Monday, December 29, 2008

My favorite top ten blogs of 2008

As the year ends, bloggers and other writers post their lists for the year. Since I haven't seen ten movies in the entire year, I can't very well post a top ten list of movies. So instead, I will post my top ten favorite blogs as I do spend much of my free time online instead of lining up to see movies.

These are the blogs I go to first in my Google Reader and represent a cross section of all my favorite interests. Hopefully, some of them will interest you too. No offense to the many other blogs to which I subscribe -- the top ten designation is a useful limitation or otherwise I could be writing for hours and hours about all fifty plus blogs currently residing in the reader.

In no particular order:

MetaEfficient -- If you want to buy something but don't know what is the greenest product, then bookmark MetaEfficient. Looking for the most efficient refrigerator, then use the search feature on the blog and you'll get every blog post dealing with refrigerators. Always informative, with posts ranging from the mundane to the extraordinary. Did you know that areca palms are the best indoor humidifiers?

Fake Plastic Fish -- I started reading Beth's blog as she was just beginning her journey of tallying and weighing the amount of plastic items headed for the weekly trash from her household. Following her blog has been a very instructive journey, as she has investigated ways to reduce the use of plastic in her life. I've applied numerous tips from her blog, including investing in a home soda maker and shopping for toilet paper made out of recycled post consumer content that is not packaged in plastic. (Single rolls wrapped in paper available locally at Mustard Seed.)

Hullabaloo -- I suppose most savvy online people know and read Digby's blog. I really only discovered it this year, however, during the long months running up to the election. Post election, I'm finding it is one of the few political blogs I continually turn to.

The Daily BBG -- My friend Kevin's blog, from Orange County CA. Kevin colors comic books for a living and is one of my oldest online pals. We met on the atheist boards on AOL back in the early 90s. His blog is eclectic, featuring everything from full out rants to pictures of cats and personal narrations. It is always a worthwhile read.

Plants are the Strangest People -- This guy is into house plants. To the point that he works in a greenhouse by day and comes home to research plants and share what he knows on his blog. He has his preferences, for sure. Foliage rules. While flowering plants are not his most favorite, he still posts at length about all kinds of plants and always includes pictures.

Crunchy Chicken -- Here's another blog chock full of useful information. Located in the great northwest, Crunchy Chicken is a one woman whirl wind of inspiration. Her blog is one big participation eco party! She has book clubs and amazing challenges all focused on healthy, frugal and ecological living. If you want to build up your own personal blog, then do check out Crunchy Chick's techniques because she certainly draws a big crowd.

The Brain Police -- Microdot is my blog-brother. We both started our blogs at about the same time and stumbled across each other early on. He's a former rock musician from Detroit now living in France -- with so many talents you have to read his blog to keep up with him. Suffice it to say, if you want to read about French cooking, bike riding, grape harvesting, Frank Zappa, and current events from a Euro-American perspective, Microdot's your blog of choice.

The Playgoer -- a dramaturg living in NYC who goes to the theatre and blogs about it. If you've ever wondered how actors learn all those lines, check out this post and be sure to read the comments.

Pharyngula -- This blog should need no introduction. The infamously famous PZ Meyers is a genuine news maker, especially during the episode of the holy communion wafers. If you enjoy science, rational thought, cephalopods, and the continuing fight against creationists and other rabid non-thinkers, then this blog is for you.

Diarrhea Island -- Don't let the title of this blog deter you from entering and absorbing Marianne's posts about about music and life as she observes it. She's been a Kinks fan longer than me. Here's a post about attending a recent concert in which an idiot in the crowd gets his just return from Ray Davies.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Coal or passive heat -- hmmm?


or this?

Two stories in the New York Times focus on home energy. In Germany, architects and engineers have been working on building passive houses, with no furnaces. They work because the homes are insulated to the point that heat from appliances and bodies is all that it takes to keep things snug. Instead of a furnace, a heat exchanger is the only equipment needed. Fresh air coming into the house is heated by the stale air going out.

In Germany, the added cost of building a passive house is about 5 - 7% according to the NYT article. However, that cost would rise in the US because the heat exchangers and special window and door units are not on the shelves at Lowe's or anywhere else. And another problem for acceptance of this kind of house in the US is the fact that they are built on the small side, the usual allocation is of 500 sq feet per person per house. Americans are obsessed with more space to house more stuff, rather than focusing on energy efficiency.

So what is the growing trend in terms of home heating here in the US? According to the other article in the NYT -- it's coal. Yep, people are buying coal furnaces and loading up on anthracite. And breathing in all kinds of particulates. Lovely. Be sure to check out the picture of the happy coal family -- dad loading up the furnace with coal while mom tosses baby into the particulate laden air.

Meanwhile, a guy in Berkeley, CA is attempting to build a passive home, but the green certification folks won't give him credit for using the heat exchanger -- too exotic or beyond their comprehension? And in Akron, as you drive past all the new housing developments being built for folk with low to working class incomes, imagine what a boost you could give those people by building housing that essentially provides all their heating needs at no cost once the house is built. And of course, think of the jobs that could be created by manufacturing the necessary passive window and door structures, plus the heat exchangers right here in the USA.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

So long Harold Pinter

Sad to wake up and read of the death of Harold Pinter, one of my favorite playwrights. I have fond memories of working on scenes from The Birthday Party way back in undergrad days. And then, just a few years back, seeing a brilliant production of The Caretaker with Patrick Stewart on B'way.

Pinter was profoundly influenced by Sam Beckett, the greatest playwright of the 20th century and continued exploring the existential themes of all the great absurdists.

Diagnosed with cancer in the early part of the new millennium, he gave up theatre to focus on political writing. I admired his courage for using his 2005 Nobel prize opportunity to deliver a speech from his wheelchair denouncing US policy involving decades of oppression and bullying in Iraq and around the world.

The Guardian has the definitive obit and the NYT posts this obit. You can view Pinter's Nobel prize lecture here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A benefactor revealed

In 1933 in the midst of really bad times, a man in Canton, Ohio set out to do something to help those in need in his community. Check out the complete story in the New York Times. It's a fascinating account of what life was like in the midst of the Great Depression for people in this area -- and it resonates with what we are facing today.

Coincidentally, in today's email arrived this missive from Michelle Obama, urging folks to donate to those in need:

This holiday season, the grassroots movement you helped build can make a big difference for those in need.

I hope you will join me in supporting your favorite charity or contributing to causes that are especially meaningful to me and my family.

While many of us will spend the holidays counting our blessings and sharing dinner with loved ones, millions of people around the country won't be so fortunate. Donating to your local food bank will help provide a holiday meal to people in your community who can't afford one.

Talking with the families of deployed troops was one of the most rewarding experiences I had during the campaign. Giving to Operation USO Care Package is a great way to send members of our military stationed around the world a reminder that someone back home is thinking of them.

This is a time to celebrate our blessings, the new year, and a new era for our country. But it's also a time to come together on behalf of those who need our help.

Do what you can to help today by locating your local food bank and giving your support.

Or send a care package to an American in uniform:

Thank you for all that you do and have a very happy holiday season,


I would add that local abandoned and rescued animals need our support as well, so why not send something to the Humane Society of Greater Akron? Here's the link.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Invoking deities at the inauguration

I was looking forward to January 20th as a day to celebrate the end of so many unpleasant things, like everything about the Bush regime. But now I see that the inauguration is going to be stained by the presence of one right wing blowhard religionist by the name of Rick Warren.

This is the guy who is opposed to abortion rights, stem cell research, women's rights, gay marriage and yes, he voted for California's Prop 8. This is the self righteous dude who was quoted in Salon as saying he would never vote for an atheist, for the following reason:
"An atheist says, 'I don't need God,'" Warren said. "They're saying, 'I'm totally self-sufficient in myself,' and nobody's self-sufficient enough to be president -- it's too big a job."
Saying one doesn't need a god is not the same as saying one is totally self-sufficient. Who is totally self-sufficient? Nobody. We all rely upon family and community in order to survive. Is Warren saying that an atheist president would not select a cabinet and make myriad appointments because she thinks she can do it all herself? Or is Warren making a more sinister accusation -- that no one can become president unless they believe in an acceptable mythology. You know, the kind that posits there is some kind of huge power hovering over the head of state. One that must be prayed to or called upon to bless every decision. How ridiculous!

For the non-believer, this world with all its denizens -- plant, animal, human -- is more than enough to spend a life time contemplating. We don't need to invent higher beings before which we feel compelled to prostrate ourselves in submission. Personally, when I need inspiration, I turn to the arts. A painting, a piece of music, a great work of dramatic literature, a poem -- these works created by humans are enough to keep me going through the tough times and the absurd times.

But unfortunately, works of art aren't enough for a lot of people. (They somehow refuse to acknowledge that their religious books were made by humans, not gods.) They must have their belief systems that involve commandments, prayers and invocations. So why do politicians include invocations to gods in official ceremonies? What is the purpose? An invocation may be defined as a prayer that calls upon some imaginary being to do a favor, to offer protection or to actually enter the person doing the calling. This is opposite of an evocation which calls upon the spirit to actually manifest itself in a particular place. Both modes sound like a lot of humbug to me, or to be polite -- involve a lot of imagination on the part of the people doing the invoking and the evoking.

Also on Obama's inauguration agenda is a benediction to be delivered by Rev. Joe Lowry, a religionist of the leftist persuasion. A benediction is, as the Latin root hints at, an invocation asking for beneficial results. It is usually at the end of a ceremony. It is in actuality a call for good luck. I do agree we need some of that, but I am skeptical that one can command good luck to appear.

So we see that the Obama inauguration must be viewed as an act of political theatre, with the religionists at the beginning and the end appearing as symbols of Obama's wish that we all -- fundies and lefties -- get along and respect each other. Too bad Rick Warren has no respect for atheists like me. There is only one thing to do, and that is to click on the mute button when the religionists start their braying, er praying and try not to get too embarassed by all the head-bowing and holier than thou posturing.

Don't get me started on the absurdity of taking an oath of office by placing one's hand on an ancient book filled with primitive attempts to understand the natural world. One day, it may be possible that people can promise to tell the truth and to serve in office with honor and distinction -- and that will be enough. You made your promise on the record and if you break it, no bolt from Zeus will strike you, but your reputation may be lost for good.

Does this rant mean I am thoroughly disgusted with Obama? No, it simply means that I recognize that the godless are still society's lepers. The symbolic bookends of Warren and Lowry are a display of inclusiveness -- of people who believe in some sort of god or higher being. Those of us who don't believe will just have to shut up and put up as usual.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bush visits Iraq, Ducks Shoes

When I heard that Bush was making a surprise "farewell" visit to Iraq today, I immediately wondered what his real reason was for going there. What whispered deals and secret handshakes were going on regarding shares in Iraqi oil futures? Who is getting custody of the high tech fortress -- er -- US embassy/compound and what will they really be doing in that huge facility?

Later in the day, come reports and images of an Iraqi reporter tossing his shoes at the Lame Duck, who lived up to his moniker, neatly avoiding the hurtling shoes. He's been quite good at avoiding things like shoes, effective governance and responsibility for all the mistakes.

I am not at all pleased with murmurings that Obama will simply pull troops out of Iraq in order to heat things up in Afghanistan. Democrats can be fatally attracted to taking on macho positions to prove they can be just as strong as Republicans on things like "national defense." Why does defense so often mean attacking some other little bitty country?

The problems that reside in Afghanistan should be solved by group process and pressures, with the UN taking the lead, not the US. No more cowboy presidents, please. I have had a "US Out of Iraq" sticker in my rear windscreen since before the invasion of Iraq. I don't want to have to add "US Out of Afghanistan" once the Dems are in control.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wham Bam Thank You Pat!

That was the sound of me falling under a flu bug, and I did have a flu shot as usual. What was unusual was to feel the symptoms again as I've managed to avoid flu since beginning the shots in my first year of teaching. School is a hot bed of germs, and you need to have Purell containers at every door and water fountain.

So home in bed, and through a feverish haze, I saw the the Patrick Fitzgerald press conference in real time and it deserves all the theatrical referencing it has been getting in blogs and cable. Beyond theatre of the absurd, more like Marat/Sade meets Mamet. Patrick Fitzgerald -- wow I really dug him in the Plame/Libby Affair, but didn't like the way it ended at all! So cool to see him back in action. He had a really interesting gang of agents there standing behind him: a guy with no hair who didn't say anything and didn't need to, the tough looking blond woman, and the fellow who did the actual arrest.

In the following clip, we can observe Fitzgerald's exceptional performance skills. The delivery is simply perfect -- no glazed teleprompter stare, rather notes in hand, but mostly spoken straight out to the entire audience. He is looking at the room as he's reading the lines with all the
"bleeps." Wouldn't you have loved to see the reactions on the faces of everyone in that room? He also includes the viewing audience. There's something endearing in the way he continually explains to us that the bleeps are not actual bleeps. I imagine many regular daytime television viewers would not react well to the actual words used by the governor of Chicago.

Odd thing about that governor -- I can pronounce his name when I hear it spoken, but I can't when I'm looking at the way it is spelled. Blagojevich. Blagojevich. A difficult name to launch out of one's mouth but Fitzgerald has it down cold. Just a couple tongue trips which is remarkable reading from a document in front of the media mob.

As for Blago, he's got to plead insanity and go rest his delusional mind. It's like his brain blew a bunch of fuses and he did everything opposite of the way it is supposed to happen. Finds out his phone is tapped and then starts spewing pay to play schemes. Great theatre, though.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Fragments from the past week

Another senseless murder happened in Akron this week on a corner I pass at least four times a day as I go to and from work. The corner of Manchester and Thornton is a sad gang-infested nucleus in a cell filled with poverty and decay. A used appliance shop and a check cashing business are the only attractions. I've purchased washers and driers from Hairston's and I once went into the check cashing "store" to buy a bag of ice for a class party. Inside were a few shelves scattered with dusty cans and boxes. The main focus of the business was on supplying booze and cash loans to the locals.

There are some wonderful old homes along that stretch of Manchester, but many are boarded up and the rest have the air of rot about them. Who has the money to fix up a house when you are living on a paycheck that hasn't even arrived. Anything you could put aside for home repairs is going into the interest charged on your payday loan.

Lots of young men hang out on the corners of this intersection, no matter the season or weather. There seems to be no place else to go. Now on the chain link fence bordering Thornton, balloons and a teddy bear mark the spot of another life wasted in one of Akron's grimmest wastelands. The traffic light was recently replaced by four stop signs. I wondered why at first, but now I'm thinking it is probably safer to not be sitting at a red light for any length of time at this unhappy corner.

Speaking of the weather (and who doesn't in NE Ohio?), we've been enduring January-like temps and snow for weeks now. Saturday was one of those days I'd rather not be out driving, but since we had a show, there was nothing to do but bundle up and load the truck and head on out onto slick roads and incessant snow. Heading toward Montrose on 77, I was thrilled to see a red Smart forTwo car zooming past us all in the fast lane! March (my EDD - estimated delivery date) can't get here soon enough for me. This is not the car I saw on the highway -- it may have had winter tires, but not like these:

Obie, the ever faithful Huskador retriever, has found a new lease on life or at least -- he is enjoying the new living arrangements I made for him to help ease his day to day life as a most senior canine. According to this source, a 15 year old canine is equivalent to a 90 year old human. So in order to help Obie get around, I've put non-skid throw rugs everywhere and moved down to the ground floor so he doesn't feel obligated to go up and down the steep stairs. I also got him a very thick foam cushion for sleeping and he likes to sink his elderly joints into it at night and for long naps. He is also on pain medication for his arthritis and still enjoys his meals and short trips outside.

Obie in his element:

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

How to survive the recession?

Are you feeling like the guy with the cloud over his head? Have you been feeling the dark clouds gathering overhead? Any hints of horrible bad luck ahead, such as foreclosure, job loss, and no health insurance? Has your pension shrunk? Had a loan denied or a credit card snatched away by its issuer? A friend of mine had that happen just the other week. Said the card was all paid up, no problems with it. Boom -- suddenly your credit is no good any more. How on earth are we all going to survive the great recession?

I've been reading various predictions and following the massive activity going on in Washington with bailouts and big corporate executives down on their knees begging for billions.

And all I can think about is this big cloud over my head, following me around day and night. But it's not just me with the cloud. Everybody's got a little cloud now and we are all wondering when it is going to bust loose in a huge downpour.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Theatre reviews returning to Akron Beacon Journal?

Warmed my theatrical heart to see Kerry Clawson's byline back in Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday. Since Elaine Guregian left the Beacon a few weeks ago, there has been a sudden emptiness in what is left of the Entertainment section. We hope that Kerry keeps doing the theatre news and reviews.

I had been wondering what was up with the Bang and the Clatter's Akron offerings. I had heard they were leaving the Summit Art Space and looking for a new home. According to Kerry, the group has landed temporarily, and maybe permanently, on historic Maiden Lane in the charming little block containing a coffee shop, art gallery and a small performing arts club called Musica. Read Kerry's review for more specific directions to the theatre.

Here's the info for their current show, which I must make a point to see. I encourage my local readers to check out this theatre company. You probably have not seen anything like them, at least not in this neck of the woods. You won't find your typical community theatre fare on offer, and at only $15 per ticket you are looking at a really great deal. The Bang and the Clatter focus on very current material and the subject matter is generally adult in content, situation and language:

Drama: In a Dark, Dark House

Where: Bang and the Clatter Theatre Company, 29 N. High St., Akron

When: Continuing through Dec. 20, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays.

Onstage: Sean Derry, Stephen Skiles, Toni Clair.

Offstage: Sean McConaha and Stephen Skiles, directors; Rachel both, stage manager; Sean McConaha, sound design; Daniel Taylor, lighting design.

Cost: $15; students and senior citizens pay as you can.

Information: 330-606-5317.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

An open letter to Ford Motor Company

Dear Ford Company,

I grew up in a Ford family. No, none of the adults worked for Ford, but they faithfully purchased Ford vehicles decade after decade. We grew up riding around in Ford trucks, station wagons and sedans, in Falcons, Fairlanes and Festivas. In the late 60s, we gave in to peer pressure for a time and got a VW microbus, which was really fun to ride around in. After the bus, my folks moved into the reliable and very economical VW Rabbit mode for many years, driving his and her models to work day in and day out. But eventually they went back to buying Fords. They always went for the modest models (Fiesta, Focus) -- no fancy stuff, just a good solid car that would last a good long time.

When it came time for me to buy my first vehicle, my folks recommended going to their dealership, Wadsworth Ford. There I found a barely used Ford Ranger, which seemed at the time to be the perfect vehicle for my life as a theatre teacher. I have not driven it to death, and it just made it over the 100K mark over a year ago. It has had all needed repairs and regular attention to all lubricating and other essential maintenance. The factory-installed battery lasted for 12 years! So Ford, your 1994 Ford Ranger was a good choice and a solid, relatively hassle-free choice.

Times change, though, and now you couldn't pay me to take on another Ford truck, or any kind of truck for that matter (for a look at 2009 truck & SUV fuel efficiency look here). My major hauling days are in the past. I'm looking to downsize my life and my global footprint.

What does Ford have to offer me now? The Ford Focus is the current economy class car, and it has the highest MPG of any current Ford. Yet it seats five and is too much car for my needs. And it is a low seating vehicle. The best thing about driving the Ranger has been being up with a good aerial view of the road ahead and behind me. There is nothing on the Ford Focus page that indicates any concerns with environmental issues, such as the recyclability of components and the choice of materials and processes used in manufacturing the vehicle.

And that is why, Ford Company, I am breaking with the family tradition and purchasing a Smart ForTwo car. Yesterday, I visited the Bedford Smart dealership and test drove a new 2009 Smartie. Like everybody else who's actually entered a Smart car, I was amazed at how roomy it feels inside, even with a car salesperson riding along with me in the passenger car. And although short, the Smart forTwo has a relatively high seating arrangement. I didn't feel like I was driving a toy or a golf cart. I quickly got the hang of the automatic clutch versus paddle clutch options. The salesperson, when asked, said that keeping it in the automatic mode would be the most fuel efficient way to drive.

With the Smart car, it was love at first sight on a computer screen. That was the size and shape most suited for me. Mostly, it is me and my duffel bag traveling to and from work, and any shopping I do seldom fills the passenger side seat in my truck. When I drove the Smart car yesterday, I knew it was true love! I wanted to be driving that car home yesterday, but alas, I'm waiting for it to be built in France and shipped to NJ and finally to Bedford, Ohio sometime between April and June of 2009.

Sorry, Ford -- you forgot to think about my g-g-generation, a group that has a growing segment of singular people driving to and from work every day in cars that are way too big for our needs. Other segments of society are also attracted to the Smart cars -- they are very affordable classy looking and safe riding vehicles suitable for the young single people and as well as for the married folks with separate jobs in different direction. Great for retired people driving around town. And a lot safer than driving a golf cart. Check out the tridion safety cell construction below.

Success promotes competition, but alas -- the only competition for the Smart car is coming from overseas, not from Detroit. We are talking about Toyoyta's IQ, which may be available in the US by 2010.

I'm not comfortable with bailing out the US auto industry. Certainly not with the same old mindset of continuing to design big powerful expensive road hogs. Upper management needs to be replaced. And I'm getting pretty tired of hearing about so-called $70 per hour union auto workers being the ones to blame.

Like "left" versus "right", perhaps it is time to retire "workers" vs "management." I'd like to see a movement toward worker-owned corporations, with all employees having a say in what is being produced and how it is being made. No more blaming the other side -- if everybody doesn't agree on what is to be made, then the company deserves to fall apart.

Saving auto jobs should only be considered essential IF we make sure that the jobs are centered on creating affordable, safe, and green vehicles. And along with that, how about planning things so that all US citizens have the right to complete health care, preferably single-payer? There has to be a better way of dealing with pensions and funds that get depleted due to the deadly dance of capitalist market deep falls and other global perils. We need to find new ways to provide for our senior citizens so that we don't end up warehousing them in giant abandoned shopping malls. (Some locals suggest that Rolling Acres be turned into a retirement center!)

The Smart's tridion safety cell construction:

Friday, November 28, 2008

Buy Nothing today and avoid getting crushed to death

Is getting the best bargain of the year worth a man's life? Avoid the dangers and the idiocy -- buy nothing, and here's why:


Now in its 17th year, Buy Nothing Day is celebrated every November by environmentalists, social activists and concerned citizens in over 65 countries around the world. Over the years, Buy Nothing Day (followed by Buy Nothing Christmas) has exploded into a global movement, inspiring the world’s citizens to live more simply and buy a whole lot less.

Designed to coincide with Black Friday (which this year falls on Friday, November 28) in the United States, and the unofficial start of the international holiday shopping season (Saturday, November 29), the festival takes many shapes, from relaxed family outings, to free, non-commercial street parties, to politically charged public protests, credit-card cut-ups and pranks and shenanigans of all kinds. Anyone can take part provided they spend a day without spending.

Featured by such media giants as CNN, USA Today, MSNBC, Wired, the BBC, The Age and the CBC, Buy Nothing Day has gained momentum in recent years as the climate crisis has driven people to seek out greener alternatives to unrestrained consumption.

This year, Buy Nothing Day organizers are confronting the economic meltdown head-on – asking citizens, policy makers and pundits to examine our economic crisis.

"If you dig a little past the surface you'll see that this financial meltdown is not about liquidity, toxic derivatives or unregulated markets, it's really about culture," says the co-founder of Adbusters Media Foundation, Kalle Lasn. "It's our culture of excess and meaningless consumption — the glorified spending and borrowing of the past decade that's at the root of the crisis we now find ourselves in."

Economic meltdown, together with the ecological crisis of climate change could be the beginning of a major global cultural shift — the dawn of a new age: the age of Post-Materialism.

"A simpler, pared-down lifestyle – one in which we're not drowning in debt – may well be the answer to this crisis we're in," says Lasn. "Living within our means will also make us happier and healthier than we’ve been in years."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Had enough economic stimulation? Buy Nothing!

News reports indicate consumers are beginning to pay in cash rather than use credit cards. A good idea, but why not simply opt out of buying a lot of useless junk? Black Friday fast approaches, and I urge you to stay at home and Buy Nothing! Yes, it is the 17th annual day dedicated to throwing a wrench in the capitalistic machine.

Ever wonder what it takes to make all that stuff in China that ends up in your Walmart cart? Check out the opening scene to the documentary Manufactured Landscapes:
Long fascinated with the impact of industrial development on natural landscapes, photographer Edward Burtynsky travels to China to witness the effects of the country's explosive urbanization. This thought-provoking documentary accompanies Burtynsky on his journey, elaborating on his intriguing still images while probing issues surrounding short-term progress versus long-term environmental health.
It's the perfect antidote for the urge to consume mindlessly:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Setting the rules for our dumping grounds

Did you see the interesting report in the ABJ this weekend about who gets to dump their waste in landfills operating in the Stark-Tuscarawas-Wayne district? Evidently the folk there are getting tired of all the hassles associated with providing dumping grounds for the surrounding counties. Things like noxious smells, toxic leaching, and possible air, ground and water pollution continue to plague Countywide Landfill, for example.

So that district made up some new rules that state quite simply, they aren't going to accept waste from communities that are not recycling at the same or greater rate as Stark-Tuscarawas-Wayne. According to the article, 17 counties do not meet that criteria, including Summit. (There is a catch, however -- if a county has a greater access to recycling than Stark-Tuscarawas-Wayne, then they can still dump their trash. Two counties from the list of 17 qualify on access grounds, and that includes Summit.)

Bob Downing's story doesn't answer the big question that leaped into my mind -- why are all these counties unable to achieve higher levels of recycling? Does it cost too much? What is the long term cost of not achieving higher rates of recycling, both residential and commercial/industrial?

One final dismal thought -- if Ohio continues to lose population, we may have to open up the whole state to dumping. If you can't get people to live here, then why not turn it into one giant dumping ground?

Bonus Link: Here's a blog entry about seven quilts that were saved from a landfill. Enjoy the beauty of the saved work and wonder at the minds that thought it was okay to throw away such historic works of folk art.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Money Go Round

It's Friday night and some of us are wondering how far our pay check will stretch this week. Yesterday I found a link to an article that stated the average American has 18 credit cards. Yikes! Thank goodness I've never been average.

This song is actually about how a very young and green songwriter lost his publishing rights through the combined manipulations of his managers, record company, and other assorted music industry greedy grabbers. It resonates today on many other levels.

TGIF, everybody!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

How do we save the US Auto Industry?

Having decided to wean myself off of cable news, I turned tonight to CSpan and was immediately pulled in by the sight of politicians talking about what they tried to do today, even though they failed. Both Ohio's senators, Voinovich and Brown, joined Michigan's senators along with Arlen Specter and Bob Casey to come up with a plan to save the US Auto Industry. The image is inescapable: Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan linking arms along the Great Lakes coastline to make one final stand for the once great Midwest industrial base.

25 billion dollars to the US auto industry is what they want; and here, according to the Putnam County Sentinal, are the proposed details and strings:
November 20, 2008

· Creates new program administered by Secretary of Commerce that would provide bridge loans to auto industry, with oversight board from all relevant agencies (from EPA to Transportation to Labor to Treasury).

· Emergency bridge loans made to avoid a systemic adverse effect on the US economy or a major loss of US jobs.

· Funding for the program comes from the loans for retooling passed as part of the 2007 Energy bill. (i.e. no dollars come from new appropriations or from TARP.)

· Repaid loans, interest, and proceeds from sale of equity stakes in the companies go back into the retooling loan program.

· Before receiving these emergency loans, companies must show to the Secretary of Commerce that the funds will ensure their financial viability.

· Loan recipients must agree to strong taxpayer protections, including limits on executive compensation, bonuses, and golden parachutes, as well as prohibitions on using these dollars for lobbying.

· Emergency loans are available to auto manufacturers or component suppliers who have operated in the US for the last 20 years.

· Funds to successful applicants would be disbursed in a few weeks from enactment. Authority to make new loans under this program ends March 31, 2009.

· Interest rates would be 5 percent for the first five years, 9 percent thereafter.
These senators know the severe hardship the loss of automotive industry jobs will bring to their states. They've attempted to put a plan in place that puts restrictions and oversight in place. My big question is -- why do we want to continue funding an industry managed by greedy people who never gave a damn about global warming or who have ever recognized their part in creating a culture of reckless gas guzzling? So greedy they still don't get it:

The Big Three's executives testified on Capitol Hill this week about their dire economic situation, but undercut their argument by flying to Washington aboard corporate jets instead of taking cheaper transportation. Reuters
If the automotive industry is to continue, we need innovative engineers and scientific-minded researchers developing the types of automobiles that are sustainable and recyclable and that reduce green gas house emissions. And they also need to be affordable by all drivers, not just the upper debt-free professional classes.

Yes, the people in my state need good paying jobs, but they should not be jobs that are focused on making things that are bad for us. Ford, GM and Chrysler have nothing worth looking at on display in the auto industry shows. Green Car of the Year was awarded to Volkswagen Jetta TDI, a diesel burning vehicle. (Check out the controversy in the NYT article's comments section.)

Diesel, electric batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, solar panels on the roof? The auto industry needs to retool to make greener cars, but they don't even know which way to go yet. What would Henry Ford have done? Probably would have tried to bust the unions. And isn't it all the workers' fault anyway? If the automakers didn't have to pay for all that medical care and pensions, they could still be making profits on those big old gas guzzling cars.

However, along came the sub prime loan collapse and the credit freeze and we are all looking around wondering who made off with all those billions that now must be paid to failing institutions. Is there a list of names somewhere of the ones who sold those bundles of bogus loans? Do they have it all socked away in some off shore location? Are they living the high life while kids are dying from hunger in Haiti?

Meanwhile, what do we do with the US auto industry? Why not put them on the block and give the workers the first right of purchase? If we are going to go beyond partisan politics, how about going beyond hierarchical ways of of decision making? There are worker owned businesses in this country all ready. If the workers can come up with a better plan to make greener cars for America, then they should be given the opportunity to make it happen. Instead of making concessions all the time, how about giving the workers a real stake in their own futures?

It also seems pretty clear that a universal health plan is going to be an essential part of balancing out the cost of living from both the employers' and employees' perspectives. Gut the medical insurance industry and liberate those oppressed workers sitting in their cubicles denying medical claims.

Anyway, I highly recommend CSpan in this time of pundits panting after the Clintons rather than focusing on the nuts and bolts of governmental decision-making. Right now I'm watching an hour and a half rebroadcast of the Congressional Small Business Committee trying to figure out how to save small businesses in this continuing crisis. I don't have a clue at the moment, but it is somewhat encouraging to hear people struggling to figure it out.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Post-election changes

And I'm not talking about which big names will be on the doors of power in the new president's administration. No, it is my need wean myself off television punditry and back to a more varied diet of on and offline reading.

The pundits are immersed in petty bickering over a certain proposed candidate for a very high cabinet position as if any of us out here really care much. Let the man pick his team and get on with it. We are all hoping his time in charge is as well organized and thought out as his campaign proved to be.

So I'm turning away from the cable news habit and looking at documentaries on other channels. Who knows, I may even find that I can tolerate watching a full two hour movie before too long. Something with a plot and fictitious characters sounds rather soothing right now. And I have a pile of blog posts waiting for me on my Google Reader. The political blogs dominated the past few months, and it is time to get back to the various delights on offer from around the world.

Since November 4, some bloggers have contemplated shutting down. Surely they are suffering more from post-election fatigue rather than thinking that "hooray, we won -- now everything's solved!" We need to keep our eyes open and our blogs running. Here at the Village Green, I'm planning on returning to environmental issues, with the usual intermittent bursts of Kinks obsessiveness and the occasional theatrical report.

Meanwhile, don't forget to winterize your windows and check your doorways for leaky drafts. Winter snow arrived this week and hadn't put the storm windows in yet. They are up now, and it makes a huge difference. Stay warm and keep the blog fires burning!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Recall of mayor ill-advised and waste of money

Just because we don't agree with a politician's policy decisions is not a good reason to go through the time and expense of a ballot recall. Local gadfly attorney, Warner Mendenhall has started a web page and drive to recall the mayor. The ABJ reports a list of his reasons, none of which involve criminal behavior, which to my mind would be a driving reason to recall a politician.

The mayor angered many people when he attempted to sell then lease our city sewers to create a college scholarship fund to keep Akron students in our city. The voters were not convinced that this was a viable plan, and that includes me. The plan was defeated soundly and another measure that gives citizens the right to vote on any future plans to lease or sell public utilities was passed.

Instead of spending some $160k to recall the mayor who was reelected in 2007 for another four year term, we would do better to face our city's problems straight on and come up with better solutions to the problem of a dwindling city. Much has been done to improve Akron over the past twenty years, but we have a long way to go to make its population go up instead of down.

Frankly, I want to see some fresher, younger faces on the political scene with ideas that match up to the challenges of the 21st century. I'd especially like to see more women involved in local decision-making. Holding a recall election is not going to make new highly qualified candidates suddenly appear.

One of the mayor's plans that was announced in his last campaign has yet to see the light of day. The long talked about Greenprint for Akron was supposed to be launched this fall, but it looks like the Sewers for Scholarships plan got in the way of its appearance. I am waiting very impatiently for news of what is happening with the Greenprint. If Akron is to be attractive to outside businesses and people looking to relocate, then we have massive greening to accomplish here. Allowing ourselves to get distracted by an unnecessary recall vote will undoubtedly put it on the back burner once again.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Canine Quality of Life Issues

Life here on the Village Green has been hectic in these post-election days. The fall play, the common cold, the demands of the every day work schedule -- all have left me devoid of words and energy for blogging.

Worst of all, my faithful pal Oberon the Huskador Retriever, is in his final days. We just got back from the vet. Obie's arthritis is compounded by extreme loss of muscle mass. Thursday night, I returned home after the show opened, to find him unable to walk on his hind legs. They simply splayed out in opposite directions. He's been on one drug for pain, but it obviously was losing its power to keep him going.

Oberon was a foundling, a stray scrawny puppy with no collar and ribs showing, that I spotted wandering around in the middle of East Ave as I walked home from school fifteen years ago. Those were the early days of my teaching career, when I had yet to purchase a vehicle. I used to walk to and from my job every day. It was a healthy and green thing to do, but at that time it was done out of financial necessity.

At any rate, I saw the puppy and I called frantically to get him out of the way of several oncoming vehicles. Once he came to me on the sidewalk, he had nowhere to go except follow my heels as I trudged home. I already had a dog, but Obie insisted that I take him in. He's been with me for 15 years and now I'm trying to negotiate a few more relatively pain-free weeks for him as we prepare to say goodbye.

The vet gave him an additional prescription for pain. I've moved down to the sofabed on the main floor, because he will attempt to struggle up the stairs if I sleep in my bedroom. The fall play will be over tonight, and I'll have a few weeks of arriving home at reasonable hours before rehearsals begin for the spring musical. Time to hang with him, brush out his amazingly thick coat, and tell him how much his presence has been appreciated over the years.

It is difficult to know when to let go. Humans often have the option of speaking up and telling their families and medical doctors when to stop treatments. With animals, it is up to us to figure out when to say goodbye. Obie is eating well, is in control of his bladder and bowel movements and still insists on being at my side whenever I am home. He sleeps a lot and as long as we can manage the pain, I'd like him to stick around a little bit longer.

Here's a picture of him in happier times, demanding that I stop taking pictures and play catch with him instead:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Bailing on the US Auto Industry

I hear that Obama wants to bail out the US auto industry. I hope he's talking about the workers and not the corporate wrong decision makers. You know who I'm talking about -- the folks who brought us the gas-hog Hummers and the unsustainable SUVs. I call 'em wrong decision makers, but I'm sure that their corporate boards loved them for selling so many expensive cars for so long.

I've decided to bail on US cars. My Ford Ranger is 14 going on 15, and still runs well enough to get me through another winter. However, I knew I'd be facing another car purchase soon, so I began looking last spring. I wanted something green that I could afford. That led me to the Smart ForTwo car. I put down a $99 deposit on one last March, but the demand was so high for these nifty two-seaters that all the 2008 year models sold out long before my turn in line arrived.

Last Friday, I got my Configuration email from SmartUSA. This means that I got to go over my initial order, change any details and return it so that my car goes into production -- in Europe. Sometime between April and June, my little red Smart Car will arrive in Ohio! Wanna see what it will look like?

I ordered the basic Pure version (basic price: $ 11,990.00) rather than the upscale models. After all, these are tough economic times and I really don't have any desire for a convertible. I like the idea of having a hard roof over my head and I certainly don't need a sun roof in order to tan while driving. I did configure in some additional features:

Heated seats

$ 220.00

smart radio (AM/FM, single CD; incl. 2 speakers, Aux input jack)

$ 350.00

Anti-theft alarm system

$ 160.00

Air conditioning with automatic temperature control (incl. dust, pollen filter)

$ 600.00

Destination charge:

$ 645.00

Total price[*]:

$ 13,965.00

It has a Mitsubishi engine and a Mercedes-designed super safe body, receiving top safety rankings for its pod-like design. And the gas useage? 33 city and 41 highway. It is the fourth most fuel efficient car in the US, but at half the price of a Prius.

Having driven a small truck for years, I am quite used to the small size of a truck cab. In fact, the Smart car will feel larger as I don't have any room behind the seats of my truck, just the flatbed of the truck that has been empty space I've been hauling around for over a decade. Every now and then, I might haul something in the back of the truck, but with the Smart Car, if I need to haul something big, I'll either have it delivered or rent a trailer. But mostly, I'm thinking that driving the Smart Car is yet another step toward downsizing my life. The less space available, the less I will be tempted to fill it with yet more unnecessary stuff.

Smart is planning on introducing an all electric model in 2010. I won't wait for that one, because at 35K only rich folks will be buying it. The Smart car remains the least expensive of the green cars available. It was designed with "green" in mind:

"The smart fortwo is produced at "smartville" in Hambach, France. System partners on site deliver the prefabricated modules directly to the production line. Protecting the environment, energy efficiency and preservation of natural resources are hallmarks of smart brand. It starts with smart development through to the production of the cars in smartville. For example, only water-soluble paints are used for the smart's three basic colors – black, white and red. Painting the tridion safety cell is done by the powder-coating process. This removes the need for solvents. The body panels with molded-in color are fully recyclable. Environmental Management is a high priority in Hambach. smart is dedicated to protecting the environment with future focused recycling and an environmental policy that makes a strong statement.

The smart fortwo is also classified as an Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) due to its extremely low exhaust emissions. The catalytic converter is positioned close to the engine for a quick response. An electric pump blows fresh air into the exhaust port when the engine is cold to almost completely oxidize the carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbons (HC) and render them harmless."

It's just too bad that US automakers chose to ignore such things as the end of cheap petroleum and the effects of carbon burning gas guzzling SUVs on the environment. Instead, they trashed their electric models and chose to build bigger and flashier instead of smaller and greener. So bail out the workers, if you must bail out anybody. Give them the empty factories and a mandate to come up with an American smart car. But until that happens, I've committed to the made in France Smart ForTwo.

One guy started a blog about his Smart car. You can check it out here.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

BBC: the Kinks begin writing new tunes and other related news

From the BBC, we get the following exciting news. Of course, all Kinks fans hum the same mantra when confronted by such reports: "We'll believe it when we see it," or in this case, when we finally hear the new tunes.

The Kinks start work on comeback
By Ian Youngs
Music reporter, BBC News

The Kinks have begun writing new songs ahead of a possible reunion, singer Ray Davies has said.

"We've started a little bit of this and that," he told BBC News. But it is too early to judge the quality, he said.

"It depends if there's good music. We want good new music. I'd like to do it as a more collaborative thing than we used to do."

The Kinks were one of the most popular and influential bands of the 1960s, and last performed together in 1996.

In September, Davies said any reunion would also depend on the health of bandmate and brother Dave, who suffered a stroke in 2004. But Dave is currently well, the singer said.

Duets album

The Kinks were responsible for classic '60s hits like You Really Got Me, Sunny Afternoon, Waterloo Sunset and All Day And All Of The Night.

Ray Davies would have to fit a reunion around his solo US tour, an album with a choir and a further album of collaborations.

He is aiming to duet with a range of artists, including Razorlight frontman Johnny Borrell, Snow Patrol and some previously unknown talents.

"I don't just want to do usual suspects," he said. "I'd love to do something with Johnny, but I'd like to find new bands. Unsigned even. I usually like the underdogs."

He is also hoping to enlist rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry.

"I've never met the man but he was one of my heroes as a lyricist," he said. We'll see how it works out - a mixture of Snow Patrol and Chuck Berry. It should be an interesting record."

Published: 2008/11/05 10:18:24 GMT

Meanwhile, Ray has made plans for a solo tour in the States this fall. Not to Ohio, alas. I'm afraid I've blown my traveling dollars this fall, and so will not be in attendance. Unfortunately none of these dates are during my winter break off from school break.

Here are the tour dates, courtesy of the Unofficial Kinks Web Site:

And finally, a pre-taped but never aired performance by Ray Davies will be shown on the Craig Ferguson show this Friday, Nov 14 (actually the wee hours of Nov 15 for those setting their DVRs).

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


What a great day and night for us all! With temps in the 70s, the voting public made our way along streets gaudy with autumn colored leaves. No line at my Kenmore precinct table. A poll worker collected my ballot and commented on the lavender fragrance I'd sprayed on earlier. She asked me if I was into aromatherapy. I said not really, but the smell of lavender did seem calming to me.

So I calmly went through the day, confident that Obama would be elected, yet inside there was that fear that comes from repeated experience that somehow, the election would be pulled from under us and everything we'd hoped would come tumbling down. I went over to my mother's tonight to watch the results with her. It was always a big deal when we were growing up -- staying up with mom and dad to watch the election returns. Both of us cheered mightily when Ohio was announced so early and everybody knew at once that McCain had no chance.

But no, it was a night for our better purpose and reason to prevail. McCain's speech was quite frankly the best one he has ever given, and he scored huge points in slapping down the boos right away. He might very well leap at the chance to be a real maverick for change and do something for posterity rather than for the wealthy few.

Obama's speech was electrifying, it was historical, it was essential in laying out the challenges ahead. When speaking of hope, mine has been that Obama would seek out the brightest minds to work on solutions with intelligence and focus.

But before looking ahead to imagine the new administration, it is good to take time to savor this momentous victory. Kudos to MSNBC for holding the camera on the stage without any comments from the pundit gallery for the duration of Obama's time on the stage.

I know how inspiring it will be for my students to see the Obama family making the White House their home. Jessie Jackson wasn't the only one crying tonight. I had to find the tissue box because I just couldn't stop. Especially during the passages about the 106 year old woman's life and what she'd witnessed.

Obama comes across as an idealist who has figured out the practicalities of achieving lofty goals. He'll need as many hands on deck as possible. If his administration proves to be half as effective as his campaign was, he'll do well indeed.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Class Project speaks unpopular truths

Theatre is an essential aspect of life. We come together in the theatre to put something under the lights in order that we may reflect upon our human condition. For many, the human condition is all about sensation or fluff or glitz and razzmatazz. Then there are the theatrical endeavors that strike deep chords of understanding that may not leave us feeling all warm and tingly, but definitely leave us thinking about a subject we often avoid.

I'm talking class warfare, you know -- the most recent right-wing election year threat. "The liberals want class warfare!" is an attack line that falls flat when you consider that the trend over the past decade has been to strip more money away from the middle and lower classes into the hands of the upper 5%. It wasn't the liberals who created the increasing economic disparities among the classes.

The Class Project, an original performance piece, shows us the human faces and voices of class distinctions and divisions based upon socio-economic terms. The NYU Steinhardt theatre production just ended its run this weekend. I was fortunate enough to see it last night in the school's black box theatre. (In full disclosure, a former student of mine was in the cast in his first university production.)

The press release provides a capsule description of the project:
Inspired by the work of such playwrights as Anna Deavere Smith (University Professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts) and Mois├ęs Kaufman, The Class Project, explores current perceptions of class and socioeconomic status among people living and working in New York City. A group of seven researchers/actors, under the guidance of Educational Theatre faculty member Joe Salvatore, interviewed a diverse range of subjects, from academics, students, business owners, immigrants, public school teachers, and more, on their understanding of how class affects their day-to-day lives. The interviews were pieced together to create the performance script.

What the press release doesn't tell you is how powerfully the stories come across. Anna Deavere Smith's technique of recording interviews and performing them not only verbatim but with every verbal stutter and tick voiced by the subject included. The effect of watching these precisely rendered recreations is incredibly moving. Underneath every awkward pause or stumbled word is some kind of accompanying emotion.

Within each assumed posture and voice, the actors speak answers to questions about class, questions that were elicited by the actors themselves. Each of the actors had to pass an exam in order to be certified to collect data from human subjects. It is fascinating to see the raw data enacted rather than transcribed into words on a page. This directly relates to the thesis that theatre is an essential aspect to life.

The ensemble of actors appeared to be deliberately selected for the widest variety of researcher/en-actors. Just as student populations are divided into classes based upon low to high status, the ensemble contained freshmen all the way through Masters and PhD candidates. The cast members often inhabited characters not of their own race, age, religion or gender which has the odd effect of drawing the audience inside the character along with the actor. For example, a college professor speaks of recognizing class resentment felt toward students who have it easy. The teacher and the audience must confront this very personal expression of class division, one not easily given voice. We recognize our own tendencies toward resentment of others not in our class.

34 NYC residents participated in the interview process and 18 of the participants' interviews finally appeared in the finished work. Their ages, social circumstances and economic status reflected the diversity of greater NYC. And yet, I was more struck by their commonalities: the initial discomfort at speaking about class differences, the powerlessness that comes from feeling divided from others, the social pressures that make us instantly assess and judge one another based upon status and economic ranking.

That sense of alienation was beautifully reflected in the scenic background. The diamond shaped playing area was bordered on two sides by wooden assemblages composed of varying sizes of boxes and rectangles, some of which housed the simple stools and blocks that were pulled out and used for a number of the interviews. Three dark doorways provided entrance and exit possibilities. Lighting enhanced the compartmentalizing aspects of the production. One character spoke of the bubble-like aspect of living within your class while pretending to ignore the world outside the bubble. Even within NYC, one of the largest multi-cultural urban areas on the planet, cultures dwell in bubble worlds every bit as self-contained as suburban cultures.

The actors wore basic contemporary slacks or skirts in tones of sepia or gray. They might add a hoodie or an over shirt or a pair of glasses or other accessory to distinguish and further define their characters. When finished with playing their characters, the actors hung or placed their prop/costume enhancements in the wooden framed set, forming shadowboxes of memories or perhaps display cases to hold evidence of our collective understanding of the concept of class. This was perhaps underscored in each scene by one actor playing the witness to each character's revelations. The silent listener transformed each scene into something more genuine than a contrived theatrical monologue. They reminded us that this was a study in human research and to approach the responses as valuable data to be mulled and digested over time.

The production was punctuated by bouts of intense physical movement to music. The shapes and forms of the movements provided another way of understanding class conflict beyond words and theories. As the actors approached and encountered each other we could reflect upon how class and status can be revealed in the distancing that must take place when confronted by someone perceived as higher or lower in status. The actors worked with several different themes, including one movement section in which the actors "wrote" the pre-amble to the Constitution with their bodies. Another section was developed by the actors responding to a list of words that came from their understanding of class.

The actors in this production were exceptionally supple in their physicality, so that the movement pieces and physicalizations of each character were revealed in full clarity. Truly a pleasure to watch actors so free with bodies and voices. Nothing mushy about the acting or the concept, which tells me that the process must have been clicking on all cylinders. The energy levels, the ensemble connectivity, the pacing and timing of shifts between actors, scenes, and movement pieces added to the texture of the production's composition.

The final stunning visual image was created by the cast chalking out a map of NYC and its boroughs, then marking their subjects' names (Anonymous Immigrant, Rose, White Female 43 etc) upon their geographical locations. Kudos to the cast of nine, director Joe Salvatore, the talented design team and crew for creating an exciting and essential piece of theatre, one with immediate connection to the world we live, work and vote in.

For those unfamiliar with the work of Anna Deavere Smith, here is a YouTube excerpt from her one woman show Fires in the Mirror:

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A bitter voter in Kenmore

In the hills of Kenmore, a bitter voter proudly displays his bitterness along side his McCain/Palin sign. He'd rather the rich continue to get richer than vote for our best hope to solve the hideous problems that face our communities, country and the world.

McCain/Palin solve nothing. Their supporters still cling to ideologies from a fast receding century. We've watched as the "free market" was revealed to be the "greed market." We've all been trained to consume mindlessly and endlessly, but the diet of cheap plastic goods from China is turning out to be not very healthy.

Top executives, lawyers, bankers, financial market manipulators, medical specialists, college presidents and so on get pay increases at alarming rates. Meanwhile I'm lumbering along on my teacher salary, living in a house that I bought for 46k in 1999. It's probably worth about 50 cents now, and I don't even want to think about my pension. I am planning on working until I die unless we get some major changes in the way things are organized in this country. Sign me up for some wealth redistribution, please!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ray Davies' Come Dancing

The Storyteller writes one for the stage.

Ray Davies and the Kinks released Come Dancing on State of Confusion in 1983. A wonderful video soon followed, complete with period characters and costuming, and it was shot at the Ilford Palais, the dance hall lovingly brought to life in the song's lyrics. Ray's been talking about writing a musical based on that song for years.

This is not one of those "grab a bunch of a pop group's hit songs and try to write a story around them" types of musicals now popping up all over Broadway and the West End. Come Dancing is is authentic in content and presentation, without any excess. It is all heart and full of truths both hard and tender. As fellow Kinks fan Rupert advised me outside the theatre -- you will need a hankie to get you through it. Rupert and his aunt had seen the matinee and were lingering outside the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Rupert had managed to snag an autograph from Ray when he dashed out for something to eat between shows.

I stood in front of the theatre, in awe of its storied past. It was Joan Littlewood's home for many years, the place where she produced theatre with a social conscience and used techniques that were innovative for her time. And oh yes, she was a total rarity -- a woman directing and producing in an era that was singularly devoid of women in creative control of what appeared on a professional stage. Her work was born of commedia mixed with agitprop. "Oh What a Lovely War" first appeared here, along with "A Taste of Honey" and "Fings Ain't What They Used to Be." The theatre has maintained its mission of service to the community, a community that features 160 different spoken languages brought there by immigrants from around the world.

Littlewood described theatre as a living breathing process: "Good theatre draws the energies out of the place where it is and gives it back as joie de vivre." Come Dancing lives up to Littlewood's expectations of good theatre. It was the perfect venue for this musical tale of a working class family living in post-war Britain in the years just before birth of rock and roll.

The big bands played jazzy dance music on a Saturday night at the Ilford Palais. The stage setting was simple and inclusive of the audience, spilling over and blurring the line between audience and performer. The Palai's dance floor was bordered by cafe chairs and tables on the side and back, while on the other side a functioning bar served both actors and audience during the pre-show and at the interval. The five piece band was perched up above the band leader's microphone at the rear of the stage. Front and center, a revolving circle provided dancing and acting spaces. Actors flowed in and out of audience areas, and on stage local couples danced through time back to the 1950s

There were no glitzy set changes. Pools of light served to define places other than the dance hall. We always knew where we were: on a rooftop, in the family home, out in the street -- even though there were no furnishings. The acting was impeccable, each character vibrant and all too human. Based on Ray's memories of observing his older sisters' preparations for a Saturday night dance, the plot involves the love of a young white girl for a black musician from Jamaica. The impossibility of such a connection is juxtaposed with the moment in time when black music began to stir the souls of young white teenagers. Indeed, three young men form a rock band as the the Big Band era winds down. The new beat underscores the changing rhythms of life in Great Britain. Old ways are broken up as entire neighborhoods are torn down, families relocated and given elocution lessons to cover cockney origins.

The musical confronts the harsh reality of a white culture that could not bring itself to talk to, let alone shake the hand of, a black person. It also reminds us of our working class roots and how socio-economic forces and family culture shaped our outcomes.

There are twenty new songs in Come Dancing. They are not typical musical theatre by any means. They are not written to stop the show with excessive glitter and an endless chorusline, but simply to tell the story. Their changing musical influences chart the progress of a young man's musical education. Ray has stated that music in this show is a tribute to the first music he listened to -- his older sisters' records. I'm probably not the only one looking forward to an original cast recording of Come Dancing. Fans are hoping for a move to the West End, and then on to NYC.

The dancing is wonderful, the singing glorious, and the story is one not to be forgotten. My only nagging concern about this musical is will it be allowed to stand on its own without the presence of creator/narrator Ray Douglas Davies? Yes, it is his story, but it is a story that should eventually be released for others to perform for audiences scattered here and there. As pleased as I was to be leaning over the royal circle balcony for a fantastic view of Ray telling his tale, I could not help but think that "Tired of Waiting" at the beginning was not necessary. I did note that the family name in the musical is not that of "Davies." I tried to imagine some other actor telling the tale as if it were his own. I'm quite sure that it would work, which pleases the director within me.

Here is a list of the songs, as given by Kinks-fan-beyond-measure Olga in the Kinks Preservation Society Digest:

Tired of Waiting (Ray)
Come Dancing - part (Ray)
My Big Sister (Ray)
Putting on the Face (Ray, the Sisters)
Gonna Change the World (Rita)
Saturday Night (Tosher, Sid and Basil)
When the Band Begins to Play (Frankie, Company)
A Penny for your Thoughts (Frankie)
Because I'm Yours (Frankie, Annie)
The New Towns are Coming (Rose and Arthur)
I Got Me a Knife (Tosher)
Rock Till You Drop (Tosher, Basil and Sid)
Believe in Yourself (Rita)
There's Gonna Be Something Better (Julie, plus Rita)
We Might Never Be This Way Again (Company)
Do It! (Rita)
Why I Love You (Frankie) If I remember correctly, this is a pastiche of
a very bad love song and is only a snatch
Wherever You Go (Julie)
Truly Beautiful (Company)
The World Won't Keep Us Apart (Julie, Hamilton)
In Heaven (Company)
A Better Thing (Ray, Hamilton, Frankie)
and Come Dancing as an all cast finale

In an interview, Davies stated that the story is timeless, that youth, violence, family conflict and class are all intertwined and continually played from generation to the next. The only thing that changes, he said, are the clothes. See for yourself in the show extracts released to YouTube by the theatre:

Sunday, October 26, 2008

London notes

Four days in London wasn't nearly enough, but it was all that could be spared at this time of the always busy school year. I didn't have time to download my photos from the trip until yesterday, and no time at all for blogging.

I saw three shows in London: John Webster's The White Devil (a Jacobean revenge play chock full of back-stabbing, poison and other forms of bloodletting); Chekhov's first play, Ivanov (Kenneth Branagh in the title role with an ensemble of perfectly etched rural Russian characters of various social and economic standings); and of course Ray Davies' new musical Come Dancing (the central reason for my trip to the UK).

You can read reviews of Ivanov here and here. It's definitely a five star production. I arrived at the theatre not having read a single word about it. I admit that Chekhov is not one of my main theatrical interests. I was never forced to read Ivanov (The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, and Three Sisters were all required reading at one point or another) so all I really knew about this play was that the script was newly adapted by Tom Stoppard and I'd get a chance to see Branagh live on stage before my very eyes! Both reviewers commented on the most amazing physical response ever give on stage to a wad of money:

The great moment in Branagh's performance comes when Kevin R McNally's kindly Lebedev, dominated by his penny-pinching wife, covertly offers to lend Ivanov the money he owes them. McNally puts the eleven hundred roubles on the table with a nervous gesture. In one of the longest theatrical silences I've ever encountered, Branagh simply stares at the money before sliding to the floor in a wrecked, dishevelled heap. Branagh here touches the soul in a way I've not seen him do before; and what he shows is how his friend's pity is Ivanov's final undoing. [UK Guardian
And this insightful line from the Independent:
Branagh reacts to the wad of notes on the table with the stillness of infinite, clear-eyed sorrow, as though it were the accusing embodiment of his rock-bottom shame and then collapses in a stricken, silently sobbing foetal heap.
I had to see The White Devil because the opportunity for seeing it in the US has eluded me for my entire adult theatre-going life. The only other Webster play I have seen is The Duchess of Malfi, and that was also on a trip to the UK. Most notable aspect of this production was the space (an old chocolate factory turned into restaurant, art galleries and a black box theatre) and staging choices made by the director.

The stage was a long narrow raised strip stretched horizontally between two audience areas, so we were facing another audience on the far side of the action. Blood red curtains closed on both sides of the raised platform stage at the interval. Costuming was modern Godfather-style infused with overtones of Jacobean styling. The Independent loved it. The Guardian not so much.

As for Come Dancing, well that deserves a whole other post. I hope to get to it later today.

Other London notes: Where's the recycling? I didn't see any recycling bins put out for the causal consumer of plastic or glass bottles. I did see one small bin of separated paper put out for the trash. If any Londoners are reading, would appreciate your comments on recyling efforts in your town.

I also found the London air to be full of grime. Blow your nose, and you'll find a decided dark grey coloring. It also gets all over your face, whatever it is. Is there a lot of coal burning in London? Or is it from industrial smoke stacks?

On the positive side, I saw not one bit of vinyl siding in my UK travels. Stone, brick, flint, wood, and steel are the most prevalent building materials. For me, England remains a visual delight. The charm, the care and maintenance of centuries old structures -- all make for views that are much more than pleasant. Coming back to my home town, I am struck how tawdry the views are. From cheap and oh so convenient vinyl siding to haphazard residential and shopping sprawls littering the landscapes -- there's far more ugly around here than charming, that's for sure.

Another joy of British life is the availability of public transportation. British rail is a joy to use as are the undergrounds and buses. Out in the country, watching my aunt negotiate roads and bridges so narrow that drivers must take turns passing in opposite directions, I was struck how the very set up of Great Britain makes good manners essential in order to live peaceably. Everything is smaller, and so one's path through life must necessarily accommodate all the physical restrictions of living on an island.

A prime example let me contrast my hotel room in a three star hotel near Paddington with the hotels I've been staying at lately in Cincinnati and Chicago for various professional weekends. I could have fit my London room inside the bathrooms of the major US hotel chains. In Cincinnati, my hotel bed was larger than the entire room of my London hotel. My London bed was narrow, hard and right next to wall heater that had no apparent temperature controls. I could go on and on, but the main theme is one of US luxury and comfort versus London's almost Dickensian utilitarian offerings. No doubt, I could have found something luxurious somewhere in London, but the price would have been far beyond my means.

I soon got over my initial shock at how small my room was and how hard the bed, because I wasn't really planning on spending much time there other than to crash and store the numerous books I found myself purchasing along the way. I did find the National Theatre's book shop with a huge section just on educational theatre. And then there were the outdoor book stalls under Waterloo bridge.