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Sunday Zen


No chance of an upgrade, then?

On a completely different note...

Q: What can be worse than getting a $14 passport photo taken and realizing that in the picture you look like someone is about to attack you?

A: Spending $11 to get your picture re-taken by a different photographer and realizing that you just look like that naturally.


Pleasant Valley

As the car came down out of the hills and turned off the Pinhook Road the whole of the valley, covered in snow, lay spread out before us with the ice-blue creek wandering through it between the two high sandstone ridges where the trees, black and bare, rose against the winter sky. And suddenly I knew where I was. I had come home!
Louis Bromfield, Pleasant Valley

Louis Bromfield was a Columbia-educated Pulitzer Prize winning author and screenwriter, who, just before the onset of World War II, decided to pluck his family from the approaching march of danger and move them to the valley where he grew up in Ohio. He bought acres of land in Pleasant Valley, at the heart of the lush rolling landscape between Columbus and Cleveland. He was primarily interested in soil conservation, a hot topic after aggressive farming practices had destroyed the topsoil, desiccating lands all across the country, and ultimately causing the economic and environmental tragedy of the Dust Bowl. And more than anything, he wanted to get his hands back in the soil, a lifestyle he had learned while growing up on his grandfather's farm.

On a recent trip back to Ohio, we took a tour of Malabar Farm. We walked through Bromfield's office, where he lived the dual life of farm owner and author. We saw the hall where Lauren Bacall married Humphrey Bogart, and the bedroom of Bromfield's literary manager, modeled after his favorite hotel room in New York. We admired the furniture imported by Mrs. Bromfield from their pre-war Parisian home. Malabar Farm was a realization of my dream: at the crossroads of Hollywood, Europe, New York, and rural Ohio. But it was beyond the walls of the farmhouse, in the land described in Pleasant Valley, where the romance really came to life for me.

My dad grew up in the area around Pleasant Valley, and the story of Bromfield is wrapped up in my mind with the story of my dad. As I read the Bromfield book, I would mention locations to him, and he'd tell me stories. About the motorcycle boys in the sixties who used to ride along Pinhook Road, about the motorcycle my dad bought to join them. About the hush that crept through the town when Bromfield died. I even discovered the story of my grandparents' first encounter while reading Bromfield: it was the wife of Bromfield's farm manager, Max Drake, who invited my grandmother to the 4H dance where she first laid eyes on my grandfather.

Bromfield's story is also somewhat my own. My childhood was filled with tastes of the lifestyle of the Ohio farmer. We did chores: helped the farmhand Lum change the hay in the stalls, feed the horses. It was on the farm that I first tasted real mint, plucked from the ground by my grandmother as we looked for weeds along the fences. My grandparents took us to ag conferences across the country; they took me to North Carolina, and while my grandfather attended lectures on farm management, I made a lamp out of a mason jar. The things that a farm kid might do, or so it seemed to me.

It was the visual beauty of the farm that made it so romantic to me, both then and now. The bales of hay rising to the top of the barn. The brand new kittens in a dark corner, eyes still close after birth. The thunder that never ended, rolling over hill after hill as it crossed the countryside. The first Christmas I brought my husband (when he was still just a boyfriend) to the farm to meet my grandmother, we went to see my cousin's high school basketball game up the road. When we left the game to head back to the farm, the massive sky was pink, on the verge of a snow storm. As we pulled into my grandmother's house, a flash of white bolted across the drive. The horses had escaped from the barn. My dad directed me and my husband into triangular positions, surroundings the horses, and slowly we guided them back into the corral and latched the fence. It was my equivalent to Bromfield's hands in the dirt, and I thought of nothing else on the drive back to New York.

It is something I still think about, but I have a dose of realism keeping me grounded in my own urban landscape. That side of my family is full of farmers and ag workers. At a recent family reunion, I told my dad's cousin how I envied his life, and he looked at me like I was crazy. "It's not an easy life." And I told him I was under no illusions: I wouldn't last a week as a farmer. I love the idea, based on smidgens of memory: The dirt under the fingernails, the early morning silhouette of the barn. The farmstead in winter, with jars of preserves in the pantry. My grandfather in the distance, high on his tractor, mowing the lower field across the road. But I find it hard to imagine the lazy bones in this body doing the work it takes to have that life. And I wonder if, once in it, I would appreciate it in the same way, or if the romance would disappear like the morning mist over the hills.

I think my own Pleasant Valley is little more than a sentimental daydream.

(Watch a video about Bromfield and Malabar Farm at OurOhio.org.)


A literary game of "I never"

I have never...
...read Pynchon.
...read Austen.
...finished a Dostoevsky novel (and I've started three).
...understood the attraction to Henry James (all those commas!).
...made it past the funeral scene in Ulysses.
...been able to keep my mouth shut at a David Mitchell reading.

Drink up.


Square eyes

I spent a good chunk of my childhood without a television. My parents simply didn't own one. They rented a set for the 1980 Winter Olympics, but until I was five years old, when we inherited my grandparents' black-and-white portable, I had no television at home. You would think, then that I would have a healthy relationship with the box. The problem is, sometimes when you are denied something, you only crave it more.

When I was about four years old, I was visiting a friend's house, and she was watching Mr. Rogers, or Sesame Street. (Remember the days when the only children's programming on weekdays was on PBS?) As the story goes, the expression on my face suddenly froze, and I sat, unmoved, staring wide-eyed, absorbing. The mother of my friend was so frightened by my reaction to the television that she called my mother: "Is she allowed to watch television? Because she's absolutely glued to it right now, and I can't get her away..."

I have had an unhealthy relationship with television ever since. In the past few years, I have managed to refine my relationship. The DVR has curbed the urge to flick, and bit by bit I find myself settling into a habit of watching a few exclusive shows, abandoning those that don't live up to my standards for crisp, literary dialogue, challenging aesthetic, and artistic editing. (To come clean, there are some glaring exceptions, a few shows I watch somewhat religiously that fit into none of these categories, "The Girls Next Door" - the show that gives multiple meanings to the word "boob tube" - being the most obvious and deliciously tacky example.) But it took me years to move beyond that initial reaction to the television, that inescapable attraction, that mesmerism.

One of my earliest television memories is my babysitter's obsession with Luke & Laura's wedding on "General Hospital." The television was in the playroom (in my memory, it was always sunny: two intersecting walls of windows, yellow wallpaper, and orange carpet). The babysitter, probably a student of my mom's, or possibly one of the younger girls from up the road, was giddy with anticipation. She probably sat still, much the same way I had, unable to be torn away from the set with a child's pleas to play a game or to let me hide and force her to seek me out. So I must have watched the wedding with her.

Today I glimpsed an ad on the side of a phone booth announcing the return of Laura (from a coma, I believe), 25 years after the two characters were originally married. The photograph was of their wedding day: Luke in his glorious afro, and Laura in her early eighties golden sheen. I used to think these people were real, and that their wedding was a national event. It caused me to smile, that ad. Twenty-five years. Sometimes it takes my breath away to have memories so old. Even if they do come from the boob tube.