Sunday, October 18, 2015

Stage Setup - Any Questions?

Last Sunday my wife staged her annual Fall Fashion Show. Alana Women's Apparel paraded the best of the New Looks for Fall 2015.  It's a fun event, and attracts lots of loyal customers, as well as the merely curious. The event used to be held in her store, but has outgrown the venue, and we now set up the runway in our theater across the street.  Of course there was shopping afterwards, and refreshments at the store. 
Sunday, October 11, 2015
Alana Women's Apparel Fall Fashion Show

Five days later, the theatre featured a spectacular classical accordion recital by the world-renowned Stas Venglevski.  Completely captivating recital - we hung on his every note, as he played a variety of compositions. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor  (Yes, the organ piece) which he transcribed for his accordion, as well as compositions by Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and some very intricate Russian Folk music. His own compositions brought the audience to their feet at the end of the show, and we wouldn't let him go without an encore.  

Saturday, October 17, 2015
Stas Venglevski accordion Concert
After the show, some people who had been to both the fashion show and the accordion concert wondered how the theatre had been so radically transformed in just the few days from Sunday to Saturday.  Wasn't there a lot of setup? How many people helped us take down the runway stage, reset the lights, reconfigure the seating, and reset the stage platforms?  

Well, not to brag or anything, it's just a 45-second one-man job. See how it's done - here's the video  :>

Friday, October 2, 2015

Sheet happens

In my little town I never meant nothing, I was just my father's son. - Paul Simon

The other day, my wife sent me to pick up a sheet with 1,000 thread count. I wasn't sure whether we could handle so many threads in a bed-sheet; the highest we've ever been is 500. What if we couldn't wake up?

The sheet set was an incredible deal, about 1/3 of the regular price. The catch: it had to be purchased between opening time and noon on Saturday only. It was a Door-Buster item. My wife had to open her shop in the morning, so I became the drafted designated Buster of Doors on her behalf. She made all the arrangements - I could cut right through the crowds trampling the shards of broken glass that once were the doors, and go down to pick up the item from Lynne at the Domestic Desk. The arrangement was pleasant enough; I was playing Sergio Mendez on my mini-van stereo, and it was a sunny morning. Perfect door-busting weather. It reminded me of the last time I went shopping for a bed sheet.

In my $110.00 per month 10-room apartment in Watertown, I lived upstairs with my piano, my books, and my two cats, Miss Riley and 3285 Unwanted. I had a care-free job as a night auditor in the Watertown Best Western Motel, and numerous other odd jobs. This was truly the high life, until one day, my bed-sheet ripped. Somehow the hole got so big, I would wake up on the other side of the sheet. Who knows where that could lead -- I've heard of these portals opening up, and you're never heard from again. So I decided that I had to purchase a new bed-sheet. I walked out of my apartment on 4th and Main Street, down to 2nd and Main; didn't want those cheap Woolworth's or Kresge's sheets, I wanted a good one!

Penney's was where you went for the necessities: Durable dry goods at reasonable prices. A three-story emporium on 2nd and Main Streets. The iconic bright yellow and black tile exterior. Inside there were institutional pistachio green walls, flickering fluorescent fixtures, and wooden floors that creaked as you looked through the merchandise on the wooden display tables. Stairs toward the back led up to a mezzanine which formed a low ceiling over the shoe department. But for a bed sheet you had to go down the stairs to the Housewares department in the basement.

Apparently, there had recently been a sale event. A half-empty shelf along the wall held a variety of bedsheets of various sizes. Still great prices, but only two of the clearance items were the right size for my single twin-size bed. One was a single light brown flat sheet. And the other was an entire sheet set. I needed the single sheet, but - imagine having a matching pillow case, AND a fitted sheet. I had never had a fitted sheet before, and could picture the time that could be saved by not having to line up the sheets every time i got out of bed. The set was the same price as the single brown sheet - Wotta deal!

As I approached the checkout counter, a familiar yet unexpected voice greeted me from the counter. Mrs. Milton, my next-door neighbor from my parents' house was working there. Good old Mrs. Milton. "Got a day off from work, Gary?". Good old nosey Mrs. Milton. People believe that you're out of work, just because they see you in the daytime.

"I'm working on the night shift this week." Don't want to take up your whole nosey day; just ring up my order. I put the sheet set down on her checkout counter. She picked it up to examine it.

"Is this for you?"

"Yep. There's a whole set in there. Even a pillowcase."

Then, in a polite tone, she pointed out "but --- it's pink!"

In the silence of Penney's basement, the humming of the fluorescent lights seemed deafening.

Well, don't we have an eye for color, you nosy wench! Perhaps she was not clear on the concept of sheet sets. "Yes, it's a set. They're all the same color. Even the pillowcase." I explained patiently

"But---they're pink!"

Pointing to the wall, "Well, my bedroom walls are light green, similar to that color." I held the sheet set up to compare with the color of them store walls. "That goes together, don't you think?"

She finally told me what the problem really was. "These sheets are PINK. Wouldn't the brown one be more -er- ah - manly?"

MANLY???  What's going on here?  "Perhaps. But the pink ones come in a set, you see. The brown one is just a single sheet. The pink ones are a better deal. And besides, I live alone and work on the night shift." I could see that I was losing ground. "Nobody would know. Who could tell?" Who, indeed! As if I didn't know.

I already had a reputation as an eccentric; the piano music coming out of my Main Street apartment, and those odd books on religious sects that I ordered on inter-library loan, the odd hours, coming home at 8 am, stopping at the Uptown Bar to buy eggs.

And so, with a sigh, I headed back to my apartment, a paper Penneys bag holding my new single manly brown bed sheet. I dreamed of someday having a fitted sheet, and a matching pillow case. 

Now, in the 21st century, each time I paint a room, my manly brown drop cloth reminds me how far I've come in this world.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Raspberry Story

My, wasn't life awful -- and wonderful?" (Mrs. Soames)

Raspberries. One taste and you can hear the crickets chirping in the hot, stifling closeness of a far-away evening stillness. What a day this has been!

Summer. August.  Hot.  My friend Tommy Radford and I had both graduated from kindergarten the previous spring, and we now owned the world. Everything was new - the world was ours.

We would spend entire days exploring "the Marsh," our name for a vast undeveloped expanse behind our house on the edge of town. The Marsh extended all the way to the highway.  tommy and i had not conquered the Marsh all the way to the far-off highway, but we were working at it.

Each day, we discovered new sections of the Marsh. The grass was over our heads, and we'd create paths by bending down the grass, either by walking over the tall grass repeatedly or by crawling forward by our elbows, leveling the path with our forearms, as we'd seen the soldiers do in war stories on TV.

Our trails were blazed to connect all the secret and mysterious places of the Marsh; a group of tiger lillies, a field of the other-worldly milkweed plants. When you picked a milkweed leaf it bled a mysterious white fluid, and it took quite a bit of courage to open a milkweed pod for the first time. There was a rock that could be lifted to reveal a quivering world of grayish white grub worms.  And everywhere the sharp sawing and chopping sound of summer insects, sounding so near, yet never to be seen.

Marsha, my neighbor -- who was much wiser than both of us, because she was a year older -- came with us one day, and helped us to identify the exotic plants and wildlife in our area. She could create facts instantaneously. she showed us poisonous mushrooms that could kill us just by touching them or sometimes just standing near them. There was a hole in the ground where a huge poisonous snake lived,  with a mouth big enough to swallow your entire leg in one bite.

One day we decided to share our wealth of natural curiosities with our neighborhood friends.  The expedition tour we sponsored was really the only safe way for them to view all of these wonders of nature.

We assembled a group of squeamish neighborhood kids -- our regular play group, plus their younger sisters and brothers. Free of charge - there was fun in the danger of it all.   We assembled the group in the basement under my father's garage.  We emphasized the importance of following the leaders -- Tommy and I could keep them safe.  Didn't want someone to step off the path into the soft muck in which the cattails grew. Your foot could be chewed up by bloodsuckers before you had a chance to pull it out. Counting Tommy and me, there were about ten of us.

And the expedition began.  Tommy started in the lead, and me behind the group. Tommy and I took turns leading the awe-struck group to the various scary sights. And at the end, a disorienting surprise turn in our path led us back to the very same path by which we had entered. Home safe, thanks to the skill of your excursion leaders.

As we headed back to the garage where the tour had started, we passed my father's garden. And as the beautiful late-afternoon August sunshine slanted down on the happy group, I was taken by a sudden impromptu idea.

I led our expedition between the two rows of raspberry bushes in the garden. Our fellow expeditionaries were treated to a handful of juicy fresh raspberries. Picking tasty fresh raspberries - and eating them right off the bush! What a fitting climax to our late summer spectacular -- our glorious --

Suddenly, the group's mood shifted.  Some of the younger kids screamed.  What was it--a bee?  Someone pointed toward the garage. I saw my father running toward us. Was something wrong in the house? My father never ran unless it was an emergency. Turns out, my father was angry with us for picking the raspberries. Well, what were raspberries for? OK, so we won't eat your raspberries, then. It had been a great tour, and raspberries did not matter.

Our tour group scattered in fear. The expedition was over. They all ran home in their separate ways, leaving only Tommy and me to explain.  Only we never got a chance to explain. Our excursion into the unexplored world was left entirely out of the "discussion". How many raspberries could a kid eat, anyway? Wasn't Dad interested in the glorious world we had just opened up to the neighborhood kids? NO.  We were bad, there was no discussion.  We were incapable of doing anything constructive, and were just interested in destroying his stupid raspberries.

And, although I was just 6 years old at the time, I can remember, exactly, my father's next words, which changed my life forever.

"And as for you, Tommy Radford -- I NEVER want to see  you around here again".  Tommy, feeling dismissed, went running home.  I was stunned.  The rest of the scolding just rolled over me, "yeah yeah go to your room and stay there, no going out of the house for two weeks, blah blah blah".  But, Tommy.  Tommy was gone forever.

My two weeks in "solitary" went by, taking the rest of the summer that was left to us, and then came first grade. I made all new friends.  Some of the best life-long friends - I met my best friend Norm from the other side of town, on the first day of first grade. (Just emailed him this morning, another story, another time).  I'd meet Max Wincell and Jimmy Griep, and have lots of friends from other neighborhoods, mostly school classmates, but never again from my own neighborhood. The paths through The Marsh all grew back to the way they had always been.

Although Tommy Radford lived across the street from me, we never played together again. I hoped that Tommy wasn't blaming me, but I was not able to ask him. A lot can happen in two weeks. Within two weeks, I was completely out of Tommy's circle of friends -- completely written out. There was never a reconciliation.  In the coming years, Tommy's group would build go-karts, treehouses, model rockets.  They would be in trouble with the police because the go-kart powered by a lawnmower engine was so successful. And model rocketry - Tommy's friend Bobby's older brother, Danny would go on to become Commander Dan Brandenstein of the Space Shuttle. Lee's brother started a rock n roll band, and I'd watch them out the window, as they would practice in the back yard. Goodbye to that life. I took piano lessons. My father got his wish. He never had to see any of my playmates again.

But never again would I have close friends in my own neighborhood. (even Marsha, my neighbor, became more distant, but she was now busy being a girl, as she explained gently. Understandable, we'd meet again in five years).

Years later, when I was in college, the Madison newspaper featured a photo around Halloween time, of a school bus driver in Stoughton. The kids on his bus all loved him -- he could turn a mundane and boring bus ride into an adventure. In this particular newspaper photo, the school bus driver was dressed up in a monster costume, making Halloween real for the kids. The bus driver's  name:  Tommy Radford.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

10 minutes at a time.

Woke up Sunday morning with a work list full of 10-minute jobs. Words of encouragement from the Mrs. as I got out of bed "The guy who did the roof estimate Thursday says that all the stairways and decks need some of that Thompson Water Seal".... Well, good morning to you, too, Honey.  I'll add it on to my list of 10-minute jobs.  Each little 10-minute job takes two hours to set up, and a half hour to execute.  So, I brushed out all the storage containers, killed all the weeds, scrubbed the shower, and washed the bathroom with bleach, helped a commercial tenant with a sign on the front wall of one of the commercial units, and hauled some stuff out of my workshop.  Getting ready for a nasty drywall patch job, I rounded up the tools, opened up the joint compound to see that it's still good, and discovered that I had no paper tape, which is important in patching a corner.  So, I had to go to Home Depot, and after a stupid look or two from the staff, I found what I needed by myself. And then, one of the orange aprons asked me if there was anything they could to for me.  I said, "Sure, come home with me and patch the drywall in the tenant's closet, please."  She didn't get it.  But, by the time I got home, it was already 3:00 pm.  The day was sinking into the swamp of toil and despair.

"So, " says I to meself, "I believe it is time for a little GOOFING OFF!  T'is Sunday, and tomorrow ye must return to work at ye olde Day Job.  oh-WEE-oh  we OOOOOooo"  

I snuck down to the basement and rummaged around on my shelves, and, what did I find?  An unlabeled reel-to-reel of some long-forgotten recordings I made with my buddy, Norm, back when there was a bit of time for such things.  As the wheels of the time machine spun around, I couldn't believe that we'd had that much energy back then.  So, I dug up some old posters from our show announcements at the time (we played old folks homes, bars, and even a charitable marathon walk once a year).  And here is the result.  Norm is on vocals and banjo.  That's me on accordion and bass.  Those were the days, my friend...

And, co-incidently, producing this video production was only a 10-minute job....

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Little Science, A Little heart - That Is All

One doesn't have to be a connoisseur of classical music literature to have at least a minimal exposure to the works of Gioacchino Rossini. He wrote 39 operas in his life. Through one opera alone, he provided Looney Tunes with a generation of sound cues. Of course, when you're hit over the head with a giant wooden mallet, there are birds zinging around your head as you come to, and the flute music from "after the storm" is heard. Who can forget Sylvester the Cat singing ""Feeeee-ga-ro Figaro Figaro!" as bricks and garbage are hurled at him? Others were inspired by Rossini's music as well. Popeye the Sailor couldn't weather a storm at sea without hearing "The Storm" from William Tell. And, of course, there's The Lone Ranger Theme. All Rossini.

He lived from 1792 - 1868. By his 70s, Gioaccino had turned opera into the Marx Brothers of the times, making the audience laugh, and cry at the same time. He was adored by his audiences, but he wondered if his frivolity had upset his Maker. Rossini decided to turn his talents to sacred music. He composed an entire mass "Petite Messe Solennelle" (Little Solemn Mass), which Napoleon declared was "neither solemn, nor little" (it runs 70 minutes). Le Si├Ęcle (a music critic of the time) stated that "it was a good thing that the mass was scored for a small choir, piano, and harmonium, because, had it been scored for full chorus and orchestra, it would have enough fire to melt a marble cathedral".

Rossini, in the dedication of the mass, declared, humbly:

"Good God – behold completed this poor little Mass – is it indeed music for the blest that I have just written, or is it just some blessed music? Thou knowest well, I was born for comic opera. Little science, a little heart, that is all. So bless Thee Lord, and grant me Paradise!" (1863)
So, picture Rossini and God, face to face at the time of judgement. An awful and complete silence. God is reviewing the life that was Rossini, especially the Missa Solemnis. God shakes his almighty head.

"Gioaccino, Gioaccino. Here in Heaven, we have all of the works of the greatest composers who have come before you. Haven't you ever heard the great Toccatas and Masses of Bach? The St. Matthew Passion? Handel and the Messiah? The hymns of Martin Luther? And here you come, Gioaccino, with people smiling as they are singing, and rhythm, and the lilting ---"

Rossini hangs his head. It is hopeless, now. How could he have expected the Almighty to accept such a humble and rustic thing as this mass.

" . . . and what's that in the first row, there, Gioaccino? An ACCORDION?"

"We called them harmoniums in my time on earth, my Lord." Rossini replies very softly and dejectedly. "reinforces the harmony of the chorus ..."

God rises from his throne, Rossini cringes, as the hand of the Almighty sweeps toward him. With a mighty roar, God proclaims "Gioaccino Rossini - - - - "

The heavens are silent, as Rossini hears his name echoing back to him from the clouds. God puts his hand on Rossini's shoulder, no longer able to suppress a smile. "Gioaccino, my son, come home. Come in, my son, we'll show them how the joy comes into the music."


Little science, a little heart.  That is all

Sunday, April 12, 2015

To See the Simple Pleasure We Once Knew

All these years I've been  "going to and fro in the Earth, and walking up and down  in it." (Now, who said that?  It's in the Book of Job, King James Version).  Some things you pick up along the way, bits of insight and advice.  You carry these fragments around, they bump into one another in your head for years, re-configure, refine themselves, and then one day you realize that these little nuggets have refined themselves into the greatest pieces of wisdom that you'll ever encounter.

Notice, I've updated the Excelsior subtitle above, to include one of these - perhaps the greatest of the realizations I've come across in this life.

Happiness?  To be living in the good old days, and realize it at the time - it doesn't get much better than that!

And what if you could go re-visit one of these golden salient time of bliss in your life.  A moment when everything, just everything was harmonious and perfect.  What if you could go back for even for a few moments and re-experience that simple joy?

Here's a song about that very phenomenon.  It's been sitting in my various basements since the 1970s on a reel-to-reel recording I made from the radio. The song has been haunting me ever since I brought it out of the archives.  I feel compelled to share it.  So here ya' go!  Enjoy.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Hooked on a Khachaturian

The other day at work, I was asked to fill in at the front reception desk.  While the front desk doesn't have the stunning 13th floor view of Lake Michigan that my regular desk has, it does have the computer network, so my indexing of top-secret documents can continue unabated.  The front desk is the first place visitors see when they arrive at our company, so there's a lot of "Show Biz" involved.  I sign visitors in, direct calls on the switchboard, schedule meetings, and coordinate countless pizza and sub deliveries to the employees.  

There was one corner of the reception area that I found particularly annoying, though.  There is a television feed, usually set to CNN or Fox News.  Since other parts of the screen run local welcome messages and weather conditions, it is necessary that the television feed be ON all the time.  The news was what you'd expect - rehashing over and over the celebrity gossip, terrorist activities, terrifying weather reports (hey, there's always going to be a tornado somewhere). But what gets to you first is the repetitious ads.  Smug old farts with golf clubs selling reverse mortgages, gold investments, class action suits, insurance, and on and on...

Then I discovered a music channel.  We don't have any of the Sirius or Warner channels, but there are two channels run by public television channels, one is jazz and one is classical.  The classical channel plays a wonderful variety of music spanning five centuries, and I was able to hear many familiar favorites as well as some new discoveries. 

One song grabbed my attention so completely that I had to find out all about it.  An Adagio movement from a score by Aram Khachaturian, written in the 1950s for a production (movie or ballet?) of Spartacus.  This familiar passage (about 50 seconds into the example below) was the basis from the song "Hooked on a Feeling" that had been on the soundtrack of my life in at least three different versions in the 1960s and 1970s.  The most infamous version was the Blue Swede version that was popular in the early 1970s, featuring a chorus of about six people chanting "Hooka Chokka Hooka Chokka".  

I decided to research the connection - and, amazingly, nobody else had discovered the unmistakable link between these two pieces. 

Am I the only one on the Internet who ever noticed this similarity?

Khachaturian Adagio from Spartacus:

And here's the Blue Swede version from the 1970s.  Imagine, this song is 40 years old!  A new generation is discovering the song, now, as it was used in a film "Guardians of the Galaxy" which I have not yet seen.  If you've never heard the version, crank up your woofers and tweeters, and let 'er rip!

And if you're interested in further research, use this link for the complete history of Hooga Chokka: