Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Paint Your Heart Out, Punta Gorda

Nancy Johnson
Paint Your Heart Out, Punta Gorda is the type of event that reminds me what a special community I live in. Volunteers spend a day painting the exteriors of homes owned and occupied by locals who are indigent, disabled, veterans or seniors. The event is organized by TEAM Punta Gorda and Charlotte County Habitat for Humanity. (Quite aptly, "TEAM" stands for "Together Everyone Achieves More.") 

Although this is the fourth year of Paint Your Heart Out, it was my first time participating. I painted with the recently organized Isles Yacht Club Women, a group dedicated to working on one-off events in support of our community. We--along with the other painters and organizers--gathered bright and early last Saturday morning to get our assignments and shore ourselves up with coffee and doughnuts. The parking lot was overflowing with the 135+ people who had volunteered to help out .

Pre-Paint Job
Nancy Johnson, CEO of TEAM, talked a bit about the "ethic of service" in Punta Gorda. "The community turns out every year because that's the type of community we are," she said.

Mike Mansfield from Habitat chimed in as well, saying, "It takes a village, and the village showed up again today." 

With that, we were off to the eight homes awaiting us.

When I arrived at the house we had been assigned to paint, the project seemed a bit daunting. The house was in serious need of a good paint job and some general TLC.

Roy, our site supervisor, walked us around the house and identified the areas to be treated as trim (which would be painted white to provide a contrast to the sandstone beige of the house). He also explained that the brick side of the house could not be rolled because of the deep grooves between the bricks. (As it turned out, the bumpiness of the stucco on the entire house required either some serious elbow grease for painters using a roller or a second coat with a brush in order to ensure an even coat.)

Contemplating the bricks
There was no allocation of responsibilities. "This is your project," Roy said. "You have to own it. That's why it's called 'paint your heart out.'" I was a bit nonplussed, but more experienced volunteers grabbed their tools of choice, selected a spot and got to work. 

Truthfully, it didn't take long to make some headway once the dozen or more of us got started. I used the opportunity of painting next to Nancy to find out a bit more about the program. She explained that TEAM's job is to provide the volunteers and organization and to raise necessary funds. Habitat for Humanity, together with local builders and contractors, provides the expertise required for the project. The homes to be painted are nominated by local pastors and other community leaders. They are then reviewed to determine their eligibility. Some homes are too fragile to withstand the power washing required. As a bonus, the homeowners also get a brand new mailbox painted by an artist from the Visual Arts Center. 

The end is in sight
As the morning progressed, I realized that I wasn't well-suited for every job. I tend to slather on the paint, which made doing areas where the house proper met the trim a bit messy. Ditto for rolling the ceiling of the car port. (It took a couple of days to get the paint out of my hair.)

But that's the great thing about working with a group. Some people were really good at the things I wasn't, so I happily relinquished those jobs in favor of something else.On the plus side, I found I'm not nervous at all about standing on a ladder.
IYC Women

As noon approached, people who had already completed painting their homes arrived to help us wrap up. I was impressed with their excess energy. We were scheduled to be done around 1:00, and we were essentially finished by then. Some people stayed longer to put on the finishing touches. I, however, headed out. Despite a lunch break, fatigue was setting in. But it was definitely that good kind of tired, where you feel you've done something positive. 

Plans are already underway for next year's event. For those not in the area, Punta Gorda is not alone in hosting a community Paint Your Heart Out day. So if this type of volunteerism sounds like fun, keep your eyes open for an opportunity near you.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Girlfriend Get-Away

Lynden, Pat and Pa

Traditions are a wonderful thing. And one of my favorites is my annual outing with friends from my time in Nova Scotia. This year's adventure was geared around biking the Pinellas Trail between Dunedin and Tarpon Springs.

Our first stop was the Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg. In 1903, plumber George Turner purchased four acres in what is now downtown St. Pete.The property had a lake on it that filled an ancient sinkhole. Mr. Turner promptly drained the lake and turned the area--15 feet below street level--into a gorgeous tropical garden.

Over time, Mr. Turner's gardens became so popular that he began charging a five cent admission fee to tour them. (Inflation being what it is, it now costs $10 to enter.)

In 1998, after being nurtured by three generations of Turners, the Sunken Gardens were declared a local historic landmark and purchased by the City of St. Petersburg.

I knew none of this history when proposing the stop. The Gardens just sounded interesting, and I knew my friends are botanical types. As promised, the Gardens are pretty impressive. They are incredibly lush, with water features and all sorts of beautiful palms and bamboo and bougainvillea. We marveled over the amount of maintenance required to keep the almost jungle-like property in such good condition.

