Archive for the ‘Arts/Literature’ Category

JP tries Porchfest

July 20th, 2014

Jamaica Plain did a fine job copying other such events in its first JP Porchfest yesterday. 50 or so groups performed at 35 venues, most of them quite literally porches.

I careered among many venues, playing a speed-listening version of the Odyssey. To my ear, there was a little terrible music, but most was good and some superb. With so much simultaneously in the works, no one was stuck anywhere. Here’s hoping this becomes annual.

As a disclaimer, several shots here are of a group where my wife sings and plays. I’m prejudiced. They jam weekly and perform as features on occasionally, largely bluegrass. Their road group has taken to call themselves Still Here.

Among some of the gems I found was Damn Tall Buildings, Rebecca Hope, and Outrageous fortune. As an indication of the event’s diversity, they play respectively bluegrass/blues, up tempo ballads, and swing. Click over to the event site for a list, many of which have videos.

Pix clix: Click a thumbnail for a larger view. If it opens in the same window, use your browser’s back button or command to return.

License note: All pix are Creative Commons-Attribution. Do what you want with them. Just give Mike Ball credit once.

Avery ‘Montana’ Ballotta of Damn Tall Buildings dtb2
rhope1 Rebecca Hope
A couple of the Outrageous Fortune gang fortune3
stillh8 Still Here’s mando player, surely the best gurning of Porchfest
My uxorial unit for Still Here. She’s the primary family musician. stillh2
stillh6 Of course Still Here had the mandatory bluegrass components, including dobro…
…and a banjo stillh7

Food for the hungry minister

March 5th, 2014

The hallmark of social-activist preachers is not complacency. Instead, they should inspire you to both think and act. You want it, you get it, in Twice-Told Tales: A Collection of 21 Sermons.

I am surprised to recommend a collection of homilies. If you pardon the expression, Lord knows that I have squirmed enough times listening to tedious, cliched, often repetitious preaching. While the author doesn’t have a recognizable first name among his Rev. Dr. Farley Wilder Wheelwright, he is an excellent minister, both from the pulpit and, as many have told me, for pastoral counseling.

Disclaimers: I have known Farley for decades, back to 1987, when he was interim Senior Minister at Boston’s Arlington Street Church. I was a board (Prudential Committee) member, then chair. We solved many problems together. I loved his preaching and we have been good friends since. I also wrote the book’s forward.

The book has some potent historical mentions. Farley is still, as he has always been, an egalitarian, free-thinking, atheist, activist. Ministers in general and UU ones in particuar divvy into a big bucket of the timid and a smaller one of the righteous. My chum was active in civil rights, knowing many of the leaders and being a friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, Rev. King was to deliver the Rev. Wheelwright’s installation sermon, only to be assassinated a few days before that could happen.

Over my life involved as a worshiper and in various churches’ politics and polity, I have known many ministers. I have lost count of the boring and inane sermons I have heard. The winners are regular surprises and delights. Farley’s book is filled with those.

As a side note, the Arlington Street Church has an illustrious history filled with many noted Unitarian preachers. It is know as the mother church of American Unitarianism, as the base for Rev. William Ellery Channing (although he had to go to Baltimore to preach the sermon that defined his brand of religion, because the board found him too radical). I joined the ASC when the Rev. Victor Carpenter was senior minister. He did not believe in comfortable congregants and gave us social-action homework from the pulpit weekly. Following Farley and to this day the Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie holds the high pulpit. She can be insipid, but when she hits one, it is out of the proverbial park. She is the rarest of liberal preachers, a charismatic one.

Farley is a magnificent preacher. He is smarter and better read than any minister you are likely to have known. Yet, his sermons got you to the conclusions without letting his intellect get in the way.

When he began discussing this project with me, he envisioned it as a nice-to-have for new ministers. He knew that there are likely the roots of three to five sermons in each of his. He figured newbies would benefit. He says he’d be happy for them to built sermons from these and they’d only need give him credit if they lifted large portions or whole ones.

Drawing on my experience with ministers, I think more established preachers might gain more. As we all who visit various churches have noted, many of the same sermons reemerge. For UUs and beyond, I think immediately of the Rev. Clark Dewey Wells’ You be glad at that star.  Sure, it’s a good idea and sermon, but why have so many ministers modified or lifted it? The answer is simply that most run out of ideas. They are constantly reading their peers’ work and listening to their podcasts. They aren’t forever insightful and creative. They really couldn’t cut it as newspaper columnists who have to come up with three or five pieces a week. Although in fairness, sermons are not their only duties.

I have read or skimmed numerous books of sermons. They tend to the trivial and saccharine.  From my ASC days, I recall visiting the Boston Athenæum for research on my own church and board speeches. I rather loved the 19th Century monthly The Liberal Preacher. Many of those sermons were smarter and harder hitting than modern ones. I also have judged UU sermons for the annual Skinner Award; fortunately there were always deserving ones in a UUA-wide contest.

My prejudices aside, Farley’s collection is full of good ones. I heartily recommend it for your own reading and as a gift for ministers you know.

 

Tales of the Sisters Grimké

March 10th, 2013

tea

 

I sat on it for a day. Yep, there was still stinky, strained stuff at the women’s tea in glorious downtown Hyde Park yesterday.

Almost entirely good stuff abounded. Angela Menino stood up and in for her hubby, that Tom guy.  The third annual presentation of the local version of women on the year presentations (a.k.a. “Women Amongst Us”) included pots of flowers and standing O’s. Petite tea sandwiches — curried chopped chicken, cucumber, and turkey/cheese — kept the early 20th Century flavor. Three City Councilors, Consalvo, Arroyo and Pressley, showed. The upstairs at Annabelle’s was ladies who lunch, but with tea instead of martinis.

I was one of perhaps six men in a room of roughly 100 women, and come to think of it all women waitrons. I enjoyed it mostly and intend to use my bar of suffragist soap they set at each place.

The unnecessary undercurrent of male bashing was a tad surprising, Women’s History Month or not.

Two authors were there to flog their books and comment on former Hyde Park residents, the Grimké sisters, Angelina and Sarah. One, Angelina biographer Louise Knight, had trouble with men, particularly her subject’s husband. The other, poet Amy Benson Brown, corrected Knight’s male bashing without making a deal out of doing so.

The living accomplished local women included:

  • Martha McDonough — among many other civic leadership feats was cleaning up the Neponset last year.
  • Tonya Grimes — whose volunteerism has long included Civil War reenactor and active member of the Colored Ladies Christian Relief Society.
  • Sharon Grimberg — WGBH executive producer, whose series include the PBS American Experience shows, such as the recent The Abolitionists.

The deceased accomplished were the sisters Grimké. While raised as privileged daughters of a South Carolina planter, replete with slaves everywhere, they turned. They were appalled by slavery and came to Yankeeland, where they devoted themselves to abolition and later to women’s rights, particularly suffrage.

I was pleasantly surprised when I researched our newest neighborhood four years ago to discover the Weld/Grimké history. Hyde Park seems fairly apolitically suburban. The legacy of the first black U.S. soldiers, abolitionists, suffrage fighters and more was a delight. I touched on the Fairmount Hill links several times, including here and here.

exhouse

This will be a more Angelina year than most, both down here and downtown. On Monday, Oct. 7th, a celebration of Angelina’s speech will be at the John Hancock Hall, with a performance of part of her speech, Gloria Steinem reading her 1970 Equal Rights Amendment testimony to the U.S. Senate, and more. The event is in the works and will get publicity.

The spot near where she lived in the house her husband, ardent abolitionist Rev. Theodore Weld, bought for them will get a plaque this spring, Hyde Park Main Streets Executive Director Patrice Gattozzi told me. I hope she does follow up on my offers to work on this.

At the least, she should know that the house is gone. Where they lived at 212 Fairmount Avenue had a facing home, but the entrance was a carriage drive on then Pond (now Highland). We bought the 1876 map that hangs in our living room. A snatch of it here shows the old digs between Fairmount and Warren.

Rightfully the luncheon and particularly speaker Knight spoke of Angelina’s courage, conviction and accomplishment. Particularly, she was likely the first non-monarch female to address a legislative body anywhere. She spoke three times in a few days on abolition to the Massachusetts legislature. This was a time when women were forbidden or actively discouraged from speaking at all in public, and certainly not before “promiscuous audiences” as groups of mixed genders were known. She lacked neither clarity of vision nor courage.

There came the rub for me.

Knight published two works on Jane Addams and just finished a dual bio on the sisters Grimké. However, if the luncheon lecture is any indication, she can’t seem to get over the partnership between Angelina and her husband. As she spoke of Angelina, she repeatedly mentioned a letter or other contact with “her fiance Theodore.” Knight never once mentioned his name or honorific. She never said he was a renowned abolitionist (often referred to by historians of the period as “the lion of abolition”). She never spoke of how the pair complemented each other’s politics and worked together, first fighting slavery, then on to women’s rights. You’d think Rev. Weld was a groupie for this outspoken woman instead of an equal. Knight said that “her fiance” told Angelina not to speak of women’s rights at all.

I sat next to my wife, who also knows the Grimké and Weld story. I said that was a really sexist and dishonest lecture. She was a bit flippant (maybe it was the Earl Grey talking), Oh, it is women’s history month, and the other 11 months are for men.  That doesn’t cut it with me anymore than the YWCA (it is the Young Women’s Christian Association. snicker) excluding boys and men from everything while the YMCA went inclusive, becoming the family organization and having a much greater impact on the nation.

Fortunately the next author and poet was more historically accurate and not male exclusionary. Amy Benson Brown did not say, “Let me correct Ms. Knight,” but she did do that. She called Weld by his full name. She noted the partnership that led to marriage, as well as the then shocking ceremony where Weld refused to claim dominion over her and she did not say she would obey him. He was after all a Unitarian and proto-feminist. He did once before they married ask her to soft-pedal the dual message of women’s rights until the abolition of slavery was settled. He had devoted decades to abolishing slavery, knew how successful she had been in the effort, and did not want her to become ineffective with a double whammy…yet. Later, they became a powerful team fighting for suffrage and leading the first-in-the-nation protest where Hyde Park women (and their men) marched to the town hall to cast ballots that they knew would not be counted, but that had strong symbolism.

They were a team from their engagement through marriage. Better stuff than lies-of-omission history about a brave woman all alone, I say.

I grew up with a divorced mom raising two of us. Neither denigrating women nor bashing males was acceptable. That should be the order of things. I can pose my typical Unitarian and progressive self-examination. Am I clean enough to comment? I think so.

Sarah was somewhat important, particularly as the much decade-plus older sister of Angelina, who led the way in thought. Of the 14 Grimké siblings, 11 of whom survived to adulthood, the pair of sisters had the intellectual clarity and morality to fight slavery, leave their comfortable surroundings, and change a nation. Angelina was the front, the orator, and the one who partnered with a like-minded reformer/radical. What a pair! Yet, let’s not lessen Weld’s tremendous influence and dedication. Yeah, yeah, yeah, he was just a man, but pretty clearly his wife’s equal.

 

White Squirrel Singing

September 8th, 2012

The 2nd annual Jamaica Plain Music Festival stepped up nicely. Last years had a lot of indie groups that sounded like garage bands — as in several cats trapped in a garage. This time, the range and quality of sounds was fine.

Here be some snaps:

The ghost of the white squirrel which used to inhabit Jamaica Pond inspired the t-shirts (disclaimer: I own and wear one), as well as the graphics for the festival.
The squirrel appears now in several versions of banners too, several above each of the two stages.
Above each stage was a stuffed toy version on strings.
Fest staffer had both a squirrel stuffy in a pocket and a hipster, Trilby-style hat. Several other in the crowd had the hat, but they were to a one 40 or 50 somethings (mid-life crises?).
Morris and the East Coast’s drummer never stopped or even slowed.
Thick Wild, a.k.a. Amelia Emmet, really belted her self-written tunes, solo, and overpowered her banjo.
The fest had tons of activities for breeders, including hula hoops, water balloon tosses, drawing stations and lots to keep the kiddies perking.
A cardboard slide the length and depth of the sugar bowl kept kids and parents squealing.
A petting zoo let kids and adults play and play with a wide variety of musical instruments.
Sweatshop threw out rap, hip hop and rock.
The new JP Symphony Orchestra sent its brass section to introduce their classical versions.
Later, more reps from the well-established Cambridge Symphony Orchestra were classy and dressy as well as talented.
Cambridge’s strings do not chill like rock musicians while awaiting their time.
The lead for Riding Shotgun did his Springsteen dance.
Big folk got to use the petting zoo of instruments too.
One of the Pepe Gutierrez mariachi band (regulars at Tacos El Charro) grokked the indie rockers.
Gracious Galamity (Kate and Kit) were soft harmonies among hard rockers.
Babies and tots abounded.
Lauren DeRose show off the best emo and tattoos.
This is a very manageable festival, in the hundreds of listeners/watchers.
The rest of us scruffies in tees and shorts didn’t cut it in contrast to the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra crew.
Small tats, big tats…here’s a shoulder gem.
Riding Shotgun’s drummer loved his job.
Sweatshop’s MC Catch Wreck.

Pix Notes: These are far and without flash. You’re welcome to anything useful. They are Creative Commons. Just credit Mike Ball once up front.

Felder Bares Bernstein

April 30th, 2012

Loath as I am to stand in applause (seemingly the norm at every performance from kindergarten through Broadway), Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein had me up and flapping. Last evening’s nearly two-hour, one-man show also deserved the overused and usually hyperbolic tour de force.

Note that this is an ArtsEmerson show at the Paramount and runs through May 20th. Hie thee. Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein is far better done and more memorable than any play you’re likely to see this year or any musical with women wearing spangles and rhinestones.

At its most basic, this show is a chronological biography. Badly written and performed, that could surely be tedious. This is riveting. No one coughed or rustled papers.

Note too that Felder is creating a career out of these musician shows. Following Bernstein, he comes on with black hair starting May 30th as George Gershwin. Previously, he’s been Chopin and Beethoven. He takes his shows on the road and somehow maintains his energy with one or two a day and transitioning among characters and musical repertoires.

And music…

Felder plays and sings, the former stronger than the latter, but certainly in the role of conductor/composer, his voice is fine and does not distract from the story. He plays enough Beethoven, Wagner. Copeland, a few others, plus parts of his own work. Intriguing is his early efforts and parts of his major works. Yet an apt leitmotif that does a fair job of tying his story together are a couple of songs from West Side Story, Somewhere and Maria.

Key tensions in the tale start with his unapproving, gruff father. Over his objections, Bernstein pays for his own piano lessons, studies with several leading mentors, and makes a seeming success of it all. Underlying are problems most of us who saw him conduct or perform and explain on TV forgot or did not know. There’s his finding, marrying and having three children with Felicia, his professed great love. Meanwhile, he longed to be known as a composer, to be among the greats in this country and historically. Along the way, he had homosexual affairs, including one for whom he left his wife for a few years. He returned and nursed her as she died of cancer.

A long, pivotal scene near the end has him beseeching the audience to sing any of his arias or recall even a few bars of his serious work. He knows no one can and in the end seems to accept begrudgingly that West Side Story will be his piece by which people recall him.

The show carries the biography from childhood to death surprisingly smoothly. Felder stays in character, or characters, as he voices the father, mother, various mentors and more. This artificial cast of characters allows for development and aging and struggles one-man shows tend to lack.

He also manages to deal candidly with issues, such as the gay affairs, without becoming salacious or silly.

The show had no pauses, no awkward or forced segments, and nothing contrived. It is brilliantly written. The steady rhythm of intense performance performance and then casual conversation provided great focus and framed each example of development memorably. Felder was more than capable at the piano and the musical selections illustrated both how Bernstein progressed, and regressed, professionally, and supported the thesis of a tormented would-be great composer.

Felder’s view seems to be, as the program reads, that it is too soon after Bernstein’s life and death to judge his oeuvre. His superb version of the life does not judge either. I left the Paramount with a much fuller and more personal sense of the musician and person. Again, this show brought me to my feet.

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Sponge Bob to the Rescue

April 18th, 2012

Heading to what turned out to be a large theater filled with gray hairs and baldies, we stopped nearby the Loews Boston Common for a nosh and drink. Before For the Love of the Music, we headed to Temple Place, a Boston home to the proverbial watering holes.

We’d never been to 49 Social, which had a couple of pluses. First, it was just opening for drinks/dinner and not crowded. Also, it looked comfortable and well designed.

We didn’t have time to try of their long list of $28 wines. Instead from a very pleasant bartender, we got drinks and the charcuterie plate. Chat. Eat. Sip. Chat. Sip.

All was well until it wasn’t. Blue strobe lights and eardrum stabbing siren waves queered the mood.

The bar keep emerged from the basement kitchen saying a pipe had burst and she was soaked. At least she was all in black.

We had to head out with the help. Turns out that only the fire department can turn off such alarms.

Sure enough, in maybe six or seven minutes a truck arrived. Then in another five or so, a ladder truck pulled in. The boys had their toys.

Even before they parked, the Sponge Bob Square Pants plush in the truck window was obvious (pic via my wife’s phone).

Sensibly, the firefighters climbed down and brought their hooks and axes, their gas masks and helmets, their heavy slickers and on and on. I thought of the one time we called them many years ago in JP for a creosote fire in our chimney. It was a quick whoosh, a fat tongue of flame up the top, and anticlimax. The fire was long out before the two trucks came from half a mile away. Several of our other boys in blue were terrifically disappointed. They brought in big axes and kept feeling the walls, obviously hoping for the slightest excuse to break through the plaster and brick. Surely, it had been a boring day and we offered no real excitement. They left looking unfulfilled.

Here too at the 49, the first crew waved off the second one. Nonetheless, a couple of the ladder guys just had to go down the stairs. Axes abounded….you never know, eh?

While waiting for them, we had nice, if abstemious, chatter with the bartender and waiter (no drinks allowed outside). We learned that the owner was Lebanese and that two evenings a week offered Middle-Eastern food, music and belly dancing there. The place has been open not quite a year. The owner appeared as we waited for the fire department. He was calm, as befitting the event,  which happened with plenty of time to rejigger the kitchen before the dinner and party crowds. He said there’d be no tab for us and apologized for the inconvenience. He didn’t exhibit the worst of Boston restaurant attitude, the opposite.

As the sirens and lights stopped and the crews left, we went back in to get our stuff and head to the flick. Of course, I at least left a healthy tip and also took away a good vibe. We’ll be back for a longer session and a meal.

 

Yes, Too Late

April 6th, 2012

We can wait too long. That should surprise none of us.

This week in New York, I got that lesson, in the mortal version, yet again. Going to, going to, intentions, intentions…yet when I actually called and tried to visit an old chum from our previous lives, he was dead.

Tomorrow will be the fifth anniversary of Reginald Charles Obrecht’s death. I won’t be talking to Reggie, unless it’s like a Bluetooth fool ranting solo.

A woman with whom, as we Southerners are wont to say, I kept company for several years and I lived a few floors above Reggie, his son, and second wife on East Ninth Street on the Lower East Side.

I was on the iPad trying to figure out why his long-time phone number was “NOT IN SERVICE” when I found only vestiges of his musical life. When I returned to Boston and hit up the Social Security Death Index, I got confirmation. Then I was a bit disappointed seeing no Obrecht obit. It seems like the Times or somebody should have been aware that a lesser figure in early rock and R&B died.

Setting aside for the moment his delightful personality and wonderful stories, consider that he gave us boomers earworms and love songs. He wrote, arranged, and played the music for the likes of The Coasters, The Bobettes, LaVern Baker, and Ruth Brown. His Reggie Obrecht Band was on many of the late fifties tunes. He sometimes got credits too under a stage name, Reggie Chase.

Purple Cow

He had his Gelett Burgess mixed blessing as well. While that art critic/author/editor was overshadowed by his throwaway poem The Purple Cow, Reggie had Mr. Lee, sung by The Bobettes. Unlike most of the rock and doo-wop songs of the era, this did not get everyone and his uncle throwing his name on to get possible revenue. Reggie had to take full blame for what he acknowledged was a really stupid song. Yet, we sang and hummed its stupid lyrics. I bet he continued to get residuals from it to the end.

Reg was young then and made what was for him a fair amount of money. He was in on the early days of Atlantic Records. Like most recording groups, bands, composers and such, he got screwed out of much of the revenue in a dirty business. Yet, he squirreled away enough cash to suit himself.

The way he told it, he fixated on chess. He grew up a poor black kid and chess was both intellectual and classy enough to please his new self. He devoted several years to becoming a good player. He spent a lot of time with Grandmaster Nicolas Rossolimo at the latter’s Greenwich Village chess studio. He says he memorized the requisite 2,000 games to be able to win most of the time.

When I met Reggie, he had married again. His first had become a junkie and produced their son Marcus, who was non-functioning autistic. She went away and died young. His second wife was Marjorie Saunders, adopted daughter of the long-time head of the Colgate-Rochester School of Divinity.

Reg said the Rev. Dr. Wilbour Saunders was none too pleased that his only daughter had taken up with a black many of uncertain prospects. Reg was never above laughing at himself and spoke of the first weekend the three of them spent at the regal homestead in Rochester. Like any period sitcom, there was another black person, the maid who clearly disdained Reg and Marcus. Reg was so concerned that Marcus would disgrace them with primitive eating, he sat beside him constantly ready to correct and help. When the servants brought roasted half chickens, Reg was in a near panic. Marcus meanwhile was mirroring the others around him and doing just fine. In his distraction, it was Reg, who knocked him bird into his lap.

Marj was a public-school teacher and a sort of precocious New Ager. Those became relevant as she turned to Marcus. She refused to believe he had to be institutionalized as all doctors and teachers pronounced. She put him (and them) the Feingold Diet (no artificial anything) and a regimen of vitamins, minerals, whole grains and such as barley stew with bones of a chicken or two boiled until they dissolved in it.

All those seemed to work. Marcus was a giant at 12 and had disconcerting self-absorbed traits like climbing on my shoulders and sitting when I sat. He was not what we call normal, but Marj made a huge improvement. He was at the point of low-functioning normal by the time he came of age and left.

Eventually, Marj and Reg separated and I think divorced. I heard she headed off to Denmark to teach English, but that was decades ago.

Last Chat

Reg called me years ago, perhaps six years. He sounded pretty good and we had our usual long, light chat. He called for a reason though. That woman who had been with me on East Ninth had lent him $50 many years before. He said he had heart trouble and wanted to repay her, just in case.

I had figured to see him again. When I got to the City, I intended to call him and get together.

Spending four days in Manhattan this week, I did call him. Anywho and other online directories list his number and address as the last time we spoke. Only this time, when I called that offensive tone was followed with “THAT NUMBER IS NOT IN SERVICE.”

I found out why and shouldn’t have been surprised. He did warn me he had a heart ailment. Yet, I deluded myself as we all are likely to do. On occasion, I’d see that he was still listed and think he was perking along. Only he wasn’t.

Draw your own inferences. I’ve been pretty good about tending to parents, friends and other relatives. I can’t say I did not come to peace with anyone I loved. Still, Reg is a good soul. I do regret not making the extra effort to visit him a few more times.

Parity, Parody, Identity

February 15th, 2012

Wasn’t it the Brits who muttered their wait to sports fairness standards? How did we Americans become so team-parity obsessed?

As a boomer, I grew up with a few great teams in various sports drubbing the feebs. It really did work. It really did fit American history and ideals. Yankees, Celtics, Cowboys, Lakers, Canadians, Packers and a small set of sports bullies were the top. It was as Willy S’s Cassius had it:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus; and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable grav
es.

Instead, along the path of sports entertainment, the oligopolies and monopolies permitted by law as well as custom could not have that in the mundo world of advertising and broadcasting contracts. With millions to hundreds of millions of dollars looking for pockets, parity became the watchword. With artificial and intrusive aid, the very worst teams in a league were supposed to be pretty damned close to the very best.  That resulted from business decisions, what would maximize the advertising and broadcasting cash flow. To hell with excitement and ideals!

Unlike the American cultural norms boomers heard from their WWII parents, survival of the fittest became everybody has a chance to be the winner. We saw that creeping pseudo-equality, feel-good artifices starting for us in the 1980s. Our first son went to the hippy-dippy Beacon Hill Nursery School and then played Little League on the Hill against other downtown teams. He was a member of the league championship team. What that really meant is that they always had at least one superior pitcher. That was by far the single victory margin…game, after game, after game. By the time second and third sons were playing soccer, the parity factor was in total control.

It was not at all like real life of business or even a decent college. There, brutal unfairness was the norm. Boss’ child? Fellow alumnus? Sorority sister? Trivial controlled the real.

In the 90s and beyond, on school and kid-sports levels, it mirrored the professional athletic world. With no intent to disparage the developmentally disabled, we can note that the aptest comparison is special Olympics. Everyone’s a winner. Everyone’s a medalist. We, as my eldest parroted his nursery school mates, have the same.

It was more elaborate and rigid in professional sports. Artificial mechanisms like salary caps, luxury taxes, and most heavy handed, player drafts that gave the teams with the worst records first pick of the college and high-school grads are now the norm. There was no attempt to disguise the aim. Even the poorest teams in the smallest markets were supposed to have what is euphemistically called a level playing field.

Back to the thrilling days of post-WWII America (for me) and earlier for my parents and grandparents’ generations, the best teams really did seem like dynasties. Lesser teams and their fans rejoiced if they beat one of the big kids. On those rare years when the traditional champions were not in the playoffs, there was Cinderella magic on the radio, TV, in the newspapers and surely in public conversation. There was that American set of ideasl of aspiration, of bettering oneself, of coming from low to climb high.You know,  success through work and talent.

Now the best are severely punished. How dare they show up the petty men?

Maybe it was in part because I moved ever few years as a child. I would glom onto winning teams. Then I was a fan. My mother’s family came from the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia, with no professional sports, but close enough to D.C., Baltimore and with a stretch, Pittsburgh. Instead of those cities’ teams, I had the freedom of the nomad in picking my heroes, my champions. As a young’un, I’d stand up to my uncles, great-uncles and such with their fandom of the Orioles, Pirates, Senators, and Steelers and such. I’d recite the glories and stats of the Yankees, of Y.A. Tittle’s Giants and such. I was a sports slut, one who loved winners.

Those picnic debates no longer work. Not only are my great-uncles dead, but plastic parity humbles the mighty. It also robs the athletes and fans of both dreams and pride. Like the Japanese cliché that the nail that stands up will be pounded down, the parity police either did not know or lost the ideals of American culture, literature, theater, movies and television. We were a nation whose people won in the end despite shortcomings, being outnumbered, and without expectations of victory. Any American could succeed with determination, some luck, and relentless optimism.

We lost that and are poorer for it. We have the same.

Backroom P.O. Treats

January 25th, 2012

wowstamps

My splendid yellow glasses continue to reward me. Sure, folk young/old, all shades call out praise. Just yesterday in a supermarket, a large woman with a laden cart leaving the checkout blew by several other customers, brushing them back into their chutes. She saw me, stopped and waved me through, saying, “Man with the yellow glasses. You go.”

Objects can be fun.

Also yesterday at the Cleary Square Post Office in Boston’s Hyde Park, I got preference in another mundane task, buying stamps. Asking for 40, I got a big smile from the clerk, who said, “I think I know what you’ll like.”

She turned on her heel and headed to the back. She returned with six varieties. All were graphically strong and perhaps most important colorful.

She said when she saw the glasses, she knew I’d want visually powerful ones. She was right.

I’m not an attention hound. I don’t make loud noises to keep folk looking at me. I set my cell to vibrate. I grew up hearing that making a spectacle of yourself shows poor breeding.

Yet getting positive attention without intruding strikes a fine balance between drabness and shouting.

Vroom. What Boys Like.

December 6th, 2011

A funny confluence today was a YouTube share on FB of the Waitresses’ I Know What Boys Like. That, of course, was sexual innuendo, but there’s something else boys and men like. That came in news short about Dig This in Las Vegas.

Boys and men, and some women, like or love construction equipment.

The new big-boy playground in Nevada likely appeals even more to guys than driving fast cars does. Pretty much anyone with a credit card can do that. However, watch boys and men as they stare and gape at track mounted motorized tractors (bulldozers to you) and hydraulic excavators. They’re likely to make engine noises while looking too.

At a couple points in the early 1970s when I moved to NYC, I verified that love of huge machines two ways. First, I was along-term temp at MOMA, including working with then Curator of Design Emilio Ambasz. I also got a full-time job later writing for Construction Equipment magazine.

While at MOMA, my main job was as a lackey while he brought the Italian design show (Italy: The New Domestic Landscape) to life. That was great fun getting to work with the brilliant designer and the steady flow of Italian creatives. Beyond that though, I got excited enough to pitch him an idea for making an extensions-of-man exhibit, perhaps in Central Park. I saw everything from prostheses to earth movers. People would be able to be fitted with or use these, anything that amplified or corrected human bodies.

Ambasz professed to like the concept and we spoke of it repeatedly. In the end though, he didn’t want to own it, suggested I strike out on my own and make it happen, and negotiate with manufacturers and bureaucrats to handle the logistics, particularly the huge insurance issues inherent in letting plain folk handle gigantic machinery.

While my only experience in construction had been two summers on a house-building carpentry crew during college, great writer and swell guy John Rehfield hired me for the magazine. When I asked him bluntly why he’d take someone without a civil engineering degree or heavy equipment expertise, he laughed and waved his arm toward the writers and editors. He said sagely, “I can teach you anything you need to know about construction. You’re a good writer. I can’t teach an engineer how to write.”

As the new kid, I had to handle the complex nationwide directory of equipment, bringing it from index cards to computer. I got to apply my journalism studies and newspaper experience to investigative pieces that that the engineers were not comfortable doing. Yet, John was also true to his word and taught me construction as well as sending me on job sites.

In was on the stories of dam projects and the like that I learned that heavy equipment brought out the boys in even the most experienced men. The guys who run those tower cranes, excavators, earth movers far too big to fit in the bulldozer category and more make the noises. Put them in the cabs of the most powerful machines and they are boys again, playing with construction toys, except those aren’t toys anymore.

Actually it was endearing to see and hear the tough and tanned heavy equipment operators having so much fun even after years doing it. They talked about their rigs the way kids do their toys.

As for the extensions-of-man show, John too was intrigued. He also ran through all the complexities to get it done, but thought it possible. Unfortunately, I was in my early 20s and did not have the experience or entrepreneurial bent to go after it. Then Construction Equipment moved to Chicago from across from the Daily News and I had little interest in going with it, leaving Manhattan. Shortly after, John, only in his 40s, got virulent cancer and died.

It was a good idea. Even in its very lesser form in Las Vegas, that subset is also a good idea. Next time I’m out that way, I’ll Dig This.