10,000 Eyes

Most seasoned travelers to Paris would not be surprised that many of them are walking on countless remains of past Parisians. It is estimated that there are over 6,000,000 bodies, skulls mostly, that are buried in ancient rock mine shafts.

It all began with a gruesome and tragic collapse of a catacombs from the church St. Innocents. This prompted the city engineers to use the remaining mine shafts to bury the dead. Only a portion of these unfortunates are on view and open to the public. Touring the tunnels will cost 5€ and I estimated that only about 10,000 skulls and bones are on display.

Who were these people? What were their lives like? Did they often meet, fall in and out of love? Cry? Laugh? Grieve? Were they happy or were their lives spent living in squalid misery? We only have the blank eyes staring back at us to even give a hint.

But we are confident that as Parisians, they approached life with a certain savoir faire.

Think of it. The sightless eye sockets of 10,000 watch your every move. Try to steal a kiss from a sweetheart or a nip from a flask, you certainly won’t be alone.

Oddly enough, it not a dismal environment.

On the streets above, you’re mostly alone. But in the catacombs you have thousands of friends, although mute, at least they are watching you in their own way.

The Bearded Man Beholds The Autumn

 

[Photo is mine.]

He sits on the front deck of his home. Despite recent chilly weather, this particular Wednesday proved to be mild…even warm. He has spent the last half-hour watching a red squirrel scurry about a pile of chipped wood. Doubtless, this is to be his winter den.

The bearded man is sitting like countless other men and women like him. He spends his idle hours either writing or thinking of odd topics to comment on. At the moment, he is musing on the science that explains the breakdown of the Chlorophyll that is necessary for the tree to reveal the true color of it’s leaves.

[Photo is mine.]

He scratches the whiskers on his cheek. He is fully aware that before he can say Blitzen all this foliage will be composting beneath two feet of powder-white snow,

The relentless challenges of winter will keep the old man close by the fireplace. He will likely be typing about the awesome beauty of the North Country winter.

Some Sunday afternoon in mid-January he will find himself in the icy garage staring at ski poles and snowshoes. He’ll recall times when pain didn’t accompany a simple walk in the woods.

Soon, he will be sitting in his favorite leather wingback chair. His fingers will linger with the buttons of his treasured L.L Bean plaid flannel shirt

Like many old men who sit and think, he’ll ponder his youth, wonder what happened to his middle years and doubtless dread the future left to him.

Then, without a doubt, he’ll reach for a good book.

[Photo credit: Google search.]

A Young Boy’s Walk

[Source: Google Search.]

My first eight years of formal education was at St. Patrick’s School in Owego, NY. Many former students of many Catholic schools will complain about horrid nuns with rulers and black straps. I had no such issues with the Sisters of Mercy who ran our school. Most knew our parents personally. I can’t blame the good Sisters for the lapses in my education (I don’t know the difference between a gerund and a participle). And it’s ultimate irony that someone who had virtually no science classes ended up being a teacher…a science teacher!

But I digress.

My forth grade teacher, Sister M., liked to take walks. Owego was ideal for school children to walk. The streets are mostly set on a grid sistem. Out the school, keep making lefts when you come to a corner and before you can say Susquehanna, you’re back at the school.

[Source: Google Search.]

Sister M.loved the autumn and there’s nothing like that season in Owego. The sidewalks fill with leaves and all is right with the world. She had the patience of a saint, so on the most perfect days of fall, we would go, as a class, on our ‘science’ walk. East on Main Street and a right on Ross. We’re at the corner of Ross and Front, ready to make the right back to school. I can glimpse my house. I wondered what my mother was doing. Which room she was cleaning or which fall flower she was picking. Our class did this walk, every year, with the particular nun who taught us. The ‘science’ part took place when we got back to school. In the back of the building was an unused room…our ‘lab’. There, using a hot plate and an old used pan, we would choose our favorite leaf picked up on the walk, and  each pupil would carefully dip their leaf into the melted paraffin. The nun stood close by always thinking about the possible and the much dreaded phone call:

“What?! My daughter got scolded with hot, molten wax? It’s true. It’s true that you nuns torture our kids.”

On our forth grade walk, something odd happened to me. At the end of a two-block leaf walk, I had changed. I always enjoyed finding a colorful maple or oak, but on that ideal day, a day with a deep blue sky, the smell of leaves, the hint of crispness in the air and Halloween a week or two away…I saw the true colors shining through. The sky became a deeper blue and the thousands of leaves took on a brilliance I had never seen before. (This same experience happened years later when I was a freshman in high school. I recall lying on the grass in our backyard and staring at a budding spring flower. I never saw a flower the same since. My senses had made a quantum leap into a higher level of insight).

