Thursday, May 29, 2014

Inspiration, Generosity, and Freework

Writing about lighthouses requires more than words. Lighthouses are highly pictorial in nature; they photograph well, and readers always want pictures to go with the stories. Even the most eloquent written tapestry, rich with all the right verbiage, can't convey quite as much without a picture as a companion. This is the reason I have a huge collection of lighthouse images. I need them to compliment and enhance my work.
Sometimes it's a picture itself that inspires me to write.  "A picture is worth a thousands words," an old adage proclaims. Some are worth many more. That's the case with this image, a startling purple-sky tableau of fierce lightning strikes around the Tchefuncte Lighthouse in Louisiana. The lighthouse looks tiny, but unyielding. It keeps shining when all about it is raging and violent.
This amazing image was captured by William Lannes in July 2011. I've seen several images similar to this one on Flicker and Panoramio, taken by good photographers who happened to be in the right place at the right time...and a very dangerous time too! We know that tall objects attract lightning. It takes an intrepid photographer to hang out near a lighthouse in a lightning storm. Can you imagine being a lighthouse keeper during a severe thunderstorm like this one? A lighthouse is just asking for it, right? Yes, they all have lightning rods on their cupolas. "Hit this!" the rod seems to say. Lightning does, and has, ever since the lightning rod technology came into use in the 1700s.
Lightning was just one of the frightening and hazardous natural phenomena lighthouse keepers experienced. When bad weather hits, most of us head for cover and safety. Lighthouse keepers had to remain at their posts, sometimes at great risk. Weather like this meant vessels were in peril too, so a lighthouse keeper had to remain vigilant and keep the light and fog signal going. The most craven thing a lightkeeper could do was abandon the lighthouse when ships needed it most. Keepers were dismissed if they left their post, no questions asked. They were expected to remain on duty, sometimes to the end...the ultimate sacrifice.
After seeing Bill Lannes' incredible photo, I headed for my files and looked up a few stories I remembered about thunderstorms and lightning. Sure enough, my files were fat with hair-raising tales of lighthouses struck by lightning. They were damaged or burned down from the strikes, and keepers were injured and killed. There was even a somewhat humorous bit of history about Boston Lighthouse not being given a lightning rod when it was built in 1716 for fear of offending the Powers of Heaven. After lightning struck the tower several times, Puritan thinking changed, and a lightning rod was installed.
There was plenty of grist for an article about lightning strikes at lighthouses. But what to do for images? They would be rare and valuable, for sure.
It turns out many there are some truly amazing photos of lightning striking on or near lighthouses. It also turns out that some photographers are generous with their photos. If there's a budget for images for whatever project I'm doing, photographers get paid. But, if there's pay at all, it's usually slim. (Writers don't get paid well either, so don't quit your day job and start freelance writing for a living. I still have my day job, and I've been a successful freelancer since 1982!) Sometimes, there's no pay at all, for the writer or the photographer. This is often the case with newsletters and journals.
My story about lightning strikes at lighthouses is now underway and will go in the summer 2014 issue of the U.S. Lighthouse Society journal, The Keepers Log. I've titled it "Tempting the Hand of God: Lightning Strikes at Lighthouses." I write gratis for the society journal. The society is a nonprofit group and needs its funds to preserve lighthouses and educate the public about them, so this is part of my volunteer work for them. I write for them gratis and they are generous whenever I need to use their archives. They support me in other ways too, namely by hyping my books, website, blog (you're reading it now!), and my Facebook and Twitter pages about lighthouses, and they add me to lighthouse tours when there's an available seat. We help each other. In the end, we have the same mission: saving lighthouse history and the lighthouses themselves.
Which brings me back to the photo above. It's amazing, isn't it? Kudos to William Lannes for his camera skills and his courage. I would have run for cover long before there was a chance to catch this image of nature throwing a tantrum over a lighthouse! Besides Bill's photography talent (I've gotten to know him now and call him Bill), he has a generous nature. When I contacted him to ask if he might donate a quality copy of this picture to the U.S. Lighthouse Society for use with my article, he immediately and humbly replied "yes!" and sent me a 300 dpi copy. He wrote this note in his email:
Ms. Elinor after looking over your website and blog page, I would like to thank you for your lifetime work on the lighthouses. Even if the pictures I sent you are not good enough, it is a honor to catch the eye of someone with your dedication to this subject matter. I only started with photography about 2 years ago, and when that picture was taken a group of teenagers had just walked up and were talking about shooting pics of lightning. When that bolt came down we where only about 1/4 mile away, and every one of us got out of there as fast as we could! Again thank you for your work. Like so many others, this lighthouse needs work (loss, of shoreline) and your work helps keep these treasures in the spotlight.
