Saturday, May 1, 2021

What My Retirement Should Look Like

I often wonder what the next phase of my life will look like. I'm familiar with childhood, teen years/high school, college-into-young-adulthood, marriage, and divorce-hood. Through most of these phases, I worked, worked hard, worked multiple jobs simultaneously, and was loyal to my employers. Retirement looms in front of me now as the next big phase, but it is a ways away (a decade) and I'll have to pay off some debt (I'm looking at you, student loan!) before I get there. What do I want retirement to look like? The following fanciful constellation of jobs has been compiled from positions I've actually seen advertised this spring.

I'll be living at the New Jersey shore, Cape May specifically. That's a given, because that is where my heart is and that is where I feel most at home. The Cape May Light is my icon for this part of the universe, and recently I saw that Cape May MAC, the organization that administers the property, was advertising for Lighthouse Keepers. A dream of mine! These keepers would not have to tend to the light to keep mariners safe because that is automated. These contemporary keepers would not have to lug heavy barrels of oil up the circular wrought iron steps, either. (Have you seen the 2019 movie, The Lighthouse? It wouldn't be like that, I don't think.) These new lighthouse keepers mainly corral the many visitors and tell stories and facts to keep them occupied. One of the previous keepers offered short, illustrated lectures in the Nature Center on weekends. I could do all of this and then go for a two-mile walk in my beloved Cape May Point State Park afterwards. I don't think there's a uniform, but I seem to recall a navy blue polo shirt with the keeper's name and "Lighthouse Keeper" embroidered underneath. I would also want an authentic, retro-looking lighthouse keeper hat.

On a different day of the week, I'd schedule myself to drive over to Wildwood in my black-and-fuschia lady pirate uniform in order to portray the enemy of the Dark Star Pirate Cruise ship. This job would require captaining a small motorized vessel, shooting a powerful but harmless water cannon in the general direction of the tourists, and creating a colorful (and humorous) lady-pirate-villain costume. A pirate hat would be required. From my landlubber desk where I currently write, non of these job requirements seem prohibitive, but in rare moments of introspection I suspect I might feel a twinge of imposter syndrome. I'll snap out of it. My name would be either Lighthouse Lil (combining my first two job personas), or Maritime Margie (to preserve my 'MM' initials). I imagine that on my days of portraying the villain, I would fly big, bright, black-lace-trimmed, fuschia bloomers from the mast instead of, or in addition to, the Lighthouse Lil flag and the skull and crossbones. I will be refreshing my pirate talk fluency. 

The Robert Shackleton Theater

When I'm not guiding tourists up and down the 199 lighthouse steps, or shooting water jets at unsuspecting pirate cruisers, I predict that I will be creating and sewing costumes for one of the classy theater groups in Cape May, Cape May Stage. (I've seen lots of their plays in their little church-turned theater.) They really are, as I write, looking for a Costumer. The job description included other required skills including working with the public and lifting fifty pounds. I can lift fifty pounds, but do I have to then carry it? I can sew. I've made costumes, mostly Halloween and Colonial. Once, whe I took a career aptitude test along with my students, my result was Costumer for Opera. That result seemed outrageously specific, but it has launched me into many a daydream. Have I missed my calling? There is still time.

I will need to generate income during my retirement, and I haven't yet crunched the numbers to see if this trio of gigs will sustain me. I imagine they won't if I want to still buy books and travel. I will have to supplement this income with royalties from my award-winning, best-selling author career which is about to take off with the publication of my collection of grown-up travel essays, Nerd Traveler (published by Read Furiously, July 2021). 

July 6 from Read Furiously!!!

I've been waiting a long time to bust out of the hum-drum, the quotidienne, the quietly anonymous. In retirement, I'll have the opportunity to be a character...or four.

A To-Do List has been created:

Sunday, July 26, 2020

CYANOTYPES: Look at Me Doing Science!

Impression of Ivy

I've been attending quite a few webinars, book talks, and other Zoom offering during this quarantine, and among some eye-catching author talks I found a demonstration of Cyanotypes offered by the Boston Athenaeum. Those are those blue images, like blueprints, right?

