Black and White

I grew up in a photographic home. I spent a great deal of my childhood in one of two states—either antsy while standing stock still and waiting for the shutter to click, or hopping from one foot to the other while banging on the bathroom door, waiting for my dad to let me in because he was locked in there printing pictures.  He would let me in, eventually, but he was always a little huffy about it, and he was impatient, standing  there in the rosy red light and bathed in the fumes of developer and fixer.

When I got older he wanted to show me how to develop my own photos but the chemicals smelled bad and the production of mixing them, dragging the enlarger and trays and squeegees up from the basement was overwhelming.

It seemed to be a male pursuit, all the beakers and glass stirrers and thermometers, the black changing bag he used to spool up his film before he developed the negatives.  All of it a production and exhausting and the drama of monitoring the faintest of stray light,  the yelling to keep the door closed  frayed my nerves, eroded my confidence and sent me to an early bed.

Sometimes I would stay with him and watch the images emerge, but I remember mostly the sensory aspects of it. The familiar bathroom made alien in the red glow of the special light bulb he used, the snap of the enlarger drawer as he extracted paper from the light-tight box, a softer snap of the negative carrier, the even softer metallic scrape of the enlarger head sliding up and down. 

The watery slosh as he rocked the large white trays gently back and forth, an imperceptible twinkling later, the chemical smell.  Our eyes fixed on the trays and the paper floating just below the surface of the chemicals.  We willed an image to appear.  It would, eventually, but  it took a long time, and it felt like a magic trick that wouldn’t work this time. 

But, then, faces rose up, or buildings, slow and faint and distorted in the watery darkness, wanting to be liberated it seemed.  My father kept pushing them back into the drink, by the corners and gently, but still.  It seemed excessive.

Photos, transported from one tray to another to another, and then plucked dripping by the corner to be hung up to dry on a string by metal clips.  And as mysterious as the process is, I was—and am—still struck by the fact that these high value objects—photographs—begin their lives as wet paper.

In college, though, I changed my mind about the process, and learned how to take better photos and how to develop film and print my own pictures.  It was still messy but I used the school’s darkroom and that helped.

Now, I am feeling the itch to try it again. I have inherited a couple of old but good film cameras and as much as I love my digital cameras I would like to see the difference in prints made from real negatives, not pixel. Amid the junk in the basement sit two enlargers, shrouded and kind of creepy, and I am  just not sure I have the strength, or desire, to haul one upstairs and use it.

My research question has become this.  Does black and white photography look so good because of the camera and lens, the film, the processing of the film, and/or the way in which photos are developed from the film—the chemical process and the paper.

And if it is the camera, negative and paper, could I bypass the chemical processing of the darkroom for a quality scanner and printer and good paper?  Would the results be almost as good, good, or maybe even better?  Is printing images the old way an esoteric pursuit like bookbinding by hand, or in service of the finished product?  I don’t know.

This will be my holiday research project.  I want to play around with the old film cameras.  I admire classic film black and white photography, the creamy whites and rich blackness of it.

Would like to try my hand—again—at developing my negatives.  I can do that at the kitchen sink. But I can also tell you this. That lazy kid hopping from one foot to another is still hanging around, and if there is an easier way, a  better way, or as good a way, she is going to embrace it. 

Joan Didion and Her Blue Nights

I’ve spent a great deal of time with Joan Didion lately.  As I was finishing her book, “Blue Nights,” my pal, Janice, told me about the new documentary about Didion on Netflix, The Center Will Not Hold,” so I watched that, too.

Readers who have come late to Joan Didion’s work are most apt to know her memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the beautiful and award-winning account of the year her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a heart attack, at the dinner table, an hour or so after returning from a New York hospital where their only child, Quintana Roo, lay in a New York ICU, on the verge of death.

Grim stuff, that, but Didion tells it, unflinchingly, and in her distinctive voice that readers have admired and praised since the 1960’s when she wrote for Vogue, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, Life. Her writing is sophisticated but approachable, and when I sit in her presence, I often let the book drop in my lap for a moment while I admire that sentence, this paragraph. 

I don’t know how I came to pick up my first Joan Didion book—I suppose I was browsing the non-fiction section in some bookstore or another, and I came across her book of essays on the Sixties, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

The title, alone, was enough to recommend it.  It is a compilation of articles she wrote to explain, or attempt to explain, the Sixties—the Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury, the “flotsam of jetsam” of humanity that flees to the golden coast, searching for something, that elusive better thing, only to find a vast ocean, and no where else to run.  In her opening essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” she captures the promise and desperation of the mythical place that was California in the mid-1960’s.  The center of the counter-culture, John Wayne, quickie divorces and beauty school, sunsets over trailer parks on the flat, scrub brush edge of town.

“Blue Nights”  is the memoir she wrote after the death of her daughter, Quintana.  She struggled with serious illness before her father died and for two years after.  It has been called an uneven book, but an important book, even so. 

Didion wrote “The Year of Magical Thinking” in three months, wanting to get her thoughts down while they were still fresh, raw, and she tells us in interviews that for her, it is through writing that she processes her life and comes to terms, in a way, with Dunne’s death.  It is a deeply honest book and moving, perhaps more so because there is not a hint of self-pity in it.  We see her, sometimes, blinking in the searing light of her new grief, disoriented perhaps, but never pitiful, as she searches for the word, the thought, the memory to help explain things.

“Blue Nights” is a different kind of book.  One reviewer said it was not a memoir on grief, like C.S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed,” or indeed her own  “The Year of Magical Thinking.”  He suggests it is a memoir of regret, as Didion grapples with the loss of this child,  the questioning of her effectiveness as a mother, and her own aging. 

They adopt Quintana in a flurry, and Didion tells us at the celebratory drinks party the next day it is her sister-in-law who suggests they shop for a bassinet, that it had not yet occurred to Didion they needed one. 

That this child is wanted and adored we do not doubt. But Didion lets us in on her horrible secret-perhaps all mothers share it—her fear that she might not be up to the challenge.

It is a moving and sometimes painful tale of families, hope, love, desperation and grief.

The actor, Griffin Dunne, her nephew, produced the Netflix documentary.  It adds context and texture to her writing and her life.  She reads from her work in voice-overs, this self-assured voice we hear in contrast to the frail woman we see on screen. 

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is the book I have bought and given away at least a dozen times to friends and fellow writers.  I think Joan Didion is the finest essayist of our time, or certainly one of them.  Spend an evening or a week in the pages of one of her books, a perfect place to hide for a few hours in late autumn when it feels as if our own centers “will not hold.

A Little Beach Getaway

We were not a vacationing family, although we did, on occasion, venture out in the over-packed Vista Cruiser from time to time, a cooler full of pimento cheese and lunch meat, loaves of bread squashed between bickering children.  There were seven of us crammed into a car designed for six, but this was before the days of mandatory seat belts.  It seems impossible to me now that a couple of us rattled around in the very back—the cargo space for luggage and whatnot.

We went to Jekyll Island, one of Georgia’s sea islands,  where the waves were puny and nearby pulp mills freighted the air with their special perfume.  But the sun was hot, there were sea turtles and the abandoned mansions left by Rockafellers, the Cranes, the Vanderbilts and the Morgans.  When we tired of the beach we explored the old cottages—cottages by millionaires’ standards—where we found small openings to crawl through. We spent  happy hours running through the gilded halls with the peeling wallpaper, and no one noticed and we didn’t care anyway.

But the beach, with the heat and the sand fleas, and the blinding sun—the beach of my youth with the mandatory requirement to get as brown as you can as quick as you can—that beach was never my favorite.  There was no moderation to that kind of beach vacation, and no such thing as sun screen.  If you weren’t shivering by early evening with sun poisoning, then you weren’t doing it right.

Thus, my aversion.

But the mature adult beach trip. Now that is something else again.  It involves big hats, and 50+ sunscreen and possibly a caftan or two.  It involves lots of books to be read, read not on the beach but on the balcony overlooking it.  There are bags of organic coffee in the tote bag, and special cheeses and artisanal breads, and a list of fresh fruits to pick up at road side stands along the way. 

There is an unfinished knitting project along for the ride, just in case boredom sets in.  A laptop and camera.  Candles for the balcony, a life-planning journal that will remain untouched, even though the thought is, all that fresh air and ocean breeze and roaring surf will bring clarity and inspiration.

Uh.  No.

All those things just make one sleepy.

Which is to say that a beach vacation can be restorative.

That is why I decided at the last minute to find something on a beach, somewhere, even though it is summer and hot and I hate the heat.  But I have a big hat.  I have books, and all the items mentioned above. 

I am gathering up all my beach gear even as I write this, and trust me, it is pretty sad as beach gear goes. I picked up two beach towels at the grocery.  I scrounged around for some shorts and found a couple of tee shirts that don’t have holes in them.  Flip-flops. Swimsuit. Something to wear to dinner.  And that, dear readers, is just about it. 

I may make some purchases once I am there.  I have already planned my big splurge—a sand chair.  You know the ones. A lawn chair that, at first glance, looks like a second,  because the legs are so very short.  Surely mistakes have been made.

But no!  They are designed that way, so you can sit almost in the sand, but just above it, and if you take it to the water’s edge, you can sit and feel the tide come in, first your toes, and then your ankles,  and when your bottom gets the message, it is  time to move the chair.

And I have already decided, I will get a deluxe model—one with a high back so that when I am dozing it can support my head, which will be rolling around like a melon on a pike.

I will be heading out soon and I have to say I am looking forward to it.  The long but leisurely drive down south.  Peaches at a roadside stand. The imaginary walks on the beach at sunrise.  The even more imaginary walks on the beach with the moon over my shoulder.  Perhaps the Blue Angels will zoom out over the water as they practice.  Perhaps I will finish my knitting project.  Perhaps I will sleep late, nap in the afternoon. 

Perhaps, but it is not required, I will go into the ocean.

Reading Capote


I first knew Truman Capote as caricature of himself—the flamboyant and outrageous guest on late night television, a gigantic personality in an elfin body.  He wore hats, as I recall from those stolen glimpses of Johnny Carson on those rare nights I was up to see him.

He spoke of his “dear, dear friend” so-and-so, shamelessly name-dropping, slow-rolling his southern drawl as he rolled his eyes, this feline, no, catty little man, perched on a famous talk show couch, past his prime and at that point in time, mostly famous for being famous.

As he struggled sometimes to recall the dear, dear friend, Carson would try to help him move things along, tossing out the name of some likely celebrity.

“Oh, no,” Capote would simper.  “He is a dear friend, but not the dear, dear friend I am thinking of.”  This would go on for several minutes, this naming, and claiming and denying. I was in my teens and didn’t quite know what to make of it.  Except that, for all the good-natured banter, he seemed to be an object of subtle ridicule, and that made me sad because I didn’t know who he was or why he was there.

This was before I read his writing, before I was given “A Christmas Memory” to read in Freshman English, before I had heard of “In Cold Blood,” before I was introduced to the classic film, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Before I knew much about anything, really.

Capote  first appeared on my radar screen in high school, when my friend, Patty, read  “In Cold Blood,” his account of a real-life murder in Kansas.  One evening we were at a party, or hanging out somewhere other than her house—which was odd, because she had the best house for lallygagging teenagers and we were there all the time.

She spent a nervous evening calling her home phone to make sure it still worked, or to make sure that there wasn’t a busy signal, or something like that. I can’t remember the specifics now, but it was all rooted in fear because of some passage in the book. Obviously there was some monkey business with the phone that the murderers employed as they went about systematically killing the Clutter family.

The book terrorized her for weeks and I made an unconscious decision to never read it.  And I haven’t.

It is perhaps his most famous work, a piece of nonfiction that changed the way sensational stories were covered from then onward.  It may have been the last great thing he wrote.  It made him famous, or more famous, that is certain.  It may have ruined him, that is debated. 

My book group is reading “Other Voices, Other Rooms” for May, and the title alone makes it worth picking up.  It is a novel, but one with strong threads of autobiography, as many of his works share when they are set in the deep south, with a young abandoned boy sent to live with relatives, all of whom are southern gothic as all get out.

Even though the themes can be  familiar from one book to the next, there is something fresh about each story, too.  He was a superb story-teller, vivid and unsentimental.  He must surely have been damaged by his early traumas and abandonment, and even perched on an oversized chair on a television set, he seems small and fragile, a child hanging on to something delicate inside him, delicate but heavy.  A thing easily dropped and shattered.

You might have come across Truman Capote in a literature class.  His story, “A Christmas Memory” is widely taught and anthologized.  It is the story of a small, displaced boy and his eccentric cousin, Miss Sook, who isn’t quite “right,” but then, we suspect, neither is Buddy, this little boy who is more comfortable in the world of misfit adults, than with friends his own age.

He isn’t odd, exactly, but his is different, and it makes us champion him, root for him.  Perhaps it is the unemotional way in which his stories unfold.  Regardless, we help him pull the wagon as he and Miss Sook go around the countryside gathering up pecans, candied fruits and whiskey to make the annual fruitcakes. 

I think I will read all his works this year, in order. I admire his deftness as a writer, his description and detail.  But his characters, ah, his characters.  Those I unlock my heart for, those I simply love. 

And I love him, too, a little bit, and search out some soft ground of understanding to place my foot when I read him. I want to see him as more than a character wrapped up in cheap laughs on a late-night talk show forty years ago, mugging for the camera, but hidden from us, all the same.

Mammoth Cave Road Trip

I don’t know why we kept talking about Mammoth Cave, but we did.  Or more accurately, my pal, Silas, kept talking about it, talking about how he wanted to go, thought it would be fun to go through the cave with us—us being any number of our group who could manage a day away.

Logistics with busy people is a nightmare.

Should we go for overnight, or try to do it in one day?  Which weekend?  A Friday? Saturday? If Mammoth Cave doesn’t work out, should we consider Lost River Cave in Bowling Green?  But restaurants, there must be restaurants.  A date was set, then was changed, and the time when we should meet. Finally, we synchronized our calendars, and we were in business.

On a beautiful Friday a few weeks ago, my running mate, Alice, and I bundled in the car and drove  across country for Edmonton County, past woodland with redbud just about to burst, past stands of daffodils on rolling hillsides, under an impossibly blue sky. 

From Owensboro by way of Fordsville, it was a pleasant drive, scarcely an hour once we got back on Hwy. 54. I can’t remember the exact route we took, but it was secondary highways the entire way, and lovely.

I’ve been to Mammoth Cave many times.  With  each visit of relatives from out the state, my grandmother organized a trip to the cave, complete with picnic and singing in the car, which I suspect annoyed the adults and I know for a fact deeply embarrassed the children. In college my anthropology buddies and I often hiked on the trails and we applied to work there one summer but they didn’t want us.

There have been some improvements since the last time I visited.  There is a grill and a restaurant in the renovated hotel, and a nice little walkway over to the visitor’s center.  We arrived in time for a late lunch, and while we waited to be served I toddled over to see about tickets.

Now.  Pay attention. 

You really must get your tickets well in advance for any of the tours. On the day we chose—the Friday of spring break—all the tours were sold out and had been for days.  We knew this before we left home, but decided to take our chances.  There was one tour that is only booked on the day of but we were too late for that, too.

However, there is a self-directed tour, the only one now that uses the historic entrance, and for five bucks you can do that one, all day and at your own pace.  Rangers are stationed in the cave to answer questions and keep an eye on things.

Well, now.  This was perfect.  We wandered down to the entrance around 3:00 p.m., the last minute to still enter the cave for the day.  Down a few steps, not so many, and then we were  in the cave, walking past the saltpeter mines, listening to the ranger tell a group about the tuberculosis patients who once lived in the cave—an experimental treatment that managed to kill them all.

We took pictures, most of them quite awful, because it is really dark, although our camera phones did a pretty good job, considering.  Alice posted a pitch black photo on Facebook of us in the cave, and we had big fun with that, like we were the cleverest people in the world. 

It took us less than an hour to see this small part of the cave and to read the plaques and ask the rangers some questions.  But it was enough for us.  We went topside and spent another hour looking at exhibits and watching a film.

We were hungry again, or thought we were, so a ranger at the information desk suggested a couple of places toward Park City, including a place the locals like, Porky Pig’s, in…I am not making this up…Pig, KY.PORKY PIG DINER We couldn’t resist.

Pig, being so small,was hard to find, but we eventually pulled up in the gravel lot of Porky’s.   It seemed more like a community center than restaurant, with tables dotting the large expanse.  But there was a buffet, pulled pork, and sliced tomatoes and a friendly waitress, so we ate too much and someone bought a ball cap.

We lingered over coffee and cobbler, because we are lingerers.  Even so, I was home by nine. I recommend this little road trip.  A weekend’s worth of fun in under ten hours.

Saying Goodbye

Last week I said goodbye to an old, dear, friend…the first friend in my circle to leave us, and as it is with all such loss, it happened too soon.

Otis L. Griffin, of McLean County, was a civic leader, a large-scale farmer, the husband of my high school pal, Donna. He was a man who gave ballast to our social group and he was my friend.

From the scores of people who came to his visitation, it’s clear he cast a wide net in the friendship department. The line for those waiting to pay their respects snaked out into the hall of Muster Funeral Home. So many came, so many shared stories. So many needed, by their presence, to say how Otis had touched their lives.

I first met Otis in my late twenties—I think it was my twenties—when I and my contemporaries were easing into adulthood. We had jobs and car payments and thought ourselves quite something. Otis was a little bit older, a full-fledged adult compared to our apprenticeship status and he helped show us what grown-ups looked like.

When Donna and Otis started dating he slipped easily into our group, this big guy with quiet ways, one who wore suits on evenings out. Dapper, yes; stuffy, never. I can recall almost nothing of those early days except that we laughed all the time. We had “coming out” parties when someone brought home a potential mate, and I am not sure that it wasn’t Otis who orchestrated an Olympic-style number rating the evening Margaret brought home her future husband to meet us all.

She and Woody were late getting to the party and, as idle hands are the devil’s workshop, we improvised rating cards to hold up when they walked through the door.
Or maybe that little caper was my idea. I know it was Otis who told Woody, “I gave you a 9.5 but then you started talking and I had to drop it to a 6.”

Woody is a funny guy, too, and they were friends from that day forward.

Otis told me once he was in the habit of going to funerals, made it point to do so. He made a special effort if it was some forgotten soul with no one to be sorry he was gone. We always figured he liked funerals.

No, he told Donna. He didn’t like funerals, but it was the right thing to do. To bear witness. To show respect.

And that is who he was. A stand-up guy, Donna would call him. A traditional fellow, one who honored the earth, served on the school board. A father and grandfather. A protector.

When his two youngest children were little, Donna and I packed them up to drive to Hattiesburg, to see Margaret and Woody and their little one. Otis was staying behind, farming, and as we were loading the car, he was uncharacteristically cranky.
I asked him what was wrong.

“I don’t like it. You are taking away my babies.”

Their mother, I must point out, was in the front seat. It was just that he wouldn’t be there, and me in the driver’s seat was no substitute.

Funerals are sad, but they are homecomings, too. I so enjoyed reconnecting with Otis’s children, Lance and Jennifer and their spouses, and seeing their sweet babies, all grown or almost so. And Caitlin and Sage, the toddlers from that long-ago trip, who are stepping out and into their own bright futures. The Griffin children, all of them lovely and lovable adults. And the next generation of Griffins well on their way.

They have lost a sturdy pillar of their family, but they have not lost their compass. Otis had a way of imparting wisdom and giving guidance without you even knowing it. I learned from him every time we were together. His lessons were quiet, but deep. Otis himself, embodied True North.

The funeral procession meandered along Hwy. 136 amid the redbud and dogwood blooms. Cars pulled over as we passed by the farmland Otis worked, loved. A procession so long the first cars often disappeared around a distant bend as the last cars worked to keep up, like a game of crack the whip. The little country cemetery couldn’t hold us all.

It was, as the Rev. Jim Midkiff reminded us, as far as we could go with him now.

So, Otis, we love ya and we will miss you. But don’t you worry. We will keep loving this family and each other. It’s easy for us. We have some advantage. You have shown us how it’s done.

Bon Voyage, Y’all

On what was the most frigid day of the year to date, I bundled up my car and my pal, Alice, and headed for Louisville, to meet up with friends, one of whom is leaving for France in a couple of weeks.  Beth and her husband will be in Bordeaux for three years, for his work, and we feel so sorry for them.

Oh, the boring the vineyards, and the fruits they bear. The sea, the fabulous foods,  all of old Europe on their doorstep, these two will suffer, I tell ya.  Even so, it’s a big thing to pull up stakes and move away, so far away, for three years, even if you have the sea and croissants for comfort.

So, Alice and I came from the west, and three other pals traveled from the east, so that we might get as much of Beth as we could before she leaves us. The plan was simple, but elegant.  We would meet mid-afternoon, visit—jaw, as my Appalachian friends put it.  We would stretch our legs between eating and drinking establishments and jaw some more.

We started at  The Eagle, on Bardstown Road for drinks, and little nibblies, including the Eagle’s signature pickle platter.

Apparently this is a thing.  Has been for a while.  Pickle platters.  This one  was artistic and charmingly curated, with three kinds of pickled carrots, pickled green beans, and a compote of just pickles, all lovingly brined back there in the kitchen and served on a little rustic board.

After an hour or so with pickles, and the sharing of grilled cheese and southern greens and artichoke dip, we pulled on our scarves, our hats and gloves and moseyed over to Carmichael’s Books, just across the street. Writers can be counted on for this, if for nothing else.  We will flat do our part to keep a great bookstore going. 

Carmichael’s is an independent bookstore, with two locations in Louisville, neither one large or sprawling.  They are small, in fact.  Which makes their impact more impressive.  They don’t carry everything, but you don’t even notice, because, on every shelf, and everywhere you look, you see something you want to pick up and buy. 

My friend, Jason, an Anglophile, led me to the tiny history section, and pulled out at least five books I might consider to further my education on the British monarchy.  We lost ourselves completely, each one gravitating to a corner, soon to have our necks bent over the pages of a book, and when we weren’t standing stock still reading, we were seeking each other out to share what we had found.

Books and magazines bought, we wondered in and out of a couple of unique speciality stores, dropping money like breadcrumbs on this cool thing and that.

But now, really, it was time to eat again.  So we headed to Douglas Loop to Migo, which specializes in small plates and tacos, and pitchers of grand drinks.  We ordered one of those pitchers and continued our conversation, a quiet chat to the left, a group chat to the right, a story for the whole table.

There is something sweet about old friends that don’t see each other often but are never far from each other’s minds. I noticed the slow and calm way the day unfolded, with an ebbing and flowing as we changed seats to have a quiet word with each other, small conversations that settled in among larger ones, the nesting dolls of intimacy and affection.

We weren’t quite ready to bring the day to a close, so we toddled across the street to Heine Bros. for coffee, using the excuse of needing the caffeine for the drives home.  Now we sat in companionable silence, much like we do in the mornings of our writing retreats, a little family, happy in ourselves.

Finally, though, we had to move.  Kris and Beth were off to Chicago the next morning to get visas from the French consulate.  A thousand tasks for such a move, and we were fortunate to find this one Saturday to see Beth before they leave.

And, really, no goodbyes. We love Beth and Kris, and three years is a long time, but I don’t think we were sad.  There is such joy in this opportunity for them.   Jason will see Beth in June.  I plan a September visit.  They will get home at least once a year.

The hugs and kisses flowed, and flowed again.

And so, they will go, and they will take our hearts with them.  And I hope they know we will wait patiently for their return.   That we aren’t going anywhere, haven’t gone anywhere.  That we are all here.  Right here.

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