Friday, March 27, 2015

Literary Luncheon with Lisa See

Author Lisa See
Appearances can be deceiving.  And so it was with Lisa See, a best-selling author known for her works of historical fiction about the lives of Chinese women. First, I'll state the obvious.  Ms. See's appearance is as all-American as can be, which is not what most people expect. Nonetheless, her interest in Chinese culture and history comes directly from her own family history. (More to come on this.) Second, when I watched Ms. See signing books, she was all business.  She moved the line along with a signature and a quick smile, which left me with the impression that her talk might be a bit on the dry side. I could not have been more mistaken.

Shoes worn by Chinese women
whose feet had been bound
Within moments of taking the podium, Ms. See had the audience in the palm of her hand.  She also had a show-and-tell item in the palm of her hand, compliments of a woman attending the event whose grandparents had been missionaries in China.  Ms. See held up a tiny shoe, not much larger than a forefinger.  It was an actual shoe worn by a woman whose feet had been bound.  Like most people in the audience, I had read Ms. See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a book in which the practice of foot binding plays a role.  Trying to imagine these women's feet and actually seeing their shoes are two entirely different things, however.  (Note:  The picture here shows three shoes held in a TSA-approved size of baggie.)  The scene was now perfectly set for Ms. See's talk.

Ms. See began with a quick--but fascinating--overview of her heritage.  Her great great grandparents lived in China, where her great great grandmother made a living by carrying people on her back from village to village.  Ms. See's great grandfather Fong See emigrated in the 1880s to Sacramento, where he worked in a factory that made crotchless underwear for brothels.  (Their motto was "fancy underwear for fancy ladies.")  He built a mercantile empire and became the godfather/patriarch of Los Angele's Chinatown.  He was a powerful man in many ways.  He had four wives in his lifetime (at least two were concurrent), and he fathered a child when he was in his 90s.  (Before the days of Viagra, Ms. See pointed out.)  One of those wives was a white woman, a union that contravened the laws prohibiting marriages between Caucasians and persons with more than one-quarter Chinese blood. Ms. See herself grew up in Chinatown as part of an extended 400+ person Chinese-American family. 

With this background, Ms. See introduced China Dolls, her latest bookThe novel deals with the relationship between three female friends, a dynamic that Ms. See has witnessed firsthand.  Ms. See's mother has two lifelong girlfriends and, according to Ms. See, "On any given day, one of them will be on the outs." Her observation confirms research done by NASA into the "correct" number of astronauts to send into space. (The decision was two astronauts rather than three in order to prevent situations in which two people would gang up against the third.) 

My favorite booksellers (Serena and Cathy
from Copperfish Books) were on hand
The women in China Dolls meet at the Forbidden City Nightclub in San Francisco in 1938.  You may have heard of the Borscht Belt, an area of the Catskills known as a vacation spot for New York's Jewish community. Comedians, singers, dancers and variety acts (of the likes of Milton Berle, Rodney Dangerfield, Carol Channing and Sammy Davis, Jr.) would take their acts on the road to the Borscht Belt.  The Chop Suey Circuit was the Chinese equivalent with its own entertainers (who were not so flatteringly referred to by reference to the Caucasian performers; i.e., the "Chinese Fred and Ginger" or the "Chinese Frank Sinatra.") 

While researching her book, Ms. See had the chance to talk with a number of women who performed on the Chop Suey Circuit.  One interviewee was a 91 year old former dancer who still teaches Jazzercise. Another was a woman named "Mai Tai" after whom the drink is purportedly named. (I'm not sure what her act was, but her favorite all time costume was made from 15 yards of monkey fur.)  Ms. See's website has extensive information about the background for China Dolls that includes videos of her interviews with three women who performed at the Forbidden City Nightclub.  (Click here to check it out. FYI, there is a similar section on Dreams of Joy.)

Thanks to the Friends of the Punta Gorda Library for bringing such a wonderful speaker to our little town.  I am now officially primed for Book Expo, which is coming up in May.  So many books, so little time. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Unplugged with Bill Bowers at Asolo Rep

You know it's getting to the end of the season when theaters start running their new play festivals. As a rule, these festivals feature readings of new plays rather than full blown productions. While the term "reading" implies that people (who may not even be actors) sit and read dryly through a script, my experience has been anything but that.  Although readings are not polished productions -- and there are no costumes or sets -- you get a real sense of the potential of a show.  If the story is good, I find myself just as drawn in as I might a show with all the bells and whistles.  And as a bonus, the playwright is typically on hand to get feedback from the audience.  It's exciting to feel like you're getting in on the ground floor of what might be the next big thing.

Bill Bowers
That's a long introduction to what was a truly fabulous night of theater/storytelling with mime Bill Bowers.  The event--entitled "Stories from the Road"--was the first of the Asolo Repertory Theatre's Sixth Annual "Unplugged" New Play Festival.  As soon as I saw that Bowers' work would be taken for a test drive, I knew Dorrit and I had to go. Last year we went to see a recital of sorts with the Asolo Conservatory students showing off their mime techniques after spending a week with Bowers.  It was a blast.  (Click here to read my blog about that experience.)  The chance to hear Bowers tell stories from his travels was too good an opportunity to miss. 

Jory Murphy as  Bowers' "lovely assistant"
Within moments of Bowers taking the stage, we knew we were in for a ride.  He informed us at the outset that he has changed the name of his play from "Stories from the Road" to "Nude Amish Hookers & the Mime Who Loves Them." Given the new title, you probably won't be surprised to hear that I was literally doubled over with laughter throughout the evening.

With the play still taking shape, Bowers had categorized his stories into seven themes, from "How Did This Happen to Me?" to "Weird Jobs" to "For Adults Only."  Each category was listed on a poster board with sticky notes about potential stories. He would ask the audience to yell out a category, decide which area was most in demand at that moment, grab a sticky note, and launch into his tale. Most of the stories dealt with people he had encountered while on the road giving workshops and performances, and I would be hard pressed to say which was the funniest. Was it the one about the woman whose rabbit took one of Bowers' workshops (and engaged in extensive email correspondence with him)?  Or perhaps it was the tale that ended with a young student guessing that Bowers wasn't wearing his white face make-up because it was after Labor Day?

It was a treat to listen in on a post-performance chat with Bowers, director Greg Leaming and the audience (which included both Conservatory students and a lot of folks who are clearly serious theater people).  Bowers shared that his other two plays -- "Under a Montana Moon" and "'Night Sweetheart, 'Night Buttercup" -- started in the same way; i.e., by telling the stories rather than from a written script.  "The alchemy of the audience and the stories tells me what the play is going to be, " he said.

There was a slight difference of opinion as to whether the final version of the play should have a clearer theme. To me, the play worked more or less as it was, in part because of the audience's participation. Our role put us in a position not dissimilar to that of the people in Bowers' stories. We too were there to learn about Bowers' craft, albeit from a different perspective.  And while I didn't leave with the ability to execute a leaning tower of Pisa, I did come away with a greater appreciation--once again--of the unexpected ways in which the arts can open our eyes to new worlds and ever-so-slightly change our attitudes and expectations.      

I was thrilled to hear that the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York has already signed Bowers on to present his new play there next spring.  I always love having an excuse to go to New York, and I can't imagine a better one than watching Bill Bowers in action. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Meeting the Master Planners

Mitchell Lawson, David Hilston, Teri Tubbs and Lisa Hannon
The most recent Citizens Academy session was an introduction to the world of urban design and growth management.  It's a big job to keep Punta Gorda the beautiful place it is -- and not always a popular one.

Department head David Hilston kicked off the morning with an example of the crazy questions they sometimes get.  One resident asked, "How many elephants can we have in our yard?"  They actually had an answer: one. (Note to caller: I understand that Ringling Bros. might have some elephants available for purchase.)

The Department overview was a bit of a whirlwind as we learned about this function in just two hours.  Here are some of the highlights.

Punta Gorda's
Comprehensive Plan 
--The job of the folks in urban design/growth management is to plan for the Punta Gorda of the future. Their focus is 20-30 years out (so I'm sure a crystal ball would come in handy sometimes.) Interestingly, the very popular Punta Gorda Pathways project was first proposed back in 1989.

--Punta Gorda's comprehensive plan establishes guidelines for physical development of the City.  Chief Planner Joan LeBeau calls it "the hub of everything."  Its elements range from infrastructure and community facilities to conservation and transportation.  (The regulations restricting the removal of burrowing owls fall under the area of conservation.)  The comprehensive plan is reviewed every five - seven years, and the process is about to begin.  Public input will be requested, so speak now or plan hold your peace until at least 2020!

--Hilston introduced Teri Tubbs and zoning by saying, "The zoners take the dreamers and smack them back to reality."  While it's easy to picture these people as popping a balloon filled with ideas, the reality is that their input prevents people from expending resources on projects that aren't going to work in the real world.

--Permitted use regulations are not consistent across the City. There are a number of "overlay districts" for which special rules apply.  So, for instance, property owners in the Historical Overlay District must obtain a "certificate of appropriateness" before any exterior work is done or signage installed. One of the ongoing efforts involves creation of a county overlay for south Punta Gorda where there are enclaves of county property that don't have to comply with city regs.

--Development and enforcement of the City's Landscape Code also falls to this Department. Punta Gorda prides itself on being a "tree city" and strives to maintain pre-development levels of a 30% tree canopy.  Hence the rule that new home builders plant one canopy tree -- or two palms -- for each 4,000 feet of building site.  (Homeowners who really don't want to comply with this rule can pay a fee of $750 that the City will use to plant a tree on City property.)  FYI, get in touch with the City if you want some help with plantings for the island in your cul-de-sac. There's a reason they all look so nice!

--Contrary to popular belief, Punta Gorda does not have a "no chain restaurant" ordinance.  Instead, it is the City's architectural requirements--and a prohibition on drive-through restaurants--that have proven an impediment to getting our own golden arches here.  (The Dunkin' Donuts' drive-through was grandfathered in.)

--Nobody likes to see those little code compliance trucks parked in front of their home. But we also don't like to see cars up on blocks or more than one elephant in the neighbor's yard.  More restrictive rules apply in Punta Gorda Isles, Burnt Store Isles and Burnt Store Meadows. Previously, these communities were deed restricted and had to do their own enforcement.  Code compliance is also responsible for the lot mowing program that was in the press recently.

View from Marriage Point
in Laishley Park
--Punta Gorda has 109 acres dedicated to its 19 parks.  Laishley, Gilchrist and Ponce parks have areas available for rent at rates ranging from $5-$20/hour.  In case you're wondering, the guitar army folks who take over Gilchrist Park on Tuesday and Thursday nights don't rent the pavilions. The tradition is treated as a "non-event/event."  Heads up that reconstruction of the sea wall in Gilchrist Park will begin soon.  The park will continue to be open, but it definitely will not be as inviting with construction equipment parked in the open spaces. I suspect the guitar army musicians and fans will persevere.

--Chief Building Official Randy Cole confessed some concern about making his presentation interesting.  So he started off with an explanation of the origin of building codes -- the Code of Hammurabi circa 1772 BC.  Section 229 reads: "If a builder builds a house for someone and has not made his house sound, and the house he built has fallen and caused the death of its owner, the builder shall be put to death."  Whoa!

--Perhaps the most amazing take-away of the morning was the responsiveness of the building division to requests for inspection.  If you call for an inspection by 6:00 in the morning, officials will be out that same day to check out the work.  (Note: They have a recorded line in case you wake up in the middle of night and think, "Rats!  I forgot to schedule that inspection.")

Mr. Hilston had started his comments by saying that Punta Gorda is a "glorious" place to work.  It's also a glorious place to live, thanks in no small part to the folks at Urban Design/Growth Management.

Next up:  a visit to the Punta Gorda Police Department.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Applause, please...but not now

In my former life, there was a Mexican restaurant in the Berkshires we would sometimes brave for dinner.  My strongest memory of the place is not the food, but the strolling guitarist.  He would strum and sing and periodically pause and exhort the diners with an "Applause, please!"  If he approached our table, we would preemptively start clapping in hopes he would veer off to torment someone else who needed more encouragement.

This memory surfaced recently in the unexpected context of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.  Not, of course, because the audience has to be encouraged to applaud, but because we seem to want to applaud too much.

Last week-end's concert featured Brahms' "Symphony No. 4 op. 98, in E minor."  If you, like me, associate Brahms primarily with his lullaby, the energy of this symphony might surprise you.  The first movement is lush and lively and leaves you wanting more.  As the music faded, the audience broke into applause.  And I'm not talking a spattering of applause by a few people. At least half the concert-goers breached concert etiquette.  I heard some murmurs around me as people shook their heads and said, "They're not supposed to clap between movements." And while I too wanted to show my appreciation of the music, I did what I was "supposed" to do and sat quietly.

This cycle continued through the rest of the symphony. Maestro Ponti gave in to it after the third movement and jokingly used his score to fan concertmaster Stewart Kitts. Not surprisingly, when the music was well and truly over, the CSO received a standing ovation for a stunning performance of this beautiful work.

The audience's reaction to the Brahms was not an isolated case  (although it was remarkable in the number of people applauding "inappropriately"). At some concerts, a gentle reminder has been given to wait until the end to clap. This hasn't always worked as intended, however. On occasion, I have felt that the audience's fear of clapping at the wrong time led to a delayed reaction when the final notes had been played. What to do (short of purchasing an "applause" sign to be lit at the appropriate time)?

At the post-concert gathering at Opus, I talked with my friend--and first violinist--Paul Urbanick about the applause "problem."  Paul explained that the purpose behind the silent pause is to indicate that something new is coming and to give the conductor and musicians a moment to regroup.  That makes sense. It's sort of like a sorbet between courses in a gourmet meal.  I was interested to learn, however, that the custom of applauding only at the end of a work is not a universal practice.  In fact, Paul was once at a performance by the Paris Orchestra where a solo was so enthusiastically received that the conductor stopped and had the musician replay it!  And, he went on, those fiery Latin personalities in South America often can't wait until the end to show their appreciation.  Interesting.

While doing a bit of internet surfing, I came across a terrific article by Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Caro about just this topic as it relates to another CSO -- the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Caro makes some great points, including that the "no clap rule" is a bit intimidating and reinforces the impression that going to the symphony is a stuffy experience.  Click here to read "Claptrap--When to clap or not to clap at concerts."  His commentary definitely provides some food for thought.

Last year I went to the concert the CSO put on for Charlotte County third graders. The students had been introduced to classical music with a classroom visit by Maestro Ponti and were there to hear a live performance. The experience was like a rock concert as the kids whooped and clapped at will -- and it was a blast.  And while I don't think adult audiences should break the"no clap" tradition in such a dramatic fashion, I do wonder if we shouldn't just relax a bit and forego our judgment if someone expresses their enjoyment with some unconventional applause.  After all, isn't appreciation of the music what it's all about?

Postscript:  My friend Maggie sent me this link about the development of the no-clapping tradition.  It's interesting to read about Mozart's, Brahms' and other composers' take on the question.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Citizens Academy Meets the Utility Department

Utilities Director Tom Jackson
The most recent Citizens Academy session was an introduction to Punta Gorda's largest department -- the world of utilities. It was an eye-opening morning led by Director Tom Jackson.  As a former regulator with both the Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida DEP, Mr. Jackson has inspected or been involved with other 1500 water plants and similar facilities. Consequently, when he said that Punta Gorda has the "finest utility anywhere in Florida," I felt that only a bit of puffery was involved. With a classroom session and visits to both the water treatment plant and the waste water treatment plant, we covered a lot of ground.  Here are some of the highlights:
--The Punta Gorda utilities department is a full service operation.  It makes the product (clean water), delivers it, collects the product (waste waster and bio-solids), cleans that product and disposes of it. The utilities department's budget of approximately $18 million is equal to that of the other departments' budgets combined. Now that I'm up on all of the financial lingo, I knew what it meant when Jackson said the department is financed through enterprise funds.  (Refresher: This means the department's coffers are filled by fees for services rendered rather than tax dollars.)

Settling sludge -- you can see
why drinking this would not
promote good health
-- In the early 20th century, life expectancies doubled due to public health improvements such as the provision of clean drinking water. And so, while the utilities function may not be glamorous, Jackson is highly cognizant that his department is "responsible for 36,000 lives every second of the day." (Take that, you "guns and hoses" guys.)

-- The City's goal is to not use water that's been in the system more than three days in order to ensure against the build-up of bacteria. When you see a hydrant spewing water, the water lines servicing that area are being flushed.  (There are 1100 fire hydrants in the City and 40 linear miles of pipes.)

-- The quality of water in Punta Gorda is tested every 20 minutes.  

-- Punta Gorda's water comes from Shell Creek. Reliance on surface water rather than ground water as our water source means that Jackson's job can get a little stressful during the dry months.  One of the prime benefits of the much discussed $32 million reverse osmosis plant is that it will serve as a back-up water source.  The City is permitted to draw 11 million gallons per day from Shell Creek; approximately 5 million gallons/day is currently needed,  (Note: The rest of Charlotte County buys its raw water from DeSoto County.)

Color coded pipes at
 water treatment plant
-- The water treatment plant has a color coded pipe system that identifies which chemicals are running where. I believe the orange pipe indicates alum while the yellow is for chlorine.  Truthfully, I just really like this picture which, like the others, was taken by fellow Citizens Academy classmate (and photographer extraordinaire) Bruce Tompkins.

-- It's important to distinguish between aesthetics versus health issues with respect to our water.  The (kind of yucky) way PG water tastes falls squarely into the category of aesthetics.  It's attributable to the water's hardness and is one reason most people have water softener systems. Once it's up and running (in five-seven years), the RO plant should alleviate some of these aesthetic issues.

-- The waste water treatment plant treats 2 million gallons of collected waste water and bio-solids each day. "Good" bugs are utilized in the treatment process, which we had a chance to look for using one of the lab's microscopes.  (I wasn't successful at this venture, but some of my classmates were.)  Once treated, the liquids go into an injection well approximately 3000 feet below ground and the solids are dispersed into the fields.

I will admit that, like most people, I take for granted being able to turn on a faucet and have clean water flow out for my consumption. (I've taken other plumbing issues for granted as well!)  Thanks to the Citizens Academy, Jackson and his first rate team for giving me a greater appreciation of the process.  And now it's time to hit the shower.....

Friday, March 6, 2015

"Re:Purposed" at The Ringling, Part 3 -- Fan Favorites

It's probably become apparent by now that I really enjoyed my media briefing about the "Re:Purposed" exhibit at The Ringling.  In fact, I liked the show so much that I've been back twice with friends in tow.

While the entire exhibit is interesting and engaging, two works stand out as favorites:  Daniel Rozin's "Trash Mirror" and Mac Premo's "The Dumpster Project."  Both works are interactive, which explains in part why they're so much fun.

Dorrit and Lindy check out "Trash Mirror"
"Trash Mirror' is comprised of four mechanical mirrors that have been covered with 500 pieces of trash -- from pieces of Greek diner coffee cups to Broadway ticket stubs to ID badges -- that Rozin collected on the streets of New York (and from his own pockets). That would be interesting in and of itself, but as you walk past the larger-than-life piece, it oscillates as if trying to get your attention.  (It was successful!)  When you stand close to the piece and shift or raise an arm, it responds to your movement.  When you stand across the room and move, you can see your reflection. It is wild.

In his former life, Rozin was an industrial product designer. Consequently, his interest in the visuals of wrappers and other packaging included in his piece comes naturally. So does his desire to compel the viewer to interact with his art (i.e., the product).  Rozin's intention in creating his mosaic was to show how order can be created on even the messiest of substances -- trash -- with a bit of help from a computer.  To watch "Trash Mirror" in action, click here.

Wendi in Rozin's "The Dumpster Project"
My personal favorite in the show is Premo's "The Dumpster Project." When Premo moved from one studio to another that was about 30% the size, not everything could make the cut. He came across a number of items that he couldn't bear to part with, though, like his daughter's first pair of shoes. He ended up cataloging these odds and ends (with an emphasis on odd!) and creating "the ultimate collage project" in a dumpster located on the Ringling's grounds.  Then he set up a website for the project that viewers can access while looking at the items.  (There is also an iPad set up in the dumpster for people who don't have a smart phone.)

It is great fun to spend time in the Dumpster. Why, you might wonder, did he have an "ABC Book about Jesus?"  It turns out he picked up the book at a flea market on 6th Avenue because he was curious about what the "X" would be for.  His explanation goes on. "Xenophobic? Xerophytic? It turns out the 'X' is for the X-Ray of light from God's Blessed Son.  Which I guess explains all that cancer."

"Item 308: Detached doll parts are
always creepy. Always."  
Each time I've returned to the Dumpster Project, I've found more interesting and funny things to look at (aided by Premo's commentary).  And of course it made me think about all the weird things that have ended up in my drawers over the years.  The fact is, though, that these strange little things make up who we are.  Much like music, coming upon a remnant from your past brings you back to that time (sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a grimace).

My biggest concern about the Dumpster Project is that people who go to "Re:Purposed" either won't remember to seek it out or won't be able to find it. (The guards don't seem to know where it is.)  So here are directions:  When you come out of the main entrance to Searing Gallery, take a right and follow the path.  You will find the Dumpster around the corner almost hidden behind some trees. If you aren't able to make it to the Dumpster Project, you can check out the website by clicking here.

"Re:Purposed" runs through May 17th, so there's plenty of time to check it out for yourself if you're in the area.  Even if you're not a fan of modern art, I am confident that something will capture your interest if you go in with an open mind. The catalog for the show is terrific as well, with interviews by curator Matthew McLendon with each of the participating artists. GO SEE THIS SHOW! 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"Re:Purposed" at The Ringling, Part 2 -- Emily Noelle Lambert

My rule of thumb when visiting an art exhibit is to take a docent tour if one is offered.  It enhances my experience to learn about the artist and the context in which the works were done (plus I like being spoon fed the information!)  When the artist herself is on hand, I feel like I've hit the jackpot.  And so it was with Emily Noelle Lambert at the "Re:Purposed" exhibit at the Ringling.

Upon entering the space that houses Lambert's works, it was immediately apparent that her approach to the show's theme is a bit different from that of the other artists. While most deal with "found objects," Lambert works with "found forms."  Her creations are also distinguishable due to her heavy use of color (which is probably one reason I responded so immediately to her art).

Lambert with "Triumph" (2012)
I loved the story of how she came to the medium of sculpture.  Lambert is a classically trained painter who worked as a teaching artist at the Guggenheim for nearly ten years. (She now teaches at Parsons School of Design, Fordham and Yeshiva. Yes, she is the real deal.)  When teaching a class of sixth graders, she asked the kids to bring in some "junk" to put together into sculptures.  "Find the shapes," she urged them. The results were surprising and fun (and the kids loved it).  Inspired by their curiosity and enthusiasm, Lambert began to explore the approach herself, with striking results.

She calls her studio a "soup" to which she is constantly adding ingredients.  At any given time, several paintings are in progress and assorted items for use in a sculpture are scattered around the room.  Lambert will be painting and might suddenly think, "This color would be perfect for the side of that block of wood." She'll dash over, paint the block, and return to work on her painting.

Lambert with "Fortress" (2012)
Originally, Lambert's sculptures were all "totemic" in nature. She now creates wall installations as well in which the components "speak to each other" in some way. "The work is like a run-on sentence," she said. Not surprisingly, Lambert is always on the look-out for interesting items to include in her work. Her "Curio Logic II" includes pieces of cast-off metal from her brother's blacksmith shop while "Fortress" incorporates driftwood and an artist's palette. 

When the exhibit is taken down, the pieces will be returned to the soup of her studio.  Although the same components may be included in a later sculpture, the configuration is likely to be different. (In fact, the "Fortress" in the catalogue for the show is slightly different than the work on display.)  Given her approach, Lambert is always taking a fresh look at her creations and can respond to the space where her work will be shown. Her "Curio Logic II," for instance, was inspired by a portrait gallery in Room 3 at the Ringling.

If you are getting the sense that I was quite taken with both Lambert and her art, you'd be right.  It was a true pleasure to talk with her about her work and the New York art scene. I have no doubt the young students she taught equally enjoyed their time with her and will long remember the joy of creating their own sculptures.  In a time when arts education is a dwindling commodity, that is a true gift.

Next up:  Fan favorites in the "Re:Purposed" show.