I was taken by the flamingos, which do in fact stand--and sleep--on one leg.(Interestingly, scientists don't seem to know exactly why. Some think the posture allows the birds to conserve body heat, since they lose warmth through their legs and feet. Others believe it allows the non-standing leg to rest so the bird can make a quick getaway if it suddenly became prey. Whatever the reason, it's quite charming. ) It was fun to watch them scoop water into their beaks and filter out anything other than tidbits worthy of eating. And it was interesting to see their feathers stand on end when they got into a bit of a squawk.

We awoke the next day at our "quirky" AirBNB to perfect biking weather -- cool but sunny.  (Note: Even the Nova Scotians thought it was cool, so it wasn't just my thinned out Florida blood.) We headed out to rent bikes but were quickly sidetracked when we spotted  a farmer's market. 

We all fell in love with the Oprah-approved Fouta spa towels. They can be used as beach towels or bath towels or a throw. And, as shown here, they can also be worn as a wrap at the beach. (The photo featuring our Mediterranean model was a condition of my purchase.)  Their versatility reminded me of the old slice-o-matic with its catchy "it slices, it dices, it makes julienne fries" ads.

With our new treasures tucked away in my car, it was time to get the main event underway. Jake, our new buddy at Energy Conservatory Bike Shop, set us up with rental bikes for the day. (Our enthusiasm over having a cute young guy help us was a bit embarrassing.)

The Pinellas Trail is a biker's dream. The 47-mile path runs from St. Pete to Tarpon Springs. It's plenty wide for two bikers to ride abreast with an additional lane for walkers and runners.  The Trail is the western-most section of a Coast to Coast trail that runs from St. Pete to Cape Canaveral, a route that warrants future exploration.

For our outing, we had decided on the Dunedin-Tarpon Springs leg of the Trail, which is about a 12 mile ride each way. We meandered along, chatting and anticipating the exciting Sponge Docks (and the promise of an authentic Greek feast) once we arrived at Tarpon Springs.

An unexpected sight
on the Pinellas Trail
Suddenly, we saw a crowd of people and heard a lot of ape-like whooping. We had stumbled upon the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, which has outdoor cages where some of the residents spend their days. Conveniently, a volunteer was outside giving a short explanation about the Sanctuary.

The facility is home to over 100 animals that have no place else to go. In their previous lives, they might have been pets or film stars or zoo animals. The Sanctuary is intended as a haven in which these animals can live out their twilight years. We didn't have time to go inside, so I didn't get a feel for the whole place. But the apes outside put on quite a show for us. One sweet ape would mimic on-lookers when they clapped. Two large apes were swinging and screaming and pounding their chests. (I'm betting they were the retired film stars.)

Finally, we reached Tarpon Springs. The Sponge Docks area is a tourist trap extraordinaire. There's shop after shop with sponge-related items. And while we made a brief foray into a shop or two, the food was the main attraction. 

You (meaning me) might expect such a tourist spot to have over-priced restaurants with barely edible food. But happily, the Greek community in Tarpon Springs is serious about its food. Our friend Jake had suggested we check out Hellas, where we dined on octopus and grape leaves and pastitsio. I was glad to burn off some of those calories on the bike ride back to Dunedin. 

There was more to our adventure -- sunset at Honeymoon Island State Park, a book discussion, a great craft fair, the Charlotte High production of "Tarzan." But the best part of the week-end was just spending time together. We talked about our lives and the world and people we know. As Pam told her husband, "We share our hearts." While this comment immediately made me mimic gagging, I might be the one who appreciated our talks the most. I'm already looking forward to next year's get-together.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Ed Gero and "The Originalist"

Edward Gero
It's surprising how often I wish that I had learned how to take dictation. My most recent longing occurred when I was at a panel discussion at Asolo Rep that included Edward Gero. Gero is currently starring in "The Originalist," a show about Justice Antonin Scalia. His preparation for the show included spending time with the Justice, and he was full of thoughts about Scalia, his legacy and today's political climate. I was scribbling as fast as I possibly could.

I happened to have a meeting with Bob Massey, my editor at Florida Weekly, right after the panel. I was still so pumped up that I couldn't stop myself from blathering on. And here's one -- of many -- reasons I love working with Bob. After listening to me for a few minutes he didn't politely look at his watch and mention his next meeting. Instead, he said, "I think you should write an article about this." And so I did. Click here to read it. 

But there was so much more that I wanted to share (especially after my follow-up phone conversation with Gero). Having become immersed in the world of Constitutional law, Ed has some thoughts about its application in today's times.

