It begins…

The season of contrasts begins.

I wake to the sound of wind, roaring around the house like an enraged intruder. The house is cold, easily remedied with a quick turn of the thermostat dial. Warmth seeps along the floor, creeps into the rooms and into my bones.

Outside, snow/frozen rain scratches frantically at my windows and creates a slushy carpet on the deck, while petunias continue to bloom cheerfully and the lobelia nods and waves, oblivious to their own death knell. I rescue the bright red geranium, still full of buds, and hope the hardy thing withstands the sudden indoor warmth to become a happy houseplant.

This last last day of October says fall, but gray November pushes and shoves its way onto

Via Bing Images

Via Bing Images

the horizon, helped by the wind that relentlessly plucks at trees, robbing them of the last of their carefully hoarded leaves. Tiny birds that delayed migration in favor of my plentiful seed offerings, now huddle for the last few bites and then fly off. The feeders, still full, sway in their lonely abandonment.

Inside, the dough for raisin-cinnamon bread mixes in the machine, George practices guitar scales and techniques in the back room, Lady curls asleep on a warm fleece bed while the roar of the furnace mutes all sound. The fireplace, cold and dark, awaits the fire promised it at first-light.

It’s the season of contrasts and transitions, of goodbyes and hellos, of memories possibilities and promises. Today, no matter its color, is a good day to be alive.

Posted in Reflection, seasons, weather | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

‘Oops’ is a four-letter word

My sweatshirt’s got it all wrong.

Emblazoned across the front, in bright gold letters, it says, “STRESS: what happens when your gut says no and your mouth says ‘Of course, I’d be glad to.’”

That may be the cause of most stress, certainly the cause of much of mine in the past, but I’ve found a new source: home remodeling.

We’re only having some changes made in our bathroom.

Via Bing Images

Via Bing Images

The tub is gone, the washer and dryer are going in, new lines had to be run, and three guys were huddled together at the far end of the house, arguing over what could and couldn’t be done. They were worried about logistics. I was worried about holes in my walls where there weren’t holes before.

There’s no way I can watch the process. I took myself off to the other end of the house, but it wasn’t far enough to avoid hearing the mysterious and terrifying sounds of construction–drilling, pounding, crunching, crumbling.

Worse are the running commentaries. For people like me, duct tape across the mouth should be mandatory for those doing the work. Nothing sends me to my knees in prayer faster than hearing things like this:

“Oh, great.”


“I was afraid of that.”


“I didn’t expect that.”

“I should have known.”

“Now what?”

“We can fix it.”

Eventually today the talk turned to hunting, and grandkids, and somebody’s music band. That must be a good sign, I thought. Please let it be a good sign.

Finally, finally, I overheard the one phrase I’d been waiting for.

“We’re done.”

They picked up their tools and headed out the door, and the contractor announced that all the lines were in and they were finished for the day.

Best of all, the house is still standing, and I don’t see daylight through any of the walls. They knew what they were doing. What a relief.

Stress levels now going down.

Posted in Human behavior, Humor | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Good wait

I round the corner and see the line of cars. Too late to back up or turn around and take another route. I’ll just have to sit and wait for the Michigan Street Bridge to go back down.

Unlike some in-a-hurry people, I don’t mind waiting for the bridge. Turn off the motor, turn on one of George’s CDs, sit back and relax. Seize the moment and enjoy it.

I watch the world outside car windows that are gently misted by wannabe rain. Wind bends the branches of golden-leafed trees and scatters runaway leaves down the street where they huddle together in corners and doorways. Even through the music I hear the scritch-scratch of  their helter-skelter flight.

An "in season" photo by Monica Sawyn

An “in season” photo by Monica Sawyn

The top of a tall-masted sailboat juts above the bridge approach on the left, bobbing, back and forth, back and forth, enjoying a tethered ride on the ridges of a wind-agitated bay. No sails, no pennant, just the bare bones of summer cruises now over. The metal parts of the rigging clang, clang against the mast, a death knell to warm-weather play-days, a harbinger of winter’s surcease of frantic activity. Soon, the county will belong once again to those of us who live here.

Waitresses, housekeepers, restaurant owners, tour guides, tour boats, musicians and more, all owe part of our living to the visitors. All are glad when “the season” begins, work picks up, money flows a bit more freely, coffers are filled for the lean months. And then, at some point, the extra traffic, the petulant demands, the crowded restaurants where locals can’t find seats, begin to wear thin. When autumn colors fade, when “the season” ends, when the tourists go home, we’re glad again.