Thanks for keeping the light on!
William Lannes
Wow! This is what keeps me working and volunteering. Just when I tire of spending hours and hours on projects that either net very little income for me or none, when I sense my hard work has gone unnoticed and unappreciated, I get an email or letter like this one. I'm suddenly rejuvenated! It affirms for me why I do so many projects gratis. Volunteer work matters, and it makes a difference.
Not every photographer I approach has the same sense of solicitude and generosity as Bill Lannes. Some flatly refuse to donate their images, saying no $pay$ "devalues" their work. Others ask for an honorarium, and if there's one available, I find it for them. I've even paid out my pocket if I think the image is that important to my work. Photographers always get credit for their images and mention of a website or blog they might have, plus free copies of the publication in which their image appears. This sort of "in kind" pay is enough sometimes, but not always.
I like to be paid for my work, and I usually do get paid; but I know "freework" often brings greater rewards and $pay$ in the end; it helps you gain greater visibility, get your foot in the door, and showcase your skills. Freelance writers know all about "freework." It's often the launchpad to bigger and better things. I show this video about "freework" to my college students:
I once gave up a $3,000 book advance so the photographer shooting images for the book could have the money(he refused to do the book unless he got a large advance). And, I wrote the captions for his images for free. Shouldn't he have done that? It wasn't fair, but it got an important book in print that has had a long and successful life on bookshelves and now in e-format. There's no way to measure the impact the book has had on lighthouse preservation and education or how much enjoyment readers have gotten from it. I don't need stats to tell me it's made a difference. I won't mention the title or the photographer. That would be a cheap shot. But I'll underscore my point about "freework" by noting that the book is still in print, earning royalties for both the photographer and me, and drawing attention to lighthouses...and to our work.
Does no pay "devalue" one's work? I don't think so. Bill Lannes doesn't seem to think so either. Sometimes you work for the love of it and because it will ultimately bring something good and right to the world. It's called "freework" when it opens new doors but volunteerism or pro bono publico when it's the right thing to do. These efforts can combine, and do, on many of the projects I produce. They have their place, to be sure. I don't work for free for commercial enterprises. Magazines and for-profit publishers and organizations must pay me. But a nonprofit group, laboring on a limited budget to make a difference, merits gratis work. Gratis in Latin means, "as a kindness."
Since its inception in 1984, the U.S. Lighthouse Society has done incredible work to save lighthouses. So has the American Lighthouse Foundation....and hundreds of smaller nonprofits around the nation. They are the backbone of the "Save the Lighthouses" movement. Their success and mine has gone hand-in-hand. We collaborate and cooperate--wonderful words that should be the foundation of most, if not all, human activities. (Congress, are you reading this??!!)
I so appreciate people like Bill Lannes, who understand those words and invest in the lighthouse preservation/education effort!
If you're wondering about Tchefuncte River Lighthouse, it survived that lightning storm. It's outlasted many a storm. Here are some old and recent images of it close-up. The b&w images are from the files of the U.S. Coast Guard Historian in Washington, D.C., a truly wonderful and open-handed resource. Dr. Robert Browning, the Coast Guard historian, is a dedicated archivist and strong supporter of my work. He has always been generous with the collection and even encouraging. Last time I saw him in 2005 he thanked me for my many books and articles and told me I'm "Great PR for the Coast Guard!"
The color images are from another generous photographer, Kraig Anderson. Kraig has given me countless photos for my books and articles and has created one of the most useful lighthouses websites you'll find: He also contributed his excellent photos to a book on the lighthouses of New Brunswick, Canada:
About Tchefuncte River Lighthouse--
It was built in 1837. Its mission was to guide vessels across Lake Pontchartrain and into the mouth the river. This waterway was part of the circuitous but critical route from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. The tower was 36-feet tall and the original beacon had nine oil lamps with 14-inch reflectors to amplify the light. The first keeper, Benjamin Thurston, must have been a true bayou personality; he was rumored to have kept pet alligators at the lighthouse! The picture above was taken circa 1845 to 1850, not long before a breakwater was built to protect the light station and its beacon was upgraded with a fifth order Fresnel lens. The lighthouse was destroyed during the Civil War and a new tower was built in 1867.
This is the 1867 light tower, photographed in 1918. The odd-shaped little building behind the tower is a bell-house for a fogbell. The dwelling sits behind it. To the left is the oil-house where kerosene was stored, along with tools and other equipment. Notice the people leaning on the bulkhead, which by this time was held up by riprap piled around it. The plank walkway in the foreground led to a landing area for supplies. Erosion was always a problem here. Joseph P. Groux was the keeper in 1918. He, and most of his predecessors, received commendations for bravery during hurricanes. Enduring one of these severe storms while keeping the beacon and fog signal going must have been horrendous duty.
Here are some recent images taken by Kraig Anderson. The black stripe is a daymark that was added to the tower decades ago to help vessels line up on it to stay in the deepest part of the channel leading into the river. The bulkhead is gone, as is the plank walkway. Erosion continues to threaten the site, with the shoreline just feet from the base of the lighthouse. Without help (a.k.a. funding and hands-on labor!) to move the lighthouse, eventually it will succumb to erosion and topple.
It's always sad and a great public loss when lighthouses are left to deteriorate or be destroyed by the elements. These are not just beacons for ships, not just buildings...but beacons of history as well. Each one tells a unique story of its own, set against the backdrop of our nation's history. Of course, it's of paramount importance to first feed the hungry, care for the forlorn and homeless, fight disease, and secure liberty throughout the world; we must devote effort and funding to these. But saving our past and our story is important too.
That's why inspiration, generosity, and freework are so essential. They showcase the best in us, and provide the passion that fuels the work and the funding that saves our history and its landmarks.
Water, Lighthouses, and Funding: Lighthouses and water. Hmmmm! They seem to go together. I'm on a personal soapbox now, so stop reading if you hate grandstanding. Here I go, a bit off topic, but I'll bring it home at the end--
In one of my community college classes, students do a short project in a financial fitness module called "Incremental $$ Change." They're asked to examine their small spending habits and find something they regularly buy that they can do without. The idea is to help them recover some pocket money that might be put to better use, perhaps to put gas in their car to come to campus or buy that calculator they need for math class. The two big frivolous items students usually identify are lattes and bottled water. (We don't count cigarettes because they're an addiction, but students are encouraged to try to give up smoking.) One student named Ashley discovered she was spending about $15 a week on bottled water from the vending machines on campus. She'd buy three or four bottles of water a day. Ashely thought she was doing a responsible act by not buying soda, which she said was bad for her health. She was shocked to find out how much she was spending on water, and when asked to taste the water in the hallway drinking fountain, she said it tasted no different than the bottled water. A little more research revealed the negative impact plastic bottles are having on our world. Ashley began filling a plastic bottle with drinking fountain water and was glad to have an extra $15 a week to spend on other things, not to mention the satisfaction of reducing the amount of plastic bottles going into recycling.
Why am talking about this? My students went further and read that annual spending by Americans on bottled water is $11.8 billion.  Global sales of bottled water is $60 billion. "That's unbelievable!" they said. I told them I grew up drinking water from the tap, and while today I occasionally buy a bottle of water (when no other source of it is available) and I keep a two-case stash of it in my pantry in case disaster strikes and the pipes to our well are broken, I am flummoxed by this seemingly wasteful practice. My thrifty husband fills his drinking bottle from the sink every morning, and refills it at work from the drinking fountain. I take my own bottle of water to work.
I get" that some places have really nasty water, but truly bad water--the kind that will make you sick--is much less prevalent that we think. If the water just tastes poor, add something to it, maybe a flavoring or drink mix or lemon. Buying all those plastic bottles of water is bad juju for the planet, and it adds up in spending. If even a fraction of this luxury spending was donated to important causes instead of buying water in a plastic bottle, imagine the "good" that could be accomplished.
Give up some of that bottled water and put the money in a jar. When you accrue a few bucks, donate it to a good cause. It doesn't matter what that cause is--cancer research, soup kitchens, Toys for Tots, the local PTA, or even saving lighthouses. And consider doing some volunteer and "freework." Studies have shown it encourages production of those feel-good neurotransmitters in our brains. It's my drug of choice.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sentimental about my Scrivener Beginnings

