Thursday, March 24, 2011

A 21st Century Message in a Bottle

There are days when nothing works, no one returns your phone calls or emails and regardless of how hard you search, you can't seem to find the elusive piece of data you're looking for. On occasion we can fight through these periods and make progress and on other days it is just best to have a glass of wine and surrender for the moment, mentally reconnoitering for the next day's campaign. Once in a while, though, some of the lines we cast out into universe--messages in a bottle, if you will--find their way back to us.

MANY years ago--and I hesitate to say how many years ago, but lets just say it was toward the end of the previous century--I was trying in vain to research an artist whose work hung in one of the bedrooms at Mayowood. We were doing a living history Christmas tour that was intended to give visitors a glimpse into life on the homefront in Rochester, Minnesota ca1944. Dr. Charles W. Mayo, patriarch of the generation of the Mayo family that was living at Mayowood during the war, was stationed with one of the Mayo Clinic hospital units** in New Guinea. There's a lot of interesting art at the house, but there were a couple of portraits of Dr. Mayo that, for whatever reason, I was always drawn to. They were done by an artist named George Porter during the period of 1943-44. Both are watercolors and show the good doctor (and colonel) in his khakis and looking rather thin and a bit weary when compared to his pre-war photographs. There was also another watercolor done by the same Mr. Porter of a tropical scene within the same room.

My curiosity was piqued. First, I'd found a reference to this combat artist, young George Porter, in a piece of V-mail that Dr. Mayo had sent home to the family in Rochester. V-mail was pretty well censored and your time/space was short so you mentioned important things or interesting things--as well as things that would make it past the heavy-handed black pen of the censor! Secondly, the quality of the work was wonderful. I thought the way Porter had managed to capture Dr. Mayo was uncanny. As a portrait sent home to a worried family, it would have conveyed a sense that things were as good as could be expected, but difficult, to be sure, even on the best of days. The enigmatic twinkle that I'd grown accustomed to seeing in Dr. Mayo's eye by way of decades of photographs and portraits was still evident, but slightly dimmed by all he'd no doubt seen during the war. This young artist had captured a side of this famous doctor that I'd not seen from anyone else. I wanted to know more.

Needless to say, back in the mid-90s it wasn't as easy as it is today to find art--or people. We didn't have enough solid information to get anything from the VA or service lists and there were no serious art databases that we knew of at the time that could help. I sent out a few inquiries, all either went unanswered or came back with nothing to report. Once the tours were over for the season I had other work to attend to and the mystery of George Porter would slowly fade to the back of my mind.

Then a few weeks ago I was looking to verify and expand upon some information for some special tours they'll be holding this summer to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the building of Mayowood. Emerging from the fog of my somewhat overcrowded memory, there was George Porter again. I couldn't recall his middle initial, but I figured that with some clever searching I could piece together something that would yield results.

A couple of hours on the laptop, scrolling and scrounging through old issues of YANK (The Army Weekly) and Stars and Stripes among others and there he was, or at least, there his work was. I was staring at a cover image from Yank Down Under magazine dated August 1944, cover credit to George Porter, or Geo Porter as he usually seemed to sign his work. The brush strokes, the evocative shading, the signature I'd looked at so many times, it had to be the George Porter I'd looked for all those years ago. Just as he'd managed to convey so much in the portrait of Dr. Mayo, these boots are stirringly poignant. Ordinary and utilitarian, they bear witness quietly, with dignity.

"The well worn, expressive GI shoes were painted by Sgt. George E. Porter Jr., who is with the 5th Photographic Technical Squadron in New Guinea. Sgt. Porter spent six pre-induction years in New York City doing commercial art work with one of the larger advertising agencies. In addition to this, his paintings in the field of fine arts have been exhibited in the 57th Street Galleries in New York and in Florida. The sergeant didn't say whether his own (or somebody else's) brogans served as the models for this painting." (from the YANK Army Weekly Blog...@

Armed with a middle initial, an army rank and his unit information, I was fairly certain I could make more progress. A quick click over to the website and I was able to see a bit more of Porter's work, all with the same feel to it, the same qualities I'd admired in the works at Mayowood. From the website I learned that he'd passed away more than a decade ago, but that he'd still been alive in the mid-1990s when I'd looked for him. As I looked over his pages on the site I noticed an email from someone who said she was his niece. Well, surely it was worth a try, right? I mean, I'd already come this far, it was obviously worth sending an email out into the vastness of the Internet. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Fast forward to this morning. I've been more than a little pre-occupied obsessed with my inn project so when an email showed up on my BlackBerry this morning with an unfamiliar address, I expected it might be in reference to one of the myriad inquiries I'd sent out. Through the haze of sleep, though, I noticed the subject George E Porter. My eyes opened wider and I reached to grab my glasses to be sure I wasn't seeing things. Then I hesitated a moment...opening the email would confirm that this was another false start, or, it would throw open the window and shed a little light. I'm happy to report it was the latter of the two.

I had the great pleasure of speaking with George E. Porter's niece this afternoon and hearing a little more about this artist to whom I'd felt so inexplicably drawn for so many years. This is not, thankfully, the end of this story, but only the beginning. So stay tuned...

As a research geek, writer, and editor I'm more than happy to spend hours perusing old newspapers in archives or sifting through clippings and photographs in small historical societies and museums. In fact, it's often the best, most rewarding part of my day. And when you can connect a few dots, connect with a relative or family member to help you piece together more of the puzzle, you know you've won the day with the help of fortuosity and a little perseverance.

**Activated in January 1943, the 71st Army General Hospital personnel were commanded by Drs Charles W. Mayo and James T. Priestley II. The two Mayo army hospital units were sent to New Guinea in January 1944. The 233rd station hospital was positioned at Nadzab and the 237th at Finschafen. These hospitals provided the first treatment for casualties evacuated by air from the campaign against Japanese occupation in this area.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hydro therapy

Kent Falls State Park
I'm a water girl. When I need to clear my head or think something through, there's no place so soothing for me as a lake, stream, ocean, brook, pond, river, or creek. And I'm awfully lucky that I can drive a very few miles south and be quickly on the beach near Long Island Sound or I can drive a few more miles to the north and be in the beautiful hills of Kent, Connecticut. The rhythmic sound of waves rolling onto the beach or the powerful buzz of rushing rapids are among my favorites. So I headed north on Route 7, unsure of my destination, and as I approached Kent I decided to visit a favorite spot of mine where I knew the water would be rushing madly...Kent Falls State Park. 

The first day of spring meant a good crowd--from motorcyclists to families using the grills and bbq-ing--would be out enjoying the glorious sunshine. The picnic tables were crowded with couples and groups basking in the mid-March warmth. Back in 1938, the Connecticut Guide (one of the WPA Federal Writer's Project books) had this to say about the area, "At 53.1 m. is the entrance to Kent Falls State Park (R), containing one of the most spectacular of Connecticut's waterfalls, where the brook, arched by hemlocks, rushes over a precipice in two cascades, down a 200-foot drop within a quarter of a mile. The lower falls have cut their way over white marble steps and have scooped out many potholes in the ledges. The best view is obtained by following the brook a short distance on foot. Fireplaces and tables offer picnic facilities." These old guides are wonderful and on the occasions where you stumble upon a place that is largely unchanged--and completely recognizable--from the 1938 description it's hard not to experience a little frisson of timelessness.

I couldn't help but notice the van Gogh-esque swirls and curves as I sat next to the brook. If I was an artist I'd be obsessed with capturing the play of light on water as it washes over stones and moss. You can almost hear the rush of the water and feel the cool refreshment as the breeze rises and falls.

A lonely picnic table (one of the few not in use) sits on a hillside where the snow stubbornly clings to the grass and refuses to yield to the sun's warmth.

I waited patiently (well, almost patiently) to get a shot without the usual assortment of other photographers in it.

And if you love the sounds of water as I do, a little video--apologies, it's not terribly well done--but you'll get a taste of spring as the water rushes over the falls here.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Blue. Moon.

Steichen's The Pond--Moonrise, 1904

The Light of Stars
by our beloved Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The night is come, but not too soon;
  And sinking silently,
All silently, the little moon
  Drops down behind the sky.
There is no light in earth or heaven
  But the cold light of stars;
And the first watch of night is given
  To the red planet Mars.
Is it the tender star of love?
  The star of love and dreams?
O no! from that blue tent above,
  A hero's armor gleams.
And earnest thoughts within me rise,
  When I behold afar,
Suspended in the evening skies,
  The shield of that red star.
O star of strength! I see thee stand
  And smile upon my pain;
Thou beckonest with thy mailed hand,
  And I am strong again.
Within my breast there is no light
  But the cold light of stars;
I give the first watch of the night
  To the red planet Mars.
The star of the unconquered will,
  He rises in my breast,
Serene, and resolute, and still,
  And calm, and self-possessed.
And thou, too, whosoe'er thou art,
  That readest this brief psalm,
As one by one thy hopes depart,
  Be resolute and calm.
O fear not in a world like this,
  And thou shalt know erelong,
Know how sublime a thing it is
  To suffer and be strong. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Out of Focus

No, it isn't your eyes...this IS way out of focus.
(Interior, St. Patrick's Cathedral, NYC.)

I've struggled a lot with what I wanted to write about this week and my focus has, it seems, shifted every few hours between the uprisings in the Middle East, the labor protests in Wisconsin and other midwestern states and of course, the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan. And as much as I've been deeply moved by each event in one way or another, every time I open the laptop to try to put something together, the words simply refuse to come. I wouldn't say it was a case of writer's block so much as a case of failure to focus. You know how the lens on your point-and-shoot camera will sometimes just continually zoom and retract refusing to focus on the object or scene you wish to photograph? Well that's been my brain this past week--though thankfully (mostly) without the annoying noise that usually accompanies a non-focusing camera.

Added to this already murky mixture are the pitfalls, roadblocks, and detours associated with researching and writing. Fits and starts seem to be the way of it lately for me and I must say that from time to time I feel as though I've hit a dead end and begin to wonder if I have utterly lost the plot. When you're researching and the trail cools down--or seems to disappear completely--it's a challenge to persevere, particularly when you don't even know exactly what else you're looking for, let alone where it might be found. Then, just as the inky many fanged beast of doubt begins to rear its ugly head, once in a while, from nowhere, a small glimmer appears on the horizon. Not exactly an instance of the fingerpost, perhaps, but a welcome guidepost and something for my mind's lens to focus in on.

Yesterday an accidental guidepost appeared, bringing with it a bit of much needed focus. With the focus came a little luck. You often hear about how sporting teams that are good also tend to be lucky. I'd like to think that sometimes, by virtue of perseverance alone, luck can be encouraged and coaxed into yielding a small, but precious dividend. In this case, a ridiculously lucky and unexpected souvenir found for sale on e-bay that maybe raises as many questions as it answers, but is still an important find.

Predictably, I was hooked again and focus began to be return. As I've said before, I love the research aspect of most projects because while it can be thankless and frustrating, it can be so satisfying and exciting. Granted, discovery of real linchpin moments is few and far between, but it does happen and when it does, even on a small scale, it's energizing. The doubts about the project begin to dissipate and with a renewed sense of purpose, you forge on ahead. I guess that's the nature of life, the pieces, the things we need ebb and flow, toward us and away from us...recognizing that has been a real revelation for me. I'm often surprised by both what does still exist when it comes to paper trails and what doesn't. And when it's not extant in a nice, succinct package, that's when you get creative and search differently. I guess that's part of the fun of it as well, I love a puzzle (crossword, Scrabble, etc.) and I get my kicks sorting through and putting together all the seemingly incongruous pieces.

Thus, with a modicum of focus restored and armed with a menu and a mere passing mention of chocolate filled little wax turkeys (yes, you read it right, small wax turkeys that when cracked open were filled with chocolate) I head off tomorrow in search of more official and concrete kinds of documentation. Wish me luck!

OH...and Happy St. Patrick's Day! If you thought you'd find a boozy reverie (and you'd have been right to think you might) here's a post from last St. Pat's with a few fond Guinness soaked memories... Slainte!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Older, yes. Wiser? Hmm...

So my birthday is tomorrow, March 8. No, no...put away the noisemakers and balloons, keep the confetti contained, this isn't a milestone birthday, at least not from a numeric standpoint. I do, however, hope this will be an important year and one that will kick off with little treats like shamrock shakes and cupcakes.

Perhaps because my birthday does fall in the early part of the year, it is often my mental starting point for the year, especially as I've grown older. I make and break New Year's resolutions just like the rest of the planet, but I think it's the arrival of my birthday that really feels like the start of a new year for me.

What does the coming year hold? No crystal ball here but I've thought about it and have come to a few conclusions...

# More little road trips to the nearby racetracks & polo matches and more time spent in the company of not only horses but other people who also like horses.

# Be a better correspondent. From small thank you notes to actual letters sent via the US Mail, it's time to reacquaint myself with the pleasure of stationery and handwritten cards.

# Practice being content.

# Finally, engage in more storytelling. I can't say that I really enjoy the writing process--it is god damned hard work--but it is a growth process as well. For most of the past decade I was very content to help others get their stories in order--to help their voice come through in the best and clearest way possible. I've also felt that generally, someone other than me--anyone other than me--was better equipped to tell most stories. Even if I was passionate about the subject or it had a strong resonance for me, I believed that others could tell it better than I could. No more. There are stories I want to tell and if I want them told properly, I'm actually the only one to do it. I wish it hadn't taken me so long to be willing to see that, but at least I'm up for the challenge now. I care about too many places, people, and events small and large to let them fall from memory or worse, go utterly unnoticed. World, you're on notice.

Many years ago, at a drive-in in Lake City, Minnesota, where we were for a high school basketball game a waitress left a note on the back of our bill. My father used the contents of the note for years with his young track athletes and it's perfect for me as a motto for the year ahead, as well. The 10 most important two letter words...If it is to be it is up to me. As true now as it was all those years ago.

Now to find the aforementioned shake and procure a birthday cupcake...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I've Got a Bridge to Sell You...

The glorious Brooklyn Bridge, not, however, for sale.

It's March and with the sun being a bit higher in the sky and the snow mountains melting down into smaller snow hills it seems a good time for a bit of a rant, no?

Let me say at the outset that I am an utter non-believer when it comes to most any of the positive spin put out about corporate America. I think they'd sell just about anything to just about anyone if there was buck to be made and if they could simply indenture their workforces so as not to have to pay them a wage at all, they probably would. Cynical? Yes. But I know what often happens when stockholders--who rightfully have expectations of a return on their investment--start to demand a higher rate of return. Jobs are shed, product quality often suffers, and the remaining workers are, in many cases, left to do their own jobs in addition to taking on the responsibilities of their former colleagues. Bottom line, corporate America rarely (if ever) has the best interests of average Americans on their radar.

This isn't news, I know. And it isn't even new, but I am consistently surprised at how willingly we cede our actual best interests and real needs to corporations. A couple of examples...

The budget-repair bill that is--what I understand to be--at the heart of the protests in Wisconsin contains many disturbing clauses, but one of them that stood out to me pertains to, wait for it...Koch Industries. Yes, *those* Koch brothers, the ones who were major donors to Governor Walker's campaign. The part of this bill that I'm referring to deals with the no-bid sales of several Wisconsin power plants. No-bid? How do you offset a budget deficit with non-competitive no-bid sales? Now Koch Industries denies any interest in any of these plants, but (and here's where my bridge sale offer comes in) that seems somewhat implausible. Lobbyists for Koch Industries consistently try to lower, if not completely do away with any restrictions on the emissions from their various plants. They are NO friend to any environment. There are many other things at stake in the Wisconsin budget-repair bill, but I was struck at the level of deviousness that seemed to be inherent within this particular section. Here's a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article that offers a little background on this particular provision

Honestly, when Big Coal or Big Oil (or Koch Industries) tell you that you have nothing to fear from them, they are beyond disingenuous. Witness any mining disaster that has occurred over the past 50 years--how many times do we hear of all the safety violations that are dismissed (or worse) by management and the corporations running the mines? And if the whole of the mining industry doesn't make your heart ache a little, then I'd humbly suggest you aren't paying enough attention. Ken Ward, Jr., whose work I started reading during the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, has a fantastic blog called Coal Tattoo on the Charleston Gazette website... Read a little of his work, you'll be hooked.

And if coal doesn't resonate with you, maybe natural gas does. You've no doubt seen advertisements on television about clean natural gas, often fronted by one T. Boone Pickens. (I've commented on Mr. Pickens and water rights/issues can read it HERE.) There's little if anything that seems to be clean about the process necessary to retrieve natural gas from the Marcellus Shale fields. If you haven't seen Josh Fox's documentary, Gasland, I can't recommend it highly enough. Not only is the damage to groundwater rather frightening to contemplate, the sheer amount of water they use is incredible. Once again, the "bridge" we're being sold is not one of a clean energy future (as is often suggested) but rather yet another energy source that is often very difficult to retrieve and severely damages the environment (including ground and drinking water) during the retrieval process. Here is Gasland's website, have a look around...

Finally, a little moment on historic preservation. In the event that you aren't as angered, in general, as I am by corporate America, perhaps you'll identify with this instead. Over the course of the research I've been doing for a book project I've stumbled across several interesting documents (I've got a lot more to sift through, mind you) regarding zoning and land use as they pertain to a specific historic property. Between the newspaper accounts, the paperwork of the association that formed to fight the development and the actual zoning meeting comments, it's all rather sad. At the time, the land in question wasn't an island surrounded by commercial development, but it was definitely a piece of land that developers were willing to pay top dollar for. There are telling quotes by an attorney for the developers stating that the neighborhood homeowners have "nothing to fear from the change of zone because damage there has already been done..." as if to say, look, we've ruined most of this area already, so really, why would you care if we ruin the rest? Calm down and take the money we're offering. The individual who was attempting to quietly offload the land to the developers had the nerve to comment that indeed the place in question would be much missed by local residents, but that this was "a beautiful example of ugly progress." The neighbors fought valiantly and won many rounds. In a July 1967 newspaper article their spokesman said, "Frankly, we expect further attempts by a few people--by their own admission 'selfish' --to continue their harassing applications for commercial zoning, either immediately or on a prolonged 'hit and run' basis." Further to that he commented, "We shall have to be vigilant and we shall have to meet them head-on every time." In the end, ugly progress--and I must take issue with that word, "progress"--won out. I've seen this scenario, or ones very similar to it, play out more times than I can count and it's heartbreaking every time. So often neighbors or proponents of a site or structure are either lulled into a false sense of security or they are finally overwhelmed by the deep pockets and the scale of the challenges posed by the developers.

So in summary:

1. Take the time to read the fine print and follow the money--whether it's in regard to industry, energy, or land use and preservation. If a corporation stands to benefit monetarily from a loop-hole or deregulation, they will lobby hard to make it happen.

2. When the land developers tell you that you have no reason to worry about a little ol' zoning change, be on your guard. Keeping a weather eye on zoning and planning meetings in your community is always a good idea.

3. If you think that big business (in general) is really worried about much more than profits, I've still got that lovely bridge for sale...the pretty one that joins Manhattan and Brooklyn and offers spectacular views of both.

Thus endeth my rant. I yield my spot atop the soapbox. For now.