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: