Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking Forward, Looking Back: Happy New Year at Winterland

Closing Winterland, 1978

(Click on images for larger view)

It’s that time of year again when everyone’s making lists. Reflecting on the past to make lists of the best and worst for the year winding down. Anticipating the future to make lists of resolutions for the year opening up. It’ll be a new year and a new decade – out with the old, in with the new, yadda yadda yadda.

I’m looking forward to the year ahead. It feels fresh, like a clean page. Ironic as it may sound, I’m looking ahead by looking at the past – fascinated by how the past looks filtered through each additional decade. I’m amazed, thankful, and still filled with wonder and hope. While I’m not making a public list, there’s a good one here by Lisa Romeo. And Patry Francis writes a thoughtful piece here.

There’s a reason I’m looking ahead by looking back, and it has to do with the novel I’m writing. I promised I’d make no public lists, but there’s a relevant one here by C. M. Mayo (via novelist Christine Baker Kline’s blog). And in working on that novel-in-progress, I get to look back at San Francisco in a different era, since it’s one of the settings for the story. I miss that city I once loved living in, and I long to travel there again. It’s the place where I truly fell in love – with the man I would marry, and with the city itself where we joined our lives together. So I’m having lots of fun revisiting it in my mind and looking at old photographs and maps for research, and you can expect more San Francisco related posts in the coming year.

Flashback to 1978:
We were broke – just out of school, having moved west with little more than the clothing that would fit into suitcases. We found jobs and managed to afford a tiny apartment in San Francisco’s Western Addition, which was sparsely outfitted with essentials borrowed from two of Kevin’s sisters who live in the Bay Area. For months we subsisted on banana squash (only 7 cents per pound), rice, and canned soup.

Those first few months were turbulent times in San Francisco’s history. In November, the Rev. Jim Jones, cult leader of The People’s Temple (which had a headquarters building located on Geary Boulevard not far from where we lived) led nearly 1000 followers at his South American settlement in Jonestown, Guyana in mass suicide by drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. Less than two weeks later, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk would be assassinated at San Francisco City Hall by former city supervisor Dan White. After so much tragedy that month, it was one of those years that people were glad to see coming to a close.

Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom was closing for good at the end of that year with a final concert on New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t quite the end of the 1970s decade yet, but the end of that era could be felt approaching. The Winterland had been the site of The Last Waltz, The Band’s big farewell concert on Thanksgiving 1976 which was filmed by Martin Scorsese. Back when a farewell concert was truly a final show, a single event – unlike farewell tours these days that seem to go on endlessly. Booked for the final show at the Winterland were the Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and the Blues Brothers. In a nod of thanks to the Grateful Dead’s loyal fans, the Deadheads were listed on the Marquee along with the performers.

Bill Graham outside Winterland, 1978

Our apartment was about five blocks west on Post Street from the Winterland. We were too broke to afford tickets, but on the day of the concert we took a walk to the Winterland, which was located at the corner of Post and Steiner Street. We wanted to photograph the building, which was draped with Grateful Dead banners. Deadheads were camped out in line, and it was pure serendipity that Bill Graham happened to come out to talk to the fans while we were passing by.

We got to see some of the show on New Year’s Eve anyway. Not in person, but through a broadcast on WQED, the local PBS television station which aired the eight hour show live. After the Winterland closed, the building was torn down in 1985. Bill Graham continued his career as a concert promoter until 1991 when he died in a helicopter crash.

1978 was a memorable year – one of life changes, of starting out on a journey together, of looking forward. Now, I feel that same sense of things shifting and clicking into place, of new things opening up. Maybe it’s simply because we’re about to enter a new decade, but I can hear something in the air. I can feel it. I can’t make out the tune yet, but it doesn’t feel like a last waltz. Whatever the music, I’m poised for a good dance.

The Winterland, 1978

Happy New Year!
[In This Light will return to the regular weekly schedule on Sunday, January 10th.]

Photo Credits: All photographs of Bill Graham and the Winterland are copyright © by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

City of Asylum: Sampsonia Way on Christmas Day

Sampsonia Way, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas at our house is celebrated without all the craziness. We don’t get caught up in all the shopping frenzy (we stopped trying to buy each other the perfect gift years ago) and instead celebrate in quiet ways. We put up a real tree and decorate the house (usually just the inside, although some years we put up outdoor lights). On Christmas Day, we build a fire in the fireplace and make a few phone calls to family members scattered across the country.

The past few years we’ve gone on a Christmas walk, usually along one of Pittsburgh’s urban river trails. Last year we walked along the Allegheny River near Western Penitentiary, where holiday visitors were coming and going from the parking lot behind the razor wire fences. It was a cold afternoon, and the bitter breeze along the riverfront made my eyes water as we stopped to feed bread to the ducks and geese that followed us along the trail.

On our way home, we drove through the Mexican War Streets District on the North Side to take a look at Sampsonia Way. The afternoon sunlight was gorgeous and beckoned us to photograph as we walked its short length. The Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum, is located on Sampsonia, and the local creative forces were well organized when the Google Maps Car came to town to film Pittsburgh for their Street View maps. To see the unusual happenings, take a look at the street on Google maps or visit YouTube to see the making of “Street with a View.”

Poet's House

Sampsonia Way is home to the Poet’s House, which was the residence of exiled Chinese poet Huang Xiang after City of Asylum/Pittsburgh offered him housing there in 2004. Huang Xiang, who has been living in the United States since 1997, had been imprisoned in China for 12 years for writing about human rights. He painted his “House Poem” in Chinese calligraphy on the brown clapboard exterior of the building.

Susan Hutton (in her 2006 article “Writing on the Wall” on the Poetry Foundation’s website) describes Huang Xiang’s situation:

"He was first arrested in 1959 for leaving one province without official permission and seeking employment in another. For this he was sentenced to four years in laogai, a reform camp similar to the Russian gulag. In 1965 he was arrested for engaging in counterrevolutionary activities—primarily writing, reading, and discussing issues related to human rights—and was sentenced to three years of hard labor in laogai and forbidden to read or write. By the time he was 25, he’d served more than seven years in laogai. His writings were banned in China for 40 years.

Though he avoided prison for the next decade, he was officially forbidden to write. He continued to do so anyway, secretly; his rooms were regularly searched, and any discovered writing was confiscated. Out of necessity, he made it a habit to commit his poems to memory, sometimes reciting them privately for a small circle of friends."

Sampsonia Way has been in the press recently: first George Packer’s blog post at The New Yorker earlier this month and then last week a piece by Diana Nelson Jones in her City Walkabout blog at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Online.

Having time to write is the best gift I receive at Christmas when I’m on “winter recess” from my university job from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day. One of my favorite parts of the holidays is taking my laptop computer into the living room where I can write by the fire and enjoy the Christmas tree lights and decorations. This is a gift I’m always grateful for – time to slow down and quiet my mind, to shake off the day-to-day noise and rush of the working world, to tap into the creative zone. That and the freedom to write whatever I choose, which is something I don’t ever take for granted.

Happy Holidays!

Photo Credits:
"Sampsonia Way" photograph, copyright 2008 by Dory Adams.
"Poet's House" photogarph, copyright 2008 by Dory Adams.
"Amaryllis" photograph, copyright 2008 by Dory Adams.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Could Use a Box of Words

This week I’ve got nothin’. The well is empty. I have ideas and images for the final two posts of December for Christmas week and New Year’s week, but for this week I’m at a loss. Words fail me.

The photograph above is of the family Scrabble match on Christmas Day 1978. My father-in-law, who was a killer Scrabble player and insisted on at least one friendly game of cutthroat Scrabble at family gatherings, was making what was no doubt a high scoring play. My husband, who snapped this shot and recently came across the negative in his files, said: Look at my tiles, I got nothin’. I feel the same way this week, except I seem to be working with only consonants, as though I’ve been disemvoweled.

Yesterday, a good friend of many years came over for lunch, bringing good stories to share as he always does. Not written stories, but conversational stories told in the be
st tradition of storytelling. We expect that of him, and he knows it. What can I bring, he always asks, and we tell him to just bring a story. No stories, no lunch.

One story he shared was about his box of words, which the nuns at his grammar school made the students keep. I could almost see him as his little boy self carrying his shoebox full of words on index cards to and from parochial school.

I could use a box of words of my own right now.

He at
tributes his spelling ability today to that box of words. Says he can spell almost any word without having to look it up because he had to memorize that box of words. Told of how he recently impressed a coworker by rattling off the spelling of the word egregious without having to look it up.

Man, those were some heavy words those nuns made you carry around, I told him. I’d envisioned words similar to what was in my Fun with Dick and Jane first grade reader. He clarified that egregious was not in his little boy box
of words, but just happened to be the word his coworker was trying to spell. Whew. What a relief.

Despite my love of words, they sometimes fail me. I’ve taken a few runs toward this week’s post, but abandoned them because they felt forced, tedious. The words had no spark. I didn’t love those words. They weren’t accomplishing what I wanted them to do. They lacked the spark of discovery that should accompany the act of writing. And if they sparked no insight for me in writing them, they were certainly not going to light any fires for the reader.

I’ve felt this way before. Felt that I’d written myself out, that the well was dry. It was how I once felt in a workshop led by writers David Jauss and Pamela Painter, facult
y members at Vermont College where I earned my MFA. I admitted to David that I felt empty, that there were no words left, and he smiled knowingly and said: But that’s when you’re getting to the best material. Wells fill from the bottom. It’s where you can tap into the purest source.

Those may not have been his exact words spoken a decade ago, but it’s the essence of what he told me. And he was right. I had a very productive semester following that particular workshop. Now, I no longer panic when I hit dry spells and instead trust that the well is filling from the bottom. Trust that I’m about to tap into something good.

This we
ek I’ve pulled two favorite books on writing craft from my bookshelf: Words Overflown By Stars, edited by David Jauss and Alone With All That Could Happen, written by David Jauss. These essays reassure me of what I already know, remind me of what I’ve forgotten, and teach me what I wasn’t yet ready to grasp before. And best of all, they reconnect me with the very special place of the MFA program at Vermont College, which has recently become the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Words Overflown By Stars is a compilation of essays from lectures on craft by some of the faculty at Vermont College. Included are many of the fiction writers I worked with there, either in workshop or as semester mentors: Ellen Lesser, Bret Lott, Diane Lefer, Doug Glover, Christopher Noel, Francois Camoin, Sue William Silverman, and David Jauss. Others are by faculty I knew and whose lectures and readings I attended, but didn’t work with directly, such as Phyllis Barber, Victoria Redel, and Syd Lea. Also included are essays by the poetry faculty and by prose writers who were not on faculty while I was there. Take a look at the table of contents.

The title Alone With All That Could Happen is enough in itself to get me writing, just by implying that something will happen if I settle myself down and quiet my mind and let the words come. These are essays that I revisit over and over, each time gleaning something new.

Maybe I don’t need a box of words after all. I have books of words – as inspiration, and to serve as my compass.

News and Updates:

A big thank you goes out to Laura Didyk at She Writes for selecting In This Light as one of the three blogs she reviewed as Curator of the Week there. Her words were particularly meaningful during this week when I was struggling to come up with a new post. In her review of my blog, Laura writes that it “has a truly calming effect. And as a poet who is inspired by images, In This Light makes me want to get out into the world, walk around, and keep my eyes open.” It’s always rewarding to hear the posts have connected with a reader. Please be sure to check out Laura’s own blog, Outloud.

Photo Credit:
“Family Scrabble” copyright © 1978 by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission.

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Photographs as Family Story

Sheldon Hess at grave of Alfred Park, France, 1946

The past few winters I’ve been chipping away at a project of organizing my family photographs by scanning old negatives and prints into a digital format. This grew into the bigger task of archiving them to share with other family members, and trying to document the names of people, dates, and places, so that my nieces and nephews will be able to identify them when they become of an age where it may matter to them. I’m not sure why this project took on such importance for me. Perhaps it’s because those images are rooted in story, and I didn’t want the story of these people to be lost. I wanted their story to be handed down to the generations after me. While working on the project and trying to figure out the story behind some of the images, I couldn’t help thinking about the role of reminiscent narrators in literature.

The camera sometimes captures what the eye immediately does not. There may be subtle things happening in the background which add meaning when discovered. Or, it may be something right up front, but not what the eye is first drawn toward. These little details or discoveries work in the same way that memory functions. What we see is part fact and part inference based on our personal perspective and experience. This is not unlike the first-person reminiscent narrator (sometimes known as the “unreliable narrator”) in a story.

I’d grown up looking at and loving the black-and-white photographs in the family albums, to the point where I’m not sure whether I remember the actual event in some of the images or if I’m just remembering the photograph and projecting my own meaning onto it. This fascinates me in itself since memory is such a visual mechanism. The act of writing a story, at least for me, is also a visual process – of imagining scenes and characters.

I’m still discovering new things in those family snapshots. In a picture of my grandmother and grandfather in their backyard garden, the shadowy figures of two children playing on a swing set under the apple tree can be discerned in the background. It’s very likely that I am one of those children since that swing set was put there for me as their first grandchild. I can clearly make out a girl with a black ponytail seated on the glider, and I believe she is my childhood playmate Lauree. The other figure is deeper in the shadows, not seated on the opposite side of the glider but seems instead to be hanging upside down with her knees hooked over the side cross brace, using it as a monkey bar. I would wager money that girl is me.

That’s pure speculation on my part about the background. All I know for sure is that the photograph is of my grandparents and their vegetable garden. From there I can launch into dozens of stories about grandparents, about childhood, about small towns, and about backyards divided by fences and connected by alleys. Some of those stories are true, some are fiction, and some are both. In my role as family photo archivist, I’m trying to be as accurate as possible, to stick to the facts on that project. But, in my role as a fiction writer, I use whatever makes the best story.

Working on the photo project, I realized that my own knowledge of some of the images is faulty. For instance, my Great-Uncle Alfred was killed in World War II. This I’ve always known, partly because when I’d walk to Sunday school as a young girl with my grandfather, we’d pass a memorial to local war veterans on the town green, and Grandpap would sometimes stop to show me his brother’s name on it. So, I was confused by a photograph dated 1946 of a relative wearing a soldier’s uniform placing flowers on Uncle Alfred’s grave in France, when I knew his grave was in the local cemetery where many of my maternal relatives are buried. His is the grave that I carried roses to on Decoration Day each May 30th, roses cut by my grandfather from the bush in his front yard. I asked my mom about this discrepancy, and she remembered that my great-grandfather had not been at peace with his son’s body buried so far from home, so he’d had his remains returned to the States to be buried in the family plot. A newspaper clipping saved in a family Bible confirmed that Uncle Alfred’s body had been shipped home for burial from the military cemetery at St. Juan, France and that he’d been killed in action on September 14, 1944.

When an aunt, the last of my dad’s siblings, died a few years ago, I was given her photographs. She and my uncle, who had no children, spent their lives traveling the world with careers in the military. I haven’t even begun the job of scanning and organizing their collection of snapshots and slides yet. The emotions of looking through those boxes of photos are a mix of pleasure and sadness, and the pictures provide a glimpse into the professional and private lives they lived apart from us. There are places and people in the photographs that we will never be able to identify and stories that are forever lost, but my goal is to get those images converted to digital format so that all of my cousins can have copies.

It strikes me that there’s a military thread running through these examples, and I wonder what sets those stories apart from the rest. Is it because war has been a constant across generations? Recently at a family reunion, an older relative to whom my great-grandfather’s family Bible had been handed down, shared Xeroxed copies of a letter found in it that was written by my great-grandfather’s great-uncle during the Civil War (I think this would be my great-great-great-great uncle, but this is too much like a math problem for me to have any confidence in figuring out). In that letter, he writes of his brother being killed in a battle in Virginia, tells his family that he’d buried him on the battlefield as best he could. The brothers had joined the army together and served in the same unit. The brother who’d written the letter later died in a Confederate prison, most likely Libby Prison in Richmond, and the whereabouts of his grave is not known. Since that letter was tucked into my great-grandfather’s Bible, I have to wonder if he was so haunted by that story that he had to make sure that his own son’s remains were returned home.

This photo archive is one of those projects that will never be totally completed because the story is ongoing. In fact, it keeps expanding as new items shared by other family members are added. What do I want my nieces and nephews to remember? The places we lived. The people we loved. Where we came from.

The value of family photographs is not simply that they are images of our loved ones. It’s about their story. The importance of story runs deep – even if it’s just the story of our routine days.

Photo: Sheldon Hess at Alfred Park’s grave in France, 1946, copyright © of the Park Family Archives