Soon it will be visits with friends, music with musicians who are free to play for each other, time to work on photos and new songs, evenings before the fire. Soon.

So, I wait for the bridge. I watch autumn pass before my eyes. George’s music sets the scene for winter months to come. I sigh, smile and anticipate.

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Gimps and revelations

It was during the Year of the Gimp that I received the Great Autumn Revelation.

I can say “gimp” because I’m referring to myself. A torn meniscus sidelined me a year before my knee surgery and nearly a year afterward. Right about in the middle, as autumn approached, my camera and I began to panic.

Changing ColorsA gimpy photographer is under a severe handicap. But when it happens during Autumn, panic escalates. How, I wondered, was I ever going to manage those climbs to the ridges on the Lake Superior Hiking Trail, to the hills above the state parks, in order to capture those wonderful panoramas of color? How was I going to celebrate with my lens that very favorite season of mine?

The answer was simple: I had to adjust my outlook. So, I developed my theory, “one leaf at a time,” which turned into a mantra that I’ve shared with other photographers. It has changed the way I look at autumn.

Panoramas are breathtaking. But so is that one cluster of leaves, layered on top of each other, growing on the tree in my front yard. Acres of maples  in myriad hues are irresistible, but a single head of ripened grass, baked golden in the sun, is full of wondrous details.

The Revelation extended peripherally, too. When it’s not yet autumn, but I’m itching for color, I learned to turn my lens to the one single leaf that had changed, ignoring the green everywhere else. I didn’t have to wait for “peak color” to find something to fill the viewfinder. Someone looking at that photo has no idea there wasn’t any color anywhere else.

Fall VisionsAs I began to examine autumn more closely,  I found nuances unnoticed when bowing before panoramas. I saw, for instance, that breaking the rules and shooting into the sun, with the blue sky as a background, allowed light to shine through the leaf and reveal its inner glow.

And, perhaps a very important sidebar, I relearned to appreciate my tripod. In order to get close-ups of leaves on trees, I needed to extend my lens, and in order to do that in the face of autumn’s almost-constant breeze, I needed the tripod to steady my hand and capture sharp details.

In the midst of this Great Autumn Revelation, I’m reminded of a friend of mine who took his camera and his car and went out to find a great photo. He was gone half the day, and when he came back, he was disgruntled.

“I didn’t find a thing,” he said. “There’s just not that much color.”

He’d never stopped driving, he’d never left his car and, above all, he’d never really LOOKED. I’d be willing to be there was color and detail everywhere, but he didn’t want to savor the details. He wanted to be wowed by the razzle-dazzle of entire hillsides on fire.

I like razzle-dazzle, too. But when I can’t have it, either because it just isn’t there, or because I can’t get to it, I’m happy to take my color in small doses.

That’s a mighty fine lesson for us gimps to learn.

Posted in autumn, Human behavior, Photography | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Come away with me

It’s always the geese that give me away.

Every time a new season arrives, each with its own day-to-day delights, I find myself thinking THIS is the season I like best. Spring, with the arrival of the birds, and the tiny flower stalks erupting from the soil; summer, lush with abundance, balmy temps that mean coming and going without vast wardrobe changes; winter, with its landscape-muting snowfalls and stark, photogenic landscapes. Each one is so special, and each one I love fiercely when I’m in the midst of it.

Then fall arrives, and the geese begin to fly, and my heart leaps in a way it doesn’t move for any other season. It’s a poignant season of goodbyes, but with such beauty in those farewells! There’s a wildness to it, and even a loneliness. Flowers droop and fade, birds flock and fly away, trees shout their last hurrah in blazing color before slipping into hibernation. Some people even say the changes bring on melancholy.

Not for me, though. I love the colors of the leaves and the crisp crackle as we walk through them. I love the acorns collecting on the ground in the park, and the knowledge that my garden-weeding days are over. I love not having to sweat with the slightest exertion, and the switch to snuggly PJs and fleece-lined slippers.

But above all, I love the geese. It starts with the ones who live right here,

Low flyers' training session.

Low flyers’ training session.

who spend time on Dunlap Reef or along Little Lake, flying low overhead from one place to the next. As summer wanes, they begin their training flights, morning and evening, flying almost randomly, strengthening their flight muscles and teaching the young ones about formation and wind draft and the cooperative effort of getting to a kinder climate.

