Saturday, March 28, 2009

Seasonal rebirth.

While winter has not loosened its grip upon several states in the Plains, we have been afforded the grace of the real face of spring here in this portion of New York State. Though the risk of snowfall is still something that looms ever present, as it is not unusual for it to drop even at this time of the year, for now, for these few days, and especially on this day, the unpleasant memory of this past winter has begun to fade.

Daffodils are beginning to poke their heads through the still hardened ground, along with some other plants, of which I cannot identify. Neighbors are starting to come out of hibernation, and kids on bicycles, and playing driveway basketball are making their appearances. The only thing missing so far are the woodchucks, but I'm sure they'll make their appearances soon enough.

Life returns here amongst the organic inhabitants, and just four houses down from me, life also returns to something inorganic, but no less alive. The phoenix begins to rise from the ashes of a November evening last year that could have been worse than it turned out. A family was uprooted, as their house was blown to embers.

They took refuge in an apartment complex that was basically across the road as they planned what to do. Ultimately, they decided to rebuild. They could have just bailed, as all their kids are grown and are out of the house, but they decided that they had too much invested in that home to simply walk away from it, even though it would not be what it once was.

So, this week in the mornings when I would wake up after my late night labors, the sounds of hammers, drills, an other equipment can be heard. They are surgeons doing reconstructive surgery on a patient that would have been otherwise left for dead.

It is skeletal in nature right now, but by the end of the spring, beginning of the summer, it will breathe with life again as the family that was forced to abandon it suddenly will return to it.

While the most important thing was that they were not at home when the fire broke out, our neighbors were able to salvage much more of their memories than they first thought. He is a musician, a guitarist, and had many vintage guitars that meant a great deal to him. Fortunately, only 2 were lost to the fire, one was damaged but has since been restored. The bulk of what they lost was in clothing, which is easily replaceable.

While they will be returning to a house that will not be quite the same one they bought over 20 years ago, it will afford a new beginning mixed with familiar things. They will have many of their possessions, their memories, and their neighbors there when they return.

Most importantly, they will have their lives.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The view from up here.

While it was supposed to be warmer than it turned out to be on Sunday, it was just warm enough to start some preliminary clean-up from the ravages of winter out in the back and front of the house. Cleaning out leftover leaves that seem to gather in a certain corner where the garage juts out from the rest of the house, composting them, and some general other clean-up duties. There is one task however, that I decided needed to be done sooner rather than later.

One of the advantages of having my house situated where it is, is that since we are on the highest point in the county, flooding is not something we worry about. We let the folks way down the hill from us take that upon their heads. This means that as a result of our choice of location, we were not required to purchase flood insurance, which is something mandatory for many folks here, especially those that have homes near the Genesee River, which is only a few miles away.

Location, location, location, is the business mantra. We made a good choice for us when we moved in almost seven years ago, save for one tiny issue:


I don't mean gentle breezes. I mean big, brutal, "We're not in Kansas anymore Toto." winds. This area of NY State is, on the whole, rather flat. Yes, the hills become more prominent the further south you go, but we are definitely not in a mountainous region of the state. Hence, there aren't a lot of trees on my property to act as wind breaks. I actually only have three in the front yard, and they aren't really even big enough to stop much of anything. So, when the cold winter, or warm summer winds from storms come barreling through, they can cause damage.

Specifically, they can cause damage to my roof.

One of the early skills I needed to learn as a home owner was taught to me by my father-in-law, who had the audacity to actually build his own home in Buffalo in the mid-60's.


But I digress. Since he had these particular skills, he was able to pass on the knowledge of how to replace roofing shingles. Now, I grew up in apartments my whole life, where when something went wrong, you called up the "super," and waited for the offending issue to be taken care of while you went about your daily business. Ah, not so as a homeowner, as I quickly found out that I was the super. For me, the only reason for going up on the roof back-in-the-day, was to take a girl up to admire the view from the top of my 33-story building where I grew up, before admiring the view she had to offer.