I looked up at Sister M. She had a slight smile on her nearly hidden face. I looked around at my classmates. Did they experience what had felt that moment? I believe for them each moment came at a different time. I had my moment. On their way to adulthood, they all would have their moment. I glanced again and my friends, this time i noticed a young petit girl with dark hair cut in a pixie style.

I began to notice many different things that day. It was a walk I will never forget.

NOTE: All the leaves are still green here in the North Country. But, seasons change fast and so here is my autumn blog.]

Snow

The woods are pleasant, dark, and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

–Robert Frost

 

[Our tiny forest. Our front yard. Photo is mine.]

I can think of nothing in nature more calming, soothing and tranquil than standing in a forest while snowflakes nearly the size of marbles drift slowly downward through the trees.

I’ve sat by gurgling brooks. I’ve felt the winds of the prairie whistle in my ears. With a mug of Oolong tea laced with local honey at my side, I’ve sat and listened to the rain fall, sometimes heavy and in waves…sometimes only a dribble. These are all transcendent. And you need only one good sense, hearing.

Snow, on the other hand is silent. You can’t hear a flake settle on a pine needle. A rainfall doesn’t lend itself to a visual experience, unless you count thunder and lightening. A snowstorm, in its aftermath, can leave you breathless…the absolute whiteness of it all.  Well, not all. A mere three weeks can separate the dazzling colors of late autumn to a black and white world where only a hint of dull green marks the presence of coniferous trees and a cluster of brown Aspen leaves that have not yet fallen from the mother tree.

But snow is a superb example of what could be a blessing to one but can be a curse to another. Yes, I appreciate the quiet solitude that snowstorms bring, but I can also see darkness that lies beneath the ten inches of the white fluffy stuff.

It wasn’t always like this for me. I skated when I was young. Tobogganed every hill around Owego, NY and skied Whiteface Mountain. I spent five summers living on glaciers of the Juneau Icefield in Alaska. I knew ice. I knew snow.

Then I aged. Snowshoeing became difficult. X-Country skiing became problematic and downhill alpine skiing presented its own set of dangers to my body.

Blame it on my Lumbar region (L4 & L5) for my falling out of love for the winter season.

[Me shoveling. You can’t see my L4 & L5, but I can feel them. Photo credit: Mariam Voutsis.]

SIDEBAR A few facts about snow.

It is a myth, often repeated, that the Inuit (Eskimos) have dozens of words describing snow. There is no way to determine the real facts here because of the multitudes of Northern Native People. Different country…different way of viewing snow. There are however, researchers who study snow and keep track of these sort of things. The latest list contains 121 different types of snowflakes.

Is it true that no two snowflakes can be the same? This is mostly true, but recently scientists have found ways to practically duplicate a snowflake pattern.

Most snowflakes that we are familiar with are hexagons. There are thirty-five common types in all. Here is a short list:

  • Stellaar Dendrites (pictured below)
  • Columns & Needles
  • Capped Columns
  • Fern-like Stellar Dendrites
  • Diamond Dust Crystals
  • Triangular Crystals
  • Twelve-branched Snowflakes.

[A Stellar Dendrite flake. Very common. Photo source: Google search.]

There is even a Field Guide to Snowflakes available. I tried to examine snowflakes one afternoon a few winters ago. I wore a dark jacket and held my geologic hand lens in my frozen fingers. A flake landed on my dark sleeve. But when I put the hand lens to my right eye and leaned forward to examine the flake, my warm breath melted it, leaving me to examine a small drop of water. This is something I could do in my kitchen. I learned nothing. I’ll learn the technique, someday, perhaps.

So, I believe it can be stated that there is a snowflake for every taste. It would be an understatement to say that snow is the engine that runs empires, so to speak. What would winter TV every four years be like if it weren’t for the Winter Olympics. Hallmark Movies? Who would know about Tanya Harding? (I’m including ice as a sub-set of snow). How could we live without the likes of Lindsey Vonn? If you’re old enough your heart stopped for a few moments when Franz Klammer won the men’s downhill in 1976. And of course, who can’t forget the aerial flights of Shawn White?

[Alpine skiing. Awesome. Photo credit: Google search]

I celebrate winter. I love snow. But, these days it’s a visual thing. I must leave you now to contemplate my winter landscape.  I’ve sat long enough. I need another heat patch placed on my L4 & L5 region. I will make another mug of Oolong tea and add a tad of honey.

[Winter on our road. Photo is mine.]

[All of the factual information about snow came from several Google searches.]

 

Good-bye Rosie

[Rosie. Photo is mine.]

