Saturday, August 30, 2008

Notes on Camp

Bad Blogger. Bad, bad blogger.

I do have a good excuse for being so lazy. I have spent the last three weeks working on assignment at a German summer camp in Bemidji, MN where I had little access to the outside world. I'm working on a major piece of reporting about the camp, where kids ages 8-18 learn German in an immersion setting that is one part Germany, one part Minnesota's North Woods, and one part fantasy world.

The above images shows a Des Moines, Iowa family choosing their German names from a name line spanned between two trees in front of the camp's "Bahnhof" or train station. (There's no actual train, but it is the equivalent of the camp's border crossing, and the place where "villagers" (no campers here) shrug off their American identities and take on a German one).

I'll post links to the stories I wrote there once they appear, but in the meantime, here's a link to the flickr site with images from the camp.

Here's the other news. We're homeless.

Husband Adam and I both graduated last spring, he in dentistry and I in journalism. I took a job as adjunct faculty in the journalism department teaching features writing for the summer. I've spent the last two years working during holiday breaks and freelancing part-time, teaching half-time and going to school while he plugged away at dental school, a place which by all accounts is the eighth circle of Hell. So we are taking a few months to travel. I know what you're going to say: in this economy? Well, we are still working out the appropriate narrative to explain to people that we want to see a little bit of the world before we tie ourselves down geographically.

So we have moved our stuff to storage, the two cats are getting shuttled to my mother's home in Lancaster, PA in a few days, and then we're off. First stop is Panama, where Adam's twin brother Jeff and his wife Foy are in their second year as Peace Corps volunteers. Their village, set in a jungle a few hours east of Panama City, is about as remote as they come.

As of yesterday, we are innoculated against typhoid, yellow fever, Hep A, and malaria. Unfortunately, there is no antidote to the scorpions as big as a fist that hide in the bedsheets there.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Update: smalltown hero Jim Hoyt

Got an email from Peter Feldstein, the photographer and artist who conceived the Oxford Project and whose idea it was to photograph all the residents in his tiny town. One of the subjects, Jim Hoyt, was the last living of the four soldiers who liberated Buchenwald. The story got a lot of play on The above photo shows a monument in Germany honoring Hoyt.

Peter Feldstein writes:

"You'll be interested to know that I received an email from a fellow in Germany who is a member of a group that researches the history of World War II. They contact veterans, meet them, and honor them. They had been looking for Jim for many years. It turns out that his records were destroyed years ago in a fire. Unfortunately they found him through his obituary on They sent me a picture of the monument with the names of the four men, including Jim, who were the first Americans in Buchenwald."

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Oxford Project

Sad day. Just learned that the last living of the four American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald died this week at the age of 83. James Hoyt, of Oxford Iowa, a tiny town about 16 miles west of Iowa City, never talked about the experience until my journalism professor/mentor Stephen Bloom interviewed him as part of the Oxford Project.

You can read about the project in the latest edition of ArtScene Iowa. A book on the project is coming out in September from Welcome Books.

A big piece of history died with him.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Paring down -- starting with the Pollock

It's that time again -- time to throw around the idea of selling the single most expensive item in the state of Iowa: Jackson Pollock's "Mural."

Former UI Museum of Art director Howard Collinson floated the idea last fall, drawing the ire and finger wags of many people around town. Now the idea is on the table again -- this time to pay for the millions of dollars needed to restore the UI Arts Campus, which was all but destroyed in the flood last June.

Only one thing owned by the state of Iowa -- the road system -- costs more than this Pollock, which languished in the museum's basement until the late 1960s, when some enterprising curators rolled it out of storage. Over a decade before, Peggy Guggenheim, who had it hanging in her New York apartment, packed up her things and her poodles and moved to Venice, at which point she gifted it to the then president of the university.

See that painting off to the right of the Pollock with the big red dot? That's Adolph Gottlieb's Edge, my favorite work in the museum.

But let's be real. People come from around the world to Iowa to see the Pollock. It sounds a little melodramatic to say so, but to lose it would mean dooming most of the rest of the collection to obscurity.

Friday, August 1, 2008

It takes a city -- Iowa City

I don't generally take on feel-good stories. As an arts and culture reporter, I like places where people collide, art that makes something happen, books that transform -- and not in the way an Oprah's book pic transforms. I like discovering who people are and why do they do what they do. I favor obsessives. I'll take funny and sad over uplifting any day of the week.

Well, have I got a feel-good story for you. For this month's Iowa Source I wrote a piece about the new documentary on Bill Sackter, the real-life character whom Mickey Rooney played in the 1982 made-for-TV movie Bill (he won a Golden Globe for the performance).

A Friend Indeed: The Bill Sackter story could easily be written off as a advocacy piece for the mentally disabled. It tells the story of a man who spent over four decades in a Minnesota mental institution before a young couple decided to adopt him and integrate him into a college town -- Iowa City, IA. This young husband was Barry Morrow, a young sociology student who eventually went on to win an Academy Award for the screenplay for Rain Man (1988).

But the film is very much a portrait of Iowa City, a place I have found to be uncommonly accepting of fuzzy-bearded, frazzled-looking homeless men who sit on the Pedestrian Mall and talk to students all day long. I don't think I've ever before felt the pride of place I had after watching this film's premiere.

I hope the film finds national distribution. It's playing at the Tipton Hardacre Film Festival this weekend, where it just took the prize for best documentary.