You can’t be blind for this date

My camera and I have been angling for a date with the big fella for a long time. He’s always got an excuse.

Either it’s too windy, or there’s too much cloud cover, or it’s too cold, or it’s too late. Finally, the last time there was a full moon, I said, “This is it. Show up, on time, no disguises, and smile brightly at me.”

So, of course, I was the one who couldn’t make it. He was due to ascend over Burlington Bay around 4:10 p.m., casting a pearlized path along the water all the way to the shore.  At that time of year, the sun wouldn’t even have set yet. That’s perfect. Good light for the moon, good light for the landscape, the best of both worlds.

But I couldn’t be there then. You might know he’d save his biggest-this-year performance for a Saturday night when I had to be at church.   But maybe, I thought, maybe when he’s done flirting with all those other folks who’ll be there for the grand entrance, there will be time enough for him and me, backstage. I was counting on it.

I knew the rendezvous wouldn’t be at Burlington Bay, though. By the time I got out of church, at 5:30 or so, he’d be too high in the sky. He’d be smaller, and it would be darker, so there would be no surrounding trees or landscape features to enhance him. Our tryst would be too much in the open. Trysts need ambience, and we needed ours.

The answer lay south just about a quarter mile. Two Harbors’ big red lighthouse, sitting on the point of land that divides one bay from another, might make a perfect foreground. A newly rising moon would be hidden by the lighthouse, but one that had been up for an hour or so should be in just about the right location.

I had prepared. The tripod was in the van, and my camera was with me in church so it would stay warm. As soon as Mass was over, I headed out.


It was an evening made for the moon and me.

Monica Sawyn photo

Monica Sawyn photo

He was full of himself, and Lighthouse Point was awash with his glow. So was I. The haze in the sky only diffused his light over a wider area, spilling it onto the lighthouse and the snow-covered landscape. I could see my camera controls because of him, and I knew he was feeling photogenic.

I have no idea why I was the only one out there. The night was still, with temps in the 20s—balmy, by most of the winter’s standards.  I knew that whitetail deer likely hovered just out of sight; and an owl or two probably surveyed me from some unseen perch. But human critters were conspicuous by their absence.

Those who weren’t here were inside somewhere. To them, nighttime was the dark specter pressing against their windows, the black hole that had absorbed their view of the world. To them, nighttime in winter is the end of activity. It’s the time for fireplace fires and television shows. Oh, what they’re missing.

I glanced around the deserted space and congratulated myself for having the good sense to be out there when I could have it all to myself. I looked up at the sky and saw myself reflected in a few scattered stars through the breaks in the haze. I felt as infinitesimal as they seemed to my eyes.


I fiddled with the exposure, knowing that where I metered would matter. Aim for the big guy and everything else would silhouette; aim for the dark, and he’d turn into an overpowering glow. I settled for something halfway in between. Photography is often a compromise. A graduated neutral density filter might have helped, but I’m shy on equipment and big on making do.

As I clicked, readjusted, clicked again, tried a vertical, tried a horizontal, refocused, and snapped— he kept smiling at me. This date had been a long time coming, and it sure seemed like we were both having a good time. I went home feeling pretty special.

(With apologies. This is a column from my archives, which first appeared elsewhere, back in the days when I lived in Two Harbors, Minn.)

Posted in Humor, Photography | 2 Comments

Photography for Dummies

I’ve never checked, but I’m sure by now someone has put out one of those “…for Dummies” books about photography.

They’re bound to be better than those horrible manuals that come with most cameras—the kind where a term on p. 20 refers you to p. 50 which again refers you back to p. 20; or that tells you what a particular setting means, but doesn’t tell you why you’d ever want to use it or even how to use it. Those should be called “Manuals BY Dummies.”

For most photographers, the important lessons come in the field, by trial and error, by happy accident, by necessity or sudden inspiration. I’ve made a list of my favorites.

  • No matter how much you love your dog, leave him home when you’re serious about taking photos. You’ll either spend all your time wondering where he is,
    Monica Sawyn photo

    Monica Sawyn photo

    watching him scare off that deer you were hoping to shoot, or muttering under your breath when he’s just come to investigate with his big feet whatever it is you’re peering at so intensely with your macro lens. And unless you’ve trained him to sit, stay and don’t move, photographing with a dog on a leash is an exercise in futility.
  • Be counter-cultural when it comes to the weather. When you wake up and hope to take photos, and you look outside and see sun and blue skies, go back to bed. It might be good picnic weather, but the sun will make the photos too contrasty unless you have a lot of fancy filters, and it will ALWAYS be shining in the wrong direction when you’ve found the perfect subject. A nice cloudy day gives you lots more options. Even better than that are the stormy days, when the clouds are angry and create great backdrops; or—my personal favorite—foggy days, when ordinary scenes become mystical when shrouded in nature’s damp veils. Here’s a rule: if you want good, dramatic photography days, think “duck hunting weather.”
  • Develop the 180-degree rule. When you’ve just composed a great shot, turn around and see what’s behind you. I’ve been surprised by that simple maneuver many times. I remember shooting a glorious red sunrise, then turning around and finding all the birch trees behind me
    Monica Sawyn photo

    Monica Sawyn photo

    awash with a pink glow. The resulting photo was almost better than the sunrise. Another time, after shooting an angry Lake Superior, with white caps and wave surges and a glowering sky, I looked behind me and saw a lone pine tree on a hill, standing straight and strong against black storm clouds creeping up behind it. Again, the resulting photo was more dramatic than the first one.
  • Take one last look. After you’ve gleaned an area for all its good shots (a silly thing to say, since you’ll never get them all) and you’re heading back down the trail, or to your car, or back in the house, turn around and take one last look. It’s a bit like the 180 rule. But in this case, you’re not really looking. You think you’re done, your brain slips into another mode—and that’s when Nature throws one last opportunity at you. It happened to me one day down at the waterfront, shooting clouds over various horizons.
    Monica Sawyn photo

    Monica Sawyn photo

    When I’d decided I had enough clouds for the next 10 years, I put the camera in the case, got in the van, and looked back the way I’d come. And there it was: a young maple tree on the rise, hunched against the wind, its branches flung to one side, framing the breakwater and the lake beyond. In the thousands of times I’ve been to the waterfront, I’d never seen that particular shot. Needless to say, I grabbed the camera back out of its case and aimed one last time.

Now that I look at them, those “rules” are all about doing the unexpected. And the unexpected is what makes a photograph something that’s art, rather than just a snapshot that thousands of other people have taken.

Posted in Living with a dog, Photography | 4 Comments

Don’t panic, I intend to stay normal

When I first started working at a newspaper, eons ago, I saved every article I wrote, no matter how small and insignificant. It didn’t take long to drop that habit.

Then, as I moved into doing features and, eventually, writing my own column, I started saving again–but only the ones that I particularly liked. I guess I thought they’d come in handy someday. They never did.

Five years ago, I moved twice in columnstwo years to two different states, and lots of things got lost in the shuffle–including those saved articles and columns. This past week, however, one of them resurrected itself, and I have my mom to thank for it. As moms do, she also saved some of my work, and in her most recent letter, she included one of them.

I thought it would be fun to reprint it. Bear in mind that it was written 10 years ago, when Mom, my sister and I all lived in the same town. Now, we don’t even live in the same state. But, as this column shows, we share some fun memories. The column follows:

Don’t panic, I intend to stay normal

I consider myself a fairly conservative person.

A few bright colors here and there, a few outlandish remarks now and then, but nothing too head-turning, too out of the ordinary.

How then have I ended up with biker chicks in the family?

These didn’t enter by way of marriage. These would be my mother and my sister. My 81-year-old mother. My 53-year-old sister. Women who were, until this past Saturday, pretty normal.

I’ll admit my artist mother does put together some unusual collages, and she paints furniture in designs that would stand out on a dark night. My sister does insist on wearing purple and red together, or purple and green, and the earrings on one ear never match the earrings on the other.

I’d gotten used to those things, however. They didn’t stop the two of them from doing normal things like going to Mass every Sunday, watching family-type movies, shopping at the mall, making Christmas lists and eating on their deck.

So, I was unprepared for the momentous announcement, for the grand unveiling, when they stopped over on Sunday.

“Guess what Mom and I did yesterday?” was my sister’s opening challenge. Millions of possibilities, but she insisted I take a stab at it.

“It’s something that will last forever,” she hinted.

“You bought plots in the cemetery,” I offered. They weren’t amused. She tried again.

“We went someplace you’d never expect us to be.”

“A Baptist revival meeting?” I guessed. I was obviously way off the track with that one, too.

Recognizing me as a lost cause, they both reached down at the same time and raised their pant legs. I saw, on each of their legs, just above the ankle, a tattoo. I was determined to handle this correctly.

“Oh sure, but they’re not permanent,” I said, hardly raising an eyebrow, refusing to be bamboozled by temporary daring-do.

Via Bing Images

Via Bing Images

“You don’t think they’re real, do you?” my sister asked, obviously delighted that I had underestimated both of them. I still wasn’t quit ready to admit that these erstwhile normal women had flipped their lids. If the tattoos were real, what would be next–studs in the nose? Rings in their lips?

I didn’t want to overreact. I didn’t want to set myself up to hear “fooled you!”  So, I calmly waited for them to spill the real story.

It appeared, however, that the real story is what they had given me. These were real tattoos, the indelible, inscribed-with-needles, won’t-wash-off type. A butterfly for my sister, a dragonfly for Mom.

Into my mind flashed the image of these two very straight women, sauntering into a “tattoo parlor,” slinging their legs up on a table, and waiting for the painful process to begin. I could just imagine the looks of shock on the faces of the tattoo artists.

That scenario wasn’t far from wrong. Except that, instead of shocking the ink-and-needle artists, Mom and Sis delighted them.

butterflyThey got asked what made them do it. “Because I’ve always wanted to” was basically both their answers, to which their artists responded, “Cool.”

They caused a stir when it was learned they were a mother-daughter duo, and another one when Mom’s age was announced. She set a record for being the oldest they’d done in that shop.

My sister is on a roll. She’s talking about her next piece of artwork. Mom has decided she’s been brave enough for one lifetime.

But when they both turned their eyes on me, I just shook my head. I’ve heard my makeup called “war paint,” and that’s as good as it’s going to get.

Posted in Human behavior, Humor, Lifestyle, Memories | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Pass me a storm, please

One Sunday, the bright sun was vanquished by fast approaching storm clouds, and thunder rumbled in the distance.

George glanced my way, grinning broadly. “Want to grab the cameras and head out?” he asked.

Well, of course I did. The worse the weather, the better the photos.

Most people make the mistake of thinking that “blue bird days,”

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

the kind with sunny skies and bright sun, are the best times for shooting. That kind of weather may lift the spirits, but it doesn’t always produce photos to brag about later on.

The biggest culprit: reflection. You might not think so, but if you’re shooting nature, petals, grasses and leaves reflect sunlight right back at you. The resulting photos look contrasty and sometimes lack depth. It helps to use a polarizer, but they usually work best when the sun is 90 degrees to the subject—and subjects tend not to always be in that correct location.

Another problem is most people laze away the mornings, have a nice lunch, and then decide to go shooting. When the sun’s out, right after lunch is a horrible time for photography. The flat glare, the lack of shadows, the washed-out color—it’s all there, guaranteed to make a potentially beautiful photo a disaster—and makes polarizers nearly useless.

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

I had that proven to me when, through no fault of my own, I had to shoot South Dakota’s Badlands at noon. The results were sepia-toned images that lacked all of the colorful vibrancy that lurked in that desolate land when the light conditions were right.

Sunny days also bring the Murphy’s Law challenge: whatever you want to shoot will very likely be in front of the sun, where everything is thrown into silhouette. That’s one of the frustrations of shooting along Lake Superior’s North Shore in Minnesota, where I once lived.  Everything is “into the sun.” Shooting the breakwater in Two Harbors, the ore docks, the boats on the horizon, the ducks along the shore—it all means facing the sun. Although the sun still has its silhouetting effect on cloudy days, it’s not quite so drastic.

Here in Sturgeon Bay, shooting on Lake Michigan in the morning means looking into the sun, too. It can be dramatic–or it can be a real challenge.

When it’s cloudy, colors pop. They sometimes appear almost neon. There are no harsh shadows to create metering dilemmas. It’s like the subjects are immersed in a layer of color disbursement, and they look good from any direction. Believe it or not, I prefer shooting fall leaves on cloudy days.

I recently visited a park along Lake Michigan, one filled with flower beds full of every shade of color imaginable. It was a very gray day. The sky and its clouds looked like fractured slate, and a fine mist was precursor to the rain that was imminent. I glanced about, and saw that people were reluctant to take their cameras out. They felt gloomy.

I just smiled to myself, then put the long lens on for some far-away close-ups (a necessity when you don’t have a macro lens) and indulged myself for nearly an hour. The result: vivid photos that gave no clue to the roiling clouds overhead.

Take a step beyond that to stormy days, the kind where thunder rumbles and lightning shimmers behind your eyelids; when day looks like dusk, and storms loom like Tolkien characters, riding the winds of drama.

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

I rode through some farmland in weather like that. I boosted the ISO and focused on the dark, swirling clouds that camouflaged the even darker heart of the storm. Farmers’ fields crouched, bracing themselves for the onslaught. Big barns were dwarfed by a sky where the imagination can see monsters. The wind flattened my t-shirt against my body, and forced a spread-eagle stance for stability. Rain drops the size of half dollars splatted onto the dirt road, where little poofs of dry dust exploded into the air.

But I metered and snapped and reveled in the weather, and the photos that emerged were full of power. If nature reflects God, then I was seeing his might.

What a welcome, dramatic diversion from a light and sunny day.

Posted in Photography | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Saying goodbye to a little brown dog

“Love you forever, my little brown dog.”

I read that line on Facebook and lost it. Today is the day my daughter

The little brown puppy.

The little brown puppy.

Maria had to put her dog Nader to sleep. Two humans could hardly have been better friends than they were, from the time Nader was a little brown puppy until, 14 years later, she had faded a bit in color and matured into Miss Independence who, nevertheless,  relied fiercely and determinedly on Maria.

The two of them lived their lives together in a little red cabin on the shores of Lake Superior. As a puppy, Nader cried down below when Maria left her to climb to her bedroom loft at night. So, she carried that little puppy up with her–and continued to do so as the puppy grew into a much larger dog. As a puppy, Nader–yes, named for THE Ralph Nader, whom they both met in person–sometimes vented her

Nap time together.

Nap time together.

displeasure on that cabin when Maria left her alone to go to work. She eventually came to terms with being the only dog of a single parent.

They roamed the shore and the woods together, and sometimes Maria took Nader to work with her. Nader was present, I think without exception, at the annual girlfriends’ get-together at a cabin somewhere, ostensibly to celebrate Maria’s birthday, but mostly just to have a summer fling and revert back to some of the antics of high school days. Nader became official mascot there and at most of Maria’s other routine social gatherings.

Always time to cuddle.

Always time to cuddle.

Nader was a picky eater, reserving the right to choose, from an assortment of treats, the one she would deign to eat that day. And yet, I remember–oh yes I do!–when she worked very hard to help herself to food NOT designated for dog consumption at all.

People’s curiosity about Nader’s pedigree eventually became a compelling question for Maria, too, so she actually had her

Shiloh and Nader

Shiloh and Nader

DSC_0008

Nader’s “baby.”

DNA tested. It showed what we already knew, that one parent was at least part German Shepherd. To tell you the truth, the rest of the mixture was so varied and unexpected that I can’t remember the details. I do remember that it proved, once and for all, that Nader was a breed of her own.

Sometimes I dog-sat Nader, in the days when Maria traveled for one of her jobs. Poor Nader. I couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t always a good dog about doing potty outside. It took me much too long to realize that a long stare into my eyes was her way of asking, not the bark or the scratch at the door my labs signaled with.  She must have thought Maria’s mom was an extremely slow learner. I did apologize, though.

Nader got away from me one time during a dog-sitting stint. I opened the door, and

Maria and I, with Nader and Lady, at the red cabin.

Maria and I, with Nader and Lady, at the red cabin.

she slipped out like smoke through a screen, taking off up the street as if she knew exactly where she was heading. I hoped it wasn’t back to the little red cabin, because that was 20 miles down the highway. With horrible visions in my head, I walked, drove, called and whistled up and down the streets of our little town, looking in vain for that little brown dog–only to finally see her making a bee-line on her own for our house. Miss Independence had decided, I think, that being with us without Maria was better

Keeping warm.

Keeping warm.

than being alone in a strange town with no one.

I confess, however, that it took many years before I admitted the story to Maria. I was afraid I’d be banned as dog-sitter forever.

I remember scrambling frantically for something for Nader to carry on her potty walks. Her “baby” had been left either at her house, or in mine, but she wasn’t about to trot along without something soft in her mouth. I think one of my

Visiting us--and making a Christmas card.

Visiting us–and making a Christmas card.

gloves worked as a substitute. Too bad for me if one hand got cold. Isn’t that what pockets are for?

Big as she was, Nader considered herself a lap dog. She’d crawl up into Maria’s lap and cuddle like a small child, often falling asleep, always feeling safe and loved. She also knew she was allowed on any of Maria’s furniture. Because of their size, my labs were made to stay on the floor. When Nader came to our house, she loved to rub it in–because of course, she figured her house rules applied to her in our house, too.

So, when my lab Shiloh tried getting on the couch with me and Maria and was turned down, Nader sashayed over, climbed into Maria’s lap, then

Savoring last days.

Savoring last days.

glanced over her shoulder at Shiloh. Smug hardly describes it. I could almost hear na-na-na-na-naaah-na!

And, of course, the photos. Getting Nader to look at a camera was a near impossibility. She always knew just…when…the…shutter…would…click and managed her inevitable head turn. What a dog!

Nader remained true to her my-way nature when a tumor was diagnosed and she was given two months to live. She wasn’t ready quite then, so she confounded everyone, the vet included, by staying at Maria’s side for another 19 months. Maria, I know, savored every one of those days.

My stories undoubtedly pale beside the ones Maria could tell. It helps me to tell them, though, because they make me smile, or chuckle or belly laugh as I write. As soon as I stop writing, the tears being again. What will Maria’s Christmas card be without Nader in it beside her? What will Facebook pictures look like without Maria-and-Nader selfies? Nader’s shadow will flit from room to room, along the paths in the woods and down the path to the shore for many, many years to come.

Lean on me.

Lean on me.

I guess I will do what I know Maria is doing: grieve, shed my tears, and be glad for a little brown dog who enriched our lives for far too few years.

One last selfie.

One last selfie.

Posted in Animal antics, Living with a dog, Memories | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Shooting nature in the city

I remember the week in March a few years ago when the photo challenge wasn’t fair.

A friend and I used to do a long-distance photo project, each of us taking turns choosing the theme and posting our resulting photos online. One week he chose “signs of spring.”

Not hard, you’re thinking. In March, the signs are there no matter how far north you live. Any field, any stream, any shoreline is loaded with spring things to shoot.

Unless, like me, you happen to be temporarily city bound. Not bound FOR the city; bound IN the city. The Big City. Concrete, tall buildings, lots of traffic, miles and miles of suburbs before the tiniest trace of anything resembling a field or a stream. This was the year I lived in Chicago.

Fine thing, I thought, putting on my photographer’s thinking cap and zinging up my imagination. Wet cement and a winter’s worth of litter aren’t terribly inspiring. Dead gray snow piles here and there crusted with grime, the smell of exhaust, the rushing sound of endless traffic–I had a challenge ahead of me.

I also had an advantage–one small beagle who needed walking several times a day, who stopped to sniff and squirt every few paces, forcing me to stop and take note of what was around me. While waiting for my beagle, I began to really look, and really listen.

In February I heard a robin. I could hardly believe my ears, but there it was one day, that familiar raucous call. Later, another familiar call, and–thanks to the beagle–time to scan the tree tops for what I knew I’d find: a bright red cardinal, claiming his territory and calling his love.

Too far away for photos, though. This week’s challenge meant taking a close look nearer to the ground. I wasn’t disappointed.

I remember the exact moment I spotted the tips of daffodils poking

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

through some black earth behind a fence in a front yard, their relentless push creating little fissures in the compacted soil. What a joyful spirit lift! In the same yard, I spotted a clump of tiny snowdrops, white buds still unopened, holding spring in their tightly wrapped petals. That, I decided, would be one of my photos.

Trouble is, these cute little flowers were on the other side of a chain link fence, a foot or so from the sidewalk. I didn’t want to shoot from above because the angle would have been all wrong. That meant shooting through the fence–and THAT meant getting down low.

I’ve always figured a camera lets you get away with doing things that might normally get you committed or arrested. So, with the beagle’s leash in one hand, I hauled out the Nikon D40, attached the 55-200 zoom lens, and laid down on the sidewalk. Please, I thought to myself, let every one of the people who live in these buildings be off to work somewhere.

It’s tricky shooting through a chain link fence, but with just the right distance and just the right angle the links will never show, and no one will ever know. Unless you tell them, of course, like I just did.

The other trick thing is holding the camera still while holding on to a dog’s leash. Lucky for me, my beagle was very patient. More important, he was very still while waiting. The photo was a success.

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

I spotted another photo for this assignment when I was inside the house the next day, watching the rain fall. The sidewalk out in front had a large puddle, reflecting the overhead trees, and the raindrops danced across the surface, creating rings that expanded and disappeared and showed up again with the next raindrop, like a carefully choreographed dance.

I grabbed my camera, using the same lens, and went to stand in front of the puddle. What the neighbors thought, I can only guess. There I was, aiming at the sidewalk. I hope they chalked it up to the eccentricities of a true artist. Sounds better than being thought a nut case.

I set the focus to manual, because auto focus has a hard time knowing what to do with such ever changing images. I placed the reflection of a tree trunk in the frame to anchor the photo, set the aperture number as low as it would go, and focused on the rings, allowing the reflections to blur somewhat and provide a textured canvas. The expanding rings blurred as they moved away from where I’d focused, and I set the shooting mode at continuous to raise my chances of getting rings in focus at just that spot.

Out of a couple dozen shots, I got one I liked. Then I only had to decide which of those photos would be the one I submitted for my “sign of spring.” The important thing is that I successfully met the challenge, despite what I thought was a serious handicap. That’s the fun of photography. I guess the assignment was fair after all.

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

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