Saturday, July 30, 2011

GPS Museum Roulette Hits at Hillwood

My new hobby is GPS roulette -- choose a place, spin the wheel, see if you win!

An option in my Garmin GPS will generate a list of attractions (parks, museums, etc) based on how far away they are from my current position. It's handy when traveling, and so through this method, I found a lovely park by a river in Westbrook, Maine, with a railroad bridge and kids swinging on ropes into the river on a hot day.  

River swimming
Railroad repetition

I like the random yet planned aspect of discovery, driving with a destination, but one unexplored and unresearched and open to change at any moment, planned serendipity. 

Back home in DC, on a day where freelance ran thin and I couldn't face crafting one more heartfelt cover letter, I decided to spin the GPS and driving wheel and see what I could find in my hometown.

First stop: National Museum of Health and Medicine in Walter Reed. Surely some creepy skeletons or jars of formaldehyde would perk up a dull day. 

No luck. It was closed.

I actually didn't find that out until I checked the website. The museum is in transition, moving to Silver Spring. I was simply scared off by the many gates with somber looking young men, and thought better of my first choice. I do plan to visit in the fall when it's in a less high security environment.

After another perusal of the GPS list, I decided to place my bet on a new stop: the Squished Penny Museum! It was hard not to be intrigued by the name, and so worth a few miles journey. 

No luck. It too was closed.

There was a tidy row house at that address, but no sign of any museum. I opted not to take a photograph, as that seemed creepy if it was now simply a private home.

True, it's not completely surprising that a museum dedicated to flattened souvenir pennies didn't last forever.  But the good news is, its stories and wares are still documented on the Internet if you click on through the sad news of their closing to the archived site.

On my next spin, I decided to improve the odds a bit, and select not just something from the list that seemed interesting, but would have likely survived the several years since I got my Garmin maps (and have been too cheap to update). 

The Historical Society of Washington, DC, with a location right across the street from the Convention Center, was sure to have traffic, I thought, and given the subject, likely to have government funding. 

I was greeted with the following sign:

Times are tough all around.
Yes, once again: No luck. It was closed.  So much for the third time being a charm.

The website notes financial difficulties. They hope to open again. 

Note: do not go down to the lower level to try to peek through the windows.  It's smells overpoweringly of urine.  Repeat: avoid at all costs the lower level entrance. 

Given that I was hot and tired and slightly overcome by bad smells, I tried to go into the Convention Center to cool off and see what it looks like inside, but after a nice chat with a security guard (who was surprised to hear that the Historical Society had shut down), I learned that the Convention Center wasn't open to the public during events. 

Well, fine. Some days all doors are closed.   

I did see this written in the sidewalk on a corner near there, which made me laugh:

Obsessive Compulsive Summer 2010
(perhaps the modern version of the Summer of Love)
I did not stop scanning the GPS list. Yes, I am just that stubborn.   

And finally, a win!

Closer to my own home, I finally found a museum open and ready for business: Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens.  According to its signs, it is Where Fabulous Lives.

Chandelier originally owned
by Catherine the Great
The large estate is tucked away off Beech Drive near Rock Creek Park.  While I grew up in DC, and know of Merriweather Post from the name of the Pavilion, I didn't know that Marjorie Merriweather Post entertained in the fancy mansion during the spring and fall months from the 1955 purchase of the house (after her third divorce, from United States Ambassador to Russia Joseph E. Davies) until her death in 1973. 

As a result of her will, the house was transformed into a museum.  An army of friendly and knowledgeable volunteers work as dedicated docents serving, if the afternoon I was there was an indication, a clientele heavy on middle to upper class aging white women. By comparison, I was a whippersnapper and, despite my (in my opinion) fabulous thrift store skirt and with noisy flip-flops, underdressed. 

The house has a heavy focus on French furniture and Russian art. Two Faberge eggs and a chandelier owned by Catherine the Great were lovely, but I confess, the unruly serf in me became slightly soured by the level of opulence in the big manor house.

This is not to say that Merriweather Post didn't engage in philanthropic work and give back to the community. She is routinely described as extravagant, but generous.

Dining Room
Beyond turning her fancy house into a museum, wikipedia notes that "Her donation of funds to construct field hospitals in France during World War I was recognized by the French government awarding her the Legion of Honor."

During her life, she also contributed heavily to arts organizations, including the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center. 

Further wikipedia reading, however, suggests that some of her Russian art, in particular, was acquired under questionable circumstances: "It was later alleged that many works of art from the State Tretyakov and other collections were either donated or offered at nominal prices to Post and her then-husband Joseph E Davies, who were both art collectors. Davies is also alleged to have purchased art expropriated from Soviet citizens well after the Russian Revolution, including victims of Stalin's Terror at discount prices from Soviet authorities." 
Portraits of Russian Royals

Most of her life reads like a soap opera, once you give even a cursory glance beyond the brochure information. Largely, Marjorie Merriweather Post was famous for being very, very rich and for marrying, and divorcing four men in a time when that just wasn't done. While she was also a shrewd businesswoman, and one of the first women to sit on the board of a corporation, the salacious details tend to attract more attention. 

Multiple marriages abounded.  Her father divorced her mother and then married his 27 year old secretary. After continuing health problems, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot. Marjorie Merriweather Post divorced one of her four spouses for infidelities so indiscreet they apparently couldn't be monied over and another for rumors of homosexuality. Her three daughters each went on to marry at least three men apiece. Swimming in money did not make for peaceful personal relationships.   

Now a large endowment funds the private museum, and some truly lovely treasures are available, for a small fee, for folks like me to ogle and admire and, in my case, silently give thanks that I won't ever feel the need to own that much china, no matter how lovely Sèvres is, no matter how rich I ever become.

I bet time, not money, on my GPS roulette day, and won in ways of exploration and experience that make me feel rich. 

That said, I'm fairly certain no one will be turning my apartment into a museum in the event of my untimely death.  Unless I start collecting a LOT of squished pennies.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

My Brief Career as a Bathing Suit Model

Photo credit: my grandfather, Thomas A. Daffron, Jr.

While rustling through junk, I found some of my grandfather's photographs in the basement of my mother's house. 

While grandfather was a newspaperman in his professional life, with decades as an editor at The New York Times, he was a shutterbug in his off hours. The kitchen walls of my grandparents' home in Florida were covered with crowds of 8 x 10s of family, a public photo album.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cathedral Choral

On impulse, I stopped by National Cathedral to visit the Rose Window.  My timing was perfect as the Choral Evensong was beginning, so voices echoed off the stone.

Outside, the flying buttresses and gargoyles watched over the fountain into which I threw three pennies, making wishes for me, a family member, and a friend.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Dark History of Mackworth Island

Rocky shoreline
Mackworth Island
Yesterday, I started out writing a nice chatty piece about how I spent a pleasant Maine day strolling around Mackworth Island in Falmouth. But as I was poking around on the internet, searching out minor details on its history, I found instead stories that tied the bucolic location to a history of despair and abuse.

Neglecting to acknowledge that information now seems an insult to the children, now grown, that suffered there. 

The Governor Baxter School for the Deaf is located on the Mackworth Island, and includes buildings and land donated by former governor of Maine, Percival Baxter, an innocuous fact that shows up in all the literature.

What is less common knowledge now is that for some twenty or more years, starting in the 1950s, abuse ran rampant through that school. On that picaresque, and isolated island, children were victimized.

In 1981, a state investigation led to the resignation of Principal Robert Kelly, School Superintendent Joseph Youngs, and Dean of Students Jan Repass. Allegations of physical and sexual abuse were substantiated by the report, but no one was charged. While Youngs died in 1990, Kelly continued to draw a pension.

In 2001, Governor Angus King officially apologized on behalf of the state for the abuse at the school, and the state's colossal screw-up in failing to investigate earlier even when teachers had submitted concerns on suspected abuse. The Baxter Compensation Authority was established to compensate former students for their suffering. The statute of limitations applied for the students willing to testify and so no one ever faced criminal charges. 

Maybe you're saying, oh well, a state institution, everyone is always claiming abuse, how bad could it have been?  Dust the sand off your ostrich neck and read this article, written in 2004 by the Rick Wormwood, the brother of a Governor Baxter School student. He, along with other former students and family members, returned to the island when a decaying house, scene of some particularly heinous incidents, was burned down by the fire department: Why I Hate Mackworth Island by Rick Wormwood

The Boston Globe covered the event as well, here:

No one likes to talk about childhood abuse, sexual or physical.  It's easier to pretend it's something that happens to a tiny handful of people, but the flat out truth is, that's crap. Damaged people often push the limits of what they think they can get away with for for as long as possible for whatever pathological reasons they may have (often, and most sadly, a legacy of their own abuse, as also happened on Mackworth Island). In most cases, abusers keep on until they are confronted and find help, are imprisoned, or die. 

Because such chat is not polite dinner conversation, because so often people refuse to believe ("he's a pillar of the community!") or refuse to take any action ("not my problem") or both, suffering continues. 

My childhood was free from that kind of horror, but I have spoken with enough people not similarly blessed to know how lucky I am. As the sister of a disabled brother who spent time at special schools in the care of others, I hope that all was as it seemed, and the stellar care my family and I witnessed him receiving from incredibly kind and patient people was the entirety of his experience.  His schools remain incident free with good reputations.

But every day, there are more stories of nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals and other facilities being investigated. Years ago, the fancy boarding school I attended in New Hampshire drew scandal to its high-powered ranks when a drama teacher was arrested for possession of child pornography, but more recent allegations are easy to find. Consider the title of this GAO report from 2007: Residential Treatment Programs: Concerns on Abuse and Death in Certain Programs for Troubled Youth

Vulnerable populations of people, children, the elderly, those without sufficient voice, those that can be bullied and manipulated, continue to be prey to the damaged and ruthless among us. That makes me angrier than I can say.

That rage is neither surprising, revelatory, or unusual by any means. But the vividness of it speaks to more hopeful human characteristics, those of human compassion and the desire to protect the disadvantaged rather than (as is so popular now in the age of suck-it-up) cull weakness from the herd. 

What gives me hope is that the truth does now, much more so than in the past, rise up to the surface. Through state investigations or through families or through the courage of survivors, when the leaden curtain of secrecy is lifted, there is the potential for change. Change means more safety for more children and the adults they will become. Change means the opportunity for acknowledgement, honesty, and healing. 


Below, the original piece I wrote with some scenic photos:

Faithful Furry Friends and Fairy Houses on Mackworth Island

Stone pier
Mackworth Island, just a few minutes south of Portland, sports some fabulous views on the 1.25 mile trail around the island. A causeway connects the island to Falmouth.  Trail parking is limited, so I was shooed away from the gatehouse on my first attempt to visit as the lot was full.  Next time, my luck improved.  
Beach with view of islands in the distance

Mackworth Island is home to the Baxter School for the Deaf. Percival Baxter, former Governor of Maine, donated his summer house to the school in the late 1940s.

The present-day island contain a few strange stops, including a pet cemetery. Baxter buried his beloved Irish Setters and one horse there.  

Grave markers in the pet cemetery
Plaque with list of Irish Setters

Many children (or many fairies) have also built little houses out of twigs and shells in an area designated as the Mackworth Island Community Village.  The sign reminds visitors that "You may build houses small and hidden for the fairies, but please do not use living or artificial materials." 

Fairy houses

One of the fairies sent me a snake, which almost scared the toenails off of me before I snapped its picture.


Friday, July 15, 2011

The Amazing Plastic Man!

Plastic Man gawks at a Picasso.
April 19th, 1999 cover of The New Yorker.
Painted by Art Spiegelman.
After reading a book on neuroplasticity (The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge -- strongly recommended), I've decided that it is not, in fact, a completely impossible reality that some day I could sing on key.

Neuroplasticity is not just that the more you use your brain for certain tasks, the better you get at those tasks (practice makes perfect!), but also that your brain actually changes its structure to allot more real estate for those tasks because of that. And that's true even for old brains, so you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks (although it may take a little bit longer than with a puppy brain).

What does neuroplasticity have to do with singing? It means that I can train my brain to hear differences and because I put my attention to that task, my brain will change because of that. The more that I can hear differences, the more able I will be to reproduce them accurately.

I downloaded a freebie ear training software today and felt my brain getting smarter all the while, a decidedly odd feeling, to notice my brain catching on to important details. I can now tell the difference between a major and minor 2nd.

Maria Callas, I'll never be. But maybe I'll offend people just a little bit less at stoplights when I forget to stop singing or roll up my window.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Independence at the Portland Museum of Art

Calder mobile, Portland Museum of Art
I spent the afternoon on the 4th of July at the Portland Museum of Art.  Photography is not allowed for most paintings at the museum, but the Calder was free game. Mobiles continue to make me cheery for no reason.

The John Marin, "Modernism at Midcentury," show at the museum is definitely worth seeing, although I confess, I lingered longer by the Magrittes upstairs in the main collection. I loved the cubist leanings of Marin's seascapes, geometry layered over natural ocean chaos. From a how-does-he-do/see-that persepective, it was immensely useful, an entrance into his vision. 

Magritte's surrealism feels like a poem though -- the world explained by setting vision askew.