Even older than a man’s favorite shirt

How old is the oldest piece of clothing you still wear?

I asked my hair dresser that, and told her my caftan would undoubtedly beat anything she came up with.

“Caf–tan?” she asked, struggling with the pronunciation.

“Yeah, you know, those long flowing things, unstructured…” I trailed off, realizing she hadn’t a clue. The fact that she, who’s not all that much younger than I am, doesn’t know what a caftan is, tells you how really old it is.

I’ll admit I hadn’t given it much thought over the years.

Via Bing images

Via Bing images

I wear it during the warmer months as a sort of robe. It’s loose and comfortable and–best of all–covers a multitude of bodily imperfections. Then, last week I realized I needed to fix one of its seams. That’s when I discovered the seam had already been fixed once before, with a different color thread. I found where the neckline facing was restitched. I recognized that I had mended this thing several times before.

So, I did the math. I made the caftan back in the days when a group of us were taking turns hosting ethnic parties, making food and outfits from other countries. I picked Africa, and the caftan was as close as I could get to something that might be worn somewhere on that vast continent. That was in the early ‘70s. That caftan is at least 42 years old.

My hairdresser admitted that no, she had nothing that old in her closet. I have nothing else that old, either, although I do have a dress that’s close to 20 years old and I still get compliments on it. I have a few pairs of shoes that have been around for a good long time, too. If it fits, looks nice and I like it, my naturally frugal nature says keep it.

Trouble is, I like to sew. And my weight tends to fluctuate. So the chances of having a lot of clothes builds with each passing year.

The solution came when I moved, twice in two years. That’s when you realize how much you’ve accumulated! Four years ago we downsized to a small place, and there’s just no room for endless outfits even if I could afford them. So, in the past year or two for the first time, I’ve actually donated items that were in good shape and still in style but that I didn’t like any more, so I could make room to sew something different.

Not the caftan, though. That one stays. After 42 years, it has earned its place in this family.

Posted in History, Lifestyle, sewing | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

You’re cheating and I know it

At this moment, I’m enjoying a cup of coffee, with a graham cracker to dip into it. It won’t take as many bites to finish it as it once did.

I’ve been eating graham crackers since before I started school,crackers back in the days when my mother decided to protect my health by calling them “cookies.” They’re still a treat to me, plain, or smeared with something decadent, like all-natural peanut butter, or cherry-almond jam from one of our local farmers.

At some point, though, I suddenly realized that the graham crackers aren’t as big as they used to be. They look the same, they’re packed the same, but they’re smaller. What a sneaky way to raise the price without being obvious about it.

Then I started noticing other things. Old recipes call for certain sized cans of ingredients that only come in smaller sizes now. The ounces are fewer in cans of soup. Some cereal boxes have become very skinny but when you look at them head-on, they appear to be the same size. Someone is hoping we won’t pay attention to how much is inside that box.

I think what I resent most is the producers’ assumption–evidently–that we’re too stupid to notice what’s happening, or we’re too apathetic to care, or, more likely, that we’ll just accept it because there’s nothing we can do about it. To me, it’s cheating; it’s an accepted form of weighting the scales.

I could live with all of those things, though. I could avoid the blatant changes by eliminating products that just aren’t worth it. For instance, we no longer buy cold cereal. I can adjust recipes, or admit that a couple ounces less in some ingredients won’t make a difference.

But what is nearly driving me to head-banging frustration is what’s happening to bolts of fabric. The standard widths for years have been 44-45” and 58-60”. The clothing patterns give yardage requirements based on those standard widths, and their layout sheets are based on those, too. Now, some of those bolts have shrunk to only 42 inches.

If you’re not a sewer, or if you only make crafts or quilts, you may not have noticed or it might not matter. But when you’re an apparel sewer, as I am, you know that those two or three inches can make a big difference. Most garment pieces are cut out on a width of fabric folded in half, but when a sleeve suddenly won’t fit, so that you have to open the fabric up to get only one sleeve, it means having to add to the total yardage at least the length of a second sleeve in order to have enough to go around. The trouble is not knowing ahead of time what kind of trouble you’re facing, or having to guess at how much extra is needed, with the possibility of wasting some of it.

boltsIt would be so much more straightforward–and honest–to simply raise the price of the fabric (which they’ve already done anyway, of course) and leave the widths as they’ve always been so we know exactly how to plan our projects. When we have to buy extra fabric to accommodate the narrower widths, we’re already paying more, and we’re well aware of that. But now we have the added aggravation of trying to adjust our patterns in some willy-nilly fashion.

The frustrating part is having no real way to complain about it. The fabric stores have little or nothing to do with it, and the poor clerks in the fabric stores have no control at all. Who do I write a letter to? I have no idea where this fabric is woven, but it’s probably somewhere in China, where most of our U.S. goods seem to originate these days.

So far, my answer has been to avoid the skinny bolts. Maybe, if enough of us do that, someone out there in textile land will figure it out. Or, if the fabric-skimping practice continues to grow, maybe the new patterns will begin to draw their layouts based on 42 inches instead of 44-45.

Until then, I’ll growl and gripe at the fabric stores and write blogs. None of that will do any good, but at least I’ll feel like I’ve shown I’m not as naive as they hope I am. I know you’re cheating me, even if I can’t do anything about it.

Posted in Current issues, sewing, Social commentary | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Photography and my life of crime

As a former newspaper reporter/photographer, I’m used to going where I want to for a story. I’ve come to expect that if I look official enough, or if my motives are sincere enough, my camera and notebook will be the open-sesame to just about any situation or scene that appeals to me—whether I’m on the job or out on my own.

I’ve also learned that that kind of thinking can get me arrested.

I remember the time when I screeched to a halt alongside a farmer’s field full of those amusing round hay bales. Or, maybe they’re straw. There’s been some debate about that when I’ve talked with others, but “hay bale” rolls off my tongue more easily, and the term is good enough for me as a non-farm girl.

These particular bales were quite close to the road,

Monica Sawyn photo

Monica Sawyn photo

with more scattered across the field like toasted marshmallows. Finally, I figured, I’d be able to get close enough to capture their charm. However, I decided to wait until I returned later in the day to shoot them, to take advantage of nice, long shadows.

When I got back there, it became obvious that standing on the side of the road and shooting wasn’t going to work. I never hesitated. I sidestepped my way down the embankment and then up the other side, into the field.
I immediately discovered two things: the stubble that’s left in the field is as lethal as bamboo spikes, threatening to poke its way through the thickest of athletic shoe soles; and trying to compose a pleasing shot of objects left randomly here and there on the landscape, with wide spaces in between, is not as easy as I had anticipated.

I began to walk. And walk. And walk. No matter where I stood, I could get close to only one bale at a time, while the rest remained too distant to have much impact. I was getting frustrated until I took a good look at the rows of stubble I’d been cussing as I maneuvered. They were laid out in precise rows, which took on interesting arrangements depending on whether I viewed them straight on or obliquely.

I quickly rearranged my thinking. It wasn’t just the bales that were interesting, it was the stubble itself. Placing the rows perpendicular to the late-day shadows, I looked through the viewfinder and had one of those aha! moments every photographer loves.

That’s when the cop arrived.

He pulled up to the side of the road and got out. I ignored him, figuring that what you don’t acknowledge will eventually go away. He didn’t.

“What are you doing?” he yelled, keeping a safe distance. I waved my camera in the air, thinking it was pretty obvious what I was doing. But I could feel doom approaching, so I quickly snapped a few more photos—while I still could.

Now he was climbing the embankment and heading in my direction. Feeling distinctly uncomfortable with my back turned towards an armed man, I finally lowered the camera and turned around.

“I’m photographing these hay bales,” I said, flashing my most winning smile. “Aren’t they gorgeous? I just couldn’t resist. It’s harder than I thought, though. And this stubble is terrible to walk in, and…”

I was babbling. It’s a lawbreaker’s favorite slight-of-hand trick. It’s certainly one I’ve used any number of times. Keep talking about innocent things, I figure, and my innocence will be apparent.

I use these terms lawbreaker and innocent intentionally because, of course, I was trespassing on that field. Somehow I’ve developed the philosophy that trespassing laws don’t apply when I’m taking only photos and leaving only footprints—and not even leaving those on that hardscrabble hay field.

The cop wasn’t to be deflected, however.

“Is this your property?” he asked, and I had to admit it wasn’t. But, officer, how could that possibly matter when I’m just taking photos?  Who could possibly mind? What farmer could possibly resist having his produce made famous?

I didn’t exactly speak all those words, but I aw-shucksed a good intimation of them as I headed to my car, the cop keeping step right beside me. He was very nice about it, but I was definitely being escorted off that field.

Monica Sawyn photo

Monica Sawyn photo

I did accomplish two things. I got him to admit there wasn’t a “no trespassing” sign, which somehow mitigated my crime; and I managed to snap off one more shot from down in the ditch, capturing one more view of a round bale along with one of my favorite subjects, grass.

What the heck, I thought, as I climbed back into the car. A little law breaking adds zest to a photo trek, and makes for a good story afterwards.

Posted in Humor, Photography | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

This partner’s a jerk

I’ve gone on photo treks with a lot of different partners. The latest one is a real jerk.

Twice a day like clockwork we head out, walking along the bay, exploring the wooded areas, visiting the habitat park. And, like clockwork, I find something to shoot. Then, just as I’m about push that shutter button–she jerks my arm.

“Lady, can you PLEASE hold still? Wait just–one–minute…”

I suppose I shouldn’t be too impatient because Lady is, after all, a beagle. And as far as she’s concerned, those walks are for her. I figure I can accomplish two missions at once: get some photos, and get her some exercise. Serious photographers would probably roll their eyes and shake their heads–but they’ve never had to gaze into pleading beagle eyes as they put on their jackets to head out the door. Or maybe they have, but are better at saying no than I am.

Actually, it’s a very companionable time, and it’s possible

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

that without her, I wouldn’t be stalking those photos quite so often. Over the months, I’ve developed a system. When I find a photo that takes some care, I stick the handle of the retractable leash between my knees, squeeze real tight so she doesn’t get away, then shoot quickly before she gets to the end of the lead, wait for the jerk when she does, then shoot again.

From a distance, with my knees locked in place, I undoubtedly look like someone who desperately needs to use the facilities. And, if I need to move my position at all, I look like a cripple who has the use of only the lower part of my legs. It doesn’t help that when Lady realizes what’s going on, she usually sits down in the long grass and waits–out of sight. No one can see the dog, no one can fathom what on earth is wrong with me. All they say is a misshapen, jerking creature with a camera pressed to her eye.

Too bad. This system is a far better one than stuffing the leash handle under my arm. There, any movement on Lady’s part is much more quickly translated into camera blur. I used to do that, though; I knew she’d keep jerking when she realized I wasn’t following her, so I’d time my shutter clicks between jerks. Now and then I’d get a useable photo.

Even the knee-clench method has its hazards, though. If I’m clenching and stooping and she’s jerking, all at the same time, it can make getting that close-up of a bee on a flower an extremely chancy operation. I’ve been unexpectedly eyeball to eyeball with a bee countless times, to both our alarmed surprise.

If I were smart, I’d be using a tripod for those flower close-ups, but there’s no way I could handle that AND a dog on a leash. So, at least when I’m with Lady, I make do without the tripod and thank goodness for modern cameras with image stabilization.

Posted in Humor, Living with a dog, Photography | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

If your arm’s not broken, use both

I’m a two-handed photographer.

You’re thinking ALL photographers have two hands–but if that’s the case, why don’t they all use them?

I’ve spotted these one-winged shooters especially around popular scenic stops where everyone wants to capture a memory. You might call them shoot-and-run photographers. They might even still have a hand on the open car door, while the other one holds up a little point-and-shoot camera.

Nothing against those point-and-shoots. Most of them take fine photos, and even finer photos when the owner thoroughly understands the camera’s capabilities. I have one I really love and use often. But their size seems to encourage people to treat them too casually, to take less time with the photos than they might with a “good” camera.tripod

I figure if a scene is worth preserving, it’s worth doing well, and all it takes is a little two-handed attention.

That said, I have to convict myself. I do always use two hands, but there was a time when I turned my nose up at tripods. Too much bother, I told my photographer friends. Too cumbersome. I feel like a bear cub trying to fold lingerie.

Instead, I bragged about what steady hands I had, how an inhalation and held breath, elbows tucked close to my side, steadied me all I needed to get a good shot. Most often that was true, and still is. But there are some instances where a tripod is necessary if you want a shot for something other than a 3 x 5 print.

Moon shots, for instance. When it rises large and golden, flooding the sky with cool light, it’s hard to resist. If you’ve perused the wunderground.com weather site, and looked at the members’ photos posted there, just count the number of full-moon shots there are once a month. Even people who’ve taken them numerous times before can’t resist trying one more time.

But to have the moon look like anything more than a pin point in the sky, you need a long lens–and the longer they are, the more they magnify movement as well as distance. Steady-as-a-rock bravado won’t hold up to that. The moon will be fuzzy. You need to steady that camera the way only a tripod will do.

If you don’t have long lens, you can shoot with what you have–then crop and enlarge. But once again, that kind of enlarging will enlarge camera shake. You need that tripod.

For me, fall photos also demand a tripod. Panoramic shots are fine for hand-holding, but I prefer focusing on one leaf at a time. Leaves, hanging on those skinny little stems, are susceptible to the tiniest of little breezes. Even on days when you’d swear the air was still, a close-up of a beautiful leaf through the camera’s eye will reveal slight movements.

That problem is doubled when you take into account that one single leaf is small, and is probably well out of reach on a tall tree. In both those instances, you need that tripod.

If you’re still resisting, even though you have a tripod; if it mostly collects dust in your closet, here’s the challenge: take it with you AND USE IT the next half dozen times you try some nature photography. In that short a time, you’ll be wielding that tripod with ease. Even better than you can fold lingerie.

(This is, admittedly, a column I wrote for another site a couple years ago. Worth sharing again, I thought.)

Posted in Photography | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Blessed with good bugs

A couple nights ago I was head and shoulders deep in my bed of columbine and peonies, rooting out maple tree sproutings and dandelions. George eventually came out to water the other garden, but first stood behind me for a few minutes before speaking. The conversation went like this:

“Did you remember to spray yourself with bug spray?”


“Are the mosquitos eating you alive?”


“I hate you.”

What he really hates is that mosquitos tend to leave me alone. They might buzz around my head a bit, and occasionally one will land, but mostly they ignore me. So, when we’re walking down the street or strolling through the yard, I’m oblivious to their presence while he’s flailing like a windmill and muttering dire threats against the entire insect population.

“I guess you’re just much sweeter than I,” I told him one day, in an attempt to mollify him. He didn’t buy it.

Figuring there had to be some reason why I’m not high

Via Bing Images

Via Bing Images

on the menu list for mosquitos, I did some online searching. I learned that it doesn’t matter who is sweeter because it’s not the taste of the blood that counts with mosquitos. It’s the smell of the microbes on our skin.

The trillion or so microbes that live on skin give off different chemicals, some of which smell more attractive to mosquitos than others. It’s the microbes that work on sweat to give us body odor. While we share 99.9 percent of DNA with other humans, we only share 10 percent of the same microbes–which explains why some people have more noticeable BO, I suppose, and why some are the full-meal deal to the little blood suckers.

Even when a few mosquitos decide smell isn’t everything and try dining on me anyway, I seldom get a resulting itch. I read that mosquitos inject their hosts with saliva to keep blood from coagulating while they suck. Our bodies, recognizing the foreign substance, send out histamines to fight, and that creates the itch. Why don’t I itch? I can’t find a good answer for that. I hope it’s not because I don’t have enough histamines, since they’re part of our immune system. I prefer to think the mosquitos decide my microbe stench is so bad they can’t force themselves to hang around long enough to inject much of their saliva. Whatever works.

So now, when George and I are walking down the street and he’s swatting mosquitos and I’m not, I know the answer. His bugs smell better than mine.

Posted in Humor | Tagged , | 2 Comments

I’ll take the five for joy

Depending on who you are and where you live, the arrival of May can mean the Kentucky Derby, muddy footprints, sprouting tulips, sports banquets, proms or Mother’s Day.

For me, a product of Catholic schools of many long years ago, May will always be about Mary, May crownings, and the rosary. But when it comes to the rosary, I have a confession to make: among the decades–20 now, where there used to be 15, thanks to Saint John Paul II–I tend to play favorites.