Let's get back to the wind. On the occasions when the winds can whip through here at upwards of 50-60 mph, it means that come spring, I make my annual trip up to my roof, (sans girl) to see what hath been wrought upon me by mother nature. Also fortunate for us, we have a low-pitched roof, which makes navigating up there far easier.

Last Sunday I completed that task, and much to my surprise, only one shingle had to be replaced.
Yep, that dark patch in the center was the site of the missing shingle, which, incidentally, I found in my backyard during a lull in the snowfall. The roof was in surprisingly good shape, and we had some truly wicked winds come through this winter. I spent a total of about 15 minutes, inspecting the roof and replacing the shingle.

While up there, I always like to take the time to look around from the top. It's a nice little view. We live near the airport, so I can always watch the planes taking off and landing, as we are in the landing pattern on certain occasions.

Yeah, it's not the most glorious of views, but it beats staring into neighbors windows, hundreds of them in the housing complex where I grew up. In general, I didn't give a crap what was happening in their apartments...unless of course, there was a girl in the window.

But I'm not going to go there.

Friday, March 20, 2009

When the American dream becomes a nightmare.

I live in what can be called a typical American suburb. Middle-class, working families. Couples with no kids, couples with kids, people who work in car dealerships, HVAC repair people, a true cross-section of typical workaday folks. There is rarely any trouble on my block or the surrounding streets near my house. Oh, there were the times when the former next door neighbors got into a big argument, a domestic dispute, and the Sheriff was called out to quell it. Of course, there was the fire that destroyed the home two doors down from me the night before Election Day, but they are rebuilding. So, I gave no thought to the Sheriff's car that passed by my house this morning, taking only a passing mental note of it as it cruised by my home office window.

I went about my morning routine, then got dressed to go out and run some errands. I took my usual route out of my garage, turning up on to the adjacent street, when I glanced off to the left and saw something that made me bring the car to a screeching halt. What prompted this, I have no idea, but its intent was loud and clear:
I don't know these neighbors, though I pass their house almost every day. They live just far enough off my street that we simply don't socialize. It doesn't matter. What happened here was horrific, whether I know them or not. There are however, two interesting things about this "tag."

When I first read it, I thought the word in pink was 'Gay." As I took a second look however, it is very clear that the word that was painted is 'goy," a Yiddish slang word meaning "non-Jew." This is not something that I would have expected, as the town where I live has very few Jews living in it. While Rochester has a decent sized Jewish population, they are mostly in two other different suburban towns, as well as those that live directly in the city. Either the spray painter does not know how to spell correctly, or, they're Jewish, or, they somehow were familiar with the connotation of the word, trying to give the image that it's someone that is Jewish who wrote it.

The other thing is the proper use of hyphenation on the "N" word. They may be racists, but it seems they're educated.

I was shaking with rage after seeing this, and I can only hope that the cops catch the pricks that did this. I am assuming that, for the time being, it was kids being incredibly stupid, looking for some sort of thrill or an initiation rite of some sort. If it turns out that it is adults that did this, then someone is in need of a serious beating. Yes, taking the law into one's own hands and all that, but, there are times when some Bronx-style street justice has its place. These are bullies, and as I learned growing up, reason does not always work with a bully. There are times that you need to punch them in a sensitive spot so they'll think twice about trying something like this again.

I am hoping that the local constabulary does its job and find these pricks. Aside from what civil justice demands, they'll get a good going over both law enforcement and those inside the joint. Sadly, odds are they'll just get a misdemeanor fine or some other slap on the wrist.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

R.I.P Ron Silver.

I was very saddened to learn of the death of one of my favorite actors, Ron Silver. He was incredibly versatile, and has appeared in a variety of roles on the stage, and screen. He originated the role of "Charlie Fox," in one of my favorite plays, "Speed-the-Plow," by my favorite playwright, David Mamet. He played Alan Dershowitz in, "Reversal Of Fortune," opposite Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bulow. He had a great stint on "The West Wing," and was in so many other TV shows as well.

He was also, for a time, my neighbor. Mind you, not my next door neighbor, but he lived in the same village in Westchester County where I lived prior to moving to Rochester. He was a frequent visitor in the camera shop in the village center where I would go to get my film developed and my camera serviced. He was always quite cordial, though also a little stand-offish. I suppose this was to protect his privacy, for which I can't blame him.

He was also very politically active, which came as a surprise. He was very much a maverick, having voted for Bush in 2004, even after being a staunch Democrat for much of his life. In reading about his political leanings, it would appear that he was more of a pragmatist than anything else. Personally, his political leanings don't concern me. He was an exceptional actor, and that is all I really cared about.

He will be missed.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

It's not about religion, it's about violence.

"Such evil deeds could religion prompt." Lucretius - Roman Epicurean poet and philosopher.

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to attend a staged reading of a play at a local community theatre (part of the local JCC - Jewish Community Center) that I have acted with in the past. They are not a typical community theatre in that they have professional production standards and is a wonderful place in which to act. They also have a play reading series throughout their regular season that is essentially a forum to test out certain plays that they may wish to develop as full productions at some point. Essentially, the actors are on stage with script-in-hand, minimal props or costumes, (or none at all) and minimal rehearsal time.

The play I witnessed was "The Women's Minyan" by Israeli playwright Naomi Ragen. I say witnessed, because one could not simply "watch" this piece performed without it stirring up such strong emotions. The audience becomes voyeur to the closed society of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, though in all honesty, this could have taken place in any ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, anywhere in the world. We peer into a closed society that brooks very little affinity for those who are not frum. We also see the cloak of religion being used to justify the brutal oppression of women in a society that, is supposed to hold women in high esteem.

Ultra-Orthodox Judaism is no different than any other patriarchal society. Men want to keep control over women, so they devise interpretations of religious texts in order to justify their positions. This play covers these points quite nicely, as it tells the story of Chana, a mother of 12 children caught in a 20-plus year abusive marriage. It is not just physical abuse that she endures, but emotional, psychological, and financial abuse as well.

Chana finally musters up the courage to leave her husband, and with the help of a close friend, is able to flee from her home. The price for this freedom is that she would need to leave her children behind, who range in age from teenagers to toddlers. She makes it her objective to not only secure a get - a religious divorce - but to also see her children again. This is not so easy in her world, as her husband, as well as other family members have effectively turned the children against Chana. The community as a whole has shunned her, abusing her with epithets that suggest she is not only a whore, but a pervert. It seems as though the community has come to the conclusion that she is a lesbian, as she sought refuge in the home of a female friend, and has been lving there ever since leaving her husband and family behind.

A minyan is religious term in Judaism that refers to a gathering of 10 men. This is the minimum that is needed in order to conduct such things as a public prayer service, most notably on Shabbos (Sabbath). There are also other functions that require the presence of a minyan, but they are too numerous to list.

The title of the play refers to the gathering of 10 women at Chana's home on the day she returns with an official order from the rabbinical court; she has been given permission to see her children. Her family however, is deeply divided. What follows is not only the exposure of the abuse that she suffered under her husband's thumb, but a stripping away of the veneer of family life in this very insular society.

I found myself seething by the end of the play, not only for what happened to Chana, but for the hypocrisy inherent in those that proclaim their piousness so loudly, only to use it as a disguise for their own ends. I witnessed this firsthand through the experience of working in Brooklyn all those years, right near the Hasidic community. I would often watch the throngs of men going to shul on Friday nights, or the occasional Saturday morning, dressed in their most somber religious garb. Pious men they were indeed - unless of course their own pleasure needed to be satisfied. This is why one would see these same pious, learned Talmudic scholars underneath the Willamsburg Bridge on a weeknight, haggling with the hookers as though they were purchasing jewelry on 52nd St. Never buy retail when you can get it wholesale.

There was a talk back session after the play, (which had several actor friends as part of the cast) and there were several women in the audience that bravely told their own stories of abuse and escape. It was also noted, and rightly so, that while Chana's situation is not necessarily endemic to the ultra-Orthodox community, it is certainly not infrequent either. What is endemic is the position of "blaming the victim," something that extends not only out to other fundamentalist religious sects, but even into our own secular society as well, though we have certainly seen a change in that in recent years.

This play however, was not about religion, but about violence perpetrated in the name of religion. Religion served in many ways as a back drop for a larger issue. It also served as a smokescreen for the denial on the part of those that simply had problems facing the reality of a horrific situation. If denial is after all, a God-given survival tool, most of the women in this play use it in spades.

People ask me why I turned away from my faith. This was part of the reason; not the abusive part of it, as it was not something I witnessed in my own home, but rather the hypocritical nature of what I witnessed in many situations. So often, we see those who proclaim their righteousness with such fervor, only to be poor examples of it themselves. I would rather live my life as an atheist, and do what good I can, than wear my religion on my sleeve while I cut off the other sleeve in the process.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Haute couture

Every once in a while it's good to step out of one's comfort zone and try a little something different. While I am involved in the arts, it doesn't mean that every type of artistic endeavor appeals to me. Take opera, for example. While there are many forms of classical music I do enjoy, opera is something I can take or leave. I think it depends on which form of opera I am confronted with at the time. Wagner, for example, makes me want to open a vein. Mozart on the other hand, can be truly delightful. Every once in a while however, I come across something new that for some reason, makes me stand up and take notice. In this case, I got to experience a magnificent piece of work firsthand.

Mrs. Nighttime sings (mezzo-soprano) with a local 45 voice chorale group, the Gregory Kunde Chorale. Who is Gregory Kunde, you may ask? He is an internationally recognized bel canto tenor, and has sung in most, if not all, of the major opera houses in the world. He is ranked in the same league as Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras, et. al. He actually understudied for Pavarotti in the past. While not a household name here in the U.S., Kunde has a large following in Europe.

He is also, a resident of the Rochester area. The man could live anywhere, and he chooses to live right here.

As a working musician, he travels around the world frequently, and as fate would have it, this past Saturday found him in Toronto, a mere 2 1/2 hours from Rochester. He was singing "The Damnation of Faust," by Berlioz at Roy Thomson Hall, with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Several members of the chorale decided to make a suicide run (back and forth in the same night, rather than staying overnight) and we hopped along for the ride. As it was a Saturday, the ride across the Peace Bridge from Buffalo to Ft. Erie was uneventful, and even the border guard was pleasant. We got into Toronto at 6 pm, and with the show not until 8, we stopped into the Elephant and Castle across the street from the hall for dinner (We already bought the tickets prior.).

The concert itself was magnificent, the acoustics in the hall were perfect, and we got to see Greg while he was "working." While he often does some solo signing with the chorale, it is quite another thing to see him in action, and what a magnificent voice he possesses. You can get a sample here, and here. Afterward, as we were invited guests, we went back to his dressing room to congratulate him, as well as the others with whom he was singing. Ah, but the night was not over.

Greg invited us to go out with him to Le Select Bistro, a wonderful French bistro off of Spadina Ave. I cannot even begin to describe how perfect the food was in this place. Greg's comment was "You're in France when you eat here." As he has been to France so many times, we took him at his word. He did not disappoint. While we had already eaten dinner, we decided a nice dessert and coffee would top off the evening. I chose the chocolate gateaux with passion fruit sorbet, and fresh blackberries.

Mrs. Nighttime had the creme brulee, and both were done to perfection. This was washed down with Spanish coffee with a liqueur whose name escapes me. Greg had a risotto dish that he passed around for all to try, and it was incredible. After much food and talk, it was time to leave, as it was almost 1 am. Greg was grateful that we made the trip to see him, and we thanked him for the meal, as he picked up the tab.

We made it back to Rochester at 4 am, exhausted, but satisfied with such a great evening. It's a rare treat, but I have bookmarked that bistro, and will find a way to get back there for a full dinner.