A popular saying advises, "you can't go back." Time's arrow moves in one direction: forward. While I acknowledge this maxim and know it to be true, I think it's important to visit the past regularly and think about what roles specific people, actions, and events played in scripting the story of my life. I have no intention of writing my bio here. I only want to share an exhilarating and memorable day that reminded me who and what and where was important in the tale of how I came to be what I am today.
April 2014 marked the 32nd anniversary of my writing career. Of course, I've been a writer since I first grasped a pencil in my small, grubby hand in first grade and scrawled my thoughts. In April 1982, however, it became official. My first published piece appeared that month in Ideals magazine--a poem in the "Friendship" issue. A copy arrived in my mailbox in early May, accompanied by a check for $30 and a note from the editor telling me to send more poems. My kids remember that I did a cartwheel in the driveway, so excited that in less than a year of sending out stories and poems I was published. (I can't do cartwheels anymore when articles and books are published, but I still do them in my imagination!)
Anyone who has found satisfaction and earned success as a writer knows the feeling that comes with such a "first." A byline is one thing; earning money for it is quite another, even if it's a mere $30. And being asked to "send more" is the icing on the cake! I made a photocopy of that check and still keep it among my writing treasures.

Thirty-two years is a substantial time to labor in any career, much less one that involves too much sitting, lonesome hours communing with books and notes and a silent room,  and pounding a keyboard day after day to turn out endless strings of words. The craft has taken a toll on my back and hands, and staying "social" beyond having a cat on my desk has required effort. (A lack of tangible human co-workers is much of the reason I teach. Students keep me social!)  Thirty-two years is almost half of my life, years rife with important milestones, including that first $-check-$. Yet, lonely as writing can be, we never find our way in it alone. I don't know any writer who believes he or she single-handedly finds success. There's always help if you look for it and want it.

I've seized it! I had and still have mentors--my mother and mother-law, my college adviser, my husband and kids, editors, friends, librarians, other writers. Sometimes it's not a person I owe gratitude, but a place. One institution in particular deserves HUGE thanks for helping to launch my writing and speaking career....

Last weekend my son's family took me on a memorable visit to Mystic Seaport Museum where I worked from 1986 until 1994. It was a quick, spur-of-the-moment trip, a Saturday jaunt with no time to linger and savor. But it was so nostalgic and revitalizing that I feel the need to share my gratitude here and encourage everyone who reads my blog to re-connect with their past in much the same way.

Working at MSM happened quite by chance. In the mid-1980s I was heavily into research for my second book on lighthouses--Guardians of the Lights. I often joke that this book was my third child. I have two flesh and blood children I brought into the world with effort, help, and love, and then there's Guardians of the Lights. Sometimes you labor so hard on a project, it seems like you've given birth!
How did MSM figure in all of this?
MSM had (and still has) a terrific nautical library on its grounds, the Blunt White Library. (Photo of the library garden from MSM.) Not long after moving to Connecticut in 1985, I made arrangements to visit the library and do research. The collection was a smorgasbord of fantastic resources, mostly books and photos, along with letters, personal collections of papers, and official government publications and documents--all related to lighthouses. But access to the collection was cumbersome. I had to make an appointment with the library and arrange to be met by a library staff member at the library gate; then, I was accompanied to the library, asked to remain in a research room, and all my library activities were monitored and assisted by the assigned library staff member. I had no issues with this protocol; it's standard in specialized libraries. But the process ate into precious hours I needed to pore over books and files. Much of my time in the library was spent waiting for materials to be fetched from the collection and brought to the table I was assigned in the research room. There were no laptop computers at this time, no scanners or IRIS pens. Photocopies cost $0.10 each, and not every item could be copied. I was on a budget too. Those dimes were precious. So I did much of my work by hand, taking notes. It was tedious, but it was a labor of love.

