The only time a member of my family made it on the front page of the NY Times is when my great granny’s ship wrecked off the coast of Nova Scotia on July 5, 1873. The front page story ran for several days. Remember, ship wrecks back then were what airplane crashes are today. This particular article is the purser’s story who said during the whole trip, they had seen “neither stars or sun” and thus had trouble getting a sense as to where they might be along the eastern coast of Canada and the United States.
It truly was a miracle that she and her two sons survived. If the ship had hit Green Rock Island, some 200 yards away, all lives would have probably been lost. On the day of the wreck the fog was so thick, “that no object could be seen three yards ahead.” She and her two infant sons (ages 1 and 4) along with nearly 500 passengers were saved, along with their luggage. Two fisherman from shore rowed out in a leaky row boat (the picture in my mind of one guy rowing and other using a small pail to bail the water out is priceless) and guided the lifeboats ashore. The villagers made their homes available until passengers were put on another steam ship for the States. My granny joined her husband in Indiana (he had sailed earlier) and they made their way to the Portland, Oregon area by train.
Obviously, the Captain had gotten lost and there were a lot of questions as to why he had not used the compass…he thought he was off the coast of Cape Cod. There were also questions about whether the ship had been over loaded with steel beams. The outcome of the inquiry into his actions resulted in a reprimand. It seems this sinking ship had a lot of loose ends. Early reports of the wreck had erroneously mentioned the drowning of passengers. My great grandfather, waiting anxiously in Indiana, had initially received a telegram to that effect. You can imagine his relief when the truth finally came out.
My cousins and I made a trip to see the site of the wreck several years ago. A retired lobster fisherman took us in his pick-up truck along a dusty road. And I saw Green Rock Island, where if the ship had wrecked there, the story of my life would have radically changed! Since I was adopted, I still would have been born, but my adoptive parents would have been different.
So I wonder in this time of a major, world-wide pandemic when “anything” can happen how the stories of our lives might change. But however our stories may be altered, they remain unique to us and I hope that is something we all treasure.
Well mask-making has taken our nation by storm. Bridal shops, hobbyists, even lawyers are making them. And it seems like everyone with a sewing machine in my neighborhood is making a mask. Glad to see my human and loads of other humans take this pandemic seriously.
But of course, like everything else, there’s been a run on one valuable piece in the mask making process: the one quarter inch elastic attached to the mask that loops around the ears holding the mask in place. The following comes from a thread on my neighborhood’s listserv, which I read while peeking over my caretaker’s shoulder:
Some human had asked where she could find quarter inch elastic, as all the stores seemed out of it, and she couldn’t find any online. Various posters made suggestions
Said one poster: “Try ties made of fabric or ribbon (not satin ribbon, which is too slippery). They are actually better than elastic because wearers can adjust the tightness for a closer fit. However, if you want elastic, I recommend hair bands.”
“Try shoelaces,” said another.
“What can also be used are sewn cotton ties. You make thin rolled (or flat) ones, like you would make for spaghetti straps on dresses and blouses, and stitch them to the masks,” said another.
“This sounds silly, but the elastic straps from old bras work,” said one poster. But another poster responded: “ It’s not silly, it’s quite ingenuous and it’s silly not to try! For that matter, how about elastic from other clothes in the house, underwear, men’s and women’s, skirts, pants!
(I love human ingenuity.)
After reading this, I suggested to my caretaker that we go down the street and knock on neighbors’ doors asking for pieces of clothing that had elastic in them. I so want to help out. So we did just that! Look I modeled a bra that was donated. At the very least, I have to admit it makes a very fetching hat, don’t you think?
All day, every day, I’m marooned with my caretaker. What’s a cat to do? And then I remember a statement made by poet, Amy Lowell. It went like this: “For books are more than books, they are life, the very heart…of ages past. The reason why men worked and died, the essence and quintessence of their lives.”
That dame is right. Grab a book from the shelf and read it! You all do know what books are, correct? They are square or oblong objects with pages that you can turn with your paws (or fingers) and take you on magic journeys. Because, right now, we all need some magic in our lives.
Read about a poor wood carver’s son who depends on his clever cat to find him a beautiful princess to marry and big castle in which to live. (Puss in Boots) Then there’s a naughty boy who goes to his room without supper and escapes on a journey to a kingdom of wild beasts where he becomes the king. (Where the Wild Things Are )
A rambunctious kitty pays an unannounced visit to a brother and sister (who are quarantined at home), while their mom is out shopping and totally trashes the house. We cats love making a mess. But despite the chaos the cat in the hat has a magic machine that cleans up the mess. I mean, don’t we always clean up after ourselves? (The Cat in the Hat)
And don’t forget the story about a gentle bull who refuses to fight in the bull ring and wants to sit under the pretty trees. (The Story of Ferdinand)
“Books are a hard-bound drug with no danger of an overdose,” said Karl Langerfield. So go ahead. Take this hard-bound drug and you will see poor boys who get the beautiful princess, little boys who became king of the beasts, and a fighting bull who prefers to smell the flowers…magic.
A brisk day full of sun beams which I enjoy catching with my paws. I’m getting so tired of seeing my caretaker in front of that screen with all those funny shapes. If she’s going to be home all day and all night, she should pay more attention to me.
She recently went the supermarket to pick up a few provisions. She said even at an early hour, there was no toilet paper to be had. Toilet paper? What is it about humans and toilet paper? Did the pioneers in their wagon trains going west have an extra wagon just for carrying rolls of toilet paper? I think not. They did just fine.
I mean heck in bygone times, sailors used the frayed end of a rope dipped in salt water to clean themselves. Romans thought a sponge at the end of stick was dandy. Old newspapers, government proclamations, and moss were used to wipe the human butt. In fact, it wasn’t until 1857 that a New York inventor, Joseph Gayetty invented commercial toilet paper.
Don’t get me wrong, we cats are experts on cleanliness. But we don’t need toilet paper to keep clean. Take a quick shower or bath to clean those nether regions.
I personally think toilet paper makes a great toy. I like to balance rolls on my head or tummy. But it seems humans take a dim view of these kinds of shenanigans.
Well, I guess nothing is perfect, and right now the humans seem to be in a pretty dicey predicament. Seems like Bobby Dylan is right, A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall and you all don’t know when it’s going to stop raining. But I’ve got news for you all: You will make it (but don’t forgot to wash your paws, ah hands)!
There was this famous anthropologist named Margaret Mead who once said that the first indication of civilization in an ancient culture was the sign that a femur (thighbone) that had been broken had also healed. Because in the animal kingdom if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from bad animals or get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. (And we all know what great hunters cats are!) Because in order for an animal to survive, they need someone to care for them long enough for the bone to heal.
A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has bound up the wound, carried the person to safety and nursed the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is when civilization starts, this famous human anthropologist said. I would like to think I’m a civilized kitty, because I’m helping my caretaker through a difficult time. And she too, is quite civilized as I have lots of food and someone who cares for me. Perhaps this pandemic will show how civilized we are.
So here’s some advice for you humans: Be civilized…show compassion. Remember, the world is coming together, even though the people stay apart.
It was something I had never planned for. But the day finally came. A disease known as the corona virus (not to be confused with Corona Beer) has hit humans all over the world. Infected humans (and even those who might not know if they had the virus) were advised to stay indoors for at least two weeks 24/7. Humans would now be under foot with no break for 336 hours.
I tried not to be too alarmed. But my first thought concerned my daily feeding routine. If my caretaker couldn’t go to the market to buy my favorite morsels, would I per chance starve to death? She assured me that grocery stores would deliver my favorite brands, and a large river called the Amazon might also deliver. I was somewhat reassured, but you never know about these kind of things. She also pointed out that she had “stocked” up on my favorites, and I was somewhat placated. I have been described as “Rubenesque,” so I need plenty to eat.
Right now, my caretaker seems perfectly healthy, but she has decided to mostly “stay in,” for as many days as necessary. The word, “necessary,” troubles me. What exactly does that mean? Perhaps the best way to cope, is to see this as an adventure. One can only hope that I won’t tire of her constant presence.
Maybe animals, especially cats, (although I will give dogs a little credit), can help out. Animals and nature can be soothing and we do bring people together (although it must be online for now). We are innocent, and while a human’s world grinds to a halt, our world carries on.
As the great nature writer, John Muir once said, “And into the forest I must go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” So we will help humans find their soul.
My 2004 Subaru was on its last leg. A trip to my mechanic documented faulty brake systems, suspension amok, and other mechanical failures about to erupt. Bald tires, plus other safety issues had been duly noted. I needed a new car, even though I hate buying one. Although mine was old, like a pair of comfy slippers it fit me well. One day, I decided to “just look” and stopped by Fitz Mall Subaru, one of my local auto dealers. A few hours later I walked out with a new car, and not a clue as to how to drive it.
After a lifetime of looking out the back window before backing up, I could not do what was so counter intuitive….look at a screen in front of me while I backed up. I got home and could not find the parking brake. A frantic phone call to the dealer revealed that the parking brake was a discrete oblong button on my the console between the two front seats. But, when I tried to “release” the brake, nothing happened. Another phone call and the salesman told me I had to press down on the floor brake then the button to release the parking brake. And so it went.
The sheer number of dials and buttons is over whelming–on the steering wheel, to my left underneath the steering column, on the ceiling, on the center console, and the dials in front of me also have a “settings” button. A plethora of safety beeps has me periodically talking to my car, “shut up, who are you to tell me what to do.” (We’ll leave out my use of four letter words.) The owner’s car manual runs over 200 pages long, and my dealer offers an hour one on one tutorial (my tutorial lasted two hours), to help new owners.
The in-car map system totally baffled me, as yes, I still print driving instructions, and stop at gas stations to ask directions. (“Honey, take a left, and you’ll go about five miles, passing a field of cows…turn right at the cemetary.”) But folks, I’ve got news for you. When the zombie apocalypse takes over the world, the first thing they will do is disable the cell towers. I will have my trusty written instructions and be heading for safety in the mountains while the rest of you are totally lost!
Technology has reshaped our lives in many ways, but at what cost? The thing I like most about my new car is the fact that I can download Pandora and loads of music selections…something that has nothing to do with driving. But so many buttons removes us from the act of seemingly accomplishing the task through our own efforts. A few buttons are fine, but too many makes me wonder what we might have lost. And increased technology also means more things can go wrong….and in a much more complicated way.
My dream car is an early 1950’s Ford or Chevy manual (yep, I can drive a stick shift) pick up truck. (See left photo in the montage above.) Just a smooth bench type seat, maybe some waist seat belts, windows you crank down yourself (no air conditioning, of course), and only an AM radio. A technological illiterate car, not much can go wrong with it. You’re not riding along in a smooth cocoon where air is filtered, and with a touch of a button (if you can find the right one) all driving problems will be solved.
I don’t know, buttons can be really nice, but sometimes I want to sing off key with Patsy Cline on an AM radio about loves lost, while a cool summer breeze ruffles my hair through a window I cranked down.
There are millions of images on the internet, and sometimes we want to share a few of those with friends. I sent the two photos above of a rescued man with his kitten during Hurricane Florence (North Carolina) to my girlfriend, as I thought she would be as touched as I was. A third grade teacher, at a K-8 STEM School in Seattle, Ms Kathryn Show was so affected that she took the photos to school and showed them to her students, who seemed mesmerized by the images. So she asked them to write a story based on the photos and ended up with 24 great realistic fiction stories written by a bunch of eight year olds.
Realistic fiction, or fiction based on a true story, is a difficult concept for third graders to grasp, she said. Students often mix in elements of fantasy. The sequence of events is often out of order, and there are huge gaps in time. “In the past, stories might start out about one thing, but then fantastically the character would turn into something else, and sail around the world in 2 days, before falling in a hole in the middle of the earth,” she said.
“My students have so little experience with real tragedies and so much of entertainment that they are exposed to on a daily basis is filled with fantastical feats by superheros. ”
The students immediately empathized with the man’s plight, said Ms. Show. They kept asking questions about the man and the cat in the photo. Does the cat belong to the man? Whose boat are they in? Is a hurricane like tornado? Why is there water everywhere? They wanted to know if he made it to safety. And they were so worried about the fate of the kitten. “And all of sudden I got this idea,” she said.
She realized she had a true story represented by the photos. There was a real setting, real characters, and an actual event– the hurricane. What better way to foster their imagination into wondering what happened before the boat rescue and what might have happened afterward, said Ms. Show. “I think seeing a photo of two real participants in the storm, and having some background info about what a hurricane can do to a town, helped them stay “real” and not suddenly lurch into fantasy,” she added.
She and the students brainstormed as to where the man and his kitten might have been when the storm began, how they might have gotten stranded, and how long they waited in the flood waters before a boat rescued them. “I gave the man a name but not the cat. I thought out loud about how they might have been doing one thing or another as the storm struck their town,” she added, telling them to use their imaginations to come up with valid scenarios.
The two photos helped the students “stay on track” and prompted them to think in a logical way and to stay focused.
She asked her students to adhere to a simple outline, where there’s a beginning, and couple of steps before the end. “But the photos helped enormously with giving them a structure to follow,” she said.
“My students were amazing. They often “showed” rather than just telling the story. For example, here’s what one wrote: “Then they got to the second floor of their home and looked out the window. Garbage cans were flying through air. The winds were so hard shingols flew of off the roofs. A refridgerator flew out of someones home and against their door, they were locked in! After they climbed out of their window, and on their roof. Spots the kitten meee-awed aloud meaw over and over and over again. Finally, someone came to rescue them….Jo, the man, tucked Spots in his coat…
Another student wrote how, “They saw garbage cans flying like airplanes! They saw roofing of houses flying like black birds.” And went on to describe how Able (the man) “had…an apple and a bagle and cat food for Ningie (the cat’s name).
Some of them could only write a few sentences. One writer told how the man and cat got rescued, taken to a hotel, got in a taxi, and flew to Seattle where they bought a house and lived happily with no more sadness. Others were able to keep the man and cat in the same area and ended the story with them getting to a safe place. Another student ended the story by saying the owner put the kitten “in his jacket and they were happy.”
Students also illustrated the cover of their stories. “I thought their illustrations would have made any artist proud…they were imaginative and original,” said Ms. Show.
“It’s like herding cats to get 24 kids to write a story, including revising and editing within a 2-3 week time period. They only have enough stamina to write about 20-30 minutes a day, since they have to keep up with their other assignments. But all of them finished their stories,” she said.
Upon completion, they read their stories aloud to each other in groups of four. “They were so excited to read to each other, that I had to guide them in how to listen and respond to each other,” said Ms. Show.
Ms. Show also featured six stories each week, placing them in folders to be read during independent reading hour. The students eagerly read them often laughing out loud over the funny parts.
“The photos were so powerful that I think my students wanted to reach out and touch the man and his cat, and let them know that they also felt the anxiety he must have been feeling,” said Ms. Show.
Stories are often told through images. But more often than not, it’s only part of the story and we are left to wonder about the whole story. Leave it to a class of third graders, who had never written fiction that made sense, to use their imagination and came up with a complete story–a beginning, a middle, and in most cases, a happy ending.
The photos at the top of this blog post, were taken by Andrew Carter, a reporter for the North Carolina News & Observer.
There are a number of artists I’m admire, but that are also dead. Yet I sometimes imagine us making art together…maybe as apprentice, or even as an equal. Well this dream can come true. Because artists leave a body of work, that I can incorporate into my own art (as long as the copyright has run out). British-born Eadweard Muybridge, who laid the foundation for modern cinema and died over a 100 years ago, and I make art together.
Eadweard Muybridge, initially earned his fame for taking spectacular photos of the American west in the late 1800’s. But he was best known for his photos of animal locomotion done at the University of Pennsylvania. Leland Stanford (businessman, former governor of California, race horse owner, and founder of Stanford University) served as a catalyst in 1872, when he hired Muybridge to photograph his galloping horses. He wanted to know if all four feet of the horse left the ground at once (Stanford also hoped the photos might tell him how to breed a faster race horse, much to his rivals’ unhappiness.)
Muybridge wired 24 still cameras along a race track, and as the galloping horses passed by, the shutters were clicked on the cameras. Muybridge obtained a photographic record of successive phases in the horse’s motion and, discovered that all four hooves left the ground at once when the horse reached a gallop.
Muybridge’s motion photography for Leland Stanford excited some wealthy east coast citizens and came to the attention of the University of Pennsylvania and the famous American artist, Thomas Eakins in the 1880’s. They invited him to their city to continue his motion photography—providing him with grant money and an outdoor studio on the grounds of the University veterinary hospital. Animals from the local zoo served as his models. The resulting photos were published in an epic portfolio, titled, Animal Locomotion.
But Muybridge nearly sabotaged his artistic career. It seems his personal life warranted as much attention as his professional life. At middle-age he married a pretty, younger wife, but was frequently absent from home. He soon discovered that his wife was having an affair with Harry Larkyns, a San Francisco theatre critic. In 1874. Muybridge discovered that Larkyns had gone to Calistoga, a small town in Napa Valley north of San Francisco, and made the six hour journey by ferry and train. He found Larkyns playing cribbage (shouldn’t they have been playing poker?) and shot him in the chest just below the left nipple. Larkyns staggered outdoors and died under an oak tree.
Arrested and jailed for the murder, Muybridge soon stood trial. (His wealthy patron, Leland Stanford, paid the lawyer’s bills.) A sympathetic jury came back with a verdict of “justifiable homicide.” Adultery was a far greater crime than the murder of a man who seduced someone else’s wife.
What goes around comes around. Muybridge delighted audiences back then with his motion photos of animals walking and running across a University of Pennsylvania courtyard and laid the foundation for modern movies. And I came along and found his photos so enchanting that I “repurposed” them making art books with an accordion style form of binding. I hope that today’s viewer will get as much delight as I did out of seeing the rear end of a large elephant walking away from the camera lifting one large hoof after another and flicking his tail in my accordion style book.
“It is a beautiful truth that all men contain something of the artist in them.” Walt Whitman
Culpepper, Virginia: I’m heading down Route 29 to a small town, Culpepper, in Virginia about a couple of hours south of Washington DC. to teach a book binding course. It’s one of those sunny winter days, where the brightness makes you think it’s warm, and then you open the car door…and realize that it’s darn cold out there.
I don’t know much about Culpepper, but it was supposed to be pretty important during the American Civil War. And so it was. Situated on a railway line, halfway between Richmond, the rebel capital, and Wash. DC, Union headquarters, Culpepper became one of the most desired properties during the Civil war. Both armies wanted Culpepper, and the small town played “host” to each side some 80 times as they were occupied by one or the other army. During a five month occupation by union soldiers, every tree was cut down for fuel. Today, there is no tree older than 150 years in the county.
Clara Barton got her start here as a nurse, and she and poet Walt Whitman tirelessly nursed wounded soldiers. It seems that George Custer also got his start here in Culpepper. He had graduated dead last from his class at West Point amassing a record-total of 726 demerits, one of the worst conduct records in the history of the academy. Without the Civil War, he probably would have been kicked out of West Point. But the Union Army was desperate for officers so assigned him to Culpepper. One day Custer attempted to stop a train taking supplies to the south and was shot in the leg by a rebel soldier, who then shot and killed his horse.
Of course Custer was later killed in his battle against the Sioux Indians at Little Bighorn, and one can only wonder what would have happened if the rebel soldier had shot and killed Custer rather than his horse.
We arrive in Culpepper, a charming Virginia town with a lovely historic district, fine restaurants, and the only remnant of the Civil War are trees no older than 150 years.
The railroad that was fought so bitterly over, is now an Amtrak station–although an Amtrak station with a local historian sitting at a desk. My friend and fellow book binder, Linda, and I are shown to our room, by our hostess who runs “Artful Conversations” one evening a month and owns several businesses in the town.
There’s cocktails before the 45 minute lecture, and a gourmet meal afterwards. We are doing things a bit differently tonight. I will talk for about a 10 minutes, and then will teach the class how to bind two chap books (a book that got its start in the 1500’s) to take home with them.
And what a lovely time we had. All the students are passionate about books and talk about how their children and grandchildren love “real” books. They catch on very quickly on how to bind the two books and exclaim over their handiwork. Because as Walt Whitman said, all of us contain something of the artist in ourselves
During our gourmet meal afterwards, the conversation ranges all over the place; from 9/11, to truckers who now move the majority of goods all over the United States. It ranges from the battle of New Orleans and the British invasion there, and how one of the guests got locked in the Taj Mahal overnight when she traveled to India as a young woman. It seems that people who are passionate about books are also good conversationalists.
As the evening ends, one of the guests asks about the recipe for a white pizza hors d’oeuvre we had eaten. The dough was indescribably delicious. Our hostess smiles and says she found the recipe in an old Italian recipe book that she bought at a second hand book store.