Portrait of a Chubby Mouse

 I was living in Marblehead when the call came in. The editor had a  big assignment in Maine from DISCOVER, Time-Life’s science magazine. It was a portrait and the subject was an obese mouse. I immediately accepted and started making travel plans.

As the small prop plane descended diagonally toward the runway at Bar Harbor Airport, I said a prayer or two and worried that what was obese to a scientist would not appear fat to the rest of us. When I reached the Jackson Laboratory which bred the mice for diabetes studies, I was escorted to the lab and met my subject – well actually subjects. There were half a dozen obese mice, some black some white. The all looked like furry sand dollars. I was relieved.

After experimenting with one of the black ones, I decided white would be the way to go and worked with a very plump pearly white critter. Keeping the mouse still and getting it to follow my directions proved difficult. “Tilt your head to the right” went in one ear and out the other. My default technique was to have the scientist hold the mouse and discreetly pinch the tail between two of his fingers. But the hand seemed intrusive and distracting.

The solution was to put the little fellow on a scale. Unlike humans he seemed quite content to just rest in the tray on top, despite the fact that he weighed in at a hefty 92.0 grams. He didn’t even try to shift his girth to lower the reading. After shooting several different angles, I winked at the mouse and said we were all done. He was nonresponsive but seemed happy when he was lowered back into his cage.

The funny thing is that I have an ongoing relationship with that mouse. The experience at Jackson Lab led me to propose a story about the whole lab to SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE and they sent me back to do an 8 page feature story. I have a gallery of other  mice, including truly bizarre looking pink rhino (think skin) mouse, available for viewing upon request. My newfound expertise in mice later led to a West Coast assignment to photograph the Fancy Rat Convention.. Beyond the SMITHSONIAN story, though, this particular white mouse, has become my best selling stock photo. It has never been a sensation, like, say, Gisele Bundchen or Tom Brady, but for 20 years I have received a steady stream of requests for this photo…$250 here, $500, there, to the point where I think my total royalties may exceed $20,000. The previous top seller was Deepak Chopra, but as time passed and he changed his look, that gift came to a halt. The obese mouse – at least its image- soliders on. And with two children in college, I am, indeed, grateful for its contribution. R.I.P.


Our Buddhist Christmas Tree 2010

It was our eighth year, making our way up Vertical Mile Road in the Northeast Kingdom on a snowy December afternoon in search of a tree. Of course, my excitement was high as we slid around the corner into the parking lot at the Buddhist Christmas tree farm we have been visiting once a year since 2003.

By now each trip is entwined with memories of past visits. The first year after cutting  the tree, I nearly backed the car into our friends’ brook and had a revelation about mindfulness (or lack there of). Another year in the driveway of the tree farm I put on a performance worthy of Chevy Chase slipping and sliding and crashing every time I tried to take a step on the glaze ice surface covered by a dusting of snow. Moments later we had the same experience on the road going down Vertical Mile Road and that was to be the year our daughter Julia dropped out of the quest. Five years ago it was just our son Miles and me making the trip, arriving in the Kingdom late at night, traveling through a storm on a snowy road, seeing a deer dash across it and listening to Neil Young full bore.

This time it was Brett and me with our dear friends Doug and Alice, forty year residents of the Kingdom.  The kids are now off at college and we promised to email them pictures from the hunt. On the way up I had been thinking we should visit the farm’s upper field where we had found some particularly beautiful trees. Lust and Desire crept in.

Getting out the car we met the Christmas tree farmers, artists, practicing Buddhists, Greg and Ann. I hinted that we might like to try upper field; Greg told me they had sold all of those trees to a New York City wholesaler and that they were winding down their tree farming. My heart sank. I looked to the left and saw that the lower field saw was nearly half cut with no replacements. A new line of prayer flags connected the barn and their house, an older set of prayer flags headed off perpendicular to the new line. The fabric of the flags on the old line was in the final stages of disintegration from the wind, rain, snow and air.

The four of us walked through the field and found several beauties. Our kids had long ago imposed a decision making discipline on Brett and me. No more long weekends visiting twenty tree farms. And it stayed with us this snowy afternoon as we had a brief, spirited conversation before my saw blade met one of the trunks. Doug and I hauled the tree to the baler. Greg ran it through and in a few minutes the tree was on the top of our car secured by baling twine and bungee cords.

We drove back to Glover through the twilight and then the night. Lights twinkled on outdoor trees and we could see the outline of the mountains against the sky in the distance. That evening as we sat with our friends in their newly built sauna by their woods and brook where I had almost deposited our car eight years ago, I realized that the day’s experience was a gentle lesson about impermanence. Not as a sad thing, but rather the  simple fact of being and almost inviting in this new light. All in a beautiful place with dear friends and still connected to our memories and wishes and most importantly to those we know and love even if not present in the sauna that frigid night.. and let’s not forget outside we had the best Christmas tree ever on top of the car that would last forever!!!!!!!!!    Ooops, backslid there a bit. Edit.

