Saturday, May 31, 2008

 
“Will, don’t panic.” The voice on the phone belonged to my general contractor and, given what we’d just seen, panic seemed like a remarkably reasonable option.

Fritz and I were showing the house to a woman we’ve known for several years who was renting the Center for a lesbian weekend workshop, when Fritz looked into the great room and said to me. “What’s THAT?

“That” was a neat cone of something that looked remarkably like sawdust directly under the king beam of the main truss supporting the roof. I got down on the floor and felt some of it. It was white so I knew it wasn’t from the rose-colored Douglas fir of the trusses, but might have been from the pale pine planking that sheathes the underside of the roof inside the room.

Outside, we discovered that the handsome stone-clad piers across the front of the house were being used as a raceway for hundreds and hundreds of big black ants traveling up from the ground to minute seams in the woodwork where the siding meets the overhangs, through which they were entering the house. With the coming, finally, of warm days in the 60s and 70s, we’d been invaded by ants—carpenter ants.

The general contractor went on to explain that this situation, while certainly unsettling, was relatively common in new construction. disturbing the ground extensively as all new houses do, displaces thousands of insects who then begin to look for new homes. Particularly as I had built using a great deal of tasty fir, pine, and even cedar, which ants normally don’t like but which wasn’t repelling this lot, my home looked to them very much like their home.

In short order it was determined that the white dust on the great room floor wasn’t sawdust but white insulating foam dust, a sign that the ants, when they arrived at the peak of the great room, had decided to nest in the softer, easier to chew spray foam insulation rather than attack wood—yet.

I was advised to get boxes of Borax—the old laundry detergent amplifier that also sends ants into a nervous frenzy to their deaths—and make a line around the house with it. I also poured some down the sloped sides of the piers so that Borax powder could accumulate on the top edges of the stones. It worked—for a day or so. Then they came back in reduced but very real strength.
They have guts, I’ll give them that.

But I won’t give them my home. An exterminator is scheduled to come Monday afternoon.

*******


The concrete floor guys, the two ruggedly handsome brothers who had done such a lovely job that seemed to be ruined by the protective paper sticking to the sealer, came back and did another spray of sealer after extensive cleaning and scraping. We’ve peeked into the three rooms—great room, entry hall and master bedroom—that were affected and it looks like they’re back to the beautiful finish they had originally. We breathed a sigh of relief. We love those floors and it looks like we’ve got them back again.

I think we’ll also have the brothers back again. I want some walkways poured around the house later in the summer after a lot of more important outside finishing work is complete. Their work always looks great--and so do they!

*******

I’ve been reading a lot of Byzantine and Islamic history lately, but I’m now taking a break with Farley Granger’s autobiography “Include Me Out.” Fritz had read it some while ago, saying it was an enjoyable and fascinating read. And so it is.
Farley Granger at the height of his early Hollywood career

Granger was a golden boy who grew up in southern California convinced his destiny was to act and become a star in movies. He was blessed with spectacular looks, charisma, and an innate acting talent driven by a centered understanding of himself. Referred to a small theater company because of striking acting work in high school, he was “discovered” and wound up with a Goldwyn Studios contract before his 18th birthday.

It wasn’t all a triumphal march and he’s unfailingly honest about projects that failed as well as his outstanding work in high-visibility movies with directors like Alfred Hitchcock (Rope, Strangers on a Train) that made his major talent known to a wide audience.

Granger interrupted his early career for service in the Pacific in World War II, Honolulu being the setting for one of the most remarkable incidents in the book; he lost his virginity twice in the same night, first to a beautiful young Hawaiian woman and then to a handsome, older Navy lieutenant commander at an estate outside the city set up as a resort/brothel by the Navy for senior officers and guests. Relationships of various lengths with both men and women would occur easily and naturally for Granger throughout his life. And, yes, he does name names, at least some of them. Later in life, he settled into a continuing relationship with Robert Calhoun who co-authored the book. They live in New York City.
And Granger recently at age 81

Granger loved acting and making movies but hated Hollywood culture, any idea of making it on his looks alone, and the trappings of stardom—he eventually left Hollywood for film work in Europe and for a great deal of live theater. The book is fun to read, filled with unexpected takes on familiar figures, and fascinating stories about the great movers and shapers from other professions who were drawn to him by his talent and vibrant personality. Granger himself emerges as a good colleague, an intelligent artist, and as a man at ease in the world no matter what comes his way. He’s also discreet and generous in his portraits of the people who’ve crossed his path in the course of a long and fulfilling career, although one or two who seem to have deserved it do get laid out in lavender. A most enjoyable book.

*******


Here’s our front door bell—a lovely old brass piece that Fritz had kept on his mantle. Both doors of the house now have bells you ring by hand, which I love. I’ve never had an electric doorbell—even in Boston, my bell was an old handbell, the type that used to be rung to call children into school, that I converted to ring inside when you pulled a chain outside.


And here’s one of the Russian Olive bushes, now in full flower, of which we have several on the property.

*******

The Wit and Wisdom of George W. Bush

“If he’s—the inference is that somehow he thinks slavery is a—is a noble institution I would—I would strongly reject that assumption—that John Ashbrook is an open-minded, inclusive person.”
NBC Nightly News with Tom Brocaw, January 14th, 2001


Thursday, May 29, 2008

 
Some pictures around the property in spring:


Clusters of Quaker Ladies, tiny flowers that spread throughout the grass in ever-expanding patches

Wildflowers--there are some similar ones in yellow that are also out now.


The bridge, just completed, with tools and materials still in place.


The doorbell for the mechanical room entrance. It makes a wonderful clang.

*******

Last Friday, we celebrated our anniversary in Boston, starting with a pre-theater dinner at Legal Seafood in Cambridge, a stone’s throw from my old office at MIT. Since we both love fish, our anniversary dinners have frequently involved trips to Saunders of Rye Harbor. Radici in Portsmouth is another favorite. But we’re both mad for bluefish which we hadn’t had in way too long, and that means Legal’s.

Bluefish isn’t everybody’s cup of clam broth. It’s a dark meat fish, with a rich, smoky flavor. We’ve long since given up any pretense of ordering anything else when we go—we use the menus only to firm up our side order choices. We start with a good, dry pinot grigio along with the kitchen’s irresistible fresh-baked rolls and butter, then proceed directly to the grilled bluefish—plain for Fritz, with their own creamy mustard sauce for me. Broccoli in olive oil and garlic, rice pilaf, and the excellent, crisp snow peas in oyster sauce are among our usual choice of sides. On anniversary night we allow ourselves a dessert and I have coffee.

We then drove into the South End for Speakeasy Stage’s production of The History Boys by Alan Bennett. Longer and, a close friend tells me, much better than the movie made of it, History Boys is part of a long-standing British tradition, the boys’ school drama. The central issue here is the desire of the headmaster to have his working-class school’s students do better than admission to industrial town universities. He hires a sharp young teacher to shake things up so as to pull down some acceptances to Oxford and Cambridge for a change.

There are sub-plots, of course—the boys are becoming sexually active (one’s openly gay, a couple of others are open to experiment) and the teacher who’s the center of the story likes to give motorcycle rides to students during which he gropes them liberally.

This teacher, nicknamed Hector, and the new man, Mr. Irwin, soon lock horns over teaching style and Irwin’s premise that a sharp presentation and eccentric approach to the entrance essay will always trump truth and responsible scholarship with admissions committees.

I realized very early in the evening that the issues in this play and the conflict in this country between “teaching to the exam” education where standardized tests are everything and exploratory, hands-on, open inquiry education, were very close. I also realized that Fritz’s educational philosophy one that has helped develop so many Teachers of the Year here in New England school districts, was the one Mr. Irwin was looking to undermine with his razzle-dazzle rather than substance approach.

In any event, the Speakeasy’s production was exceptional, and we drove home having had a very nice anniversary celebration indeed.

*******

My description of Walt’s minimalist paella drew some interested comments, so here’s the recipe. Understand that I never leave any recipe unaltered, so there are a few differences from the original-- but the spirit of Walt’s delicious paella is intact;

Minimalist Paella

3 ½ cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 ½ pounds tomatoes; I use Italian (Roma) tomatoes
¾ pounds cooked shrimp, tails removed
½ pound chowder fish, cut in bite sized pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup olive oil
2 onions, chopped
1 or 2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 large pinch of saffron (optional)
2 teaspoons of Spanish Pimenton (aka smoked paprika). You can
get by with any other sweet paprika, but the rich, smoky
flavor of the pimenton is really essential.
2 cups Arborio rice, or other short-grain rice

1) Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Bring stock to a simmer in a sauce pan. Quarter the tomatoes, put in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of the oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and mix well.
2) Put remaining oil in a good sized baking dish over medium-high heat with the garlic and onion, salt and pepper to taste.
Stir occasionally until the onions begin to be transparent. Add the pimenton and saffron, cook for a minute and then add the rice. When the rice is shiny (maybe two minutes) add shrimp, fish and stock and stir well.
3) Arrange tomato wedges on top in a nice pattern, put in the oven and roast for 45 minutes. Check to see that the rice is dry but tender. If the rice isn’t done, add a bit more stock, water or white wine and return to the oven until it’s ready.

Along with the Moroccan tagines I’ve been making lately, this is a great dish if you’re having friends over because at the end it spends the better part of an hour cooking itself and letting you be with people instead of isolated away in the kitchen.

*******

We have less than 270 days left of the Bush presidency (Thank you, Jesus!). During a recent TV interview, the first President Bush and wife Barbara expressed their stunned surprise at the perception by a [huge] segment of the population that their son is terminally stupid. They think he’s just bursting with smarts. So, in a serious effort to re-evaluate a possibly unfairly maligned savante, I'm beginning a series of quotes, at the end of each new entry, reviewing:

The Wit and Wisdom of George W. Bush

“Natural gas is hemispheric. I like to call it hemispheric in nature because it is a product that we can find in our neighborhoods.”
Austin, Texas 20 December, 2000


Friday, May 23, 2008

 

Today is Will and Fritz's 11th anniversary, and 4th anniversary of our marriage in Massachusetts


The bridge from the house to the hillside is now fully framed, sided and decked. Work is suspended for the holiday weekend, but the entire thing will be finished by the end of the work day Tuesday.

*******

Walt, a really great guy and blogger from New York City, has closed down Inquietudes. I discovered his first blog, Cocalambe, several years ago and soon come to appreciate the calm beauty of his writing style. He closed that blog but came back six months or so later with the new one, during which he met and fell in love with a wonderful guy, and he kept the site open a while longer.


During this period, Walt published a recipe every now and then, some growing out of his Cuban origins. His "minimalist paella" soon became a favorite of ours both for its basic goodness and for its flexibility. Although Walt put it out as a vegetarian dish, I've had great success with introducing shrimp, fish, and clams in various combinations, pulling it in line with traditional Spanish paellas.

The topping of tomatoes (I use Italian plum or Roma tomatoes) that roast in place makes it a very pretty dish to serve and excellent for entertaining. The base of my Moroccan tagine is perfect for sauteing and then going right into a very hot oven, but any good-sized, deep ceramic or glass dish would work.

Walt, you'll be missed!

*******

Fairly frequently I’ve been asked what program I use to do my technical drawings, and the answer is that I don’t. Whether it’s AutoCad or VectorWorks, it’s a “machine” and I don’t want a machine drawing my lines for me. So I usually make a joke of it, hold up my hand with five digits on it and say that I’m a “digital” designer in the true sense of the word.

There’s another reason, which is that I could turn out a ground plan or a page of elevations in about a third of the time it took our technical director to do the same type of drawing. I just never saw the point of sitting there all day trying to create lines and curves of just the right length and diameter and then dragging them into place when I could be done with it in about 10 seconds and then move on.

The same thing happened in my design class. MIT had a cross-registration agreement with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School and with Harvard. One year an architecture major from Harvard came into the class and said she’d be submitting all her assignments via digital files.

Every assignment was at least one class session late and the files played for maybe fourteen seconds, the surfaces of things looking flat and blank. I finally told her that I was [metaphorically] taking her computer away from her and that from then on she would draw all her work by hand. On the day final projects were presented, she told me that she hadn’t actually drawn anything for four years until I made her do it, and she thanked me for giving her back her hands.

Drawing has always been the basic skill for any visual artist and I feel that’s still very true. You learn shapes, particularly complex shapes like the human body, flowers, gears, etc. by drawing them, getting the contours into your fingers. I don’t think abdicating that essential skill to a computer program is ever a good idea. In my new studio in the new house, the computer will be used for research and communication and my hands for sketching and drafting.

*******


A piece of birch tree we'd left to season for firewood, after a porcupine had feasted on bark and the fine-grained wood within.

*******

Even before the expected and ardently hoped-for regime change in Washington DC next January, a Federal Appeals Court has dealt a severe blow to “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” The following AP item tells it in detail, but the gist is that from now on armed forces authorities must prove on a case by case basis that gay or lesbian soldier/sailor/flyer/medics are detrimental to unit morale or that their presence specifically hinders the goals of the armed forces before they can be thrown out of the military. In the case of Maj. Margaret Witt, the citation for bravery and airmanship under extremely hazardous conditions that she received from president Bush is going to make any such argument virtually impossible to support.

Federal court rules against "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell"
by Gene Johnson, Associated Press
Thursday May 22, 2008


The military cannot automatically discharge people because they’re gay, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday in the case of a decorated flight nurse who sued the Air Force over her dismissal.


The three judges from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not strike down the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. But they reinstated Maj. Margaret Witt’s lawsuit, saying the Air Force must prove that her dismissal furthered the military’s goals of troop readiness and unit cohesion.



The "don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue, don’t harass" policy prohibits the military from asking about the sexual orientation of service members but requires discharge of those who acknowledge being gay or engaging in homosexual activity.

Wednesday’s ruling led opponents of the policy to declare its days numbered. It is also the first appeals court ruling in the country that evaluated the policy through the lens of a 2003 Supreme Court decision that struck down a Texas ban on sodomy as an unconstitutional intrusion on privacy.

When gay service members have sued over their dismissals, courts historically have accepted the military’s argument that having gays in the service is generally bad for morale and can lead to sexual tension.

But the Supreme Court’s opinion in the Texas case changed the legal landscape, the judges said, and requires more scrutiny over whether "don’t ask, don’t tell" is constitutional as applied in individual cases.

Under Wednesday’s ruling, military officials "need to prove that having this particular gay person in the unit really hurts morale, and the only way to improve morale is to discharge this person," said Aaron Caplan, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state who worked on the case.

Witt, a flight nurse based at McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma, was suspended without pay in 2004 after the Air Force received a tip that she had been in a long-term relationship with a civilian woman. Witt was honorably discharged in October 2007 after having put in 18 years - two short of what she needed to receive retirement benefits.

She sued the Air Force in 2006, but U.S. District Judge Ronald B. Leighton dismissed her claims, saying the Supreme Court’s ruling in Lawrence v. Texas did not change the legality of "don’t ask, don’t tell."

The appeals court judges disagreed.

"When the government attempts to intrude upon the personal and private lives of homosexuals, the government must advance an important governmental interest ... and the intrusion must be necessary to further that interest," wrote Judge Ronald M. Gould.

One of the judges, William C. Canby Jr., issued a partial dissent, saying that the ruling didn’t go far enough. He argued that the Air Force should have to show that the policy itself "is necessary to serve a compelling governmental interest and that it sweeps no more broadly than necessary."

Gay service members who are discharged can sue in federal court, and if the military doesn’t prove it had a good reason for the dismissal, the cases will go forward, Caplan said.

Another attorney for Witt, James Lobsenz, hailed the ruling as the beginning of the end for "don’t ask, don’t tell."

"If the various branches of the Armed Forces have to start proving each application of the policy makes sense, then it’s not going to be only Maj. Witt who’s going to win," Lobsenz said. "Eventually, they’re going to say, ’This is dumb. ... It’s time to scrap the policy.’"

An Air Force spokeswoman said she had no comment on the decision and directed inquiries to the Defense Department.

Witt joined the Air Force in 1987 and switched from active duty to the reserves in 1995. She cared for injured patients on military flights and in operating rooms. She was promoted to major in 1999, and she deployed to Oman in 2003 in support of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

A citation from President Bush that year said, "Her airmanship and courage directly contributed to the successful accomplishment of important missions under extremely hazardous conditions."

Her suspension and discharge came during a shortage of flight nurses and outraged many of her colleagues - one of whom, a sergeant, retired in protest.

"I am thrilled by the court’s recognition that I can’t be discharged without proving that I was harmful to morale," Witt said in a statement. "I am proud of my career and want to continue doing my job. Wounded people never asked me about my sexual orientation. They were just glad to see me there."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

 
There may be one further delay on finishing one of the house’s systems, and this one I will welcome. As you’ll see from the following notice sent out by the New England sustainable energy Association, the State of New Hampshire’s legislature has passed a bill establishing rather generous financial incentives for installing exactly the kind of solar electrical generation system I’ve contracted for.

The reason for the possible delay is that to be eligible for the rebate, the system has to be constructed after July 1, the date at which the bill becomes law, assuming the governor signs it, which he’s expected to do, and that funding is secured, which will probably happen given the energy crises and global warming we’re going through.

Slightly edited, here’s the text of the NESEA’s jubilant email to the sustainable energy community :

Fantastic News!!!

Thank you all so much for your continued support and patience through the passage of HB1628. New Hampshire now has a financial incentive for small renewable energy systems! Some final tweaking through the senate has clarified some of the language, and we thank you for all of your input, as well as the consistent support from the Public Utilities Commission and Office of Consumer Advocate, and so many of the legislators that supported this effort. We do anticipate that Governor Lynch will sign this bill into law.

A quick overview of the bill:
* $3/watt up to a maximum payment of $6000, or 50% of system costs, whichever is less, per "facility"
* one-time payment
* 5kW and smaller systems qualify
* photovoltaic, wind, microhydro, and other renewable electricity generating systems qualify
* built on or after July 1st, 2008
* located on the owner's property
* 10% of the Renewable Energy Fund will be available for this program, to the extent that such funding is available - see below for more details
* assumed to be first come, first served, although the application process cannot start until the bill is law, and no payments can be made until the Fund is actually funded
* verification of parts and labor costs, that certified equipment meets safety standards of ANSI and UL or similar, and that local zoning and inspections are met
* Must be connected to the utility grid - this is a senate amendment
* Also amended is that the Public Utilities Commission may establish additional incentive or rebate programs for thermal and renewable energy projects.

State law mandates that utilities need to add growing percentages of renewable energy to the mix they deliver to their customers, ultimately closing in on 25% by 2025. When the utilities cannot buy those "green" electrons on the market, or generate them themselves, they pay an Alternate Compliance Payment (ACP), a fair and mutually agreed upon payment specifically for the purpose of encouraging generation of renewable energy, as defined by law.

I will be one of the generators of said renewal energy.

This program could not have gained the momentum it did without your support of it and your support of the NH Sustainable Energy Association.

Many thanks!
The NHSEA Legislative Committee

Given the fact that I sold my house in Boston after the foreclosure crisis had begun and that I had to accept a reduced selling price, this little financial break is extremely welcome. The delay will be for just under six weeks and is more than worth it. The foundation posts have been set into the ground and are all ready to go, so as soon as July 1 arrives, I’ll have one of the first photovoltaic systems in the state to qualify under this new incentive program

*******

We played this spring’s operas to two very good houses last weekend at the Mass College of Art. The double bill was Socrate by Eric Satie (best known for the Gymnopedies for piano as orchestrated by Debussy) and A Last Goodbye, a newly commissioned gay-themed work in its premiere performances.

Intermezzo, the company that’s the only theatrical job I’m maintaining in my “retirement,” is now firmly established in Boston’s operatic scene to the point where the critics now call us to make sure they’ll have tickets waiting for them at the box office. This time we had reviewers from the Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix and the web-based The Edge.

The Globe’s review came out yesterday and was very positive. The only glitch is that for the third time in my career in Boston, even though the program clearly gave my name as William Fregosi, the Globe’s reviewer credited my design to Jim Fregosi, former baseball player, then team manager, and some degree of second cousin to my father. I’ve always been grateful to Jim on one level—because of him there’s at least a chance I’ll get my name spelled correctly. But these reviewers need to learn that not every Fregosi in this country is named Jim!

*******

Work that’s going on up at the house is the construction of the bridge . . . .



. . . . and the first coat of stucco covering the Styrofoam insulation. The finish coat will consist of a textured, warmer color.


This is Colby, the plasterer's dog, who likes to walk around with a hunk of branch in his mouth for extended periods of time visiting everybody on the site. After that's over it's serious rest time.


I spent most of the afternoon and part of the morning pulling rock out of the pits and out of the piles left by the excavator as he prepared for the solar array footings. Our ledge often shatters into flat strata and we need huge amounts of flat rock to lay the walls for the planters and raised beds we want around the house. Right now I am pretty exhausted but it’s a good kind of tired, caused by exercise and getting something accomplished.

*******

This is just irresistible, and so completely true.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

 
We’ve come full circle up at the house. It began with excavation and it’s ending with excavation.
Here is the divided trench that was dug to hold the foundations and posts that will support the photovoltaic solar panel array. It’s on the hillside up behind the house, where the panels will have totally unobstructed access to sunlight in all four seasons.
This much smaller pit is for the footings that will support the “cliff” end of the bridge out to the hillside. After it’s snowed, we’ll be able to walk directly from the second floor of the house up the rise with brooms and sweep the snow off the panels.
This impressive piece of rock—seven and a half feet wide—was blasted out of the hill a year ago. We first saw it standing alone in on the floor of the excavation in the middle of what is now our bedroom. From the beginning, we knew we wanted to use it for something dramatic.

After floating a lot of ideas back and forth with each other, we finally decided that it would be a kind of terrace in the steps leading up to the hot tub that’s going to be moved up from Fritz’s current house. Almost in the middle there’s a hole drilled into the rock that was originally to be used for dynamite in the blasting. For some reason it was left empty and now suggests an ideal socket for the pole of an outdoor umbrella.

*******

Now here’s a very interesting piece that could really open up a big can of worms:
Vatican says aliens could exist
By David Willey
BBC News, Rome

The Pope's chief astronomer says that life on Mars cannot be ruled out. Writing in the Vatican newspaper, the astronomer, Father Gabriel Funes, said intelligent beings created by God could exist in outer space.

Father Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory near Rome, is a respected scientist who collaborates with universities around the world. The search for forms of extraterrestrial life, he says, does not contradict belief in God.

The official Vatican newspaper headlines his article 'Aliens Are My Brother'. Just as there are multiple forms of life on earth, so there could exist intelligent beings in outer space created by God, and some aliens could even be free from original sin, he speculates.

Asked about the Catholic Church's condemnation four centuries ago of the Italian astronomer and physicist, Galileo, Father Funes diplomatically says mistakes were made, but it is time to turn the page and look towards the future. Science and religion need each other, and many astronomers believe in God, he assures readers.

To strengthen its scientific credentials, the Vatican is organising a conference next year to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of the author of the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin.


This is somewhat amazing on several levels. Father Funes airily dismisses the Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo at the hands of the infamous Inquisition as being a simple mistake from which we should all move on. Galileo declared the sun to be the center of the solar system, not the earth, something that had been known by Islamic astronomers for centuries, and by the ancients who had also known not only that the earth was a sphere, but had plotted its circumference with startling accuracy.

But the popes said the earth was flat (because pagans are always wrong by definition) and that the sun revolved around it because Jesus had come down to earth; therefore the earth had to be the center of everything, from our solar system on out into the greater universe. Presumably, God wouldn't have put people on, or sent Jesus to, anything that wasn't the center of something.
Galileo was eventually forced to recant his theory and say it was all a lie, for which he was allowed to live--under house arrest for the rest of his life. Others, many others, were not so lucky. They wound up chained to heavy wooden stakes and burned alive. These unfortunates weren’t able “to turn the page and look towards the future” as their futures ended the minute the popes got their hands on them. Murder, it would seem to me, rates something stronger than "mistake".

In Catholic school, we were taught that only earth could have life on it as Jesus came here, and because the Bible doesn’t mention the creation of any other life-bearing planets. I wonder if the Vatican’s insistence on all this in the past is covered under the doctrine of papal infallibility when speaking on matters of faith and morals.

It would seem so. While morals aren’t relevant here, it was obviously made a matter of life and death concerning one’s faith—believe the church’s errors and live, believe the truth and die, horribly. If they’re saying now that it was all a mistake, does that open the door to admitting that they were wrong in many other areas as well? Crack Infallibility in one place, does it stand firm elsewhere?

That conference on Darwin, roundly condemned by the church for a hundred and fifty years since publication of Origin of the Species in 1859, should be very interesting.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

 
While our excavator reconfigured some of the hillside above the house in preparation for installing posts that will support the photovoltaic panels, and for the bridge that will join the "cliff" to the second floor of the house, Fritz and I did a rough layout of the walkways we want across the front of the house. We hammered stakes into the ground and stretched white string between them to define the triangular raised bed of native New Hampshire wild flowers that will sit directly outside the great room's windows.

It remains a cold spring here, with heavy winds yesterday. I'm home less this week as I've designed the set and lighting for Intermezzo Chamber Opera's spring production, a double bill of operas by Eric Satie and Charles Shadle, a colleague of mine from Music and Theater at MIT. So far, the technical rehearsals are going well.

Socrate, about the life and death of the great Greek Philosopher, uses a combination of front projections cross-fading in and out with the work of actors who appear only as silhouettes behind a plain muslin drop. I'd wanted to take pictures last night but my laptop has been pressed into service with power point to run the projector.

The score is quite lovely, very early twentieth century French, with long lyric lines and great refinement. I get to hear the brand new Shadle opera, A Last Goodbye, for the first time tonight. Word from those who've heard it, and from those who are in it, is that the music is extremely beautiful.

*******

My cousin in Montreal sent me these three pictures, preceded by the challenge, "See if you can identify where these pictures were taken" . . . .



And followed by the answer, "India! That's where we have to call to get instructions on how to work our computers and other electronics. Makes you think, doesn't it?"

I wrote back to tell him that several years ago, Dell's computer support in Bangalore had completely destroyed my computer in approximately three weeks time. They eventually had to send me a whole new computer absolutely free because of all the damage their tech support had done.

Friday, May 09, 2008

 
My two most recent Chinese fortune cookie “fortunes”:

With integrity and consistency, your credits are piling up.
Some pursue happiness; you create it.

Fritz was very gallant to say that he agreed with second one especially.

*******

This has been a big opera week for me both as an audience member and professionally. It began on Sunday with the Boston Symphony’s complete performance of Hector Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens, based on Virgil’s The Aenead.

Troyens isn’t the longest opera in the standard repertory—at least three of Wagner’s are twenty minutes or so longer. But at four hours, with a huge cast, massive, magnificent choruses, ballet sequences, and a finale featuring the self-immolation death of Queen Dido of Carthage on a pyre built on the shore in sight of her lover fleeing by ship—well, it has a certain monumental presence that justified a 3pm starting time with a two hour dinner break between Parts One and Two.

The BSO assembled a great cast but the most impressive work was done by the peerless Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the orchestra, all of whom performed with sustained incandescence.

*******

Tuesday, Opera Boston gave the last performance of the run of it’s third and last production of the year, Giuseppe Verdi’s early opera Ernani.

There’s nothing particularly subtle about this opera based on the play by Victor Hugo that ignited riots in the theater at the Paris premiere in 1830. The French love nothing more than a roaring good scandale in the arts (well maybe a great cheese made from unpasteurized milk, but a scandale in the arts, preferably with fist fights in the audience, is a VERY close second). Hugo threw the very first messy, exciting, “rule”-breaking manifestation of Romanticism in Paris’s face; Verdi responded thirteen years later with a score overflowing with melody, rhythmic energy, deep purple passions, and virtuoso turns for four major stars.

Opera Boston had four very good singers, if not major stars, and two of them already have some respectable Metropolitan Opera credits. Eduardo Villa has a big, muscular dramatic tenor to match his solidly impressive physique. It takes a while to warm up a voice that heavy but once he got going he produced some nice, and even some delicate, tone. Barbara Quintiliani, something of a local heroine, is a genuine Verdi soprano with big, shining top notes. They, along with Jason Stearns, whose warm baritone has a satisfying snarl for the big moments, and Young-Bok Kim, a suave bass, all had big, Italianate voices over which they had varying amounts of control from about 85 to 95 percent.

The production embraced the fact that Ernani is and can only be a very old-fashioned opera.
This was a deliberate director/design team choice, which they carried through successfully, and I thought it was a pretty smart way to go. The stage looked a lot like some of the old photographs from the 1910 Victor Book of the Opera. Costumes were rich and detailed, the singers stood and sang straight out to the audience a lot of the time although they had clearly been directed and had a good sense of character. It was a fun evening with some thoroughly decent singing.

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All this week I’ve been preparing for Intermezzo’s production of Socrate by Eric Satie and A Last Goodbye by two of my MIT colleagues, composer Charles Shadle and librettist Michael Ouellette. We do a put-in of my sets and lighting design on Sunday with technical and dress rehearsals all week, leading to performances on Friday and Saturday.

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Last night I drove four exits east on NH Route 101 to the town of Exeter and met with the owner/manager of the Ioka Theater, a World War I era theater/movie/vaudeville/burlesque house that’s transforming itself into a vibrant performance venue for music, foreign and art films, and a variety of mixed-genre rentals combining cinema, live performance and social events like wedding receptions and charity fund-raisers.

In the wake of the tremendous success of the Metropolitan Opera’s series of high-definition live telecasts the last two years, the Ioka’s presenting a series of recorded high definition video and audio performances of operas from three major Italian opera houses—La Scala (Milan), The Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (Florence), and the Teatro La Fenice (Venice). I was there to see the place and discuss doing introductions and historical background for the audience before each showing, with some further discussion and a question and answer session during the first intermission.


The Ioka dates to 1915 and has a nicely sized, rather high auditorium. The operas won’t be shown there, however, but downstairs in the cabaret, an intimate space with table seating, a bar, and state of the art everything in terms of sound and projection equipment. The effect will be like inviting a bunch—a big bunch—of friends in to watch the operas in an art deco living room setting on an enormous flat screen system.

The operas to be shown are:
La Scala: Verdi’s Aida and La Traviata; Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Puccini’s Il Trittico
Maggio Musicale: Verdi’s La Forza del Destino
La Fenice: Puccini’s La Rondine
Each opera is shown twice, on a Wednesday and on a Sunday ten days apart with all performances at 2pm, running from mid-June to mid-December.

The owner and I got along very well. I left him a copy of my resume, and we have an agreement that I’ll do the whole series. We talked terms: I get to have a drink or two and whatever food items I want from the bar gratis, a season ticket for all the operas that I can give to anyone I want, and all my gas expenses will be reimbursed. It’s a decent deal, one that gets my foot in the door toward what I would eventually like to do which is writing program notes and perhaps doing dramaturgy for one of the opera companies here in the state.

Speaking of which, tonight I’m off to Granite State Opera’s production of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte in Portsmouth, with a friend of ours playing first flute in the pit.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

 
The last scene of Georg Buchner’s incomplete 1820s play Woyzeck is only one line long. It takes place in a courtroom, as the prosecutor says, “It’s been a long, long time since we’ve had a nice juicy murder like this!” Yesterday, a trial began very near here for a very juicy murder indeed—the trial of The Epping Dominatrix.

Dominatrixes (dominatrices?) have provided good journalistic and media sensationalism the last several years. A little south of Boston a couple of years ago, there was The Quincy Dominatrix who had her client bound to something like a cross when he suffered a heart attack and died. Instead of calling the police and just saying that she was catering to a gentleman caller’s preferences during an afternoon tryst (which was actually the truth), she panicked and called her regular boyfriend. The two of themcut the body into pieces and stuffed them into plastic garbage bags, which they disposed of in an insufficiently safe and obscure place. The trial was evening news headline material for weeks.

Well, we may not be greater Boston up here—we’re a bit too far away to be even greater Manchester or Portsmouth. But we’ve got our very own Dominatrix, and this lady could teach her sister to the south a thing or two about domination.

Sheila LaBarre owns a farm in Epping, one town to the east of Raymond. Physically, she’s nothing like the lady from Quincy, a tall, 30-something leggy blond with a penchant for tight-fitting leather. Sheila, 49, is an earth mother type with a taste for younger men who would be invited to rent apartment space in her big old farmhouse. After a while, they quietly dropped out of sight. Parents and friends would miss them and begin asking questions, eventually going to the authorities. So, the authorities visited the farm one day and took a good look around.

Right out in plain sight they found a shallow pit filled with ashes. A preliminary investigation turned up some charred bones that were identified as human. This sort of thing tends to be a red flag to the police. They occupied the place, arrested the lady and began to collect evidence. In due course they found evidence of the death, dismemberment and incineration of two young men.

Ms LaBarre has admitted to killing Kenneth Countie, 24, of Massachusetts, and Michael Deloge, 37, of Somersworth, NH. Her defense is that she was insane when the murders were committed. Insanity in her case is apparently a sometime thing, as she’s considered sane now to stand trial and has been sane at times when she’s not overcome by her praying mantis tendencies to destroy males who mate with her.

But insanity is a very risky plea to make as it’s almost invariably rejected by juries. In LaBarre’s case, however, one of her two attorneys has actually argued an insanity defense to a successful “not guilty” verdict. The insanity in this case centers on LaBarre’s declaration that she'd somehow felt both men were pedophiles and that she was God’s angel sent to protect children from such men. God apparently didn’t frown on her having the guys demonstrate their technique on her before she spread her protective wings over the children of the area, however.

Last week, as final preparations for the trial were wrapping up, it was announced that toes belonging to a third man had been found on LaBarre’s property. Beyond the horror movie aspects of such a discovery, identification of a third victim makes it possible for both prosecution and defense to call experts in serial murder cases to testify. For several weeks to come, it’s going to be ALL dominatrix ALL the time around here.

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Something else is all the time around here now and it’s black flies. Black fly season is one of the more dreaded rites of spring in northern New England. Those of you who know them will understand; those of you who don’t know about them, you don’t want to know!

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As promised, here’s a shot of the façade of the house with the piers sheathed in New Hampshire fieldstone. We’ll be constructing the low stone walls in between the piers and filling the space with good topsoil ourselves to form the “planters” that will, by June, I hope, be growing herbs and colorful annual flowers for us every spring, summer and fall.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, Wotan has left the building

The following is an edited and slightly expanded version of an item on Alex Ross's essential music blog, The Rest is Noise. Potentially, one of the most contentious and problematic transitions of administration in any arts organization anywhere may be drawing to a close:

The official announcent was made late last week: Wolfgang Wagner, Richard Wagner's grandson, will step down as director of the Bayreuth Festival on August 31, one day after his eighty-ninth birthday. He has been in charge since the first postwar festival in 1951, though he shared power with his brother Wieland until Wieland's death in 1966.

For at least the past decade, Wolfgang has refused to step down or in any way settle the huge rifts in the Wagner family that have led more and more members of his childrens' generation to be "exiled" from the Festival, the town of Bayreuth, and any hope of succeeding to management of the unique theater and festival that Richard Wagner built and with which he radically transformed the way theater and opera were presented to the public. Wolfgang's niece Nike Wagner once commented that being born a Wagner was akin to being raised in the German branch of the House of Atrius (the legendary Greek family in which murder, exile, and revenge were handed down through the generations).

Wolfgang's daughters, Eva Wagner-Pasquier (a professinal arts administrator and vocal scout for New York's Metropolitan Opera) and Katharina Wagner (a budding opera director in a style frequently labeled "post-modern" or "Eurotrash"), have made a joint bid to take direction of Bayreuth in his wake, Katherina in collaboration with the brilliant German conductor Christian Thielemann. The three of them together would make an admirably strong Administrative/Artistic/Music Directorship for the Festival.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

 
Today’s blog post is being sent from the new house. Comcast’s installation crew arrived early Wednesday, pulled the short final set of cables from the big junction box about sixty feet below the house through the underground conduits into the mechanical room, and hooked them up to the house’s wiring. We’ve got wireless internet, in addition to phone and cable TV.

We’re continuing with finishing details. I’ve designed a Deco style wall rack that will give us 46 feet of shelf space for CDs. I spent that afternoon ripping scrap and reject pieces of the V-groove pine used on the great room ceiling, into 5-1/2” widths. I then cut it into the proper lengths and stacked it in sequence for sanding and assembly.

In the meanwhile, we’ve been working to get the kitchen set up and are facing the task of choosing the best versions of any particular item from among our utensils, cookware, etc. Sometimes it’s a case of self-selection—an item will not work with the Aga stove. In other cases, some sentimental connection influences the choice (my English grandfather brought this pepper grinder back from Paris just after World War I). Fritz has a general plan for which cabinet will be used for what. One of them will be for everything connected with coffee, tea and my bread-making, for example.

The big utility storage area under the stairs (a wonderfully wide and deep space) has been dubbed “The Harry Potter Room” because in his pre-Hogwarts days, Harry was made to sleep under the stairs by his foster parents.

Speaking of Harry Potter, Harry himself in the person of Daniel Radcliffe will be coming to the US in the production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus that created such a stir in London. Interest in large part was because Radcliffe appeared on stage totally naked, an event preserved in a series of now iconic pictures that proved that Radcliff was no longer a child star but a fully equipped adult (and yes, I know the "complete" version of that picture was almost certainly photoshopped).

And speaking of Equus, Fritz and I made our second foray into the small theater scene in Portsmouth on Friday at the Players’ Ring Theater where the Rolling Die Theater Company presented the play in a very successful production. Of particular interest was the young man who played Alan, the boy who blinds the horses, in a totally committed, beautifully controlled performance of tremendous intensity. As we left the theater, I jokingly asked Fritz if he thought there was any significance to the fact that both plays we’ve seen in Portsmouth this year (The Goat, or Who is Sylvia and Equus) have involved sex with animals.

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We’re suffering here from The Winter That Would Not Die. There’s been hard frost on the roof of the Center two mornings this last week, one of the nights being so cold that it killed all the flowers on the big magnolia tree. They turned muddy brown by mid-morning and were dropping off the tree in rotting blobs by nightfall. Then there’s been incessant rain and/or cold for three days. Shouting at the sky, “This is May already--get your act together” hasn’t helped.

Earlier in the week, I spent one entire morning chain-sawing tree trunk sections into stove cord length while Fritz fed them into the wood splitter, and then stacking it under cover. And that’s good, because it's obvious we’re going to need it a while longer.

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House update: The stonework on the piers could be finished by Tuesday, or even tomorrow if the rain stops later today. The facade of the house looks wonderful now that all its materials are in place. A picture will follow as soon as the last stone is set.

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An interesting Deco poster from the 1930s, something I wouldn't have minded designing myself.

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