Friday, April 29, 2016


Europe started it. Then it spread with compounding interest through the rest of the world making its first stop in Madison this year. The seed of invention began back in 1984 when Paris decided to hold a one-day event (La Journee Portes Ouvertes) opening the doors to buildings not accessible to the general public as a way for citizens to enjoy the architectural heritage and history of the City of Lights. The event quickly spread to neighboring countries crossing the Atlantic and quickly settling in in major cities in the United States and Canada.
This year Madison has taken up the gauntlet opening up twenty-nine doors that are not normally unlocked to the public at large. The event stretched over five hours on a perfect springtime Sunday. The only issue we had was there was no way we could get to all twenty-nine venues in a five-hour time slot. We poured over the available buildings and came up with a list of six we thought we could get to in the time allotted.
A half-hour before the doors were to open we drove up to "Big Bug" Hill and found a parking space on the street just as someone was pulling out. From here we were to do the rest of our traveling on foot: first stop, Mansion Hill Inn.
Built back when Madison was a mere twenty-years-old for Alexander McDonnell, the contractor hired to build the second Capitol, the residence was to be the most fashionable home money could buy and Madisonians could envy. McDonnell hired local architect August Kutzboch to design the German Romanesque Revival single-family residence. The home's exterior was carved out of local sandstone with extensive ironwork and beautifully proportioned arched windows.
As time progressed the building changed hands and was transformed to an exclusive boarding house. After the boarding house phase the next conversion was to apartments before finally converting to an inn in 1983.
In 2008 Trek Bicycle and Trek Hospitality purchased the inn where they completed a major renovation taking the inn to its present elegant state.
Central to the inn is its spiral staircase going from the main floor all the way to the belvedere that crowns the building. The rooms are available for rent but Trek also uses the inn for its own functions.
You can also stop by the main floor bar for an after work drink or a nightcap to top off your evening.
From the Mansion Hill Inn we walked down to the Masonic Temple.
Built in 1925, there is a boldness and strength in the fa├žade of Doric columns setting up a classic proportion and rhythm to the building's exterior.
The building's interior is less impressive and a bit severe. In order to supplement a decreasing membership it now entertains weddings, fundraisers and corporate events. The only way of viewing the interior of the temple was by waiting for a tour.
Our tour consisted of about fifteen people all wanting to be inspired. The interior is not only severe but massive.
From its lodge meeting rooms to its ballroom and then to the auditorium where the Dali Lama recently held court there is still an emptiness that echoes throughout.
The exterior speaks to a grandeur that isn't replicated in the austerity of the interior and its details. It is still well worth a trip especially if this is where you have to go to see the Dali Lama and find peace and serenity.
On a corner of the square sits the American Exchange Building and American Family Dream Bank, a bank where you go in and record your financial goals and dreams. The building designed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style was built in 1871 out of sandstone, a locally abundant material.
This is another building in Madison that has survived the wrecking ball to live another day. The Urban Land Interests purchased the building in 1994 restoring the crumbling building and bringing it up to code. Designated a Historic Place on the National Registry the building has been given an extended life.
A not to be missed red door on North Pinckney now welcomes guests. Not a lot of original interior remains except for the doors of vault. The Dream Bank is open daily for anyone needing a boost or a guide to finding a path to his or her dreams.
Directly across the square via a trip through the Capitol sits another sandstone landmark devoted to dreams, Grace Episcopal Church. The church has been going through extensive renovations that are almost complete.
A restored pipe organ behind the altar is now ready to accompany the choir during services or the organist for concerts.
Architecturally the ceiling is one of the church's most impressive features. Charitably the church's involvement with Porchlight is one of its most generous features housing a homeless shelter with eighty beds.
After a quick stop for lunch we headed down State Street toward the Overture Center for the Arts. When we walked in there was a huge crowd already there but not much signage or indication of where or how the Doors Open event was being handled.
Turned out the crowd was a sold-out one for David Sedaris in the two thousand plus seat Overture Hall. We finally made our way to the information booth just in time to snatch Alan, a volunteer at the center with extensive knowledge of the building a deep-seeded love for its mechanics and the arts. Alan was on his way out but he couldn't pass up the opportunity to take another group around the center even if the group consisted of just two. He was all apologetic about not being able to get us into Overture Hall on account of Mr. Sedaris.
So he started our tour by unlocking the refurbished Capital Theater. Originally built as a stage for vaudeville performers and silent films, it unfortunately opened just months before Al Jolson sang in the first talkie.
In its most recent conversion the amount of seating was reduced to make for better sound quality and sight lines. The Capitol Theater is this preserved gem inside a very contemporary container designed by the internationally renowned architect, Cesar Pelli. Alan took great relish in showing us details throughout the entire complex along with the stories that elevated our tour to VIP status.
He pointed out the magnificent globe chandeliers in the Capitol Theater that had been constructed by connecting two fixtures from the previous lobby into a single more proportionately appropriate fixture for the auditorium. Alan took us backstage pointing out the twenty-nine trap doors located under the stage and still operational.
He had us look at one of the staircases leading up through the complex that he thought looked like a series of row boats, a perspective we wouldn't have seen if Alan hadn't been there to point it out to us.
He then had us climbing those row boat stairs for a tour through several of the rehearsal halls and the James Watrous Gallery on the top floor.
He ended our tour back on the main floor next to the only plaque dedicated to his paramour "Jerry" Frautschi who's donation of over two hundred million dollars made this dream a reality.
Our last stop as time was creeping up on us was the Wisconsin Historical Society all the way at the end of State Street. The Society is one of the oldest and largest historical societies in the nation. Its collections have been a major source for Ken Burn's civil war and baseball documentaries.
It has also gone through a recent renovation. Beyond its reputation for its collections is its architectural significance.
It's hard not to be impressed with the Society's federal revivalist reading room.
A gallery accessible from the third floor provides the perfect viewing area overlooking the two-story room.
The coffured ceiling includes a series of restored stained glass panels that make looking up as intriguing as sitting at one of the research tables pouring over historic records and documents.
Doors Open has become an annual event in most of the cities that have added it to their social calendars. I'm on board, hoping Madison will do the same. I mean this year we were only able to hit six of twenty-nine. We've still got twenty-three more to go.

Construction of Wisconsin's Third Capitol, 1911
Photograph from Wisconsin Historical Society Archives

Saturday, April 23, 2016


It was in the fine print. She read it to him. He had left his glasses at home.  "Thomas Hart Benton: a portrait of George and Sabrina West deaf mutes. Residents of Chilmark, on Martha's Vineyard where residents were relegated to relative isolation since the seventeenth century, produced generations of intermarriage resulting in half the population suffering from hereditary deafness." He knew the West family. As a kid his family had spent two weeks every summer at a rental belonging to a friend of his parents. He knew their youngest kids marveling at their silent language involving fluttering hands and a lot of touching. He liked the way they slapped at each other and laughed as their hands played cat's cradle in some unexplainable way of talking. His strict Germanic family made touching seem dirty. He was never able to cross that barrier. He rarely held Hildie's hand or kissed her cheek. The Wests made him sometimes wish he had been born deaf.
It was their first date. They had both signed up on They'd paid their membership fees. This was his second time, her first. He'd had a few first dates but no seconds. She'd been nervous about signing up, this was the first time she'd been the one to respond. She refused to use the wink button. The wink made her cringe and feel a bit silly. She sent an email instead. He worked for Google as a communications writer writing incident reports. It wasn't a glamorous job but it was with Google. In their profiles they both liked art, he was a Mets fan, she followed fashion blogs, they both wrote down Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as their favorite film. That was what made each of them show up on the other's Singled Out daily notice. She liked his nerdy style. She typed out "Saw you loved Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's my favorite film as much for the art direction as the story." That was it. She didn't want to say too much. She didn't want to appear too aggressive; it wouldn't have been her. She didn't know the protocol for a woman responding to a man. She felt uncomfortable with who should be making the first move. He wasn't expecting to see any woman make the first move toward him. It hadn't happened before. He was the one giving a wink and then waiting while nothing happened. He asked Simran, the woman who sat next to him at Google if he should respond, if she thought it was real and not a prank. He didn't have a lot of friends in New York. He had only been in the city for a few months. He had moved here from Michigan once he had landed the job. Simran had helped him with finding the new apartment he now shared with an Indian friend of hers. She liked him in a very protective sisterly way. She suggested he write back and ask her to go somewhere safe where they could talk but not be obligated to anything more. He looked up her profile and saw the interest in art. He wrote back "I saw you liked art would you like to go to the new Whitney Saturday afternoon. I could meet you in the lobby at 2". He refrained from adding any emojis.
She wrote back, "Yes, that would be nice."
He went early and picked up two tickets. Then he worried that she wouldn't show up and he'd be left having paid for an extra ticket. He recognized her immediately. He tried to smile but the muscles in his cheeks twitched and made him nervous. She noticed he had dressed up for her. It made a small crack in the ice. They talked about the weather. It was spring but there was a hefty wind blowing from the west off of the Hudson. He had thought about walking the High Line if things went well. He was now racing ahead in his mind trying to figure out a plan B.
They crowded into the elevator on their way to the top floor. They had decided to start there and then work their way down. He was happy she hadn't decided to bolt with some pre-prepared excuse she might have composed if her first impression wasn't good. The crowded elevator took the pressure off of immediate conversation. There's a written code of museum conduct requiring you whisper. It was comforting for both of them to have small talk in hushed tones. It made the risk of saying something awkward less likely.
They took their time walking from gallery to gallery trying to be adult when it came to the nude photography. The naked bodies made him uncomfortable. She was hoping he might loosen up. She wanted to be able to laugh. If it had been with someone she knew better she would have.
He asked her if she'd take a picture of him when they came up to Gary Simmons' piece: Lineup. He was hoping she'd see the measure of him through the camera's lens. He pulled out his iPhone and handed it to her. She gave it back and took out her own phone.
There was nothing self-conscious about their relationship. Their world reached no further than the embrace of their arms. It was as if they wore an invisibility cloak that shielded their view of the world rather than the world's view of them. There wasn't anything particularly erotic in the painting but Muriel couldn't help whispering her vision of the art on the wall into Cindy's ear, Cindy's white hair moving ever so slightly as words like rounded curves slid over her fleshy lob, the one holding the dangling silver earring. The softest sound coming back to Muriel from the tiny earring was like a wind chime tinkling the song of a lover's caress. Where others saw fruit and leaves in the painting in front of them Muriel saw passion and desire bursting like a squeezed ripe fig dripping sex down the wall and spilling onto the floor.
I tried to talk to her when I thought no one was looking. I did most of the talking my mouth moving like a ventriloquist's the words spoken at such a high pitch I thought only a dog could hear. Yet the dog at her feet made no move to acknowledge the sound of my silent voice and she never met my eyes. I wanted her to hear my story. I wanted to know if the letters she was reading were my letters. The ones I hadn't sent. The ones I held back. The ones that now would be too late for her to hear. I know she's not my mom. I know the dog isn't our old dog, Harry. I know she sits there only a wire substructure covered in wax and tinted to look like flesh yet I want to tell her so much I never said when she could have heard me. I thought maybe this wax figure could be the medium, the whisperer in the ear of my mother telling her how her sense of humor put endless smiles on my soul, how her energy inspired me, how much I loved her. She now sits like Duane Hanson's sculpture looking but not seeing, listening but not hearing, ravaged by Alzheimer's. I bent over the line to whisper "I loved you" but the alarm went off. A security guard asked me to move on.
Baptism in Kansas, 1928
John Steuart Curry, 1897-1946,
First Artist in Residence at the Agricultural College of the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Part of the permanent collect at the New Whitney, NYC
Theses stories were written as an exercise in flash fiction writing where I give myself a limited time frame (3-4 hours) to construct stories on photos I’ve taken while walking through the museum. The people photographed have no connection to the stories. The scenarios are completely made up. My apologies to anyone depicted in the photos.

Friday, April 15, 2016


From time to time I've posted excerpts from a collection of memories I've been laboring over. Like most births it has not been easy. The structure of the work bounces back and forth without traditional chronology. All of the entries are introduced by a simple point in time. Sometimes it's a year, at other times it will have a full date. This one is just 1995. Let me know what you think

Our ad read:
ADVANTAGE, love & opportunity
complete with bedtime stories & hikes
in the woods are what we can offer.
We want to be dads
Call Rick or Lee 800 555-2323
We had brought the phone, a landline, cellphones  were still years in the future, into our bedroom in Andes. Snow was pounding on the ground outside in sync to the pounding of our hearts. The ads had appeared that day in a couple of local shoppers we had selected and some college newspapers where we thought we might also have some success. Suzanne, our adoption attorney, had prepared us as best she could for what might happen next. We were ready for the crank calls. We could handle them, or so we thought
The calls began fairly quickly. There seemed to be three basic kinds of calls: the hateful calls, the crank calls and the calls with an inkling of promise, the ones we had been waiting for. There were very few of the first but they were brutal. They came laced with bible quotes and threats.
"God never meant for two men to make a baby. You stay away from them kids and may you burn in hell for eternity."
"I'd watch my back if I were you. I've got your number. Sin is sin and you are dirt."
The crank calls usually came around the same time of day. Susan told us to expect this. It coincided with the phone time provided to prisoners with time on their hands and no one else willing to take their calls.
"So you're looking for a baby."
"Yes we are."
"Well I got two of them. Are you willing to take two?"
"Yes we would. We want a family"
"Well here's the story. You're two guys right? If that don't beat all. Well I got two kids on the way. Ya gonna haveta pay for em now."
"You'll need to call our lawyer for that. We would just like to speak to the birth mother. We can then give her the information on how to get in touch with our lawyer."
"Well now that's the problem. Ya see I got two ladies. One here's my sister and the other is my mama. Ya wantem?"
The last kind of call on our list was not as frequent. It might come during the afternoon or late at night. These were the calls that stole our hearts.
"I saw your ad in the Price Shopper. I'm pregnant and I'm looking for someone who can raise my child. I just can't do it."
"We would show this baby every bit of love we have."
"I just don't know. What religion are you?" Most of the callers were well informed and had lists of questions. The sound of remorse touched the voices of most of these callers. We became aware if the dread and fear weren't there the caller probably wasn't serious.
"My heart goes out to you. We know that this isn't an easy choice for you. The next thing you need to do is give our lawyer, Suzanne, a call. She can answer a lot of your questions. You need to make the right decision for you. We would love this child with all our soul."
Rick always phoned after one of these calls to let me know what had gone on and then he would call Susanne to let her know what had happened. Some called Suzanne, most did not.
We were warned from the beginning it might take several blasts before we found a real connection. This first blast left us empty handed. There was a certain amount of defeat connected to this but Suzanne assured us this was not unusual. The average time it took a couple to find a child was about eighteen months. Suzanne never said this, but we knew we were not a typical family, so we had accepted the fact it might take us more time to connect.
We waited a while before we decided to try again. We had decided to focus on a different part of the country for our second blitz. We went through the same burrowing in at our country home and once again waited for the phone to ring. The calls were similar, fitting into the same categories as before. The hate calls were still chilling. The crank calls were disappointing. The real calls still brought the butterflies to our stomachs, and then one stuck. It was the middle of the day when the phone rang. It was my turn to stay in the country to man the phone. Without the existance of a cellphone we were teathered to our landline and one of us would remain in the country for the two-week duration of the ad blitz. I answered the call. Jamie Lynn was slightly older than most of the callers.
"I saw your adoption ad. I'm pregnant. I'm in my fifth month."
"I'm glad you saw the ad. You know who we are. We're two men. We really want to be parents." I tried to put as much meaning into each word. I spoke slowly selecting what I said as carefully as I could.
"I'm twenty-three. I already have two boys. I want to go back to school. I can't have another baby."
"I know how hard this decision must be. It has to be right for you. You did the right thing to call." I wanted her to feel comfortable talking to me. I didn't want to ask too much. I definitely didn't want to be judgmental. I just needed to connect. At that point I just wanted her to like me, to like me enough to consider us as viable parents for her unborn child. I gave her Suzanne's number and asked her to call. Suzanne would take care of the data gathering.
"Jamie, I'm really glad you called. Thanks"
"I'll give Suzanne a call." "Oh Lee, it's a boy."
So it was going to be a boy. Jamie called Suzanne and went over all of the necessary steps. The father was known but she wasn't able to locate him. Her two older children had different fathers. She was seeing a doctor. She needed financial help. Her mother lived nearby and was aware of the situation. Now the courtship would begin. We would call each other several times a week and talk about life. We slid into a very comfortable dialogue. The three of us were all involved but Jamie and I seemed to have the stronger bond. We talked about the weather. We talked about what the boys were doing. We talked about how she was feeling. Doctor's reports and monetary concerns were never part of our conversations. That was always given off to Suzanne. We all seemed to enjoy the road we were going down. Several months into the relationship Jamie asked if we would like to come down to meet her and her family. We had already exchanged photos so we knew what each of us looked like. We talked it over with Suzanne and she decided it would be okay for us to make the trip.
We planned to meet at a Cracker Barrel restaurant just outside of town. The irony of meeting in a restaurant with a long history of homophobia didn't escape our amusement. We drove up in a rental car. We were aware of doing everything we possibly could to protect our privacy. Suzanne had suggested the anonymity of using a car that didn't belong to us or anyone else in our family. Jamie and her mother were waiting outside. The two boys were running back and forth across the front porch. Jamie immediately recognized us. She greeted us with a faint smile hidden behind her shyness. She was shorter than I expected. The boys were completely uninterested. Her mother was a big booming woman with a ruddy complexion and a pair of open arms. She did not wear her daughter's shyness. Actually meeting this family seemed to make the whole process more real. We could see the baby bump. We could talk to Jamie and see how our conversation registered on her face. It gave us reassurance. It turned out that Jamie's mother had also been adopted. She understood the life of an adoptee. She could allay some of the pain Jamie was going through. Slowly we relaxed into a comfortable rhythm of conversation as the boys wrestled with their food and spilled their drinks. Lunch was over in less than an hour. We all walked out to our cars having succeeded in surviving without anyone from the Cracker Barrel coming up and asking the two gay boys to leave. Jamie gave each of us a soft kiss before we headed back into our cars.
I drove back elated. Rick was more cautious. I tempted fate. I went out and bought an aviator snowsuit size eighteen months. Rick held his breath.
We weren't back home more than a couple of weeks when the phone stopped ringing and Jamie stopped answering our calls. We were only weeks away from Jamie's due date. Something had happened. You worry about miscarriage, or some accident. That first time it happens you worry about all sorts of things but not rejection. She loved us. It can't be that.
We finally called Suzanne to see if she had heard anything or if she could try to figure out what was going on. A day went by and then another. Then the call came in. Suzanne's voice was calm but we knew immediately that it was tinged with bad news.
"Jamie has decided not to go through with the adoption." My heart had plummeted into the soles of my feet.
"What happened? She was fine when we went to see her even her mom seemed on board."
"Apparently she has a brother living in Alabama who she hasn't seen for awhile. When he found out she was putting the baby up for adoption with two men. He had issues."
"This was a brother who she hadn't seen for several years, a brother who had no interest in her until he found out she was giving the baby to a gay couple?" My anger was exploding like fireworks throughout my body. "Can't you talk to her and tell her how ridiculous this is?"
"This happens.  She asked that you not call. She doesn't want to speak to you."
"There's got to be something we can do. I can't believe this."
"Lee, you have to let it go and you have to move on. You need to remember the only couples that don't end up with a child are the ones that give up. You can grieve but you have to get through it and get back up on the horse."
I dropped the phone. This was my child. She had no right to take it back. Rick was the comforting one. He had fortified himself against this happening. There was something intuitive in him that forewarned him of this. I was the devastated one. Something became very clear to me. I saw now it wasn't only a birth mother we were courting but a huge outer ring of relatives and friends. Everyone was going to have an opinion. Everything about adoption turned into an insurmountable mountain. The air had been sucked out of me. I couldn't face going through this pain again. I had really screwed up my karma.
Migrant Mother, 1936
Dorothea Lange, photographer
Represented by Lumier Gallery, Atlanta

Thursday, April 7, 2016


We're into the fourth and final season of Selfridges on PBS taking us on the journey of building and then destroying London's first and most innovative department store, a department store with Wisconsin connections. But then most things connect through Wisconsin like progressive politics, Modern Family and Liberace. Harry Selfridge, a born Wisconsinite, was a self-made man who somehow was able to pull himself up to become one of the most successful retail entrepreneurs in the world. He did it through imaginative branding, knowing his audience and customer, and incredible hutzpah.
In London he brought retail to the masses making shopping into social entertainment, providing a way for the homebound women of England to get out and away from the home to a safe, respectable place where they could meet, browse and then buy what they didn't know they needed before they walked through those ornate brass doors under the Queen of Time.
The tradition was much the same in America with it's major stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Marshall Fields and of course Macy's. Macy's has always been a leader in branding and promotion with their special events and involvement in the Thanksgiving Parade and the Fourth of July Fireworks. Another example of Macy's innovative marketing is their annual spring flower show where the main floor is turned into a themed garden and the windows on Broadway are made into dioramas embellishing that year's theme.
This year, and perhaps because it's an election year, the theme is America the Beautiful. The windows on Broadway provide a walk from coast to coast through the flora of the United States.
Beginning at the Sixth Avenue end of Broadway you move from west to east starting in the Pacific Northwest and traversing the continent to the Shinning Northeast Shores
and everything in between
with an exclamation point put on the City (that being New York). Notably absent is Hawaii, I assume disqualified since they are definitely Hall of Fame floral inductees and no longer eligible for representation.
Inside the entrance of their flagship store is a huge replica of the torch on the Statue of Liberty ablaze with golden blooms studded with touches of red. I was never very strong in high school botany and as Rick will attest I'm a reluctant gardener at best. I'm a magnet for Mayflies and every spring end up with huge welts making me look like a severe burn victim. It does not make me look fondly to a trip to the nursery to purchase this year's carload of annuals and perennials or memorizing their proper names. Those Latin labels for all the plant life on display is not my forte but I'll do my best to infuse their generic names into my descriptions wherever possible. Please forgive me in advance if I end up calling a petunia a periwinkle or a hydrangea a big blue flower.
At the New York Macy's flagship store the aisles on the main floor are decked out with a canopy of pink flowering trees in planters filled with succulents, birds of paradise and orchids. All of which provide a temptation to touch too hard to resist for toddlers being pushed in their strollers right at the perfect height for picking.
Hanging above the aisles are more banners with the art for each region along with vignettes representing parts of our great and distinct flora and fauna history.
The Golden Gate Bridge spans the escalator bank leading up to the next level. Vinca vines cascade over the edge of the bridge while fir trees soar to the ceiling and lilies drop their intense scent over anyone traveling below.
In the Northeast a lighthouse spreads its beam over a ground cover of local grasses and magenta anemone.
An elevated garden of succulents and cacti from the Southwest are suspended over the cosmetic booths that populate the main floor.
Suspended from the mezzanine on the 34th Street side is a perfect New Orleans iron balcony with all its potted boxes arranged with topiary and fragrant bouganvilleas.
Every day for the duration of the show a prominent floral designer is brought in to create the "Bouquet of the Day". On the day I was there Yena Jung had been given the opportunity to create the centerpiece.
I'm more of the opinion she built a monument to the orchid as I'd find it hard to place this bouquet in the center of any dining experience I'd host.
Making the journey to Macy's to enjoy the flower show has become an annual trip for me because I'm a sucker for color, extravagance and design. When I get there I've got no pride. I'll get down on my knees to smell a perfect rose.
I'll sneak an opportunity to touch a display to make sure the flowers are real.
I'll enjoy the blessing I feel at having the opportunity to experience a walk through a florists fantasy and I'll probably be suckered into buying something I had no former intent of purchasing or real need to have.

Queen of the Night, 1998
Cy DeCosse, photographer
Represented by Gallery Two Seventy, Englewood, NJ