And, as they say, you never read the same blog post twice…or if you are reading this now, thanks for reading it once. (See archived post for previous tree adventure).


Our Buddhist Christmas Tree. 2003.

December, 2003

Our Buddhist Christmas Tree

This year we cut a Buddhist Christmas tree in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and it has already worked two minor miracles. The quest for a Christmas tree has been something of a personal obsession ever since I moved to New England 23 years ago. Right off the bat, I decided that there would be no more trees from Xmas tree lots. And for a few years , my work took me to Northern Vermont with a frequency that made it very easy at the end of a photo  shoot on my way back to Boston to stop in Morrisville or Wolcott  or even as far south as White River Junction to cut a Christmas tree.

After I met my wife, Brett Cook, in 1981, the search process intensified. Quick decision-making has never been one of Brett’s strong suits, so she became something of an enabler to my obsession.  During our DINK (double income no kids) years we would scour the’ cut your own’ lots in Massachusetts, Southern  Maine and New Hampshire, often whiling away whole weekends in search of the perfect tree.

When our son Miles arrived in 1988 and daughter Julia followed in 1992, a measure of discipline was introduced to our routine. First of all, there were no more weekends to ‘while away’ on a strange personal quest. Second, the kids came along on the tree hunts. When they were old enough to speak, they would often sit in the warm comfort of the car refusing to budge and say simply as they surveyed the trees through the window, “That one’s fine” and that was it. . Nevertheless, I persisted and persevered and we found great trees, even in those years. One came from as far away as Blue Hill, Maine. One traumatic year, when our son had a series of febrile seizures on the eve of our yearly journey, a tree was delivered, almost magically by a friend from Keene, New Hampshire. It was the only time we haven’t been out searching.

In the past few years we have traveled the short 220 miles from Boston to the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont in search of the family tree. That part of Vermont is where I almost moved before coming to Boston from Washington, D.C. in 1980. Every summer we go to watch Bread and Puppet Theatre perform in Glover and to visit friends whole live in this wild and beautiful part of the state. Brett has bonded with the area and Miles now says he wants to move there. Julia is firm in wanting to stay in Winchester. So, in 2001 we cut our tree in Stowe, Vermont (adjacent to the Kingdom) where I, in another of my savvy business deals, traded a family portrait of the tree farm proprietor for a beautiful ten foot balsam and a free tractor ride in from the field.  Last year we went deeper into the Kingdom, buying our tree from a wholesaler just outside Hardwick, located on a brutally windy ridge without a tractor ride or a functioning tree baler. But the tree was a really beauty!

So, this year it was back to Hardwick and Glover. In the past year Brett has become interested in Buddhism through her yoga practice. So, when we heard this summer that our friends’ daughter had a summer job at a tree farm owned by practicing Buddhists, there was no doubt about our ultimate destination for 2003. This year would be a quest for a Buddhist Christmas tree.

In answer to my mid-October query, “When do we go for the tree?” I supplied the answer, “How about right after Thanksgiving?” Some said that was too early. I pointed out that any tree from a lot would have been cut in October and that we had no swim meet that weekend and thus won the day. So off we went on November 28. As we drove north it was warm (45 degrees) foggy and rainy. I was excited. The plan was to scout and possibly actually purchase the tree the next day.

On Saturday as the temperature steadily dropped from the 30’s to the 20’s we met Doug and Alice and headed for the tree farm. A light snow had begun to fall.  Five miles down Route 122, past Sheffield, and then a right turn up the appropriately named Vertical Mile Road . . . two miles straight up and we found the Fall Brook Tree Farm. We knew we were at the right place when we saw a series of Buddhist prayer flags hanging on a line and vertical slabs of dark sculptural granite, next to the rows of deep green balsam trees.

At first I panicked when we got to the woodlot. The rest of the group seemed ready to pick a tree in the first ten minutes of the visit! I argued that the trees they were looking at, while beautiful, were not quite on the grand scale I had envisioned. And to my surprise, Miles had become a convert and agreed that the search was incomplete and altogether too hasty. So off we went to their second field which was loaded more trees, many ten feet tall (no matter that our ceiling only measures nine feet). After an appropriate amount of looking, comparing and  debating we reached an easy consensus on a twelve foot beauty (we could take a little off the bottom).We cut the tree, took lots of photos and  brought it back to the farm for baling and more photographs, some next to Buddhist prayer flags. We were the first customers of the season.

