Saturday, February 23, 2013


A few years ago, when my Pentax film camera became obsolete, I took my income tax refund over to a nearby Best Buy; I emerged two hours later with a Canon Power Shot, rechargeable batteries, two memory cards, and absolutely no idea what I was doing.
A month later, I enrolled in an Adult Education class and spent the next six weeks climbing the stairs (ever so slowly, one at a time) up into the Digital Age.

Our first week’s homework assignment was to shoot a portrait.
“Capture expression,” our teacher encouraged. “You’re looking for emotion, character!”
My classmates were eager to get shots of spouses and partners, grandchildren, dogs and cats.
Not me. I wanted to do something completely different, something slightly off-the-wall.

The next day, I placed my favorite wind-up toy – a white dog with black spots and a bright red tongue – in a patch of sunlight on my dining room table and took a couple of close-ups.
When I downloaded the shot to my computer and displayed it on my screen, I was amazed: this cheerful little fellow (with his bone tucked under his chin) made me grin. The shadows fell across his face, his brown eyes were fixed on mine.
Talk about character: he nearly wagged!

I tried the bumblebee next: he appeared to be busy, industrious and, perhaps, a little overwhelmed. I’m not sure about his orange feet (is it supposed to be pollen?), but everything else seems to fit. His wings whir and his antennae actually twitch forward and back when he’s powered up!
It’s the eyes, though, that carry this little guy. Again, expression.

The absolute best, though, is The Little Woman atop my cheese grater (given to me one Christmas by my friend Pam). She lives in my kitchen (not Pam, but the grater) and every time I pass her by, her facial expression reminds me of one of those late-1950s TV sitcom women – June Cleaver, say, or Harriet Nelson – looking askance at her slightly misbehaving sons and/or condescending husband!

If there’s a word for this – the depth and spread of emotion and character found in manufactured items – I don’t know it.

If you can come up with one, please send it along.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


Shells and carved teeth in Africa, gold and gems in Egypt, clay, bones and mammoth tusks in Germany – people have been selecting and wearing charms for thousands of years.
During the Roman Empire, little fish charms were a form of Christian identification, giving the wearer safe entrance to secret, illegal religious ceremonies and meetings. Knights wore charms to protect them in battle while landowners wore them to express their political convictions or confirm their lineage. Charms were sewn into clothing, displayed on belts and neck chains; some were even tied to weapons, leathered onto bridles and harness, attached to breastplates or armor.

And some were made into bracelets.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, charm bracelets become very fashionable among the high society women: bracelets displayed lockets, glass beads, family coats-of-arms and other trinkets. Military men collected charms from other countries as gifts to their wives and sweethearts; parents gave charms to their daughters in recognition of accomplishments or interests. Some bracelets became a form of biography, with charms that marked special events in the lives of their owners.

These two charm bracelets belonged to my mother.  The first one (top) is from her younger years, and the charms represent her love of art (palette), tennis (court roller) and opera (lorgnette). The hot dog and key and cowbell are mysteries to me (I’m really curious about that cowbell)! The small medallion with her initials has the year 1938 on the back – the year she graduated from the May School in Boston, so she would have been about 18 years old.

This second bracelet continues into her adult years. There’s her Smith College pin, my father’s Brown University Zeta Psi fraternity pin and his Navy wings. In the smaller locket, I found photos of me and my brother as toddlers; the larger one belonged to my grandmother, and still has a photograph of my grandfather taken in 1911 in Bear Island, New Brunswick (near Fredericton) where my grandmother was born and raised and where they were married in that same year.
Taken together, my mother’s bracelets tell her story; there’s family history in them!  I’m hanging on to them for the time being; eventually, each of my nephews will receive one – it seems the right thing to do.

They’ll be charmed, I’m sure.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


...the more they stay the same!

We’re in the middle of a whopping snowstorm here in Maine. The driving conditions were pretty wild yesterday – lots of fender-benders in town as people slid their way through stop signs and around curves.

Now, consider this – from a newspaper in 1899:
“Monday morning the sleighs slewed badly and in several instances it certainly looked as though an accident could not be averted. A man and woman were driving up Water street at a fair rate of speed and when a little past the Evans House they turned out for a team. Then it was that the sleigh commenced to go around and it kept turning until it was completely turned, and the horse with a comical expression in his eye was gazing down the street instead of the other way as he had expected.”
Reporter Journal
{Gardiner, Maine}

The sleigh at the top is a Portland Cutter, perhaps the most popular form of transportation in Maine at the time – this one was advertised in the 1902 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog. The copy assures us it was “made of...solid panels, guaranteed not to split, warp or crack...second growth hickory...braces, bolts and clips best grade Norway iron...spring back and spring cushion...body, black, neatly striped...nickel plated arm rails and dash rail...”
          It sold for $16.95.

If you had a big family, a Portland Cutter wouldn’t provide enough seating for you, your spouse, and your children. A large family would need the equivalent of today’s station wagon, and Sears had just the vehicle – a Russian Bob Sleigh for only $46.90.

 “Our Russian beauty combines elegance and comfort,” the advertisement claims. “Wide, roomy, comfortable body...double sweep easy back, shaped for comfort and elegance...spring backs and cushion, richly upholstered with imported English broadcloth...body panels green, gear dark Brewster green, striped to harmonize with the body...”

See the curved front on both of those sleighs? My grandfather told me that curved panel is called the dash, and it protected the people in the sleighs from the snow and ice (and other unpleasant substances!) tossed backwards into the air by the horses’ feet as they trotted down the street --  the dash is the precursor to the front instrument panel we call the dashboard.

I can’t imagine doing the errands in these things – sometimes we take for granted the ease and convenience of our lives today.

It’s nice to know, though, that the more some things change, the more they stay the same: bad driving conditions in 1899 are still bad driving conditions in 2013.

There’s an odd sense of security in that.