Diligently, I went to Blunt White Library day after day, in the rain and snow and cold of the winter of 1985-1986. The librarians all began to recognize and greet me, and a few went out of their way to make me feel comfortable and welcome, given the rigorous rules for outsiders using the collection. A few weeks into the research, one of the librarians--a friendly guy named Paul--tiptoed into the research room one morning and asked if he could chat with me. I was happy for a break and a chance to talk about my work; he had helped me more than any of the staff.

"You seem to have a big project," he said. "And I'm impressed with your research and study habits! Have you considered working at MSM?"

This caught me totally by surprise, but Paul explained that anyone who worked or volunteered at MSM had free access to the library stacks--no need for a staff chaperone, no rigorous rules beyond a reverence for the collection. Obviously, he knew the frustration I had with waiting and waiting and waiting.... He knew how precious those research dimes were too! And, though I didn't realize it, he knew I'd enjoy working at MSM.

Paul suggested I work just a few hours a week as a relief interpreter, providing coffee and lunch breaks for the all-day interpreters in the public exhibits. The hours seemed right, and there was paid training. I could do my research before and after my shifts. I put in my application and was hired to do the relief shift three days a week (12 hours total) in the nautical instruments exhibit, the working printing press, and the shipcarving shop. My training--three weeks of it--was intensive and inclusive. I learned about the entire museum, with a focus on my three exhibits. For an avid reader and writer, and someone fascinated with maritime history, it was heaven!

Blunt White Library thereafter became my haunt. Its massive specialized collection spawned writing project after writing project, and Paul became a trusted adviser and friend in my research and writing. Soon, my work in the exhibits expanded, as did my interests. The museum provided grist for hundreds of freelance articles about all things maritime and nautical--figureheads (shown in a photo from MSM), messages in bottles, sextants, ships, marine weather, animals that went to sea, nautical words and sea chanteys, scrimshaw, wreckers and mooncussers, shipwrecks, and lighthouses, of course.

Another opportunity I enjoyed at the museum was working as a model on Kodak Photo Day every September. Hundreds of photographers, professional and amateur, would descend on the museum that day to vie for prizes for the best images. Staff and their family members dressed in period costumes to roam the streets of the village. Some of our best family photos were taken on these days. The one of my husband and I below is better than our wedding picture!

I'm in the center, playing a colonial housewife. Notice the woman playing my mother, on the left, is doing all the work!
In the back row are my son, holding the flag at age 10, me, and my husband, and other models posing with visitors.

There were surprises too. One morning a man stepped into the Nautical Instruments exhibit and introduced himself as John, the contractor who operated the horse and carriage rides: "I need a driver pronto," he said with an infectious smile, "and I'm told you can handle horses." Within a week I had signed on for additional work driving a wagon or carriage around the 17-acre museum, in costume, giving tours. I learned to harness and hitch the horses and cared for them every day, including grooming, feeding, and shoveling the proverbial horse poop. Stormy, a Belgian mix, was my favorite, along with Max, a sturdy and even-tempered quarter horse. I was thrilled to combine my love of animals with my work as an interpreter and freelance writer. (Photo below by the late Bob Stinette shows me in costume--dressed as a man because women wouldn't have been hired to drive carriages in the 1870s--with Max and a visitor.)

One warm day in May 1988, the director of the MSM planetarium joined me in the driver's seat for a wagon ride. "Warm today! I need the breeze off the river!" he said, "And I love to hear all the neat things you tell visitors." He often came to the livery to pet the horses and chat, and he had shown up in my exhibits a few times to visit. Some days, as I ate my lunch sitting on the rock wall by the lighthouse, he'd join me for a few minutes and we'd talk about the stars and ships and sextants and chronometers and whatever else interested us. His name was Don Treworgy, and he was probably the museum's most beloved staff member. What I thought was simply a friendly visit that warm May afternoon in the driver's seat of the wagon turned out to be a job offer to teach astronomy and navigation in the planetarium.