The tree went up onto the top right side of the van’s roof rack and down we slithered on Vertical Mile Road back to our friends’ house in Greensboro. We made a quick stop in Glover at Currier’s Store, a place distinguished by the many fine examples of taxidermy that graced the food aisles. I took a photo of Brett right next to a full size moose and fresh bread products. We headed out again; the snow was intensifying.

Doug and Alice’s house is about ten miles from the nearest paved road. Seven miles along one dirt road, a left onto another that slopes downhill by an old row of Sugar Maple trees, and then sharply down their ‘driveway’ a narrow dirt road that cuts across a field over small brook and to their house at the edge of a pine forest. When I first met Doug and Alice 25 years ago, they lived there in a one-room cabin, no electricity, no indoor toilet, wood heat only. Over time they built a new house with heat, electricity, and indoor plumbing. They even added a garage for their tractor and two cars. The original house was now a storage shed. By the time we got down to their house the snow was coming down hard and the wind was blowing steadily over 35 mph. We rushed into the shelter of their house for warm Thanksgiving leftovers.

As we sat and talked and ate, we could see the snow swirling in all directions outside and the trees bending in the strong wind. We had planned to go down to Walden to a twilight fire log solstice celebration, but with the snow outside night fell and no one made a move. Around 6:00 we decided it was, in fact, time to head out to Hardwick to the ‘city house’ (the village is distinguished by one blinking light) and Brett, Miles, Julia and I piled into the van in near whiteout conditions. First snow of the year, this flatlander was soon struggling to get back into a snow driving groove. I drove slowly, too slowly up their long drive until the car came to a stop at the crest of the last hill before the larger dirt road .It would go no further.

There was some consternation in the car about our predicament. I, of course, said everything was great, no problem. In truth, I was none too thrilled about the prospect of trying to back downhill through a snowstorm in otherwise pitch dark conditions. Miles and Brett volunteered to walk back to the house to get Doug to help. I tried to reassure Julia who was sobbing.

Then, I was inspired. Or, in other words, my impatience took over. In any case, I opened the driver’s door and figured that I could just follow the car track at the left rear of the car. I’d just go to where the road flattened out and I could then, by getting a proper running start at the hill. So I backed down with considerable success, barely going outside the track despite the cold bite of the snow in my face as I stuck my head out of the open door. The road flattened out and I could finally see the lights of their house in the distance. At this point a sensible person would conclude that the job was done and then walk to the house. But when I saw the house lights, I thought, “Why not just go the whole way?” I continued on and then suddenly the back rear tire took a sickening dip.

I got out of the car and to my dismay saw that the car had gone slightly right to the very edge of the narrow culvert that crossed the brook that I had totally forgotten about. I tried to move forward with no success. Three wheels on terra firme, one somewhere else three feet above the brook. I ‘reassured’ Julia that there really wasn’t any problem and she and I walked back to the house. I found Doug. He and I went back and assessed the situation. The analysis was “bad’.  Doug brought out his tractor, hooked a chain to the rear of the van and with a prayer gave a firm and quick yank, trying to get the right rear wheel back on the road without having the front end dive off the culvert. Partial success - the right rear wheel was on the road, but right front wheel now hovered in nether space. After about thirty seconds of additional analysis and a lot more wind and snow, we agreed that he should pull again . . . one more firm pull and all four wheels were on the road.

We retreated to the house to regroup and then all headed out to Hardwick. Through snow drifts and whiteouts we made it out of their drive, over the dirt roads, and down to the village house. More post-Thanksgiving turkey while my mind ricocheted between giddy relief and numerous worst-case scenarios.

‘Worst case scenario’ is, in fact, my default mode. And this is where the Buddhist upbringing of the tree had started to reveal itself. For reasons I can’t explain, none of the horrible scenarios – car in brook, thousands of dollars of damage to the car, having to make a trip up to get the car and trying to find a rental just to get home - all of it was in my mind during the whole brook, bridge, car saga but none of it was a cause for consternation.. I was, for one brief period, entirely in the moment, aware of the possible outcomes, but with no worries about any of them. Be here now!  Clearly the tree had something to do with it. And, in fairness, so did the outcome.

The next morning the tree’s influence was confirmed for a second time. We all re-visited the scene of the mishap. I had actually been hoping that the blowing snow had covered over the evidence of my one little mistake during the backing up. But when we got to the brook, we saw a chilling sight. The right hand track of the front tire took a route that clearly missed the bridge. Its continuity was interrupted by the brook itself. And then picked up on the other bank to where the car ended up in safety. There was the track mark, on each side of the water, about half a foot beyond the edge of the road. How did it ever pass over the brook safely? And we remembered that the tree was on the top right of the van. Its influence, dare I say, karma, is the only explanation.

That afternoon, we headed back to Massachusetts.  First, we made stops at the Bread and Puppet Museum and another at Currier’s General Store, both in Glover. Ying and yang (to mix metaphors)  At B and P, visionary art driven by a pacifist pastoral vision, on the one hand, and down the road the grocery store in the full flush of the 2003 hunting season. It’s the confluence of the two that makes the area so special.  We grabbed lunch along with about twenty hunters. .Julia refused to eat or drink anything from the store, even a Sprite, because she was so offended by all of the stuffed game in the food aisles. We were on the road again.

As we headed South from Glover, the snowy landscape receded, the winds died down and a few hours later when  we stopped for dinner in Hanover, New Hampshire,  it was late fall again – warm, damp and still. I was already pondering the future and the past. .. f-stops, film exposure, car disasters, my next assignment, paying for college. Unlimited grist for the worry mill. . But I was also aware that had in some way we had almost time traveled into another realm for 24 hours – one of beauty, danger, magic and faith. And we had our Christmas tree safely tucked away on the top of the car.





Best Fishing Story

On my honeymoon in Maine, my bride accompanied me one evening to a tidal river  near the town of Damariscotta. The river ran swiftly under a WPA style bridge. We made our way down to a grassy knoll, Brett with her book, I with my fishing rod. As I scrambled down the hillside to a casting spot, Brett cautioned me that the rocks were slippery. I said, “OK!” and kept going. I slipped, of course and sunk the rear hook of the lure into my right forefinger. Adeptly, at the same time I sunk the middle hook into a finger on my left hand. Both hooks were into my fingers way past the barbs. I was handcuffed to the lure and rod.


My astonished spouse abandoned her book,  mercifully cut me loose and drove to the local hospital where the empathic staff declared, “I think we can save the lure”. Sure enough they did, yanking the hooks backwards out of my fingers. The next day I reassembled the lure parts and a very forgiving (although somewhat impatient Brett) accompanied me – on the way to dinner – once more to the same spot for ‘just a few casts’ where in the second one I caught –and landed – a 35 lb striped bass.


As Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of  times, it was the worst of times.” I stood soaked down by the river holding the biggest fish I have ever caught. I was also keenly aware that my bride could reasonably be having second thoughts about the momentous commitment she had just made. We made peace.  No dinner out that night but many more thereafter and we enjoyed the striper for several meals that summer and fall.


Zakim Bridge

Sitting in traffic on the old Expressway I looked at the soon to be open Zakim Bridge and worried about the weather. The upcoming assignment was to photograph The Boston Foundation Board of Directors on the newly completed bridge for the cover of their Annual Report. The bridge is the most visible symbol of Boston’s 20 year, 15 billion dollar Big Dig Project. For the Foundation the new bridge was a positive symbol of new leadership in the organization and the changes that Boston has undergone over the past two decades.

In the weeks leading to the assignment, whenever I drove into Boston, I would check out how the light fell on the bridge. The shot had to be done in the middle of the day in mid-September. Cloudy days were best. Soft light reflecting off the white concrete deck created a long gentle range of tones. Sunny days were my nightmare. 18 people squinting and complaining on an overheated deck on a warm September day would not be good. Flash fill, not possible. Rainy days were a cancellation.

Finally the shoot day arrived and my assistant and I arrived early at the location. The construction foreman led us onto the bridge. The Foundation had arranged for a bus to meet the board in the Back Bay of Boston and then to drive they right onto the deck which was not yet open for traffic. I figured out the angle of the shot which would frame the old Custom House in the modern superstructure of the cable bridge. I waited. The light went between sunny and cloudy bright. I worried.

At noon a small bus pulled onto the bridge, followed by a black BMW. The Board filed off the bus and the Foundation Communications Director emerged from the BMW in three inch heels and a black dress. I worried that her shoes would catch in the textured bridge deck. The contrast between my group and the crew actually working on the bridge was striking.

When the Board assembled in a line on the bridge, a high thin deck of clouds softened the September sun. The light was wonderful. Just as I was had everyone arranged and was about to shoot the photo, a black SUV with blue lights flashing raced up the bridge, led by two State Police Cars. It was Mimi Bowler, a Board Member and federal judge who was determined to get to the photo from her morning court hearing. She disembarked and I placed her in the group. With limited success, I attempted to direct the group through the noisy din of construction equipment and everyday traffic. I got the shot and it appeared on the cover of the Annual Report a month later.

Twenty minutes later the group filed back onto the bus. The Communications director slid into her BMW and drove off; the judge left with her police escort. Work resumed on the bridge. Since that day, I’ve learned to mostly stop worrying about the weather.