These geese are flying low, flying local, like the small private planes that zip around from the county airport. If they had leg bands, I’d almost be able to see them. They’re a prelude to what comes next.

Last week I heard it, ever so faintly, the “bark” of a distant pack, but no pack at all really. The migrating flock of geese was so high overhead I’d not have seen them without searching, and I’d not have recognized them without the telltale V. These

High flyers, calling to me.

High flyers, calling to me.

geese are as unconcerned with our little town and little bay as are the big jets that trace contrails across our sky. They’ve come from far away, they’re going farther still. They’re about the business of migration and the avoidance of winter.

I wonder if they’re a siren song to our geese, the ones who will soon rise higher, and fly longer, and slip away from the local scene until spring calls them back.

I wonder, too, if their appeal is to what’s within me, the remnant of the nomadic hunter-gatherer at the far beginnings of my ancestral line. Maybe the reason I love autumn isn’t so much the colors or the change, but that I can hear the geese calling my name. Maybe that leap of my heart is genetic, ancestral and ancient.

Posted in Human behavior, Reflection, seasons | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Decadence AND a clear conscience

We’re coming up on the season of comfort food. Summers call for salads and fresh veggies and all those things that keep doctors and nutritionists smiling.

Fall and winter, however, beg for warm, rich, gooey foods that ease the onslaught of ice and snow. Calories equal heat, right? Makes sense.

The trouble is, for those of us trying to be healthy, comfort foods can make our consciences distinctly UNcomfortable. We start living in the I-shouldn’t-but…zone.

Thus, my dilemma tonight. I was really, really in the mood for a grilled-cheese sandwich. I had just made a loaf of oatmeal walnut bread, and the thought of some nice, sharp cheddar sandwiched between those slices, done to a golden brown, grew more appealing by the minute. I confess I don’t have a problem with thinly sliced cheddar now and then, but grilling it in melted butter…?

So, I decided to try something different. Maybe people all over the country discovered this long ago, but for me it was a brand new idea. Why not, I thought, grill it in olive oil? That stuff is actually good for you, and I do like the taste of it. Restaurants serve herbed olive oil for bread dipping. How much different would this be?

So, I poured a small amount of olive oil in a frying pan, sprinkled garlic powder into that, and then a very small amount of garlic salt to approximate the salty taste butter leaves on a grilled sandwich.

And that was it. As soon as one side was done, I took it out, removed the pan from the heat long enough to add more oil and garlic, did the other side of the sandwich, and sat down to sample it.

It was great! In fact, it was so great, I can honestly say I prefer it to butter. Proof of how good it was is that I didn’t think to get a photo until I had only a couple bites left.

Dare I call it healthy?

Dare I call it healthy?

If the idea of the cheese bothers the cholesterol-conscious, just remember that small portions, now and then, are considered OK. Or, you could try some other kind of cheese for your sandwich, like part-skim mozzarella.

But no matter what you use for the filling, do try the olive oil for the grilling!

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Chip ‘n’ Dales Tails

It has become almost impossible for me to spend a quiet half hour or so with a book and a cup of coffee on my deck.Coffee on the deck

As soon as I settle myself, the little heads begin to appear: some bold, some timid, some old hands at mooching, some new at the trade. I am, you see, the Peanut Lady.

I thought I had come prepared, just in case. I thought the few peanuts I had stuffed in my pocket would be enough. I didn’t expect the aunts, uncles and cousins to all show up, all so sweetly confident that I would have goodies for them. (Actually, if I didn’t always have goodies for them, there might not be quite so many of them. But that’s another issue.)

Twice I made trips back into the house for more peanuts, my book sitting forgotten, my coffee going  cold. And still they kept coming. And so, of course, I kept shooting. Two challenges in that: holding the camera steady and pointed in the right direction in one hand while holding peanuts in another; and making sure my aim is good enough so the chip gets a peanut, not a finger. But I did it, and here are my chips, in living color.

Staring at me from the railing.

Staring at me from the railing.

Sneaking out from behind the grill.

Sneaking out from behind the grill.

Approaching from the deck steps.

Approaching from the deck steps.

Spying on me from the petunia basket.

Spying on me from the petunia basket.

Watch that finger!

Watch that finger!

Taking it  nicely.

Taking it nicely.

Stuffing his cheeks.

Stuffing his cheeks.

Full load and ready to go.

Full load and ready to go.

Posted in Animal antics, Photography | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Temptation in a pan

It started with a drop in temps, and a photo.

After two days of highs in the 40s, gray skies and off-and-on rain, I could feel that old familiar urge coming on–the urge to kick that oven, lying dormant all summer, into high gear and make something really yummy.

This morning, I sliced up three huge red, vine-ripened tomatoes, made from-scratch bread crumbs, grated cheese, snipped herbs from the garden, chopped green onions, added other savory things and produced a yumelicious tomato pie for our noon meal. The house smelled like comfort food for hours.

Not any more, though. Because after that I saw a picture on Facebook. One of my friends had made THREE loaves each of zucchini and apple bread. There they were, lined up in that photo, brown and chunky and tempting.

I immediately thought of the bag of apples that had been sitting for too long in my fridge. I’d used some of them for applesauce a couple times, but that had been a while ago. It was use them or lose them. Maybe an apple pie? I make a mean pie crust, but neither George nor I need that around the house very often.

That bread, though, that I could do. It can be sliced and wrapped and kept in the freezer indefinitely. It makes a nice side to a cup of tea in the evening, or an extra treat if I have to pack George’s lunch when he’s off at a music gig.

I mentioned the idea of apple bread to George as we were having a quick, light supper. He was due to leave for the show he’s playing in for the next six weeks, and his eyes widened at the thought of coming home late at night and finding fresh apple bread. That means, of course, that I had to go through with it. I couldn’t get distracted and decide to make it another day, not when I had planted that epicurean seed.

So, as I type this, two loaves of apple bread are cooling on the counter.

Monica Sawyn photo

Monica Sawyn photo

The house now smells of apples and cinnamon, brown sugar and vanilla. I know I’m going to give in and have a piece of that bread long before George makes it home.

If all this is making you hungry, too, here’s the recipe. Feel free to tweak it any way you’d like.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup chopped walnuts, or a couple healthy handfuls
3 cups apples, peeled, cored and chopped
1/2 cup vegetable oil (I use olive oil)
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
3 eggs, beaten
2 tsp. cinnamon

Preheat oven to 300°. Prepare 2 loaf pans with cooking spray. (I don’t like what’s in those sprays, though, so I pour a little olive oil in the pan and use a brush to coat the surfaces.)

Mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, walnuts and apples in a large bowl. Whisk oil, sugars, eggs, and cinnamon together in another bowl, then add to the flour mixture and stir just until moistened. Pour half into each of the 2 loaf pans.

Bake in oven 60-90 minutes, until toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the finished loaves cool in the pans for about 10 minutes, then remove them to a wire rack.

This is also good if you add a little rum flavoring, or even maple. Experiment! That’s what makes each recipe your own.

Now, take a picture, post it on Facebook, and see how many other people we can send scurrying for their baking supplies.

Posted in Food, Humor, Lifestyle | Tagged , | 6 Comments

A candle against the roar

Coffee is perking in the kitchen, and the aroma of hazelnut cream fills the house. One lamp glows in the living room, pushing back the premature grey that presses against the windows.  I’m wearing a warm fleece robe. It’s quiet and peaceful–inside the house.

Outside, in wind gusts up to 40 miles an hour, the trees and even the smaller shrubs are twisting and turning in a frantic dance, flinging water collected from the daylong rains. The incessant wind plays distressing counterpoint to the quiet snufflings of Lady sleeping on the couch. What should be an evening painted in the gold of a setting sun is instead a gloomy, glowering murk.

On my chairside table a candle burns, a blessed candle,

Monica Sawyn Photo

Monica Sawyn Photo

the stub of  one that once burned on the altar at Mass. I usually light it at prayer time; now, it flickers a silent prayer to ward off any harm the storm may be contemplating, a prayer that the winds will abate by the time George heads home from tonight’s performance at Peninsula Players.

The candle isn’t an indication of any untoward fear on my part. Its warm glow is a companion, much like a campfire. In the firearms safety classes I taught years ago, that’s what we told the kids to do if they should get lost: stay where they are, set up an emergency shelter, build a fire, both for warmth and for companionship. It’s not so lonely, we told them, when a fire is flickering at your side.

I’m not lonely, and I’m not worried. But the flame IS friendly, its steady glow a contrast to the bursts of angry wind. And it’s blessed, a reminder that God waits with me, and walks with George and with anyone else who might have to be out on a night like this.

I could turn on the television and prowl through the Amazon Prime offerings, but that would somehow be intrusive. I prefer to drown out the wind with words, here on this page, eventually in the book

Monica Sawyn photo

Monica Sawyn photo

I’m reading, and probably in the psalms of Evening Prayer. Electric noise just doesn’t seem appropriate. The storm is too elemental. It’s best counteracted with other basic elements, like fire, and thoughts, and the house’s silence. How can it be silent in here when I can hear the wind’s roar outside? Tonight, the silence is another sort of companion.

In another two or three hours, George will be home and it will be time for sleep. In the morning, the air will be fresh, and, if predictions are correct, the sun will no longer hide behind overcast skies. Birds, their feathers finally dry, will flock at the feeders, and the chipmunks will come begging to the door.

And tonight’s wind–where will it be? Will it be churning on someone else’s doorstep, or will it have used itself up, tamed into a toothless breeze by the vagaries of weather patterns? I won’t care. It will be a new day, with a new personality, and I’ll enjoy whatever it brings.

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Printing myself into history

On the one hand, I feel impelled to do it. On the other, I wonder why I bother.

For a while now, I’ve been warning people that current generations will have no pictorial history because our digital photos are all stored in computers or phones or CDs, all of which will eventually corrupt or become obsolete. If we don’t print things out, someday no one will have access to our memories. How is history preserved that way?

Print some of your photos, I tell people. Choose your favorites, or the most important, have them printed, put them in a scrapbook. LABEL THEM! Even your own memory may fail when it comes to faces and names, and your kids will never figure it out. If it matters.

That mattering is what has me second-guessing myself sometimes.

Chronicling the visit to Mom after her stroke.

Chronicling the visit to Mom after her stroke.

On my several trips to Kansas City to see my sister, I took tons of photos. When my mom got sick last January, I documented our trip to visit her. When we gathered for her 90th birthday the year before that, I snapped everything in sight.

I love looking back at the memories–but will anyone else? Will my kids care? And if they do, what happens after that? Unless I become famous, who will be interested in seeing Mom blowing out her birthday candles, or my daughter cuddling with her dog on the couch? In a hundred years, some historian might like to see what ordinary life looked like in the early 21st century, but I can’t imagine that any of my photos or albums will survive that long.

Nevertheless, I have been systematically converting some of my digital images to printed books, via sources like Mixbook and Vistaprint and even Walgreen’s when it’s a small project. I like the idea of a bound book, with pages containing photos and story. When I left my longtime home in Minnesota, I did a book containing my memories of the North Shore. When I lived in Chicago for a while, I documented the sights and surroundings in a bound volume. Just recently, I finished a 49-page book containing the photos and stories of our life during the past year.

A 90th birthday party that became a family reunion.

A 90th birthday party that became a family reunion.

When you’re a photographer the temptation is to choose only the beautiful photos: the tulips, the colored leaves, the vistas seen while traveling, the birds dining in the backyard feeders. And I did choose some of those. But as the old newspaper adage says, “names (and faces) make news.” Friends who look at the albums, my kids who will someday inherit them, aren’t going to be interested in page after page of scenery and flowers. They’ll want to see people; they’ll want to see the stories in the lives of real people they knew, see them laughing and interacting, working and playing.

So, my latest printed book leaves out the vast majority of my “artsy” photos. Unless I become a famous photographer, no one will really be interested. It does include pictures like George in the barbecue apron I made for him; George peeling apples for our Christmas pie; our musician friends performing on stages throughout the county, Christmas morning presents strewn around the living room, lawn mowing with our beagle “helping.”

I’d like to think that someday, when I’m dead and gone, my kids will get a

Photos remembering the past year of my own life.

Photos remembering the past year of my own life.

bang out of all those images and the stories that go with them. And maybe, just maybe, one or more of them will find their way into a library archives or a museum as a bit of history, my contribution to preserving the life and times of very ordinary people, doing ordinary things. That’s REAL history, not the battles and elections and political machinations we’re force-fed in school.

Until then, I can leave the albums on the coffee table for us or our guests to peruse at will, as permanent a record of our lives as anyone can manage. No matter how much technology may advance and change, it takes no special equipment to read a book or browse a photo album.

And in the end, if it never matters to anyone else, it matters to me now.

Posted in Human behavior, Lifestyle, Memories, Photography, Traditions and customs | 4 Comments