My mother passed away in her sleep on a quiet Easter Sunday morning in 1992. A sad event indeed. Just days before on Holy Thursday, she sat in the living room of our home and told the priest that she was tired and was prepared. She was ready. She also told him she wanted to depart this life on Easter. She got her wish. This event put into motion a series of events, a journey of sorts, in my life, that of my wife, Mariam and Cracklin Rosie.

A day later my wife and I drove to Tioga Gardens Nursery to pick out a spray of flowers for the funeral home viewing. The nursery was owned, I believe, by my high school classmate, Ed Kuhlman. He commiserated his sorrow at my mother’s passing and took an order for a floral display.

“Wait;” he said as we were leaving. “I have a gift for you, Pat.”

He disappeared into the depths of the greenhouse and emerged a few minutes later with a small potted plant.

“Here, this is from me. No charge. It’s a Begonia and I’ve named it Cracklin Rosie. I love Neil Diamond. Take care of her and she will bring back memories of you mom.”

[For all my botanists readers: Begonia x corellina hybrid. The plant scientist who created the hybrid named it after the Neil Diamond song. For years I thought it was Ed Kuhlman’s favorite song.]

We took the plant and departed.  After the funeral and all the necessary things that had to be done, we headed back to New York City. I was a teacher and my wife was a nursing administrator at a major city hospital. We had to go forward to our lives. We put Cracklin Rosie in a nice place in our one bedroom apartment.

The years passed.  We grew older and Rosie (we dropped the Cracklin part) grew up and out. Then up and out some more until she became as prominent a part of our home as a sofa or a library.

In 2000, we bought a lake side house in Rainbow Lake, NY. We rented it out on a weekly basis for several years. It helped to pay the mortgage. Then in 2005, I retired from teaching. Over thirty years of pushing chalk was now to become a memory.

In 2011, we let ourselves be bought out and left the City for our home in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York State.

We brought Rosie with us. By now, she was the size of a china closet. Every time we travelled abroad we had to find someone to watch over her. It was like having a pet; but one that never crawled on to your lap or wagged a tail. In our dining room, she became a presence…a conversation starter…a center of attention. It was like having the skeleton of the Elephant Man watching you eat your pasta primavera.

Sadly, an era is about to close for us. My son, Brian and his fiancee, Kirstin are coming for a visit over Columbus Day weekend. They have agreed to take Rosie back to Queens and become her new owners.

I’m sitting here as I type this and staring at her in her floppy green glory. She has witnessed dinner parties, made way for a Christmas tree or two, watched us having a candle-lit dinner, an argument, a deep philosophical discussion and all the events of life that come with a happily married couple who live in the North Country.

Knowing how this plant/human relationship will eventually end, we gave cuttings to many of our friends. There are baby Rosies in many homes. And, when Mariam and I visit Brian and Kristin, we’ll meet up with Rosie and talk about old times.

She has felt us brush by her as we haul luggage out to the car or back into the living room from our travels. She sensed us. She welcomed us. I think she’ll miss us.

I’ll miss her just like I’d miss an old friend.

Just like I miss my mother.

 

 

Sitting In Another Cemetery

[Me gazing at the soccer game. Photo credit: Mariam Voutsis]

You, my readers, may think I’m a bit morose and morbid.  My last post was about Evergreen Cemetery, in my home town of Owego, NY.  But, if you think that I am very dark, you’re wrong.  Yes, I have a strong nostalgic mind.  But today I had a job to do.  I’m a volunteer photographer for Find-A-Grave.com.

That means that I get requests from people from far off USA, hoping somebody like me would take the time to go out to a country cemetery and photograph the gravestone of ‘Aunt Martha’. Whatever you may think, I consider it a great service to fulfill these requests.  (I get no monetary reward, nor would I accept one.)  I’m satisfied with the thank-you emails.

But, today.  Today I had some severe lower back pain.  It was difficult to walk the small churchyard.

I took a rest and sat on a boulder that was actually a headstone.  I looked over at a nearby athletic  field where Paul Smiths College was playing soccer.

I heard the shouts, the goals, the cheers and the young men yelling and encouraging. This is  something I did in my youth.

I sat feeling very isolated.  I couldn’t play that game ever again.  It’s a strange and powerful thought when you sit in a churchyard.

I kicked back a few soccer balls that had been hit into the cemetery.  I could still do something with my legs!

But my back still hurt and I heard a shout from Mariam.  She had found some memorial we had long searched for.

Now I sit in our screen-in porch and listen the the howling wind.  Our squash is in the oven.  Summer is ended and I must put the plexiglass panels back into place.

Time flies like the wind.

 

 

A Tale of Three Rings

[Antique wedding ring.  Price? About $5600. European Cut. Source: Google search.]

Eileen, a colleague of Mariam, wanted to meet us for a drink.  We were in New York City for the usual doctors appointments, meetings and our yearly Yankee game.

The three of us sat at the bar of Brendens Irish Pub on W. 35th Street.  I don’t know…maybe we were talking about Tolkein or circuses, but the topic turned to rings, specifically our wedding rings.

We each had a story about our wedding rings.  My story was probably the least interesting so I’ll start with me.  I wore my wedding ring for many years, removing it only for activities like kayaking and picking up hot babes in cheap bars (that was a joke).  Kayaking tends to cause my ring to rub against my finger.  But, for the last several years I’ve not worn my ring.  I began to lose weight and in the dry air of the North Country, my skin shrinks.  I performed a simple scientific test.  I shook my left hand several times onto the sheets of our bed.  The ring slipped off.  Not a good thing so I put it on Mariam’s jewelry tray where it sat until I decided it was time for action.  I needed to take the ring to a jeweler and have something put inside to hold the skin of my third finger.  This is what I got:

The nubs you see on the inside hold the ring securely in place.  I am now wearing the aforementioned ring 24/7.

Mariam’s story is a bit more interesting.  When we picked it out (Macy’s. circa early ’90’s), she chose a cubic zirconia.  It was a fine ring and fooled a jeweler once who commented on the quality of her “diamond”.  She worked at St. Vincent’s Hospital in those days as a Nursing Supervisor.  Often she would help in the bedside care…and that is how she damaged the facet of the cubic.  She continued to wear it for years, until we went to the jeweler on 86th Street and Broadway.  The woman behind the counter said it could be easily replaced with a new stone.  So we did it.

Here is her ring after the replacement:

But the real interesting story was the one told by Eileen, Mariam’s friend.

Eileen and her husband  are Filippino.  His grandmother had beautiful diamond earrings, given to her by her mother.  WWII brought the Japanese to the Philippines.  They weren’t a very friendly lot.  It is historical fact that the Japanese Army did some dispicable things to the Chinese and the citizens of the Philippines.  Knowing what was coming, his grandmother had the stones reset in nondescript (read ugly) metal earrings, which she wore throughout the war, hiding the precious heirloom in plain sight.  On her ears.

They survived the war.  His grandmother then had them reset as wedding rings.  One was lost.  The other was handed down to Eileen’s husband.  That is the one that resides on Eileen’s finger.  And she was sitting next to me.

I was taken by the story.  There are probably a thousand stories that are similar, but this ring…I was able to touch this ring.

As I did, I felt the weight of history, love, family, war and survival.

This is Eileen:

And, this is her ring:

Rings are real material objects.  You can touch them, lose them, pawn them, steal them or even throw them into the East River.  But, they are also symbols of things that endure…like love.

The Box of Treasures

[A sampling of Mariam’s head shots]

We have something over our heads, above the ceiling in the room where we binge watch Big Little Lies, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Doc Martin.  Some people would call it an attic.  Others might refer to it as a crawl space (one doesn’t need to crawl, really.  You can stand up straight unless you’re 2″ above the U. S. Norm of Healthy Heights.)  It’s accessible by a trap-door in our bedroom which allows folding wooden stairs to drop down.

I hardly ever go up there.  There is, perhaps, a two-week window of survival in our attic.  One is at the end of winter and the other is at the end of summer.  If you need to search for something in December, you’ll need an Arctic Expedition Parka and bib overalls, the kind the skiers wear.  The prowling about must be swift because hypothermia lurks in the corners.

If your needs take you up there in July, be aware that the ambient air temperature can approach the level that can melt lead, a little better than the surface of Mercury.

Like I said, I hardly ever go up there.

But, Mariam is a much stronger person that I am, so she ventures up the wooden stairs when she feels the need to get a box of something down.  We once stored many items in our attic but through the culling process, we have only a few items left there.

A few weeks ago, she decided to ascend into the heat and search for a box that might contain discardable items.  I stood at the bottom of the stairs and accepted the hand-me-downs.

Later, out on the coffee table of our porch, she opened one of the boxes.  What she found was ten pounds of memories.  She spread the items out on the table.  There were Playbills and Reviews of every opera and show she had ever done.  (In case you didn’t know, Mariam was a professional opera singer and performer years before she met me.)  She sang a solo at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.

And then came the head shots.  Dozens of head shots, ready to send to agents.  Of course all were shot by a professional, but that extra touch wasn’t needed to bring out the glamorous features of my wife.

