Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Best of Both Worlds

The 250-year-old sycamore behind my house 
in last evening's light

I live a very fortunate life, and that fact came home to me strongly last Friday evening.  Kali and I had tickets for Gounod's opera, Romeo et Juliet, in central Philadelphia, and we decided to make a "night" of it.  I took off work about an hour early and drove to pick up Kali when she finished working at 4:30.  Then, we drove to the terminus of the subway line near Kali's place of employment and got ready to go into town; we were both in a great mood and excited about the prospects for the evening.

Two trains were waiting for passengers - the local (that stops at every station) and the express that stops at selected stations.  The local was scheduled to leave earlier, but would undoubtedly be overtaken en route by the express.  I opted for the express, but Kali said, "We've got plenty of time; let's chill out on the local."  We did (and we were eventually overtaken en route), but I was relaxed and enjoying the anticipation.

Once in town, we had identified four new restaurants to consider for dinner, all in a relatively circumscribed part of downtown dubbed Midtown Village.  Until recently, Midtown Village had been down-at-the-heels, seedy, and all but deserted after business hours, but now it's hip with countless new restaurants and shops.  Since Friday was the warmest day of the winter so far (temperatures got up to near 70), Midtown Village was hopping on Friday night.  The energy of the nightlife was palpable, and it was exhilarating to be part of it.

We decided on dinner in a well-reviewed pizza restaurant and wine bar.  It was packed - even at 5:45 - so we had to settle for seats at the "communal table," which was fine with us.  One outside "wall" of the place was composed completely of doors, and all were open to the evening's warmth and the crowded street.  We ordered a roasted beet and goat cheese appetizer and a gourmet pizza, and then sat back to enjoy the ambiance with glasses of happy hour Carménère.  We had a fine meal.

We turned down dessert at the restaurant in favor of going across the street to enjoy generous cups of gelato (one scoop of pomelo and one scoop of kiwi for me, and one scoop of hazelnut and one of cappuccino for Kali).
After dessert, it was still a bit early to go to the theater, so we enjoyed the warm evening and strolled down the high-end shopping street.  I was also interested in finding the location of the newest dance club in town in case we were motivated to go dancing after the opera.  (Finding the place proved a challenge because it's just one doorway between two retail stores; the entrance-way reportedly opens up into a cavernous space inside.)
Near 8:00, we went to the theater, staged in the opulent Academy of Music.  We've been to the Academy on several occasions, but tickets in the Orchestra are too rich for our blood, so we buy seats in one of the numerous balconies, all of which are, to a greater or lesser extent, challenging (to be kind).  The building is old, so there are supporting columns throughout that obscure views of the stage.  The seats were clearly installed when people were shorter because our knees inevitably push up against the back of the seats in front of ours.  And, perhaps worst of all, the seats on the sides of the auditorium face the seats on the opposite side, not the stage, so viewers have to contort their bodies sideways to see the performance.  The Academy must have been built to present orchestra concerts where watching the stage is not critical; the venue is terrible for stage productions.

Despite the physical discomfort, we enjoyed the opera - after a while.  The work is divided into five acts, but the cast really didn't hit their stride until the third act.  Furthermore, the director re-imagined the story of the feuding Capulet and Montague clans as rival haute couture houses; it was a potentially interesting conceit, but the director didn't carry it through with comprehensive vision, so the production vacillated between New York's runways and Verona's back alleys and gardens.  The show ended at 11:15 and, despite my entreaties, Kali claimed she was exhausted and couldn't possibly go dancing, so we hopped the subway and headed home.

My point (at last)?  I've got 800 natural acres outside my door with not a neighbor in sight.  I can walk down to "my" creek in 10 minutes, wander through native prairie grasses, and get lost in 250-year-old woods practically at will.  On the other hand, I can be in central Philadelphia in an hour or less and get plugged into some high energy culture, dining, nightlife that nearly rivals that of New York City (which I can also access in two hours, if I want).  I've got it good in lots of ways.

Kali and I will be retiring (if the stars align) in six (for her) and 6-1/2 (for me) years.  We can't stay in the house where we currently live because the residence is part of my employment package, so once I retire we're going to have to move.  We're giving really serious consideration to moving to small-town New Mexico, but I wonder how we're going to adjust to a life that offers a lot of natural amenities, but fewer cultural ones.  Kali says it's just another phase in our lives and, honestly, it would be nice to get away from some of the hubbub and heavy traffic with which we have to contend now.  But I can't help wondering if we'll make the transition smoothly.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Mixed Bag of Dance

Kate Weare's Bright Land
Kali and I attended a contemporary dance performance on Saturday evening featuring two new and relatively small dance companies, Kate Weare and Monica Bill Barnes.  Each company performed one 40-minute-long piece, and each company consisted of four dancers, two women and two men in Weare's company and four women in Barnes'.  Weare's company performed first, offering a composition entitled Bright Land set to a medley of bluegrass revival music.

For the first two-thirds of Bright Land, I was absolutely transfixed, and I imagine that most of the relatively modest audience was, too, because you could have heard a pin drop in silences between the musical pieces.  During this section of Bright Land, all four dancers were on stage at all times, usually dancing ensemble, but sometimes pairing off.  Some of the best parts of the piece showcased the dancers in partnerships marked by surprising, elegant lifts and circlings in service to taut, tango-like dance dynamics.  I found myself thinking, "I could watch these people dance for the rest of the night."

However, as the end of the piece approached, the stage was occupied alternately by only one or the other of the couples, not by all four dancers.  The mysterious electricity generated by the group quickly dissipated for me, so that by the end of the piece I had largely lost interest in what was going on.
Bright Land
Following an intermission, Monica Bill Barnes' company took the stage offering the audience Another Parade.  The dancers all wore turtlenecks and A-line skirts, and used the loose-fitting turtlenecks to tease the audience with reveals of navels and shoulders.  It was all witty, good-natured, tongue-in-cheek fun, but it just didn't hold my attention or interest.  The moves finally became too repetitive and predictable.  The evening culminated with the dancers impressing four hapless audience members to join them onstage, and all gave it a go, but what's the point of such silliness?
Monica Bill Barnes' Another Parade
In terms of full and honest disclosure, I have to report that Kali found the entire evening extremely compelling, and she couldn't understand why I didn't agree.  I told her that the evening was hardly a waste of time - I intensely enjoyed a quarter of the performance - but she took that to mean that I didn't appreciate the show, and that I'm too uptight.  Our local newspaper also gave the performance a glowing review.  I guess I am just too uptight.
Another Parade

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Big Burn

The Big Burn is Timothy Egan's account of the largest wildfire to occur during historic times in North America. The fire devastated a large swath of the northern Rocky Mountains and adjacent areas of Canada in August 1910.  It is also the story of the creation of the national forest system by Gifford Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt.  Egan claims (in his subtitle) that it was the fire that saved America - a claim as overblown as his prose recounting the fire.

The book is divided into three sections.  Part I, "In on the Creation," is the story of the progressive movement's attempt to wrest control of the Western forests from the industrial privateers of the Gilded Age who were abetted by the United States Congress.  Part II, "What They Lost," describes the horrific fires that coalesced in August 1910 into a cataclysmic conflagration that took over a hundred lives.  Part III, "What They Saved," explores the aftermath of the fire and its effect on national politics.  The book begins with a Prologue, "A Fire at the End of the World," that sets up the story to follow.

Oddly, I found the middle section of the book - the account of the fire - to be least compelling part of the book.  It is too long, too repetitive, and too redundant of the prologue.  Egan never found a simile, metaphor, adjective, or adverb related to fire that he didn't love, and he throws in every one he can find.  My comment above about "cataclysmic conflagration" is tame in comparison with some of his overheated prose.

I very much more enjoyed his examination of the important players, especially Roosevelt, Pinchot, and President Taft, and the newly-minted Forest Service rangers.  Egan also paints a compelling portrait of the lawless towns that sprouted on the frontier in the early 19th century, though even here he can carry-on and I wondered sometimes if he was exaggerating.  The last section of the book begins to rebuild on some of the strengths of the first section, but Egan makes claims that are a bit of a stretch about the long-term impact of the fire on American politics.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Depair in a Glass Coffin

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug
For the last few winters, homeowners all over southeastern Pennsylvania have endured "infestations" of Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs (Halyomorpha halys), a non-native species believed to have been introduced into the eastern United States in packing crates from China.  They were first collected near Allentown, Pennsylvania in September 1998.  (Incidentally, don't you love the name "marmorated," which means "marbled.")

My house has a bumper crop this year, as always.  The bugs seek refuge from winter by squeezing into any available crevice in the autumn.  Then, in mid-winter for some reason, those that chose to escape the cold in buildings emerge into the interior of the structures, where they can be seen flying and crawling everywhere.  Fastidious homemakers freak out, but I have an altogether different reaction.

These bugs, admittedly, are non-native and they are plant pests.  When I go to harvest the last few tomatoes in my garden in October and I find that each one has been damaged by the proboscis of a stink bug, I curse the bugs and am inclined to sympathize with those homeowners who won't tolerate the natural world crossing the threshold of their abode.

However, I can't really bring myself to loathe them and, in winter, I actually sympathize with them.  Last week, in the midst of an ice storm, I came across one of the bugs clinging to the window pane above my kitchen sink.  Surely, in this bug's mind, there was an invisible force field inexplicably preventing it from fulfilling its destiny in the light.  Undoubtedly it was starving and it probably felt the mating imperative, but it just couldn't see its way clear or even to simply survive, since the bugs don't last long once they emerge into the warm, dry, foodless house.

Did it know that it only had a few hours left?  Did it experience yearning?  Was its mesenteron growling for lack of food?

If it had been any season other than winter, I would have captured the bug (as I do all arthropods that show up in the house) and released it outside.  But this bug had only two options: starve to death in the house or freeze to death outside.  Life's neither pretty nor fair - we all know this - but the complete lack of choice for this doomed insect seemed particularly cruel.