Tatiana Cole is the Paper Conservator at the Boston Athenaeum, and she showed her workspace full of tools for fixing old books and paper properly. Among all this, she was set up to make cyanotypes on paper. She painted her paper with a special solution, put an object on top, a piece of picture-frame glass on top of that, and then went up to the roof to let the cyanotype sandwich sit in the sun for about five or ten minutes. When time was up, she removed the glass and the object and there was a distinctive photo image of the object on the paper. As she explained to her audience where we could get our own supplies to make cyanotypes, she mentioned that these could be done on specially-treated fabric, too. That's when some bells went off in my head: I had received, years ago, the very specially-treated fabric she spoke of. I never got around to actually making images because I thought it would be difficult. It isn't.

1. Place item on fabric or paper. 2D objects will be better because 3D will let light underneath.
2. Put the fabric/paper with object on top in the sun for 10-15 minutes. If you have some glass, it might help flatten out any 3D-ness of the objects. I didn't have glass handy, but I'll look harder for some next time.
An assortment of botanical objects from my yard on specially-treated fabric in the bright sun on a wickedly hot day

3. Remove object(s).
4. Rinse fabric/paper until water runs clear. You probably want to wear gloves for this. I forgot. I'm okay.

5. Protect your clothing, too.
6. Dry.
7. Once my fabric was dry I pressed it.

For a first try, I'm happy with my end result. My fabric was three feet by four feet, and I decided since I'd probably be chopping it up anyway and putting it in a quilt, I'd have better luck in the sun if I cut it into strips first. I didn't want to expose half the fabric while I was dithering over placement of my botanical specimen. I have some great images to use in some sort of quilt, but I'll be dithering over how to set them for months, I'm sure. For some reason, some of the leaves and things made better impressions on the wrong side of the fabric. I haven't figured that one out yet. Here are the items I placed on my fabric:
1. holly branch
2. ivy vines--great performers here
3. fig leaf--great impression

4. magnolia pod
5. magnolia leaf--just a big blob
6. Virginia Creeper to which I am highly allergic, but I used my garden scissors as tongs and was VERY careful. I needn't have bothered--it didn't make a great impression.
7. lilac leaves
8. shells (not from my yard but sitting on a counter in the house)
9. portulaca leaves--too tiny
10. geranium leaf
11. vinca vine
12. camellia leaves
13. purslane

14. juniper leaves and tiny berries--this looks kind of great, but would have benefited from a piece of glass to mash it flat. Too much sun got under.
15. mystery tree leaves (I don't know--my father planted a few of these after all our Mimosa trees died.)

That was my experience, and I'm sharing my photos here. If you're interested in seeing some really good cyanotypes, a botanist named Anna Atkins published three volumes of cyanotypes of British algae. You can read about her and see some examples from the UK's Natural History Museum here.  If you're on Facebook, there's a cool site called Alternative Photography which shares some great modern cyanotypes:

If you'd like to acquire your own supplies and make your own cyanotypes, try (fabric) or (paper). Both were recommended by Ms. Cole at the Boston Athenaeum. I had a ball doing mine and felt like a mad scientist. I can't explain why the fabric looks pale blue in the "before" shots, medium blue while it is drying, and grey after it is dry. The medium blue is the most accurate.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Newport, Rhode Island's Cliff Walk: I Did Not Have to be Rescued!

I drove to Newport in order to immerse myself in the Gilded Age. I've been thinking of putting together a presentation or essay about that era sandwiched between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I when new technologies changed the way American humans lived and innovators and businessmen got very, very rich. Many of these rich folk summered in Newport in lavish mansions with many a gold-leafed surface and listened to some interesting music which is what draws me to the era. Mark Twain coined the term Gilded Age with one of his novels, but he didn't mean it as a compliment. He referred to the gilded surfaces of the rich which obscured the reality of the rest of the people, many living in poverty, and not yet benefiting from the new technological advances. There really was gilt, but he was using it as a metaphor.

I visited The Breakers, the most opulent of all the mansions,

The Breakers
 and the number two mansion, Marble House.
Marble House
 Both of these belonged to branches of the Vanderbilt family. That's how I occupied my Saturday.

I saved the Cliff Walk for Sunday morning. I wasn't sure how much of the walk I'd do because I read that some of it was challenging, and as there is no Cliff Walk Aptitude Test I'd have to evaluate in the moment what they meant by "challenging." The popular part of the walk is a sidewalk running along the edges of many of the famous mansions' enormous back lawns with the rough, rocky ocean on the other side. 
The easy part of the Cliff Walk

The Breakers, as seen from the Cliff Walk

breakers with a small 'b'

It's gorgeous, really, and very popular with what seems to be locals and tourists alike. Some of the privately-owned mansions have erected fences to keep Cliff Walkers from gawking at their homes, but most of the rest are visible. There's also a university taking up residency in one of the mansions formerly owned by a titan of industry, now known as Salve Regina University. Their commencement was being held under a huge white tent adjacent to the Cliff Walk on my Sunday morning amble.

The giant commencement tent is further down the walk.
Eventually I got to a spot where the sidewalk ended and there were giant, flattened-out boulders to walk on. These posed no great challenge to me as I grew up walking on boulders like this in Cape May with my dog, Bambi, and my dad. I'm no expert, but I think these were the same kind of rocks Bambi and I walked on.

That's not Bambi; that's a Newport dog with an impressive stick

The boulders linked to more sidewalk, some gravel areas, and more boulders. Every now and then there would be a tunnel going under mansion property or a grandiose fence. It was such a unique and scenic walk! 

One tunnel went under the Chinese Tea House which belongs to Marble House. This tea house was built for Alva Vanderbilt to hold her women's rights meetings, but now refreshments are sold there.

The Chinese Tea House and the tunnel to the left
At some point I saw a sign explaining that the walk from that point would be more challenging. Did this mean "challenging" for my grandmother, or "challenging" for me who has experience walking on flattened boulders with Bambi. I decided to keep going because the place was so gorgeous and different, and because I was hoping to find Lands' End, the mansion once owned by writer Edith Wharton, a great critic of the Gilded Age. The gravel and flat boulders gave way to large, smooth rocks which had no place to put my sneakered feet. These were not Bambi rocks. Soon these boulders required big steps up (or down) which the hiking guys who passed me navigated easily with their longer legs and hiking boots. I am physically unable to step that far up or down. I had to use the sit-and-spin-the-legs-around method. (Luckily for me, there is no video evidence of this.) At times there might have been a chain link fence to hold on to (for dear life) and at times there wasn't. Periodically, I checked my illustrated Cliff Walk guide to get my bearings and remind myself what Edith Wharton's Lands' End looks like.

I considered turning around when I got to Rough Point, a mansion built by Vanderbilts and eventually inherited by Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress, who died in 1992. It's now open for tours.

Rough Point
At Rough Point, I was standing atop a boulder contemplating the wisdom of continuing, when one of those long-legged hiking gentlemen happened by and told me I was pretty well into it and might as well keep going. I did, for a little bit, but paused again to consider my situation. How would the U.S. Coast Guard (or Newport police) rescue me if I wiped-out? That would be embarrassing. No matter how far I walked/climbed, I would have to walk back to my car. I should probably turn back. It was then that I looked ahead, about where Lands' End should be according to my book, and there were the white chimneys of Lands' End! (I think.) So I shot them (with my camera):

I started back. At one point I turned around to take in the vista I had just climbed down. Look for the tiny people near the top to get the scale of this (and the magnitude of my accomplishment):

But gosh, it was beautiful! It took me a couple days to recover from this exhilarating walk, but it was worth it! (And I did not have to be rescued.) Later I calculated that I walked/climbed about five miles which is my usual walk in the park, actually, but without boulders...

More tiny humans taking the Cliff Walk challenge!

Saturday, July 14, 2018

I Went on a Swamp Tour

I was in New Orleans for a conference and checked off some things on my list that I always wanted to do (Preservation Hall Jazz, the World War II Museum, lunch at Cafe Amelie). Still, I found myself with an unencumbered Sunday afternoon in June, and thought to myself, "I've never seen a Cajun guy feed marshmallows to an alligator in the swamp, so maybe I should do that!" I have a special affinity for Louisianan swamps and Cajuns since that's where my father came from. This would mean I am half Cajun, obviously. (The half that likes spicy food, but not the half that is allergic to shellfish.) My father lived on the bayou not far from where this swamp tour would happen (LaFourche Parish) until he was about eight years old. He mentioned it often: pelicans and egrets, alligators and crawfish, sugar cane and molasses.

Okay, truth be told, I had no idea alligators like to eat marshmallows and that Cajuns like to toss them to alligators, but I found this out on the Swamp Tour. Our guide, Captain Reggie,
narrated a very informative (and fun) tour of the swamp. Bayous, he explained, are naturally-occurring thoroughfares through the swamp while canals are man-made ones. There is marshland in the swamp, too. So, the swamp, as they define it here, is the whole ecosystem which includes bayous, canals, and marshes.

We rode on a flat-bottomed boat almost exactly like the Salt Marsh Safari boat I'm familiar with in Cape May.
My ride
Other visitors were riding on large and small fan boats, but these things are noisy. As Captain Reggie explained, "You wouldn't learn anything."
A smaller fan boat (noisy)

A larger fan boat (noisier)
This swamp is in Jean LaFitte National Historic Park and Preserve, specifically the Barataria Preserve. We saw trees, moss, dragonflies, and yes, ALLIGATORS. Early in the ride we saw a small alligator swimming around by himself, and he came right over to the boat. Captain Reggie explained that alligators don't see the white marshmallows he tosses, but they feel the vibrations when it hits the water. Besides luring the alligators closer to us, those marshmallows allow us to see the reptile chomp down on something not alive (like a tourist).

The first reptile we encountered
We toured through some interesting heat-tolerant flora on our way through the swamp to see even more marshmallow-eating alligators. The stuff hanging from trees is sphagnum moss, and according to Captain Reggie, "Yankees actually buy that stuff." Yes, he's right, once or twice my non-Cajun Yankee side actually bought that stuff for various craft projects. It is used to stuff boat cushions, too.

Sphagnum moss hanging from tree

It looks tropical...
At one point on the tour, we passed a Cajun graveyard. One of Captain Reggie's grandmothers is in there, and he confirmed what I always suspected: when the area floods, the coffins can pop out of the ground and float around. I stopped listening at this point because I have nightmares about my long-dead ancestors floating around in their coffins during catastrophic floods. I started listening again when the Captain told us that the hill in the middle of the cemetery is an ancient Native American burial mound going back to 500AD.

At one point during our tour, Captain Reggie found a breezy spot to stop and give the boat a rest. From out of a closet that none of us had noticed, he brought out his companion, Elvis, a baby alligator. Cool enough to see one up close, but each of us got to hold it. (Kids got to wear Elvis on their heads.) I did hold Elvis, and here follows photographic proof. He squirmed a little, but more interestingly made soft little sounds almost like a dove cooing.

Margaret and Elvis (profile)
Elvis, straight-on
Finally, we saw alligators. I counted seven simultaneously swimming around our boat and grabbing whatever marshmallows they could.

See the marshmallow about to be eaten?
This was a fabulous tour in spite of the June Louisiana heat. Of course it was going to be hot, and I did the best I could dressing comfortably and sipping my water. My big worry had been mosquitoes, so I bought a yellow spiral bracelet which was supposed to form a forcefield around me unpenetrable by mosquitoes who love me. I can't tell you if the bracelet worked, but I can tell you no one else was complaining about mosquitoes.

After I was delivered back to my New Orleans hotel, I Googled Captain Reggie. He said some Disney movie character was named after him, and I was curious about that: Ray in "The Princess and the Frog"? I'm way behind on Disney movies, but I found something even more interesting. Here's Captain Reggie himself (the "Alligator Whisperer") feeding marshmallows to alligators on someone else's tour. You can hear him saying "Ici!" ('here' in French) to the reptiles. Now why didn't I take a video???

Thursday, May 3, 2018

San Antonio, Texas: Remember the Mariachis!

It's a strange phenomenon I experience before I leave for a trip lately: I'm looking forward to immersing myself in a place I haven't been or revisiting an old favorite, but this weird anxiety takes over. What is this pre-homesickness? It's not related to flying or solo travel. It's not related to the reason for the trip, this time a library conference. I really wanted to see San Antonio, so I pretended I wasn't pre-homesick and soldiered on, even though my airline changed my flight from a comfortable 1:30pm departure to an inhumane 6:00am.

in La Villita
What I hadn't figured was that I'd be in San Antonio early enough to enjoy a whole day there before the conference. I visited the Alamo, which to my delight was not "too small" or "no big deal" as I had been told. I liked the Alamo. The small iconic church is surrounded by gardens, the historic Long Barrack Museum, a living history encampment, and the gift shop, originally built in 1937 as a museum. There were interesting artifacts including a well and a millstone brought to San Antonio from the Canary Islands. News to me: in 1731 approximately 56 people (15 families) from the Canary Islands arrived in San Antonio. They were sent from Spain to help populate the Texas territory for that country which also controlled the Canary Islands. I noticed a street and a restaurant named for them. I have a Canary Island ancestor or two way back in my family tree, so this Texas connection has intrigued me into a new research project.

