Time Travel: To Eilean Leodhais

There’s not much going on here at the tower; or rather, not much to write about; the art is (and will remain for awhile) in the embryonic test stage, and I’ve also spent two and a half days wrestling mightily with enormous issues that are not for public consumption.  So, here’s part of a blog from Scotland that didn’t get published while I was there.

An interesting thing is occurring; when I look at the photos, I can actually smell the delicious sea air, smell the islands; the images trigger olfactory time travel! Nice. Very, very nice.

Way above the tree line on the way to Ullapool.

Steornabhaigh, Eilean Leodhais, Eilean Siar

I am on Lewis, and whether or not it will prove to have its own island magic, the journey here was one of the most dramatically gorgeous trips I have ever taken (something I never thought I’d say in relation to anything that involved a bus ride, anywhere). The bus was full of islanders, many of them elderly; it looked like most of the folks had come into Inverness to shop. There were only a few empty seats.

We left Inverness and climbed, and climbed.  My ears popped several times as we drove through seriously high mountains.  First, the landscape was almost alpine, tall, tall pine forests, glimpses of rocky peaks, of crystal blue lochs, of rushing, rocky, white-foamed rivers, and we passed a spectacular, high roadside waterfall.  The sky was glorious.  Then we climbed above the tree line, to mountaintops both craggy and rounded, some showing stretches of snow.  We crested a peak, ran alongside a long, wide loch, and through a forested band; then, just like that, we were at Ullapool.  In that part of northwest Scotland, the mountains simply run right to the sea.  Ullapool is charming and photogenic, the buildings almost all bright white, built in a line along the shore, wide but only three or four streets deep.  The view across the bay, as the loch heads straight into the mountain range, is breathtaking.

Above, Ullapool.

Below, across the bay from Ullapool, where the loch heads into the mountains.    

I’m thinking the word breathtaking a lot, but that’s just how it is; so was the ferry journey. Ullapool is located in a sheltered inlet, and we moved slowly through tall mountains, past small gleaming islets of craggy rock, topped with velvety green.  As we moved further out, blue-shadow peaks of more distant mountains were revealed, blackened where the quickly moving clouds cast their shadows.  The sea was a deep, deep eternal blue, an even clearer version of pure undiluted aquamarine from my painting days.  I was completely captivated.

I made a friend on the ferry, Angus.  He has the head of thick white hair and beautiful clear voice of the islands.  As soon as I got onto the boat, I made for the outside deck.  He was the only other person there; he said, conventionally, “It’s a lovely day for a crossing.  We have been having unusually wonderful weather.”  I said, “I know. And I’m shocked!” And of course, hearing my accent, immediately he asked where I was from.  I told him and he said, “Are you of Scottish heritage?  Were your people Highlanders, perhaps Islanders?”  I gave him a bit of the history, and he said, “Yes, that’s where you got your hair.”  I said, “Well, the color comes from a bottle, but the rest comes naturally; hair like a heilan coo.”  He laughed.  He said he’d just come from Inverness, where he’d been recording a CD in Gaelic; he is a songwriter (poet, bard). He was born on Lewis.  I told him I had never been to Lewis, but visiting it had always been a wish of mine.  He said I would love the island, “Everyone talks to everyone else there, whether they know them or not.  There are so many places in the world where that cannot happen, where you would need to be cautious.”  I said I knew that, I lived in one of those places, but that I’d just been on Orkney, and it was like Lewis there.  I told him about the old man and the seals, and how he’d shown me how to find them.  Angus said there were perhaps six seals living in Stornoway harbor.  I said, “The lady who ran the guest house in Stromness told me I should sing to the seals, that they liked it and would come closer.  Do you think that’s true, or is that just on Orkney?”  He laughed hard and said, “I think if you sing to the seals in Stornoway, what will come to you will be the men in the white coats.”

Moving out of the bay, and moving away from mainland Scotland.

As we got out to the open sea of the Minch, Angus said, grinning a bit ruefully,  “I need to move about.  I’m not a good sailor, and I find the only way I can keep a small measure of self-respect is by walking.” I wished him well, and he left. I was so fascinated by watching the changes in the land, I didn’t want to move.  Though the day was beautiful, the sea was a bit choppy. We pitched and rolled some, and people staggered a bit about the deck.  I’ve never really been on open sea before, except for the shorter journey to Orkney, and I always wondered how I’d do, but I liked it, didn’t feel ill at all, and actually found it exhilarating. I spent the entire three hours out there, tasting salt on my lips from the spray, loving it. Angus came by periodically, and we talked about many things, from the highland clearances to dogs to Vikings to world economy. He was very enjoyable company, no matter what we talked about. As Lewis appeared, mistily, on the horizon, he came and asked me if someone was meeting me.  I said no, I was walking, and he said his car was at the ferry terminal, and offered me a ride.

The first thing I saw when I got off the boat were palm trees.  Small, ragged, and slightly anemic looking, but palms nonetheless, thanks to the gulf stream. 

The second thing I saw was a large wooden replica of one of the Lewis chessmen (and I shot it for Linda).

The third thing is that here, the signs are in Gaelic first, with smaller English translations. This pleases me to no end. I am in a place where the culture survived, at least linguistically, even though so many were forced to leave, and all were required to learn English.

Angus dropped me at the B & B, and on the way, he offered to give me a tour of the island on Monday, saying “It would be no trouble at all”.  And so, he is going to appear at the B & B at 10 am, and drive me round to Callanais and the Black Houses, and perhaps down to Harris as well; and he’ll show me “places I should see.”  This will be great; I will get to see Lewis through his eyes, and he clearly loves the island and has known it all his life, and is an excellent storyteller as well. 

Mrs. B at the B & B was lovely, too, and it’s a spacious room, the largest I’ve stayed in, with a big bed, comfortable chairs, a desk and a view of a lighthouse and the sea, full of paintings and prints by her artist son, who lives in Glasgow.  She gave me keys, but said that her front door is never locked till very late at night, and she lamented the fact that her son lives where he needs locks. 

The view from my room in Stornoway, a little before midnight. 

(Ahhh.  Here in the Catskills,weeks later, I’m breathing in the ‘tangle o’ the isles’, deeply.  More later, and more time travel. There were a few things that didn’t get published due to the intermittent wireless access, and I’m liking going back.)

ps – Yesterday, while I was in a monumental funk, my cell phone rang.  It was Virgin Atlantic, wanting to know if I’d ever gotten my bag.  Nice of them.




…but someone’s gotta do it.

View from the roof deck.

Ah, you know, ‘tis a rough life.  Here I am in the Tower, eating cold jumbo shrimp (on sale at Price Chopper, the local grocery), watching the light of the setting sun change the colors on the opposite bank of the Hudson river, and writing to you.

This residency came about through the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; applications are only open to SAIC faculty, and just recently to alumni (I’m an alumna and ex-faculty). I don’t know who selected us nor how, but I’m happy to be here. The place is the home of a married couple; they live in the gorgeous main house.  They decided that since they had extra living spaces, they’d like to share this beautiful place and its serenity with artists.  Bless them.  It is just utterly great here, and it’s generous and large-spirited of these folks to conceive of doing this.

Since it’s not like the other residencies I’ve been on, which are run by foundations, I’m not going to name these lovely people (at least not without asking, and I’ve yet to meet one of my two hosts) nor show you pictures of their house.  But, besides the Tower, there is also the Caretaker’s Cottage; right now there are two women working in there on a collaborative project.  I’ve only met them briefly. And that’s it, just the two living spaces, two to three residents at a time.

There are numerous sheds and outbuildings to use.  There are two big carpeted rooms over the garage, with media stuff (a big TV, dvd, PC, printer and stereo equipment) that we can use at any time.  The collaborators are using the old harness room in a fair sized building where the carriages used to be stored. The old stable is only a foundation now. I’ve got the gardener’s shed (which has water) and the bit of the shop, and, because I have the Tower, today Chuck (the caretaker) told me that I can use the attic of the main house, a big, open, skylighted place.  I’m working on small experimental things here, not finished work, so I doubt that I’ll need it – but it also leads to a big rooftop deck with a fabulous view of the Hudson.  This is bliss.

There are 59 acres, some of it beautifully landscaped and some wild, running down a steep wooded hill to the Hudson.  There are lots of paths through the woods, and there are benches or chairs and little tables everywhere, not just in the landscaped areas.  There are two ponds and a rowboat; there are a couple of fountains…aaaand, a whole lot of black walnut trees.  Chuck showed me where he piles the mountain of hulls he rakes up every year, and so, I’ll be making some dye, too!

My paper studio.

Just places on the grounds.

Pond with fountain (and boat).

The Hudson from the Tower…ahhhh.


“The Madwoman In The Tower”

That’s what Melissa S., a poet, said she felt like when she lived in the Playroom at Ragdale, because that room contains a steep narrow staircase that leads to the Barnhouse cupola.  Now I can also claim the title, though really, for me, this place brings back the burning desire I had, when I was about nine or ten years old, to live in a lighthouse.

The first floor of the tower is part of the huge old main house.  I have a little private second floor apartment with a tiny galley kitchen, a nice bathroom, a bedroom (you can see its two windows in the photo), another room with a table and desk, and the rest of the tower, which can only be entered from the apartment.  The second floor of the tower is a nice room for reading, with a comfortable rocking chair and a long padded window seat (where there is no window) that looks like it’ll be dangerous for naps.  Smack in the middle is a spiral staircase to the third floor, which is really just an empty landing, but might be great for drying paper.  The spiral staircase changes to a regular staircase, and then the fourth floor is an octagonal studio space, with windows all round, four tables (three built in; they’re hinged onto the walls, so fold away, say if a madwoman wanted to start doing yoga again up there). It’s quite nice and very odd, so you know I like it.  I’ve also got the use of what’s called the gardener’s shed for papermaking, and a corner of the garage shop, with sink, for dyeing fiber.

This is a big old estate, and no one knows why the tower was built onto the house.  The apartment I’m in was once a maid’s quarters, and didn’t connect to the tower; nor were there any staircases in the tower. It was just there.

I’ll write more about the rest of the place later, and there’s a lot more to tell.  Right now I’m beat.  It was a hellatious trip getting here; Pennsylvania is endlessly huge, I got lost twice (thankfully only briefly), and an insane and possibly suicidal truck driver chose me, from all the other drivers in the world, to race with while he was hauling an oversized load of two small barns and a gazebo.



The Wilds of Pennsylvania

I am not at Catwalk yet.  I am in the Wilds of Pennsylvania.  Seriously.  There was a big sign; that’s what it said.  I saw the sign not three seconds after I decided I had better stop for the night at the next motel.  But then there were no motels in the Wilds, for a long while, so perhaps I am Out Of The Wilds. I am in a motel in Clarion, Pennsylvania, with about 300 miles or so to go in the morning, 1:30 a.m. my time, 2:30 Pennsylvania’s.

I didn’t leave till this afternoon. My departure was delayed by what might prove to be the weirdest thing in the Year of the Weird. I can’t write about it and I don’t want to.  It may very well be a Good Thing, and it resulted in the best sentence any male creature has ever said to me in my entire life (thank you), but it’s still weird.

It took me the exactly the same amount of time to drive across the entire state of Indiana as it did to get out of Chicago, which now charges $3.00 to let you leave, if you take the Skyway.  It seemed strange to just bypass my hometown of Cleveland, but after I did, I went through some Ohio mist. I had forgotten about it.  I used to love driving (or walking) through it when I lived there.  It lies in pools in the low areas between hills. It can be very thick, like the mist in Scotland, but it rarely rises more than a few feet.  In Ohio, the mist rises up from the ground.  In Scotland, it comes down from above.  And that is my profound observation for the evening.

Not Ohio.  Or Pennsylvania.

ps – It’s a Good Thing that I’m arriving a day late for another reason: it was 97 degrees in Catskill on the 10th.  On the 11th, it will be 10 degrees cooler, at least.


Serendipity Do Da

I was just on my way out the door to replace the things from The Bag, when the phone rang.  Paul said, “It’s someone at O’Hare. He has The Bag in his hand!” They’ll deliver it at 5 pm, which gives me just enough time to do the laundry in it and repack it.  And to have a dram or three.  Join me!

Here’s to The Year of the Weird.  It would be nice if all the other troubles were solved in a similarly serendipitous manner, yes?  I’ll drink to that.


(Later note: The Bag is here. Some poor pathetic soul in a baggage handling facility somewhere, who obviously went through the entire bag at his or her leisure, stole one wee bottle of whisky, the Bruichladdich.)


Off Again…

I leave tomorrow morning for three weeks in the Catskills.  I’m looking forward to living in the Tower.  It’s a 15 or 16 hour drive, so I’m being sensible and splitting it into two days.  The second half of the route is one I haven’t taken since I was in my twenties, through Pennsylvania.  I’ll stop somewhere in there for the night; and on the way back, I think I might stop in Cleveland again for a day or two.

There is wireless access at Catwalk. The first thing I need to do there is organize all the material that I have from Scotland, including hundreds of photos, so while I’m doing that, I’ll also put a great many of them on Flickr.  Unfortunately, most of my sketches and research notes are in The Bag, so there’ll be some duplication of effort; I’ll have to do more web research.  But I’ll be able to, and that’s good.

Typical of this strange year, most of the week home was wasted, spent fruitlessly dealing with a frustrating setback not of my own making (The Bag).  But I did get things done; a lot of writing, letters of reference for some good folks, and taking care of details and contracts for shows, and laying the groundwork for some future possibilities and directions.  I also actually did some bookbinding for a friend. This was good, as it was quite calming, and helpful for offsetting the steadily increasing stress of The Bag search. I made a little leather-bound variation on a structure I’d invented years ago for myself, a tough book made to fit in a back pocket that will withstand all sorts of the rough treatment I inevitably give to my personal sketchbooks.

There’s still a lot to do before I load up the car, including running out to replace things that are in The Bag, so it’ll be a fiercely busy day, and I’m off to get to it. 

While I’m driving, I’m going to keep the top image in my mind, and that, I hope, will make the trip as smooth as the sailing was on that day, from Eilean Leodhais to the Mainland. Even though I was sad about leaving and didn’t want to go, the Minch was calm, beautiful and steady.

(PS – Happy Birthday to Paul! – it was yesterday).


Luggage, Politicians and an Alien

Day Seven Of The Missing Bag:

Calls to Virgin Atlantic’s U.S. baggage claim department in 6 days: 14 

Promised Delivery Dates: 3

Delivery date promises not kept: 3

Promises to return phone calls after looking up my bag’s status: 11

Phone calls actually returned: 1

E-Mails to Virgin Atlantic: 4

Unanswered e-mails to Virgin Atlantic: 4

Bags returned: 0

A very nice friend in Scotland read the Blahg and offered to call Virgin Atlantic for me from the UK. I decided instead to ask Paul to call from here.  Even though I knew it was inevitable that he’d get hot with these people, at least I’d have a chance to discover if I’ve been missing anything critical during all my calls. And, I’d have a respite from folks who have no idea how to interact with a deafened person, even when clearly told how to help.  (Believe me, I would NOT be calling if there were any other possible method of contact, but no one answers Virgin’s e-mail.  On their web site, they do list some kind of Deaf access, but only if you are inside the UK.)

At first they refused to give Paul any information because he was not me, even though he had all the info, claim numbers, etc. (so I imagine it would have gone worse for my friend in Scotland). He spent several minutes explaining that I had asked him to call because I can’t hear.

Then we went through several tedious minutes of this: Virgin Atlantic lady asks Paul a question.  He repeats it to me, and hands me the phone.  I answer, and then hand the phone back to him.  Each time he got the phone back, the woman would already be talking a mile a minute, and it took several more minutes simply to convince her to wait for a half-second while I handed him the phone.  Finally, she concluded that I had, indeed, asked Paul to call.

They talked for a long time.  At one point, I walked into the kitchen and caught this: “So, you are telling me that, in seven days, not one person in your company has been able to contact any other person from your own office in the third largest city in the United States?”  Pause.  “Well, could you tell me this: as a citizen of the world, wouldn’t you say that is a crappy way to do business?”  (Sure enough, a short while later, they got into it, and one of them hung up on the other).

I laughed, but right then I knew: hearing or not hearing doesn’t matter.  They have no idea where the bag is, and I doubt that they have ever had any idea where it is. I’ll keep calling and e-mailing, but after this, unless something spectacularly strange occurs, I’ll quit writing about it. I‘ll let you know if the bag comes back.

I sincerely hope it does, at some point.  I’m saddest about a couple of gifts from folks in Lewis, and about things I’d been bringing for folks here.  (And of course, the whisky).

The thing that makes me the angriest is this: if Virgin Atlantic had admitted to being part of the Deathrow baggage chaos in the first place, yes, I’d still have been upset. But I’d also have accepted my lot much earlier in the week, and gone about replacing the items I need for my next trip much less stressfully than it will now be, at the last minute.  Instead, I wasted my time waiting for “assured” deliveries that were pure fiction. Obviously, the people I’ve been talking to are low level, taking orders from higher up; some of the incomprehensible noise, Paul tells me, is due to the fact that they are responding to questions by reading a script. I can only conclude that they were simply told to tell wronged customers anything, including fictitious delivery dates, to appease us momentarily.

The Bag Episode is a microcosmic example of so many things I’ve gone through recently, and the root of things we’re all constantly going through, globally.

Why, why, why do corporations and politicians (both governmental and academic), at the first sign of a problem, immediately turn to The Lie? 

Do they actually believe that what they’re trying to gloss over will never be revealed, that lies will not eventually be seen? 

Why is the honest admission of a mistake seen as revealing a weakness, as something to hide? 

Why is the “solution” inevitably something that makes a bad situation worse?  

These are things I have never and will never understand.  Which just goes to show you, I probably am an alien, and an old, still hopelessly naive one at that.  



Do NOT fly Virgin Atlantic, addendum

So, I post the last blog, then go out to dinner with a friend.  She tells me the horrendous Heathrow Terminal Five story, which I had not read while in Scotland…Deathrow has just sent several thousand missing bags from its new terminal 5 to Italy to be sorted.  We wonder why they didn’t just bring the Italian sorters to Deathrow.  I try to remember which terminal I flew into, but can’t.  I had only had three hours of sleep when I began the journey.  All I can remember is being jolted around in a crammed bus, deep in the underbelly of Deathrow, to get from one terminal to the next, intensely craving coffee.  Thankfully, my friend and I move on to many more subjects, most of them pleasanter.

My cell phone never rings all evening.

At 1am, Chicago time, I think, aha!  Maybe no one at Virgin Atlantic has returned my calls because of the time difference.  Maybe I’ve just been dealing with an incompetent night shift these past six days. Hope springs eternal. I call.  A man with the most incomprehensible accent yet answers.  I tell him I’m deaf and ask him to speak slower and he has to repeat what he’s said (he doesn’t slow down at all) five times before I catch a word.  The word is: Chicago.  

I ask, “Was the bag sent to Chicago?”  He unleashes a flood of sound, none of which I understand. I say, “As I said, I’m deaf.  Can you please just answer yes or no, was the bag sent to Chicago?” Another flood of sound.  “Stop!”  I say.  I say again, “I’m deaf and I can’t understand you. I need you to answer by simply saying Yes or No.” He spews forth yet another barrage of words, of noise.  “NO!  Stop!  Please…answer…with…one…word.  Was…the…bag…sent…to…Chicago, Yes..or…No?”  And he simply yammers on yet again.  

I give up.  For tonight.

Do NOT fly Virgin Atlantic!

Friday, May 30: 

I arrive very late afternoon, monumentally jet-lagged, at O’Hare.

Go through customs, wait at the baggage carousel.  And wait.  And wait.  And wait.

Finally I see some Virgin Airlines people taking the last of the bags off the carousel, with a roster.  Go over to them.  They have a printout, which lists my bag, and says it’s still in London.  I get taken to a restricted area, where someone takes my customs form and a Virgin Atlantic employee takes all the claim info on my bag, says he’s definitely located it at Heathrow, and that it will arrive tomorrow afternoon, and he will have it sent to my house.


Saturday, May 31:

The bag doesn’t arrive.  I discover that the rubber-stamped claim info the Virgin Atlantic guy gave me has been stamped onto the space for it on their glossy brochure and is now too smeared to read.  I find the Virgin Atlantic web site, and the phone number.  I figure it’s late, so I will give them a call in the morning.


Sunday, June 1st:

I call Virgin Atlantic, and get someone with a Carribean/ British accent (which is actually the easiest to understand of all subsequent phone calls).  I ask her to speak slowly, and she has to repeat several times before I get a few words. She tells me that the bag is in still in London at Heathrow, but has not been “identified”, so I have to re-file all the claim info with her, on the phone.  She tells me that she has put in an ‘urgent’ call to Heathrow, and that my bag will be sent ‘immediately’ to my house, that I can expect it tomorrow.


Monday, June 2: 

The bag doesn’t arrive.  I call Virgin Atlantic .  Woman with a heavy Pakistani/ Indian accent says she needs to locate bag, and will call me back.  In about 20 minutes she does. I ask her to speak slowly, and she has to repeat several times before I get a few words. She says bag is on its way to Chicago and will be delivered on June 4.  I explain that I need the bag and its contents immediately for another trip, can she please expedite this; she says she’ll try.


Tuesday, June 3. 

I call Virgin Atlantic to confirm that the bag will arrive tomorrow. Man with heavy incomprehensible accent cannot locate it, and I have to ask him to speak slowly and repeat several times before I get a few words. He says, yes, it will arrive, if I have been told that.


Wednesday, June 4: 

I call Virgin Atlantic to see what time bag will arrive.  Man with a heavy incomprehensible accent, who I have to ask to speak slowly and repeat several times before I get a few words, says he will look it up and call me back.  He does not.  Bag does not arrive in morning.  I call Virgin Atlantic.  Another man with another incomprehensible accent, who I have to ask to speak slowly and repeat several times before I get a few words, says he will look it up and call me back.  He does not.  The bag does not arrive.  I call Virgin Atlantic.  A man, who I think is the first one with a heavy incomprehensible accent, who I have to ask to speak slowly and repeat several times before I get a few words, says that he cannot get hold of the Chicago airport to confirm the bag’s arrival.  Says he will call me back.  He does not.  I find and file a complaint form on Virgin Atlantic’s web site.  I find an e-mail address for Virgin Atlantic “customer service.”  I e-mail them the entire situation, titling it, “I am deaf, please help!”  I call Virgin Atlantic again.  A man with an incomprehensible accent, who I have to ask to speak slowly and repeat several times before I get a few words, says he cannot get hold of the Chicago airport, and that he will call me back.  Guess what?  He does not.


Thursday, June 5:

 No response to e-mail or complaint form.  I call Virgin Atlantic. A man with an incomprehensible accent, who I have to ask to speak slowly and repeat several times before I get a few words, says he cannot get hold of the Chicago airport, and that he will call me back.  He does not.  I call again several hours later.  A woman with an incomprehensible accent, who I have to ask to speak slowly and repeat several times before I get a few words, says she will call me back within two hours.  Four hours later, I call again. A man with an incomprehensible accent, who I have to ask to speak slowly and repeat several times before I get a few words, says he cannot get hold of the Chicago airport, and that he will call me back.  I send another e-mail.

No one from Virgin Atlantic has called me back since the first woman called to lie to me four days ago.


Tomorrow, it’ll be a week. I may go down to the Virgin Atlantic ticket counter at O’Hare, and chain myself to it until they hand me my goddamned bag.