Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Nature Walk in Ohiopyle, PA

CAUTION - Sensitive readers should be aware that viewer discretion is advised for this post. Nature is red in tooth and claw, etc., etc., and does not necessarily conform to our ideas of decent behavior (as a not-so-random example, black snakes do not always wait for an appropriate time, place or manner before mating, for instance). Consider yourself warned.

On our first day in Ohiopyle, we decided to take a hike along the Youghiogheny (pronounced "Yah-kuh-GAIN-ee") River. The trail we picked out, with the assistance of a local park ranger in the visitor center, was a loop cobbled together from the Great Gorge trail, Meadow Run trail, and the sidewalk through town. We couldn't figure out how to get to the trail from the visitor center, so we ended up driving to Cucumber Falls to start the loop:

I am not sure where the name "Cucumber Falls" comes from. The falls are no more cucumber-shaped than any other, and I didn't see any vegetable gardens nearby. (Although I suppose the pooled water is somewhat greenish looking in the shade.) The path was steep in places as we descended to the base of the falls and found our way to the Meadow Run trail.

The trail was tough going for the non-hikers among us, with lots of scrambling up and down rocks and tree trunks, so we took our time. We often paused to check out the Youghiogheny River which was always to our left on the trail.

We sat for while watching rafters and kayakers undertake the whitewater rapids we would take the next day (in a raft with a guide, contrary to local custom):

Further up the Meadow Run trail, we encountered some black snakes in the path. They weren't very interested in us, because they were somewhat wrapped up in each other (so to speak):

After my friends finally tore me and my camera away from this fascinating scene, we eventually reached the natural rock slides. There were a bunch of bathers (would-be sliders?), but we only saw one man brave the slides. He didn't seem to be in pain, but he wasn't riotously happy either. So no one followed him while we watched. I would have liked to try the slides, but didn't have a swimsuit handy.

After the slides, we came back out of the Meadow Run trail and took the sidewalk into town. There, we split up. The non-hikers said they would get ice cream and enjoy the town; the hikers said we would complete the loop, dammit! So we agreed to meet at Cucumber Falls in an hour or so.

The hiking contingent stopped at the visitor's center and got clarification about how to pick up the Great Gorge trail. The ranger told us that it would take us "a good hour and change" to take the Great Gorge trail to Cucumber Falls, so we knew we had to hustle to get to the end of the trail. (Of course, she may have predicted our travel time based on the number of hours it had been since she first advised us on the trails.) We started on our way.

Ironically, the Great Gorge trail was smooth and flat, truly a "walk in the park". The non-hikers would have loved it! It took us just 30 minutes to get to Cucumber Falls... and the non-hikers were late because they got carried away with shopping in town.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Falling Water, Costly Building

No, it's not the name of the latest Ang Lee movie (although it probably could be, and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy would probably be thrilled to allow on-site filming in return for a generous donation toward maintenance and repair).

Hidden in the lush greenery of the hillside, rising above the falls in an oddly impractical echo of the natural setting, is a somewhat pretentiously named building complex designed by Frank Lloyd. This rustic retreat ran only 300% over-budget during the Depression.

The place was really photogenic due to its spectacular setting, but I would hazard a guess that perhaps it was the incessant soothing sound of the waterfall that made this the Kaufmanns' favorite retreat. (The primary visible building materials - i.e., big slabs of concrete - are not particularly beautiful in their own right, nor do they age well sans careful upkeep.)

I really liked the Buddha head on the terrace off the great room.

This was my favorite artwork in the place. I've forgotten the artist's name, but our guide assured us that the Kaufmanns kept only their "second rate" artwork here in their rustic cabin.

For instance, they had a few of their crummier Picassos lying around in some of the bedrooms, and stuck an unwanted sketch by Rembrandt in the servants' quarters. (Apparently, the Kaufmanns hired additional non-live-in servants to clean the live-in servants' quarters. A nice touch, and luckily they didn't get sucked in to excessive recursion in the arrangement.)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Commemorative T-Shirt!

Just in time for Memorial Day, my colleagues surprised me with a commemorative T-shirt -- complete with a catchy logo ...

... and tour dates!

It was so sweet of them, and I have to say it made me feel kind of rock-star-cool. Come to think of it, I don't know what happened to all of my concert t-shirts from college. Did I throw them away? Give them to the poor? Make them into dish rags?

I literally have only one t-shirt left from college, and it has been worn super-thin and super-soft from repeated washings. It was a t-shirt for our student organization, known as SUPC. I remember "helping" choose the logo for that t-shirt. My roommate was in charge of the SUPC Publicity & Promotions committee that year (I was in charge of the SUPC Glass Onion Concerts committee), and she came back one evening with proposed new logo designs for the overall organization. She showed me "our new logo" (i.e., the one her committee had liked the best and thus decided to inflict on all of SUPC). I panned it; it looked too much like a turkey. And there was certainly nothing wrong with our existing logo, so why change it? She showed me the runners-up. Those were awful, too. So we spent a few hours trying to design and re-design the SUPC logo. Then, around 1 or 2 a.m., I came back to her original proposal, and decided I liked that one best, in fact, even better than the "old" logo.

There's a lesson or two in here somewhere -- about getting people's buy-in and letting them feel like they're a part of the process rather than arrogantly imposing new ideas upon them from above -- and also about knee-jerk rejection of the novel and unfamiliar without attempting to understand or appreciate where it is coming from. Moreover, those hours were not wasted; I would have kicked up a fuss at the SUPC Executive Committee meeting and would probably have managed to derail the new logo, if she hadn't gotten my buy-in in advance. Instead she had an ally and smooth sailing....

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


I have missed the Gorilla Repertory Theater, so I was thrilled to see that they were offering a full-length Hamlet "workshop" performance. The NY Times raved about it, so my expectations were high - even though the performance was going to be indoors rather than their usual set-up.

It was a bit of a disappointment, unfortunately. So let's start with some of the good things about the production. I really liked Gertrude and Horatio, and the gravediggers. I liked the sound effects and lighting (unusual for this theater company, they actually had some - the director banged on a coal shovel for the sound of a clock striking, and two guys with flashlights illuminated Hamlet's father's face to give him a more ghostly appearance). Most of the other actors were pretty good too. But for me, the two weakest links were Hamlet and Ophelia.

Let's start with Ophelia, since she was the biggest disappointment. The actress playing her is tall and strong and healthy-looking. She looks, sounds, and moves like a modern American woman. She can't hide it. That's how she comes across: an unambiguously all-American go-getter type. That's great news, in general (think how much money she'll save in all the therapy she'll never need!). But it's bad news for an actress who wants to play Ophelia. To my mind, someone playing Ophelia needs to seem delicate or fragile in some way. She needs to appear weak enough to be pushed around by her father and brother. It needs to be credible that she will fall to pieces after Hamlet's rough treatment. This actress just isn't fragile or delicate. When she skips around in her "mad" scene, she looks like a perfectly healthy and sane woman who has cast aside her inhibitions. I very much wanted to like her as Ophelia, and her line readings were good, but I fear she will need a different role to really shine.

Hamlet was also a problem for me. Here, the problem was that he basically came across as unhinged from the very first scene with his father's ghost. And he threw himself writhing on the floor a bit much throughout the play - his performance repeatedly went over the top. Except for the 2B soliloquy, which he rushed through almost as an aside (perhaps to de-fuse all the excessive expectations people have for that most famous of speeches?). I think Hamlet kind of needs to be sane for the story to make sense and have a point.

Of course, I will be donating money to Gorilla Rep anyway, because I like them and want their productions to continue (especially outdoors in the parks during summer). Their performances in past years have been particularly strong, and I hope that they will return to that caliber.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

New Jersey Eye for the New York Skyline

Back at the end of April, I visited a college friend for her red-haired son's first birthday. This is probably my last chance to see them before they move (in her case back) to Los Angeles. But quite frankly I might actually see her just as often in L.A. as N.J.

The ferry ride back from N.J. to NYC really opens up a different view -- a vista that we all lose sight of in the canyons or trenches of the city. (I love that the water taxis are bright yellow like their terrestial siblings.)

From the ferry terminal, we get the momentary illusion that the Empire State Building was built in a park, rising above the greenery.

Even when I returned to the heart of Times Square, I still saw things differently for a short time.

My friend is moving for her huband's career and accepting a transfer for her own job. Some women would seize on the opportunity to take some time off to try full-time motherhood, but I don't get the sense that she is interested in this. She is a career woman, like her mother before her.

Monday, May 14, 2007

I did it!

Tonight, on the roof of a three-story building along the Hudson River, I climbed up a rickety ladder to a small platform, rubbed chalk on my hands, reached out far out into the void for the bar, and JUMPED! I then did the impossible (I was sure it would kill me): I swung my legs up onto the bar, let go with my hands, then swung upside down by my knees with my eyes open. This is called the "knee-hang" for somewhat obvious reasons.

Scary. Cool. What else can I say? (The picture is not of me, but of someone trying the next step after the knee-hang, where you actually swing forward and letting go of the bar so someone can catch you. He was a natural - got it on his second try, as shown in the photo below.)

Capped off a great day that started with 1.8-mile run in the park to my latest jump-mix.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Tree Poseur

Well, we're all familiar with tree huggers (and their evil adversaries, the clear-cutters). But now I've found a third way: the tree poser.

In the bucolic setting of Brooklyn Botanic Garden, we learned the moon and sun salutations in a relaxed, low-key manner. (OK to "salute" them, as long as you don't worship 'em, right?) And then, inspired by our surroundings, we entered the Tree Pose. A foot and leg are grounded, rooted into the soil (a familiar concept from karate, with the element of earth), and the other leg rises up and bends into a wide sideways triangle. The arms then reach out on each side, bend at the elbow, and the forearms point to the sky. Just like a tree. Except wobblier.

The stretching and opportunity to make funny sounds/faces was wonderfully relaxing. Next time I'll bring a yoga mat so I don't grind into the dirt so much. Not sure what we can do about traffic noises so close to the edge of the Garden.... Anyone have a few orange traffic cones and a Detour sign?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

V-Ball Victory

Last night, we were up against a very good team -- their 4 players were giving our full 6-member team a run for our money. Every time I tried to serve the ball over the net, I kept thinking about how serving used to be the one thing I could do reliably well, and I kept desperately hoping that I would be able to get the ball over the net, all the while worrying that that I would fail. My serves sucked; I got only one over the net, and the rest feebly luffed to the side or moped up to the net and slid down in defeat. Similarly, when I got the ball during play, I would try to hit the ball, somehow, hoping only that I wouldn't screw things up too much. In short, I wasn't having that much fun even though it was a good game and we were winning. Just like last season.

Then, in the third game, something shifted. I realized I was actively enjoying watching everyone play well (including the other team). And I stopped trying to play volleyball. I just remembered what it was like to serve the ball properly - and did it. Again and again. I started putting myself in the right place, at the right angle, and just began to play volleyball. I remembered why I loved this game so much in high school. It's just fun.

As Dr. T used to say, There's a sermon in there somewhere.

Finding Balance

This spring's theme was "Finding Balance in an Over-the-Top City" -- eerily reminiscent of last year's very timely (for me) "Life in Flux" topic. But since my "flux" last year was largely driven by my desire to find or achieve some level of balance in my life,* this year's retreat was somewhat less on-target for me.

This year, we piled into a luxurious chartered bus after indulging in a pizza dinner, then headed an hour north of the city to Holmes, a "550 acre camp and conference center set among pristine forests, lakes, cliffs, trails and wetlands in the hill country of northern Putnam County/southern Dutchess County in the lower Hudson River Valley," which is apparently owned by three Presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church (USA) within the Synod of the Northeast. Even though it was a Presbyterian retreat, we still had to pay to use the facility.

After some ice-breakers (involving animal noises and alliteration), the pinch-hitting Pastor Dave Carpenter welcomed us with Talk #1. He pointed out that our society's values are messed up, just as if somebody had snuck in while we weren't looking and switched all the price tags. Suspicious Sarah, Alliterative Alex, Cool Courtney, Dogmatic Devin, Jumping Jonathan, and I showed that our priorities were A-OK by wandering out to the field afterward to go look at the stars. Luckily one or two of the group spent a good portion of their "misspent youth" poring over astronomy, so they were able to point things out for the rest of us.

The next day, Pastor Carpenter (aka "Dave Dynamite" in the alliteration game) asked us to write our obituaries. That can be a scary thing to do out in the middle of nowhere, at the mercy of a religious leader that none of us had ever met before (he is not affiliated with FAPC), but luckily we had beautiful spring weather instead of the sinister weather that is de rigeur in the horror movies:

When we broke out into our small groups to discuss what we learned from this exercise, I discovered that I was not the only one who managed to avoid listing any accomplishments whatsoever in my obituary. Apparently, several of us expect to be known for who we are rather than what (if anything) we have done with our lives.

After lunch, we had some free time. I eschewed the "pick-up games" activity (remember this - it becomes significant later) in favor of the "nature walk". We at first went along a path I recognized from my morning trail run. Then, on the way back, I spotted a blue mark up on a rock above us on a reasonably steep hill. So I climbed up and looked around. I called down to people to let them know that there seemed to be a blue path, and there was also an easier way up. I then started to climb down to rejoin the group ... and realized everyone was climbing up the steep way. Thus began our grand adventure, as we kept our eyes peeled for random, faded splotches of blue that took us farther and farther away from our camp during the next hour or so. There was an element of faith involved here; I trusted that the people who put up the markers that led us up and around rocks and trees, across small valleys and bogs, and by deer blinds had some purpose in mind. Other people did not. But we certainly lived to tell about it. "All's well that ends well, I suppose."

At least it gave us something to be grateful for during the worship service. Dave Dynamite, Jurassic Julie, and Radical Russell led us in music. It was really fun to sing "Joyful, joyful we adore thee," although our musicians made the mistake of trying to bring the song to an end after the third verse. We rebelled and insisted on singing the fourth verse.

The eucharist was moving, as we served each other the bread and cup face-to-face, by name. We also watched a clip from Les Miserables - I'm sure I've seen it as a standalone short story called "The Bishop's Candlesticks", maybe in an elementary school reader - to focus on the transformative power of forgiveness. A bishop welcomes a man recently released from prison into his home, and provides him with food and shelter. The ungrateful guest sneaks away early in the morning, taking the silver utensils with him. The constables apprehend him and bring him back, with his loot, to the bishop's house -- and the bishop asserts that the silverware was a gift, criticizing the man only for having "forgotten" the silver candlesticks (which he then adds to the bag of loot). The expression of the ex-prisoner is extraordinary: he is bewildered, even frightened, by this unexpected grace; he even looks to some extent betrayed. He has never seen or heard of this radical generosity, lies in the service of good, and doubtless he is afraid of what this will mean for him. What will he have to do, what will he have to become, once he accepts this inexplicable, life-saving gift?

Sunday afternoon, back in the city, we won a game against last year's softball champs. My teammates all played really well; apparently while I was off following the blue trail for the "nature walk", the rest of my teammates all threw themselves into batting practice. Me, I managed to hit the ball a few feet and got tagged out before I got to first. I probably needed the practice more than anyone else to begin with, since I haven't played softball in literally 10 years.

I took action shots of everyone at bat, though my slow camera wasn't entirely up to the task. This one (of Luminous Lucas) has to be the coolest:

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Good Grief (NYT on R+J)

I was curious to see if the NY Times would like Romeo + Juliet, and was surprised to see nothing on 5/2. Today, Alastair Macaulay deigned to pronounce his disapproval. With an extra day to come up with good copy, what does he talk about? He disapproves first of the costumes, which he describes as "bargain-basement Italian Renaissance with mod-abstract squiggles." He then makes snide remarks about the set. (Apparently he didn't like that either.) He then returns to the costumes, sneering at their "main color scheme — Tybalt is yellow, Romeo blue, Mercutio purple." It seems to me that audiences in the third or fourth tier, like Alicia Alonso of the National Ballet of Cuba, are not always able to distinguish the dancers' faces clearly and thus are equally grateful for the main characters' readily distinguishable costumes (and of course the contrasting colors for the Capulets and Montagues). So why is this a problem for Mr. Macaulay? One can only speculate that perhaps his seat was too close to the stage.

Our friend concludes this peevish and shallow discussion with the remarkable statement that "[i]n the first half these designs are this production’s main problem." From which I infer that he didn't hate the first half of the ballet quite as much as he would have liked to.

Mr. Macaulay eventually gets around to commenting on the dance, and even reluctantly
praises a few specific elements of the ballet. I suspect he is vastly knowledgeable about dance. But by this point in the review, it is pretty difficult to take his criticisms seriously.