Monday, August 29, 2005

Florence Foster Jenkins, the Musical

Tomorrow Fritz and I drive out to the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA. We had tickets to the two person play “Souvenir” last Thursday but got a phone call from the box office in the morning that the performance was cancelled due to the serious illness of the leading lady’s father. They offered us substitute tickets for tomorrow instead and we’re hoping the show goes on.

“Souvenir” was a huge success Off-Broadway. It deals with one of the most colorful and enigmatic figures in New York music history, Florence Foster Jenkins: society heiress, concert soprano, (possibly) unwitting pioneer of camp, and gay icon. Perhaps the main reason for her eventual fame was that she was one of the most inept singers ever to perform in public.

The Young Florence Foster

Florence Foster was born into wealth in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1868 and very early on developed a love for music. Her father, banker, lawyer and eventually state legislator, dashed all hope for a career by refusing to pay for singing lessons, so she eloped to Philadelphia with Doctor Frank Jenkins as soon as she was legal. When he, too, proved uncooperative, she ditched him in 1902 and supported herself teaching piano until 1909 when her father died and she inherited a fortune. From then on there was no holding her. She founded the Verdi Society in Philadelphia as a platform for her musical and social activities, chief among them being solo vocal recitals for she gave for friends and invited musicians, and the annual Ball of the Silver Skylarks which saw her first efforts at design on a big scale which the papers described as startling. She blithely ignored all advice to withdraw from singing in public, adding Washington DC, Boston, Saratoga Springs and Newport, Rhode Island to her concert tours--all places full of appreciative, probably tone deaf dowagers where her social standing and connections guaranteed an appreciative reception.
Fully Mature Diva as the Angel of Inspiration

Eventually she decided it was time to break into New York City. She had developed some contacts there—iconic Italian tenor Enrico Caruso was very kind and encouraging—so she began an annual ritual of checking into a suite at the Carlisle Hotel and giving a recital in its ballroom, which is where her legend began. After the first couple of years, word spread that an entertaining spectacle of over-the-top fashion, unimaginably bad vocalism in some of the most demanding high coloratura music in the repertory, and unintentional hilarity was to be had whenever she performed. People flocked for tickets, which she personally sold from her hotel suite. The faithful had to sit with her, assure her they were not music critics and, on occasion, share a glass of sherry with the diva. She rewarded them on stage with no fewer than three costume changes, an extra one often thrown in for the encores.

Among them was her “Angel of Inspiration” outfit, a confection of feathered wings, satin, tulle and glitz. She could maintain neither pitch nor tempo--accompanist Cosme McMoon (known to be a stage name, although little else is known about him) frequently had to bang out particular notes repeatedly to get her somewhere within range of the printed key.

When asked if she had noticed laughter from the audience while she performed, she dismissed it as the tactics of jealous rival singers. On another occasion she said her audiences were joyously raucous and enthusiastic like those of the young Frank Sinatra. She apparently didn’t notice--or ignored--documented observations of people biting down on folded handkerchiefs or running out exits to avoid laughing out loud in the ballroom. Tickets eventually became impossible to obtain except through scalpers for a huge fee. In 1943 she was in a New York taxi that crashed, giving her a serious shock. On recovering she announced that extra notes had spontaneously appeared at the top of her range, allowing her suddenly to sing an f above high c. Instead of suing the cab company, she rewarded the driver.

In 1944, now 76, she bowed to public pressure and hired Carnegie Hall in New York for the capstone recital of her career—it sold out within hours. The critics (who always got in despite her efforts to exclude them) wrote in the same terms as always, in double-entendre prose with phrases mentioning her inimitable approach to pitch and rhythm or unique personal style that defied actual description. The crowd went wild. Her customary encore was Valverde’s song “Clavelitos” (carnations) which she sang in full Spanish dress with a basket of the flowers on her arm. She danced across the apron of the stage tossing carnations out to her fans and then tossed out the basket at the final high note. The audience demanded an encore of the encore. Her props were gone. McMoon was sent into the crowd to retrieve everything, and she took it again from the top. The hall went wild. A month later she was dead.

RCA recorded the heart of her recital repertory and put it out on a single LP record, recently remastered onto CD. The singing is truly dreadful. The recording became a regular ritual at dinner parties given by opera lovers, opera queens and musicians. It’s also a very unfair way to evaluate her, having been recorded at an age when even top stars are encountering vocal decline, and the RCA record jacket (above) clearly ridicules her. But the critics were perceptive in their obituaries. Robert Bagar wrote in the Herald-Tribune: "She was exceedingly happy in her work. It is a pity so few artists are. And her happiness was communicated as if by magic to her listeners who were stimulated to the point of audible cheering, even joyous laughter and ecstasy by the inimitable singing."

Judy Kaye as Florence Off-Broadway

There are major questions surrounding Jenkins and her public’s reaction. Theories that it was all a huge joke and parody of the concert world have been shot down by those who observed the genuine, uninhibited joy she took in performing. And it should be noted that she provided free concert tickets and financial support to music students who couldn't afford lessons. By all accounts, Broadway star Judy Kaye who plays-- and sings--Madame Jenkins in “Souvenir" has captured the combination of innocence, joy, communication with audiences-- and just a hint of self-delusion--that made Florence Foster Jenkins tick.

Pope Benedict XVI

I offer the following without comment beyond the fact that I have known four gay priests during my life (not pedophiles, but normal, healthy gay men who felt a genuine calling to the priesthood) and can only imagine what their reaction will be:

Vatican plan to block gay priests
By Jamie Doward, religious affairs correspondent
Sunday August 28, 2005 , The Observer

The new Pope faces his first controversy over the direction of the Catholic church after it was revealed that the Vatican has drawn up a religious instruction preventing gay men from being priests. The controversial document, produced by the Congregation for Catholic Education and Seminaries, the body overseeing the church's training of the priesthood, is being scrutinised by Benedict XVI.

It been suggested Rome would publish the instruction earlier this month, but it dropped the plan out of concern that such a move might tarnish his visit to his home city of Cologne last week.

The document expresses the church's belief that gay men should no longer be allowed to enter seminaries to study for the priesthood. Currently, as all priests take a vow of celibacy, their sexual orientation has not been considered a pressing concern.

Vatican-watchers believe the Pope harbours doubts about whether the church should publish the document, which has already been the subject of three drafts.
'Inevitably, such a directive will be met with opposition,' said John Haldane, professor of moral philosophy at the University of St Andrews.

The instruction tries to dampen down the controversy by eschewing a moral line, arguing instead that the presence of homosexuals in seminaries is 'unfair' to both gay and heterosexual priests by subjecting the former to temptation.

'It will be written in a very pastoral mode,' Haldane said. 'It will not be an attack on the gay lifestyle. It will not say "homosexuality is immoral". But it will suggest that admitting gay men into the priesthood places a burden both on those who are homosexual and those they are working alongside who are not.'

The instruction was drawn up as part of the Vatican's response to the sexual abuse scandal that surfaced in the American church three years ago, which has seen hundreds of priests launch lawsuits against superiors whom they accuse of abusing them.

As the former head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body charged with looking into the abuse claims, Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was made acutely aware of the scale of the problem. He is thought to have made clearing up the scandal one of the key goals of his papacy.

Next month the Vatican will send investigators to the US to gauge the scale of the scandal. More than 100 bishops and seminary staff will visit 220 campuses. They will review documents provided by the schools and seminaries and may interview teachers, students and alumni, then report directly to the Vatican, which could choose to issue the instruction barring homosexuals from entering the priesthood as part of its response.

Studies show that a significant proportion of men who enter seminaries to train for the priesthood are gay. Any move signalling that homosexuals will not be allowed to join the seminaries, even one couched in the arcane language of the Vatican, could reduce the number of recruits to the priesthood.

In a further sign of the instruction's deeply controversial nature, it is expected the document would be signed by a cardinal rather than the Pope himself if the Vatican decides to publish it.

The Vatican has been carefully trying to soften Benedict's image since he was elected earlier this year. In recent weeks he has reached out to the Jewish and Muslim communities as well as young Catholics during the church's World Youth Day. The initiatives have been seen as a significant PR success. A decision to publish an instruction that would underscore his religious conservatism would be detrimental to Benedict's standing as he enjoys his 'honeymoon period' on the world stage.

Friday, August 26, 2005


Opera-goers: Men in Kilts

Utilikilts--A Seattle Native

On one of our trips around Seattle, our friends M and S did a quick u-turn and pulled up in front of a modest industrial-looking storefront. It was the home of Utilikilts, a growing fashion trend. I see kilts used as eveningwear more and more, sometimes with a suit or sports jacket and sometimes with a tux shirt, jacket and cummerbund.
While they're not in the majority, they're making headway with a lot of men, most of them gay, like our dear friend B the chef who now has a wardrobe of them.

I've seen them backstage at the Glimmerglass Opera on a stage carpenter the last time I took the backstage tour. His was in heavy black demim, fitted out with a hammer loop and several pockets specially provided for drywall screws and other hardware. There's a black leather model that's really hot. B looks particularly good in his with a tall, lean body, sensational long legs, shaved head and goatee. And therein lies the disagreement between M, S and me when we were in the Utilikilt shop. They were sure that I would want one immediately and were expecting me to call for measurements; I don't think I have the right body for one.

Start with the fact that I'm longwaisted, and have what I ruefully call "birthing hips." While many guys taper down from broad shoulders and hunky chests to slender hips and long legs, my sides go more or less straight down and flare JUST ever so slightly as they pass a rather wide pelvis for a man. I've got what I call good, strong "socker legs" with some nice definition that I like a lot, but they're not particularly long. I think the whole look would be graceless on me, but maybe I just protest too much.

At any rate, I walked out having had a good time looking at all the off-the-rack models and watching a guy get fitted for one. Then on the third night of the RING at the Seattle Opera, I saw three men in kilts, each with his own very personal style. A short, wiry middle-aged man was in the black leather model with a silver metallic T-shirt, studded black leather vest, black workboots and matching forearm tattoos. A shaved head and facial stubble completed the look. Another man, thirtish and with a group of guys, had a tan one with lightweight tobacco brown sports jacket over an open-necked shirt. And a younger boy, tall and slender, no more than 18 and maybe 17, wore a plaid kilt with a blue blazer, shirt and tie, and mousse-spiked hair . Of the three, he was the only one wearing knee socks in the original Scottish
manner. Very preppy.

Thursday, August 25, 2005


Penzeys One magazine gay family Posted by Picasa


All Things (or at least four) Gay

I owe Andy Towle for this one. If you don't know him, Andy is the doyen of towleroad, a photo journal clearing house for gay-related topics from a wide variety of genres--male eye candy to international gay society and politics. He also has a rather astonishing resume. Last spring I realized that for eight years I had been driving right by Towle Road in Chester, New Hampshire on my way to Fritz's house. OK, sometimes I'm a little slow on the pick-up. Anyway, I took a picture of the road sign and forwarded it to Andy who posted it on the site and sent back a really sweet note.

He recently mentioned a web-based spice company called Penzeys that had put out a cooking magazine. A recipe from a family of two gay men, their preteen daughter and the brand new triplets they'd had with a surrogate mother was featured in the first volume. Penzeys had been slammed by all the usual anti-gay hate organizations for featuring a gay family, and Andy thought it might be good for people to write them in support.

Go to if you'd like to leave an appreciative message. And if you want guys' recipe for monster cookies, go to Features in the side bar on the left and click "One Love." You'll see the Olneys, a very multi-racial family with their tandoori recipe, and click on "The Kids are Alright" highlighted in brick red to find them and their recipe.

