Saturday, September 25, 2010

Off the Beaten Path: What Happens When You Do Things That You Never Do and Go Places You Never Go.

I think this is a great picture. Actually, it's my photograph of the original photographer's work. I never would have seen it if I had not done something I almost never do: go out at night. 

When I suggested to Barbara that we go out voluntarily one Saturday night, her look said, "What? You are losing it."

"There's a photo exhibition of six local photographers in Worcester. It's free."

Free is one of my favorite words. I also love photos.

"Okay," she said resignedly, which she always says (eventually) when I suggest something off the beaten path, sometimes downright quirky.

I explained that the one-night exhibition on the second floor of the Sprinkler Factory at 38 Harlow St. was different. The photos won't be matted and displayed in frames on the wall. It will be an entirely digital showing on 52-inch TV screens lining the walls leading to one huge wall-sized screen. The work of all the photographers will continually show one photo after another.

Jeff Haynes, one of the photographers and the organizer of the show, told the Worcester Telegram that the way we view and interact with photos has changed dramatically in the last ten years. He said that in the new era of Facebook and smartphones, photography has become digital-driven. And with the cost of having ten photos printed, matted, and framed up to $1,000, digital is much cheaper.

When we got there, the place was packed. Who says that Worcester is dead? People were engrossed in the new world setup, thrillingly buffeted on all sides by wonderful photography.

The photographers mingled and talked about their work. I didn't mingle. That requires being social which takes care and energy.  No, I was there to gawk, appreciate, and enjoy.  I would be  a snoop and amateur photographer copping a free show and free food.

They say that nothing worthwhile in this life is free. Well, this show was great and free. So was the  food , especially the huge platter of fresh fruit on which I feasted.

Many at the show carried cameras and moved like secret agents among the crowd mentally composing possible photos and shooting at will.  In public places, you have to be careful taking pictures of people. Not everybody likes being photographed.  Some run and hide at the sight of a camera.

Not here. By common consent, subjects had no rights. Everybody had unwritten permission to snap away to their heart's content. So, of course, I photographically invaded people's privacy like some uncivilized brute. No preliminary chit-chat, no name-asking or giving, no asking permission -- just shooting.  And if somebody gets in the way of a shot, a curt "move please."

I turned the tables on one photographer and shot her with my little digital camera as she was trying to fade into the woodwork  in pursuit of her art. I went up to  her and said, "gotcha." I showed her the shot I got of her.

Clearly a pro, she was not impressed. "I'll crop it, "I said. "You'll come out good."

Still dubious, she went back to shooting.  I didn't get her name or give her mine. It was all about the photos. OMG!  I wonder if she got a picture of me stuffing my face with fruit!

"Did you take any photos of photos in which the subjects had clothes on?"  Barbara asked me.

"They weren't my favorites."

"How come you're just taking photos of nude photos of women?"

"Okay, I'll take some of nude men, just for you dear."

"Hopeless, just hopeless," she thought. Oh yes, I know what she is thinking.

NOTE: The photo at the top got my vote for best of show. But with so many great photos, it was no easy choice. While I can be accused of being a dirty old man who is turned on by naked pictures of women, I can't be accused of favoritism. I don't know which photographer took this winning photo. But the photographer was one of six who exhibited at the show: Nicole Chan, Scott Erb, Dana Lane, Steve Stearns, Cynthia Woehrle, and Jeff Haynes.

Another thing I never do is go to Maine.  Are you kidding me?  Drive two or three hours to that God-forbidden backwater where bears and deer roam everywhere?  A place all but cut off from civilization? When I only know of a few human beings who live there and don't see them for years on end?

I may be not all there, but I don't think I'm a complete loony tune just yet. Or maybe I am.  I decided to pay a social call in Maine on human beings who have not been holding their breaths waiting for me to pop by. And my poor suffering wife again said okay. Not only that, she agreed to go.

It was my niece Linda's idea, and she volunteered to drive us. Such a deal!  How could I pass it up?

Linda wanted to visit her dad Nick and his companion Pat who live in Alfred, Maine. Nick has been contending with prostate cancer and, lately, with Lyme disease. Nicky and I knew each other when we were kids half a century ago in Stoneham, Mass.

He moved up to Maine five years ago from Shrewsbury, Mass. to follow his bliss: being with his soul mate Pat and pursuing his love of racing birds and tending to a huge vegetable garden. But it also meant moving away from daughter Linda and son Glen and four grandkids.

For Linda, who is super busy running her own business (a hair salon), Breast Friends Connection (a nonprofit supporting breast cancer survivors), and taking two kids here and there, this is a rare chance to see her dad. It was also a chance for her mom Ruby (and my sister) to visit her former husband Nicky and  for me to visit my brother Peter.

It so happens that my brother Peter, 64, lives just 15 minutes away from Linda's dad.  I have seen Peter just a few times in his entire life. Peter and I and four other siblings, of whom I am the oldest, share the same  mother but Peter has a different father.

When Linda telephoned him to say that we were coming to Maine to see him, he broke into tears. You'll understand why in a bit.

Our first stop was at Linda's dad's. When we pulled up, he ran over to me, grabbed me by the hand, and pulled me away before I could even say hello to Pat. He  immediately began describing the powerful tornado that hit them on July 21.

"It was unbelievable, " he said. "It was about seven o'clock and I heard this huge roar from the mountain over there and then, even though it was still light out, everything went black and the winds hit us. Lightning flashed, followed immediately by the boom, no more than a second from flash to boom."

He said that he and Pat ran into the house and crouched down in the cellar.  "I figured the cellar was the only place where we could feel safe," he said.  The tornado passed as suddenly as it had arrived, and the storm was "gone in no more than fifteen or twenty minutes," he said.

When he and Pat emerged from their hiding place, they were shocked at the devastation the tornado had wreaked in such a short time. Huge trees were down everywhere on  their large tract of land.

In one photo, Nicky is dwarfed by a giant tree uprooted yards away from the house.  He is also shown with the remains of a giant tree across the street and with the devastation of the land behind the house.

He and Pat were amazed that, by some miracle, the tornado left untouched the house and the large pigeon coops behind the house.  I found it had to believe myself. Truly, the gods had  smiled upon Nicky and Pat.

Nicky stole me away for a tour of his pigeon coops and vast vegetable gardens. He talked nonstop and excitedly, making sure he got it all in: all the veggies he home grows, the swiss chard, the beets, broccoli, corn, tomatoes, brussel sprouts, strawberries, blueberries, elderberries; the pigeon coops that brought Pat and him together, how he heats the house with wood, why life in Maine with Pat and all his old pigeon-racing friends is so good.

"So I'm hungry," I interjected.  "Where's the squab? I was looking forward to a nice squab dinner."

Well, we got no squab. What we did get was all the fresh veggies we could carry.  We had his beets one night. I cut them up and boiled them and they were delicious.  Barbara had seconds on the beets, unusual for her.

Nice seeing you, Nicky.  By the way, those stories you tell about how I was as a kid, could you cool it?  I tell people I was a hero. You're the only one left alive who knows the truth. Shhhhh.

Pat, next time you and I will talk and I'll take pictures of you. And those things Nicky says about me when I was a kid in Stoneham, Mass. -- all lies. 

The last stop was Peter and Jolene. Technically, Peter is my half brother because we have different fathers. But he has always referred to me as his brother while I have hesitated to do so. Our mother was a sorry creature.  She threw her first five kids into the trashcan of foster care. She remarried, had Peter, and was even crueler to him.

This is the mother that I wrote about earlier in Toxic Mother I and in Toxic Mother II.   Toxic Mother II   is about what Peter had to endure. Check it out and you will understand  Peter's tears on the phone. Warning: the story is not prettied up.

The abuse that Peter suffered as a child, and which I describe in detail in Toxic Mother II, ranks with the worst that I have ever heard of.  It was horrific.  How he survived childhood, I have no idea.  But survive he did only to run smack into constant financial struggle and emotional turmoil as an adult (three marriages, multiple relationships and break-ups, and on and off estrangement from five children).

Nothing is more important to Peter than family.  It is what he has yearned for all his life. Today he is trying to make peace with his adult children and is reaching out to the siblings he has missed all his life. When a real sister, Ruby, and a real brother, me,  come to see him and Jolene at his home in Maine, it is a big deal. As it was on the phone with Linda, it can be emotionally overwhelming for Peter.

For him, it was the family reunion of a lifetime. And  he greeted us as a new man. Gone was the old angry, rough-speaking, drifting,  alienated (and alienating), emotionally-wasted Peter. This was the Peter that turned me off so much that I decided I didn't want anything more to do with him.

The new Peter welcomed us into his home with hugs, deference, pride, and a host's extreme concern for his guests. To say that he went all out for us is an understatement. Peter treated us like royalty.

A great cook, he had prepared a banquet fit for the Queen of England, with  lobster, steak, pork ribs,  french fries, salad, corn on the cob, a huge watermelon, and giant marshmallows for roasting. He and Jolene didn't eat; they hovered over us, attending to our every wish.

I took a cup of apple cider and Jolene rushed to get me ice cubes. I pulled apart a lobster that Peter said was "right off the boat" in Wells, Maine. As I did, I said, "You got steak too?" The words were barely out of my mouth when Peter plopped a juicy steak on my plate.

Then came an ear of corn. Then he brought over a tray of french fries he had just finished frying. Placing them in front of me, he said, "I seasoned them."  While we ate, Peter cooked.  While grilling the steak, he gave us a little lesson on the best steak for grilling. "Don't get the expensive cuts," he said, "but get the cheaper 7-bone. It's better on the grill."

Peter and Jolene have been together for eight years. They met online. The first time Peter saw Jolene, he recoiled. She was morbidly obese, more than 300 pounds.  She was in her apartment sitting in a wheelchair, unable to move because of her weight and severe sciatica. Doctors had told her that she would never walk again.

Peter wanted to turn and walk out. Then she smiled at him and he saw something in Jolene that made him stay. They talked.  They began seeing each other. In an early visit, Peter said "Come on, I'll take you fishing." 

"How can I go fishing when I can't walk?" Jolene said.

"If you really want to do something, you can do it!" Peter said. "I'll help you."

They have been together since. With Peter's love and encouragement, Jolene, pictured here with me, has lost about 150 pounds. "I lost half my body weight," she said. "Peter saved my life."

She says she can't imagine life without him. "We aren't married, but we are," she said.  And Peter can't imagine life without Jolene.

 Now I'm going to  let photos tell most of the rest of the story.   Here are Peter and Barbara with the lobster and watermelon.

It has been umpteen years since Peter and Ruby have sat down together and talked. But they did so on this glorious fall day.  And before the day was out, they said the three magic words to each other that we all want to hear, "I love you."

In this photo, they are showing it with a warm hug.

This was the scene as we ate and chatted on a beautiful fall afternoon. Standing is Bonnie a next-door neighbor who had recently moved in.  "The day we moved in, Peter began sending food over, "she said. " He's a great guy. He'll do anything for you."
She said he and Jolene made her feel like family.  I asked  Bonnie, pictured here with me, if she had met any of the other neighbors. "No. Some look up and nod, but that's all. Peter and Jolene are the only ones I know."

 Eating at the bench was George -- nice name -- and his wife. George is Peter's best friend. Hardly saying a word, he spent most of the day helping Peter cook and scurrying around making sure everything went smoothly.  A good friend indeed.

Late in the day, Peter and I went into the house, just the two of us, to play a little pool and talk. I figured that with no one else around we would exchange horror stories about our mother --  for Toxic Mother III.  Her name never came up. There will be no Toxic Mother III.

Instead, we played pool in Peter's stunning downstairs recreation room with the walls covered with  collectibles and memorabilia, much of it bearing authentic autographs. He is an artist in his own right who works with wood. He designed and built the tables himself as well as the desk where he works.

In between games of eight ball, we danced to the fifties music that played nonstop.  And here we are moving to those old familiar beats.

After a while, we took a break and Peter entertained Ruby and Barbara at the stunning basement bar that he designed and built himself.

Soon, too soon, it was time to go. And we got together for a group photo. How about that braid of Jolene's? Impressive, no?

Later that night, after a great day at Peter's and a long ride home, the phone rang just after we walked in the door.  It was Peter. "I just wanted to make sure you got home all right," he said.

"We're safe and sound, Peter," I said. "It was nice of you to think of us. Today was just great and and I want to thank you for it. I really mean it. It was over and above. We're going to get together again at Vic's (our brother in Sturbridge, Mass.) hopefully in late October. Hope you can make it."

"I'll be there."


I'm looking forward to seeing more of my new brother Peter.

So long and keep moving.

Labels: , , , , , ,