Long Island

DAY OF MONARCHS

We named our little sailboat Gwaihir, the wind lord. Really, she was the wind lady. A bit pretentious for such a little boat, but I thought it would be a lucky name. She was a 16 foot soling, a centerboarder, drawing just 16 inches with the board up. I used to tell people Gwaihir could sail on a wet hankie and I believed she could.

Soling Drawiing

She was a surprisingly stable craft. We carried a 5 HP outboard motor so when tide and wind were against us, we could still get home. In the old days, sailboats had to drop anchor and wait for one or both to shift. Today, we have to get home for dinner … so we have outboards.

When my husband had the time and felt particularly frisky, we took Gwaihir out through Sloop Channel and Jones inlet into the ocean. Even a 3 foot roller looks big when you are on the deck of such a small sloop. My husband was a madman on the water, would sail through thunder squalls because he liked the challenge. His father had been equally insane, so I guess he came by it honestly, if such a thing is possible.

Mostly though, I piloted her through the salt marshes and shallow canals off Long Island. She was perfect for shallow water sailing. We could sail through nesting grounds of plovers, herons and divers, virtually silent except for the slight flapping of the jib. The birds were undisturbed by our passage and went about their business, our white sails wing-like in the breeze.

One bright day with a warm sun lighting the water and the sky blue as a robin’s egg, I anchored in a shallow, reedy spot, lay back on the bench and drifted off to sleep as I watched little puffy clouds scoot across the sky.

I awoke a while later and our white sail was covered with what seemed to be thousands upon thousands of monarch butterflies. I had drifted into their migration route and they had stopped for a rest on my little boat.

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I didn’t move or say anything. Just looked up and watched, thinking that if ever there had been a perfect day, crafted for my delight, this was it.

Then, as if someone had signalled, they rose in a flock and flew onward to complete their long journey. And I sailed home.

Daily Prompt: Lilacs

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My son was born on the 7th of May. The lilacs bloomed that week, down on Long Island where we lived.

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All my friends and family who visited brought lilacs. Their scent filled the room.

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The smell of lilacs makes me feel young and reminds me of May 1969, when the lilacs bloomed.

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Old dog, new tricks: My photographic evolution.

I have always preferred photographing landscapes. There are several reasons why, the most prominent being I’m good at it. In the same way that reading and writing came naturally to me, taking picture postcard style photos has been easy. Give me almost any kind of natural environment and someplace to stand, I’ll find pictures and take some good ones. As soon as I developed my first roll of film taken on a real SLR, I knew this was something for which I had natural aptitude.

Dry weeds by the river

But there are other, less obvious reasons:

  1. Everyone loves pretty pictures. Animals, waterfalls, seascapes, sunrise and sunset, trees and leaves … purple mountain’s majesty and fruited plains. There’s nothing controversial about landscapes.
  2. Landscapes (excluding wild animals, a whole different category) have the decency to stay put. They don’t wriggle, make weird faces, or try to stick their noses into the lens.
  3. Shots of nature are usually done in day time or at worst, dawn or dusk, which means no complicated lighting issues. Sunlight,shade, or overcast — daylight is easy. Nobody does lighting like God.

After more than 40 years of taking pictures of nature, I realized I wasn’t getting the same satisfaction from my photos as I had in the past.

Riverside

Part of the problem is that we live in a valley of rare natural beauty. That may not sound like a problem and it isn’t a complaint, but it’s a big change from how I’ve always lived. I was born and raised in New York, moved out to Long Island, then over to Jerusalem. When I came back, I bounced from New York to Boston.

The countryside  was where I went to find pictures to take. Now everything is upside down. It’s the city that’s far away; nature is all around me.

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It’s no challenge to find lovely scenery. I can stand on my back deck to catch a sunrise. It’s less than a mile to my choice of rivers, marshland, half a dozen waterfalls, the big pond where swans live and herons wade by the shore.

If I walk a few hundred yards up my street, Percherons are grazing in the pasture. Down the other way are the old barns and restored Victorian mansions. Anything I might want that’s pretty or illustrative of country life — other than the ocean (that’s a bit of a haul) — is easy, convenient and accessible. No parking problems, no crowds.

Swans

In the autumn, every tree looks as if it’s lit from within. When the snow falls, the world turns into a Currier and Ives drawing. The valley is beautiful in all seasons, stunning in several. Spring is glorious when we get one. Some years we have spring. Other years, we go from winter to summer with a barely enough time between them to buy a bathing suit.

Painted Lady - 2 Marilyn Armstrong

One day, while my granddaughter and I were out shooting, she commented that everything looks the same. I understood what she meant. Not that it isn’t beautiful. I had also begun to notice the same thing. There was nothing to challenge us.

Beautiful, but predictable. Woods are woods and we have plenty of that. We have lots of waterfalls, rivers, ponds and streams but they all look very similar to each other. Assuming normal lighting conditions, you don’t have to take your camera off automatic unless you’re looking for a special effect. We revisit places often enough so that even using all the creativity we can collectively find, we’ve much made our statements and have no more to say.

An office.

A few months ago, my back was bothering me more than usual, but I was in the mood to shoot. I started looking around to see if there was something worth shooting in my house. It turns out you can do a lot with light coming through windows. I became enamored of shadowy scenes of my house transformed by various angles of light. Eventually I ran out of windows.

Morning light in my kitchen as coffee brews ...

I yearned for urban architecture, abstract shapes and forms. I got a bit of a fix from some of the mills, but most of the mills are not architecturally particularly interesting. The very old ones can be, but the newer ones are just big square brick factories and often hard to get close enough — or far enough — to make a picture. I’ve never been good at that kind of photography but I wanted to try. Lacking a city, I began carrying a camera everywhere, even to the grocery store, the mall, the doctor’s office. I have been pleasantly surprised at how much I’ve found.

Symphony Hall Pillar

I’ve shot vegetables and farm stands, parking lots and street scenes and on our annual Christmas excursion into Boston, a fair number of night pictures in and around Boston Common and the Statehouse. I didn’t even have “the good cameras” with me. I shot all of it with the little Canon point and shoot I bought so that I’d have one very compact camera with a super-zoom that I could toss in my bag. The result has been better than I imagined possible. I’ve also gained even more respect for the capabilities of these Canon Powershot cameras.

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This is the fourth one I’ve owned. The first got passed to my son when I replaced it with a newer one and it is still working fine. It’s replacement was an amazingly good camera, but somewhere along the line, it was dropped. The culprit has never confessed, but the camera was dead.

Statehouse - Dec Night

In between, I got a relatively inexpensive Canon Powershot 130. I knew I would soon replace it, but I needed a camera in a hurry. It did the job, then moved on to my daughter-in-law.

That was when I got bought the big Canon that now belongs to my granddaughter, discovered the big camera was much too heavy for my aging wrists … and got the Olympus PEN E-PL1, then the Olympus PEN E-P3. Then a long zoom. There’s nothing wrong with that lens. It’s fine. I just never use it. It turns out that I rarely shoot long, but I frequently shoot close. I want — but am not likely to get — a good wide-angle lens.

The ones that are wide enough are slow and those that are fast enough are not wide enough or so expensive it makes my heart stop. So I treated myself to a 45mm 1.8 portrait lens which is delicious and since, next to landscapes, my strong suit is casual portraits, it fits nicely into my lens set.

City Life

Somewhere along the line, I bought the Canon Powershot SX 260 which has a good superzoom. It isn’t fast enough for most night shooting, although if I would actually use my tripod, I could overcome that problem. But if I’m going to haul the tripod, then I’m going to bring the Olympus cameras and lenses, not the point and shoot.

It is ironic that I take more pictures with the  little Canon than the much more expensive and higher quality Olympus cameras because I won’t just toss them into my bag. Compact superzoom is currently trumping higher quality. I’m beginning to think what I really need is one of the new generation of incredibly expensive but really high quality all-in-one cameras … but they are out of my price range. Still, there are a couple of good ones out there that make my heart go pit-a-pat.

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There’s no moral to this story unless it is that photography has been my hobby since I got my first real SLR in 1970. It’s the world’s best hobby. You never outgrow it. You never are too old to take pictures. It’s fun, very occasionally profitable (but not profitable enough to cover the cost of the equipment!), and there’s always something new to try.

If you have money to spend, there’s always a new generation of cameras and lenses. Giving my granddaughter a camera was the best gift I ever gave her. She has an entire lifetime of discovering the world through a lens ahead of her. No matter what else happens, it will still go with her.

Do you remember Nunley’s?

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If you grew up or lived on Long Island sometime before and until the late 1980s, you’ll remember Nunley’s.

When they closed and sold their wonderful old carousel that had an actual working Calliope, I tried to talk the city of Boston into buying it and putting it on Boston Common or perhaps in Boston Garden.

They lacked the imagination to realize what a treasure it was and how wonderful it would be to have that carousel.

And now, it’s gone.

Woodcleft Canal

Freeport, Long Island. It’s in Nassau Country, the closest county on Long Island to New York city. I grew up in the city … in Queens, which is a borough of New York. Each of New York’s boroughs has its own character and in many ways, is a city in its own right. Certainly people who grow up in Brooklyn identify themselves as Brooklyn-ites and if you come from the Queens, Staten Island, or the Bronx, you will always identify that as your “home ground” rather than just “New York.”

Colorized postcard of Woodcleft canal with houses visible on the right side of the photo. Postmark: “” Merrick, N.Y, September 3, 1907″ Addressee and Address: “M.A. Hansen, 791 59th Street, Brooklyn” Message [on front]: “” Sept. 1, 07. Have a good time. May” – From the Freeport Historical Society Postcard Collection

Between the picture postcard and our visit lay almost exactly a century.

People from Manhattan have a strong sense of superiority because they come from The City. For reasons that are hard to explain, but perfectly obvious to anyone who has lived there or even visited for any length of time, Manhattan is the heart of New York in ways that cannot be simply explained. It’s not just because it’s the center of business. In fact, that really has little to do with it. It just is what it is. Even when I was a kid growing up in Queens, when we said we were going “into the city,” we  meant Manhattan. If we were going anywhere else in the five boroughs, we said we were going to Brooklyn or the Bronx or some specific neighborhood … but the city was Manhattan and no doubt still is.

I moved to Long Island in 1963 when I was 16 and had just started college. I never moved back to the city, though for many years, we went there for shows, museums, all the things available in a city and not in suburbs or other outlying areas. And of course, work.

A few years of my childhood, before I was 5 and moved to Holliswood, we lived in an apartment house — really, a tenement — on Rose Street in Freeport, near Woodcleft Canal.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the area near the canal was decrepit. Living “near the docks” was not a good thing, certainly nothing to brag about. My family was going through hard times and it was the best we could afford.

My mother hated it. It was the middle of nowhere and she didn’t drive. For her, born in Manhattan, a lifelong resident of New York, what was Freeport? Long Island? That was farm country where you went to buy vegetables at farm stands. My mother, an urbanite to her core, understood poverty but being poor in the country was her version of Hell.

My memories are limited but I see in my mind a big white stucco building with no architectural features. A large white box that didn’t fit into the neighborhood. It stuck out so that even by the less stringent standards of 60 years ago, it was an eyesore. It hasn’t lost that quality. It is still an ugly building, but I expect the rent is higher.

We drove down Rose Street to look at it. I was curious if I would recognize it, but I did. Instantly. I think early memories are deeply embedded in our psyches. Then, having satisfied curiosity, we found out way to the canal.

Reflections in the canal.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the canal lined with marinas and yachts. The road along the canal has the usual expensive restaurants featuring faux nautical decor. It was a trifle weird.

There were many huge Victorian houses in Freeport back in the 1970s that you could buy for almost nothing. A great deal if you had a lot of money with which to fix one of them up. Those grand old houses … there are still a few around there and here too, but restoring one is big bucks and maintaining them, even if you can afford the initial restoration, out of the range of most people. I’m glad that some have survived. They are magnificent, though even thinking about the cost of heating one is frightening.

Everything changes.

You can’t go back in time except in your memory. Sometimes, if you treasure the way it was, how you remember it, it’s better not to revisit places. Keep your memories intact because then, the places you remember will always be the way they were.