Via Bing Images

Via Bing Images

The new ones, the Luminous, are a happy tracing of Jesus’ public life and I always like it when it’s Thursday, the day to pray those. Wednesday and Saturday are the Glorious, full of joyful triumph. I get an oh-darn feeling on Tuesdays and Fridays, the days for the Sorrowful Mysteries, because, quite frankly, I’d prefer not to dwell on those painful times in Jesus’ life. I know I owe my eternal salvation to them, I pray them with gratitude and love. But, they hurt.

I think the Joyful Mysteries, prayed on Monday, are my favorites because they’re the ones with which I can identify the most. These are about family life, about the ups and downs, the surprises, the expectations, that every family faces. They’re the ones that keep my own thoughts, fears and worries in perspective when dealing with family issues.

The Annunciation, for instance. You know the old saying, “life is what happens when you’ve made other plans”? Mary and Joseph had nice, normal plans for marriage and a family and then along comes an angel and says no, God has other plans, if you’ll agree. Mary did, and Joseph did, perhaps in the midst of confusion. They weren’t all-knowing, but they were all-trusting, and heaven knows my own life has demanded that of me over and over again.

Then comes the Visitation. Mary is always portrayed as going to visit her aging and pregnant cousin Elizabeth out of the kindness of her heart, and I’m sure that’s true. But I have to wonder if it wasn’t also a little moral support she sought. Mary, whose pregnancy was far from “normal,” may have wanted to share that with someone who surely would understand as no one else could, since her own pregnancy was a bit out of the blue. Two women both being borne along on the breath of God, part of a bigger plan like they had never imagined.

It’s that moral support all families need, that fellowship with other believers who are struggling to live in the same world, deal with the same probems, and hopefully do it guided by the same Holy Spirit, even in the face of the world’s skepticism. Oh yes, definitely a mystery for families.

The third mystery, the Birth of Our Lord, keeps me grounded in my station in life. In the midst of financial challenges, or the temptations to try to live up to all that the television commercials tell me I can be (and have), or the expectations that God will give me an easy life because I’m following him, all I have to do is look at the Bethlehem birth to adjust my sights. Somehow, I can’t see Mary and Joseph fretting because they weren’t providing good enough “things” for the son of God. I can’t see them railing at God for not taking better care of them since “Jesus is, after all, YOUR son.” No, they showed the true humility that accepted whatever came after they had done their best. They didn’t expect God to take away their troubles, but rather to help them through them.

They didn’t expect any favors when it came to practicing their faith, either. In the fourth mystery, we see them bringing Jesus to the temple to be offered as the firstborn son, accompanied by the sacrifice of two turtle doves, the poor man’s gift. They didn’t try to rationalize the rules away because they were “special.” They didn’t see themselves as having outgrown the old traditions. They accepted them as being from God, and anything from God was good enough and reason enough for their family to obey. If obedience was a virtue in the holy family’s life, it should be a virtue in mine.

Anyone with children, or who has taught children, can identify with the fifth mystery, when Jesus wanders off in big-city Jerusalem, getting distracted by what was admittedly his true calling, but frightening his parents in the process. Even Mary and Joseph didn’t always understand their child, and I won’t always understand mine. I can only pray that they will respond with the same trust and obedience Jesus did, now or eventually.

After praying the Joyful mysteries, I always feel like I’ve just been looking at a map for my own life. The Holy Family didn’t exactly have smooth sailing, but smooth sailing isn’t necessarily the guarantee for those who follow God. What he did guarantee was to always be with us, and to give us strength and courage to weather the storms and grow in virtue and holiness.

So, the Joyful mysteries are my favorites, because whatever challenges life brings me, it probably brought to them first. I figure if they can do it, I can, too.

Posted in Faith-filled living, Reflection, Traditions and customs | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Writing into the void

These days, I can count on getting three letters a month. Real letters, not those abbreviated, pretend things that arrive electronically. (My sisters don’t count. They write nice, newsy emails every other day or so.)

My mother writes faithfully once a week, my aunt writes faithfully once a month, and my death-row correspondent always answers whenever I write to him, which is about once a month.

Considering the fact that my mom is 91 and my aunt 80, my three-a-month days are probably numbered–and if they ever, God forbid, do something to take poor Jeff out of the 20-year limbo he’s been in, I may lose even that letter-writer.

Lest you think I’m lucky to be getting even three in a day when people just don’t write any more, let me add that I write 12 letters a month to eight different people. I’m doing my part but the percentage of returns isn’t too impressive.

