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Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

Serene, Patinaed Fantasy

In Adirondacks, Champlain Valley, Memoir, Renovation & Rehabilitation, What's the story? on September 29, 2011 at 11:41 am
Apartment buildings lining the south side of E...

East 57th Street between First and Sutton (via Wikipedia)

Accustomed to living out of a suitcase, I pendulumed back and forth between Manhattan where Susan was wrapping up a degree in interior design following a decade-long career in video production, and Westport, New York, where both of our parents owned homes and where we’d met a couple of years prior.

Susan had recently refinished a one bedroom apartment in The Galleria, and she was itching to sell it and start a new project. I was intrigued by the prospect of collaborating on a project and plugging my recent Paris experience into a tired but dignified New York apartment, but the Adirondacks were pulling me. After almost half a lifetime living in cities, I yearned to return to the rhythms and pleasures of rural life.

My idealized notion of a country house had its roots in a small farm that my parents had bought in Washington County while still living in New York City in the 1970s. Initially a getaway for my recently married parents trying to balance life and careers in New York City and later, albeit briefly, a full time residence, The Farm underpins my love for countryside and provides my earliest childhood memories.

The perfect place, I explained to Bruce, the friend and realtor who shuttled me from property to property, would be a small, simple farmhouse in the middle of fields with a sturdy barn and some acreage, maybe a stream or a pond or access to a river. Barns, in particular, pulled me. Secluded places with good light and views, forgotten places with stories still vaguely audible if you slowed down long enough to hear the voices. No loud traffic. An old overgrown orchard, perhaps. Asparagus and rhubarb gone feral near the barn. Stone walls, lots of stone walls and maybe an old stone foundation from a building long ago abandoned, the cellar hole full to bursting with day lilies. A couple of old chimneys in the farmhouse with fireplaces. A simple but spacious kitchen. A bedroom with plenty of windows. A room to read and write and collage the walls with notes, lists, photos, drawings and scraps. Someplace I could tinker at myself, gradually restoring the walls and plaster and roof. Timeworn wide plank floorboards of varying widths that I would sand by hand to avoid erasing the footpaths and dings and cupping from a burst pipe years before.

Although I’d painted the picture often enough, my budget and unwillingness to abandon the serene, patinaed fantasy resulted in a few false starts but mostly a very clear idea of what I was not interested in buying. On the upside, I came around and helped Susan select and renovate a coop in a 1926 McKim, Mead and White prewar located on 57th Street just off Sutton Place. An elegant apartment in a handsome building. Great bones, view and sunlight enhanced with a top-to-bottom environmentally responsible, non-toxic renovation. A success!

Though there were occasional fireworks when our aesthetics and convictions clashed, we enjoyed working together and decided to look for a North Country property that would suit both of our interests…

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Paris Renovation Bug

In Adirondacks, Champlain Valley, Memoir, Renovation & Rehabilitation on September 27, 2011 at 10:50 pm
Paris Exposition: Eiffel Tower, Paris, France,...

Image by Brooklyn Museum via Flickr

Starting in about 2003 I initiated an unfocused real estate hunt for a “fixer-upper” in the AdirondacksChamplain Valley. I’d returned from four years in Europe with enough savings to justify some idle time, a reprieve I hoped to plough into a long languishing novel while tinkering with the vestiges of a web-based business I’d launched in Paris a few years before.

But I couldn’t shake the renovation bug that had bitten me quite unexpectedly while bringing a luxury vacation rental to market in Paris’ Faubourg St. Germaine.

I’d made it into my early thirties without owning a home due to my intentionally peripatetic lifestyle, and despite an aesthete’s appetite for buildings and furnishing and gardens, I hadn’t the least interest in settling down. No biological clock ticking. No nesting instinct. No yen for taxes and maintenance and burst pipes and snow shoveling. No desire whatsoever for the trappings of a settled, domestic life. I understood why it appealed to others, but for me the commitments and encumbrances far outweighed the pride and financial wisdom of home ownership.

Until recently.

Something had changed, and I couldn’t quite figure out how or why.

