a kick out of stuff like that.

It was during the winter months, however, that this stream reached its peak of interest. Whenever a cold snap arrived, the stream, which was only a few inches deep, would start to freeze at the edges. If it got cold enough, the ice would cover the whole width of the stream, but never too thickly because of the movement of the water beneath the ice.

On our way home, we would peer over the side of the stone bridge that traversed the stream, checking on the progress of the ice. A debate about whether it was currently strong enough to support us would ensue. The three of us would then make our way down the bank and begin to do some preliminary test probes with a single foot. What followed was always the same.

Either Teddy or I would say, “It seems pretty strong to me, don’t you think?”

“Sure does,” the other would say. “I’m sure it would support us!”

“Yeah! Come on, Steve. Try it!”

Steve would doubt our assessment, but after some weak protest and our continued coaxing, he always took a few furtive steps onto the ice. Inevitably, on about the third step, the ice would break, and Steve would end up with wet shoes and a look of chagrined I-told-you-so on his face as Teddy and I laughed hilariously. It never failed to be the funniest thing we had ever seen. Even Steven would be laughing as he shook his head and plodded back up the embankment, shoes squishing as he went.

The funny thing was, Teddy and I knew darned well that he would go through the ice, and Steve knew that we knew, but he would do it anyway. It was similar to Charlie Brown’s repeated episodes of trying to kick the football with Lucy always ending up pulling it away. It seems that we were immersed in some adolescent ritual of acceptance, and though each knew exactly what the outcome would be, we played it out anyway. I suppose Teddy and I were actually taking advantage of Steve’s good-natured willingness, but he embraced his role, and the game went on for an entire winter.

I have never gone to a high school reunion — such gatherings are most definitely not my cup of tea — but I sometimes get the urge to drop by just to see how Steve turned out (though I think that reunions probably aren’t his cup of tea either). I imagine that he became successful in some sort of scientific endeavor (he was brilliant in this field during high school), but one never knows. I want to ask him if he too remembers this silly little incident that we repeated throughout that winter. I hope that if he, like me, does remember, it would be with a smile.

Though really only a flicker in time when the paths of our lives once intersected, memories such as this — inconsequential as they may be — become part of the intimate connection we sometimes share with others. I suppose it is that which makes them not so insignificant after all.