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Archive for the ‘What’s the story?’ Category

Remembering and Recounting

In Artifacts, Daily Munge, Memoir on November 18, 2011 at 7:41 pm

“Life is not what one lives, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”

~ Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Living to Tell the Tale

As I organize multiple pieces of Rosslyn’s renovation, our littoral Adirondack existence, and my still-young marriage into some sort of coherent storyline I wrestle consciously with occasional incongruities between my story and my life.

The narrative landscape is vast. Too vast, it often seems, to fit into a tidy memoir beginning with the crisp crack of a book spine opening for the first time, and the contented-sigh closure compelling stories demand.

Day after day, week after week I reread and rewrite, sort and distill and sort again, hunting for the essential story lurking amidst a mosaic of daily munge entries; four year’s worth of to-do lists; over fifteen thousand photographs; boxes of technical drawings and hasty sketches; hours of dictation; recorded meetings; and emails. Properly assembled, these miscellaneous artifacts form a multidimensional map of what took place between the spring of 2006 and the summer of 2012, but they fail to tell the story, they fail to recount the adventure lived.

19/03/2009 La Ministra de Cultuta de Colombia ...

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Image via Wikipedia)

In fact, I am startled to discover that these precise, unambiguous reference points frequently contradict my recollection. Dramatic events indelibly etched into my brain at the time have already blurred despite the brief lapse of time.

I curse my mischievous mind and then accept that 100% accuracy will inevitably elude me. My mind’s imperfect cataloging at once humbles and liberates me. Though an imperfect historian, I am a chronicler and curator of stories, not facts.

Even when my data is unequivocal, I inevitably distort history, omitting and abbreviating and emphasizing, distilling the vast landscape of data into vignettes. These accrete gradually, revealing the narrative design of my story.

I am unlike my father and my brother who posses iron vaulted minds where information is deposited, preserved and safeguarded for later use. When the time comes to retrieve the information, they withdraw it from their vaults unaltered, uncontaminated, reliable, accurate.

I believe that there are different kinds of accuracy. I am a storyteller, not an historian, and though I strive for verisimilitude, some truths are more effectively preserved and conveyed through stories than history or vaults.

Some days I toil like an archeologist amidst a midden heap of artifacts, rewinding time’s mysteries, deciphering the prior summer’s garden vegetables from this season’s rich, dark compost.

Other days I seduce and charm and coerce the artifacts to share longer forgotten truths. I plant French radishes and bush beans in the compost-enriched garden and several unlikely seedlings emerge among the radish and bean sprouts. I skip them while weeding, and soon enough I am rewarded with yellow cherry tomatoes, wart covered gourds and a curly garlic scape! Although I’ve grown yellow cherry tomatoes in the past, I’ve never grown gourds or garlic.

I remember that we were given several multicolored gourds to decorate my bride’s annual Halloween birthday party last year. But they were smooth skinned. Perhaps they were discarded in the compost, and a recessive wart gene found its way into the germination process resulting in the exotic adaptation growing amidst the fattening radishes.

And the garlic? We eat plenty from Full and By Farm, our local CSA, but to date I have never planted garlic. I vaguely remember several bulbs that we left out while traveling last winter. When we returned home, the kitchen was ripe with the pungent odor of rotten garlic. The bulbs were discolored, sitting in a pool of their own brown fluid. Several garlic cloves had begun to germinate, pale green shoots emerging from the cloves and arching upward.

I imagine planting them in a terra-cotta pot and placing it on a windowsill in my study. Each morning I inspect their progress. One shoot yellows and grows limp, then wrinkles across the moist soil. The other three grow taller quickly, changing from pale to dark green. Soon they will twist into elegant scapes which I can cut just above the soil level. I will chop them up and sauté them with olive oil, salt and pepper. I will serve them to my bride as a dinner side with mashed potatoes and swordfish, and she’ll smile ear-to-ear, marveling that something so succulent could have grown by accident.

According to Garcia Marquez life is not only the experiences, the moments lived. Life is also the rendering of those experiences into stories, the recollecting, the filtering, the imagining, the sharing. To fully live we must share our stories. That’s an interesting notion in a world that more often favors accuracy, facts, history.

Perhaps even with history we become overconfident that the facts are irrefutable. Only in recent decades have scholars we begun to look critically at history’s biases, often tainted by ideology, objectives or favoring the victors to the vanquished.

Absent an omnipresent video camera that documents my life as I bump along, capturing every minute detail precisely, permanently, Garcia Marquez’s perspective offers reassuring guidance. Though I frequently daydream about a collaborative memoir comprised of the recollections of everyone who participated in the rebirth of Rosslyn, my story is an eclectic nexus of personal experiences, filtered, aggregated and cobbled into narrative cohesion by me.

I write these affirmative lines now, and yet I struggle with it each time my bride asks if she can participate more actively in the revising and editing. Yes, I tell her; when I am done. Which is not to say that I have neglected her input. I have sought it again and again. But her story is different from my own, as are the still unwritten memoirs of many creative and hardworking people who invested their time and energy into renovating our home. I hope to showcase many of their impressions and memories on the Rosslyn Redux blog. And I am optimistic that my memoir will serve as an invitation to dig into their memories and to recount their own versions of Rosslyn Redux.

Thank you, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for your guidance.

Hickory Hill and Homeport

In Artifacts, Daily Munge, History & Heritage on October 17, 2011 at 4:46 pm
Hickory Hill in Essex, New York circa 1907 (photo by B. Benton Barker)

Hickory Hill in Essex, New York circa 1907 (photo by B. Benton Barker)

Rosslyn artifacts continue to emerge, and sometimes they’re not even even Rosslyn artifacts at all but Ross family artifacts. For example, I just discovered this antique postcard of the Ross Mansion (aka Hickory Hill) which was built in the early 1820s by the parents of W.D. Ross, the original owner of Rosslyn. Here’s the description provided by friend and Essex neighbor, Catherine DeWolff:

Mrs. Ross (detail from 1907 photograph of Hickory Hill above)

Mrs. Ross (detail from Hickory Hill photograph above)

Real photo postcard of the Ross Mansion in Essex, New York, on beautiful Lake Champlain – copyright 1907 by B. Benton Barker of Burlington, Vermont – faded card but details are still discernible such as Mrs. Ross sitting in her window (it is well known in the town history that that window was her favorite sitting spot and some say she still can be seen sitting there) – corners are lightly bumped and rubbed with a minor double crease at the bottom right corner – divided back is unused – rare barker card is comes in a rigid plastic display holder. (Catherine DeWolff)

Mrs. Ross’s lingering spirit was news to me. Looks like time for a little investigative work! It would be good indeed to collect a firsthand account from one who’s witnessed Mrs. Ross occupying her favorite window seat a century and change after this photograph was taken.

This past summer I was fortunate to meet Tilly Close for a tour of Hickory Hill which was built by her great grandfather, Henry Howard Ross. H.H. Ross (as local historians usually remember him) was William Daniel Ross’s brother. W.D. Ross (clearly historians and archivists had a vested interest in typographical efficiency) built Rosslyn in 1822, at the same time that his brother was building Hickory Hill. Although Mrs. Close shared plenty of anecdotes about Hickory Hill, there was no mention of ghosts. From what I can ascertain, both Daniel Ross and his bride Elizabeth Gilliland Ross Evertson died at Hickory Hill, but the latter passed away on August 3, 1847, well shy of B. Benton Barker’s  1907 photograph. Perhaps Mrs. Close can shed some light on the window sitting phantom. Her crisp sense of humor and encyclopedic recollection (including extensive genealogical research) have proven to be the single best guide in sorting out Ross family history. When I asked her to verify that Hickory Hill’s builder, H.H. Ross, had been her great grandfather she responded promptly as follows:

The family was lacking in imagination when naming their children. There were three Henry Howard Ross men, creating much confusion. H.H. Ross who built Hickory Hill was the son of Daniel Ross (who was married to Gilliland’s daughter Elizabeth). Henry’s brother, William D. Ross… built your home. His son, H.H. Ross was born 10/23/1827 – 6/15/1908. He married Mary Julia Nichols. Hickory Hill Henry Ross had 8 children. His son James Blanchard Ross who built the Camalier’s house, had a son named H.H. Ross, who married Anna Noble, and died early 1857-1882. (Tilly Close)

In a subsequent communication Mrs. Close explained further:

My Great Grandparents, Henry and Susannah had 8 biological children, plus one adopted girl, whose mother was Susannah’s sister, and had died. One of their sons is named William Daniel Ross II, born 10/5/1830 and died as a soldier in the Civil War, in Washington, DC 10/25/1861. I have his portrait by Horace Bundy. Rosslyn, which I think was called Hyde Gate at one point,  was built by my Gr. Grandfather’s brother, W.D. Ross… (Tilly Close)

An abundance of H.H. Rosses, a pair or W.D. Rosses and a fetching ghost by the name of Mrs. Ross. All the ingredients for a thriller!

And what of Rosslyn’s spiritual dimension? My bride claims psychic faculties and denies the presence of ghosts in our home. But it strikes me as unlikely that almost two centuries would fail to produce a ghost or two.

During Rosslyn’s renovation, several contractors mentioned signs of a ghost on the third floor. I’ll ask after any such recollections. For my part, I can not confirm any lingering spirits, but maybe the prolonged renovation process sent them scampering for more congenial circumstances. The endless whine of saws and the thwump-thwump of hammers may have driven Rosslyn’s ghosts up to Hickory Hill! But I’ll continue to poke around, and I promise to share any spooky discoveries.

A recent eBay find took me even further afield than Hickory Hill. In fact, it’s not really a Rosslyn artifact at all. I include it here because it pertains to another house which indirectly influence my compunction to purchase and renovate Rosslyn. Although my earliest childhood memories derive from The Farm, I spent far longer living in a subsequent home in Wadhams, New York.

Homeport in Wadhams, New York

Homeport in Wadhams, New York

By way of an eBay seller in Bonita Springs, Florida I was able to acquire a history of Wadhams entitled In the Beginning… Wadhams 1820-1970 which was compiled and published by Ethel L. Kozma. Nestled amid Wadhams history, genealogy and photographs, this image of the home where I lived during my elementary school years immediately triggered a flood of memories. Although I was too young to actually participate, my parents renovated this “once stately mansion” (cribbed from the original real estate listing) despite many decades of neglect and dilapidation. The left side of the porch in the image above had long since been removed, but the elegant home enchanted my parents. They undertook a renovation very nearly as ambitious as our own. And I grew up in the midst of it, obviously distorting my understanding of a “fixer upper” and my notion of a prudent investment.

Although I don’t recall any ghosts haunting our home in Wadhams, I did have an imaginary friend (two actually, if you count my imaginary friend’s imaginary friend) with whom I adventured and conspired. Those were enchanted years that might have proven even more so if I’d known the house’s history:

“Homeport” was the summer home of the late Albion V. Wadhams, a younger son of William Luman Wadhams, and a grandson of the General. Albion was graduated from U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md. 1868. His cruise took him to China, an encounter with the Koreans; and later an instructor at the Naval Academy. He retired June 30, 1907 with the rank of Commodore after 43 years service. Mr. and Mrs. A.V. Wadhams had come to “Homeport” about 1896, which become the home of Mrs. Frances T. Ladd in Sept. 1926. This home was originally built by Levi H. Cross as indicated on the 1876 map. (In the Beginning… Wadhams 1820-1970)

I do vaguely recall that our home had belonged to one of the founding families of the town, but the abstraction of that was too much for my jittery mind. But the Navy?!?! Commodore Albion Wadhams… Who knew history held such invitations to daydream?

Totally Incompatible

In Champlain Valley, Memoir, What's Rosslyn?, What's the story? on October 3, 2011 at 10:30 am
Carriage house and ice house

Image by virtualDavis via Flickr

My fixer-upper forays with Bruce and other local realtors evolved when Susan joined the search.

She shared my dream of an old farmhouse surrounded by open meadows with views and sunlight. She liked barns and was even receptive to my occasional flights of fancy about converting an old barn into a home.

But our notions of size and simplicity were less aligned. And Susan was particularly keen on finding a Lake Champlain waterfront property. “What’s the point of having a place that’s not on the lake?” she asked repeatedly as if the answer were self evident.

The odds of finding an old farm on Lake Champlain were slim enough, but the prospect of finding a simple, inexpensive property on the lake was totally implausible unless we shifted our thinking toward seasonal camps. South of Westport and north of Essex there were many small properties tucked along the lakeshore that Bruce insisted on showing us despite repeatedly explaining that they were not what we had in mind.

We also looked at inland farms and interesting old homes in small towns and hamlets, “Just so you can see what’s out there…”

We enjoyed looking and brainstorming, but we were growing frustrated with the increasingly diffuse range of properties we were seeing. We had lost our focus.

Bruce was trying to show us all of the options available which in equal turns dilated and frustrated our search. But there was an even more fundamental problem: Susan and my interests were not perfectly in sync.

Although a farm on the lake was proving an impossible ambition, our imaginations were piqued on several occasions by totally dissimilar and totally unlikely properties.

An old “Great Camps” style summer house in Westport overlooking Lake Champlain’s Northwest Bay intrigued me until I realized that this pedigreed manse adjoined the town’s sewage treatment plant.

A slate roofed barn, still square after a century or more standing at the crest of an immense field just south of Westport, also kidnapped my daydreams for a few days. I imagined a lofty open plan; exposed, rough hewn beams; magnificent views in all directions. But the seller was unable or unwilling to subdivide the field and barn from a much larger farm which included additional fields, an immense dairy barn, various other building for hay and equipment storage, a “pond” for storing cow manure and a large square farmhouse with cupola.

And then there was Rosslyn, a Merchant-Ivory film set for The Great Gatsby’s Adirondack prequel. A century earlier. Located on the lake in Essex, it included a boathouse I’d loved since I was a child, a carriage barn, an ice house, and plenty of stone walls. But there were no fields and too many buildings. And the house was too big. And too run down. Way too run down. And the price tag was beyond unrealistic.

During our first visit Susan and I had both known immediately, instinctively, conclusively that it was not for us. Purchasing this once stately but now desperately dilapidated property was a bad idea. A really, really bad idea.

The expense alone. There was no conceivable short term return on investment. None.

And the amount of time it’d take to understand all of the property’s problems, let alone begin to fix them, to build her back to her former glory? It was incomprehensible.

But money, scope, logistics, that was just the tip of the iceberg. Long deferred maintenance, decades overdue; a gutted rear wing with failing floors suspended from cables that stretched through the middle of rooms; crumbling foundations; faulty electric, plumbing and heating; a boathouse that was one ice flow away from a watery grave; an ice house with corn cribbing walls and a collapsed roof. The current owner had dedicated the better part of four decades of his life, four decades — full time — to renovating Rosslyn and yet it was disintegrating around him.

Buying Rosslyn was totally incompatible with our means, our lives and our plans. And yet Rosslyn seduced us. Susan and I visited and then, months later, revisited the property, each time musing about its potential despite knowing that we shouldn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t ever own it.

Our increasingly unfocused search — Susan and my notions of the perfect fixer-upper diverging and converging unpredictably — must have vexed Bruce despite his perennial good humor and patience. Though we did periodically visit properties when Bruce called with new listings that he thought might appeal to us, our enthusiasm gradually waned.

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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…

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…

#ADK827 Update

In Daily Munge on August 26, 2011 at 4:34 pm
Dino Dogan will present at #ADK827 in Essex, New York on Saturday, August 27.

Dino Dogan will present at #ADK827 in Essex, New York on Saturday, August 27.

I have a surprise addition to the #ADK827 Adirondack Region Social Media Meetup taking place in Essex, New York tomorrow:

Dino Dogan (@dino_dogan), the founder of Triberr (@Triberr), will be presenting at 1:30 PM in the Essex Inn dining room following the luncheon. Whether you’re new to social media or a seasoned veteran, Dino will stretch your skills and inspire your dreams! Dino’s DIY Blogger NET is a favorite go-to blog for online marketing, creative technology applications, social media pointers, creative web design tips and cutting edge social media resources and commentary. Triberr is an innovative platform for dilating the breadth and impact of your social media message.

Triberr is a reach multiplier which tweets your blog posts to not only your twitter followers but to all of your Tribe’s twitter followers too. (deepinmummymatters.com)

In addition to social media wonk, Dino describes himself as a “lousy mixed martial artist and a recovering network engineer, a pretty good singer/songwriter, trainer of dogs, and a blogger of biz…” In short, Dino’s just a regular guy who happens to understand the value and tools of social media a whole lot better than most regular guys. This is part of what makes him a great teacher and an inspiring speaker.

If you’re hoping to supercharge your social media skillset or if you’re still confused but curious about blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Triberr, etc. you won’t want to miss Dino Dogan’s presentation. I look forward to seeing/meeting you tomorrow for the #ADK827 Adirondack Region Social Media Meetup taking place in Essex, New York. View the full schedule here.

I would love/hate to renovate an old house…

In What's the story? on August 22, 2011 at 10:04 am
I would love/hate to renovate an old house because...

I would love/hate to renovate an old house because...

When Rosslyn Redux comes up in conversation with new acquaintances, I’m reminded again and again that home renovation is a universal theme. Whether folks have firsthand experience renovating an old house or have always dreamed of turning a tumble-down into a work of art, whether they’ve watched a friend’s marriage come unraveled while trying to renovate an old house or simply know viscerally, instinctively that they would never voluntarily undertake a home renovation, everyone has strong feelings on the subject. Everyone!

In fact, I’ve begun to wonder if the inherent value of recounting the Rosslyn Redux adventure might be that it invites others to share their own stories. On Friday I posted the following invitation on Facebook and Twitter:

Complete the phrase: “I would LOVE to (or would NEVER) renovate an old house because…”

Win a Rosslyn Redux cap!

Win a Rosslyn Redux cap!

The comments I received kept me smiling, laughing and cringing all weekend. On Sunday I gathered all of the responses and randomly drew one comment to win a Rosslyn Redux cap. The winner is John Sherdon who’s sage comment is included in the list of favorites I’ve quoted below. John, shoot me your mailing address and I’ll send you your cap. And thanks to everyone who submitted comments!

“I would love to renovate an old home because I have experience. My family has renovated 2 of our old homes. It can be a financially stressful project. The beauty of the renovation is keeping the character and charm of the original while creating something new. The fear is uncovering more and more to renovate – The worst phrase that often comes out: “Might as well re-do that too.”” ~ John Sherdon

“I would never renovate an old house because my wife would murder me, early in the process.” ~ David Diamantes

“I would love to renovate a house because during the process it tells you their story and when the home is restored to what it once was it is like a story told that remains with you for ever.” ~ Valasie August

“I would NEVER renovate an old house because I like my roofs and I like my marriage! I saw The Money Pit…”Two weeks… two weeks….”” ~ Lorca Damon

“I would LOVE to complete your phrase when we EVER complete the renovation of our old house…” ~ Kimberly Rielly

“Never! Ever! Again. Because I have, and you shouldn’t go broke twice!” ~ North Country & Hudson Valley Rambler

“I actually helped my parents renovate their old home when I was a kid, and had a blast. I also worked in a historic museum, and would love to have the chance to bring back an old home to life.” ~ Sherman Yazu

“I would never renovate a house because I still have the report card that reads “Sharon’s mechanical abilities are fascinating to watch.” Seriously. Do NOT ask me to build anything; it will just be bad.” ~ Sharon Cathcart

“I would renovate a house on a dime! I mean, change is like a holiday :)” ~ Kim Falconer

“I would love to renovate a house because I love to create. Unfortunately, I do not have carpentry skills.” ~ Mia T. Starr

“My parents bought and renovated an old home (built 1820). 45 years later, they’re ALMOST able to say that they’ve completed the process. (Time to start their second renovation?) Although I admire those who do – and definitely enjoy the funny/interesting stories that go along with the undertaking – I would never renovate an old home … which is precisely why I built a new one.” ~ Jane Hooper

“I would LOVE to renovate an old house because I grew up with a father who did exactly that. And when he would finish, we’d move so he could start over and do it again. It was amazing to see the transformations, and very rewarding to help make it happen.” ~ Kristy Ullman

“We already renovated an old house – time-consuming, money-draining, effort-taking… but so worth it!! Had some spooky goings-on as well…” ~ Mandy Cowley

“As an architect, my brother, chose twenty years ago to restore a run down mansion in Bernardsville, NJ. It’s been a long and never ending project and has also been financially taxing. I would never renovate an old house because I do not have the patience, determination, dedication and cash to devote to such a project.” ~ Rosamond Lincoln-Day

“I would LOVE to renovate an old house, because peeling back the layers is like revisiting periods of time… It’s amazing what you can find out about the people who lived there before.” ~ Rose Wall

“Hiya! My husband and I renovated an older house and I have to say, with time and financial constraints, it was a pain. We plan to do it again, minus the limitations. Creating that transformation and bringing a forgotten house back to life is AMAZING.” ~ Sarah Ballance

“I would love to renovate an old house because what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger; )~ I speak from personal experience having renovated a mid century mess into a beautiful house that I adore and that now feels like me…and Yes, I’d do it again in a heartbeat:)” ~Michelle Shell Rummel

What about you? Would you LOVE to renovate an old house? Or would you NEVER renovate an old house?

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