The Mill Stone from the Canary Islands
 I learned all about the Alamo from the IMAX movie starring Patrick Swayze's brother, Don, offered in the adjacent modern shopping mall. The Alamo was built by the Spanish-dominated Mexicans in 1718 for Spanish missionaries and their Native American converts in what was then known as San Antonio de Valero. It was taken over by the Texans. Eventually, Mexicans independent from Spain since 1821 wanted it back. They stormed the place under the leadership of General Antonio Lopez Santa Anna. It was a bloody struggle in March 1836, brought to life vividly in letters written by Colonel William B. Travis. He was writing to Andrew Ponton and the citizens of the city of Gonzales trying to get reinforcements because he knew the Mexicans were coming:

"The enemy in large force are in sight. We want men and provisions. Send them to us. We have 150 men and are determined to defend the Alamo to the last."

Additional soldiers never came, and the Mexicans overpowered the Texans and slaughtered any survivors (including Davy Crockett) once the fighting was over. All of the bodies were burned. It is dramatic and heartbreaking when you take the time to learn about it.

The Alamo
 After Texas became a republic in May 1836, the Army used the Alamo to store supplies. In 1883, Texas purchased the church and made it into a memorial to soldiers and a historic monument. My hotel was very near, so I walked around the Alamo area every day imagining that horrific battle and what the Alamo looked like before the big, modern city buildings were built. Some old buildings survive and give the impression of a movie set. In 2015, the Alamo and other missions in San Antonio were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Alamo, sideways

"You're going to love the River Walk!" I heard that more than once, and I did love it. Each evening after the conference, I'd take the hotel elevator down to the very bottom floor and wander out to this abbondanza of restaurants. I ate Tex-Mex the first night, then Barbeque the second, then Italian, and then finished with Tex-Mex again. The River Walk restaurants were fun, festive, and casual. I took every meal al fresco beside the river, watching the resident ducks and the tourists on river tour-barges. My weird anxiety evaporated by the second day because this evening eating experience was consistently comfortable, not like going solo in some crowded family emporium or stuffy date-night restaurant.

I embarked on one of those river barge tours on my last afternoon, when the library conference concluded. The San Antonio River winds around the city with concrete walks on either side. These walks date back to the 1930s (but have been restored since), and some of the bridges have WPA plaques on them. This is unique San Antonio. So many of the San Antonio sites are reachable from the River Walk: the Briscoe Western Art Museum (top on my list for next time), La Villita shopping and restaurant village with its own theater,
La Villita
and even the hospital where Carol Burnett was born.
Carol Burnett was born here.

"Would you like to be serenaded?" asked the Mexican musician with the enormous guitar. Certainly I would. He asked if there was a song I'd like his trio to play. They knew no Bruce Springsteen material, so I told them to choose something. These guys who had elluded my camera for days now stood around me and my beef burrito performing "More" (the theme from Mondo Cane) from 1962. (I remember this tune from junior high school band.) I shot them repeatedly...with my camera...and tipped them heavily for the privilege. It was a thrill to be sure, and I loved that they chose a 1960s instrumental. In the evenings after dinner, I had worked on an essay about 1960s music in my hotel room. It was a perfect farewell to Texas.
My serenaders
The tune has been recorded from everyone from Frank Sinatra to Bobby Darin to Doris Day to Andrea Bocelli, but here's a 1960s instrumental version by Kai Winding:

I made no progress in figuring out why I experience that strange travel anxiety, or pre-homesickness. But I am happy to report that I enjoyed San Antonio once I got there and experienced Texan hospitality. On my last day, the travel day when both of my planes departed late, I experienced a strange and wonderful phenomenon. Both at breakfast in the hotel and at lunch in the SAT airport, I was offered a to-go cup of my beverage of choice (no charge!) by my server. This small gesture of warmth meant so much to my sense of well-being and relaxation. I sipped on my to-go soda with my book on my lap as I waited (and waited) (and waited some more) for my plane to arrive reflecting on the fine time I enjoyed in Texas. When can I go again?