December 2012

Posted by Ellen

A good way to wind down a year is to spend an afternoon playing ball with my dad and his neighbors in the activity room of his Alzheimer's care facility in Kensington, Maryland. Some of the people there, definitely including my 88-year-old father, can still throw and catch and dribble and fake and enjoy (almost) every minute of the game.

My dad has been a ballplayer all his life, and in my mind's eye he'll always be the pitcher for the Army Times softball team in the D.C. summer league.

Meanwhile, that's my son Joe on the piano, picking up the tempo of the afternoon. Joe's always been a piano player and I expect he always will be. For the ballgame, he played everything from Oh Susanna to How Great Thou Art to Bach to Mozart to Scott Joplin.

As for the significance of the passing year and what lies beyond the horizon in 2013: I got nothing.

(This is the moment when I always turn to my children and say: Y'all be sweet.)

Posted by Ellen

When gas costs something like $9.50 a gallon, people run out of gas. Last April, this woman was pushing her car (and dog) through a neighborhood in Rome.

About half the pump price of gasoline in Italy is taxes, which have increased recently. Drivers have been driving less, and new car sales declined by 18 percent this year. As demand for gas fell, the price slowly started to drop; last week, a gallon cost only $9.17. Of course Italians buy by the liter, not the gallon, and they use Euros instead of dollars, but it all works out.

The photographer says that after taking the picture, he helped push.

Posted by Ellen

The Roches–sisters Maggie, Terre, and Suzzie–don't always sing like this, but when they do, they're from New Jersey.

Posted by Ellen

In the wintertime around the French ski resort of Les Arcs, the sun sets early; to get his tromping done, Simon Beck has to wear a headlamp along with his snowshoes. He'll stomp the snow, guided by his orienteering compass, for days on end, from can to can't, filling pristine snowfields with enormous works of art as big around as six football fields and impossible to fully apprehend except from high above. 

Beck is an engineer by training and a longtime orienteer by profession. He roughs out the geometry of his designs using what he calls "a kind of reverse orienteering." Then he fires up the music on his MP3 player and slowly, painstakingly, stomps in the details.

He made his first snow designs in 2004. "The main reason for making them," he said, "was because I can no longer run properly due to problems with my feet, so plodding about on level snow is the least painful way of getting exercise.

"Gradually, the reason has become photographing them, and I am considering buying a better camera."

Posted by Ellen

When the Cold War thawed, old Russian cultural traditions became new again, and Ded Moroz–Father Frost–emerged from hiding up near the Siberian part of the North Pole to resume his holiday responsibilities.

To acknowledge the new cultural politics, Ded Moroz's many colleagues in northern and eastern Europe–notably Joulupukki, Finland's Christmas Goatnow seek him out at border crossings and Christmas markets across the continent. The two Nicks typically engage in a little winter diplomacy, sometimes competing in endeavors such as chimney climbing.

This picture features Ded Moroz presenting a gift to Joulupukki during a diplomatic mission in Minsk, capital of Belarus. 

Incidentally, Ded Moroz can sleep in Christmas morning, because in Russia, the gift thing doesn't happen till New Year's. Happy New Year's one and all......

Posted by Ellen

For their very first date, Linda and Wayne went out to dinner at Victor Cafe in South Philly, where the waiters are all trained opera singers who serve up Puccini along with the pasta. Now that Wayne and Linda have been together for a while, they decided to come back to Victor's for an evening out with Linda's two daughters, Gina and Erin.

The way this restaurant works is that every few minutes, somebody rings a bell and stands up to sing. When Linda rang the bell and Wayne stood up, we were all pretty sure of how the scenario would play out: Wayne had probably had a few drinks, and now he was about to start singing, and those two young girls were going to sit there wishing they could fall through the floorboards.

Instead, Wayne lifted a glass and spoke a toast, telling the world how wonderful Linda was and how important to his life she and her daughters had become. And then he was down on one knee, asking Linda to be his wife.

"Of course," she said.

And the bartender was the one who broke out in song: "Some Enchanted Evening."

Posted by Ellen

Obviously worth a trip downtown, in Spokane, Washington.

Posted by Ellen

They really do like their baseball in Cuba.

Posted by Ellen

Not Kilroy, actually, but Ygarzabal, and Laxague and Goytia and Ibarriet. The writing on the trees is perfectly clear, if you can read Euskara, the Basque tongue: "Felix Arospide was here in 1897." "Josto Sarria, August 1962."

"Long live the sheepherders," proclaims a tree in Elko County, Nevada, "the ones who can take this place."

Wherever there have been sheep in the mountainous parts of the American West, there have been sheepherders from the Basque country of Europe. And for well over a century now, in the aspen groves at the edges of high country sheep meadows, names and dates and drawings and even poetry have been carved into the aspens, some of the text in Spanish, a little in French, but much in Euskara, a language long forbidden by government officials back home in France and Spain.

Gora Euskadi! read many of the inscriptions. "Long live the Basques."

But a more common carving is Biba ni! "Hooray for me."

And most common of all are sentiments along these lines: "Hooray for the whores of America. Long live the whores of Biscay as well!"

Most Basque shepherds in the United States were not shepherds back in Europe, and Basque people back in Europe did not carve pictures and smutty sayings into the bark of Basque trees. In America, however, the loneliness and tedium of life in the wilderness with sheep led resourceful people to innovate. For example, on a mountainside above Lake Tahoe, at the edge of a meadow with a multi-million-dollar view, a shepherd took his knife to a large aspen and inscribed: "I'm bored and we sheepherders lack a woman."

Aspen trees live no more than about eighty years, and the trees selected for carving were usually large and already mature. Old-style sheepherding ended in America around 1970, so most of the Basque carvings are dead or dying now, falling to the ground and rotting.

"I am not coming back here," says one sun-bleached log near a Montana lake. "Except to fish, maybe."

Posted by Ellen

The Painted Mountains in Death Valley, California.