They were awesome.  Her short career was awesome.  The photo of her being hugged by Pavoratti was awesome…sadly, she couldn’t find that picture.

It’s probably in another box in the attic.

[The attic door to the Box of Treasures]

The Robin’s Nest

[The nest after being moved from the lamp]

[American Robin: Turdus migratorius.]

I’m sure it was a Robin’s nest.  Every time Mariam or I would use the front deck entrance (with a screen door that slammed louder than the front gate of Alcatraz), a bird with a rusty breast would scold us from a nearby branch of a long-needle pine.

When we arrived home after our late winter trip overseas, neither of us noticed anything.  But one afternoon something caught my eye.  It was atop our outdoor light.  At first it looked like Rip van Winkle’s hat…leafy, twiggy and crusted with mud.  I chanced to pull out our kitchen stool and peaked inside…it was a birds nest, constructed with such engineering skill, it made a beaver dam look like a 6th graders science experiment.  I touched nothing, knowing the rules about birds and nests.

Nothing much happened for a few days.  No sign of any action.  Then on another afternoon, I was in the guest bedroom trying to find a clean flannel shirt for the day (It’s late May, so I get to level down from wool to fleece to flannel.)  I looked out at the lamp.  A mother Robin was tending the nest!  I moved the window shade ever so slightly and she took off to a nearby branch.

We had a family living above our lamp.  Life was about to begin on our front porch.  For several weeks we watched as the mother sat as still as a dead parrot in a cage.  We began to use the back deck for our commerce, avoiding the disturbance of the slamming screen door.  Mariam began to take a special interest in the birds welfare…she watched it from afar like a trained ornithologist…which was great to watch…since she, Mariam not the bird, is from Queens.

A few days ago, I was sitting in our living room reading David Copperfield.  (I’m on page 260…I have only 469 pages left…that’s good for me, I’ve only been at it for four years) when Mariam walked in and announced that she believed the mother bird abandoned the nest.  I thought about it for a few minutes and told her that I thought that the hatchlings had already taken wing.  She didn’t think so.

Today, she asked me to take down the nest as it was obviously empty, but she didn’t want to see inside.  So I went out and actually had to struggle to move the nest.  It was so firmly attached to the lamp that even the stormy weather we’ve had couldn’t possible have budged it.

[The original nest site…pretty good choice I think.]

It was a marvel of…well, nest-making.  But I found no signs of egg shells bits.

I believe the family is gone and the fledglings are fine in the parents care.  Soon, they too will be fully adult by summers end…and will migrate when the time comes…that time when their internal chemistry tells them it’s time to fly south, something I can relate to.

Watching nature’s cycles unfold from a window is a privilege.  This is what living in the North Country offers.

The next major event is black-fly season.  I’ll be watching that play out from the screened-in porch, thank you.  There are some things in nature I just don’t do…getting my blood sucked by anything with wings is not on my to-do list.

The Statue

This post is not about anything that happened on our most recent trip.  This goes back to a time, over a year ago when we were having dinner at an outdoor restaurant In Brussels.  At the end of the final course, I excused myself to go to the loo.  On the way to the back of the building I discovered another dining area, a garden and a fountain.  And a few statues.  One of them caught my eye.  I took several photos of her from various angles.

I was seduced by one in particular.  It’s the one shown above.  There was something about her smile, the placement of her arm and her figure.  But it was the gaze on her face and her obvious grace that captured me.  She was looking to her right.  I’ve seen that smile before.  She’s a bit coquettish and sexy and seductive, but that wasn’t the focus of my attention.

I’ve seen that look before.  I saw it in my wife’s face shortly after we met.  I’ve seen it in my past, from the delicate faces of the girls and women I thought I loved…and perhaps I did at the time.  But it’s a universal profile.  A glance that says “Maybe it’s you I love” or “Come up and see me sometime”.

My self-image leaves much to be desired.  I wish others could perceive me as I wish, not as I am.  I also know that this is a symptom of one who feels the loss of youth and is facing old age.  It’s odd, but change occurs slowly…every day and you don’t notice it until you see an old photo of yourself.  I knew when I lost my youth…it wasn’t that many years ago.  It took a clean mirror. A mirror that was honest with me.  Coming to grips with that has been hard for me.  What happened to the last thirty years?  I’ve no idea.

I gaze into the mirror and see white hair and bags under my eyes.  It seems like every joint in my body from my waist down could use a shot of Valium.

However, I feel in my heart, that at a distant time in the past, the young woman above would have gone for a walk with me.  But I have to live with the fact that she will never age, unlike me, save for weathering and lichen and moss that will someday grow on her ankles, shoulders and all that hair.

[The photo is mine]