Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wild Grace III

Back in the mid-80s when I finished my masters degree at Wright State, I had just embarked on a long and rich relationship with the Audubon society. I was lucky enough to win a scholarship from the Dayton chapter to attend a two-week program at the Audubon Ecology Workshop on Hog Island, Maine. Life has not been the same for me since.

Just prior to my departure for that summer program in Maine, I had completed a graduate level workshop on Emily Dickinson. With the trip to Maine on the docket, I thought how cool it would be to visit Emily’s homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts. From my starting point here in Ohio, central Mass was right on the way.

To be most accurate, it was the stop in Amherst that was the beginning of the big changes. The Dickinson Homestead was closed to visitors on that day, but I was able to find the Dickinson burial ground where Emily and her sister and parents are interred. My shot of Emily’s gravestone taken that day is still one of my favorite pictures in my personal portfolio.

Trust me. I could go on about this story for some time. Just let me say here that Emily and Audubon have grown to inhabit big chunks of me since. I served on Dayton Audubon Society’s board for close to 20 years; worked hard to see Audubon Ohio (the state office for National Audubon) come into fruition; functioned as president of Friends of Hog Island (FOHI) for a short spell; edited the FOHI newsletter for a couple of years; and am now in the process of writing a book on Mabel Loomis Todd, the original editor of Emily Dickinson’s poetry AND former owner of Hog Island. And as many of you know, I am a member of the local writers’ group, Emily’s Boys, who is celebrating the first anniversary of the publication of our first collaboration, Letters to the World.

But the topic of today’s blog is Wild Grace III. Ever since I first set foot on Hog Island in 1981 and recognized the magic of living on an island, I have pondered the possibility of buying a wooded piece of southern Ohio to be my ‘island.’ My ex- and I bought 10 acres of Adams county about the time I finished my masters work. Unfortunately, our marriage didn’t survive -- neither did land ownership. I got the land in the divorce, but I couldn’t keep it due to tight finances.

Now, however, as I enter my 60th year, I am re-energized by the possibility of reacquiring a piece of Ohio I can steward. Cindy and I have looked at a couple of parcels so far, neither to our liking. Too busy and not open enough. But the search continues. And there is the long-range hope of putting a modest cabin on the spread that could serve as a weekend/summer retreat. The thought of moving forward on the purchase of that wild piece of my home state really has me going. Hopefully I’ll be able to report a purchase of land some time in 2010.

Why the name Wild Grace III? I’ll take a crack at explaining that in an upcoming blog. Do you have a hankerin’ to have a patch of something to just be with?

Today’s elder idea: ‘Wild grace has its own place / has its own face prone to fly’

from Michael Martin Murphy’s ‘Swans against the Sun’

photo: Emily Dickinson’s tombstone with the inscription ‘Called Back.’ [Tom Schaefer 1981]

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter solstice

I was going to offer in today’s entry that, while I love Christmas, I’ve grown to feel more connected to winter solstice in the past twenty years or so. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized such an idea was really more complicated than I originally thought.

First, let me say, Christmas is great. It is perhaps the best national/international holiday around. I don’t mean to discount Hanukkah, Kwanza, or Ramadan, but as a Christian, I have a lifelong experience with the celebration of the birth of Jesus. And for most Westerners, whether Christian or not, this end-of-year season permeates just about all aspects of culture: music, literature, commerce, mythology, cuisine, even social contracts. No other Western holiday or holy day can compete with that. The three other events mentioned above are also multiple day ‘seasons,’ but again, they aren’t in my cultural experience. I’ll let other folks sing their praises.

Ever since I was a kid, Christmas was special. The Jesus-thing was front and center for our family. When I was little, my father made a small business of building creches he sold to friends and, for a time, even sold through a downtown church supply. We kids helped collect bug-free bark from downed trees to side those little nativity buildings. After the bark was nailed to the plywood walls, we gave it a black ‘wash,’ then a splash of white or silver paint to give the appearance of frost. One of those wonderful little buildings survives and currently resides on the piano upstairs, just opposite the Christmas tree. I look at it as a family heirloom. My sibs feel the same way about theirs.

And then, of course, there is the Christmas giving. I mean, what kid wouldn’t like Christmas? ‘Good’ behavior is rewarded with gifts from Santa. What’s not to like about that? But then comes all the commercial hype that encourages us to buy Norelcos for the guys, something from Kay’s for the gals, and tons of toys for the little folk. Commercials, commercials, commercials. Combining that with the idea of ‘saving’ retail businesses with strong end-of-year sales, tends to leave me, as an adult, with a guilt complex that, if I don’t spend enough, retail job loss will be my fault.

Winter solstice. Now that’s a different idea. A natural idea, in fact. First, Christmas was placed in the Christian calendar because of solstice. I’m not sure exactly how many cultures recognized the shortest day/longest night of the year with ceremonies, but you can bet it was widespread. Christians placed Christmas in this timeframe to compete with ‘pagan’ rituals and give the faithful something special to celebrate. Same thing happened to springtime’s Easter ‘rebirth.’

Christmas has had a long and healthy run for the last two millenia. But winter solstice goes back much farther. And that is the main reason I want to be mindful of it. Long before homo sapiens lived in community, there was seasonal awareness. The changing starting place of the sun on the eastern horizon was connected to warm and cold, hunger and the growing season. Life depended on early people’s awareness of when days began to get longer and an anticipated more plentiful food supply. That’s really important stuff, you know? And it’s not mythology, either. It’s life.

And I guess that’s why I want to feel more connected to solstices and equinoxes these days. As I get older I recognize I am more human than Christian; more product of the earth than product of ancient mythology. Both are significant, but I prefer to think of myself first as an Earthling.

Maybe I ought to start a fire out in the back yard tonight to remind the sun not to forget about us and begin its journey back to our growing season starting tomorrow. Care to bring your drum?

Today’s elder idea: Love is all --

Emily Dickinson

Inscription on Cindy’s and my wedding bands. On this winter solstice we celebrate our 17th anniversary.

photo: The first Windham Hill solstice music sampler (1985).

Frosty the Waffleman

For those of you waiting with bated breath for the outcome of Frosty's 'shooting,' I offer the above proof that all went well. No snowmen were injured in the picture taking.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Shoot Frosty

I found a note with the title of today’s blog in my pocket after church on Sunday. I had to grin. ‘Shoot Frosty.’ Dude. Sounds downright violent, you know? And all for a guy who never asked to come into existence. He just showed up one day when kids, for pete’s sake, had enough time to play in the snow and actually create a new life form. I mean, really. And for this the guy has to pay with his life? Sounds oddly like Frankenstein.

The note, of course, did not refer to killing the poor dear, but instead, recording him digitally as art. ‘Shoot’ as in ‘take a photo.’

Frosty, pictured here, came into our lives one year ago at Waffle Shop. There he was, hanging on the wall in perfect light. I stopped and wondered how he got there. He had been brought in to sell at Elsie’s Attic (think indoor garage sale) and, for lack of a better place, I assumed, was hung there in all his glory.

I determined that he would have to be purchased for Waffle Shop and become our mascot. Alas, I discovered, Frosty had already been sold to a parishioner who planned to ship him down to her daughter’s family in North Carolina. We talked a bit, and she was ready to give the old boy up for Waffle Shop. I insisted that she found him first and her wishes ruled. Frosty made his way to North Carolina soon thereafter and arrived in time for Christmas.

But he wasn’t that far from my thoughts. I’d ask my friend at church how old Frosty was doing in his new digs. ‘Well,’ she worried, ‘I don’t think they appreciate him down there very much. They don’t seem too excited about having him.’ Hmmm, I thought.

Sure enough, one day late last summer/early fall, I was informed that I had a visitor in the church office. And there he was! Returned in all his glory, Frosty!

And so it is: Frosty the Waffleman has returned as Waffle Shop’s official mascot.

But not so quick. After all, the frosty fella’ is holding a star after all. I mean, holding a star is ultra cool. I wouldn’t want to keep anybody from that experience. But what is more cool: a star or a waffle?

Well, for those of us who know and love Waffle Shop, during that single week in November, stars come second. Waffles fill the galaxy -- er, dining room in our lives. And, after all, Frosty was now one of us.

So my good buddy and Waffle Shop kitchen manager -- and all around cool artist Mary Dahlberg -- took Frosty home for a short stay and a little physical therapy. And now -- voila! -- Frosty is, indeed, Frosty the Waffleman, complete with a beautiful, fluffy waffle!

And, well, I’ve got to go to church and ‘shoot Frosty.‘

When I do, I’ll be sure to share it with you here. In the meantime, have a warm and revitalizing holiday. Merry Christmas to most of you; Happy Holidays to all the rest!

Today’s elder idea: Frosty the Snowman is a fairytale they say. He was made of snow but the children know how he came to life one day.

Monday, December 7, 2009

First snow

It’s nothing to get too excited about -- the snow shovel remains safe and stowed in the garage -- but my part of the world saw its first snow of the season last night. Cindy Lou had stayed up until 2 AM decorating the house for Christmas, which she does so well. Waking up this morning to the first dusting of winter seems appropriate and another good reason to celebrate the season.

I pulled out some of our winter solstice music collection last week, too. Windham Hill Records released A Winter’s Solstice, their first eclectic offering of this season, in 1985. Since that time they have released a handful of solstice recordings. We have a soft spot in our hearts for them all. Since Cindy and I were engaged on autumnal equinox and married on winter solstice, these recordings celebrating the turning of seasons hold special meaning for us.

The birds seem to be behaving differently this week, too. I know we’re getting a much better look at them since the feeders went up, as mentioned in this blog a couple weeks ago. But with the leaves down, we are able to look more deeply into the trees out back and last week we both spotted not one, but TWO, pileated woodpeckers working the standing timber in the yard behind us. I spotted two hawks at different times perched up high above our backyard, too, last week.

Grandson Noah correctly guessed that a chickadee was the first bird into the feeder. He was not here to see it, but I challenged him by saying the first bird was a pretty common one for us. He guessed correctly. I’m so proud of him! Along with chickadees, we’ve also had red bellied and downy woodpeckers, goldfinches, tufted titmice, white breasted nuthatches, house sparrows, house finches, and juncos. I'm keeping a careful eye out for a hermit thrush at the birdbath, too. And, of course, cardinals, and well, squirrels. Last year squirrels didn’t seem too interested, but we’ve witnessed at least one already make its way across the canopy tubing and up onto the window ledge a couple of times. From there, it’s a short vertical jump to a bounty of peanuts, suet, and sunflower seeds. And I don’t think a bird ever gets the stale bread we throw out on the back porch, either. Chipmunks and squirrels are the diners on that stuff.

So winter is progressing. I know it’s not officially here yet, but the temperature and conditions seem pretty blustery. My body tells me it’s winter.

But my heart and head tell me it’s also Christmas. Placed in the Christian calendar to match up with winter solstice celebrations, it seems appropriate to celebrate both the hope of new birth and the coming of deep cold at the same time. It’s all life in this world that we know. Let us celebrate being a part of it. After all, this moment is really all we have.

Today’s elder idea: Our true home is in the present moment. To live in the present moment is a miracle.

Thich Nhat Hahn

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Doing good

When I started this blog back in the spring, one idea I wanted to get to eventually was philanthropy. You know, doing good with the resources one is gifted with.

I wanted to write just now that philanthropy is giving from one’s abundance. And while that is probably true for most of us, really meaningful giving can come from one’s meagerness, as well. Perhaps you remember the Bible story of the poor woman who put her last coins in the synagogue’s alms box. Her deeply felt gift to her community’s other poor was celebrated in the parable much more than the rich man who gave a big gift, but not big enough keep him from knowing where his next meal would come from.

I do have trouble with this Bible story, just like I squirm when I hear it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. How much giving is enough? How much stuff am I allowed to have? Such is a quandary. We talk about such things at our house.

The lead of this entry is graced with next year’s Waffle Shop poster, the 81st such event sponsored by Christ Episcopal Church here in Dayton, Ohio. I am proud to say that with proceeds from last month’s 80th Waffle Shop, we should be able to award at least $9,000 in Outreach Grants. The books aren’t closed yet, so we don’t know exactly how much there will be, but 9 grand should be close.

And it is for that reason why I feel so good about Waffle Shop: Dozens of regular folk spend lots of hours creating stuff to sell, setting up for 1600 guests in four days, cooking for most of them, and serving all with a hefty dose of hospitality. Money is one kind of philanthropy. Time and talent is another. Waffle Shop is a beautiful convergence of all three.

I suppose with some giving, one expects something in return. Non-tax deductible political contributions come to mind. The bigger the gift, the more influence one has over legislation.

For most of us, though, I hope, we give because we want to share the wealth. Cindy Lou and I have been working on putting all our earthly possessions in a joint trust since her dad passed one year ago. The idea is that less assets in the estate will be lost to court proceedings if it is protected in trust. One thing we have to do yet is determine how those assets will be divided after we both die.

I suppose the first logical destination for the wealth we can’t take with us is to give it to my two girls and their families. Such will happen, but they won’t get it all. And here is where this entry circles back to philanthropy.

I’d like to see most of my money go to places I knew and loved in this life: Places doing good work for humanity. Aullwood Audubon Center & Farm. Christ Church. The Hog Island Audubon Center. Episcopal Relief and Development. Habitat for Humanity. Those kind of folk.

And not that you have to wait until the end of days to be a philanthropist. I imagine you’ve gotten a handful of ask letters this giving season for organizations looking for year-end contributions.

Who can you help? How? How much do peace, justice, and generosity energize you? What’s the right thing to do?

Today’s elder idea: We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.

Mother Teresa

Monday, November 23, 2009

Resetting the feeders

Back in the spring when I started this blog, one of my buddies commented on my ‘whining’ here about bad golf play. He’s a guy who loves the game, but due to his brutal work schedule, seldom gets a chance to play.

So I suppose the entries here about the coming of winter and the loss of fall in southwest Ohio could be interpreted as ‘whining’ again. Maybe. On the other hand, it does get pretty grey in these parts and spending much time outside is a testimony to layering one’s clothes. It’s not the place for shorts, tee shirts, golf, or balmy-weather biking. Still, getting out for a brisk walk has it’s seasonal benefits.

As does setting out the birdfeeders again.

Just yesterday the back porch, the namesake of this blog and a great place to sit for three seasons of the year, was transformed into winter mode: the lichen-encrusted canopy was cut down, brushed off, and stowed for winter. And in its absence, the birdfeeders will be reinstalled today just outside our big dining room windows -- looking north into a second story of maple, walnut, and spruce.

True, we see the trees all summer, too, but in winter they are transformed into staging areas for birds coming to the feeders. I installed a battery of eye-screws into the soffit just outside those big windows years ago, and after I get done posting this entry (it’s still before 8 am here), I am heading to the garage to collect, wash, and then hang feeders. I am hopeful that by the end of the day, chickadees and tufted titmice will have figured out what’s offered, and come partake of a daily banquet early this Thanksgiving week.

If you have never put a birdfeeder right outside a window, you should consider it. True, we get the occasional bird flying into the window, but usually that’s when there is no feeder hanging there. When the feeders are destination, the flying brethren seem to know where to stop. And I have to tell you, I have never seen a bird so up-close-and-personal as when it comes into the feeder. Cindy Lou and I can sit at the dining room table and observe the feathered folks no more than six feet away. It is truly amazing. When the thistle feeder is full, we might have eight goldfinches at a time. It is a sight to behold -- and truly something that brightens our winter days.

So if you haven’t hung a feeder yet, now is the time. This is what we provide at our back window:

niger thistle: This stuff I sometimes call ‘black gold,’ both because it’s pretty expensive and draws the most colorful birds to the window: goldfinches. This time of year, the ‘goldies’ have molted pretty olive. The males look much like the females. But by spring, hold on! We will watch the males ‘yellow up’ right before our eyes. Exceptionally cool. House finches feed here, too. This tube feeder has very small holes that only thistle seeds pass through.

suet: It is possible to find suet at the grocery, and perhaps that’s a little better for birds, but we usually buy prepared suet cakes filled with seeds. The small basket feeder will invite woodpeckers and other bug eaters. Honest to goodness, we’ve even had a pileated woodpecker hanging on our suet basket before. For those of you who remember Walter Lantz’s cartoon ‘Woody Woodpecker’ character, you’ve been introduced to a pileated. These guys are every bit two-feet tall from talons to top-knot. They don’t stay long, but when that bird hangs just outside your window, it’s a sight you don’t soon forget! Our suet also draws downy and red-bellied woodpeckers.

sunflower seeds: This is the most popular seed we provide. We’ll get titmice, chickadees, cardinals (on occasion: Don’t tell our cardinals they are exclusively ground feeders), and nuthatches, among others. Earlier this fall I hung a sunflower feeder on the front porch, filled with mammoth sunflower seeds we grew in our garden. That gallon-supply of sunflowers is almost gone already. And another cool thing: When birds get sloppy and drop seeds, porches populates with groundfeeders like juncos, cardinals, and squirrels.

peanuts: The fourth feeder I’ll hang today will be filled with Spanish peanuts. No shells, but au naturel. No salt, that’s for sure. Bug eaters love peanut protein. Sure to draw acrobatic squirrels, too.

One other thing we did last year for the first time was heat the bird bath. Very nice! From our window, we not only watch birds at the feeder, but also can see some non-feeder birds come into the non-frozen water. We even had a hermit thrush last winter. I think I saw her again a few weeks ago. I’ll keep you posted who we see as winter grinds on. If you see something cool at your feeders, report back here. I’d love to know what’s happening in your neighborhood.

Today’s elder idea: Several of Nature’s People / I know and they know me / I feel for them a transport / Of Cordiality

Emily Dickinson

photo credit: Grandson Alex Bryant’s ‘cone feeder’ with Carolina chickadee aboard. (2003)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Waffle Shop

As you might know if you are one of my 80+ Facebook Friends, the 80th Waffle Shop is being held this week at Christ Episcopal Church in downtown Dayton. This event marks the 8th year yours truly has served as general chair. I was asked to speak on Waffle Shop as part of parish stewardship last Sunday. As this week’s blog, I thought I’d share some thoughts on this rich and beautiful event. Below is an excerpt from that address.

Waffle Shop, I am proud to say, is a dynamic act of hospitality that has been offered by the Christ Church congregation to our neighbors for many years. I’ve had an enlightening week reading over the fine History of Waffle Shop written and assembled by parishioner Phyllis Risner five years ago for our 75th anniversary event. As Phyllis reports, even though we count 1929 as the first official Waffle Shop, funds were raised by the women of the church starting in 1883 at an Annual Lunch and Sale. So in a way you could say this is a 125th anniversary.

By 1928, the one day event was called the Annual Bazaar, Luncheon and Dinner. On the menu? You could get a turkey dinner for $1 a plate. Or you could get a bread and butter sandwich for a nickel. Mince and pumpkin pie? 15 cents. And I might add the parish women sold a cook book that year. Special thanks to Penny Nixon and her crew for the two-year effort bringing the newest Christ Church cookbook into fruition, The Great Lady Cooks, available for sale as we speak.

In 1929, during another tough economic time, the women of Christ Church gave birth to Waffle Shop. As Dayton Newspapers columnist and Christ Church parishioner Roz Young reported in 1961, the idea of a waffle meal/fundraiser came from an Episcopal parish in Memphis -- Calvary Episcopal. One of our parishioners, Mrs. Rowan Greer, heard about the waffle event from her sister in Tennessee, and the Annual Lunch and Sale was changed forever. In 1929, that first Waffle Shop served 1,635 meals -- not too far off from what we do today -- but they did it over twelve days. We do it these days in four. Back then, by the way, you could get ‘Waffles with Pig Meat Sausage or Creamed Chicken’ for 40 cents. The women made just over $290 in 1929. All of it went to keep the Parish House in good order.

Since that time Waffle Shop has seen some changes. Back in the day when downtown was the commercial center of the region, Waffle Shop served not only lunch, but dinner, too, on Monday and Thursday, the nights the stores stayed open ‘til 9. In 1959, Waffle Shop set the record of serving downtown workers and Christmas shoppers with 751 meals in one day.

It is the deep historical connection of Waffle Shop to past parishioners of Christ Church that still lights me up, in this, my eighth year as general chair. Every time I see Mary Dahlberg laughing in her waffle apron, or Lisa Loftin explaining a new craft offered in the bazaar, or Maureen Boyles pouring batter into the carry-out waffle iron, or Ann Pettee wrapping up a breakable treasure for the trip home from Elsie’s Attic, or Donna Boensch directing a new server where to find decaf coffee in the dining room -- I sense a deep connection to Christ Church folk who did these same things so often for so many years. We are connected to Mrs. Lamar Fluhart, the first Waffle Shop chair; Rev. Phil Porter; Mary Kerr; Mrs. William Jarrett; Mrs. James Stuart; Clara Eberly; Ruthanna Austin; Elsie Hall. It was these Christ Church folk along with so many others who contributed to making Christ Church downtown Dayton’s own church. So many people have felt welcome here.

It is an amazing thing to see this building, The Great Lady of First Street, fill up with neighbors. I know that’s how I felt back in 2002 for my first real, full-time Waffle Shop. Seeing city and county commissioners, downtown workers, attorneys with their whole office, the mayor, the paper’s Dale Huffman, channel 2‘s Jim Bucher, and oh, so many friends, come through the lunch line -- all feeling welcome -- many with smiles on their faces -- has given me the sense that we are doing God’s work right here in God’s house. A house that we are commissioned to care for during our tenure. Back in the 1930s, Waffle Shop profits went for parish needs. Now we are proud to tell our visitors that 80% of proceeds -- over $7,000 last year and over $50,000 since 2003 -- go to the likes of Daybreak, The Other Place, The International Peace Museum, an after-school program in Russia, The Society for the Advancement of Culture and Welfare in Sierra Leone, and CARE House over by Children’s Medical, among others. It makes me proud.

Every day before we open Waffle Shop, the staff gathers for announcements and a prayer. At the end of that prayer, I like to remind everybody of a note I saw pinned to a door in a social service agency in Appalachia some years ago. It said, ‘If you can’t see the face of Christ in the next person who comes through the door, you might as well quit looking.’ Christ Church folk have opened that door many times, from the Annual Lunch and Sale in 1883 through so many Waffle Shops starting in 1929. We’ll be on the outlook for Christ coming through our door again this week. I sure hope you can join us. It’s a beautiful thing.

Today’s elder idea: Great food, quick service -- a happy place to meet friends.

Waffle Shop catch phrase c. 1930

Monday, November 9, 2009

Impending winter: Notes from Ohio

I hate to admit it, but I’ve felt a little depressed already by the advent of winter. Winter in southwest Ohio surely isn’t as bad as some of the world has to deal with. I mean, if the grey and cold get to us, what must it be like for the folks in Canada: the source of the frigid Alberta Clippers we have come to respect in these parts?

For me, it began back in October when every weekend was either cold or wet or both. I have come to rely on high blue skies and mild temperatures in the tenth month to celebrate the color that is at the heart of this amazing planet on which we live. I missed it. I’ve talked with others who feel the same. And now we enter into November, the real beginning of the season when the weather cools enough to keep us inside most of the time, the days are shorter with darkness impending by 5:30, and skies seem grey way too often, even if the sun comes out for an hour or so now and then.

And so I picked up Rick Bass’s Winter: Notes from Montana again the other day. It has become a personal favorite. The first half of the book is a beautiful testimonal to preparing for winter. Bass, a nature loving native of the South, finds himself and his girlfriend winter house-sitting a remote compound of buildings in the wild Yaak Valley as far north in Montana as one can go. The place is non-electrified and, as you might imagine, has no utilities. The only heat Bass and his partner will have is what he provides via cutting, splitting, and stacking cords and cords of wood. He never quite hits his goal of 30 cords, but he manages to gather enough to keep the wolf away from the door. Literally.

Bass journals from the beginning of his Yaak adventure, picking up his story from the beginning of their drive, a search to find the best place for a young couple to create. Elizabeth is an artist. Rick a writer. They think they might like the Southwest, but it just doesn’t click for them. Through a circuitous journey, they end up at Fix Ranch in the Yaak by late summer, early fall -- just in time for a frenetic effort to prepare for the numbing cold to come.

No, we won’t get a winter like that here. But the preparation idea is what I find so hopeful. The very concept of preparing for a natural season change by personally gathering resources to sustain life is wonderfully basic and connects us to legions of folks who had to take winter seriously to survive. Sadly, we have lost this need in our culture today. All we have to do is turn up the thermostat and when the blower kicks in, we are safe.

Still, I’ve done my share of splitting and stacking over the last couple of months. It’s not near what Bass needed, but it will be enough to enjoy some fires in the downstairs stove on some chilly days. Again I have found purpose this fall.

The coming of the grey season can be hard. Studies tell us we have a need for sunlight. We in Ohio, in community with the rest of the Northland, simply don’t get enough. And I’ve been through enough winters in my life by now to know precisely what is coming and how it is going to feel. Even amid the hope, it does get me down a little bit.

But I also know that following Cindy & my anniversary on winter solstice, the sun begins its journey back north. And following that will be a wet and chilly spring followed by majestic flowering that, likewise, defines this amazing planet on which we live. I thank the Spirit of the Universe every night for blessing me with experiencing another day on planet. Still, I ain’t big on grey.

Today’s elder idea: Everything’s going on, back in the woods behind the house. I found mountain lion tracks in a puddle. When I look at the trees, they’re standing the same way, waiting for winter. They’re ready.

Rick Bass

from Winter: Notes from Montana

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Music for the journey

My friend and writers’ group colleague Jim Hughes uses original photographs as a springboard to some of his writing. He has encouraged me to do the same. I have and will again, but more often I am interested in engaging the earth itself -- and recorded music -- for muse.

For most of my life I have done academic work listening to music. Somewhere in the process over thirty years ago, I found Windham Hill Records and the advent of the New Age genre. I listened to album after album, then CD after CD, while correcting papers, typing up a project, reading whatever, working in the darkroom, sometimes even trying to go to sleep. New Age became a constant companion. Early New Age offerings like Chiaroscuro by Mike Marshall and Darol Anger became a kind of personal soundtrack.

But most of all there was the enchanting sound of Brian Eno’s ambient collections, most importantly, Music for Airports. My introverted personality blended well with these minimalist collections of electronic sound waves, many themes voiced believably human. Some listeners, like my lovely wife -- a classically trained violinist -- become bored to tears by the redundancy. Not me. I find the seemingly unending repetition of aural ideas comforting.

And sometimes therein lies a distinct memory. Music for Airports occasionally evokes a quiet rainy afternoon long ago with kids in the backseat asleep, with me driving the curvy roads of a small town along the coast of northern Maine. The mother of my children and best friend sits beside me in the front seat. Hearing “2/1” can take me to that quiet drive along the hills of Bar Harbor any time. It’s worked for many, many years. Still does. Kind of wants to make me write about stuff, you know?

Today’s elder idea: What better thing to share with friends than music you love?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Yellow world

Indigenous sugar maples have morphed green

summer sails into a glowing yellow canopy top and

side-lit by a high blue October day intent on exhibiting

intensity and offering a pilgrim, perhaps, a life lesson or two:

Is this yellow caution, a warning of the impending seasonal

change and mind-numbing grey of Ohio’s winter?;


perhaps product of an abundance of light made available

to us here on low-humidity, high barometric fall days

that offer us good reason to be mindful?;


merely the musings of the Earth Mother growing yet another

project starting with transforming canvases from insect-eaten and squirrel-harvested earth tones

to colors shifted to the yellow end of the spectrum, providing trekkers ambient light even here in the shadowed north, sitting among spent and decaying refugees, losing hue daily

leaving their still-bright selves amid still-warm breezes to offer this attentive time to smell rich wood smoke and consider the significance of the Fall.

Tom Schaefer

October 2009

Today’s elder idea:

In the name of the Bee,

and of the Blossom,

and of the Breeze. Amen.

Emily Dickinson

Monday, October 19, 2009

Prayer fire

Prayer is an interesting concept. My dictionary’s first definition calls it ‘an address (as a petition) to God.’ ‘An earnest request or wish’ is also mentioned, as well as ‘a slight chance.’

My understanding of prayer, though, has broadened past these Webster standards over the years. Some time ago it was suggested by a Marianist at the University of Dayton that when women sat for hours at the loom in days past, or churned butter or kneaded bread dough, they could be considered in prayer. This past summer, when Cindy and I were at Nada, she spent time at the sewing machine as I spent time with writing and image making. We both considered that focused time prayerful.

Zen mindfulness, likewise, could be considered prayer under this broader definition. If you are concentrating on splitting wood or washing dishes, and are totally present with the task, it could be considered prayer. I suppose it is the act of being present with whatever task you have at hand, even writing a blog entry, that I endeavor to include under this broader umbrella. Sounds a lot like meditation, too.

And that’s where I found myself last night after a wet and cold weekend here in southwestern Ohio. It was my family’s plan to be camping at Hueston Woods for the last few nights, but cold rain put a real damper on it. Both girls and their kids were gearing up for the worst, but the weather report just didn’t improve. We decided that being miserable in a sleeping bag, in this time of H1N1 flu, wasn’t quite worth the benefits of our spending time together. We traded down to a spaghetti dinner at Jenni’s house Saturday afternoon where a good time was had by all. The s’mores were mighty fine good, too, with marshmallows roasted over the ‘camp fire’ we built in Bill’s new fire pit in their back yard.

But it was Sunday night’s blaze here on my back porch that got me to thinking about the prayerful qualities of fire. A fire like that one invites you to sit quietly and just be, hands extended toward the flames for warmth in what could be a considered prayer position. First lines of poetry started running through my head, as did prayerful thoughts I addressed to my deity of comprehension, something I call the Spirit of the Universe. I thanked the Spirit for allowing me to be present in this life; for the beautiful fall Sunday that followed Saturday’s rain; for the honor of raising two fine young women; for the blessing of grandchildren; and the hope of using my talents for good.

Sitting around a fire is a commonality that still connects us to ancestors far back in time. Such understanding and appreciation is worthy of a quiet sit where heat beats away the coming cold and somehow reduces us, and life, to something essential.

Meditation? Prayer fire? Mindful, indeed.

Today’s elder idea: Late in the afternoon, there’s a period when the light turns so strange, so bronze and still, that it’s like tintype -- as if it’s trying to hold that angle of light for as long as it can, for us to look at the fields and woods and meadows in that sharp light one last time before falling away. One last time....

Rick Bass

‘October 18’

from Winter (notes from Montana)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Art pix: Digital or souped?

Perhaps a few years ago the topic of this entry may have been slightly controversial: Do you use film or pixels to record the really meaningful stuff for your portfolio, picture frame, or family album? Film had a century-long and winding road before it was accepted as art. I’m sure some folks still argue that photography is too mechanical to be considered real art. But at least light and chemicals had to be manipulated properly to get a keeper to make it out of the final wash tray instead of ending up in the trash can. But pixels? Just how much control must a practitioner have before work can be considered art worthy?

I have built three different darkrooms in three different houses where I’ve perched, so I was certainly invested in trying to make art in my own place. Sure, I shot lots of snaps and had them processed at the local camera shop, but for the really cool stuff I wanted to give away, it was darkroom soup for me. Just black & white, mind you. Mostly 8 x 10s matted in homemade frames. Just about all 35 mm format. I did a bit of E-6 color processing, too, but on two very important roles shot back in the early 80s, I blew something in the process and all went green. Disaster, but I still used the shots in slideshows anyway. I guess it proved that I wasn’t quite the suave photog I had hoped I had become. Humility is never a bad thing.

When I retired from teaching eight years ago I was gifted with my first digital camera. It was a small Nikon with a 6 megapixel capacity, though I found I could bring home knock-out shots about three-quarters that size. They were amazing. And I could look at them -- and play with them -- immediately on my computer. Landscapes. Portraits. Macro close-ups. Easy to print through Apple’s iPhoto. Wow. I printed some myself with special computer ink, but nobody could tell me how archival those prints would be. Zapping images off to Apple with Kodak equipment seemed like the best way to go.

I was a pretty quick convert. With all the fun I was having on my Mac, I pretty much left the darkroom. Not that the space is wasted, mind you. The grandkids have helped me convert that narrow little room to The Train Room. Running an N-scale Amtrak passenger liner around the counter under the amber darkroom safelight is often requested by short visitors.

In many ways, I’d say I’m more serious about photography today than I’ve ever been. And trust me, I’ve enjoyed stalking good pictures in the wild since I was in high school. Digital just makes more sense.

Still, the idea of mixing chemicals and playing with physical light to actually make images come up on a piece of paper is a bit of magic I don’t really want to give up on forever. While the darkroom currently houses model trains, I have not dumped trays and thermometers, darkened storage jugs and timers in anybody’s garage sale. My trusty Besseler 23C enlarger may be resting in a plastic garbage bag trying to stay as dust free as possible, but it can be easily reassembled if a grandkid asks how in the heck I made those pictures framed in the dining room.

I thought making black and white prints was magic back then and I still marvel at what Ansel Adams accomplished during his music-influenced momentous career. I’ll be more than happy to teach a little of that magic to anybody who wants to see it happen. It is pretty darned cool. And you can see it happen under amber lights in real time. Pixels are great, but hanging out with a kid in the darkroom is even better. I spent lots of afternoons in the darkroom at Studebaker Junior High with kids who wanted to learn. I sure hope one of my grandkids asks. It’s another one of those things this grandpa is good for.

Today’s elder idea: Photography is the most potent ... the most stimulating medium of human expression in this day. Call it Art, term it Craft, place it with journalism, science, physics, or self-expression -- it is not to be denied.

Ansel Adams

in The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography, Book 2 (1998)

photo: daughter Jennifer, souped in the darkroom (before being scanned) c. 1977

Sunday, October 4, 2009

From the Crescent City

I currently sit high atop the New Orleans Sheraton hotel -- on the 41st floor -- looking south along night-lit Canal Street toward the Mississippi River and Algiers. I have spent more time in this big American city than any other and have come to love it like no other town I’ve ever visited. If you have spent much time here, perhaps you know what I mean.

To be frank, New Orleans is a pretty tough town. The murder rate here is traditionally high and even before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the streets were in horrible shape and it wasn’t ever hard to find a lot of litter. The place has been lived in and partied in hard for centuries and, I suppose, that’s part of its charm. The oldest section of the city, the French Quarter, dates back to 1718. The place absolutely drips with character and age.

I have come to know this city primarily because of family: Cindy’s sister Anita has lived here for close to thirty years. We make it down to visit at least every couple of years. More than that, though, it was two post-Katrina work trips that have deepened my love for the place. The first time down, I joined a dozen or so volunteer folks from my Dayton church to gut as many houses as we could in five days. Some of those houses have been fixed up by now. And I’m also pretty sure one of them was bulldozed after we left. The front wall had shifted well off center and, oddly enough, it had to be gutted before it could be condemned. Go figure. The second trip was spent stapling in insulation, hanging drywall, spackling, and sanding. Being in service to others has a tendency to make connections. So it was with me.

Other ample reasons to love this place is the food and the music. No other American city can match either. My favorite food story dates back a dozen years or so. Cindy and I had joined Anita and her husband, Amasa, for a lunch of po’ boys (think sub sandwiches) at a particularly famous and common looking place whose name escapes me. It was a little corner dive with simple tables and chairs. But, oh, after waiting in line for thirty minutes, were those sandwiches amazing! Afterward, Cindy and I peeled off to do some window shopping. We were looking at some jewelry someplace, alone with the proprietor in his store. He asked us if we had just eaten lunch. We said, yes, and then he proceeded to tell us exactly where we ate. He was spot on. He could tell where we ate lunch by how our clothes smelled! Wow.

Music has been pretty special for us here, too. We have tried to time trips around Jazz Fest in the spring. And while that hasn’t always been possible with our calendar during teaching days, whenever we come we try to make it to Snug Harbor on Monday nights when Amasa plays keyboards with Charmaine Neville. Very cool. Charmaine, Amasa, and friends, articulate some of that special blend of sounds that are uniquely American -- and uniquely N’awlins.

Our visit this weekend, though, centered exclusively on art and music. Anita is an artist and last night her newest exhibition opened at the prestigious Jonathan Ferrara Gallery. And then today, fourteen-year old daughter Ayla had a ‘coming out’ party celebrating her first CD of original music. She composed all fifteen songs with the help of her dad. A fun time was had by all, including a handful of her Ben Franklin High School classmates.

I’d like to lay an appropriate number superlatives on you about Anita’s show, but I would fail terribly. Her work is busy and bold and symmetrical -- and unique from anything else we saw in a half dozen other galleries along Julia Street. This is her first exhibition since Katrina, which has wrenched her life around in ways few can imagine. The browns and blues in her pieces are subdued and muted in remembrance of flood waters and the mud it left behind. Still, her work is intricate with minute details and very much hopeful.

After this amazing family weekend, I’m even more in love with NOLA. Such a place.


Anita’s exhibition, Dimensional Patterning: Sewn Constructions, runs through 28 November 2009. See the Current Exhibition link at: http://www.jonathanferraragallery.com/

Ayla’s CD, Some Super Silly Snappy Songs and a Few Works of Genius, is published by Raspberry Punch Music. See: http://raspberrypunch.com/

Google Amasa Miller and you’ll hit the jackpot. For the Charmaine Neville Band, see: http://www.charmainenevilleband.com/

Today’s elder idea: In the post-Katrina world of New Orleans, we have experienced first-hand ... disassembly and reassembly into a new order that usually occurs over long stretches of time. The works in this exhibition are a direct visual reflection of the way I experience New Orleans and its rhythms, patterns, and textures. There is structure here in our physical and visual reality, our pace, and our culture. While there are rough edges and grittiness, there is also delicacy and an asymmetrical balance. Often there is a window into which one can glimpse something different, surprising, and valuable.

Anita Cooke

from the artist’s statement for Dimensional Patterning: Sewn Constructions

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fall Sunday TV

I suppose I’m a couch potato to some extent. I like watching baseball, football, and golf on television. And be advised that my gridiron and diamond days are behind me. I do enjoy a round of golf when I can. But the exercise I participate in most is a good brisk walk either through the neighborhood, or most recently, up and down some moderate hills at Englewood Metropark’s South Park.

So when I found myself sitting in the recliner at 2 pm on Sunday, I was presented with an intriguing dilemma: When the Bengals - Steelers game came on at 4, what would I watch? The perpetually struggling Bengals -- ‘my’ local NFL affiliate -- or the PGA’s Tour Championship’s final round starring Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson?

First, let me say that I am not a fan of violence. The lovely Cindy Lou can watch countless hours of Law & Order, NCIS, and CSI: Wherever, evening after evening. Of course, I usually come through the room when that episode’s brutal murder is discovered and I get my minute of gore that drives me back to my basement cave to watch Red’s baseball or play on my Mac. Cindy tells me she finds watching the human drama of solving the offense entertaining. Good for her. To me, though, it just seems like ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ repeated hour after hour, day after day. I’ll take sports.

I wrote a couple weeks ago about loyalty. I do feel loyalty to the Reds and the Bengals. They are my teams. Unfortunately, both groups of athletes have been mediocre at best for the last twenty years. I’m not kidding. Twenty years. It’s been hard to get excited about either team one third of the way through their seasons, because by then they’ve lost enough that the hope of playoff excitement is faint to nonexistent. The Reds have rallied lately, coming all the way back to just 16 games behind the division leading Cardinals. Let’s face it. One watches Reds’ games for the joy of winning one at a time, not for the thrill of knowing they’ll be playing in October.

I like Tiger and Phil well enough, but they aren’t my guys. Shoot, they’re everybody’s guys. You don’t root for Tiger to sink a 20 foot putt and win the FedEx Cup because he’s local. You do it because he is perhaps the greatest golfer of all time and you have the opportunity to watch golf history in the making.

The biggest deal for me is the competition. And that’s why I found myself watching more golf than football on Sunday. And, I suppose, I watched more golf because it is the game I currently play. It’s not about hitting another player and knocking him senseless. No golfer deflects another golfer’s drive just to make the next shot tougher. No golfer gets down in another golfer’s face when a long putt is being lined up. It’s a gentleman’s game. I mean, there aren’t even any umpires. Sure, the PGA has officials on hand to interpret rules, but they don’t determine strokes for anybody. Along with missing shots, a golfer signing an incorrect scorecard is the controversial stuff that loses tournaments.

In golf, it’s the player against the course, the weather, and himself. While you don’t see a beaten defensive back congratulating a wide-out for a spectacular touchdown catch, you do see golfers congratulating each other for that long putt or chip that finds the hole. I know when I play golf, my opponent congratulates me for a good putt. And I do the same. It’s not about humiliating your opponent. Golf is about making the shot, then recovering from that shot if it wasn’t perfect. Some of the most amazing shots I’ve seen Tiger make were from pine straw, under trees, finding the green, leaving only a 10 foot putt. Now that’s amazing.

Still, I have to admit, I switched back to the Bengals during commercial breaks. And on Sunday after Lefty won The Tour Championship and Tiger had his FedEx Cup in hand, I was surprised to see the Bengals down by only five against the defending Super Bowl champs with five minutes to play. Even when the Bengals pulled ahead with 14 seconds to go, I wasn’t comfortable. Only when the clock ticked down to zero did that little spark of hope rekindle and I thought, ‘Maybe playoffs this year?’

Today’s elder idea: ‘This team is a very good football team. If we eliminate the immature mistakes, the sky is the limit.’

Tank Johnson

Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle

following a 23-20 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers