Archive for the Author blog Category

Becoming a NY Election Inspector

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020 | Permalink

My wife and I felt we needed to do more than just vote in the upcoming 2020 election, given all the hubbub and uncertainty surrounding it. But do what, exactly? Searching for alternatives, we didn’t see ourselves as canvassers for either candidate. Nor did we think in grandiose terms as “guardians of democracy” as some election recruitment ads proclaim. However, insurers of a fair and honest process seemed more of a fit. So, we volunteered to become election inspectors in Dutchess County, NY.

Though we both had been volunteer delegates for political candidates in Minnesota, neither of us had worked in the election process itself. Let me say up front, we were in for a shock. Upon entering the ballroom of the Poughkeepsie Grand Hotel for our training session, we received a 25-page handbook and a 30-page Poll Pad training guide. We exchanged concerned glances: becoming a poll would be a lot more complex than sitting behind a table and checking names and addresses on a paper tablet.

Here, in no particular ranking, are some other realizations gained over the next two hours:

  • Long hours–polls open at 6 a.m. in New York state and close at 9 p.m. on election day. Inspectors need to be at their polling station an hour before to open up and ready the area for voters, tear everything down afterwards, and deliver the ballots to district headquarters.
  • Rigid procedures–to guarantee the fairness and honesty of the election, inspectors must follow a rigorous protocol in setting up equipment, providing information, and assuring accuracy of voter identification and qualifications.
  • New software–much of the training guide involves setting up and operating Knowink, the software that matches the name and address of every registered voter in each district with those who wish to vote the day of election. Its tally must match the paper tally at the end of the evening and be transported to district headquarters with the ballots.
  • Pop quiz–after imparting each step in the procedure, the mentors–one Republican and one Democrat–asked a question of the 30 or so people in attendance relevant to the material just covered. Though easy, the questions’ cumulative effect reinforced the impartial solemnity and seriousness of the election process.
  • Inspector backgrounds–some potential inspectors (like us) had little or no experience, others had done the job numerous times. One gentleman promised to play a dual role as both inspector and Republican overseer. While appearing somewhat dubious at first, procedures were in place to guarantee little or no overlapping of roles which might compromise the impartiality of the vote.

You can see from our first exposure to the process that the state of New York has a complex and well-documented set of procedures to guarantee the election process. Each state is responsible for setting up and running elections both state and national. Obviously, their practices and procedures may differ from our state’s. For example, New York state employs I-pad technology to facilitate and qualitize the voting process. Does yours?

Though our state needs inspectors and we’ve received training, there’s a chance we may not operate in our home district or even be chosen to participate. Whatever happens, I’ll keep you informed of our exploits through November 3rd (and beyond, if necessary). Have any of you participated as an election inspector on either the local, state, or national level? What was your experience? How was it the same, how did it differ?

Tell me about your experience in the Comments/Reply section below.

Current Reading

Friday, July 10th, 2020 | Permalink

The Sea Wolf by Jack London

Thought I’d give my readers and/or followers some sense of what I’m reading at the moment. This one is the fiction book I’m now reading. Outside of London’s most famous short story, To Build a Fire, I hadn’t read any of his other stories or novels. But after TCM showed the movie version of this novel, Edward G. Robinson‘s portrayal of the title character was so compelling I had to take a look.

It’s been worth the wait. I haven’t encountered Maud Brewster (played by Ida Lupino in the movie and always good) yet, but London’s depiction of Wolf Larson is an intriguing portrayal of the Nietzschean super-man ideal. Robinson isn’t as physically imposing as London describes his character, but he dominates every scene he’s in, just as Larson does in the book.

I look forward to reading more! Have any of you read this book? Or any of Jack London’s other stories? What did you think of them? Do they relate to today? If so, how?

Pandemics in Literature

Wednesday, April 15th, 2020 | Permalink

Enforced isolation, cabin fever, disease and death of epic proportion–all these might seem like prime material for writers. It’s caused me to focus on my rewrites of my next novel.

But for all their inherent drama, however, pandemics are not often depicted in classic literature. We all know of the ten plagues of Egypt from the Bible, but in what other literary works does plague or pestilence drive the narrative?

The first instance that comes to mind is the Great Plague of London which occurred from 1665-1666. Heralded by a bright comet that appeared the year before, this last occurrence of Bubonic plague in England killed 100,000 Britons and its effects are well-documented in the Diary of Samuel Pepys.

A more fictional telling of plague and its impact appears in Katherine Anne Porter‘s Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Perhaps better known for her novel, Ship of Fools, Porter used her experience as a reviewer for the Rocky Mountain News in her third of three short novels depicting the Influenza Epidemic of 1918 (BTW: the title comes derives from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in which the Fourth Horsemen–Death–is said to ride a pale horse).

As tragic but more pessimistic in its depiction of the human condition is Albert CamusThe Plague, written during the middle of World War II. Most comparable to today’s COVID-19 pandemic is Camus’ depiction of people’s attitudes toward the event, “they came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live in company with a memory that serves no purpose.”

To counteract such a pessimistic assessment of plague’s impact, we must turn to real life and from a surprising source–Sir Isaac Newton. Forced to return home from Trinity College after its closing due to the Great Plague, the time away allowed him to pursue development of his theories on calculus, optics, and what author and organizational psychologist Nick Tasler calls “one of the most influential ideas in modern civilization—the theory of gravity.”

Which shows to a certain extent how time away from our routines, whether foisted upon us by phenomenal means like COVID-19, ordered by our doctor, or done on our own volition, can have positive outcomes. It’s allowed me to be halfway through the rewrites for my next novel–how about you?

Can you identify other works of literature in which plague, pestilence, or pandemic play a pivotal role? If so, name them in the Comments section below:

Full of Maloney

Tuesday, February 4th, 2020 | Permalink

It’s a presidential election year which makes deriding elected officials de rigueur for comedians and citizens alike. One politician who seems capable of handling any verbal fusillade tossed his way is Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney of New York’s 18th district serving the Hudson Valley.

Since the 18th is our newly adopted congressional district, witnessing how Congressman Maloney handles himself during the give-and-take of a town hall meeting seemed a good way to provide insight into his effectiveness in Congress. The recent town hall meeting at the Spackenkill High School Sunday noon (February 2, 2020) provided the opportunity to witness his interpersonal skills first-hand. He did not disappoint.

The queries from an audience of approximately 150 people ranged from re-instituting the Fairness Doctrine to acquiring Medicaid certification to reducing scam calls. To questions involving infrastructure repair and improved border protection, he sprinkled his replies with examples from his own legal initiatives in these areas in support of repairing New York’s bridges and increased funding for the Coast Guard Service, And, when confronted with arguments and philosophies he disagreed with (an ardent anti-vaxxer, primarily), Maloney responded with kindness, wit, tolerance, and an appropriate dose of pointed repudiation, as needed.

One disturbing topic that arose during the border protection discussion involved the increasing use of deep-fake videos on social media. Though the technology has been around for decades, Maloney warned from testimony he heard as a member of Intelligence Committee that these false visual narratives “will become a real thing” during this election cycle.

My takeaway impression after our session ended and Maloney hurried to another town hall that afternoon is the 18th district appears to have a very committed and capable representative working on its behalf in the U.S. Congress. It may be fashionable in some quarters to ridicule and undermine the efforts of elected officials like Sean Maloney in the federal government as part of the reputed deep-state conspiracy, but to do so to our representatives with whom we may disagree in some instances does disservice to them, their efforts, and to ourselves.

Fei-Fei at the Howland

Wednesday, January 15th, 2020 | Permalink

One of the more pleasing things we’ve discovered during our adjustment to living in the Hudson Valley is you don’t always have to go into The City (The Big Apple) to enjoy the performing arts. Our first excursion to the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, NY underscored that impression Sunday evening.

Once a lending library founded in 1872, the Howland Center has been re-purposed into a community arts and cultural center. Remnants of the original library collection are housed in the corners of the balcony while art exhibitions of local artists line the walls of the main floor.

The Howland Chamber Music Circle offers a series of intimate musical events as part of the Center’s series of performing arts presentations. The feature attraction Sunday afternoon was a performance by pianist Fei-Fei Dong.

A native of Shenshen, China, Fei-Fei won the Concert Artists Guild Competition and was a top finalist in the 14th Van Cliburn International Competition. The Dallas Morning News characterized her style as marked by poetic interpretation, enchanting audiences with her “passion, piquancy and tenderness” and “winning stage presence.”

Her Sunday performance proved no exception. In fun-filled keeping with the Circle’s “Re-discovering Beethoven–his 250th anniversary” tribute, Fei-Fei opening half of her concert started with one of Beethoven’s lighter works, The Hunt (Op. 31, no. 3) followed by Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood, Op. 15) and Claude Debussey’s L’Isle Joyeuse. On the more serious side, the second half featured Sergei Rachmaninoff’s flamboyant and very Russian Moments Musicaux (Op. 48)

Her performance receiving two rousing standing ovations, Fei-Fei mingled with her new admirers at the reception afterwards. Enraptured but famished after her two-hour presentation, we capped our evening with an excellent meal down the street at the Brothers Trattoria–completing a satisfying cultural and gustatory experience well worth repeating.

2019 Through a 2020 Lens

Monday, December 16th, 2019 | Permalink

Many people use year’s end to reflect upon their accomplishments and shortcomings hoping to set the groundwork of the year ahead. I can’t say 2019 was a make-or-break year for me, but it did have its share of ups and downs.

I started the year with cataract surgery on my left eye. This is a quick, easy, and eminently recoverable process for most people. But not for me. I suffered an allergic reaction to the anesthetic they gave me which deadened the receptor cells radiating from the optic nerve. My night vision did improve; however, my visual acuity diminished.

Our primary reason for a move to Poughkeepsie, NY, centered around being closer to family, particularly our two-year-old grandson. Here he’s trying to bring another species into the family Fietzer, our house cat, Selene.

When we weren’t looking at condos and apartments, my wife and I spent much of the summer exploring the sights along the Hudson River Valley. Most of the area is quite picturesque, but it does have its share of abandoned buildings and haunted homes. At left are the gutted remains of Halcyon Hall at the shuttered Bennett College.

Autumn is harvest time. At right our grandson samples an apple from a local orchard. My wife and I weren’t as fortunate reaping our rewards: we both developed Lyme’s disease which weakened our mental and physical resources for most of the season.

None of these setbacks mattered in the end. We achieved our goal of moving and adapting to a new area to be closer to our sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. I completed the revisions of the manuscript of my next novel and await my editor’s critique of my efforts. While the tasks ahead seem insurmountable at times, like Sarak (pictured left) the only thing to do is climb that first obstacle to overcome them.

GOOD FORTUNE TO ALL OF YOU

IN YOUR 2020 ENDEAVORS!

Akhnaten in Met-HD

Monday, November 25th, 2019 | Permalink

Do you long to escape the transience and hurly-burly of everyday life? We all do. Such longing infuses our lives from the church we attend to the shows we watch to the music we enjoy.

Few people achieve such transcendence. One who did became the subject for composer Philip Glass‘ 1983 opera, Akhnaten. As performed by the Metropolitan Opera Company and seen live through their Met: Live in HD series, the premiere epitomized the ecstasy of becoming a god (or like one) and the pitfall of achieving such transcendence.

Though known as a minimalist composer, Glass pulls all the stops in composer Richard Wagner‘s chromatic repertoire to create a full-fleshed depiction of Akhnaten’s ecstatic rise and fall. Glass’ characteristic blending of mid-range arpeggios and modulations, however, serve to make his music drama more a hypnotic contemplation on the transformative power of religious belief than an emotional tour de force.

All the vast resources of the Met Opera work to make this change a reality for the audience. Conductor Karen Kamansek’s love for Glass’ music helps weave a magic spell over the audience. The efforts of Phelim McDermott’s production team from Kevin Pollard’s opulent costumes to Sean Gandini‘s juggling choreography underscore the rise and fall of the pharoah’s character arc. And singers J’Nai Bridges (Nefertiti), Disella Larusdottir (Queen Tye) and, in particular, Aaron Blake (High Priest of Amon) and Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten) give splendid embodiments of their characters and the music which describes them.

In sum, this production of Akhnaten is an intellectual music masterpiece. While Glass’ stately cadences (like Wagner on steroids) are hypnotic to the point of somnolence (I nodded off several times), they, with all the other elements in this music drama, illustrate how an entire society finds meaning, immortality, and dissolution serving an absolute ruler who attempts to unite his transcendence of reality with the all too transient world we mortals inhabit.

Appalachian (Pro- & Con-)Fusion

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019 | Permalink

Public perception of Appalachia is mixed. Many persons laud the pride its inhabitants take in its hardscrabble traditions on the one hand yet revile the poverty from which it originates on the other.

This contradiction grew apparent during the course of the Poughkeepsie Public Library’s presentation of “Appalachian Fusion” at the historic Bardavon Theater on Saturday, October 19, 2019. As part of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Big Read 2019, the program celebrated the culture and spirit of Appalachia through spoken word, dance and song.

On the pro-fusion side of the ledger, all the performers handled their assignments ably and well. Michael Kingsbaker, Gavin Maendel, and Maggie Low in particular excerpted haunting stories from Ron Rash‘s Burning Bright and Mary Knight‘s Saving Wonder. The modern dance troupe, Vanaver Caravan, kept things hopping with their sprightly interpretations of clogging and other traditional American dance forms accompanied by a quintet of musicians headed by banjoist Bill Vanaver.

The confusion arose from the choices in the readers’ subject matter. Two of the three stories, “Corpse Bird” and “Hard Times” in particular revealed the harshness and squalor that characterizes Appalachia in the public mind much as William Faulkner‘s Gothic tales of Yoknapatawpha county crystallized the mid-20th century south for many Americans.

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Song choices such as “Motherless Children” and “O Death” emphasized the beaten-down, vale-of-tears stereotype many of us associate with Appalachia. Only the sprightly performances of the dancers suggested the resilience, determination, and joy that enabled these people to survive the hard times. The photos and stories from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Library of Congress date from The Great Depression and Dust Bowl years. but the economic injustice and hardship of Appalachia are not a feature confined to America’s distant past but continue to the present day. Though well-intended, the literary essence of this presentation perpetuates unhealthy stereotypes of the region and its people.

Confessions of a Baby-Chasing Grandparent

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019 | Permalink

Right away, I admit we followed our children out to the East Coast. Now that we’ve firmly established a beachhead for the East Coast branch of the Fietzer clan by taking up residence in Poughkeepsie, NY, I confess being closer to our grandson was the primary motive for making such a move.

A July article in “bizwomen” states that according to a study by real estate analytics company Meyers Research LLC, 25 per cent of baby boomers are moving to be closer to their children and grandchildren. Of course, none of the top five destinations for baby chasers appealed to us despite their warm weather or lower living costs.

Well before this article was published we’d considered downsizing and moving into a condo to escape shoveling and mowing. But moving to Florida (too wet) or Arizona (too dry) seemed out of the question. Anywhere else in the south seemed too pink for our political palates. And moving closer to our siblings in Wisconsin only offered the chance to re-immerse ourselves in their personal problems and peccadilloes.

So we opted to move where we could be most useful and the emotional climate seemed most congenial and familiar–our children. We’ve chosen a place that’s close enough to be convenient yet far enough away so as not to be called in to babysit at the drop of the hat. Which works both ways since we can’t pronounce our sage advice for every apparent parenting miscue they might make.

Though it’s been only two and a half months since the move, that’s been long enough to make some initial observations about efficacy of our decision. Here they are in no particular order:

  • We’re truly glad and happy that we made the move.
  • Seeing our grandson more frequently (several times a month) prevents us from idealizing him. No longer do I envision him as future-president Quinn or Quinn the astronaut. He is just Quinn, and that’s fine.
  • Seeing our sons and their spouses reacquaints us with their personalities, too. We’ve always had good relationships with them, but I again realize why we’ve kept a distance from their day-to-day activities.
  • My own behavior hasn’t been always top-notch under the stress of moving. The experience has made me aware of some of my personal shortcomings, too.

I’ll have more to say on this subject as time goes on. In six months or a year, I may not be so magnanimous toward them or as forgiving of myself. We’ll see. But my wife and I are proud to be deemed a baby-chasing grandparents, no matter what.

Behind the Art: Poets’ Walk Park

Monday, July 15th, 2019 | Permalink

In 1849 members of the Astor and Delano family commissioned the German-born architect Hans Jacob Ehlers to “improve” the sunlit fields, wooded vistas. ravines, and thick fields on a portion of their estates. The result became the “outdoor rooms” of Poets’ Walk Park, one of the prime examples of the Hudson River Valley’s hiking trails and an early examplar of American landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing‘s belief that “interacting with nature had a healing effect on mankind.”

As innocent and ennobling as this sentiment sounds today, it masks more pragmatic motives behind this artistic transformation of the Hudson Valley landscape. At the time of this commission, the Astors and Delanos were among the largest landholding families in the Hudson River Valley. They benefited from the earlier Dutch patroonship system, a medieval policy adopted by the Dutch West India Company in the 17th century that granted its investors thousands upon thousands of acres of land in the New World so long as they supplied the means and manpower to transform the land into profitable agricultural enterprises. Most often, this arrangement meant the investors employed freemen, laborers, and indentured servants to till the land in exchange for a portion of their crops, usually one-tenth, but often as much as a fourth of their production.

As you might expect, such a system penalized the people who worked the land. Though they could carry over the amount owed the landowner from year to year, their debts accumulated until the economic status of  the farm workers amounted to little more than serfdom. The system didn’t change after the British took over New Netherland in 1664. The British abolished the practice of feudal tenure and substituted the Dutch feudal manors with a system of patroonships in which parcels of land could extend 16 miles on one side of the river or eight miles on both sides. The largest of these, the manor of Rensselaerswyck (called Dragonwyck in the novel and in the movie on which it was based), encompassed all of what today are known as Albany and Rensselaer counties, as well as parts of Columbia and Greene counties. By the time the last patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer (The Good Patroon), died in 1839, he was worth approximately ten million dollars (88 billion in 2007 dollars) making him the tenth richest American in history.

This wealth imbalance might not have mattered if the Good Patroon’s tenants had been allowed to carry over their debts as they had before. But when Stephen’s heirs called in their debts as was their legal right, the sudden bankruptcies and physical dislocation of so many tenants released the flood of built-up class antipathy which resulted in what is called the Anti-Rent War. For a period of ten years men dressed as “Calico Indians” repulsed wave after wave of law officials while establishing themselves as a potent political force in the state legislature. Their struggle resulted in a change to the New York state constitution which added provisions for tenants’ rights, abolished feudal tenures, and outlawed leases lasting longer than twelve years.

 

Given this new economic and cultural climate, it’s not surprising the “remaining manors dissolved quickly as the patroons sold off the[ir] lands” according to author Douglas T. Miller. The Delano and Astor families’ decision to re-purpose their lands into what became Poets’ Walk became part of a movement to restore the land to, in Downing’s words, “the whole people,” because a “natural style of landscape gardening” forms part of a good home which “will encourage its inhabitants to lead a moral existence.” Moving from there to the Conservation Movement of the late 19th and 20th centuries was a short trip philosophically.