Friday, March 30, 2012

Posting My Thoughts?

I began collecting stamps when I was a child and remember becoming fascinated by the various colors and sizes of these strange perforated shapes. Before me lay the world in pictures which challenged me to learn the names of many obscure historical people and of far-away places with magical names like Azerbaijan or Tanganyika. Sometimes with a magnifying glass I squinted at depictions of monochromed giraffes, turbaned desert people, and important buildings often encircled by odd lettering or numbers. Perhaps best of all, it was a hobby which met positively with my father's authoritarian judgment of what was considered productive activity. For hours, looking like I was sitting amidst a pile of confetti, slowly and methodically, I would attach stamps in my album. When working on them I was safe and hidden in my own private world and able to tune out the almost constant tension which permeated my family's dynamics.  Certain stamps became special friends and I would look at them proudly and, with excitement find them companions that belonged in the same series or on the same page.  

Today my joy in gathering stamps has not abated. My closet is a veritable postal potpourri of stacked albums with withered bindings, brimming boxes of colorful envelopes, books containing first day covers, plate blocks, full sheets, and of course, pages and pages of ornately decorated and numeraled regular issues, airmails and commemoratives. Having such an extensive collection may sound like an impressive accomplishment but whenever I even mention my philatelic power and prowess to my children, they roll their eyes and express some teasing sentiment indicating that collecting stamps is not particularly cool. They usually lament about what to do with such a mess when I am finally cancelled and all that is left of me is my own dated portrait. Of course they appreciate that some of my stamps are valuable but don't know which ones are. They dread the thought of how to dispose of the lot without being cheated. I can hardly blame them for their nonplussed attitude. I don't know the answer either. I can't expect either one of them to become enthralled in a hobby which is as high-speed and modern as a stamp showing a team of oxen pulling a cart. Also inheriting a collection dampens the sense of accomplishment which is an integral part of the gathering and organizing process. It means fiddling with someone's work rather than experiencing the pleasure of putting one's own "stamp" on a lifelong project.

As I grew older and learned the idea that beauty might be discovered by looking closely at little things like leaves or stones or insects, I discovered my collection was in fact a catalogue of magnificent pictures of landscapes, sculptures, engravings, photos and designs suitable for a Lilliputian art musem. When looked at from this perspective it is easy to see that every stamp expresses someone's creative vision, having had to pass the scrutiny of a jury and then being finely reproduced in a determined quantity and quality by a printing method. I have amassed perhaps thirty thousand of these graphic icons that, like tiny hitchhikers riding along on the envelopes which package the thoughts of others, transmit their own story of human history.

It has been a challenge to select examples to share. Each stamp is a jewel in a giant, fleck-filled kaleidoscope, Nonetheless I have plucked out three special ones for your review.

At the top is U.S. stamp  #1, a portrait honoring Benjamin Franklin who was named our first postmaster by the Continental Congress in 1775. This imperforate stamp was issued in July 1847 by the authority of Congress to standardize postage among the states, making it the only legal stamp that could be affixed to a letter. I chose to display this one for its historical significance and as a subtle hint to my children not to give it away!

The second example comes from France and is found in a series honoring French artists. It shows a painting by Marc Chagall who, although born in Russia, lived most of his life in France. It was issued in July 1987 and commemorates the 100th anniversary of the artist's birthday. I chose this to point out how lovely an envelope might look if this stamp were posted on it and how it might set the right tone for the message inside. In addition Chagall is my sister's favorite artist and I thought she might enjoy seeing this representation.

The third item is an engraved and typographed stamp from Canada printed at Christmas 1898. It displays a map of the British Empire using a Mercator projection. It was the first stamp issued by a colony of the British empire that didn't show a cameo of the English royal family. It provides a wealth of geographical, cultural, and historical information and, most importantly, I find it pleasing to my eye.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Wearing White

 While lying snuggly under the covers this morning, I deftly slipped my arm out and, like in the old days when reaching for a smoke, found and turned on the remote for the TV. Within a moment, my solitude was shattered by the voice of an annoyingly cheerful weather actor on the Today Show. He bantered about how the country was basking in unseasonably warm, beautiful weather, with the exception of the unfortunate Northwest which was still in the throes of relentless Winter. He spoke of the heavy rains, winds, and snow as if they were a validation of punishmnent of those who didn't believe in the inherent superiority of living on the Beltway or New York. I had no one to hear my objections to his bias. Here was someone who must have forgotten the beauty of watching snow coat the beach nor flakes falling softly on pine trees. Perhaps neither he nor his audience would appreciate the energy of breathing cool moist air, the drumming sound of torrents of rain nor the seductive rub of freshets of wind that contribute to making life here exquisite. For some dumb reason the caprice of weather has been divided into categories of good and bad with warm and dry as trump cards over wet and cold. I reflected further on what a glorious season "the bad weather" had been for me. Mt Bachelor Ski Resort has been blasted with cold, fluffy, voluminous powder, conditions which most skiers and snowboarders under the age of thirty refer to as "epic."

 My love for the snow began when I a child in Chicago when my sister and I were given a wooden sled which we used for careening down a slope at the "tot lot." My joy from that time lives on today when, on many a morning, I can be found on a chairlift freezing my butt off, then braving wind and poor visibility to carve my way on fresh untracked snow down the slopes in order to join friends at the bottom to share eagerly exhilarating tales of success. However the transition from sled to skis was not that easy.

 I started skiing at age 46 and remember how my children bullied me into giving into my fear of crashing. Like so many people imagine themselves, I was convinced that I would be an embarrrassing failure who, within a short time, would see friends signing clever greetings on my cast. My learning curve was slow and painful. I fell so often I was actually becoming comfortable with self-loathing. Within moments, I would find myself hopelessly out of control and then suddenly down and covered in snow sprawled out, with skis and poles scattered about. Often I would lie there on the white carpet before dusting off and picture myself as an incongruous twig in some cosmic game of pickup sticks. In spite of my predictable lack of coordination, my son especially continued to encourage me to keep pushing myself and urged me to stop being a wuss when I looked over a steep edge at the run and began to whine about an impending catastrophe.

 Fortunately I have advanced, but still fall and suffer from the jitters and hurt pride. Although the fact is not particularly relevant, I have always been anxiety-prone. The source of this affliction may be a result of inheriting physical and mental instability genes from both of my parents. Neither of them would have ever ventured beyond a lodge, let alone shown any interest in the snow other than commenting on the danger of driving in such crappy weather. They could have never believed that I now quantify my life by the number of days I go up to the mountain, how many runs I may have taken, and whether I rode up on the first chairs.

 Then again, as I sit here in front of my laptop, extolling the white and wonderful, I am suddenly beset with fantasies of lying on a deckchair in some tropical clime, looking at palm trees and listening to soft gentle breezes. Even a pina colada might beat hot-buttered rum right now. Perhaps my passion for the cold has started to melt. Is it too late for me to take up water skiing? I know you all would wish me well. Doesn't the the expression go something like "Break a Leg"! 

 The above photos are from good weather days. I generally avoid bringing a camera when I ski for fear I will plant the darn thing and myself in a snowbank. The first picture was taken by my son of me on a bluebird day near the Northwest Chairlift before we dropped off the wall of a "black diamond" run. The second photo shows an easy groomed "blue" run. It appears flat in the foreground but the topography suddenly steepens in the background. The last picture shows the 9000-foot summit of the Mt. Bachelor. There is a lift that runs to the top and, with a slight traverse, people ski down to the spot at mid-mountain from where this shot was taken at 7300 feet or continue on to the base at 6300 feet.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Pot of Gold at Sutter's Mill

On my return trip from the San Francisco Bay Area last week, feeling saddened after the memorial for my best friend Tom Barrett, I decided I would take a circuitous route back to Bend. By heading east, I realized I had the opportunity of visiting Sutter's Log Mill at Coloma near Placerville, Ca. At this spot along the American River below the old mill site during an icy morning on January 24th, 1848, amongst the waterwheel's tailrace, James Marshall, John Sutter's partner, found flecks of gold. Within a year the news of this discovery had spread across the world and had triggered perhaps the most remarkable human migration ever recorded. Over 300,000 people flocked to California from all over America, Europe, Australia, Mexico, Latin America and the Orient. Many arrived by ship to California from the East Coast after a 16,000 mile five to eight month passage around South America or sailing first to Panama, trekking through mosquito-infested jungle to meet another sailing ship to take them the rest of the way. Others traveled by wagon along the Oregon and California Trail enduring unimaginable hardship from weather, disease, lack of provisions, and Indian attack. This extraordinary event also precipitated the forming of hundreds of new settlements along the land route and inspired thousands of Europeans dispossessed by the Revolution of 1848 to cross the Atlantic to seek fortune throughout America.

With much anticipation, I walked the path along the river to look for the exact spot which marked the American Holy Grail. I expected to see a glorious monument standing at the site like one might expect at Plymouth Rock or Jamestown, but all I found was a worn out, almost unreadable sign board which proclaimed that the discovery took place at a side channel 20 feet beyond and below. I followed a small muddy trail which had been etched out by previous seekers and ended my pilgrimage by kneeling at the edge of an exceptionally peaceful and overgrown rivulet. Almost instinctively, my eyes traveled over the sand and gravel which lay at my feet looking for anything protruding that was yellow and shiny. However, like so many before me, I turned away empty-handed. The gold was gone and yet I felt so enriched. I had explored the backroads of time and discovered a trove of glittering dust containing carats of American history.

The first photo shows the actual site of the original Sutter's Mill. The second picture is a shot downstream on the American River with a man on the far bank panning for gold. The third is the spot where gold was first found.