Time to join the resistance

As a newspaper journalist, I felt it was important to keep my biases under wraps. I didn’t want the public to know how I felt about controversial topics because I wanted readers to trust my ability to provide unbiased reporting. Now that I no longer work in the news business, however, I’m free to speak my mind. An experience this past weekend made it clear to me that now is the time.

While visiting our daughter in Philadelphia, my family and I decided to explore the Old City and see the Liberty Bell. I joined the mob of people in front of the bell, most of whom were there to take selfies. When several people got done taking their selfies at about the same time, I took advantage of the clearing and stepped up to the rope for my own photos. I shot 12 frames on burst on my DSLR (read: professional quality) camera. For those of you who don’t know what that means, “burst” is a setting that allows my camera to shoot one photo after the other in rapid succession. I would estimate shooting those 12 frames took me a maximum of 20 seconds.

I did get a half decent photo of the Liberty Bell, despite being assaulted while doing so.

While I was shooting, I felt someone make body contact. It was a man to my left who was turned around the other way to get a selfie with a group of other people. But this wasn’t just a case of close quarters. There was no one to my right and, as the man leaned into my body, he pushed harder with each passing moment. Realizing this was, in fact, an attack, I flexed my leg muscles to keep from being knocked off balance. Despite my resolve, however, he finally leaned into me hard enough to knock me off balance.

I’m no pushover, literally, so I pushed back and knocked him off balance.

“Oh, am I in your way while you’re trying to take a picture?” he asked, sarcasm dripping from his lips.

“If you will just give me a minute, I’ll get out of your way,” I said.

He attempted to escalate the confrontation, making fun of me for taking too many pictures (despite the fact that I can shoot 12 frames on burst with my real camera faster than he can shoot two photos with his cell phone). Despite the fact that there was no official or unofficial line, he accused me of cutting and called me names.


Fortunately, I got away unscathed — physically anyway. The incident upset me, however, in part because it was blatant sexism. Now, before you say this had nothing to do with gender, think about this: Would this man, anyone, push another man out of the way? Of course not. I was fair game because I was a woman and without my family members right beside me, it appeared I was alone. This man used his body — his larger size and strength — in an attempt to force me to become submissive and bend to his will. That’s pure sexism.

Sexism has been around for centuries, probably since the beginning of time. As a child, I had the naive view that society was gradually but steadily moving in the right direction. Women of the 20th century had it better than their predecessors in the previous century and I was certain things would only move forward in the 21st.


Enter #45. Progress has not only slowed and stopped, it has reversed. Since he entered the political scene, his bad behavior has given license for racists and misogynists to come out of the closet and express their hate and disrespect openly. The rights of women, people of color, the LGBT community and anyone who’s not a Christian are being eroded.

Despite being assaulted while taking photos of the Liberty Bell, I wasn’t totally alone in Philadelphia. Other people are, apparently, aware of the damage #45 is doing to the rights of American citizens.

I believe the behavior of the man at the Liberty Bell is connected to the behavior of our current president. Let’s not forget that we’ve heard recordings of #45 bragging about grabbing women by the genitals. He has never apologized or attempted to explain his behavior. He thinks it’s OK because he’s rich and powerful. And that is but one example of his leading by poor example.

Fighting this is not going to be easy. We must speak up not only about #45’s bad behavior but the bad behavior of others who now think discrimination and mockery are acceptable. I know many who will argue my assault and the discriminatory behavior of others has nothing to do with #45. That’s fine. We don’t have to argue that point — doing so will only take attention away from the real issue — the fact that such behavior is exists, is unacceptable and should not be tolerated. To stand by and allow it to happen is tacit approval and, in my book, tacit approval is as good as guilt.

Although my husband and daughter laughed when I took a photo of this display in Valley Forge, it really works with this blog post. To me, it represents a display of what #45 really knows about the Constitution or how to make America great again.


I’m the proud owner of an FDU 5000

I’m the proud owner of an FDU 5000

Anyone who has lived with cats — or dogs — understands that the hair they shed is a part of life. In fact, for those of us with pets, life would not be complete without our Fur Distribution Units (FDUs).

What I’ve discovered over the years is that feline FDUs come in varying degrees of efficiency. The average shorthaired cat, such as our tuxedo, Lily, would qualify as a base model FDU 1000. I’m sure a fastidious person who does not live with animals would notice that her fur has been distributed rather evenly all over the house, with some higher concentrations in her favorite sleeping areas. But for true cat people, this level of fur distribution is barely even noticeable.

The standard shorthaired cat, like our Lily, qualifies as a base model FDU 1000. This unit produces a thin layer of hair everywhere in the house.


Most longhaired cats would earn the designation FDU 3000. It’s a strong and efficient model, good for making sure there’s a thicker layer of cat hair on all surfaces of the home. My black longhair, Pasheva, is an FDU 3000. She spreads a layer of hair all over the house, with concentrations in her sleeping areas plus the occasional black fur puff ball found on the floor or the couch.

Pash on computer
Like most longhaired cats, Pasheva qualifies as an FDU 3000. Here, she distributes fur on my laptop. 

I’ve lived with many longhaired cats but over the years but Macy, my longhaired dilute tortie and white, tops them all. In addition to spreading the expected layer of hair all over the house, she drops white puff balls of fur everywhere — on the floor, on the couch, on the bed, on my clothes. This high level of fur distribution output cannot be explained away by the fact that she’s a longhair. No other longhaired cat I’ve ever known has had the ability to distribute as much fur as Macy, earning her the special designation FDU 5000.

Macy on book
The FDU 5000, aka Macy, distributes her fur on some books on our the desk.

Some people — my husband, for example — go to great lengths to remove the distributed fur through the use of vacuum cleaners, lint brushes and other tools. Such efforts are generally unsuccessful. Even when successful, the FDU continues to operate, immediately distributing fur to replace that which has been removed.

Some of the best features of the FDU have nothing to do with fur distribution. One such special feature is purring, a lovely sound that comes with its own good vibrations. Other features include the ability to interrupt our activities to demand attention, listen to us talk about our problems without judgment and snuggle up with us while we’re watching TV. And, thanks to another FDU feature, we never have to sleep alone.

Fur distribution has its drawbacks, I suppose, but it’s a small price to pay for companionship and unconditional love.







A rare chance to practice

A rare chance to practice

In addition to its many science programs, Eagle Hill Institute  in Steuben, Maine, offers concerts throughout the winter and spring. I’m looking forward to a violin and cello concert this weekend (March 18, 2017) because one of the performers is from Russia.

When I was in my 40s, I took two years of college Russian and connected with a handful of Russians from St. Petersburg all the way to Nizhniy Tagil, the latter of which is located on the border of Europe and Asia. I’ve had wonderful conversations with my Russian friends via both email and Skype. One even visited me here in the U.S. She now lives in New Jersey.

I have quite a collection of Russian books — some in Russian and some in English about Russia. Several were gifts from my Russian pen pals.

Life being what it is, however, I got out of practice. I faced some medical issues in 2014 that threw me out of my practice and study routine. I’ve been meaning to get back to it but what usually happens is I put it off because of the time and energy required to really do it right. I have an email from my friends in Nizhniy Tagil in my inbox. I haven’t answered yet because I really want to answer in Russian but I know how much work that’s going to be. And so I’ve been putting it off.

Two days from now, however, I will face that old sink or swim moment. I do hope to at least introduce myself, in Russian, to performer Sascha Zaburdaeva. Of course, introducing myself may be all I can do at this point. But I suppose it’s a start. I might be able to impress Americans with a few words in Russian here and there but the real test comes from speaking with a native.

I’ve acquired a small collection of khokhloma, a form of Russian folk art in which wooden or ceramic pieces are decorated with bright colors, often with a black or gold background, thanks in part to visits to bazaars and other events at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church.

Once, while visiting St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for a bazaar or festival, my friend Jane introduced my daughter and me to a Russian speaking member of the congregation.


I froze.

My daughter, Kayleigh, had the presence of mind to answer in Russian and so maybe I didn’t look like a total dope. Ok, well, at least she didn’t. At that point, I knew I had to get over my fear of speaking Russian with real Russians. And so I found my Russian pen pals through Livemocha, a free language learning website that has since been acquired by Rosetta Stone and closed.

Fortunately, however, while the site was still active I did get over my reluctance to speak Russian with real Russians. My first pen pals, Misha and Oksana (the ones from Nizhniy Tagil) made me feel comfortable right away. Their English is better than my Russian was even at its peak, but this allowed us to have some more deep and meaningful conversations about culture, history and politics. I had another pen pal, Sergei, in Volgograd and I was pleased to say that my Russian was better than his English. That helped me build confidence. Another wonderful part of this experience came from the fact that few Americans study Russian language. The Russians I met on Livemocha were so thrilled to find an American with an interest in their language that many wanted me to correspond and tutor them in English. I actually had to turn down most of these requests. I simply did not have time to help them all.

I suppose it’s rather uncommon for a middle aged person to begin studying a difficult foreign language. However, I’d call it судьба. Pronounced “soodBAH,” this word loosely translates as “fate” or “destiny.”

Cheburashka is a famous Russian cartoon character that I’ve come to love. My Russian professor once even suggested I go on to study the character in depth.

It was my daughter who got me interested in the language when she was in middle school. I found a community enrichment class at a local community college and, because Kayleigh was too young to drive, I decided I may as well take the class with her. I fell in love with the language and, after the class was over, Kayleigh and I continued with the teacher privately before ending up in our respective Russian classes.

The irony is that my mother, who died almost three years before Kayleigh was born, had studied Russian in college. I don’t know why she studied it or what she hoped to do with it. She was not of Russian descent. Her family was Italian. I never mentioned my mother’s interest in Russian language to my daughter and, since they never met, Kayleigh had no way of knowing the family history when she set out to learn Russian herself.

My mother died by suicide and we weren’t close, so the bond of Russian language is one of the few positive things I share with her. For that reason it’s important for me to get back to work to keep it alive. So here’s hoping that I won’t freeze Saturday night when I attempt to talk to Sascha.

Ты и Вы — this is a Pushkin poem we studied in Russian class. It’s about whether to use the formal or informal version of the word “you.” A former newspaper editor of mine described Russian text as the result of a typewriter gone mad.


Up close with a community icon

Up close with a community icon

Over the weekend, I was given the awesome opportunity to photograph the interior of old Milbridge Theatre.

The short history, for those not from Downeast, Maine, is that the theater closed in December 2014 following the death of owner Dave Parsons. Not long afterward, a community group formed with the intention of saving the theater. While the group worked to raise funds, the old theater building fell into a state of disrepair. The group’s long-term goal now is to take down the existing building and replace it with a new community theater that will house events, stage productions and concerts as well as movies.

This is where it gets interesting — at least for me as a photographer. One of my favorite photo subjects is the interior of an old, dilapidated building and the treasures it holds. Although it can be fun to photograph an up-to-date building, especially one with interesting architecture, I particularly enjoy the chance to get into old buildings that are no longer open to the public. For one thing, the light is especially interesting. The photographer has to work with available light or use a flash. I’m not a big fan of flash photography because it tends to make images appear flat. Here, however, it was so dark in some of the rooms that I had to just shoot blind with the flash. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to get anything at all — in part because I couldn’t see anything even with my own eyes!

The photo below is one such example. It was taken up in the projection room which has no windows or electric lights. I just held up the camera and shot with the flash. While this photo isn’t especially artsy, it is good for documentation as to what was there.

jmbt72In another frame, the name of the film on the far right is visible — Pinocchio. I like this shot, though, because of all the unrolled film on the floor.

The photo below was taken on the way up to the projection room. It was way too dark to get a photo with the existing light. Rather than using a flash, I asked my husband to shine his flashlight on the sign. I shot with one hand while holding onto the wall with the other so I wouldn’t fall.


The next photo, below, was taken using available light. (For amateur photographers who might be interested, I find I get better results on shutter priority than on program. With shutter priority, you can set the shutter to a speed faster than it would use in the program setting, resulting in an image that more closely represents what is actually there. In the program mode, the camera tends to overexpose in an attempt to lighten the shadows and this isn’t always what you want. Of course, if you really know what you’re doing, you shoot in manual. But that’s another topic for another time.) My only regret here is that I did not get into the theater before they started removing the seats. You can see the red cushions on the seats, which are lying on their backs. The group has determined it cannot refurbish the seats, at least not economically, so the group is removing them to sell them as souvenirs. This will also serve as a fundraiser.


The front room, which I am told may remain standing along with the existing marquee, features several old movie posters. It’s funny for someone my age to see “The Wizard of Oz” advertised as a movie to be seen in a theater. From the time I was a child, I remember watching “The Wizard of Oz” on TV.


I also found movie reels and reel cases throughout the theater. This one sits right inside the door, where the concession stand was. Note the leaf on the far right. I took a couple different versions of this shot and the problem I ran into was a cluttered background, especially when shooting this item from a lower, more straight on angle. With a background in photojournalism, my tendency is to shoot what is actually there and not to doctor or move things in order to get a better shot. The only way to change the background as a photojournalist is to actually move and shoot from a different perspective. I did what I could.


Here’s another movie reel that was sitting out on the counter in the front room.


I also found the old refreshment menus to be of interest. This one was in the front room (the one that is probably going to remain standing).


And this one is in the next room, where the main concession stand was. Note that beautiful old ceiling!


Additional more artsy photos can be found on my photography website at www.jsbillingsphoto.com. From the home page, click on “gallery” at the top on the left hand side, and then go to the album called “Maine.” There are some neat ones of the ceiling and an old piano that sits in the theater beside the stage/screen.

As a thank you to the folks who allowed me inside the theater, I am donating copies of my photos to them. My hope is it will provide documentation of what the theater looked like March 11, 2017 and, perhaps, they can use the photos in presentations or other documents. For more information on the theater project, visit http://www.milbridgetheater.org/ or feel free to contact me and I can put you in touch with board members.



Another move


It’s time to get back to business.

My stint at the Machias Valley News Observer turned out to be just a distraction, a detour on my destination to some place better. I now work as a production editor for Eagle Hill Institute in Steuben. I will be working on their scientific  journals and assisting with conferences, seminars and publicity.

Eagle Hill is dedicated to the international scientific community but also features programs on science and the arts that are open to the public. It’s a suitable destination for me because of my interest in entomology, especially lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). Already I’ve seen some interesting summer lecture proposals coming through so I’m looking forward to the coming season of activities.

I had been writing a weekly column at the MVNO as well as numerous news and feature stories, taking photos and putting the paper all together each week as editor. This, unfortunately, didn’t leave me much left in terms of creativity and ideas for this blog. So I look forward to getting back to this

So, while this post isn’t much, consider it a transitionary post. I’ll be writing about my sister’s death in September, as well as sharing some happy news such as a new cat added to our family. Of course, I will be telling some stories, too, like when I got stuck on the side of the road following a snowstorm and waited two and a half hours for rescue — which finally did come, thanks to some kind neighbors.

See you soon!

It’s creepy when you know thieves

Recently, my husband, Sean, and I learned the bookkeeper for one of his former employers is accused of stealing $1.4 million over 10 years.

According to an article which appeared in the Morning Call, Allentown, PA, the firm’s bookkeeper and her husband were each charged July 27 with theft by unlawful taking or disposition, theft by deception, theft by failure to make required disposition of funds, receiving stolen property and criminal conspiracy, all first-degree felonies.

The bookkeeper’s husband was charged because he enjoyed the benefits of what the district attorney described as a “lavish” lifestyle made possible by the thefts. The couple used the money to buy boats, artwork, cars and vacations, says the Morning Call article.

We never became close friends with the couple but we did socialize with them — and not just at company functions. We  had these people over to our house. We went out to dinner with them.

Looking back, that just seems so creepy.

Ultimately, the budding friendship never went anywhere. The bookkeeper and I had been Facebook friends and I posted something about not being interested in the wedding Prince William and Kate Middleton. For some reasons, she found this very offensive, bawled me out online and then unfriended me.

At the time I was annoyed. I thought it was a ridiculous reason to unfriend some one but, in retrospect, I’m glad it happened. I would hate to think Sean and I might have become close friends with a pair of alleged thieves.

The civil engineering company she and my husband worked for took a hit when the housing market tanked in 2008. Numerous times, the owner had to lay off employees in order to keep the company viable. He was always looking for ways to save a buck. No wonder!

Meanwhile, she was allegedly giving him falsified reports while allegedly stealing an average of $114,000 a year — more than $11,000 a month — more than enough to pay the salaries of those who lost their jobs.

Though Sean was not among those laid off, I still feel angry to think she was allegedly taking not only money from her employer but also from her coworkers. Did she ever feel a twinge of guilt? Did she have any empathy for those laid off?

I don’t know the answers to those questions. All I know is that I’m blown away.

I hope there’s some way for restitution to be made — and not just through minimal monthly payments. If the pair is found guilty, their assets should be seized and sold to benefit their victim. He put his investments on the line for his company and worked hard for his money. He deserves to get it back.







When work isn’t work

When work isn’t work

Recently, I was able to pet cats, talk about cats, photograph cats, write about cats and call it “work.”

During my last week at the Bangor Daily News, I was interviewing Robert Morris, a resident of the Maine Veterans’ Home, when I noticed a black cat was rubbing against his shoes. Morris introduced the cat as Miss Kitty and I learned she lives at the home along with two other cats.

What a great topic for a feature story for the my new paper, the Machias Valley News Observer.

So, on Friday, July 1, I interviewed Activities Director Jen Wood and the three residents who have special relationships with the cats — Morris, Orlando King and Polly Davis.

The first cat to come to the home was Shadow, who belonged to a former resident. He has since bonded himself to King.

Miss Kitty is closest to Morris and Chrissy belongs to Davis.

For the scoop, check out the July 6 edition of the MVNO. In the meantime, enjoy these photos that didn’t make it into the paper.

Shadow walks through the halls of the Maine Veterans Home in Machias. For some reason, this is one of my favorite photos from this shoot.
Maine Veterans Home resident Orlando King joins is friend Shadow as he makes his daily rounds.
Shadow sits in one of the halls of the Maine Veterans Home.
This close-up of Shadow was taken while he was lying on Orlando King’s bed.
Shadow relaxes on a chair in one of the common areas.
Orlando King pets Shadow in his room at the Maine Veterans Home in Machias, Maine.
Miss Kitty is a bit more shy than Shadow. She has bonded most closely with veterans home resident Robert Morris.
Activities Director Jen Wood greets Miss Kitty at the Maine Veterans Home in Machias.
Chrissy loves her human, Polly Davis. Unlike the other cats at the Maine Veterans Home, Chrissy actually belongs to Davis’ and stays in her room.
Chrissy gives her attention to the photographer.
The display outside Polly Davis’ room shows how much she loves her cat.


Chutzpah got me into newspaper business

As a kid, I dreamed of being a writer. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to explore potential careers as a teen. As I’ve addressed before on this blog, my teen years were consumed with survival during the loss of my family.

I went to college because it was expected of me, not because I wanted to go. College also was an escape from a difficult home life. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to run collegiate track and cross country. I did so, and even earned numerous trophies and medals. I didn’t do well in the classroom, though. Three years later, fed up with everything, even distance running, I dropped out of school.

I worked as a waitress for a couple weeks. I have great respect for waitresses but it wasn’t for me. My next move was to go to mechanics school because I was curious about engines. I got a job at a bus depot. Three weeks after I started, my boss called me, drunk, from a bar at about 10 p.m. on a Saturday night. He could barely speak but he managed to fire me.

I remember the panic. I was living on my own and had to pay the rent. How would I support myself? I called an old family friend who said I was born to be a writer and that I should apply for jobs at area newspapers.

I argued that I didn’t have a college degree or any writing experience. I didn’t even know how to type.

“You never know till you try,” she said.

So I applied at one newspaper — a semi-weekly now known as the Wyoming County Examiner, in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, where I had been living. Much to my surprise, they hired me!

My first assignment was a story on rabies and I wrote it like a college paper. My editor said, “It’s very good but it’s backwards.” And so began my foray into journalism.

Flash ahead a few years. I still didn’t have a college degree. And, although I never learned to type the right way, I could type wicked fast using just four fingers. I was young and ambitious and wanted to try working at a daily.

At the time I had been working for a weekly in the suburban Philadelphia area. I applied to its daily counterpart, The Reporter. I think I got that job because I managed to get into the locked building on a Sunday.

After I’d interviewed with the executive editor, the assistant city editor contacted me to ask me to do a trial story. The assignment was to cover a march against drugs that took place nearby on a Sunday morning.

The assistant city editor said she would not be there on the weekend. She gave me basic directions for putting the story into their system and then said they would expect it to be there Monday morning.

I covered the event and headed over to the newspaper office where, to my horror, I found it locked up tight. It had never occurred to me that no one would be at a daily newspaper office over the weekend.

This was before cell phones. I had no way to contact anyone at the paper. I had promised the story would be there the next business day and I wanted to honor my word. Besides, newspaper reporters are supposed to be resourceful, enterprising individuals, not quitters. So I continued pacing outside the building, trying to figure out the best course of action.

I walked around a little and came to another door. It appeared to be the composing room, where they built the pages. It was locked too, however.

I continued to pace and, as I walked past the composing room door another time, I saw two painters setting up drop cloths.


I knocked on the glass door and pointed to the doorknob. One of them let me in! Ecstatic, I darted into the room and asked, “Where’s the newsroom?”

“You mean you don’t work here?” said one of the painters.

“Not yet!” I said and shot up the stairs, afraid they would follow me, insisting on credentials.

They didn’t.

I found the newsroom and, as I sat finishing up the story, I heard a deep voice behind me. It was the executive editor who had strolled into the room.

“So, Johanna,” his voice boomed. “Did you somehow manage to get a key?”

“No,” I answered. “I told the editor I would have the story in the system by tomorrow morning so I convinced some painters downstairs to let me in.”

I don’t think he said anything in response. But, I got the feeling it all clicked for him. I got the job, after all.

I had a track coach in high school who used to say, “There’s no such thing as luck. You got to make your own breaks.”

I disagree on the luck part. Luck is circumstance. Luck was losing my dad at a critical time in my life. Luck was having a handicapped sister and a mother who couldn’t handle it.

But I do believe in making your own breaks. That means jumping in and going after what you want, even if you don’t think you’re prepared. And sometimes it means finding your way inside a locked building.

When you make your own breaks, the rewards are boundless.




We relocated a feral cat 600 miles

When we moved to Maine from Pennsylvania, we faced a dilemma — what to do with Sharpie, our feral cat.

I say “our” cat because we trapped, neutered and released him back onto our property after finding him several years ago. We set up shelters and a feeding station and took care of him.

Sharpie showed up at our house in Pennsylvania several years ago. We trapped, neutered and released him and allowed him to live on our property.

He was afraid of us but he loved us, too. After all, we were the feeders. When we were outside, he would always hang around us, just out of reach, purring and kneading.

I’d read articles that talked about relocating feral cats when necessary, but none of them addressed an issue such as how to deal with a distance of more than 600 miles.

We didn’t feel right about abandoning him, however, so we decided to try it. We got the moving van loaded up and just let Sharpie do his normal thing. Then, early the next morning, when he was hanging around us, Sean grabbed him and tried to get him into a large carrier that opened from the top.

Sharpie freaked and struggled wildly to get away. After Sean let him go, we shared a look of disappointment and tried to decide what to do. Sean didn’t think we’d get a second chance. Nor did I.

But then Sharpie walked by me and I grabbed him. For some reason, he allowed me to hold him in midair without struggling. Sean reacted quickly, pulling the lid off the carrier and attaching it again after I put Sharpie inside.

Then the yowling began.

Sharpie rode in the front seat of the moving van with Sean, yowling for the entirety of the 12-hour trip. I drove my car behind the truck.

When we got to Maine, we put Sharpie in a large cage inside the garage so he could get used to the new surroundings. He responded well, kneading and purring when we came in to feed him or change his litter. After about three days, we gave him the run of the garage and I began allowing him outside for short, supervised time in the yard.

Sharpie explores our property in Maine shortly after being relocated.


Before a week was up, I felt confident that he was ready to go out on his own. Things went well for a couple days. Then, one night we woke up twice to hear an awful fight. The next morning, Sharpie seemed a little skittish but glad to see us. We’re not sure who or what he fought with but we decided to try keeping him safe by putting him in the garage at night.

Surprisingly, this worked well right from the start. Sharpie knows feeding time comes at the end of the day and he will happily follow one of us into the garage at dusk. He sleeps on the seat of an antique sleigh we have in the garage and hollers in the morning to make sure we don’t forget to let him out.

I’m glad we took Sharpie with us when we moved. He’s thriving, secure in the knowledge that he still has a home.