I began working fulltime in the planetarium in June 1988 and continued there until 1994. My studies and research for the job spawned more articles and several books on amateur astronomy. The Florida Night Sky for Pineapple Press is pictured above. I also wrote three kids astronomy books through the museum's in-house press.

My final two years at MSM saw me wearing two hats--Assistant Supervisor of the Planetarium and Supervisor of Curriculum & Instruction for the entire museum. I'd come far since that conversation with Paul in the library years earlier. After eight years total at the museum, I left in September 1994 to teach public school. MSM had inspired new stories and projects, given me many new friends, and enriched my life beyond measure. I continued to do contract work for the museum, helping with exhibits and other projects, even after moving to the Northwest.

MSM photo of the exhibit "Sentinels of the Sea."
Which brings me to the two primary reasons for my visit to the museum last weekend--to see a special exhibit and re-visit the planetarium. During my years on staff, I constantly pressured the exhibits staff to do something fun with the interior of the lighthouse on the museum grounds. The lighthouse is a replica of Brandt Point Lighthouse on Nantucket. Visitors repeatedly asked if they could go inside or climb it; they wanted more than walking by and taking pictures. Finally, in 2004--a decade after leaving my job at the museum--I was contacted by the interpretive director about helping to create an exhibit on lighthouses for the interior of the replica lighthouse. It was pure fun, and I jumped at the chance to work for MSM again! I provided archival images and helped write the script. A Boston-based production company created the two videos that are projected on a five-panel screen inside the lighthouse. It's a long-awaited and marvelous addition to the museum.

When you work hard on a project, you ought to be able to at least see how it turns out! But...I've had few trips back to Connecticut since moving to Puget Sound twelve years ago, and I'm usually too pressed for time on my trips east to visit MSM. Imagine my delight last weekend when my son and daughter-in-law suggested we drive to Mystic and visit the museum. At last, I could see the lighthouse project! My son, now 36, was a kid volunteer at the museum in the late 1980s and wanted to see the place too.
Saturday, May 18 was a glorious spring day in Connecticut; it had been twenty years since I left the museum. I visited the lighthouse again and saw its long-time-coming interior exhibit (, met some former co-workers, rode the horse and wagon I used to drive, got to see my granddaughters playing in the Children's Museum inside MSM--an exhibit I helped design in the early 1990s--and visited the planetarium. My director at the planetarium, Donald Treworgy, died in 2009, and the planetarium has been renamed in his honor. He worked there for almost fifty years; the place truly is his legacy to the museum. The dome has a new, more modern projector run by computer. (I used to manually operate the old projector!) Echoes of hundreds of planetarium shows I presented to audiences in the late '80s and early '90s whirled in my head like so many shooting stars...and memories of stellar moments working with Don and the other staff--Ted, Jack, Roy, Barbara, and Martha--came rushing back. Imagine my surprise when I found Martha working in the Children's Museum!

It was a fabulous experience re-visiting MSM after so many years, and great to reconnect with the past and remind myself how critical this place was to my success as a writer and speaker, even as a teacher too. Blunt White Library provided much of the grist I ground into articles and books about all things nautical, especially lighthouses. The exhibits generated story after story too, as did my friendships with people who had special skills and knowledge. I'd like to think the museum and I served each other well and that I contributed as much to the museum as it did to my career and personal life.

The take-away message of this blog post is clear, no matter what passion you pursue in life: As success is achieved, go in search of the history of your story. Be thankful to your mentors, whether subtle or  forthright. Give back. And, pass it along...

A footnote: Mystic Seaport Museum restored and sent its most treasured artifact, the wooden whaleship Charles W. Morgan, on a tour beginning May 17. While I missed seeing it anchored on the river front and being launched on this landmark journey, I'm thrilled with its recent restoration and the very public 38th voyage it's taking. For more info go to