Monday, April 30, 2007

 
The Nugget, run by Fabian and based in San Francisco http://www.dailynugget.com/ reported this item about the closing of the world’s oldest business. Please note, this is the oldest business, not the oldest profession; prostitution in all its many forms is still going strong (see below).

World's Oldest Business Closes Shop
A family business that was founded in 578 closed its doors last year without much fanfare. Kongo Gumi, a Japanese Buddhist temple construction company, was in continuous operation by the founder's descendants for 1,428 years! A key to success the family claims was to not always hand the reins of the business to the oldest son, instead they chose "the son who best exhibited the health, responsibility, and talent for the job. Furthermore, it wasn't always a son." The 38th Kongo to lead the company was grandmother of the 40th, and last, leader.

Despite the company's history, it was a set of ordinary circumstances that led to its demise. The company borrowed heavily to invest in real estate in the 1980s prior to the Japanese real estate collapse of 1992-1993. Through the 1990s revenue dropped, and by 2006 revenue dropped to the point where it could no longer service the debt. "To avoid a similar demise, evolve as business conditions require, but don't get carried away with temporary enthusiasms and sacrifice financial stability for what looks like an opportunity."

I actually found a list of the world's oldest businesses after reading this story. Now that Kongo Gumi is gone, the oldest business is Hoshi Ryokan, a family inn and spa near an underground hot spring in Japan. It is run by the 46th generation of family members and was founded in 718.


Do check out the list. http://www.familybusinessmagazine.com/oldworld.html Several of the businesses were founded in the year 1000 and before, and the history given of the founding of the Zildjian Cymbal Company--a newcomer at a mere 384 years old--is very interesting.

So, on to prostitution. To date, the scandals of the Bush administration have pretty much all been political or legal. That crowd makes a fetish out of never engaging in moral/sexual sins and probably a) wouldn't have the imagination to commit or, b) wouldn't know how properly to enjoy such transgressions. Until now.


Enter the one figure so far missing from Bozo's Washington DC: The Bimbo du Jour aka The Washington Madam. Deborah Jeane Palfrey (seen in a mug shot from a previous arrest) was arrested from a home of hers in San Diego for running a prostitution ring, and when her "little black book"--doubtless a highly annotated computer file--was examined by the police, it contained some very highly placed names. And there's more to come as Ms Palfrey has declared that she is in possession of 21 kilos of telephone records that will expose many thousands of clients. Her lawyer says that she has turned those over to ABC News already. She also recorded five hours of radio interviews that are the subject of several efforts to suppress, which she intends to sell to the highest bidder.

The sudden resignation of a State Department undersecretary last Friday was the first warning that this scandal would lead into the highest levels of the government. One of State's top advisors, he previously held a major job in the Bush administration overseeing AIDS relief, in which he promoted abstinence and a policy requiring grant recipients to swear they opposed prostitution. Randall Tobias, age 65 and a family man, admitted to engaging Palfrey women but claimed that their services were limited to massage. Continuing in this vein, Ms Palfrey declared that the arrest, seizure of her considerable financial assets, and negative publicity about her are all a red herring--that her business was about fantasy sex, not physical sex.

But it gets more interesting. The lady wasn't representing and promoting ordinary whores at her Washington DC business, Pamela Martin and Associates. Her ladies had to be pedigreed by at least two years in college and possess a variety of skills and talents. Among the approximately 130 women of all ages from early 20s to 55, were college professors and highly accomplished professional women.

Ms Palfrey did not represent male prostitutes to her Washington DC clients--the fallout from that would have been really something.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

 
Boston's back in the cold and murk. The furnace is on again because the house is pervaded by a damp chill.

But I awoke to fog this morning, something I've always loved. Fog has a way of editing the world, restricting how far you can see, and organizing everything you can see into layers.

I fell in love with fog when I was a boy. My French grandmother and Italian grandfather had built a lovely house for themselves, their family and friends on the banks of Jordan Cove between Niantic and New London, Connecticut. By the time I was born, my grandfather had died and she'd given up the school she had founded in New York City (an early appearance of a Montessori-style school in the U.S., combined with early morning and late afternoon meals and activities for the children of French immigrant working families). She summered on the cove and my parents sent me there for the months of July and August every year. During the business week, there were just three of us there, the third being a cousin three years older than I. My parents would join us on weekends, along with my cousin's mother (my father's sister) and her older son.

Those weekends were always filled with activity, the house open to anyone and everyone. But the weeks were different. My cousin and I both came from families that were in trouble. His parents divorced when I was very young, and my parents really should have but stayed together "for the sake of the child," a common practice in those days. During the week we played together, went on hikes, took out in the rowboat, that sort of thing. But we were both hurting in different ways and spent a lot of our time alone, away from anyone and everyone. I had long periods of time in my own little world, learning how to deal with loneliness and developing a keen sense of curiosity and observation about everything around me. I have to this day an ability to listen intensively to the sounds around me, even extremely quiet sounds from a long distance away.

As we were right on the Connecticut coast, we had frequent fogs roll in from Long Island Sound. The first time I saw a cloud of fog advancing up the cove I was stunned. I had always thought of fog as a kind of borderless, infinite state. Here it was three dimensional, defined. Sculptural. As it came toward me I ran out to the end of our dock and let it envelop me. I watched the house and property disappear slowly like a TV or movie fade-out, the row boat tied to its buoy becoming a ghost ship. Minute individual water droplets settled on my cheeks and hands. I began to rethink fog as a magic state, a transformative medium that turned the sun from hot gold to cool silver before swallowing it entirely. I was in a familiar state--alone--in the silence that comes from the fog’s muffling effect, but before the heavy oaken moan of the fog horns began along the coast. It was an unworldly feeling, literally, as I felt completely removed from the world I knew and as if floating in some ideal state washed clean of all sorrow and pain.

Years after my grandmother died and the house was sold I went back to Jordan cove and showed my daughters where I had grown up summers. One of my grandmother's siblings, her youngest brother, was still alive at the time and living with his family down the road from her old house. He was Enrico, his wife Anna. We entered the house to the scent of tomato sauce simmering, and veal in shallots, mushrooms and white wine coming to the point of serving. They loved the girls and when we left, loaded them up with fruit and biscotti for the trip back to Boston. We talked of the gradual loss of all the family, the horrific sudden death of their middle child Janet, my exact contemporary, a young mother and a classic Italian beauty. Then we all walked the short distance from their house to the rocks overlooking the mouth of the cove, the same rocks from which the fisherman is casting his line in the picture.

The scene on the opposite bank was unrecognizable. The old, abandoned granite quarry I could see from my upstairs bedroom window in clear dawn light with the old red-painted shed and the mooring platforms for the schooners to load cut stone blocks was gone. The solid stone knoll had been sheared off flat and the Millstone Point Nuclear power plant occupied a great scar slashed into the coastal landscape. We commented sadly on the change, on the loss of beauty and history that nothing, not even the nearly free electricity given to all those whose houses were within the danger zone around the plant could replace.

I looked at the water around the point of land on which the plant stands, water that was to be fouled often by seepage of lightly contaminated cooling system water from the plant. There was steam on the water; condensation steam rising into the crisp autumn air from excess heat generated by the plant that was warming the mass of granite on and in which it stood. It was a kind of fog, but it softened nothing, transformed nothing. It held nobody in a magical embrace. It was a dead thing.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

 
A couple of bloggers have revived a five question interview meme, and I applied to GayProf to question me. Here are his questions and my answers:

1.You have spent almost all of your life on the East Coast (mostly in Boston). If you could not live anywhere in the Northeast, where in the nation would you move? Why so?
Let me start by defining what I need in a place I live. I grew up in New York City and am an urban boy, but one who needs to garden, and grow some of his own food (am I not Italian? Do I not grow tomatoes?). I need nature, and I need access to theaters, museums, an opera house or two, good shopping (specialty and international foods included), gay community beyond just bars and gyms (a scene I've never been part of), a sense of history and interesting hidden places to explore.

OK, number one on the list would be Chicago: plenty of neighborhoods where you can establish a garden, a vibrant cultural life with a world-class opera company and symphony orchestra, a great theater town, several major museums both downtown and on the University of Chicago campus, a great architectural heritage that is moving forward confidently (see Tuesday’s blog), and a well-known gay neighborhood and culture.

There's more, of course, much more, including a rich history even if Chicago is only half Boston's age (early 19th century versus early 17th century). I've always loved the energy in Chicago. Europeans who know this country well generally rate our cities thusly: New York--the great international city; Boston--the most European of American cities (if they know San Francisco, they generally link the two in that regard); Chicago--THE great American city. I feel that every time I'm there.

Number two would be Seattle: set in an incredibly beautiful landscape, with lovely people, a major opera company whose performances have really impressed me, a lively arts and theater scene, nearby access to the Olympic Peninsula with magnificent natural resources, all sorts of things to explore and, again, a well-established gay identity. We have dear friends out there who used to live here, with whom we love to get together.

Number two B might well be Portland, Oregon, which shares many of the same virtues as Seattle. I've yet to visit Portland but probably will soon as my elder daughter and her husband are moving to Salem, which is only about forty miles away. The airport and a nice blogger contact are in Portland, so I'm looking forward to my first visit.

I know I'm supposed to say San Francisco in here somewhere as a registered, card-carrying gay man. I've left a bit of my heart there four times and I've loved the place each time I've been there. I'm from the Northeast, so fog and chilly damp don't bother me. The arts are strong there, the natural setting is spectacular, the city's lovely, and gay culture registers off the chart.

My first time there I walked up the opera house's granite stairwells, both of which had cracks running from the top of the building to the bottom that were up to an inch and a half wide, souveniers of the "World Series" earthquake nine months earlier in the fall of 1991. I sat under a nylon net meant to save me should the plaster ceiling, loosened in the quake, come down during the performances I attended. San Franciscan friends were declining tables in the back of restaurants in favor of ones nearer the door "just in case."

I do love the place, but as an eastern boy I can deal with storms and snow and cold as long as I can plant my feet firmly on the ground. I suspect I'd react very badly to the earth shaking violently beneath me, and I don't think I could live there.

2. What theatrical show do you most wish that you could have been part of but didn't have the chance?
Ah—the one that got away! Back in the earliest days of the Boston Lyric Opera, I was their resident designer. It was also the time when I was first establishing my new family as myself and two adopted daughters who were very young. Boston Lyric decided to do something daring, a small theater version of Wagners epic RING OF THE NIBELUNG--four operas totaling about 17 hours of music--a retelling of the Teutonic myths from creation to the end of the world. It was mine to design if I wanted it and I did want it, badly. But reality hit hard. There were just so many hours in the day, my girls meant more to me than anything else in the world, and even in a small budget format (actually, especially in a small budget format because it requires far more inventiveness) the RING is a huge project.

Reluctantly, I stepped aside and another Boston designer was engaged. A skilled and very nice fellow, he nevertheless hadn't a clue. The result wasn't terribly distinguished. I did design publicity for the performances here in Boston which then toured to New York City. I wanted to be involved in some manageable way and that's what was available.

The chance to get one's hands on the RING doesn't happen all that often; I had that chance and had to give it away. For the record, I don't regret any of the time or effort it took to raise my girls; that was the central act of my life and a great, transforming experience.

3. What is the best historical anecdote that you know about Boston?
I've gotten away from doing my historical blog posts about Boston's marvelous, quirky past. Of all the incidents I know of, or have researched, I think the most bizarre and astonishing is the great molasses flood of January, 1919. It seems almost humorous, almost a joke when it's first mentioned--but an event in which 21 people were engulfed in a tidal wave of heavy, sticky liquid and either drowned or asphyxiated is far from funny. This link:
http://www.designerblog.blogspot.com/search?q=boston+molasses+flood
will take you to the post, with photos and map, that tells the whole incredible story.

4. What movie or television show do you think is *really* about gay men despite being a cast of heterosexual characters? Explain.
I don't think I'm alone in my opinion that Frazier and Niles Crane on Frazier were really gay men, particularly Niles in the superb comic characterization by David Hyde-Pierce. If you listen to those guys for about five minutes, there's no way they could be straight.

A rarer and more interesting case was the relatively short-lived (1987-1990) sitcom called My Two Dads. The premise was unconventional to say the least: a dying woman names two men, friends since childhood, as guardians to her early teen-aged daughter. She'd been sexually involved with both of them simultaneously during the time of her daughter's conception but doesn't know, or refuses to say, which is the father. The two men outwardly couldn't be more unlike--one in finance, buttoned down and staunchly conventional; the other an artist with a hint of the bohemian, and charmingly laissez-faire. To some extent it was The Odd Couple and Child, but one or two things about the structure of the relationship between the two men rang bells very loudly.

There's a great deal of precedent in literature of all kinds for homoerotic connection between two men involved simultaneously with the same woman: they work out their desire for each other on her body, with her as the mediator. After the mother's death, Michael (up-tight, borderline neurotic Paul Reiser) and Joey (hunky, unpredictable and hot Greg Evigan) move in together to take over raising Nicole (Staci Keenan) who could be daughter to either one of them. Although there was ample assurance in the plot lines of the various episodes that they were straight, in short order the men's relationship began to resemble a marriage. Hovering over the whole thing was the dead woman's action aimed specifically at bringing the two of them together. What did she know?

Among the show's other accomplishments, it introduced the very young Giovanni Ribisi and future out gay heartthrob Chad Allen to a mass audience as they both courted Nicole simultaneously, acting out in a new generation the same triangle that had produced her in the first place. Also, it was the first step on the path leading directly to It's All Relative, a sitcom about a gay couple (played by out gay actors John Benjamin Hickey and Christopher Sieber) raising a late teenaged daughter in gay-friendly Massachusetts. Same-sex marriage was established during It's All Relative's first season and there was speculation the boys might marry during season two. But the show was sunk by pedestrian, formulaic writing and season two never happened.

My Two Dads was popular at my house. My daughters liked it because it showed men raising a teenage girl, echoing their own experience (although in their case, Daddy 2 wouldn't be on the scene for about a decade, by which time they were grown up and on their own). I liked it essentially for the same reason, because Evigan was really easy to look at, and because I saw aspects of myself in both men as they learned to deal with an alternately rebellious and devastatingly charming adolescent girl. I knew THAT one backwards!

5. Why do you worship and/or adore GayProf?
Well first off, who wouldn't? One of the best written, wittiest and most literate blogs on the web; skilled comic timing and a keen political sense, all driven by a sharp mind with an impishly irreverent outlook.

We've been able to get together a couple of times during your stop-over here in Boston on the road from Texas to Not-Texas; while I'm very happy that you're going to a great job in a benign political and social climate, I wish your time with us could be longer. Liberal and intellectually-oriented as people are in this area, there's always room for one more.

Finally, since I LOVE discomforting the forces of bigotry, repression and George W. Bush, you are a prime example of what one rabid Right Winger referred to in print as "the theorists who currently infest our colleges and university campuses." Keep on bugging 'em. Go, GayProf!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

 
We got a warning on Monday morning's news that there was an extremely high danger of brush fire in the area. I wouldn't have believed it given the torrential rains that had flooded us just recently, and the continued drizzle and showers that hung on all last week. But I believed it big time when our building began to fill with choking white smoke and a burning leaf smell.

I came down the stairs from my office and ran into a colleague who was taking a five gallon bucket of water out the front door.

"What's burning?"

"The garden next door."

I ran to my paint floor and took the largest buckets I had into the janitor's closet and started filling them. As the first one topped off, I set another one and got outside with the filled one. The little vest-pocket park that was built in place of the demolished building looked like one of Dante's circles of hell. Two extensive planted beds on either side of a little terrace with wooden benches were producing clouds of the white smoke with occasional flare-ups of flame. There were no plants yet, it was the mulch that was combusting. The heat was intense in the already hot afternoon (we set a record for the day in the high 80s).

As we unloaded a bucket and heard the hissing of extinguished coals, the fire would simply flare up elsewhere in the bed. Our administrative assistant joined us with another bucket, having delayed long enough to call the fire department. The three of us kept making the trip back and forth but we seemed to be making little progress--only containing the worst of it and preventing the benches from catching fire.

A single fire engine rushed in moments later and knocked the fire down pretty quickly. My colleague M thought the intense dry heat had set the mulch on fire spontaneously but I pointed out that the same mulch lay in big circles around the six trees and none of them had ignited. The firemen said it was almost certainly a cigarette butt or a match someone had tossed into the mulch. We'll have to see if we get anything out of the flower beds this spring--at the moment they look very bad.

The sudden coming of spring and even summer temperatures has caused trees, bulbs and ornamental shrubs all over Boston to burst immediately into flower. The famous Commonwealth Avenue magnolias, the inspiration of a Back Bay resident named Laura Dwight in the mid-1960s, are in full, spectacular bloom.
No matter the extreme dryness of what's on top of the soil, the ground itself here is almost saturated, so we're going to have a lush spring. For those coming to view my house, the forsythia hedge around the property is brilliant and my crocus and daffodils are popping all at once. The iris won't be long at this rate. I asked my realtor if a listing of all the plantings on the property would help as a selling point and he thought it a great idea, something he could include along with the flyer he had printed up to distribute to anyone who comes to see the place. Here it is:

Trees and Shrubs
2 apple trees
1 flowering crab apple
1 silver maple
1 old fashioned rambler rose
3 Japanese andromeda bushes
1 “bridal bouquet” bush
4 forsythia bushes and a forsythia hedge around both sides of the property
that face a street
2 rhododendron bushes
2 holly bushes, 1 male, 1 female to guarantee a heavy crop of berries
2 blueberry bushes
2 gooseberry bushes
1 flowering mock orange

1 deep purple lilac
1 grape arbor with heavily bearing grape vines

Perennials, bulbs
Hollyhocks.
Several groupings of day lilies, various colors
Grape hyacinth
Many daffodils
Many crocus
Large beds of English ivy
Beds of lily of the valley and pachysandra
Many iris
Spring violets
1 vigorous rhubarb
Wildflowers
Herbs, primarily mint

So, on to the Old House/New House news. It was a busy day and for about seven minutes we seemed to have a viable purchase offer on my house.

When I got into the office, there was an email from my realtor that the husband and wife architects had made an offer. I wasn't surprised because of their obvious interest in the house, and I waited with anticipation for the actual offer to come in.

Total letdown--they were looking to purchase at a give-away price and, as a further kick in the gut, their "offer" included my paying them twelve thousand dollars to cover their fees and expenses, whatever those might be. End of offer, end of excitement, end of those potential buyers.

*******

I was putting my class materials together when I got a call from one of the two potential general contractors. P announced his withdrawal from the project. We've had a couple of delays this spring, the main one being when the structural engineer mistakenly took two weeks to review a project that he was supposed to do AFTER mine. In that time, P's firm got a huge job in New York State; told me that he wouldn't be able to have his framing crew work on my house until late September or early October. That meant that the house wouldn't be finished until sometime next spring which simply isn't acceptable. He was very complimentary to the detailed structural drawings M had submitted for the bidding process, said he knew the other candidate to be an excellent builder so I would be assured of good work, and then he said good-bye and that was that.

M, Fritz, R (the other general contractor who is no longer a "candidate" but is now our GC), and I will meet Friday morning to review everything and seal the deal.

After the class was over, I spent some time making a finished layout drawing of the kitchen cabinetry based on preliminary work Fritz and I had done over the weekend. We now have a complete order list for the base and wall cabinets and for the two cabinets I'll combine on a rolling base to make a work station island we can spot around the kitchen wherever we need extra work space. Working on this project in a primary way has been one of the great pleasures of the whole process.

*******

Of course, some architects get to work on projects a great deal bigger than my little house set into a hillside in the woods. Santiago Calatrava, whose elegant sculptural designs are turning up in highly visible locations all over the world, presented the latest version of his condominium tower for Chicago's lakefront to the city's Planning Council. The "Chicago Spire" will stand two fifths of a mile high at 2000 feet, a whopping 550 feet higher than the city's Sears Tower.

Chicago Spire will contain 1200 condos on 150 floors, each floor turned two degrees from the one below, creating a full three hundred sixty degree twist in the building from ground level to the top of its pointed spiral crown. In the new version of the building Calatrava just presented, there's an underground parking facility and the architect agrees to redesign a section of waterfront park for the city, creating a proper platform for the soaring structure in the process.

The design seems almost impossible to me given the violent winds to which Chicago can be subjected, and I do wonder how many people will be able to live at, say 1850 feet looking out over a vast abyss every time they approach their windows. It would take someone far more tolerant of the swaying I know the building will do in high winds than I to live there. But I do think it's a very beautiful thing, rising like a monumental unicorn's horn from the ground straight up into the sky.


Oh, and if you know Calatrava's iconic white bridge over the Guadalquivir in Seville, Spain, it looks like Chicago's going to get one of his bridges into the bargain, its graceful curved pylon directing your attention upward to the spiral skyscraper.

Monday, April 23, 2007

 

The effort to sell my house drags on, albeit with a far larger group of potential buyers failing for one reason or another to make an offer. Saturday evening, the third showing of the day produced a most interesting and interested couple. They were husband and wife, both architects (she an MIT graduate), who spent over an hour in the house and on the property. Fritz and I were both at home as I'd been given a different time for their visit than their actual arrival.


I don't know if this would be true of all sellers, but I think it was a positive advantage that we were here for their visit. They and their agent offered to return at another time but I invited them in enthusiastically and we kept mostly out of their way. After twenty-five minutes indoors they spent another twenty outside talking intensely with their agent. At that point I had to leave for a concert I was attending and Fritz urged me to invite them back in if they'd like to see more. I did so, and he told me when I got back that he'd had a very good conversation with them in the half hour or so they stayed the second time. They liked the house and did a lot of imagining how they might modernize and redecorate. With any luck they might make an offer.

*******
We went back up to New Hampshire Sunday morning for a double barreled birthday day. The bigger event was the 95th birthday of a remarkable woman with whom Fritz had been involved professionally for a number of years in the area of early childhood education. She'd come to our wedding celebration three years ago and was as sharp, funny and as much in control today as ever. Her younger brother (in his mid 80s—great genes in that family) hosted and spoke of her encyclopedic knowledge and ability to take over in any difficult situation. The event was held in a private room at the Exeter Inn at midday and was extremely pleasant. We were the only non-family members invited and were made to feel completely part of the group.


In the evening we had A the potter/ceramist and B the chef over to celebrate B's birthday. A cooked, we supplied the cake and an after-dinner hot tub before I returned to Boston.

*******

The construction drawings for the house are finished and were sent out to both prospective contractors with a copy to me (it arrived Saturday morning). On first inspection everything looks very good. Despite the huge disruption of communications in the heart of southeastern New Hampshire due to the destruction of Verizon’s Raymond substation, I was able to get a meeting set up for next Friday morning with all interested parties. The purpose is to review the plans, answer questions and iron out all details. After that, the contractors submit their bids, we choose, and construction can begin.

*******
Leaving aside any political animosity toward former President Ronald Reagan, does anyone else remember when he stood before the Berlin Wall and demanded, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" The idea of a wall to separate East and West Berlin was looked upon by the Republican President as a great symbol of failure of the Communist philosophy.

Well, another Republican President is now resorting to walls to seal people away from each other. Not only the wall between the U.S. and Mexico, but a new 12' high concrete wall is slowly snaking its way through Baghdad to separate Sunni and Shia neighborhoods. Inevitably, communications, freedom of movement and trade of all kinds will be disrupted.

This report from BBC.


The 5km (three-mile) concrete wall is part of a strategy to "break the cycle of sectarian violence", a US military spokesman said.
Adhamiya lies on the mainly Shia Muslim east bank of the Tigris river and has been badly hit by sectarian attacks.

The wall has provoked an angry reaction from residents.

US military spokesman Lt Col Christopher Garver said it was "not the stated goal of the Baghdad security plan to divide everything up into these... small gated communities".

But the BBC's Andrew North, in Baghdad, says troops have already dubbed it "the Great Wall of Adhamiya".

When the wall is complete at the end of the month, say US commanders, residents will only be able to cross the 3.6 metre (12 feet) high wall through several checkpoints guarded by US and Iraqi troops.

Similar walls are being planned for two other areas of Baghdad.

Can there be any greater symbol of the total failure of Bush and his heinous policies than the fact that the United States of America, supposedly the great home of freedom, is now ghettoizing the very people we so arrogantly claimed to be liberating via the precious gift of democracy?


Friday, April 20, 2007

 
My elder daughter sent me the link http://www.quizpox.com/birthday.php to a site that tells you what wacky holiday has been declared for the date you were born. She and I turn out to have extremely appropriate holidays on our birthdays. Hers is Feast of Fabulous Men Day. How great is that for a loving daughter who refers to her father and his husband as Daddy 1 and Daddy 2?

Mine turned out to be National Pink Day. It's far from my favorite color but pink, along with lavender, IS a symbol of gayness so I really can’t complain.

My younger daughter's special holiday is National Cheer Up the Lonely Day--which is actually something she does.

Fritz, on the other hand, turns out to have been born on Bratwurst Festival Day. When this thing screws up, it screws up, it screws up big.

*******

On Wednesday one of the great ladies of the theater and, peripherally, of opera died in New York City at the age of 96. Kitty Carlisle Hart touched base successfully with an astonishingly large number of endeavors, for a very long period of time.

Kitty Carlisle (nee Kathryn Conn) was a New Orleans girl whose mother had her eye set on marrying her daughter to European nobility. So Kitty studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and was to have been sent to study music and theater in Londoin. Instead, she went to New York and starred in an adaptation of the operetta "Die Fledermaus" when she was 23. From there, Hollywood, where she became best known for being the young female love interest and opera star in the Marx Brothers' "A Night at the Opera." In that, she interpolated a high C into one of Verdi's numbers in "Il Trovatore" that has become known ever since to hard-core Opera Fanatics as "the Kitty Carlisle High C"—and they love her for it.

After several more movies, it was back to New York and the legitimate theater, including a stint as George Gershwin's muse while he was composing "Porgy and Bess." When she came to MIT to do her second fund raiser for our council for the Arts, she did large cuts from her one-woman show "My Life on the Wicked Stage." She said that Gershwin had her over once a week and employed her to sing the newest pages he'd composed so that he could hear what they sounded like. As the work progressed, she found herself singing "Summertime" over and over at Gershwin's request, and realized that he was really getting her into his apartment regularly not to hear his developing opera, but so he could put the moves on her. She never let on if he had succeeded or not.

I lit both of her appearances it MIT which was a special responsibility as she suffered from glaucoma. The lights had to be at specific angles and intensities or she wouldn't have been able to see to perform. There could be absolutely no shadows falling on any of her material or any place she had to move. It was tricky, exacting work but she was unfailingly gracious and delightful to work with. At the time she made her second appearance with us, she was well into her 80s and her singing voice was rock solid and beautifully projected. Because I had worked so closely with her and learned her needs when she first came to MIT (when she did the female role to playwright A.R. Gurney, Jr.'s male lead in his "Love Letters") she asked that I not only light her the second time, but be her companion for the evening and help her through all the places she had to go and people she had to meet. It was one of the great moments of my career at MIT.

Among her many extraordinary accomplishments was making her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in "Die Fledermaus" in her mid-50s, and becoming Chair of the Arts Council of New York in her mid-60s, a position she held for twenty years and in which she served with distinction. She was a fixture on the long-running TV quiz show "To Tell the Truth" and continued to perform well into her 90s.

At the height of her career she married playwright and director Moss Hart. He died quite young and, despite persistent rumor that he was gay, there were two children and an obvious love match. For the remainder of her life after his passing, she preferred to be billed as Kitty Carlisle Hart and word was put out in advance wherever she visited that she preferred always to be addressed as Mrs. Hart.

Here is a quote from her 91st year:
"Age has never affected my goals. I get on the floor and do my exercises. I can put my feet over my head and touch my feet behind me, come down and do 30 leg lifts. I've been doing that all my life. I'm very ambitious, in fact I'm looking for a new booking agent. I was 54 when I made my debut at the Metropolitan Opera. I was 64 when I became chairman of the Arts Council of New York. I'm not brilliant but I have a very good mind and was made to cultivate it by my mother. You have to get ready to age early on.

"You have to be disciplined and be aware of what you have to be doing as you get older. It's crucial that you have something interesting to do. You have to establish good habits early on that will help you do what you want to do later in life."

*******

Boston's channel 4 has been full of pictures of the flooding in Raymond and accounts of road destruction and the phone and electric outages in the area. School there seems to be closed long-term. Newmarket, where bloggers Chris and the "devious" Steve-O live, is watching two dams very, very carefully. And Verizon has revised its estimate on the restoration of phone and internet access from three weeks to "several weeks." Local businesses, including Fritz's, are in big trouble.

FEMA arrived in Raymond yesterday, which may or may not be a blessing given its recent track record. National Guard trucks are stationed throughout the town to act as emergency communication centers for health or fire crisis calls. Downtown Raymond is filled with Verizon trucks tearing up the ground and otherwise working on the problem. And comcast set up a bank of phones in the middle of town for anyone to use--and probably to thumb its nose at Verizon.

I drove up early yesterday afternoon to be with Fritz as we had tickets for a Russian ballet company performing Tchaikovsky's big story ballet "Sleeping Beauty" in Portsmouth. It was a very pleasant evening, beginning with dinner at Radici, eating at the bar which was tended by the handsome and outgoing Sam. In fact, from the maitre'd on through the wait staff, the place was full of good looking men. We are SO going there again. Oh, the food and wine were excellent also.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

 
This has been a bizarre week. Flooding in southern New Hampshire has been extreme. I knew something was wrong when I tried to call Fritz yesterday morning and for half an hour got that rapid busy signal that means jammed circuits or a disruption of service. In Raymond, the town where Fritz lives, the Verizon substation is submerged. Early yesterday afternoon Fritz called on his office manager's cell phone to say he'd seen the Town Manager on local access TV announce that Verizon said phone service could not be restored for three weeks.
Because the Center's office is still on dial-up, that means no phone AND no internet.

Like any business, Fritz's depends on communication. We worked out a plan whereby I will monitor his email, printing out important messages and attachments to deliver to him a couple of times a week. I also told him that he finally has to get a cell phone (something I've wanted him to have for a long time as he drives around a couple of states giving workshops). Once he has a wireless phone he can call Verizon, have the business's calls forwarded to the cell's number and they can run the office that way during the black-out.

New England weather is always chancy but this last week has been above and beyond. The major nor'easter is still hanging on here with strong winds, flood tides along the coast, and temperatures just on the cusp of freezing. We may have more snow tonight and there isn't going to be any real improvement until late Thursday. The trees all remain dormant; by now their buds should have swollen and begun to open. Every day is--or seems--gloomier, colder and more hostile than the last.

*******

The other situation that remains hostile is the local real estate scene. Not to belabor you with my house selling woes yet again, I'll just mention that the asking price has again been reduced due to market pressures pulling all asking prices in the area downward. I'm winning, but I've been battling depression and discouragement over this whole mess.

*******

At MIT everyone's reviewing security and quick response procedures in the face of the Virginia Tech horror. In my time at the Institute there hasn't been any incident of that kind except for one grad student many years ago who committed suicide by turning on the gas in the oven of his apartment, and taking his wife and child with him. I love this country, I really do. For all its faults it still has enormous potential, into which I hope we can tap once the Bush nightmare is over on January 20, 2009.

But we are a violent nation. We're puritanical about a healthy enjoyment of sex, and the population at large fears the arts, intellectuals and liberals (frequently all the same thing). But we positively rush into war, we settle arguments by fighting, and we pick up guns to settle a score or act out our inner torment at the drop of a hat. It's incredibly sad. I wonder if any enlightened leader could, or would even have the strength to try, to turn the situation around. Such a huge percentage of the population is so deeply invested in the cult of violence I doubt he or she would have a chance.

*******

If any good can come out of the Don Imus business, it may be that at long last influential leaders in the African-American community are beginning to ask questions of their own, particularly in the music business where misogynistic and racist lyrics are the norm. Barak Obama and commentator Nancy Giles are just two of the many who have admitted publicly that rap lyrics are much worse than anything Imus said (Giles, who has a fine sense of humor, said concerning one of Imuss remarks, "trust me on this, commenting on a black woman’s hair is something you don't want to do. Just don't go there. Not good.")

But I noticed that while there's a new willingness to question those degrading rap lyrics vis-à-vis race and women, there hasn't been any mention, at least from the prominent figures I've heard, of the rampant homophobia in rap, statements by some black athletes and entertainers, and the pronouncements of black clergy. That issue needs to be addressed urgently, and ASAP.

Monday, April 16, 2007

 
The weekend at Fritz's was busy. I drove up very early Saturday and settled in for a day's worth of work on the Sweat Lodge. We lucked out on the weather as there was damp ground and chill but no active rain. M, our "architect" and chief carpenter on the project arrived a little after 8am. We unloaded a generator as well as an extensive tool supply and a lot of cedar lumber from his big pick-up and got it all transported into the woods. G & S (who do NOT write operettas) joined us an hour or so later and the work began in earnest.

M had built a beautiful little one foot wide octagonal oculus or dome-top window to sit high over the pit where the red hot rocks go and provide a little natural late afternoon light from the sun, or at night from the moon (something like this one although just a wee bit smaller). In short order it was suspended on the eight roof joists. Plywood sheathing began to go on. Fritz and I had to run out to the lumber yard to get two more sheets at one point and he left again around noon to get lunch ready.

Everyone wondered where D was. He'd said he'd come work with us and M began to look a little hang-dog as the morning progressed--he and D had begun a little "thing" recently, and M was seriously looking forward to seeing him again.

After lunch I looked over the progress and told M I'd like to take on a separate project, building all new benches around the inside of the sweat to replace the old rotting ones Fritz and I removed the week before. I knew that my stage carpentry skills were completely adequate to the job. So there was a crew working outside on roofing and insulating, while Fritz worked the chop saw for me for the inside work. In three hours the job was complete with seven brand new and completely level segments of cedar bench around the inside wall, leaving only the eighth, the door side, of the Lodge open.

In the middle of this, D arrived and M just glowed. By five thirty when Fritz called a halt for the day, the bench had been finished, the plywood and all the styro insulation were in place on the roof, tar paper was on and some of the cedar shingles were in place. Because the caulking/flashing around the oculus hadn't happened and because of the huge storm that was forecast, we put everything inside the Lodge and covered the whole thing with a big tarp. Clean-up was finished just after six. Fritz announced dinner for seven, inviting M and D to use the guest bedroom and bath to get properly reacquainted before we all ate.

The storm hit on Sunday morning and intensified during the day. We did inside things (I'd brought work up from MIT) and tended the woodstoves for the Masters Degree class that was meeting in the Center. After noon, we drove to Exeter and found wonderful antique cast iron grates that we need for the new house for air passage between the upper reaches of the Great Room cathedral ceiling and the second floor guest room and bath. The many very florid arched Victorian gratings were lovely but not the house's style which is more Arts and Crafts/Frank Lloyd Wright. Lucky for us--the Victorian ones are wildly fashionable now and go for up to $175 each--the more geometric ones that go perfectly with our style sell for $45 each. We got the four we need for just $5 over the price of one Victorian.

We'd planned to end the day at a meeting of the Town of Raymond Historical Society, but we were the only people to arrive other than the officers who had just decided to cancel due to the weather. So I drove him back home and headed down to Boston early in torrential rain and a constant struggle to keep in the proper driving lane in the teeth of fifty to sixty mile an hour broadside winds.


This morning, it's still going on. The Boston Marathon IS going to take place, albeit with major medical back-up for runners who may succumb to hypothermia, falls on the wet pavements and/or exhaustion from running directly into the gale. The Red Sox have only delayed their scheduled game from 10am to noon in what I think is the totally vain hope of playing today; rain in some form or other is predicted through Thursday. But, you know, they make us tough up here.

This morning, also, Fritz woke up to no electricity--bad news for someone with a group of 42 coming in for a class on the Meyers-Briggs personality type system. Fortuantely that's his biggest speciality and he can teach it even without a projector and slides. But 42 people will need the bathrooms a lot and without electricity the pump from the well won't provide any water. Fritz is at his most wonderful in a crisis like this. He set out the five gallon maple sugaring buckets under the drip lines from the Center's roofs and gathered several buckets of water to place by all the toilets. He'll give a charming speech on everyone cooperating to make it all work and they'll have had a great experience by the time it's all over, I'm sure.

*******

I love this. The late author Kurt Vonnegut was controversial and never shied away from speaking what he held to be the truth. On May 4, 2003 he made a speech at the Hartford, Connecticut house of Mark Twain. Even before Iraq had clearly slid into civil war and become an appalling human disaster, Vonnegut delivered this scathing indictment of the Bush presidency:

I note that construction has stopped of a Mark Twain Museum here in Hartford -- behind the carriage house of the Mark Twain House at 351 Farmington Avenue.
Work persons have been sent home from that site because American "conservatives," as they call themselves, on Wall Street and at the head of so many of our corporations, have stolen a major fraction of our private savings, have ruined investors and employees by means of fraud and outright piracy.

Shock and awe!

And now, having installed themselves as our federal government, or taken control of it from outside, they have squandered our public treasury and then some. They have created a public debt of such appalling magnitude that our descendants, for whom we had such high hopes, will come into this world as poor as church mice.

Shock and awe!

What are the conservatives doing with all the money and power that used to belong to all of us? They are telling us to be absolutely terrified, and to run around in circles like chickens with their heads cut off. But they will save us. They are making us take off our shoes at airports. Can anybody here think of a more hilarious practical joke than that one?

Smile, America. You're on Candid Camera.

Friday, April 13, 2007

 
Last night I attended the first recital performance in Boston of the great Finnish soprano Karita Mattila. For almost two decades now, Ms Mattila has been one of the darlings and great stars of the opera world, an elegant, immensely talented woman who sings with secure, gleaming tone and acts with passion.

The program was well filled with Finnish songs, of which we don't get to hear nearly enough here in the U.S. beyond the works of Jan Sibelius who still towers over Finnish music and culture like a colossus.

Tall and statuesque, Mattila began with "Hermit Songs" by American composer Samuel Barber who discovered verses by Irish monks written in the margins of the sacred texts they were illuminating. Frequently secular, even ribald in content and feeling, these marginalia struck Barber as being fresh, honest and surprisingly contemporary. One very short song has this as its text:

I do not know with whom Edan will sleep.
But I do know that fair Edan will not sleep alone.


The Barber (in which her English was clear and virtually without accent) was followed by eight songs by four Finnish composers: Toivo Kuula, Erkki Merlartin, Oskar Merikanto and Leevi Medetoja. Before the Medetoja, the soprano made an appeal to music students in the audience (Jordan Hall is part of the New England Conservatory of Music) to explore the Finnish repertory. She then gave a superb demonstration of just why they would find Finnish music rewarding.

After intermission there was a set of striking, intense songs by Hugo Wolf, the troubled Austrian composer who went insane very early, followed by a Spanish set with selections by Granados and Turina.

In response to tremendous enthusiasm from the capacity audience, there were three encores--one song each by Dvorak and Sibelius, and she won all hearts by wrapping up with Gershwin’s "The Man I Love." During the curtain calls, there was some amusing byplay between the tall, willowy soprano and pianist Martin Katz who looks to be barely five feet tall and built like a fire hydrant. When she hugged him, his nose disappeared into her cleavage.

*******

Darin has made an extremely telling observation on his blog, All Preparation and No H, part of which I quote verbatim:

Mister Imus, through his statements, classified a group of people. And thus, he may lose his job. [And has lost both the radio and TV versions of the job since Darin wrote this]

But let me pose this question: Isn't that what lawmakers, our elected officials as well as various religious leaders, have been engaging in when it comes to gay rights? However, under the auspices of "freedom of speech" or "religious right" it seems as if it's ok to vilify the gay agenda.

Recently, a military official went before Congress and vilified the homosexual lifestyle. Uhmmm...he's still got his gig. I don't see where he's at risk of being fired.

Jerry Falwell not only accused gays of bringing wrath to the World. Oh no - he didn't stop there:

"I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.' ["this", as I recall, being 9/11]

And this man still has a job?

So I guess American Society is saying that it's ok for those under the cloak of "Moral Rights" to verbally and legally slap groups down. But it's not acceptable for an acid-tongued radio announcer to say something.


Of course, the situation is radically different in one major way. Civil rights for African-Americans became and remains [justifiably] an iconic, sacred cause and event in American life. Civil Rights for gays and lesbians is opposed on the basis of The Bible, not only the most printed book in the history of the world but surely also the single most distorted, falsified and abused book as well.

Prejudice against gays and lesbians is the last remaining "respectable" prejudice—all the best people, don't you know. We've still got a long way to go and a lot more convincing to do.

*******

An ad for my house in Roslindale went into Bay Windows, Boston's gay newspaper, this week. Fritz had suggested it on the basis of the Staging Lady's comment that it would be good idea to market heavily in the house in the South End, Jamaica Plain and Boston's western suburbs--places where the house's period style and well-reserved interior detailing would e appreciated (the first two are also heavily gay neighborhoods, and therefore appropriate because of the steady gay migration into Roslindale in the last decade).

The house was been shown three times this week which is encouraging. No offers yet, but if this pace keeps up we'll at least be confident that it's getting good exposure.


I'm off now to Fritz's to work on the rebuilding of the Sweat lodge. I'll be back on Monday--have a happy weekend.



Thursday, April 12, 2007

 
In the continuing controversy over Don Imus and his remarks that have been branded as both racist and sexist, this item captured from Ron’s Log is all the more significant:

When a Brampton, Ontario, family took delivery of their new sofa they were shocked to discover it clearly identified as "Color: Nigger-brown" on several different labels. The retailer and distributor are passing the buck back to Guangzhou [China] where the sofa was manufactured.

*******

The Today Show Tuesday morning ran almost a full hour on the Imus incident, including a lengthy discussion with Imus himself and Rev. Al Sharpton. There was a panel discussion with several African-American leaders in different fields including Rev. Jesse Jackson-- who very quickly changed the subject when his own major political/racist gaffe of a decade ago (referring to a Jewish area of New York City by an anti-Semitic name) was brought up to him by Meredith Viera.

I've followed the Imus business until it all became repetitious and I got into my "enough, already!" mood. I'm not a fan of shock jocks because it's all the same thing: they don't just push the envelope, which I could respect, but intentionally go places they shouldn't to create a tumult and generate media attention, then claim innocence of any intent to harm. Actually, I believe they're well aware that racial, ethnic and sexual orientation outrage is the surest way to achieve maximum visibility.

When Don Imus appeared opposite Matt Lauer on Today, he retreated behind the excuse that his show is essentially comedy, not political commentary or news. I'm not sure how comedy can or should provide cover for racism, particularly when Imus and others have been repeat offenders and are, I'm certain, very much aware of what they're doing and the inevitable consequences. But the comedy comment grabbed me because I'd heard that excuse before. I'd heard it from my father.

I grew up in a very politically conservative family that had all the racial, ethnic and sexual prejudices typical of their generation and place in American society. I will not repeat the many names that I heard used to refer to African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Germans, Poles, Jews, etc. Suffice it to say that no group emerged unscathed, even as my father told me bitterly of his resentment over the hurt he and his family experienced when they were called all the usual anti-Italian names in the streets of New York.

But the fact that his family had been the butt of prejudice meant absolutely nothing to him as he tossed insults and stereotypical comments around freely. He even did his Chinese restaurant waiter act IN Chinese restaurants while sitting in a booth and looking at the menu. If any of us protested in any way, he became defensive and said something like, "it's a JOKE, and if these people can't take a simple joke there's something seriously wrong with them. What the hell IS this?"

What the hell it was became the subject of a major sensitivity initiative, beginning with the struggle for Civil Rights in the U.S. and continuing into the Political Correctness campaign. My family did not approve of either. Both sides (Italian on my father's, English on my mother's) had immigrated in my grandparents' generation and were dead set against advancing anyone through the system for any reason other than proven merit. On my mother's side, the English class system was heavily imprinted, and any kind of class struggle for upward mobility was viewed as an attack on society and possibly criminal. My family (and many, many others, obviously) was not prepared for the second half of the 20th Century in the United States of America--and we won’t even talk about the sexual revolution and Women's Liberation.

So what happened to me? I escaped. Very early on I rejected most of my family's values and by age eleven at least was thinking and forming opinions for myself. Part of this was certainly a function of normal adolescent rebellion, but part of it was that I started reading large numbers of adult history books and forming an objective view of American society at an early age. Given a number of pressures within the family, I had more or less resigned myself to waiting out my childhood until I could get away to college which I did early, having graduated high school while still sixteen years of age. Once away, I began a lengthy but necessary process of rebuilding myself and my belief systems.

So what happened to my father? This is an interesting topic and one where he surprised me. He didn't become Archie Bunker, immutably entrenched in reactionary political and social beliefs. He evolved and shed a lifetime of biases and exclusivist attitudes because of a promotion at work and his own sense of professionalism.

Except for a few summer jobs in college (New York University) my father's entire career was spent with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, a massive, conservative firm where he began as an entry-level clerk. As he was a sharp young man with a good work ethic and virtually never missed a day of work because of illness (a trait that passed in the blood to me), he advanced with some speed into the Group Personnel Division, which today would be a section of Human Relations. His work was mainly administrative, but just as I was going off to college, he received a major promotion and was shifted into an area where his people skills would bring him out of paperwork and into direct contact with Met Life employees from all different levels. He would be guiding those who were having personal or work problems, facilitating careers that were on the move up within the company and, most significantly, mentoring new hires from an array of ethnicities, language skills and cultures, so that they could become the future of the company.

The new position changed him forever. Dealing one on one with every member of the great social mosaic that is New York City turned him around within twelve to eighteen months, and the process only deepened over the years. I was really taken by surprise and I think he was, too. He developed a very different take on bilingualism (assisted no doubt that his household growing up was trilingual—Italian, French and English) , a concern for glaring social injustices that put him directly at odds with his staunchly Republican past, and at last an understanding of my own maverick liberalism.

Whenever one of these media personalities starts spewing racist, misogynist or homophobic comments, I think back to my father's enlightenment and wonder at their inability to come to terms with the world as it is. And I admire all the more the journey he took in so short a time.


Monday, April 09, 2007

 
As an academic I get a lot of University Press catalogs and as a voracious reader I usually go through all of them in detail, not just the sections that pertain to my particular discipline (not that a theatrical designer and opera lover/closet historian my discipline can be that easily defined). In the most recent University of Chicago catalog, there appears this irresistible item:

Headless Males Make Great Lovers; and other unusual natural histories

Marty Crump, with illustrations by Alan Crump

"Who would believe that hedgehogs anoint themselves with toad venom as a defense? That rabbits eat their own dung? Or that sea slugs like group sex? This book grosses out, but also educates. Not for Intelligent Design proponents."

Hey, how about this: we start a writing campaign to inform right-wing religious groups that there's a massive amount of group sex going on among sea slugs, and maybe they'll turn their attention to eliminating slug orgies, and get off OUR backs. You think?

*******

I wasn't actually missing in action, just involved in too much action. Friday's one day guest appearance by the Paul Taylor 2 touring dance company went superbly--better than anything has a right to that involves creating a theater in an empty hall beginning at 8 am, rehearsing the entire performance as of 2pm, performing at 8pm, and striking a couple of tons of theatrical stage and lighting equipment by midnight so the hall's crew can set up a sit-down banquet for 400 for the next day.

There was praise for my getting it all to coordinate so smoothly but I have a built-in advantage--I'm a Myers-Briggs type J, meaning that I'm a natural organizer. I also multi-task well. And I thrive on only five hours of sleep a night. Thus have I been employed (and sometimes exploited) by theater and opera companies all over Boston and near-by New England.

There were some delightful episodes during the day. Two of the Taylor company's major financial patrons showed up as the lighting booms were being erected and a thousand feet electric cable being laid all through the hall. These guys have big careers, are probably richer than god, and the wife of one of them has just become MIT's Treasurer. They were playing hooky for the afternoon to hang with the members of the company they love to support. They turned out to be incredibly charming, up on everything and up for anything.

As Producer for the event, I was involved with and responsible for every aspect of the production. As these guys wandered through the organized chaos, I was sitting at a technical table folding the evening's programs by hand--I know, working in theater is SO glamorous. Introductions all around. They found out I'm scenic designer and technical coordinator for the Theater Section. One of them says that they'd be interested in my opinion of the single most horrible Post-Modern, Euro-trashy production they'd ever seen in their lives the night before.

This is my meat. I was in my element. I knew exactly where they had been and what they were talking about. "Gentlemen, we are, of course discussing the new production of Richard Strauss's 'The Egyptian Helen' at the Metropolitan opera." And faster than Kevin Bacon's Six Degrees of Separation TV commercial, we're practically brothers. Chairs were pulled up in a close circle and one of them comments to the other that he bets they can fold programs as well as I do.

So there we were, two CEOs and me talking theory of contemporary production styles, collating and folding three sheet programs and having a great time together.

The performance went very well. Because of the Boston Globe and Herald ads we had more than the 200 people that the hall is usually rated to hold in a stage performance configuration but because we had laid things out very economically, we were allowed to put out sixty more seats and didn't have to turn anyone away.







Saturday afternoon I drove down to New York City for the evening performance of the aforementioned "most horrible Post-Modern, Euro-trashy production" of "The Egyptian Helen" (the set models seen here) and found it stylish, quite appropriate for the material and extremely well performed. The original productions in Germany and Austria in 1928 were clearly based on Hollywood spectacles; the accompanying pictures of the Metropolitan Opera's production show a 1930s Hollywood musical influence. I loved it, and so did a near-capacity audience. And German tenor Thorsten Kerl made a good-sounding, great looking leading man.

*******

Today was a BIG day. I spent it with Fritz and we got immense amounts accomplished. First and foremost, today officially saw the transition from planning the house to beginning the construction. The excavator came by to collect an advance for grading and laying gravel on the road up to the house and digging the trench for the electric and communication cables. He begins the work tomorrow morning.

We ordered and paid for all the cable conduit that's going into the trench, to be delivered Friday. In the afternoon we met with M, who's doing all the construction drawings, and chose the style and material for all our interior doors. We turned over the info on our choices for toilets and the upstairs shower enclosure and went over a lot of details needed to complete the drawings and get them ready to go out to bid with the two prospective general contractors. We're on our way!

Friday, April 06, 2007

 
IBM has announced that it will supply major amounts of Arabic-English translation software to the U.S. armed forces. The gift is to fill the yawning gap left in this vitally needed service caused by the dismissal of hundreds of human translators solely on the grounds of their being gay or lesbian. The government itself has recognized that the current lack of Arabic translators has caused a critical situation in American-Iraqi communications that is highly counterproductive to Bozo's current reincarnation of "stay the course".

Yet in the face of all reason, Bozo himself has endorsed the dismissals under Don't Ask, Don't Tell in a recent White House Rose Garden press conference. Asked if he agreed with General Pace's controversial comments that gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors and marines are "immoral", Bozo said he would make no moral judgments; asked if he still supported DA,DT he said yes indeed, because it's a good policy.

In a perverse way (unless it were to further endanger any American serving in Iraq or Afghanistan) I kind of hope IBM supplies the kind of translation quality that you get when you feed text into any of the on-line translation systems.

Wednesday afternoon I went up to Fritz's for dinner with him and a good friend of ours who was staying over to be near Manchester Airport for an early morning flight. An early April snow storm was roaring in with extremely heavy, wet snow as we got to bed. About 2:40AM on Thursday something woke us in one bedroom and our friend in the other. A minute or so later there was a violent flash like a military trace rocket that lit up our rooms through the shades. In bright electric green with brilliant white sparks, it lasted for about three seconds, and repeated almost immediately. The electricity went out. We still had phone service when I called 911 to report some sort of event with the transformer on the pole in front of Fritz's property.

The 911 lady said it was happening all over town, that electric lines were coming down and that all emergency services were aware. We went back to bed but were too wired to go back to sleep. At some point the power came back on. About an hour later the flash repeated, far brighter this time and lasting longer at about ten seconds. Power went out again and we finally drifted to sleep.

When I got to MIT our technical director, who knows much more about electricity than I do, said that from my description we had experienced plasma arcs (seen here recreated in a lab). These are bursts of intense electricity arcing from one terminal to another--in this case from the transformer to the ground.

By the time I called Fritz to tell him, at the height of the power outages, 55,000 New Hampshire homes were without electricity in the area. By 6pm, that was down to 32,000 but his hadn't been restored as of 9pm. I called him several times during the evening to cheer him up and wish I could be there with him. But tomorrow I have a 16 hour day ahead of me as I supervise and work on the put-in, set up, rehearsal, performance, strike and load-out of The Paul Taylor Dance Company's touring arm.

We were told by the faculty member who had invited the company to MIT that we should only set up about 100 chairs for the audience as he expected only the considerable dance community at MIT to attend. Then for some reason he gave the green light to an ad that ran in the Boston Globe and Boston Herald. The phone was ringing off the hook all afternoon. MIT's safety regulations for the hall don't allow an audience over 200 and we're beginning to be concerned that we may be turning a lot of people—not very happy people—away.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

 
I'm spending an hour a day or so beginning to clean out my office at MIT. OK, "muck out" might be a bit more accurate. We've been in our current building for eleven years and in that time I've created innumerable stage models, painted more sketches and color elevations than I care to remember and, being a frugal sort (OK, cheap) I saved the scrap for reuse it in other projects.

Except there was always more scrap than projects. You know how it goes--after a while the place looks like a junk shop (I refer to it as creative flux) because you come across, or make, certain unique items and artifacts that you just might need somewhere down the line.

I've been throwing out a lot of stuff, dividing what I want to keep of my library and other possessions from what I want to sell in a yard sale, give to charity, or leave behind for my colleagues to use in the future.

There's a lot of the latter, particularly play scripts annotated with prop and furniture lists, scene change notes and questions for the director and the other designers. Of my art and design reference books, I'm going to be fairly hard on myself. There's only one theatrical design job I intend to take into my post-MIT career, working with Intermezzo, the chamber opera company. It's virtually an all-gay organization; I believe in the work, and in the company's work ethic, down to the ground. I've had a lifetime of sitting in dark theaters at all hours watching light cues change interminably until everything’s perfect. It was wonderful and I have no regrets, but I've done that and now I have other things to do.

I've been looking at the decorative arts pretty closely. As a theatrical designer (with a lot of free-lance work in graphics and print layout) I've been closely allied with the decorative arts throughout my career. To begin, there are several projects I have in mind for art in various media based on elements from my scenic designs that I would like to develop further. One series would be called "Goddesses of 'The Tempest'", based on my designs for animated projections used in a production of Shakespeare's play. There were four goddesses; Sycorax, Earth Mother of the island on which the cast is marooned; Iris, a rainbow goddess; Ceres, goddess of grain and plenty; and Fortuna who rules the arbitrary fate of all humans. Each would be produced in a different medium on one of four identical arched wooden panels.

I want to go back and restudy some projects, particularly my production of Stephen Sondhaim’s "Pacific Overtures"; and I want to design some material that I always wanted to do but never got my hands on. I might do those more as paintings than standard theatrical set sketches. I'm halfway through writing a book on the history of theatrical lighting before electricity--a fascinating subject--and I want to get it finished. I'm also very interested in combining furniture with graphics and text. I’m not certain yet exactly where all this might lead, and for a man who always had a long range schedules and well-defined goals, I'm surprisingly comfortable with that. A little reinvention is a good thing at life's various crossroads.

Cleaning out the office is becoming symbolic for me. There's no doubt that I'm going to miss colleagues with whom I've worked closely for so long, but I’m not going out of existence and neither are they. I'll be in Boston with Fritz and on my own with some frequency for theater, opera, museums, etc. (I also have every intention of becoming established with arts groups in New Hampshire as well). In the meanwhile, the transition time will be filled with the construction and finishing details of the house that Fritz and I will work on together.

The new house will save me, I think, from the one area where I’m going to be very emotionally vulnerable—leaving my current house. I’m a nest builder and a nurturer by nature. I raised my daughters here from infancy to the time that they walked out in the world to establish their own lives and careers (we’re seen here in a Christmas card picture from when they were something like five and seven). I found the house close to a wreck (advertised as “a handyman special”) and have renovated and rebuilt it into a great and very special place. Walking out of here could be a big problem, but the fact that I’m walking into something that I originated, that Fritz and I are working on it together (physically in many, many areas) and that it will be a home meant specifically for US, will let me walk out of here with a sense of new directions and purposes.

*******

Following up on the story of Governor Patrick restoring the same-sex marriages that Governor Romney had invalidated, a movement is now developing in the state legislature finally to repeal the infamous 1913 law that was used to deny marriage in Massachusetts to out-of-state gay couples. That the law remains on the books is in itself a disgrace--it was passed almost a century ago to prevent couples of mixed race from coming into Massachusetts to get married, specifically black/white couples. Not surprisingly, right-wing Churches and anti-gay groups immediately got in bed together to support and preserve this discriminatory law.

Gay advocacy groups have, interestingly, not responded with much interest, one leader saying that she and her organization were focused on preserving same-sex marriage from the threat posed by the ballot question in 2008, and that repealing an old law didn't engage her interest.

Well, maybe. But I think that law is a serious blemish on this state's long and honorable history of liberalism and inclusiveness. Some people point out that it isn't enforced any more for its original purpose so the "race" aspect has been eliminated. But it WAS enforced when it could be against inter-racial marriage, and again recently against gay men and lesbians; it should, in my opinion, be expunged legally once and for all from the books.

Monday, April 02, 2007

 
It was reported on CBS Radio yesterday that Governor Deval Patrick has ordered the reinstatement and registering of 26 marriages contracted by same-sex couples from states other than Massachusetts. These marriages had been voided out personally by former Governor Mitt Romney as part of his anti-gay crusade.

Governor Patrick said that he considers Romney's action to be discriminatory and that discrimination would not be tolerated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It's so good to have a governor again who feels that he was elected to serve ALL the citizens of Massachusetts.


*******

Things are looking up quite a bit since last Tuesday when Bill the Realtor and I reduced the asking price of the house. Disappointing though it was to have to do, it's produced results.

Last Thursday I got a phone call from an agent who wanted to show the house on Saturday The Open House on Sunday drew eight parties and Bill said the energy was very high--much more positive than at the first Open House. People stayed a long time, asked lots of questions, speculated about interior decoration, etc. One couple from Somerville with an 18 month old daughter stayed a long while and loved the house. Bill said it didn't hurt that the mockingbird sat on the branch that supports the bird feeder and serenaded them for twenty minutes while they talked in the kitchen. Also, I got a call yesterday morning that another agent will show the house this coming Thursday.

So now we know we've reached a price that will get people into the house. Bill said that it's selling itself once they're inside, which doesn't surprise me. No offer from anyone yet, but the important thing is that now they're coming to look.


*******

J. David Zacko-Smith posted this on his blog, Contextual Musings. Is this possible? Perhaps, although in some ways it's very like the 1960s urban legend that if you scraped the inside of banana peels, dried the scrapings, rolled and smoked them, you'd wind up with a major high. Banana sales skyrocketed nationwide--until it was discovered to be a hoax. Now, I'll just mention that the date of publication on this article is April the First!

Grow-your-own Viagra craze hits Britain's garden centres
By David Randall - The Independent (UK)
Published: 01 April 2007

A chance discovery by a Berkshire allotment-holder that a plant widely available in garden centres has the same effect on men as Viagra has been confirmed by experts at one of the world's leading botanical institutions.

The plant is winter-flowering heather, and botanists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, many of them heather experts who have recognized the source of its active ingredient, now expect it to be the next must-have plant in British gardens. Demand is already high. Nurseries and garden centres in some areas are having trouble finding sufficient supplies as word spreads of the plant's unexpected properties.
A spokesman for Wyevale Garden Centres, which has 106 UK branches, said: "At first, it was just a trickle of inquiries, but now stores are virtually being besieged each weekend. We have had men buying dozens of the plants and, at one store in Croydon, there were men old enough to know better fighting over the last remaining trays."

The latest gardening craze was triggered by a discovery by a 55-year-old furniture restorer, Michael Ford, on his allotment. He was always experimenting with drinks made from different plants and one day he tried an infusion from his winter-flowering heather. He said: "The effect was almost immediate. I had to stay in my potting shed for an hour or so before I could decently walk down the street."

He then contacted the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, famous for their work with the heather family, to see if they could offer an explanation. They could. Botanist Alan Bennell said: "This first surfaced when East European chemists reported finding a Viagra-type chemical in the floral tissues of winter-flowering heaths. They were able to isolate measurable amounts of material that is an analogue of the active principle in Viagra."

Winter-flowering heather, he explained, belongs to the genus Erica, a close relative of our own native heather. He said: "As yet, the active ingredient has not been found in these British forms, but it is proving to be most concentrated in many of the widely available hybrids sold as winter-flowering heather in garden centres. Particularly potent are forms of Erica carnea, the Alpine heather, whose range extends into the Balkans.

"The work of these biochemists and physiologists - much of it disrupted and lost during the ravages of war - is now coming to light."

From the limited amount of information available, it is suggested the Viagra-analogue is best extracted by steeping the detached small flowers in neat alcohol. An infusion of about 20g of flowers in 100ml of fluid liberates the active principle. A quality full-strength vodka (at least 40 per cent) is also effective. Mr Bennell added: "There is some confusion whether oral consumption or topical application is more effective."

But not everyone is happy about this new discovery. One woman shopping at a Wyvales in Dorking yesterday said: "It's amazing. My husband has never shown any interest in gardening before, but now he's out there night and day fussing over his heathers. Frankly, I preferred it when he left the garden to me and wasn't so frisky."

Sunday, April 01, 2007

 
I came home from the opera Friday night (Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera"—The Masked Ball) and the mockingbird was at the height of his nightly serenade. He likes to get onto the highest point he can--usually the chimney of one of the taller houses--and go through his entire repertory for hours all through the night. It's so lovely to go to sleep to his singing. Mockingbird voices are big--his song carries for blocks, particularly in the still of the deep night. Just enchanting.

The opera (presented by Boston Lyric Opera) was highly variable and the leading lady was anything BUT enchanting. The two lead men were outstanding: a tall, handsome tenor completely at ease on stage with a voice to match his good looks (Julian Gavin) and the smooth-as-silk baritone Chen Ye-Yuan. But Rumanian soprano Doina Dimitriu made some of the ugliest, most ungainly sounds I've ever heard on a stage. She had no concept of how to produce high notes so she blasted them at ear-splitting volume; the wear and tear on the voice has resulted in a weird type of vocal production that resembled heavy lifting.

When the performance was over, I sought out the company's chorus master B, a colleague of mine at MIT. The first thing he asked was "well, what did you think?" in a tone that left no doubt about whom he meant. "The sad part," I replied "is that somewhere in there there's an exciting, even sumptuous voice that's literally screaming to get out".

The chorus was filled with guys who had been in our "Curlew River" cast so I waited at the stage door and as they came out a small crowd of us gathered. They told me that I now have a new title. They’ve dubbed everyone who was in our highly successful production "River Rats" and I'm delighted to be one.

Last night at Jordan Hall I went to a concert of Antonio Vivaldi’s "Juditha Triumphans", a dramatic oratorio on the biblical story of the Jewish lady who infiltrated the invading Assyrians' camp and assassinated the enemy general. "Juditha" is filled with beguiling music very lushly orchestrated and filled with exotic Baroque instruments that have ceased to be used in modern orchestras, like the chalumeau (sounds like a cross between a flute and a clarinet) or the lavishly strung theorbo, giving the score an exotic sound always filled with Vivaldi's sensuous, graceful lyricism.
In the midst of excellent singing and playing, my attention was often drawn to two young men seated on the side of the orchestra across the hall from my first row side balcony seat. Casually and completely naturally, they sat through the performance with their arms linked or resting on the other's knee. Sometimes, one would slip his arm around the other's shoulder. They held hands. As the first half ended and the house lights came up for intermission, they stood and stretched and one turned and kissed the other. They were beautiful together.

I went downstairs to use the men's room and on my way back to my seat, I saw them standing together in the lobby. Totally on impulse, I went over and said that I was sitting in a seat where I could see them clearly and was quite moved by their totally open expression of affection for one another. Then I added, "many of us weren't convinced we'd live long enough to see a time when this would be possible". They thanked me for what I'd said and one of them squeezed my arm. They were in their early 20s somewhere and I wondered if they truly understood what an incredible distance we've traveled, and what major sacrifices have been made so that they might be free to show their love in public. But of course, wasn't that one of the major goals of the struggle?--that succeeding generations might be free do exactly what they were doing, completely openly, without having to worry that there might be serious, even fatal consequences.

On Friday afternoon I got a call to let me know that my house would be shown to a prospective buyer on Saturday afternoon. The drop in asking price seems to have broken the log jam. There's an Open House scheduled here later today (I'll be in New York seeing Rossini's extravagant romantic opera "La Donna del Lago"--The Lady of the Lake--based on Sir Walter Scott's famous epic poem); tomorrow my realtor will give me a full report on how many people showed up and some idea of their reactions to the house as an indication of how difficult or (please!) easy it may be to sell. I'm hardly going to expect any offers right away--at this point I'm just happy someone wants to look at the house--but I certainly wouldn't mind if somebody made one!

Many thanks to J.P. of J.P. for Dummies for posting this. Can you imagine an American presidential candidate taking part in such a public service campaign?


The posters show three of the candidates for the French Presidential election, left to right [politically as well as graphically], Ségolène Royal, François Bayrou and Nicolas Sarkozy, with the caption:

Would you vote for me if I was HIV-positive?
It's AIDS that needs to be excluded [from France], not people with AIDS


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