Archive for the Author blog Category

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.

/

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.

Still Haunting the Hudson Valley

Sunday, June 16th, 2019 | Permalink

Rip Van Winkle statue
Irvington, NY

When Washington Irving wrote about headless horsemen, time-travelling husbands, and nine-pin ghost bowlers, he had no idea his Gothic tales would resonate throughout the years to the 21st century. Nor could he have imagined the Hudson River Valley would still prickle our necks and inspire our imaginations with its haunted churches, abandoned colleges, and deserted hospitals.

Halcyon Hall, Bennett College

Since my wife and I moved to Poughkeepsie some months ago, we’ve glimpsed along the roadways some of these once-proud and utile edifices. The first we encountered stands at the fork of County Highway 44 and 343 outside the village of Millbrook, NY. The former home of Bennett College and the Bennett School for Girls, the site is now graced by the burned-out hulk of Halcyon Hall, a Queen Ann-styled structure once the School’s administrative building “meant for the wealthy to hide away and curl up among the Hall’s cozy rooms and nooks with a good book” according to untappedcities.com.

Harlem Valley
Psychiatric Center

Another imposing structure dominates the landscape along Route 22 in Wingate. Once a bustling rehabilitation Center for psychiatric patients in upstate New York, the Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center treated over 5000 patients on its 800-acre campus. At the forefront of treatment during its heyday, the Center owns a list of now-dubious achievements: the first asylum in the 1930s to use insulin-shock therapy and later, a leader in electroshock therapies and frontal lobotomies.

Christ Episcopal Church
Poughkeepsie

And finally we have Christ Episcopal Church in Poughkeepsie. Built in 1766, the current structure on 20 Carroll Street, erected in 1888, has not one but three ghosts haunting the place. The first, Rev. Alexander Cummings, expresses his displeasure about change by blowing out candles and moving things around. The second, the ghost of a lady who died during a sermon, still haunts the pew where she expired. The third, described as “a rather crabby presence,” by the parishioners appears and disappears in the shape of a bat.

This last entry was the only one of the three to make Patch.com’s top-ten list of the “Best Real Haunted Places in the Hudson Valley.” I’m sure we’ll visit some of the others in the near future, but given this brief exposure to the Valley’s architecture and history, it appears that the legacy of Irving’s brand of Gothic horror lives on in the abandoned buildings of the Hudson River Valley.

Authors’ Eye/Insights

Thursday, January 31st, 2019 | Permalink

My recent and ongoing confrontation with post-op cataract surgery complications documented on Facebook prompted my seeking inspiration from other, more eminent authors facing similar (or worse) problems. Though I’m not in their class as a writer (not yet, anyway), we share the frustration and dread for the future as far as our writing is concerned.

Reading through the thumbnail histories of these writers, what stands out is the gamut of reactions each of them have or had to encroaching blindness. As proudly individualistic as their writings, their reactions to blindness range from despair to grudging acceptance to triumphant surmounting their afflictions.

John J. Ross in his essay on medical issues suffered by four British authors cites the example of James Joyce who experienced near-blindness in the painful aftermath of his treatment for gonorrhea. Primitive early 20th century medical techniques cured the disease but he developed terrible attacks of eye pain and arthritis in the process. Despite his twelve eye surgeries and a host of other ailments, he devoted the last two decades of his life creating the paean to language that is Finnegan’s Wake.

Matt Reimann examines some classic and modern writers’ experiences with blindness. Along with Joyce already mentioned above, Homer, John Milton, and Jorge Luis Borges are prime examples of writers overcoming and becoming inspired by their affliction. For Milton blindness was “a divine benefit” which turned “his insight inward” while Borges used it as a secular motivation to become a lecturer and teacher. One of his proudest moments, he claimed, was becoming director of the National Library of Argentina when he could no longer write.

The reasons for these writers and artists’ sight impairments may not have been the most noble or sympathetic, but their responses to the affliction are similar: they found a way to use poor eyesight as motivation to continue on, whether through divine inspiration, humanitarian concern, or dogged determination. That’s a lesson from which all of us have benefited.

 

2018 Darwin Award Winners

Saturday, January 12th, 2019 | Permalink

First, a note of explanation. The Darwin Awards are a tongue-in-cheek honor, originating in 1985 which recognize individuals who have supposedly contributed to human evolution by selecting themselves out of the gene pool via death or sterilization by their own actions.

According to Wendy Northcutt, who helped formalize their creation, the annual award commemorates individuals who, in the spirit of natural selection, a term coined by the naturalist, Charles Darwin, “protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives. Darwin Award winners eliminate themselves in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby improving our species’ chances of long-term survival.”

Let’s start with the honorable mentions: 

–The chef at a hotel in Switzerland lost a finger in a meat 
cutting machine and after a little shopping around, submitted a 
claim to his insurance company. The company expecting negligence 
sent out one of its men to have a look for himself. He tried the 
machine and he also lost a finger.. The chef’s claim was 
approved. 

–A man who shoveled snow for an hour to clear a space for his 
car during a blizzard in Chicago returned with his vehicle to 
find a woman had taken the space. Understandably, he shot her. 

–An American teenager was in the hospital recovering from 
serious head wounds received from an oncoming train. When asked 
how he received the injuries, the lad told police that he was 
simply trying to see how close he could get his head to a moving 
train before he was hit. 

–A man walked into a Louisiana Circle-K, put a $20 bill on the 
counter, and asked for change. When the clerk opened the cash 
drawer, the man pulled a gun and asked for all the cash in the 
register, which the clerk promptly provided. The man took the 
cash from the clerk and fled, leaving the $20 bill on the 
counter. The total amount of cash he got from the drawer… $15. 
(If someone points a gun at you and gives you money, is a crime 
committed?) 

–Seems an Arkansas guy wanted some beer pretty badly. He 
decided that he’d just throw a cinder block through a liquor 
store window, grab some booze, and run. So, he lifted the cinder 
block and heaved it over his head at the window The cinder block 
bounced back and hit the would-be thief on the head, knocking him 
unconscious. The liquor store window was made of Plexiglas. The 
whole event was caught on videotape. 

–As a female shopper exited a New York convenience store, a 
man grabbed her purse and ran. The clerk called 911 immediately, 
and the woman was able to give them a detailed description of the 
snatcher. Within minutes, the police apprehended the snatcher. 
They put him in the car and drove back to the store. The thief 
was then taken out of the car and told to stand there for a 
positive ID. To which he replied, “Yes, officer, that’s her 
That’s the lady I stole the purse from.” 

–The Ann Arbor News crime column reported that a man walked 
into a Burger King in Ypsilanti, Michigan at 5 A.M., flashed a 
gun, and demanded cash.  The clerk turned him down because he 
said he couldn’t open the cash register without a food order. 
When the man ordered onion rings, the clerk said they weren’t 
available for breakfast… The frustrated gunman walked away. (*A 
5-STAR STUPIDITY AWARD WINNER) 

–When a man attempted to siphon gasoline from a motor home 
parked on a Seattle street by sucking on a hose, he got much more 
than he bargained for. Police arrived at the scene to find a very 
sick man curled up next to a motor home near spilled sewage. A 
police spokesman said that the man admitted to trying to steal 
gasoline, but he plugged his siphon hose into the motor home’s 
sewage tank by mistake. The owner of the vehicle declined to 
press charges saying that it was the best laugh he’d ever had and 
the perp had been punished enough! 

And the winner:

When his .38 caliber revolver failed to fire at his intended 
victim during a hold-up in Long Beach, California would-be robber 
James Elliot did something that can only inspire wonder. He 
peered down the barrel and tried the trigger again. This time it 
worked. 

Thanks go out to Bernard Karon for passing along this much-deserved recognition.

Little-known Gem Kicks off Opera Season

Friday, October 5th, 2018 | Permalink

Some fine musical works are initially overshadowed by more illustrious creations by the same artist. For example, “Michelle” and “NoWhere Man” from the Beatles’ 1965 Rubber Soul album are excellent songs that were far more famous than “In My Life” which Rolling Stone magazine listed as the 23rd greatest song of all time in 2004.

A similar case can be made for Giacomo Puccini‘s opera, La Rondine. Perhaps the least known and performed of his mature works, its troubled creative origins and indifferent premiere reception relegated it to anonymity compared to La Boheme and Turandot. But the Minnesota Opera’s final dress rehearsal Thursday evening revealed an opera brimming with nostalgic love music and modern (for 1916) dance rhythms such as the tango.

Parisian high society at Magda’s apartment.

Dismissed by one critic as “bad Lehar” for its “lilting waltz tunes, pop-styled melodies, and nostalgic love music, La Rondine contains one of Puccini’s more accessible and melodic scores which befits the heroine Magda’s dilemma. This Parisian courtesan’s encounter with a naive young poet reawakens her desire for a life filled with genuine affection (the life she wants) versus a successful and secure existence in the highest realms of Parisian society (the life she has). Magda’s conflict might resemble Violetta’s in Verdi’s La Traviata, but the decision she makes isn’t adulterated by the melodramatic complication of tuberculosis.

The cast provides splendid singing and nuanced interpretation to their roles regardless. Celine Byrne is glorious as Magda in revealing the pathos and longing for a life she can never have. Leonardo Capalbo is equally fine as her beleaguered and bewildered young lover. Levi Hernandez (Magda’s protector, Rambaldo), Lisa Marie Rogali (Magda’s flirty maid Lisette) and Christian Sanders (the cynical poet, Prunier) provide excellent counterpoints both musically and thematically as secondary characters. The rest of the cast embody hedonistic Parisian society during the First World War with sonic gusto.

La Rondine may be derivative and a bit under-formulated (Puccini was rewriting the third act at the time of his death), but its glorious score and soaring arias make the five presentations (October 6, 9, 11, 13-14) more than worthwhile viewing for opera and music lovers alike. Congratulations to you, Minnesota Opera, for taking a chance in my lifetime to kick off the 2018-19 season with this under-appreciated gem.

Soul and Inspiration from Central Asia

Thursday, October 4th, 2018 | Permalink

Entrance to Tamerlane the Great’s tomb.

As stated on my Facebook page, my wife and I returned from a two week trip to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan last Friday evening. After answering our friends’ initial question “Where is that?” (Central Asia), their follow-up is some variant of “What prompted you to go there?”

My wife’s reply usually centers around the mystery and romance that surround the Silk Road, the caravan route that connected China with the eastern Mediterranean in Roman and medieval times. Mine is a little more nuanced and esoteric: Marlowe’s mighty line.

Let me explain. The term arises from Elizabethan author, Ben Jonson, who in assessing the poets and playwrights of his day, was referring to the language and style of the most prominent among them, Christopher Marlowe. At this point, in 1593, William Shakespeare had some theatrical successes, but pre-eminent among contemporary playwrights was Marlowe who sought to rid his plays “From jigging veins of riming mother wits” and replace the dialogue with more natural language, what we’ve come to know as iambic pentameter or blank verse.

To accomplish this transformation, his plays featured bold, assertive, and iconic protagonists like Edward II and Doctor Faustus. The most famous of these heroes appears in his Tamburlaine The Great, the play about the Scythian shepherd who tempts Fortune’s wheel (What today we would call beating the house) by “Threat’ning the world with high astounding terms/ And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.”

The extent of Tamerlane’s empire.

Like Marlowe’s other protagonists, Tamburlaine would succumb to the Wheel’s turning and be brought low (see Tamburlaine, Part II). But, for the entirety of the first part, Marlowe’s avatar sweeps all before him–like his central Asian counterpart who restored most of Genghis Khan’s empire established a century and a half earlier.

For a 20-old undergraduate English major facing an uncertain future (the selective service draft for the Vietnam War had just been established), this play was a revelation. Instead of novels depicting niceties of British etiquette and table manners, here was a story with a red-blooded character who swept all before him. Reading Marlowe’s epic may have been a form of wish fulfillment much as contemporary young men find solace and inspiration in the exploits of superheroes, but Tamburlaine’s exploits, more important his strength of character, provided a model for the inspiration and resolution needed to face the unknown terrors that may and did lay ahead of me.

Tamerlane’s sarcophagus in the center is made of dark green jade.

For those reasons, I thought then that some day I’d like to visit the origins of the real-life person who inspired Marlowe’s creation. Visiting Tamerlane’s tomb and birthplace 50 years later fulfilled that ambition to experience the environment hammered by the sun which forged the steel will of his conqueror’s soul and made the world tremble at his name.

Labor Day accident reactions, post-facto

Wednesday, September 5th, 2018 | Permalink

Labor Day morning I witnessed an auto-truck accident. It happened at the intersection of 31st Street and Bloomington Avenue. I had stopped at the intersection on my way to the post office when a black pickup truck slammed into a blue subcompact right in front of me. “OHMYGOD!” I exclaimed as the blue car spun around and the black truck careened toward my car. Somehow, the driver gained enough control to miss my front end and come to a stop at the curb beside me.

I drove through the intersection, parked my car by the deposit box, and got out, uncertain what to do. The smashed blue car leaked radiator fluid into the street as its young male driver got out and pulled his frightened son out of his car seat in back. Neither was hurt though the shaken toddler whimpered for a while beside his father.

The driver of the truck emerged some moments later and helped his female passenger out of the cab. Aside from the cloth covering her right temple, neither of them seemed to be injured. When I asked the onlookers standing across the street if someone had called 9-1-1, one man assured me they had been phoned so I dropped my electricity bill payment into the mailbox and waited for the police.

The EMT ambulance arrived within minutes, two police squad cars a moment or two later. The damaged subcompact was pushed out of the intersection, radiator fluid still leaking onto the street from under its smashed hood as the EMTs helped the injured woman into the ambulance and the police asked questions.

Three takeaways from the incident:

1. Despite the ferocity of the collision, the blue subcompact’s collapsible front-end design and airbags protected father and son from serious injury. Modern technology often shields us from more tragic results of our personal catastrophes.

2. Incidents like this occur so quickly that I couldn’t recall the exact sequence of events though they happened right before me. I Barely had I braced myself for the impact of the truck careening into my car before the truck stopped at the curb beside me. Lawyers say witnesses mis-recall or make up details of disastrous events all the time. Neurologists claim it’s the brain’s built-in mechanism to rest itself from focusing all the time. Whether mine was due to my brain’s adaptive self-protection or a simple lack of attention, I cannot say. It was only when I began to piece events together afterward that I formulated a logical and coherent narrative of what must have occurred, accurate or not.

3. Finally, tempting as it is to blame the driver of the truck for speeding or inattentive driving, I, too, was in a hurry to drop off my bill and get on with my day. That’s why I dropped it in the mailbox before I checked on the drivers of the two vehicles. Other people had gathered around the vehicles which caused me to think the occupants were all right, but absorption in my own inconsequential affairs motivated my passive reaction to the event. Though I stuck around until the injured woman was driven off in the ambulance and police offered the father and son a ride home, my impressions of the incident given to the female police officer documenting the accident seem detached and self-serving.

The lesson taken from this affair: be attentive while driving. Calamity can happen even if you’re obeying the traffic laws. How long my resurrected sense of driver diligence will last is anyone’s guess.

So, am I being overly sensitive or insufficiently critical of my actions? What do you think?

Oh, Pun Season

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018 | Permalink

If you’ve come from my Facebook page, here are some more puns to groan over during the 4th of July weekend, some with comments:

(This first one might appeal more to the baby-boomer crowd)
1. “Doc, I can’t stop singing The Green, Green Grass of Home.”
“That sounds like Tom Jones Syndrome.”
“Is it comm

2. Two cows are standing next to each other in a field.
Daisy says to Dolly, “I was artificially inseminated this morning.”
“I don’t believe you,” says Dolly.

3. An invisible man marries an invisible woman. The kids were nothing to look at either.

4. Deja Moo: The feeling that you’ve heard this bull before

5. I went to buy some camouflage trousers the other day, but I couldn’t find any.

6. A man woke up in a hospital after a serious accident.
He shouted, “Doctor, doctor, I can’t feel my legs!”
The doctor replied, “I know, I amputated your arms!”

7. I went to a seafood disco last week … and pulled a mussel.

8. What do you call a fish with no eyes? A fsh.

9. Two fish swim into a concrete wall. The one turns to the other and says, “Dam!”

(These later ones are more complex and challenging)
10. Two Eskimos sitting in a kayak were chilly, so they lit a fire in the craft. Not surprisingly it sank, proving once again that you can’t have your kayak and heat it too.

12. A group of chess enthusiasts checked into a hotel, and were standing in the lobby discussing their recent tournament victories. After about an hour, the manager came out of the office, and asked them to disperse.
“But why,” they asked, as they moved off..
“Because,” he said. “I can’t stand chess-nuts boasting in an open foyer.”

13. A woman has twins, and gives them up for adoption. One of them goes to a family in Egypt, and is named ‘Ahmal.’ The other goes to a family in Spain; they name him ‘Juan.’ Years later, Juan sends a picture of himself to his birth mother. Upon receiving the picture, she tells her husband that she wishes she also had a picture of Ahmal. Her husband responds, “They’re twins! If you’ve seen Juan, you’ve seen Ahmal.”

14. Mahatma Gandhi, as you know, walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. He also ate very little, which made him rather frail and with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath. This made him (oh, man, this is so bad, it’s good) … a super-calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.

15. A dwarf, who was a mystic, escaped from jail. The call went out that there was a small medium at large.

16. And finally, there was the person who sent twenty different puns to his friends, with the hope that at least half of the puns would make them laugh. No pun in ten did.

Would you agree? Or are puns a waste of pixels? Comment below.