I’d spent the better part of a year and a half immersed in the acquisition, renovation and marketing of a grand Haussmannian property that promised tourists an opportunity to enjoy Paris à la Parisienne. My business partner and I joked that it was “Versailles in the heart of Paris”, which was a gross exaggeration, but fifteen foot ceilings, 3,200+ square feet of living space including three master suites, a grande salon, a petite salon and a formal dining room invited exaggeration. Magnificent marble fireplaces, intricate plaster moldings, hardwood floors and meticulous finish details exuded Parisian elegance by the time we started booking the accommodation, but it hadn’t always looked so inviting.

The property underwent a top-to-bottom transformation between the day we received the key and the day we shot the photographs for our brochures and website. Half of the property had been gutted and rebuilt from scratch. One bathroom was remodeled and two new bathrooms were created from scratch. Walls were moved, electrical systems were rewired. Carpets were ripped out and herringbone hardwood floors were hand sanded and resealed. Magnificent crown moldings were painstakingly restored, and sconces, chandeliers, and period hardware were refinished.

No architect. No designer. No engineer. Just outsized self confidence and a hepped up learning curve. I scribbled construction drawings on walls and fumbled through French and Portuguese until contractors seemed to understand what I wanted. With the Lebanese contractors I gesticulated, made funny sound effects and scribbled some more. That we completed the project at all was a miracle. That the results were exquisite, a mystery that still awes me. Though I’d grown up assisting my parents with a couple of renovation projects, I’d never before undertaken anything so ambitious or complex. Or so rewarding.

Although our business plan involved duplicating the process in Italy and in Spain, the woman I’d been dating for two years lived in New York City, and after two years of cycling through Paris, Rome and Manhattan on a roughly two week cycle, I opted to trade the business for the woman I loved. I dissolved my interest in the business, packed up my apartments in Paris and Rome, and moved back to the United States.

[To be continued…]

Gestation

In Artifacts, Daily Munge on September 26, 2011 at 7:09 pm
Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke (Image via Wikipedia)

In Letters To A Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “everything is gestation, then bringing forth”. My daily munge, what others might refer to as daily writing practice or a journal, is my place and process for gestation. It’s a place where I scribble and doodle and scrawl.

Sometimes it’s five hours’ worth of writing; sometimes it’s five minutes.

Anything is fair game for the daily munge, any quotidian artifact that even fleetingly piques my interest. There’s no referee, no editor, no judgment. Not at first.

Like a sculptor’s studio where I can explore an idea that may or may not evolve into a finished work, the daily munge let’s me experiment and carve away and mash the rejects only to pick them up again later to try again. Sometimes a poem or a story or an essay is born; more often I create, curate and then abandon my words.

Very little ever comes out of the daily munge in the short term, and yet most of my completed storytelling and writing had its inception there. Gestation is critical. As is patience and perseverance. I’ve learned these lessons many times, and yet I’m forced to relearn them each time I initiate and complete a new creative project.

Although renovating Rosslyn involved more woodwork and plaster and masonry and paint than the average poem or story, it too was gestation. It too demanded patience and perseverance, more sometimes than my bride and I could muster. Or so it seemed, until at last we were able to bring forth a home, a revitalized historic artifact, a font of memories and stories and lives.

A time capsule, the daily munge preserved the highs and lows of three, almost four years spent renovating Rosslyn. A mosaic of artifacts and memories. A sometimes euphoric, sometimes angry and frequently confused or frustrated tangle of interconnected narratives. This is the material I’ve been exploring and sculpting into Rosslyn Redux. This is the clunky, unedited avalanche of dreams and disappointments and triumphs and compromises that sometimes sweeps me up and plunges me—gasping for air, somersaulting blindly—downward.

Today has been one of those days. I’m trying to remind myself, “everything is gestation, then bringing forth”. I am so damned ready for the bringing forth! Patience. Perseverance. Thank you.

Recovering from Irene

In Boathouse, Champlain Valley, Daily Munge, Lake Champlain on September 25, 2011 at 10:32 am
Rosslyn boathouse after Hurricane Irene

Rosslyn boathouse after Hurricane Irene

Much of the North Country is still recovering from the devastation wrought by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene. Four weeks on, I return to the notes I jotted during and shortly after Irene passed through Essex, New York.

A sheet of water cascades in front of the parlor windows. I’ve sunk into an armchair to watch the white caps rolling into our stone seawall. Into the dock beneath Rosslyn boathouse. Wind surges, thrashing and straining the leafy limbs of the gnarled old maple tree on the front lawn, violently snapping the boathouse flag.

Hurricane Irene has been delivering a less devastating blow to the Northeast than originally anticipated, and yet our lawn is littered with branches, entire tree limbs and even the top half of an Aspen which snapped off next to the carriage barn. Lake Champlain‘s water level has risen dramatically, gobbling up the sand beach and lapping at the stone seawalls currently being rebuilt north of our boat dock.

I initiated this post during the worst of Irene’s wind and water, however I quickly abbreviated my commentary. My mind flashed back to Lake Champlain’s destructive spring flood. I grew superstitious, my premature relief that Irene had taken it easy on us replaced by dread that I was underestimating her impact.

The next day I continued my observations after a demoralizing round trip to Plattsburgh. My suspicions had been confirmed. We were lucky; others unlucky…

The day started well enough. Clearing skies. Sunshine. Only a light breeze, virtually imperceptible after yesterday’s 65mph gusts.

I checked the waterfront, noted the dramatic rise in water level then celebrated the absence of damage to the boat house. I walked the lawn and counted about a dozen broken limbs strewn over the grass. The top third of an aspen tree had snapped off and lay crushed to the south of the carriage barn. But no serious, unrecoverable damage.

My sunny disposition clouded briefly upon finding 27 bags of ready-mix concrete that had been left uncovered by the fellow rebuilding the stone seawall. All had been soaked and were now petrified, unusable.

Nevertheless, I departed for Plattsburgh relieved that we’d escaped virtually unharmed.

This is where my notes end. The day would force me to recalculate my earlier conclusions. Yes, Susan and I had been fortunate. Rosslyn had been virtually unscathed by Irene. But many of our neighbors in Whallonsburg, Willsboro and Wadhams and throughout the Champlain Valley were underwater.

Normally I’d drive through Willsboro, up and over Willsboro Mountain and then pick up “The Northway” (NYS Route 87) north to Plattsburgh. But I’d already heard that roads were closed beyond Willsboro, so I turned south toward the ferry dock to try another route. Our Town Supervisor was directing traffic at a road block, so I stopped and rolled down my window.

“What a mess. Roads are closed everywhere.”

“Can I get to Plattsburgh?”

“Route 12 is the only access to The Northway.”

“Toward Lewis? That’s fine.”

“Would you show those folks how to get to Meadowmount?” she asked, pointing at a car with out-of-state tags that was parked across from the Masonic Hall.

“Sure.”

“Good luck!”

I pulled in front of the car and parked. I introduced myself to the driver and explained that they could follow me to Meadowmount. They were grateful.

With 20/20 hindsight I should have realized that I would need to take Route 12 to the Lewis exit on the Northway and then cross over and lead them into Meadowmount from Betty Beavers Truck Stop. But there are a half dozen local routes between Essex and Lewis that would be quicker. It never occurred to me that all of them could be flooded.

They were. And over the next thirty minutes I tried every one only to be stopped at road blocks or unmarked, submerged roads. Staggering. But most heart breaking of all was Whallonsburg, a hamlet of Essex a couple of miles inland from Lake Champlain. The Boquet River flows directly through the middle of Whallonsburg and it had flooded so high that five or six houses along the river were totally inundated. A couple of homes had water up the the second story windows! Emergency services had been set up at The Whallonsburg Grange, and volunteers were directing traffic and assisting displaced residents.

I would revisit this heartbreaking scene the following day during a bicycle ride assessing the damage all along the Boquet River corridor. By then the water had retreated and residents were dragging furniture and carpets and clothing and books and appliances out onto their yards. Over the next couple of days enormous dumpsters were filled with the destroyed possessions. During my most recent conversation with a friend who lives in Whallonsburg I learned that at least one and maybe more of the homes were condemned. Despite the devastation, it’s been heartening to experience the community spirit and volunteerism that have resulted. The community has pulled together to help the residents effected by Irene with a fundraiser (Good Night, Irene) and countless hours of volunteerism.

Still trying to absorb the depressing situation in Whallonsburg I proceeded to attempt one road after another. And it seemed that with each “dead end” our entourage collected another vehicle. In due course our entire caravan made it out to The Northway, hopefully in time for one of the cars to make it to the airport without missing their flight. At Betty Beavers I got out and explained to the first car how to get to Meadowmount and offered them my card in case they got stuck. Only a few days later I received a gracious email from them explaining that they made it safely to the music school where their son had studied some years prior.

I mention this detail for the same reason I explained the community recovery efforts in Whallonsburg. Irene’s proverbial silver lining may be the humanizing influence. People connecting and helping one another. This was also the case last spring when Lake Champlain flooded its banks for weeks on end. In both natural disasters the disruption and destruction were catastrophic, but in both cases effected communities rallied and supported one another. This civic responsibility, this community spirit underpins the attractive North Country lifestyle that has embraced us since moving from New York City to Essex in 2006.

In closing, the photograph at the top of this post was taken after Lake Champlain’s water level rapidly rose due to the runoff from Irene. Although it pales in comparison to the water levels last spring, it was surreal to watch our beach disappear as water levels returned to typical spring levels.

Redacting Rosslyn v1.0

In Daily Munge, Monologues on September 24, 2011 at 3:46 pm
Hiatus Interruptus: Rosslyn 1822-2011

Hiatus Interruptus: Rosslyn 1822-2011

Redacting Rosslyn. A concept. An experiment. A risk. A plunge.

And then… an ellipsis.

Stillness. Silence. White space.

Not a pregnant pause. Not AWOL.

An interstice.

Carving out a space for stillness amidst the throng will open up the possibility of stillness. But there must also be room for chance, for stumbling accidentally upon these somewhat paradoxical interstices, and then honoring them… an invitation to wander into the unfamiliar. (“A Cadence of Choice”)

I accepted the invitation, and I wandered into the unfamiliar. For seven weeks I wandered and stumbled in search of stillness. But it eluded me.

I succumbed to the siren call of my sister’s wedding, the Depot Theatre Gala, a bountiful vegetable garden, windsurfing and water skiing and learning to wakesurf, a welcome parade of house guests, #ADK827 and an unforgettable TrekEast cycling excursion.

As the weeks tumbled past I gathered some of the feedback and artifacts into a digital scrapbook, and I dipped into the bucket of feedback cards I received from the audience after my August 3 Depot Theatre performance of Redacting Rosslyn. I discovered that almost universally the audience had loved the “Just Google It!” video, and that generally speaking the vignettes that wandered into storytelling and performance trumped those that were read. Long, read vignettes were the hands down least favorite.

I’ve been simultaneously honored and flabbergasted with how much feedback I’ve received. Thoughtful conversations and telephone calls, lengthy emails, and comment cards so filled with handwritten notes they’re difficult to decipher. As much enthusiasm for oral storytelling, digital storytelling and performance as for a written book. Interest in video and multi-modal narrative, more even than I’d anticipated.

Almost two months later, I’ve sequestered myself in Taos, New Mexico for a week of stillness. Comment cards are scattered over the horizontal surfaces of a small adobe pueblo style home at the tail end of a dead end road where I’m living, writing and revising.

Stillness and solitude.

I’m making inroads, adapting Redacting Rosslyn v1.0 according to audience feedback, culling material which failed to engage and adding new vignettes that answer questions left unanswered. I’m liberating stories from the page, and tightening the passages better suited to reading.

I’m typing in the back yard, seated beneath a viga and latilla porch, a coyote fence to my right and left reaching clear to a tan adobe wall at the back of the yard. Earlier I headed inside to pace and recount stories to a challenging audience: a kiva fireplace, crepe paper poppies, a collection of Native American pottery, an ancient wooden bowl.

There are siren calls aplenty: uninterrupted blue skies, sunlight that emanates from everywhere at once, the smell of roasting green chile, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, artistic and culinary temptations in all directions. But the stillness fortifies me.

Each new work is unique, and its creation may well require different routines, different methods and habits and rhythms than previous creations. This will to adapt the creative process per the needs of each new creation is not only more realistic than the systematic, procrustean assembly line model, it’s more exciting. Each new creative experience should be an adventure. A journey. An exploration. This is what makes creating and telling a story so damned interesting! (“The Need for Flexibility)

Renovating Rosslyn was an adventure. Writing and editing Rosslyn Redux is an adventure. Redacting Rosslyn is an interstitial adventure tucked into the folds of both, a wander into the unfamiliar. And it demands new methods and rhythms, new risks, new exploration. In storytelling and writing, silence and white space are as important as voice and words.

Thank you for enduring the ellipsis while I found my way. I’ll be back. Soon. To continue my story…

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