"The Constitution is our friend now, big time," he said during the panel discussion. He referenced Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution as being particularly pertinent. Surprisingly, nobody asked what this provision states. Was I--a trained lawyer--the only one who isn't conversational about The Title of Nobility (or Emoluments) Clause? 

The provision prohibits the federal government from granting titles of nobility and restricts members of the government from receiving gifts emoluments, offices or titles from foreign states without the consent of Congress. I admit to laughing when I first read it since I suspect you-know-who likes to think of himself as a king who can operate by fiat. But the real issue stems from his refusal to release his tax returns. Without full information about his business relationships (which he has not, of course, divested himself of), how can American citizens know what conflicts of interest exist? 

Gero also discussed how Scalia's approach to differing perspectives can be distinguished from those of the new administration. Scalia welcomed the opportunity to argue his position with people on the other side of an issue. And he also had the ability to get past an issue once a case had been decided.

Ed summarizes Scalia's modus operandi as "Listen with respect. Don't vilify so long as they did their research and presented a strong argument. Vote and, win or lose, move on." It sounds so dignified.

Gero also shared some great stories that didn't make their way into my article. Like the fact that he has shared the stage with several Supreme Court Justices.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C. used to host an annual lawyers' night. The event featured performances of Shakespearean scenes in which the Justices made cameo appearances. Sandra Day O'Connor played Gero's mother in a scene from "King John." He also appeared opposite William Rehnquist.

But his favorite memory might be from his performance with Ruth Bader Ginsburg in "Henry VI." Where else would he have gotten the chance to hear RBG utter the infamous line, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." And here's the topper. When Gero visited RBG in her chambers, he mentioned that they'd shared the stage. She said she remembered and walked him over to her bookcase. A framed picture of the two of them sat next to a photo of her with Nelson Mandela. He reports feeling duly humbled.

Then there's the remark Justice Scalia made while at a judicial conference shortly before his death. When asked what he would do if he had to retire, Scalia staunchly said he had no intention of ever retiring. But the questioner was persistent. As a pure hypothetical, then, what would he do?

"I'm thinking of starring in a play about Edward Gero," he said.

"The Originalist" can be seen at Asolo Rep through March 7.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Remembering MLK

When reading this week's edition of Florida Weekly, the press release for an event called Read for Peace caught my eye. In honor of Black History Month, Laboratory Theater in Fort Myers was hosting a reading of MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech. I wasn't sure what it would be like, but I felt that I could use a boost. So off I went.

Ella Naylor greeted people as they came in. "The work of the theater is to portray the human condition," she said, "And this IS the human condition," she said. ("This," of course, was a reference to the distress many are feeling as a result of the current political climate.)

Annette Trosbach, the Theater's Artistic Director, was distributing copies of the speech with highlighted lines to members of the diverse audience. Some people seemed eager to read. (Perhaps not surprisingly, I fell into this category.) Others were a bit reluctant. A little girl behind me said she didn't know how to read yet.

Organizers Annette Trosbach and Ella Naylor
Trosbach had put her director's hat on to determine how the reading could make the most impact. While many lines were read by individuals, some, like "Now is the time" and "I have a dream" were said jointly by many across the room. I also shared the line "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal." The ending, from the old Negro spiritual, of "Free at last! Thank God almighty, we're free at last!" was robustly voiced by everyone in attendance. 

As moving as it was, the original is still better. Click here to watch MLK's speech on YouTube.

After the recitation, Abdul'Haq Muhammed and Cesare Frustaci spoke. Mr. Muhammed is an African-American Muslim and Mr. Frustaci is a Holocaust survivor. Both men spoke eloquently, but it was Mr. Muhammed's exhortation of "Don't curse the darkness, light a candle" that most inspired me.

"It's easy," he explained, "For things to get ugly and to react to negativity. It's easy to be discouraged. But we must identify the place in our community where we can make a difference. Give back. Inspire young people. Create opportunities of hope." 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Musical Mashup

I spend a lot of time trolling for local outings for my column in Florida Weekly. But with calendars so tight this time of year, I often don't get to the events that have piqued my interest. Happily, I made it to not one, but two, concerts this week. They couldn't have been more different from one another -- and they were both great fun.

Barbra Russell and Ron Sharpe
First up was "Married to Broadway" with Ron Sharpe and Barbra Russell at Burnt Store Presbyterian Church. I'll say upfront that it wouldn't have been my first choice of venue.But the sanctuary holds a lot of people, the seats are reasonably comfortable, and the sound is pretty good. It was standing room only, with my friends Donna and Pete Smart and I getting three of the last five tickets.

The title of the show comes from the way Ron and Barbra met. In the 1990s, Ron played Marius in "Les Mis" on Broadway. (He also was cast as Jean Valjean in the 2010 revival of the show. He is the only actor to have played both roles on Broadway.) Along the way, Barbra took on the role of Cosette. After getting married onstage more than 1,000 times, they decided to do it for real. 

In Married to Broadway, the couple--with their 21-year-old daughter Samantha, Jim Petro and Andre Williams--bring the best of Broadway musicals to stages across America. From the first moment their voices filled the church, I knew they were the real deal.

It was a totally feel good show, with too many great songs to mention. There were numbers from "West Side Story" and "Guys and Dolls" and "South Pacific." It was no surprise that "Les Mis" was heavily featured. Samantha sang "I Had a Dream." (She definitely has her parents' musical genes.)  And the five took on the 40-some person finale to the show with great success.

But the number that keeps coming back to me is the theme song from "Phantom of the Opera." Their rendition was amazing, as Barbra hit every single note. Ron later said the highest note is often played from a recording. No technology was necessary for the Punta Gorda show.

Kristie Bobal, Heather Vidal and Lynley Tolls
The Girlz Rule house concert was about as different a musical outing as you can imagine.  

Sam and Gina Densler moved to Punta Gorda a few years back and started Songwriters Island Radio, an internet radio station. Bringing performers to our area is a natural offshoot of the business.

Their groups are often found at Hurricane Charley's or the Nav-a-Gator. But if you hit it just right, you might luck into a concert at the Songrwriters' Island dock (which just happens to be located at the Denslers' Punta Gorda home.) These concerts are intended to replicate a listening room experience, albeit with the wind blowing through your hair and a sunset for a backdrop. Susan, Steve, Gail and I set up our chairs and settled in to enjoy the show.

Girlz Rule is a trio of musicians who only come together a couple of times a year to perform. Kristie and Lynley heard Heather for the first time a few years ago at a music festival in Manassas, Virginia.They were in awe of her voice (which IS pretty darn awesome.)

As the three sat together, they talked about the fact that women were underrepresented at the festival. Perhaps the three of them could do something to remedy that situation. Girlz Rule was formed on the spot.

The women typically perform with their respective bands around the country, and I'm sure those concerts are great as well. But a Girlz Rule event is definitely worth seeking out.

Unlike Married to Broadway, I didn't recognize their repertoire other than a few cover songs. Instead, we heard songs with titles like "Tired and Sick," "The Eye" and the aptly named "Hell on Heels."  (I loved the refrain in "The Eye" of "You can dance in a hurricane/But only if you're standing in the eye.") And that was just fine with us. After all, we were there to hear songwriters sing their own music.

Girlz Rule will be performing in our area for the next few days. Click here for a schedule and to hear some of their music. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Mischling by Affinity Konar

I will tell you upfront: "Mischling" by Affinity Konar is not an easy read. In alternating voices, the novel follows the journey of Pearl and Stasha, 12-year-old twins sent to Auschwitz. Once there, they become subjects in Mengele's experiments involving doubles and other children he considered special. 

When we first meet Pearl and Stasha, they are arriving at the camp with their mother and grandfather. Music greets the boxcars as the doors swing open. (We learn more about this later.) They are taken from their family and soon have numbers inked on their arms. Stasha says of them, "I hated [Pearl's] numbers even more than mine, because they pointed out that we were separate people, and when you were separate people, you might be parted." 

The girls quickly learn the value of planning and resourcefulness.They allocate "necessities" between them. "Stasha would take the funny, the future, the bad. I [Pearl] would take the sad, the past, the good."

They make friends with the feisty Bruna. She's of interest to Mengele because she's an albino. She tells them that twins are more highly regarded. "...You are still objects to him, mere things. But precious objects. You are the grand pianos of this place, the mink coats, the caviar...The rest of us--just kazoos, canvas, tinned beans."

They make other friends as well. Stasha becomes close with Patient Number Blue, a boy who's lost his other half. Pearl becomes enamored of Peter. When she tells him she loves him, his response is sadly understanding of their reality. "You don't. You could--I think--in time. But you're just saying that to me because you think you won't have a chance to say it truthfully someday, aren't you?"

They become the subject of experiments. Eight hours a day, three days a week. The pain experienced by one girl is felt equally by the other.

As the story continues, unspeakable acts occur. But there's a resilience in the children's spirit that makes you keep reading.

That's all I'm going to tell you about this beautifully written, heartbreakingly difficult story.  I will, however, tell you a bit about what inspired author Affinity Konar to write "Mischling."

Konar comes from a family of Polish Jews. When she was 16, she read "Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz" by Lucette Matalon Lagnado. She learned that of the 3,000 twins who found themselves in Mengele's "Zoo," only 160 survived. The idea to write what became "Mischling" began with that reading.

As to the device of alternating between Pearl's and Stasha's voices, Konar said in an interview with The Canadian Jewish News, "I thought it was important to get two different perspectives, because I wanted one to, sort of, encapsulate a precise, clear, distant voice about the history that was taking place, and that was Pearl. Stasha sort of embodies a raw emotive perspective. Whenever I personally read a Holocaust narrative, I feel like I have those two voices, and I feel like everybody does, warring in their mind. You have a gut reaction, and then you’re trying to process the events. That’s why I decided to split it that way."

"Mischling" is not a book to read in one sitting. I couldn't muster the emotional wherewithal to read much more than a chapter at a time. But it's a part of history worth knowing -- and yet another reminder why the horrors of the Holocaust can never be forgotten.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Surprises at the Tampa Museum of Art

Plensa's "Laura with Bun"

I love a good artistic surprise. I got so excited when I saw the Jaume Plensa sculpture outside the Tampa Museum of Art that I nearly broke into a run (well, jog). And here I'd thought our visit was just a way to kill some time before dropping Maggie at the airport.

When I asked about the sculpture at the admission desk, I learned that I missed Plensa's "Human Landscape" exhibit at the Museum. How could that have happened? Plensa's work is right up my alley. The Spanish artist's sculptures are made of a variety of materials -- steel, cast iron, resin, light, sound -- and are intended to "lend physical weight and volume to multiple components of the human condition and soul."

The good news is that the Museum purchased Plensa's "Laura with Bun" so it is permanently on display. Click here to see more of his striking work.

Feurman's "The Golden Mean"
As we entered the galleries, another sculpture caught my eye -- Carole Feurman's "The Golden Mean." Feurman is a sculptor whose name I recognized. Two of her wonderful hyperrealistic sculptures will be featured at the Peace River Botanical and Sculpture Gardens once it opens later this year. (Click here to see one of these works.)

I was a bit surprised by how different "The Golden Mean" is from her hyperrealistic work. But the theme of the connection between humans and water is the same. It's a concept Feurman has been exploring since the 1970s. "My subjects are swimmer. My medium is water," Feurman once remarked.

In this sculpture, she captures the moment before a high diver springs off his platform. (I wanted Maggie to replicate the pose for a photo opp, but she refused.) In Greek philosophy, the golden mean is the middle between two extremes. It's a place of symmetry, proportion and harmony. Feurman's sculpture captures this delicate balance.

Oliva's "The Great Journey"

The Museum's Complicated Beauty: Contemporary Cuban Art exhibit also yielded some surprises. The description on the website had not enticed me. But the exhibit itself is filled with thought-provoking and clever works.

Pedro Pablo Oliva's "The Great Journey" depicts Cuban refugees traveling in an umbrella to get to sanctuary. Although his work has elements of humor, the intention behind it is deadly serious.

The danger associated with open waters for refugees was highlighted by Yoan Capote's "Isla (Umbral)," a work situated just around the corner from "The Great Journey." The piece is a canvas filled with black fishing hooks and nails. Maggie noted the different perspective of Americans about oceans.To us, they symbolize vacations and relaxation. But to others, they represent the perils of trying to reach a better way of life. (Click here to see a different work by Capote in seascape series along with his explanation of the series, in which he draws a comparison between the sea and the Iron Curtain.)

Poblet's "Simplemente Bellas"
While the concept behind "Simplemente Bellas" by Mabel Poblet Pujols was also serious, the work made Maggie and me laugh with pleasure. The reason was simple -- when looking at the piece up close, you can't see the image of the woman. She emerged only when I stepped back and aimed my camera at the canvas. It reminded us of my trouble seeing Lincoln in Dali's "Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Homage to Rothko)." (Click here for this amazing work, which a guard eventually taught me how to see using a pair of sunglasses.)

The idea for Poblet's work came from a visit to a Cuban women's prison where the inmates made plastic flowers from recycled materials. Poblet incorporates hundreds of these plastic flowers into her work, which explores "notions of aesthetics, identity and freedom." 

I came away from our visit to the Museum with a continuing appreciation for the creativity of artists and the way they use their work to provide commentary on today's world. It's an increasingly important endeavor at a time when our government is silencing those within it whose views--borne out by research rather than alternative facts--differ from the party line.