And after that, you might consider sending a note of support to the king of Sweden as well:

Fred Phelps' 'Swedish King Is Gay' Tirade
by Malcolm Thornberry European Bureau Chief
Posted: August 24, 2005 12:01 am ET

(Stockholm) Anti-gay preacher Fred Phelps has caused an international royal gay flap over accusations that Sweden's King Carl Gustaf is gay. Phelps, who runs the God Hates Fags website, makes the allegations on his newest site - God Hates Sweden. The preacher who built his reputation by picketing the funeral of gay college student Matthew Shepard is angry over a Swedish court ruling that a fundamentalist minister broke that country's hate speech law during a fiery speech against homosexuality.

Phelps' site calls Sweden "a land of sodomy, bestiality, and incest", and goes on to say: "The King looks like an anal-copulator, & his grinning kids look slutty & gay." Under pictures of the royals, the site says: "You jackass Swedes just don't get it. Once you have laws to chill Bible preaching, we don't give a rat's tutu whatever else you do or say. You are drippings from the Devil's own penis - a veritable sperm bank for Satan's queers."

The Swedish Royal Family--"anal copulator . . . slutty & gay"

The site and its content have infuriated Swedes who have a close bond with their royal family.
The government has expressed its concern to the US Ambassador. And, the royals have consulted their lawyers. "I think that it is frightful to defame people in this way," said Ann-Christine Jernberg, the kings press secretary. But, Jernberg said there is probably little the royal family can do, because it is hard to get such sites shut down.

The United States does not have 'promotion of hate' laws and under the First Amendment to the Constitution, Phelps' remarks are protected as free speech. Although Phelps could be prosecuted in Sweden it is doubtful he could be extradited.
© 2005

Makes you wonder just how "Reverend" Phelps knows so much about the Devil's dripping penis.

In three weeks on September 14, the Massachusetts legislature will again take up the proposed anti-gay amendment to the state constitution. Informed political opinion maintains that it does't have a chance of getting past this vote as several legislators formerly in support of the amendment have now changed their minds and stated they will vote no.

The reason? Some of those who had experienced a change of heart stated that spending a year in Massachusetts with gay marriage, and seeing that there were absolutely none of the negative consequences promised by the homophobes, had convinced them to vote against hate and discrimination.

Finally, Pat Robertson had to apologize and crawl away in shame from his call for the assassination of Venezuelan President Chavez. At first he tried to lie his way out by saying he had never made such a statement. I suspect media coverage saturating the country with his image coldly calling for us to engage in political murder finally brought him back to whatever small amount of sense he may possess.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

I spent about an hour last night writing up a big entry--Blogger just swallowed the whole thing and it's never to be seen again. So here's another attempt.

I missed my own blogging birthday! DesignerBlog turned two years old on the 8th of this month while I was certain the date was somewhere around the 27th.

The Man who would unleash an Assassin

The man at the left is a Christian minister. He regularly preaches The Eleven Commandments (the regular ten plus a non-canonical eleventh: "Thou shalt not tolerate homosexuals") and is nationally known as an exponent of "Christian Charity." He has publicly advocated the assassination by the United States of Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela.

I am not surprised. I was sent to Catholic School by my parents where we were regularly told of the hundreds, thousands, possibly millions of innocents they had beheaded, hanged, but mostly burned alive in the presence of the populations of entire towns whose people stood around eating, dancing and jeering to prolong and make even more unbearable the final agony of those condemned for the horrible "crime" of thinking their own thoughts. And they were proud to have done this--it was God's work, we were told. The "Reverend" Robertson feels that sending the CIA to take down Chavez (president of a major oil-producing country, not so coincidentally) would be far quicker and cheaper than another war. Should the assassination take place, doubtless we we'll all be told that it was done to bring democracy to the country and to liberate Venezuelan women from a macho Hispanic-male dominated culture--and all at bargain prices.

So, here we have a "Man of God" who advocates "Thou shalt not kill" calling for public murder. I'd ask if the radical religious right has no shame but I already know the answer to that one. And it leads me to wonder who else might be in the back of his mind as eligible for elimination by U.S. government hit squads (a great many people who sleep with members of their own sex, I imagine). What kills me is that he gets away with statements like this, or the one Fritz came across on Seattle TV while surfing through the channels: Rowe v. Wade and the entire abortion/"murder of babies" movement was wholly engineered by Lesbians according to Robertson. On the assassination statement, the White House has called his remarks merely "inappropriate." I often wish the U.S. guaranteed its citizens not freedom OF religion, but freedom FROM religion.

Which leads me to an interesting and tantalizing email I found when I got back from the trip. Some of you may remember that I registered a page on my Catholic high school's alumni site, including the information that I am an out gay man making a life in the performing arts. I included a picture or two of Fritz and me at my elder daughter's wedding and listed myself as married in a Massachusetts same-sex marriage. I thought it might do the community some good to know they have homosexuals among their alumni. I've seen evidence that a couple of people have checked out the blog from the link I left on the page.

The email invites me to speak to groups of juniors and seniors at a Career Day on the last Wednesday in October, a day when I could actually make the trip down to Queens in New York City. I never thought I would want to set foot in the place ever again but this is intriguing. There have obviously been some enormous changes from the day when they told me that I'd have to choose a new profession to go into because they couldn't find any Catholic college or university in the U.S. that had professional theater studies. They were so inept that they didn't know Catholic University in D.C. had, and continues to have, a highly respectable theater school. I created a scandal by telling them I wasn't planning to attend a Catholic college and that was the end of my relationship with them as far as I was concerned. I haven't made a decision yet but if they offer to cover travel expenses, it just might be a done deal.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Seattle with Mount Rainier "suspended" in the distance

We got back from Seattle last night via two flights on Southwest. They went like clockwork and we even landed about twenty minutes early in Manchester, New Hampshire. But given the two hour layover in Chicago and the three hour time change as we headed east, it was a full day of travel.

We did a lot there. First of all, we treated it like a real vacation (as if we hadn't spent all July on vacation or anything!) and slept as late as we're capable of sleeping. We're both early risers--in both senses of the word--but we took it easy, had some lovely wake-up sex, and didn't push ourselves too hard on the sight-seeing.

Exterior of Seattle's newest architectural icon

One of the places we'd wanted to visit in particular was the new Rem Koolhaas-designed Seattle Public Library central branch. It has become a lightning rod for criticism, particularly for its interior layout and the way it deconstructs the Dewey Decimal System.

Our friends M and S took us through it and they like it. S pointed out that in a city where it's cloudy/foggy much of the time, the all-glass exterior brings 100% of the city's available light right into the stacks and reading areas. The interior is organized like a gentle spiral with ramps leading continuously downward, wrapped around a central core of stacks. Between the spiral and the outer skin are reading areas, computer desks and special collections.

Interior of the library looking down from the 10th floor

There isn't a lot of color in the library, but where it exists it's extremely vivid. Much of the fourth floor (called the Mixing Chamber) is bright cherry red to provide a radically different experience. All escalators are bright yellow-lime green to have a super visibility. Stairs are either the green or the red and purposely made to show the wear of thousands of feet which some accept as a benign indication of how a structure ages and others decry as looking shabby after a very short period of use.

Throughout the building there are balconies and terraces that overlook sheer drops of between four and six levels. Fritz was having a little trouble with some of that. But overall, it's really impressive and we all felt that given a period of adjustment, most people would learn to use it with some ease. Already, library usage (the new central library and all branches) is way, way up. Check-out and book return is fully computerized and completely self-serve. Above all, the interior spaces are truly beautiful while also being visually stable and not providing any distraction.

Friday, August 19, 2005


The hot Glory Holes of Tacoma . . .

. . . are not the ones you might think. We spent most of Wednesday in Tacoma, now bravely recovering from a couple of decades of urban decay, neglect and a massive crime rate. Once run-down buildings are being rediscovered at wonderfully stylish places and the glassworks has become a major economic engine. We found a great little lunch place (run by a woman originally from Cohasset, south of Boston) and had a fascinating couple of hours in the hot room where the glassblowers work. The glory holes here open into furnaces at around 2000 degrees and are an essential part of the glassmaking process.

That night we celebrated Fritz's birthday at a tapas restaurant called Tango up in the Capitol Hill district. For some reason we had two waiters for our table and they were completely uncoordinated. When you have to go across the restaurant to find your waiter, things aren't good. The food was excellent, however, and M, S, Fritz and I had good time in spite of the inconveniences.

Yesterday we had a fun day doing classic tourist stuff back in Seattle--the Space Needle, the Monorail and the Pike Place Market. I have seen three out of the four operas that make up the RING cycle and so far, it's been a world-class production and musical performance.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Happy Birthday, Fritz

We had a good trip out--all planes on time--and we're settled in for the week at the Mediterranean Inn about two blocks from the Seattle Center, home of four theaters, the opera, the Space Needle, Monorail and a sports arena. Although not advertised as a gay hotel, the Mediterranean seems to have a largely gay clientele, which is very pleasant indeed. I think we've seen one straight guy since we checked in yesterday afternoon.

Today is Fritz's birthday. Since tonight is a performance night for the second opera in the RING
cycle, we're celebrating officially tomorrow night with our friends M and S, possibly down in Tacoma where we're going to spend the day at the glassworks. I didn't want to shlepp all his presents out here so I did a substitute of pictures of them on a piece of paper that I wrapped up to give him tomorrow. I did, however, give him a very personal gift this morning between 5 and 6 am. that he really, really liked.

Thursday, August 11, 2005


Leaving again; this time it's all about opera

The Glimmerglass Opera Theater

I'm on the road again for the next ten days. Later this morning I'm driving out to Cooperstown, NY (via Northfield, MA to pick up an opera buddy) and heading for the Glimmerglass Opera Festival. Glimmerglass was James Fennimore Cooper's name for Lake Otesego on whose shores the town has grown into a major pilgrimage destination. The really cool people come for the opera, of course, but I suppose the Baseball Hall of Fame does draw a decent crowd.

Actually, the two major attractions get along very well and the beautiful rolling farmland for miles around is a third major draw. Antiquing and running down local farm fairs and events (like the garlic festival one year--they even had garlic ice cream!) are fun ways to spend the mornings. I'll be seeing four operas in three days--Friday evening, Saturday matinee and evening and Sunday matinee. The 900 seat theater has excellent acoustics and the side walls slide open like Japanese shoji screens to ventilate the hall which has an informal, old New England Barn feel to its interior. Though relatively small and tucked away into a very rural area, many of the big names in directing and design and quite a few major stars love to work at Glimmerglass for the serious rehearsal periods and the strong sense of ensemble.

McCaw Hall in the vast Seattle Center

After the curtain falls on Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte on Sunday afternoon, I'll drive my friend back to Northfield and then go directly to Fritz's. On Monday morning we fly out to Seattle for a week where I'll be seeing Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung. Fritz isn't going to the opera with me--nineteen hours of Wagner arranged in four operas performed over a six day period isn't his idea of a good time. It's my idea of heaven.

The old opera house was gutted to the outer walls a couple of years ago and a whole new interior built within, notable for excellent sight lines, acoustics and stage technology. McCaw Hall seats 2900 and is this country's newest major venue for music theater on a grand scale.

Fritz loves to kid me about being an opera widow but he'll be with good friends of ours when I'm at performances. And for all those times when I'm not in the theater, we'll
be doing some more
exploring in the Seattle area.

One sure thing is a day in Tacoma for the extensive glassworks and exhibitions of the work of famed glass artist and sculptor Dale Chihuly. His work is known inter- nationally and we even encountered a major student of his in Wertheim, Germany
on our recent trip.
We'll also do a lot of walking and I want particularly to buy a special blend of tea at the Pike Market that as far as I know is available only there. And as our friends M and S have totally bought into the Northwest's coffee culture, I suspect we'll be spending a considerable amount of time in various Starbucks.
A Chihuly window (above left), chandelier (above right) and museum installation (center)

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Several unrelated things

Countries I have Visited

States I have Visited

As I've mentioned before, I love to travel so I finally did one of the countries and states visited programs. There are a couple of things I might have done differently had I been the designer, principally making a distinction between European and Asiatic Russia. The program does call out all the countries that used to make up Soviet Central Asia as separate republics, but if you've been, as I have, in Western Russia the proigram throws Siberia in for free. It looks very impressive but it isn't exactly accurate.

When I finished filling in all my states and countries, I did a cut and paste of the html provided to put the maps on the blog. Interestingly, putting the code into the body of today's entry somehow affected all the settings in the template so that the type size of my link lists and of all previous daily entries suddenly became tiny. I had to delete the html, go back to the map program and save the actual maps to my desktop, then upload them to the blog. They wouldn't go at first as they were gifs and had to be converted into bitmaps first, but when Bogger's relatively new picture upload program did accept them, all the type in other parts of the blog returned to normal. Perhaps some of you more into the tech of these things can explain that.

Speaking of which, I got to meet another fellow blogger for lunch yesterday, Bryan from That's Interesting. He came to MIT (where I work in one of the Institute's very few un-air conditioned buildings) and he is definitely someone who who knows his way around programming. After lunch I showed him around our design and production building.

ABC TV ran a moving two hour tribute to the late Peter Jennings between 8 and 10 pm Eastern Time tonight. The man's elegance, lack of pretense and depth of skill were lauded by his co-workers and peers, to the extent that he HAD any peers. Commentary on WBZ (CBS) Radio here in Boston yesterday praised his breadth of knowledge and dignity in a profession that'd dumbing itself down faster and faster. In point of fact, the man never actually graduated high school. His obsessive reading on every topic imaginable, his incredibly careful preparation of material, and his personal communication skills were all praised. And the many clips of him throughout the program proved all the praise justified over and over again. It was two hours very well spent.

Moving from Jennings's integrity to the current administration, there's an interesting little story running around that the White House is on a campaign to mollify the religious right nut cases over the John Roberts nomination. A story on how Roberts had unhesitatingly given his assistance to help shape a proposed Colorago law that would prevent gays and lesbians from losing their rights under the state's anti-discrimination law was brought to the media's attention. Many of the fundamentalists thought themselves betrayed by Bush. A barometer of just how degraded our political system has become is that our president is now doing everything he can to assure his supporters that his nominee for the nations highest court really IS intolerant and a bigot. I sometimes wonder if we have any values left.

Focus on the Family has announced a seminar for ministers on how to deal with male and female homosexuals "compassionately but without compromise." It is to be held right her in Boston at the end of September in the Tremont Temple, an old urban church in downtown Boston. Among the agenda items is how to deal of the "myth of being born gay." What's funny is that I got a copy of the invitation to the conference forwarded to me by a good friend who's a gay Catholic priest.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


Farewell to a complete professional

Peter Jennings

I've never bought into the cult of The Anchorman. I know of the studies that stress the importance for the average American (someone I actually try not to be) of identifying with and trusting the major network Anchors. And I've watched a number of them succumb to narcissism, becoming mannered and pompous like Dan Rather, or convinced of their own glamor and sex appeal like Tom Ellis. Tom came to notice in Boston on the major NBC outlet, a tall, highly communicative Texan who quickly added a variety of winks and sly smiles to his repertory. He eventually did everything but blow kisses to the camera. It was all about showmanship and he ruled the Boston news scene.

Ellis was being groomed to enter the New York market with lots of anticipatory publicity. The New York Times actually ran a cover story in its Sunday magazine with Tom's head superimposed on the body of a Greek statue of the naked Apollo, adding the graphic of an enhanced fig leaf straining hard to conceal a supposedly huge package. But New Yorkers rejected Tom and he wound up back in Boston, winding down his career at a small, regionally-oriented station.

Then there was Peter Jennings. I'm sure he played the game. He became ABC's national Anchor, held the position for over twenty years and I'm not naive enough to think he did it only on his great talent, public figure next door good looks and smooth, urbane but approachable manner. But I never found that Jennings thought it was all about him. And he had integrity.

In the wake of 9/11, a video clip of a group of Arabic people said to be dancing in the streets, celebrating the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings was being shown all over the networks. Jennings found out that the tape was actually a couple of years old and had been dug out of the archives by some reporter. It was rushed onto the networks as a sensational item to satisfy--and feed--anti-Muslim feeling in the country. During his nightly news broadcast on either the second or third day after 9/11, Jennings began an item on reaction to the attacks in the Islamic world and the bogus clip appeared on the screen. He stopped in mid-sentence and said, "NO--not that one!" The clip disappeared and was never seen again, at least not on ABC news. Whatever the dancing people were celebrating, and it might well have been some attack against the West or assassination, it wasn't the 9/11 attack and Jennings wouldn't have it on his news report.

Jennings was a Canadian (all you had to hear was him talking "aboot" some event to know) who added American citizenship to his Canadian nationality two or so years ago in solidarity with the country in which he had made such a mark. Fritz and I both watched him regularly, no matter what other channels we otherwise preferred for news. Sorry to see Peter Jennings go--we'll miss him a great deal.

Sunday, August 07, 2005


Family Milestones

Marks & Spencer in the U.K., home of St. Michael Soap

Tonight I opened a small cardboard box of St. Michael Magnolia-scented Soap, manufactured for and distributed by the distinguished English retailer Marks & Spencer, and an era in my family history ended.

In December of 2000, my step-mother (also my aunt--after my mother's death, my father married her younger sister) died after a long period of physical and emotional decline. She had never married prior to my father's asking her, and she staked everything on the marriage. Several years later, he died suddenly and unexpectedly three weeks after she retired from her career so that they could spend the maximum amount of time together, and she never recovered from the shock.

As an only child, the responsibility for settling things and cleaning out their big apartment on 14th Street and 5th Avenue in New York City fell to me. Fritz, bless him, came to the city with me for a week to get it all done. I had always known that she, a child of the Depression, hoarded things out of fear of not having enough, but I never knew just how much until we began digging into the closets and cabinets.

We filled one large size lawn and leaf bag with unopened Kleenex tissue boxes, another with paper towel rolls
and a third with toilet paper and toiletries of all kinds, especially hand soaps. There was everything from several four bar packages of basic Ivory bath soap to the kind of little heart-shaped soaps with roses molded on them that you (well, that some people) put out in the bathroom when company is expected. There were Dove soaps, glycerine soaps and oatmeal soaps, deoderant and lavender and abrasive soaps--and one that I saved to be the very last one of all, the one in the old-fashioned little cardboard box, with the starburst design molded into a dome on its top--the Marks & Spencer Magnolia Soap that I opened tonight.

After four and a half years, it's all over. I had gradually exhausted the toilet paper, Fritz had inherited the Kleenex because he uses them while I prefer cloth handkerchiefs that I can wash and reuse, and the last of the paper towels went some time in late June. But the soaps! Stacked so neatly into my bathroom cabinet in layer after layer (the sheer number of them impressive) it seemed as if they'd last forever. Why did I save the Magnolia for last? Perhaps because it was the one that surely cost the most; because the box promises "a rich, creamy lather to leave [my] skin soft, smooth and delicately perfumed"--like magnolias, of course; and because of its extravagance and the fact that I will think of her as I use it up.

My Father's WWII Medals

In the same big clean-up, I took possession of my father's medals and other equipment from his service as a bombardier in the Second World War. As Fritz and I walked through the handsome German Renaissance town of Regensburg last month, I remembered that my father had also visited--at about five thousand feet and aiming for anything of an industrial or military nature.

He was a natural archivist. He saved everything, including all his training manuals; flight log; phrase books for British English, French and German (the latter two in case he was shot down or became a prisoner in either country); uniform insignia; and an extensive scrapbook of newspaper clippings, letters and telegrams. But the best is an unintentionally hilarious little book on how to deal with French house-wives if shot down--it describes them as some sort of cross between the Tasmanian Devil and Joan of Arc, armored and ready for battle.

The completness and superb condition of all the calculator wheels, calipers, and airspeed charts (he saved everything including the piece of schrapnel that earned him his Purple Heart) suggested an exhibit in a museum. By sheer coincidence a good friend, a woman who is Special Collections Librarian for Connecticut College in New London, mentioned that the library had received the entire collection of memorabilia of a World War II Air Corps officer from New London who had been a Nazi prisoner of war, telling his own unique story. My father had grown up summers in New London where his parents had a summer house. When I asked if the library would like a second collection, she jumped at the chance. I began to inventory everything, making copies of some things for myself and photographing his medals, which I am not giving but saving for my daughters who adored their grandfather.

A month ago I received word that the library has curated everything, and that the two collections will be unveiled at a special dinner on Veterans Day this November, becoming available for scholars to access for research. Rather than deteriorating forgotten in old cardboard boxes, what he saved so carefully will be available to the public as part of the historical record.

Friday, August 05, 2005


Clark Sorensen's Flower Urinals

Are these not splendid? Ceramic and glass artist Clark Sorensen has recently completed the run of an exhibit in San Francisco under the title "Nature Calls," featuring these creations with prices ranging from $3,500 to $10,000. According to the website, several of them sold and I'm not surprised. I'm particularly taken with "Orange Hibiscus" (below right) and "Cala Lily" (below left). Both are strong designs and are also joyously phallic, which is really what a urinal is all about, or should be. After seeing these, the standard functional but unimaginative hunks of white vitreous china just aren't going to cut it.
Come to think of it, why are urinals confined to public facilities? Bidets have made themselves at home in many American bathrooms, so why not the even more familiar urinal? Among other advantages, urinals would eliminate completely that eternal, tiresome conflict in straight households about why
husbands never put the toilet seat down.
I found out today what it's going to cost to get my digital camery repaired. There's a minimum repair charge of $165 for my model. The camera will be sent to Kyocera's service facility in New Jersey and will probably be gone for a month.
In the meanwhile, I'll be trying to find a friend whose camera takes the same kind of picture chip as mine, borrow it and get my pictures uploaded to computer so I can do something with them.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005


Violeroticism? & Rhine Journey

French Violinist Renaud Capuçon

When speaking about the concert in Amsterdam yesterday I didn't mention the dynamic violin soloist in the Mendelssohn, Renaud Capuçon. Even from seats far back in the hall it was a toss-up as to which was more beautiful: the rich, effortless tone of the violin or the lithe, perfectly groomed young violinist. The audience loved him as they most certainly should have--he spun out endless, colorful streams of tone and delivered an impassioned reading of the concerto. It turns out that he's one of the few international artists who doesn't have a website, but I did find several of his publicity shots through Google.

Now, am I the only one who looks at this photo and sees a sly erotic reference? The placement of the violin's scroll seemingly against the leather-clad M. Capuçon's lips while his hands grasp the base of the fingerboard is not a conventional publicity pose, but I think it's quite fetching.

A Castle on the Rhine

In Germany we sailed on four major waterways--the Danube, the Main, the Rhine, and the canal that links the latter two rivers together, making possible ship traffic from the North Sea all the way to the Black Sea. Some of the most spectacular and picturesque scenery of the trip was in this area. We started in German wine country where the river was lined with vineyards, beginning on the flat river banks and spreading upwards, some of the planted areas clinging to the hillsides at 35 to 45 degree angles.

Eventually we entered the Rhine Gorge and a pattern was set. Lovely little towns and villages spread along the banks with the old feudal castles looming above them on the heights. During this part of the trip the cruise director stayed in the wheelhouse with a microphone, telling the names of the villages and the stories of the many castles as we relaxed on deck and it all drifted by.

Medieval Gate in the town of Rothenberg
We Sailed the Rhine Gorge by day so everyone could see the scenic splendor, but in general the boat sailed at night so that we could be docked by breakfast and visit historic towns by day.

The history of each town was pretty well covered by our walking tour guides and there was no hedging on the issue of the Nazi period, the Holocaust, and the consequences for Germany during the American and British bombardment. While smaller towns that had no heavy industry and weren't on important railroad lines were completely untouched by bombing, a number of the larger cities suffered as much as 85% destruction.

In Rothenberg I climbed the Town Hall tower for sweeping views of the city and surrounding countryside and then Fritz and I did our usual walk around through the winding streets. In one small square we came across a bronze plaque honoring fourteenth century Rabbi Mier ben Baruch who had run a Talmudic school on the site. The Rabbi was held in great respect but when he moved to another city to go into retirement, the school was immediately closed by the the town council and the building conveted into a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

In Germany, the public buildings and houses were frequently rebuilt exactly as they had been, based on photographs and surviving plans. In some areas, however, the approach was to develop a building style that incorporated the lines, general proportions and some of the materials of the older architecture while being throughly modern in layout, plumbing and construction technique.

Bratislava's "Concrete Jungle"

In Slovakia, however, the Russians who occupied eastern Europe cared nothing for aesthetics and poured massive amounts of concrete to create what our guide referred to accurately as "the concrete jungle." This residential area across the Danube from medieval and baroque Bratislava stretches out for a considerable distance, a regimented visual blight of identical, anonymous medium-rise gray buildings, spreading as far as the eye could see. The dead hand of the former Communist regime in the Iron Curtain countries was never more visible than here.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Men, Museums, Bicycles, Food and the Concertgebouw

The centerpiece of the day today was a happy every-six-weeks-or-so ritual: lunch with fellow Boston Blogger Karl. We're blessed to work relatively near each other in Cambridge in an area saturated with decent places to eat. "Where" is always the big question but Karl solved it in record time by dropping the words "curly fries." They are not, perhaps, the very worst food item you can put in your body, but to quote a famous Marlon Brando movie line, they "coulda been a contenda." For me they're something of a fatal attraction, so we followed the trail of the curly fry to Boston Common, a bar with food just north of Harvard Law School which Karl single-handedly keeps running like a well oiled machine. During lunch the recent big trip came up and I thought I'd share a couple of more stories as they're a good deal more pleasant than the latest about gay teenagers hanged in Iran for being gay or Bush's nominees to positions where they can wreck considerable havoc.

We were looking for a breakfast place one morning in Amsterdam which is not the easiest thing to do before 9 or 10am. The Dutch eat at home. Hotels serve breakfasts to their guests, but ours began only at 9, which makes sense if you figure that the majority of its clients would have been out to the gay saunas and clubs until the wee small hours. So we set out on a bit of a walk and found a sports bar that was serving as of 8am.

We took an outdoor table next to a good-looking, outgoing guy with whom we soon struck up a conversation. He asked where we were from in a pronounced German accent; we replied and tossd the question back. "San Diego," came the reply. "But where were you born,?" Fritz asked. He stood his ground, accent and all, with "San Diego." Now this seemed strange, so Fritz mentioned having lived near San Diego for a year in a well-known town--of which our new friend knew absolutely nothing.

Before any more questions could come up, a slender and boyish black man came from the bar, sat with him and the two began making out passionately, which they would continue to do at intervals all throughout breakfast.
Despite the frequency and intensity of their public displays of lust, their conversation clearly indicated that they didn't know the first thing about each other. We finished and left, much amused, with the distinct impression that their association had begun no more than about five hours previously, and that just maybe our German-accented "boy from SoCal" was a hustler giving the boys what he thought they might want to hear.

Interior of Amsterdam's famed Concertgebouw

From breakfast we walked to the city's major concert hall to stand in line for the few day-of-sale tickets to an otherwise sold-out concert by a very good visiting French orchestra. We were first in line, shortly to be joined by an attractive young man with whom we had a most pleasant conversation. We got our tickets and headed to our museum stop of the day at the house of Rembrandt.

The great painter did very well in his time financially,
but his tastes outran his income by an big margin and he went bankrupt after several years in this big, expensive house with
a fleet of servants required to run it. Since the Dutch keep exquisite records of everything, the auction of all Rembrandt's possessions in-
cluded detailed descriptions of what everything looked like and where
in each room it was placed, so restoring the house to look exactly as
it was when he lived there was an easy job.

He kept a studio full of what we would call "props" to use with his models
when setting up a painting. He had an extensive collection of plaster busts of Roman emperors, sea shells, exotica from the orient, and good fabrics.
One room is given over to the process of printing his famed engravings and etchings, complete with an ancient roller press on which an exact copy of one of his copper plates is used to strike off a print.

Rembrandt's House

One interesting feature of the house is that there were no bedrooms as such. Most of the rooms, particularly the entrance parlor and what we would call the living room, had handsome deep cabinets of luxuriously carved wood that opened to reveal a double bed. Any room in the house could become a bedroom when needed simply by opening up one of these box beds.

The afternoon was given over to a Yellow Bike Tour of the city. Amsterdam is full of bicycles, more bicycles than I've seen anywhere else, with only the possible exception of China. Fritz had done a Bike tour when he went over for his neice's wedding and thought it would be a great way to get some exercise and see parts of
the city we hadn't gotten to yet.

I'd ridden a bike as a kid and then again for several years when I bought my house, but it's been a while. Add cobblestones, tram tracks set into cobble stones, narrow canal-side streets choked with ars, trucks, and lots of other bicyclists impatient of anyone not able to navigate as eaily as they, and it turned out not to be my finest hour. Fritz later said he wished he'd had a camera to record my looks of stark terror.

On the other hand--I didn't fall, I didn't hit anyone with my bike like the young man from India who rear-ended his girlfriend at one point, and I had a lot of fun with it in the quieter sections of town.

After dinner (Greek, not bad at all, but the REAL cuisine to have in the Netherlands is Indonesian) we headed back to the Concertgebouw for Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique." Thrifty as always, the Dutch waste no money on ushers. The rows and seats are numbered and you as an audience member are assumed to be able to read. Shortly after we sat down, the young man from the ticket line that morning and his handsome boyfriend settled in next to us and we ended the day with good music and good conversation.

Bicycle parking lot at the Central Station

Monday, August 01, 2005


Camera collapse & RødGrød med Fløde

Kyocera Digital Camera

Three years ago before going off to Australia for the first time in my life, I bought a Kyocera digital camera. I got it at Bromfield Camera, one of Boston's biggest and best camera stores, and purchased two high capacity chips because we were going to be there for three weeks and I knew the country was going to be full of wonders. But the chips and the camera turned out to be incompatible. I went through the reformatting procedures several times without any luck. It was frustrating, ultimately infuriating.

When we got back, I went to Bromfield and complained, in a controled but firm manner. They couldn't figure it out but finally discovered that the camera itself had been improperly set up. With much egg on their faces (they were aware I had spent a lot of money on a good camera, my very first digital, for a really big trip and that they had blown it). They redid the formatting and apologized. From then on the camera worked very well indeed.

So, off we go on July 1st for this year's trip, the centerpiece of which is the two week cruise through old historic cities and some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe. I was in Nürnburg, setting up a shot of the city as seen from the ancient Imperial Bastion when the camera jammed, rock solid, with the lens extended and the little flash unit up. Nothing worked, there was no display, dead as a doornail. Back on the riverboat I worked on it as best I could, recharging the battery, trying anything to do a reset procedure, but no dice. I was without it for the rest of the trip. When I got back, Bromfield was able at least to get it to close up but told me it has to go back to the manufacturer for repair. So, I've not been able to upload from my chips to computer and post my pictures to the blog (anything you've seen since I got back has been captured via Google).

One version of RødGrød med Fløde

We began the vacation with a week in Denmark. Fritz has a great friend there he's known since spending a summer with her in a Quaker work camp above the Arctic circle in Finland during his college years. They were building roads and a school for Lapplanders. She and her husband have hosted us now three times, helping us explore different areas of the country on each visit. They speak English extremely well which is good because our Danish is close to non-existent. In fact, Danish is one rugged language to get into.

It looks so innocent on the page, but one thing you learn almost immediately is that most of the consonants are pronounced radically differently than they are in English. Ks can sound like Gs, Ds sound like Ls when in the middle or end of a word, and can also be silent. Or they can sound like Ds. Sometimes.

Rs are pronounced gutterally in the back of the throat. Do you speak French or German? Sorry--that won't help you with the Rs (which aren't rolled but pronounced as if you're clearing your throat) or the Ds pronounced like Ls that sound as if you're gagging while saying them. With great charm and candor she told us once of an old Swedish saying, "Danish isn't a language, it's a throat infection."

The classic challenge is to pronounce the name of a simple, delightful dessert made from red berries, RødGrød med Fløde (the word is that customes officials and police have used pronouncing this dessert as a test if someone is really Danish). On this trip she made it for us and I had the presence of mind to write the recipe down as she put it together. We made it last night with raspberries from our new fruit and berry orchard and it turned out just wonderfully, so I'm posting the recipe for you all.

But first, you'll surely want to pronounce the name of your new dessert properly. Remember to swallow the Rs into the back of the throat and the final L sound is best done by bringing the tongue forward, closing the throat slightly so it feels like you're about to gag. It sounds just like this: hrul ghrul meh fluhl. Whatever you do, don't say it directly AT someone on your first couple of tries, because anything could fly out of your throat (particularly during the hrul ghrul) and that would not be cool.

You will need:
One and a half cups stewed and pureed rhubarb (not stewed in much water)
One and a half pints of red, blue or purple berries
Three quarters of a cup of cold water
Four tablespoons of potato flour or two tablespoons of corn starch
One quarter cup of sugar
One half teaspoon Vanilla extract
Heavy cream or medium cream. Variations: sour cream or ice cream

Put rhubarb puree, sugar, vanilla and berries (cut up if they're large) into a sauce pan. Bring to a boil for a minute or two so the fruit is soft but not mushy. Remove from the heat.

Dissolve the flour or starch in the water and gradually wisk into the fruit The result shouldn't be too thick and stiff, but anywhere from heavy syrup to soft pudding in consistency. Return to the flame just until it begins to simmer. Adjust for taste, adding sugar if desired.

Set aside to cool with a little extra sugar sprinkled on top to prevent a skin from forming. If cooked in a metal pan, transfer the fruit mix to a glass or ceramic bowl to cool.

RødGrød med Fløde is best served in clear glass bowls or big wine glasses so that its glorious deep ruby color is shown off. Dribble some cream on top before serving.
A bit of sour cream sets off the sweetness of the fruit nicely, and a small scoop of vanilla ice cream works well, too. Garnish, if desired, with a couple of fresh mint leaves.

Bon appetit!

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