This isn’t a complaint, though. No, this is just a rueful commentary on the state of communication in today’s world.  It’s about what people are missing.

At this very moment, two of my mother’s letters are ForLetterBloglying on the end table next to me. Her familiar handwriting is scrawled across the envelopes, and four pages of news are folded up inside each one. I slit them open as soon as I got them and read them right away. Later, I reread them to George, who sits back as if waiting for the next installment of “This is My Life.” We chuckle that each letter includes date, time and temperature. I don’t chuckle too loudly, though, because my letters are headed the same way.

I can reread Mom’s letters any time I want. I can put them in my purse, or stash the “good” ones in a folder as keepsakes. Long after others’ emails are gone and forgotten, I’ll have at least some of my mom’s letters, infused with her personality in a way an email never can be. I can do the same with anyone’s letters I deem special enough to preserve.

Although few people send real mail these days, everyone likes getting it. When the mailman drops a fistful of envelopes through the mail slot, when a person trudges out to the box at the end of the drive, when a mail truck drives by rumbling with possibilities, there’s a delightful feeling of expectancy that’s nothing like opening an inbox on the computer. And no one can deny that finding a personal envelope that’s not an ad, not a bill, is just plain fun. However, since most people don’t write letters, they’re not likely to get them, either.  I’m one of the few people around, I think, who doesn’t mind writing into a void.

I used to think that’s because I’m a professional writer. But that doesn’t explain my mother, who has written hundreds, probably thousands, of letters over the years strictly as an avocation.  Maybe Mom and my aunt are conscious of the need for someone to help chronicle a family’s life and keep the connections going. When I write to my son, I tell him what the rest of the family is doing. When I hear from my aunt, I learn about cousins I haven’t seen in far, far too many years. Maybe it helps that our family is sprawled across the entire continent and even the world. Big family news-sharing and social gatherings just can’t happen for us.

Maybe. For me, it wouldn’t matter. If I had lots of family around, I’d find someone else to write to. Heck, I even leave notes around for George now and then. It’s an inherent part of my nature. It once was a part of the life of other people. Most have substituted emails or those god-awful phone texts and don’t seem to realize that something in our society is dying. If the electricity ever goes out for good, or if technology should leap and bound ahead of itself, families will have no written records. There will be no love letters left behind, tied with faded blue ribbons; no diaries with private thoughts for descendants to savor. They will all have disappeared with the pressing of a delete key, or the crashing of a hard drive.

People fight to save the whales, bats and spotted owls. I hope at least a few will add personal letters to that list.

Posted in Human behavior, Lifestyle, Social commentary | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Fake whistles and real memories

I hear the whistle, and feel a stirring within–sort of like an old racehorse who hears the starting bell and begins to trot in place.

In my mind’s eye, I see an engine with a string of ore cars behind it, chugging into town with a load of taconite. I see the billows of steam from a steam engine, pulling passenger cars on the Scenic Railway line. I tamp down the urge to grab my camera and head out for the perfect shot.

The whistle I hear is a fake. It’s a signal that the huge gantry crane at the shipbuilding plant is on the move, straddling the ore boat in the big dry dock and carrying supplies to the place of repair. It’s not a train whistle, and never will be, because there are no trains in Door County.

I’m told there once was. The Ahnapee and Western railroad ran 34.5 miles from a

Ready to roll. Photo by Monica Sawyn

Ready to roll. Photo by Monica Sawyn


connection with the Kewaunee, Green Bay and Western Railroad at Casco Junction to the lakeshore terminals of Algoma in Kewaunee County and Sturgeon Bay here in Door County, Wis. Ahnapee used to be Algoma’s name.
On the east side of the waters of Sturgeon Bay sits the old depot, now converted into an entertainment venue–a good move, rescuing a historic building from the vacant doldrums into which it had been sinking.

The railroad swing bridge that spanned the bay was condemned back in the 1960s, and as part of the rails-to-trails move that turned the old line into a biking/hiking trail, is now a way for walkers to venture into the waters of Sturgeon Bay without getting their feet wet.

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Tracks were never laid any farther north. The farms and orchards and fishing villages never echoed to the siren sounds of the whistles. Kids never raced trains on their bikes, cows never raised placid heads to watch them slide by on shiny rails. No one born and raised here knows the thrill of a train chase.

But I do, and I miss it. Maybe not the diesel engines so much, but definitely the romance of those chugging steam engines. I loved seeing them snake through the countryside during the summer tourist season, hugging the Lake Superior shore, leaving steam billows behind like tracks in the snow. Housewives once hated all that belching that could ruin a week’s worth of wash hanging on the lines. Now, with most people drying inside in machines, that smoke has become nostalgia in the wind.

Whistles at every little junction and road; clackity-clacks over the

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

old wooden trestles and river bridges, happy tourists’ arms out the windows waving proudly at everyone watching along the way. And once in town, the once-over by the railroad crew, the whistle before departing again a few hours later, steam escaping from valves near the wheels, the smells, the sounds,  the milling amateur photographers hoping to capture the perfect piece of history.
It was always my intent to find new places to watch and to shoot. I’d head out with my fellow train-nut friend Todd, or jump on my motorcycle and anticipate when the train would hit the trestle, or the bridge, or some other vantage point. No matter how many photos I’d taken, or how busy I was when the train was due in, the whistle always got to me, and I’d have to drop everything just one more time.

It’s been five years since I’ve been anywhere near a steam train. It’s been four years since I’ve lived where there was any kind of train at all. So, for me, the fake whistle at the shipyard is a tantalizing tease. Whenever it blows, every single time, I see steam, and hear wheels on rails, and remember…

Check here for some video I shot in Two Harbors, Minn., with the old DM&IR depot in the background.

Posted in Memories, Photography, trains | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Here’s a hair-raiser

This is truly a hair-raising tale.

When I was born, my hair was dark and straight. I was oblivious, of course, concerned mostly with the sudden draft of cold air and where my first meal was coming from.

By the time I was 2 or 3, I was curly-headed and blond, too young to realize that was license to have more fun. I just naturally had the fun without that special permission.

When I started school at age 5, my hair was dark and straight again. I don’t remember that being at all an issue. The only specific things I recall from that kindergarten year is the rug I used for naps, and the little boy who kissed me. (Still having fun, apparently.)

In the sixth grade, my hair started to curl. Nothing riotous, just waves with minds of their own. A memory from that year is picture day, when an eighth-grade expert decided to take control of the rebel waves and restyle my hair for the camera. My mother still hasn’t recovered.

Throughout high school, my hair got curlier and even frizzed in the humidity. I kept it short when the style was long and stick-straight, and I complained daily to my mother.

“I hate this hair! I don’t know what to do with it!”

My mother, whose hair has always been stick-straight, was no help at all, although she did attempt to comfort me.

“Someday, when you have your own kids and you’re busy, you’ll be glad you don’t have to fuss with your hair,” she said. You can imagine what I thought of that advice.

In college I decided to grow it anyway, having discovered the magical

Via Bing Images

Via Bing Images

properties of humongous-sized rollers. I invested in lots of them, as well as a floor-standing hair dryer, and “doing my hair” started taking up great portions of my day. I majored in journalism and minored in hair.

A few years later, I did what all teenagers think they’ll never do: I proved my mother right. I had my kids, my days were long and full, and I cut my hair short again. Wash it, comb it back, let it curl however it wanted, never another thought. My peers were jealous. Now I was the one with the bragging rights.

With my history, I should have known things wouldn’t stay that way. I am now old enough to collect government funds, and my hair has changed yet again. This time it’s gray–and gray it will stay because I have no intention of coloring it to that same shade of reddish brown that’s the telltale sign of doctored locks. (I wondered, in my 50s, why all my friends’ hair was the same color. Silly me.) If gray hair makes men “distinguished” and not old, that should apply to women, too.

But, worse than the gray, my hair is straightening again.

Hat-and-hood hair--the best I can do these days.

Hat-and-hood hair–the best I can do these days.

I can still coax a curl out of it here and there, and it looks especially good when styled and rearranged by a winter hat and hood after a long walk with the dog. That is far from a reliable route to chic.

I think it’s time for another heart-to-heart with Mom. I know just what I’m going to say.

“I hate this hair! I don’t know what to do with it!”

I already know part of the answer, though. If I live long enough, it’s sure to change again.

Posted in Human behavior, Humor, Memories | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments