Friday, April 28, 2006

We're moving pretty quickly toward the end of the term at MIT. The spring has gone a lot faster than I thought it would, but on another level I understand why it's seemed so fast and why I expect next year to fly by. At the end of this academic year, I'll send a letter to the chair of the Music and Theater Arts section with a copy to the Dean of the School of Humanities. The letter will announce my retirement from MIT as of June of 2007.

I'm doing it for love, and doing it very happily. By the end of next academic year, I'll have been with Fritz for ten years but we've never been able to live together. I had my career at MIT, where I've had an incredible time, a constant positive challenge and a lot of artistic and intellectual fulfillment. He's owned and run his conference and retreat center, using it as the platform for a variety of educational programs, including the main one that trains teachers to use the arts in all aspects of their teaching. Between us has been Route 93. Fritz lives about 20 minutes from this junction.

93 is a major highway rising from Boston and heading north up the center of New Hampshire, through the ski resorts, the summer lake vacation district, and the prime autumn leaf viewing vistas of the state. It's also a main commuter route into Boston. When 93 isn't clogged with traffic it takes exactly an hour from my parking garage at MIT to Fritz's front door. During the morning commute, it frequently takes two and a quarter to two and a half hours, and the same or worse in the evening as the road squeezes from four lanes to three, and then to two at the border with New Hampshire. Very early on we talked about the situation and recognized that we were going to be running a commuter relationship for a while. A while turned into a decade.

I've now
got enough pension built up to leave. The new house is progressing well in the planning stages. The ground plan is just about where I want it, and several key people who love us and have a variety of skills and much knowledge have committed to help as much as possible. Just yesterday H, the architect at whose house we met, told me of a June 2nd workshop at the Boston Architects Society on "The Independent Home," ie. one that works to be self-sufficient in our energy-troubled world. I'll be there.

I'll be building a preliminary model of the house within the next ten days and documenting the progress of the design and it's eventual construction here on the blog. The timeline is that ground will be broken almost exactly a year from now, with October of 2007 the target date for moving in. I'll keep on working once I've moved, except that instead of doing art for other people, I'm looking forward to doing art just for me for a change.

Let me introduce the American countertenor David
Walker. David appears internationally in opera and the concert hall, working with many of the finest companies. He specializes in the Baroque operas that have leading heroic roles for the castrati, the little choir boys who were castrated before their voices cracked in the hope they would grow into powerful adult male sopranos. The Catholic Church began this sorry business in Italy and we don't need to go into the horrors--which were many--of the practice, particularly for the many whose voices never matured into anything special. The few whose voices did become leading man material had incredible careers and the roles written for them are among the greatest and most virtuosic in the operatic repertory.

After castration was banned (although the Church continued to castrate Sistine Chapel boys right through most of the 19th century) women had to sing these roles. But that left a credibility gap visually, of course; and women sound like women, whereas all surviving evidence (including the 1902 recordings of an aged but still performing castrato in Rome) indicate that castrati had male power, color and strength to their tone and could never be mistaken for women.

The modern countertenor voice was developed in the middle of the last century and really picked up steam in the 1980s. Possesed of both their testicles AND a vocal technique that they were all experimenting with, making it up as they went along, by the 1990s countertenors began to emerge as superstars on stage and in the concert hall.

David Walker is one of the finest, a creature of the stage with an acting range from boy next door to raging psycopathic Roman Emperor, as in the upper picture where he's playing Nero in Monteverdi's "The Coronation of Poppea." I know it looks like he's moonlighting as one of the swans from "Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake," but he's actually dressed as a satyr for a palace orgy in the English National Opera production. That's the production in which his first entrance was rising from a pool of water full frontal and completely naked. The audience was reputedly most appreciative.
He's playing Oberon in Britten's opera "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the lower photo, on the right.

David chose to come out publicly a couple of years ago via an interview in The Advocate, from which the quotes come. In his 20s, he had a rough time telling his family, his father--a career Marine--in particular. "As far as I am concerned, you no longer exist and you cannot call me your father," he told David, who nevertheless persisted in keeping in touch and who has made progress in preserving a relationship with his father.

Countertenors, who are predominantly gay men, have had an interesting time establishing a balance between the super-butch heroes they often portray and their out gay lives. In fact, their success at this feat might serve as an example to Hollywood leading men who are closeted, in fear of losing their fan base if they come out--although I'm well aware that the worlds of opera and mainstream movies are obviously hugely different culturally. Nevertheless, countertenors have been pioneers in the performing arts, and David credits the late rock star Freddy Mercury (who once recorded songs with the great Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe) as being a role model. "Not only was he completely comfortable working at it, he was balls-to-the-wall kicking ass," David told The Advocate. "He had an amazing amount of musical variety. And there was no wussiness about him."

Nor about David Walker, either.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Over the years I invested what I could, over and above what it took to raise my two daughters and get them through college financially. Eventually through my efforts, and an inheritance when my step-mother died, I had a modest stock portfolio. Spring is the season for the annual meetings where corporation management reports to the stock holders, and the stock holders vote on proposals from management and from the stockholders themselves.

Yesterday I got an envelope from J.P.Morgan Chase and when I scanned the list of stock holder proposals, one jumped out at me, titled "Sexual Orientation." The accompanying booklet gave the text of a proposal full of "Whereases," some of which I quote below:

Whereas, domestic partner benefit policies pay people who engage in homosexual sex acts, which were illegal in this country for hundreds of years, and have been proscribed by the major traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Mohammedism [sic] for a thousand years or more.

Whereas, cohabitation, regardless of sexual orientation is illegal In North Carolina, North Dakota and several other states.

Whereas, those who engage in homosexual sex are at a significantly higher risk for HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted disease.

Whereas, marriage between heterosexuals has been protected and encouraged by a wide range of societies, cultures and faiths for ages.

The proposal concludes with two sentences, artfully convoluted to soften a call for total discrimination against gay and lesbian employees of JPMorgan Chase, including the cessation of domestic partner benefits.

The response of the Board of Directors was to urge all stock holders to vote against the proposal. The response went on to uphold the principle of a diverse work force, declare all anti-gay rights campaigns as "contrary to the core values" of the company, and to say that the company would not tolerate disrespect to any of its employees. It was the first time I've seen something this blatantly homophobic brought up by a stock holder. It was gratifying to see the Board's vigorous condemnation, but it's the mass of stock holders who decide and I'll be watching for the outcome of the vote next month.

A couple of months ago we learned that airlines will soon charge for checked baggage (perhaps even for carry-on bags), soft drinks, and aisle or exit row seats (because of their "extra legroom"). Now Airbus is even proposing eliminating seats altogether in preference to "standing room." Standing room will consist of row after row of slanted boards, each padded and equipped with a headrest, arm rests and a seatbelt. Or is it boardbelt?

The passenger will have no fold-down tray-table to engage in work or a magnetic board game--and of course there'll be no hope of food. What you're supposed to do if you're aged or disabled in any way-- or if you're a child, or if you're traveling with a baby--has obviously not been considered. Or, it's been considered and they didn't really care.

Airbus is attempting to market these standing room planes in the Asian market. The attraction is supposed to be that 830 standing boards can be jammed into a particular model of plane configured to be all one class, instead of the normal 500 seats. According to CNN, the company scoffs at reports that no airline company it has approached will consider the things. I can't imagine standing room being practical, let alone tolerable, for flights lasting much over an hour. Hopefully, this is an idea whose time has not yet come--and never will.

On Sunday at Fritz's we had the Seder for Gay Men. It was a tremendous amount of work for the guys who were putting it on, and for anyone who helped them, but the food was excellent (once past the gefilte fish, which drew decidedly mixed response).

At one point in the preparations in the kitchen, the subject came up of a National Public Radio report on the danger of maple trees exploding catastrophically if they weren't tapped in the spring to make maple syrup. Some held the report to be an urban legend, but others knew of it and pointed out that it had been broadcast In 2005--on April the First.

This morning the host of the Seder sent out the link. From the fake New Hampshire (and Samoan!) accents to the sound effects that are extremely funny, it's a classic. Enjoy. Click the link, and then the Listen button.

Monday, April 24, 2006

On Friday, Fritz and I had a matinee concert at Symphony Hall, beginning with a contemporary Finnish composer's work for string orchestra "Nymphea Reflection." Kaija Saariaho is very hot at the moment. She's having operas premiered all over the place and symphony orchestras are scheduling her work big time. It takes a while to get into her idiom because there's no conventional melody, rhythm or harmony. But by the time her shimmering tone clusters with occasional violin solos ended in a ghostly cloud of string tone with orchestra members whispering fragments of a poem here and there, it became obvious that she's an imaginative, highly skilled composer. There'll be at least one more new work by Saariaho at the Boston Symphony next season.

Fortunately it took a bit of time to set the stage for the second piece, Beethoven's Piano Concerto #1 (actually the second one he wrote but the first to be published), because it and the Saariaho are radically different in style and sound.

Tall, dark and handsome pianist Piotr Anderszewski played with a rare intimacy and elegance, qualities notably missing from a lot of pianists these days who just bang the hell out of the instrument in search of excitement and impact. I tend not to like the piano very much; I find its tone hard and monochromatic unless it's at least combined with other instruments, but this man I could listen to a lot (and look at while he’s playing a lot, truth to tell).

Two works by Sibelius, "The Bard" and Symphony #3, ended the afternoon. Fritz loves Sibelius, as do I, and since the Boston Symphony often programs two of his works at once, we get double for our money. Robert Spano was the eloquent conductor.

So we walked into the Colonial theater at 7:30 later that evening wondering if we were going to actually see "Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake" performed. On the way in, I said to Fritz and B, a teacher friend of ours who was with us, "I wonder who we know that we'll run into tonight." I got my answer in a most wonderful way within ten minutes.

As we entered the lobby of the Colonial Theater, a staff member told B that the problem the night before had been a major piece of scenery (see the photo of the bed (left or in the last entry) in the last entry--we think it must have been that) that had been problematic, and that the company had never rehearsed contingency plans in case it it couldn't be made to work. As we took our seats, an older man, bright, agile and very familiar, entered the row in front of us. I looked up and said "J.G.?" He had been the dance and movement teacher at Boston University Theater School when I was there as an undergrad. Because I was a design student, I didn't have classses with him (wish I had--I'm not one of god's more graceful products) but he was well-known and loved by everyone. Of course he didn't remember me but he played the scene like a pro, greeting me like a long-lost friend. And as we talked we fell into a very cordial convesation.

Doing the math in my head, Fritz and I later figured out that J has to be at least 85. He and his partner, a retired Yale University Professor who is still working at 91 as a free-lance researcher, have been together for 60 years. Sharp as a tack, outgoing and still working, he took to Fritz and B, spent the intermission with us, checking out Fritz's teaching career and telling us of his late-life career as a life coach. He works with performers, particularly symphony and opera conductors, to get them personally centered, away from ego and working to prioritize the things that are really important in life. He'd just returned from three

weeks in Oslo working with a group there. I told him I thought he was a brave man attempting to separate symphony conductors from their egos; he laughed and said his success rate was about 33%, but that he'd been told it was a really good rate for coaching people in that profession.

At the end of the performance, we talked briefly outside the theater, then he shook hands with Fritz and B, hugged me while I gave him a kiss and wished him well, then he j-walked across Boylston Steet with sprightly confidence on his way back to his home on Beacon Hill. I so want to be like him when I get to that age.

The performance itself was thrilling. We waited for ten minutes past curtain time with no sign of the lights going down and wondered if it was all going to happen again. When they began to dim, there was a burst of applause in the house and relief all around. It soon became obvious that there were still technical problems. It looked to me as if the stage was too small for the production. Drops and walls that flew in downstage kept jamming, with drapes snagging and hanging up on things off-stage, and the front curtain of a stage-within-a-stage sticking repeatedly as they tried to get it to rise. But everyone survived that and Bourne's witty, sensuous and highly theatrical choreography had great impact.

In the original production that has appeared on video and DVD, the Swan is the tall, stunning, elegantly seductive Adam Cooper, while the Prince-in-crisis he seduces is Scott Ambler, suggesting middle age even though young, strongly resembling a certain crown prince of the British Royal Family, and eventually joining the Swan in a luminously homoerotic duet scene. The dynamic was very different with this cast. The Swan was the exotic, brazenly athletic José Tirado who was always the wild animal: dangerous, fascinating and unpredictable. The Prince was Simon Wakefield, clearly a lost boy strugg
ling with coming out and overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy. Their great duet was beautifully danced but this Prince was not yet ready for this Swan's overwhelming sexuality.

In the palace party scene when Tirado entered as the evil Black Swan in leather evening trousers (he soon lost the jacket) he stalked every woman in the place with more than a hint of S&M dominance, totally in control, while humiliating the Prince who was simply burned out by his heat. The narrative of their relationship was therefore markedly different than in Bourne's original production. But after the swans kill both their leader and his Prince, their apotheosis clasped in eternal embrace was all the more moving and cathartic. The ovations were long and enthusiastic.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Today is the actual birthday of England’s Queen Elizabeth II. There’ll be an official celebration in June, as for all reigning monarchs, when the weather has at least a chance of being decent. But an event taking place today is unprecedented in English social history.

The Queen has seemed at times unbending and tradition-bound, the Royal Family remote and out of touch with the modern world. In point of fact, however, Elizabeth has presided over a major liberalization of the family's morals and manners in the fifty-three years of her reign. The progress can be charted from her refusal to grant her younger sister, Margaret, permission to marry a divorced man (Captain Peter Townsend) through her granting permission for Margaret to divorce the man she eventually DID marry, the rakishly handsome, somewhat bohemian Anthony Armstrong-Jones. And then came her permission for various of her own children to divorce when their own marriages failed.

If you made a bar graph or other chart of the Queen’s popularity with the British people, I suspect the months after the death of the troubled but beloved Diana, Princess of Wales would mark the low point. It seemed that she had forgotten whatever she had learned over the years about bending a little, opening up a little, or showing some basic vulnerability. But things have been looking up recently and the Queen (or her staff) devised a delightful way for her to celebrate turning eighty years old.

A lottery was held that included all women in Great Britain who were turning eighty on the same day as the Queen. Ninety-nine of them have been chosen across all racial and class lines (still important social distinctions in Britain) to join the Queen at an eightieth birthday party for 100. When you consider that in the era when Elizabeth was born, a crown prince had to abdicate the throne if he intended to marry a divorced woman, and royalty never mixed with "commoners" in anything but a formal manner, the image of a hundred old ladies laughing and talking together over cake at the palace is delightful and irresistible.

Speaking of historically arrogant and isolated authoritarian organizations, the Boston Catholic Archdiocese has gone totally transparent with its financial situation, and the picture is bleak. Not that it doesn’t deserve to be, but some draconian measures are being taken to keep the organization going and even they might fail if the faithful—or somebody—doesn’t step up to the plate to offer some financial relief, and soon.

First, Archbishop O’Malley assured everyone AGAIN that the $150,000,000 paid out to settle pedophile priest abuse claims did not come from the Sunday collection plates. But he did say that the catastrophic decline in those collection revenues, mounting maintenance costs for the many half (or more) empty churches, and the necessity to restore $135 million in cash to the priest old-age pension fund, has led to an immediate $46 million deficit. The majority of the Archdiocese’s $335 million in assets is locked up in real estate—cash is in very short supply.

O’Malley’s survival plans include cutting fifty jobs, drastically reducing operating and maintenance expenditures, vigorous fundraising, and probably selling off yet more churches and land. He used words and phrases like “dire” and “staggering scope of the crisis.” in a last ditch effort to come clean to rank and file Catholics in hopes of restoring at least some confidence in the Church.

Gee, using honesty to build trust—what a concept!

We were supposed to see the touring production of Matthew Bourne’s "Swan Lake" at the opening performance of the run last night. The house was close to full and there were people we knew everywhere. Ten minutes after curtain time an announcement came over the PA system that were technical difficulties backstage they were working to overcome. Half an hour after curtain time a house manager came before the curtain to explain that a major piece of scenery was in a situation where it could be dangerous to dancers and stage crew. By forty-five minutes after scheduled curtain time, the performance was cancelled.

By the time we got downstairs the line at the box office was out the theater and down the street. We learned that the company had--stupidly in my opinion as an experienced designer/stage technician--committed to start putting into the theater just yesterday morning for an opening yesterday evening. People were standing at the ONE open box office window abusing the staff that was trying to get tickets exchanged for other nights.

We slipped away for a quick indian supper and by the time we got back three box office stations were open and only about ten or fifteen people were left. We were ushered into the ticket office itself and because wer were really nice and expressed appreciation for what the ticket staff must be going through, we were upgraded to good orchestra seats for tonight.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

I was pretty sure that my younger daughter would have had practically a box seat for the rescue of passengers trapped in two cable cars that ground to a halt last night in New York City.

Several years ago both girls and I rode these cars back and forth from 59th Street and Second Avenue to Roosevelt Island in the East River. The cars are tied into the beautiful 59th Street (aka Queensborough) Bridge. It was a thrilling ride. The cars soar up from second story level to the Bridge's full deck height above the river before swooping down to land on the island. Roosevelt Island is a major residential area of the City, an array of large apartment buildings clustered around the base of one of the Bridge's two arched towers.

Last evening, some sort of mechanical difficulty locked the system with two cars up in the air for several hours. My daughter lives on East 60th Street between First and Second Avenues right where the traffic comes down a ramp from the Bridge and the cars begin their ascent. She wrote today:

"The cable cars that cross over to Roosevelt Island got stuck outside my apt last night. You may have seen it on the nat'l news. They had to rescue everyone at 250' in the air, so my neighborhood was all abuzz."

News reports here in Boston mentioned that passengers trapped in the cars (one shown here with the metal rescue cage docked along side it) said they were very hungry by the time rescuers reached them. Sanitary conditions inside the cars weren't mentioned, but perhaps everybody managed to hold on for the duration.

It's almost a year since the senseless and tragic murder of actor, cabaret singer and gay community activist John Beresford. To date, nobody's been arrested in the killing. A link to the memorial site for John tops my linklist at left. He died trying to stop a mugger who had victimized a friend in a Dorchester park that he'd been instrumental in reclaiming for the neighborhood.

On May 17th, the first anniversary of his death, there's going to be a celebration of John's life titled "Forest for the Trees" at the Cutler Majestic Theater as a fund-raiser for the new John Beresford Foundation. The Foundation has two major missions: financial assistance for the reclamation of parks for the enjoyment of children and neighborhood residents, and support for arts activities in neighborhoods across the city. Visit this link for complete information on the evening that begins at 7:30 PM. There will be performances by Boston cabaret artists and a dance company. Adam Greenfield, John's partner, is on the Foundation's Board of Directors, all members of which had been associated with John and are dedicated to fulfilling his goals for community redevelopment through arts and outdoor spaces.

I came across this attractive guy, a young baritone named Wayne Hu, while following a chain of opera reviews recently. Wayne's just establishing his career but has already done supporting roles with prominent companies like the New York City Opera and Opera Company of Philadelphia. Elsewhere he's sung leading parts, including the lovely lyric role of Wolfram in Wagner's "Tannhauser."

Wayne has a wide range, notable even among the new generation of opera singers who have far stronger acting skills and more adventurous taste in materials than their predecessors. In addition to his opera repertory, he's also got extensive credits in spoken theater and American musicals, including leads in Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate," Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," Demetrius in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and Gilbert & Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance."

Wayne's obviously savvy to the audience's current taste in male singers' publicity pictures, The one at left would also serve very well to suggest the role of Stanley Kowalski in the operatic version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" to opera managements. He seems to be an emerging performer well worth watching--for a number of reasons.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Today is the 100th anniversary of the devastating 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and the resulting fire that consumed most of the city for three solid days afterwards. In honor of those who lived through, and the many who didn't, all the photos today are from that catastrophe, perhaps the most remarkable being of the shattered City Hall whose dome somehow remained standing, perhaps as a promise of recovery and renewal like the rainbow in the sky over Noah's Ark.

Astonishingly, there are survivors who remember the chaos and terror of this event that destroyed 28,000 buildings and rendered most of the city homeless. I have seen TV interviews with survivors from 103 to 108 years old, remarkable men and women who have memories of the event seared into their minds. In 1906, some 3,400 people died. Modern seismologists estimate that when--not if, but when--a similar size quake hits the city, ten times that number will be killed.

The end of last week and the weekend were a wonderful jumble of performances and friends and food stretching over four states. It was expensive, particularly given the current level of gas prices, but it was worth every minute of it.

On Friday, I spent the afternoon at Symphony Hall for the Berlioz REQUIEM, a relatively early work but already monumental in both intent and achievement. Berlioz seems never in his career to have aimed low or to have thought he should approach a form gently until he got the hang of it. He just waded in with confidence and daring. The results which were bold and new, even revolutionary at times, put off the French public and critics of his day more often than not. Sadly, he didn't live long enough to see the turn-around in opinion.

In its original form, the REQUIEM calls for a full symphony orchestra supplemented by six extra sets of tympani, four bass drums, four big Chinese tam tams, a reinforced brass section, and no fewer than four brass bands stationed at each corner of the concert hall. The score indicates that if more than one or two choruses can be found (and afforded!) then the more the merrier. There's also a tenor soloist whose part is, startingly, extremely quiet and intimate in the midst of the walls of brazen sound.

Friday night the Boston University Opera Institute perfomed Lee Hoiby's "A Month in the Country" from Turgenev's story and play, the tale of interlocking loves among some appropriate and many inappropriate people at a nineteenth century country house outside of Moscow. By turns funny and poignant, this opera is melodic and lyrical, the characters beautifully drawn and the parts extremely grateful to perform. Hoiby's an American composer who should be performed much more often. I designed his one act "The Scarf" in January, was anxious to see this full-length work that grew directly out of the success of "The Scarf"'s world premiere, and was not disappointed.

Saturday I got in the Jeep and headed to New York City for Bizet's hardy perennial "Carmen" at New York City Opera. I had been looking forward to Beth Clayton in the title role. A boldy out lesbian in a profession that is taking slowly to out performers, Clayton is a smoulderingly beautiful mezzo-soprano and a dynamic actress; I thought she'd be a dynamite Carmen. BUT, she disappeared from the run of performances without explanation to be replaced by an emerging lead singer, Kate Aldrich.

Aldrich was "correct" in act one, doing everything well but not catching fire. Carmen's a free spirit, she chooses her lovers and runs her life herself in a work the nineteenth century naturally found quite shocking. But in the second act Aldrich found the character and proceeded to become more interesting and fatalistic--a major quality of this gypsy heroine--throught he rest of the afternoon, going to her death outside the bull ring of Seville with an almost ritualistic sense of doom instead of the usual cheap theatrics.

On the way up to Fritz's after the final curtain I stopped off to have dinner with an old friend in Connecticut. We were opera-going buddies for years but he's moved to Florida to be with a man he met a year and a half ago who's turned out to be the love of his life. He was back briefly to deal with legal and financial affairs and it was really good to see him again.

Easter with Fritz was lovely. Just the two of us, a serene Quaker Meeting on Sunday Morning and a lovely dinner in the evening. In between we reviewed plans for the new house and began to make lists of what pieces of furniture from each of us would go into the new rooms so we can begin the process of shedding pieces we will no longer need, and haing others refinished, reupholstered etc.

Yesterday we drove to the bus station in Manchester, NH and picked up M, our guest director for the spring at MIT, and his American internet boyfriend T who flew in from Denver to spend a week with him in Cambridge. For lunch Fritz had made a superb smoked salmon chowder, laced with a variety of aromatic herbs, sparked with a pinch of hot paprika, and smoothed with just a hint of half and half.

I then took them around the 36 acres, out to the beaver pond that shows real signs after at least three years that the beavers may be back, and up and over the big hill to where the new house will be built. The hill is volcanic in origin (Fritz has a copy of a geologist's doctoral thesis on the immediate area) and features some dramatic rock outcroppings as well as big boulders standing like druidic monoliths here and there. We ended the day with a trip to the rocky coast, scrambling over rocks and then breaking for a drink at one of our favorite shoreline restaurant bars. M went for a Blue Martini made with Bacardi rum and a variety of liqueurs, T had a major Bloody Mary while Fritz and I opted for our usual dry white Pinot Grigio. After dinner, T, M and I drove back to Cambridge/Boston for what is blessedly going to be a short week. And Fritz will be down on Thursday for the long awaited performance of Matthew Bourne's celebrated homoerotic version of the great ballet "Swan Lake."

Thursday, April 13, 2006


A good friend sent these stunning pictures of high intensity precision laser-cut Easter Eggs. I thought that sharing them was the best way to wish you all a happy Easter or, if it isn't a holiday you celebrate, a joyous rebirth of Nature. Here in Boston all the white and pink crab apples and the weeping cherries are in full bloom. My very best to you all.

One of my favorite blogs is Jake's NoFo (North of Foster) from Chicago. Jake's a really good writer (it's also his profession) and a very funny one into the bargain. He also runs (including marathons), sings and choreographs for the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus, travels all over, and buys housewares and shoes.

Jake's running a marathon in Chicago in October to raise money for AIDS support. Just to get into the race, he has to raise $1400 by July 5, but his personal goal is actually $2500. He's seeded his fund with $200 of his own, and a couple of us have contributed as well. I'd love to see Jake get enough backers to make his personal goal.

Please consider going over to, clicking on the red, white, black and gold AIDS Marathon button in the sidebar, and giving whatever you can.

If you do contribute, be sure not to leave any spaces when you enter your credit card number. Just type in all the numbers straight through or your number will be rejected. And thanks!

Our costume designer here at MIT and her husband have two sons, the elder of whom is off to college this fall. She asked me yesterday for info on my tattoo artist because they'd promised to pay for a tattoo for him as a rite of passage.

I started getting ink on my body fifteen years ago at a time when it was still illegal here in Massachusetts. Body piercing was fine--you could go anywhere and have holes punched in any part of your body you liked, but no tattoos--go figure. So those of us who wanted body graphics had to choose: Rhode Island or New Hampshire. To this day, there are clusters of tattoo parlors just over the border on all the major roads leading into the Granite State.

As it happens, I went south, having been given good advice about a shop in East Providence called Electric Ink. Most of my early work was done there. More was done at another East Providence shop called Color Creatives. A couple of other pieces were done in New Hampshire and one ankle band is a souvenir of Waikiki.

So I logged on and checked out Electric Ink's current staff. Chris, the owner/operator who did my earliest work, is still there. I gave her the info, directions, and URLs for pages from his portfolio. Chris specializes in tribal and primitive, which is what her son's most interested in. There are plenty of perfectly good places around here now that it's legal, of course, but she seems to like the personal recommendation, so they may all make the trip down to Rhode Island.

Which reminds me that I never got the inverted tribal triangle at the base of my back that I've wanted for years to finish off my back piece. Fritz is wincing as he reads this, I'm sure--he's not into body art but is sweetly indulgent with me in this regard, as in a couple of others--just so long as I don't shave my head completely bald. He has a bad association with a shaved head man and I have no trouble respecting his wishes in this regard.

I got rear ended on my way home tonight. No visible damage to my Jeep, but the front end of the Infinity, operated by the young woman who could not produce a license, is a shattered mess with light sockets hanging and the bumper barely attached. Apparently the front end of Infinities is all cheap plastic while Jeep bumpers are metal, no matter how thin. I'll have to wait for daylight to do a thorough inspection but at the moment, I think I escaped damage but she may be in real legal difficulty.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

There's been a huge amount of good-natured sparring between Caltech and MIT over the cannon since it showed up after its stealthy 3000 mile trip across the country. Almost as soon as the cannon surfaced in Cambridge, a team from Fleming House, er, Hovse--their official Roman alphabet spelling--arrived in Cambridge in secret, accompanied by a Caltech Assistant Vice-President for Student Life. Their mission was to hack MIT's hack by abducting the cannon in spectacular fashion and taking it back home. It was not to be.

The plan was to have a giant cargo helicopter hover over The Dot, drop lines as a ground crew placed a sling around the cannon, and lift it off campus, lowering it onto a flatbed truck somewhere in the neighborhood. When it was discovered that getting a permit for this involved massive street closures around the East Cambridge area and evacuation of the upper floors of all buildings anywhere near the cannon's flight path (I mean, the thing weighs either two or three tons depending on whose story you believe), the plan collapsed really fast.

Plan two was to have Caltech's men and women slip on campus really early, get the thing uploaded onto a flatbed and spirited away before anyone was around to notice.

This plan failed because a group of MIT students and a detatchment of Campus Police were on duty round the clock to protect Caltech's property about which the two Institutes were in communication as to procedures for its return. Caltech's leader told Campus Police about their plan. This turns out to be part of Caltech's standard hack procedure--give a warning about an hour before a hack to some authority figure--and it may be why their hacks fail more than MIT's. MIT tells nobody anything and frequently gets away with brilliantly planned and executed hacks that take everyone by complete surprise.

The Caltech students went to get their flatbed truck and when they returned, MIT students were there to greet them in most friendly manner and propose a new game plan. Caltech would make an "entrance" into the quad, there would be a little ceremony, Caltech would load the cannon, MIT would host a barbecue for their guests from the left coast, and a good time would be had by all. The plan was agreed to. Of course what this meant was that MIT had successfully completely hijacked Caltech's hack.

And so it happened: Caltech, in red Fleming Hovse t-shirts, came running excitedly into the area of The Dot to strains of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries (sure, a cliché, but properly heroic for the occasion). There was an exchange of pleasantries, the cannon was loaded onto the flatbed at last, and then all concerned got down to the business of partying.

Everybody said nice things about everybody else. The VP for Caltech Student Life said, "The thing that impressed me most were the MIT students." He'd come along to make sure there were no problems or legal hassles. Fleming Hovse President Scott Jordan commented later, "Fleming very much appreciated the music, food and socializing during and after the stunt, and I feel that everyone had a good time. Although I had my doubts coming into the prank, I found that the 'good natured rivalry' was everything it was expected to be."

Caltech left behind a miniature cannon as a souvenier, along with a note that cheerily said the equivalent of Bugs Bunny telling the little alien from Mars, "You realize, of course, that this means war!" Several of their students placed the Fleming Hovse logo in the Green Building's windows.

The next morning I realized that somebody at Fleming had discovered my coverage of the original hack on last Friday's post to Designerblog. They left the following comment:

"Fleming House said...
Beginning Saturday the 8th of April, the first band of Caltech students boarded a plane to the east coast. They were armed with only the determination to restore the honor that MIT hackers had attempted to strip away with the theft of the Fleming Cannon two weeks earlier. These 23 students and seven alumni from Fleming Hovse, one of Caltech's undergraduate houses, met with little resistance as they carted away the symbol that they flew 3000 miles to retrieve. In place of the 130-year-old antique, Flems left a toy cannon with a note saying, "Here's something more your size". While MIT students were distracted with this new gift, a few of the Caltech team left their signature in big red letters in the windows of the Green Building. This series of pranks began with Caltech pranking MIT at their Campus Preview Weekend in 2005 and will by no means end here. Watch out for more pranking in the future!"

In the exchange of stories during the barbecue, we learned that Caltech never suspected it was MIT that had stolen the cannon until it turned up here. They couldn't believe anyone could transport it clear across country and not be detected. Well, of course--they're from California where the living is easy. They make us tough here in New England. We slog through five seasons of highly variable weather: summer, fall, winter, mud, and spring. Our diet consists of boiled tree sap and mashed root vegetables. And we survived both The Curse and the Big Dig. After that, anything else is a cakewalk.

Monday, April 10, 2006


Charles Osgood's CBS-TV Sunday Morning program broke news about an upcoming New Yorker Magazine article, the subject of which is the alleged contingency plans Bush and his gang are making to attack Iran. Gradually, the other networks and radio news outlets have picked up the item. The story goes that the options include using heavy bunker-busting bombs with nuclear warheads to bring down the Iranian president and government. Comment from the White House as of this morning does not refute any of this, including the nuclear element of the plan.

With Iraq rapidly spiraling downward into civil war and Americans finally catching on big time to the lies that got us into this mess that's destabilizing the entire middle east, the fact that such a thing is being contemplated indicates to me thet Bush has passed from reckless arrogance into insanity. He's thrown the immigration law controversy at us, occupying a massive amount of public attention. Hopefully it won't distract anyone from realizing the unthinkable danger being proposed now.

Seymour Hersh, author of the New Yorker article, is on CBS TV as I write this: he says that some top military officers will resign rather than see anything like these plans become reality. And others are certain that the American public will refuse to support another military operation at this time. One can only hope.

Sunday afternoon I got into my garden, clearing flower beds and cutting the English Ivy back from crossing the line between granite foundation to the house's siding. I got the deck furniture and planting containers up from the basement. The sun was warm even if the temperature remained fairly low and it felt good to be outside, working the soil again.

I had a loaf of Russian black bread baking. During one of my trips inside to check on how it was going, Fritz called to say that "The Bubble Boy" with Jake Gyllenhaal was showing on Comedy Central. Before "Brokeback Mountain," "Bubble Boy" was the only Jake movie Fritz had ever seen. I'd never seen any. He's developed quite a thing for Jake ("Oh, those eyes, those eyes!"). So I sat down and watched what was left of it.

I quickly realized certain big similarities with "The Graduate" and wasn't surprised to see several shots during the final wedding scene that clearly referred visually to the earlier movie. I had a good time watching it, and the young Jake's goofy charm is infectious. And he certainly does have beautiful, expressive eyes.

Friday, April 07, 2006

I was afraid we wouldn't have a really great hack at MIT this year but this morning makes up for all the waiting and anticipation. Behold the cannon. In particular, behold the Cal Tech cannon, property of our great west coast rival engineering school. The two ton cannon that disappeared from Cal Tech in Pasadena, CA on the 28th of March and wasn't spotted anywhere across the length and breadth of the United States until it suddenly appeared on campus here in Cambridge, MA. THAT cannon.

In the ongoing friendly war between the two schools, this now means that MIT is on top 11 to 6 in successfully executed hacks. The students at Cal Tech have reportedly granted us the full 10 points on this one, based on daring and engineering alone. We get nothing for originality since the cannon has actually been stolen before, although it didn't go anywhere near as far the first time.

Twenty years ago, the cannon was stolen by students from Harvey Mudd in retaliation for Cal Tech besting them in freshman SAT scores that year. But the cannon never left the state of California on that occasion.

This time, the cannon was taken in broad daylignt by a group of "movers" wearing the right uniforms and bearing all the right credentials. Presumably the Cal tech community was concerned but possibly also, they had an idea that someone was pulling a hack and that they would eventually see their more than century old cannon again back on their
Spanish colonial style campus in its normal location. If and when it surfaced someplace.

The cannon now stands in today's sparkling sunlight at the foot of I.M. Pei's tall, narrow Green Building at the edge of a perfectly round piece of lawn affectionately known as The Dot, probably because when you look at building and round lawn from photos taken by helicopter, the whole composition looks like a perfect exclamation point.

Oh and that gold colored thing slipped onto the barrel of the cannon like a ring on a finger: it IS a ring. It's a giant MIT class ring, the famed "brass rat" named for the material of its manufacture and its prominent image of a beaver--nature's engineer--that has pride of place on the top instead of a jewel or enameled school coat of arms.

Knowing how things work here, I'm going to bet that ring cannot be removed with any degree of ease and that it will be left to the CalTech students to figure how to remove it. When it's made the trip back across the continent, that is.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

It's spring in New England and we've finally gotten some rain. The five week-long uncharacteristic March drought that had us so worried when the neighboring barn burned, was somewhat relieved by a good April rain last night.

Yesterday Fritz went over to the family that suffered the total loss of its antique business to offer them space in his barn in the event they had delivery of stock scheduled. He said they're still essentially in shock. When the lightning struck, not only was the barn quickly consumed in flames, but all their TVs and computers blew out. And among the contents of the barn were two valuable antique vehicles, including a vintage classic Mercedes-Benz. They told him that their insurance company had already started looking for ways to reduce their payment as much as possible.

I remembered something I had heard as a kid during the summers I spent at my grandmother's place in rural Connecticut. Her town had a volunteer fire department. When a house or barn burned to the ground but the chimney was left standing, the firemen would make sure to nudge it with the big hook and ladder truck just before they left, to knock it over. The way the laws were written a standing chimney, even with everything around it otherwise totally destroyed, allowed a significantly lower insurance pay-out.

As we drove by the ruins of the barn late on Saturday afternoon, I remember seeing that the chimney was standing, and since the fire department in Fritz's town is full-time professional operation, I doubt they did anything even borderline illegal, even to help a neighbor.

The great fields of daffodils at Fritz's are beginning to open. At my place in Boston, the forsythia hedge is blossoming, the crocus are all in bloom and my own daffodils are opening. And Tom DeLay is slinking away from politics to face his corruption trial as a former Representative from Texas. A lot of other Republicans who were involved with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff are apparently in terror of losing their seats in the coming elections. Abramoff and DeLay's two indicted aides are expected to spill a lot of beans to save themselves from lengthy sentences. It's looks like it might be a very pleasant spring.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

I think I need a vacation from my weekend. I slipped out of MIT at noon on Friday (well it WAS spring break, after all and technically I wasn't required to be there for any of it) and headed up to Fritz's. First thing on the agenda was a visit to one of two houses my chosen builder/designer has worked on. A, the ceramicist and potter, had arranged appointments with the owners, one on Friday afternoon, one Saturday morning. He accompanied us to both.

B & B live in Deerfield, NH and are not your average clients for a home builder. They're immensely skilled men who felled trees and prepared the wood themselves for a post-and-beam style house. It's a big place, around 3000 square feet on three levels, and it has truly beautiful interior space. The issue I needed to explore with them was the practicality of living by photovoltaic cells alone, with no connection to the grid.

I was excited and reassured by what I saw. They've run everything electric in their home for four years, including a basement workshop filled with high-power use woodworking tools, off two photovoltaic panels and twelve storage batteries that take up very little space in the basement. In all that time they've had to resort to the little back-up generator for only one afternoon at the end of an unusually long cloudy spell.

I believe very deeply in living this way. All over southern New Hampshire we're seeing the woods bull dozed and cramped colonies of really ugly, vinyl clad condos springing up everywhere. They're badly designed with two car or three car wide garage doors staring right at the street and no sense of fitting into the natural surroundings. With today's technology, it would take very little to reconceive how we live into a far less destructive, all-consuming blight on the countryside. At MIT the flat roofs of many buildings now support photovoltaic arrays that produce up to half the electricity required. And more are being added all the time. My hope is to make a home that nestles into the terrain as if it belongs, and which it will not harm.

Saturday morning we visited S, a delightful woman whose house is bermed up on three sides with earth, except for a small upstairs section that contains her bedroom and through which you enter the building. A greenhouse runs across the front of her downstairs and while she has planted it really beautifully, it's not something I think I'll want for my house. It certainly generates a large amount of heat but it also produces a great deal of humidity. Since mold can be a problem in an earth-sheltered home (she has mold in one room) I think the less humidity in the structure the better.

After we dropped A off at his house and kissed him good-bye, we went back to Fritz's, knocked down all the maple syrup boiling equipment, and stored it in the barn. As we were gathering the sap buckets, Fritz found what we believe to be a moose hoof print in the loose spring soil. We got inside just as it was beginning to rain seriously. So we settled in with the BBC series "Lost Empires," eight hours of well-produced British art-cum-soap opera in lavish sets and costumes, starring the young Colin Firth.
In 1986, Firth was just adorable, almost a dead ringer for Princes Harry or William, particularly with a little strawberry blonde rinse in his hair.

Somewhere in the middle of episode three, there was a big flash and a crack of thunder that shook the house. The electricity didn't fail but we soon noticed the color on the TV screen had separated into lime green, magenta and electric blue blobs. We found out later that the phone lines into the house and the Center had been affected as well. But it got a bit scary when there was a knock on the door and one of the students in the weekend's Master's Degree course was there to tell us about a big fire in the woods very near to Fritz's property.

We went out immediately to see a thick column of black smoke rising from an obviously big and well-established fire. The police had already blocked the road in front of Fritz's and were turning cars away. The worry was that we're beginning the sixth week of a serious drought and, if the fire spread through the tinder-dry woods, Fritz could lose the Center and possibly his house as well. By cell phone to the police we learned that the woods hadn't yet caught fire but a large antique barn less than one eighth of a mile away was fully engaged. The owner wound up losing everything, the barn reduced to a pile of charred beams. The only contents to survive were a number of Victorian iron headboards standing unharmed amid the blackened rubble.

Once we saw the smoke subside and knew that the firemen had gotten things under control, we went back to our series. Today we went to Quaker Meeting, then did some clean-up around the property. Fritz met with three men from a Leather Club who came around to see about possibly renting the place for part of a weekend this summer, after which I packed up and drove back to Boston. Tomorrow the academic year fires up again.

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