May 22, 2015

Lawn Mower Saga: Gas vs. Electric

I live in a small (4 unit) condo that has a very low monthly fee, and a bit of a do-it-yourself ethos among the residents.

My first year here, the lawn care (previously handled by the guy I bought the condo from, who had been the long time association president) was arranged by the new president, mostly cousins or acquaintances. The lawn was often over-grown, and when it got cut, it was somewhat cursory.

My second year, I volunteered to cut the grass for a nominal fee, just to keep it somewhat under control. I'm a fan of the "broken windows" theory of crime prevention, and the sketchy lawn care was, I feared spreading to a general degradation of the condo value and safety. I got a few bucks per cut, although the president was a little concerned I was cutting too often; I told her just pay me whatever per month and I'd take care of it - and have over the years assumed general responsibility for the outdoors (cutting the grass, trimming, picking up litter, patching potholes). I used a beater gas mower that belonged to the association.

Last year, after five years, the old mower died, and rather than get it fixed, I invested in a low cost ($200) Troy Bilt mower, which I used last year, and which sat behind the unit (as did its predecessor) all winter. Last week, after I cut the lawn, the mower disappeared. I suspect somebody saw the old mower (which I had finally put out to the curb for town pick-up / junkers a week before) and realized there was probably a newish mower around back, and walked off with it.

Called the cops, filed a report, even had the model and engine serial number, but it's gone. Not worth filing an insurance claim (what with deductibles).

After sitting on the decision for a week, I finally went out and bought a new mower. I decided I would not leave the new mower sitting out unprotected; it either had to be locked up or brought in (to my basement, also my office). Not wanting to bring gas into the condo, I decided to go with an electric lawnmower; picking up a Kobalt 13A, 21" mower ($179) and a 100' extension cord. I did a small test cut today to (a) see how the mower worked, and (b) ensure that the cord could reach the entire condo. Looks good on both counts.

In general, the mower is very similar to the old gas model. A bit lighter than the gas mower (positive) but the need to work with / around the cord is a bit of a pain. The mower is a three way (mulcher / bagger / side exit) so no problems there. Although it feels like a lot less power and gets bogged down in thick grass, it seems to cut fine; I suspect moving slowly, cutting in thin strips, and keeping the blade sharp will be important.

And while I made this purchase for completely practical / pragmatic reasons (deciding that the hassle of a corded mower and bringing it in was less than the hassle of locking up a gas mower), there's an ecological upside as well. I've always known gas mowers to be problematic, in terms of pollution, but never really looked too deeply. Per National Geographic:
In 2009, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality found that an hour of gas-powered lawn mowing produces as much pollution as four hours of driving a car. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also recognized the alarming amount of pollution generated by lawn mowers. In 2008, the EPA created rules to enforce manufacturers of lawn mowers and weed whackers to cut smog-forming emissions from their products by at least 35 percent starting in 2011.
So after a lifetime of using a regular old gas mower, I am now an electric mower. We'll see how it works, long term.

April 23, 2015

Timexpo Museum to Close: Social Media Fail

The local news has disclosed that the Timexpo Museum in Waterbury is planning to close.
Low attendance at the museum, located at the Brass Mills Commons shopping center, was the reason for the closure, according to Timex.
I'd like to offer a more fundamental reason: Failure to engage via social media. 

Visiting the Timexpo Museum website, one finds the obligatory social media buttons at the bottom: Facebook, Twitter,  Email, Google-plus, and might think "Oh, yeah, they are doing social media...." But really, some webmaster or marketing consultant put those there (lipstick on a pig, so to speak) because clicking through any of those creates a Facebook post about the site or a Tweet link - but there's little evidence that Timexpo has embraced social media.

Their Yelp Page (4 reviews, 3 stars average) remains unclaimed. So too their Trip Advisor Page (32 reviews, 4.5 stars average).

There is a Facebook Page (not linked from their website Facebook button) - it was set up in Sept 2014 (too little, too late), they've posted less than a dozen times since then, with no serious social engagement (2 reviews, 131 likes, 196 check-ins). There is no Twitter account. Nothing on Instagram. There is an events page, but no blog or news page, no press page, no mailing list. There has been no real attempt to engage fans, visitors, the media, etc.  

It's probably too late for the Timexpo Museum - decisions have been made; plans are in the works. It's too bad, because it's got great location and visibility (who among us has not seen and are familiar with the Easter Island statue along I-84 in Waterbury) and really, time is a pretty ripe concept for social media riffing and event planning (time travel, steam-punk, the new Apple Watch, all come to mind)

But it might not be too late for your small / local business, arts group, tourism destination, community group, or cause. Get on the Social Media bandwagon, now!

April 22, 2015

The Levins at Milford Arts Council / Performance Coffeehouse

I headed out of town (or at least, a little further afield than normal) for a performance by The Levins, at Milford Arts Council's Performance Coffeehouse.

I first encountered Ira and Julia (The Levins) at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival last summer; they were one of the Emerging Artists. As has been my habit, I picked up the latest album (in digital format) for as many of the Emerging Artists as I could, pre-fest, and their My Friend Hafiz album (based on the poetry of the 14th century Persian mystic) really resonated. I subsequently contributed to their crowd-sourced new album, Trust, and have been patiently waiting for them to come to town.

Their music, as recorded and compiled, hit me right in the nexus of yoga teacher, enlightenment intensive attendee, spiritual seeker: positive, thoughtful, searching, expansive. Both My Friend Hafiz and Trust show up regularly in my "pre-class, set the mood" music rotation for yoga classes. 

So I was pretty much ready to enjoy the show, expecting a few hours of gentle, spiritual music with wonderful harmonies.

But oh, so surprising, these Levins. There was romance; unlike many musical couples, the affection, nay, love these two carry for each other is palpable and transmitted through their songs and performance, with very sweet love songs. There was humor - a rollicking ode to Charles Dickens; a nod to ethnic folk (More Yiddish!), there were beloved kids songs I have not heard in years, there were some standards. Ira in particular, seems like he might take a crack at just about any topic as a song-writer and any song as a performer, and they individually and collectively have the chops to pull it off.

They are, quite simply, a delightful addition to my folk music family, and I'm a professed fan (and possibly stalker, depending on how many shows I catch them at in the coming months)

They're playing the upcoming Hartfolk Festival on May 30 (alas, I shall be at yoga teacher training all weekend, sad because pretty much everyone on the bill are artists I have seen and love), but also Kripalu on May 2 and a house concert on  May 22. And (can we actually be thinking this far ahead?) opening for Brother Sun at the Sounding Board on Sept 26 (making that a "can't miss" night). Visit their website for their touring dates - they work a lot!

The Milford Art's Council's Performance Coffeehouse is also a little gem. Not that well attended (most of the house seemed to be regulars) and with a roster for 2014-2015 that is pretty much unknown to me. The space is an old Metro-North station, with a very high ceiling and formal stage - suited for small plays, cabaret, etc. The sound was very good (I believe The Levins brought their own) and the lighting was two cuts above the typical folk show.

April 15, 2015

The Age of Miracles and Wonders

I've been in audio geek mode the past week or so.

The Guinea Pigs sound system lost a monitor amplifier at our last gig - one of two ancient amps that Dan trucks around, and I volunteered to pick up a solid-state replacement that could feed both mains and monitors. I'm slowly building up my own PA system (having previously purchased a mixer, snake, monitor speakers, and accessories), so added a 500W / Channel solid state amplifier at low cost, and a wooden rack to mount it in. I feel very professional.

That got me thinking about Om Street: Yoga on LaSalle Road - I'm the audio engineer in charge, and have been running a "two amplifier" system there for a few years (with digital delay to control echoes for the satellite system, 200' down the road). So while I was prepping and messing with the new amp, I picked up some way too inexpensive (seemingly) speaker cables: 2 x 30' Speakon-to-1/2" ($12.50 per) and 2 x 15' 1/4"-to-1/4" ($12 per) and some 1/4" couplers - which will give me some additional flexibility when setting things up this July. The cables came in today and I spent some time unwrapping them, marking them (I use blue tape on the ends of my cables, and blue velcro ties), and stowing them in the gack bags and bins. 

And while I was at it, I picked up an old audio engineers bible, The Sound Reinforcement Handbook by Gary Davis. (which apparently you can download for free online at PDF Shack - not sure if that's legit or not, but with a 1988 printing date, I am sure they've made their money by now. I'd just as soon have it in print, old school like.

A lot of what's in the handbook will be, I am sure old hat to me, but there are a few things I'd like to learn more about - compression, tone control for various instruments (drums, guitars, voice), speaker placement, etc. I've picked up some stuff over the years; as a musician with electric guitars and basses, as a utility and computer geek at various corporate productions. But always more to learn.

As I lay on the couch reading this afternoon, I thought about how many fun toys I have at my fingertips, in my arsenal these days. I've got a portable o-scope that interfaces with a laptop. I've got a signal generator, both a hardware version and an app on my phone. I've got a kicking audio signal analyzer for my iPad. I can set up a sound system throw some pink noise in, and tweak the tone for the room. I have amazing tech for very little money that would have cost 10's of thousands back in the late 70's / early 80's.

I thought back to my 8th grade self, who wanted very much to mess around with this stuff. How I would love to jump back in time with all my toys and help that little kid with a science fair project. I thought about my college self, getting a EE degree in analog design, running around Worcester county recording marimbas to characterize the frequency content and envelope the better to synthesize the instrument. I was minoring in music, mucking around with an ARP 2600 and a four-track recorder when I could get my hands on it. Having fun.

I never did much with music out of school - the Carter / Reagan recession was in full swing, the cool companies like Bose were not hiring, and I was happy to get my first job that led me down the power quality road. And it was not too many years later that digital sound came along and blew analog synthesizers out of the water. 

But here I am, 30+ years down the road, and whatever fire was there is still burning. I'll probably never be much more than an audio hobbyist, but it gives me great joy to have the right tools, the right knowledge, the experience to put a decent system together. Back to the couch, to geek out. Watch out world!

April 04, 2015

Atari: Game Over

I spent the morning unexpectedly entralled by Atari: Game Over (2014), streaming now on Netflix, and also available in pieces on Youtube. 

The Atari 2600 gaming console game out in 1977; I was 16 years old. I spent many hours in the local arcade (Framingham's Fun and Games, first opened in '74, and still around in an evolved form). And though my gaming days were relatively short-lived (the last game console I've owned was a Colecovision; I never really stayed involved as the industry morphed through PC, Nintendo, Sega, Sony, Xbox, etc.), as a young soon-to-be engineer who spent some time in college and in the workplace hard-coding micro-processors, Atari video games were still my first taste of geekery. My family owned a 2600; my younger brother Kevin (now a programmer / database geek himself) had an Atari 400 computer (with that membrane keyboard).

The documentary is kind of remarkable. It orbits two stories: an individual obsessed with the urban legend that millions of Atari game cartridges of ET: The Extraterristrial were buried in an Alamagordo, NM landfill. And the programmer, Howard Scott Warshaw, who created the ET videogame in five weeks at the behest of Atari management, trying to leverage a $22M investment in the game rights before the Xmas season.  When ET tanked (it was reportedly too difficult to play), Howard's career, and the first videogame bubble led by Atari, burst.

The film is technically excellent - interweaving these two stories, abetted by interviews with many of the key players - Warner Brothers executives, Nolan Bushnell of Atari, Atari programmers, and other public figures who have been touched by the games. There's a little bit of playfulness around "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (the movie, and also a successful 2600 game also designed by Warshaw) - comparing the search for the buried games to the search for the lost ark, and a very familiar closing shot....

When the urban archeologists finally get close to finding video game evidence, the dig has become a happening, with video game fans, Warshaw, and others flocking to the desert landfill site. And watching Warshaw (now a psychotherapist) get choked up, first as he visits the site of the Atari headquarters for the first time in 30 years, and then at the landfill, was quite moving.

March 14, 2015

Holding Space

This is such an amazing blog posting from Heather Platt: What it means to “hold space” for people, plus eight tips on how to do it well

I've been assisting at the yoga studio teacher training for the past six years - we're two months into the class of 2015. And during that time, I've heard the term "holding space" for ones students; I've been told that I "hold space" well, I've witnessed miraculous transformations and transitions through the "holding space" of my teacher, Barbara, the training she has developed, and the staff she has gathered around her.

But the concept of holding space has always been somewhat fuzzy or amorphous - what I have picked up over the years has been through role modeling, watching and learning, and perhaps some innate or natural tendencies / habits. So this posting and list are a wonderful attempt to quantify this important skill.

A few thoughts based on this list, from my own experiences:
  1. Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom.
    One of the biggest issues in yoga communities is the guru-student relationship, how that is often abused, and how it sometimes stunts the growth of the student who cannot hear his/her own voice over the admonitions and instructions of the teacher.
  2. Give people only as much information as they can handle.
    "You can't handle the truth!" - how often we come across students whose struggle and root cause may seem perfectly clear (to us) and are tempted to share that with them, or push them in a certain path or direction - it takes a lot of internal strength and wisdom to let them figure it out on their own.
  3. Don’t take their power away.
    It's always kind of terrifying when folks who I have known as "teacher trainees" begin to blossom into their own power - that "you are not worthy" voice within me calls out and it would be so easy to cut them down to assure that I keep my place in the order of things. How many gurus or teachers, afraid of losing their own power, keep their students pot bound and dependent.
  4. Keep your own ego out of it.
    On the surface, there's that "I am so freaking amazing" vibe that some of us seem to exude from our pores. But down deeper, there's our own struggle, grief, fragility that can get in the way of being of service. It's a weird trick - to be solid and real, authentically ourselves, and yet to not present our students with our own rough edges for them to get caught on or cling to. 
  5. Make them feel safe enough to fail.
    First and foremost, by being honest about our own failures and limitations. By presenting challenges and goals that are attainable, but not assured. And by making the journey the goal, not the destination.
  6. Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness.
    "We have no right to take another out of denial" - one of our training mantras. If someone asks, answer with gentleness and consideration. But taking inventory of another's issues or struggle, suggesting cures or resolutions that are unsolicited, or having a library of platitudes or rote answers is not helpful.
  7. Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc.
    We have a saying around our studio "losing it on the mat" - every so often, one of us (and it has surely happened to me) will just start to weep, or be overcome with exhaustion, or pull down into child's pose. In the training program, we're often stepping in to lead another trainee away, who may be offering tissues or contact or trying to make someone smile to assuage their own discomfort with anger, with grief, with pain. Sitting with an individual who is releasing deep emotion, without trying to fix it, or make it better, or making it look good, is perhaps the most important thing I do.
  8. Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would.
    My teacher has so much wisdom and so much life lessons learned - and to this day I marvel that I (who ignore a lot of what she says, and sit in my own struggle so often) am valued by her, am given an opportunity to contribute.  

February 13, 2015

Office Clean Up: Fax Line and Spam

For whatever reason, this was a good week to do some clean-up and tech organizing.

First off, my fax line. Way back in 2007, I noted the way my professional need for a dedicated fax line had changed (I was renting space in an office building at the time). Nevertheless, when I set up my New Britain home office in 2009, I opted in for a second landline in the place to be used as a fax line.

Somewhere along the line, I gave up that second line (probably about the time my Comcast TV / Internet / Phone bill started to hit the pain threshold and I bought a digital television), I cut the video cable and probably let go of that second phone line.

Not wanting to lose the cachet of a dedicated fax line, I signed up for a digital fax service, OnlineFaxes to be specific. For $36 bucks a month I get a dedicated, 860 fax number, and 25 free pages per month. I almost never receive any faxes, but I at least have the capability.

Today I *finally* got my in-office tech up to speed - plugged my all-in-one printer / scanner / fax into my voice phone circuit (so I could send a hard-copy fax if I needed to), set up the header to reflect the "new" digital fax number, and programmed the fax machine to pick up "after" my landline goes to voice mail (which is to say, never)

Faxes are all but dead, I know, but it's nice to have the capability.

On the spam front, I spent some time trying to shovel sand against the sea of spam. I've owned my domain since the dawn of the internet, and have been using my primary email address since 2001 or thereabouts. So I get a *lot* of unwanted email. And while a pile of that is clearly spam that is not going to change regardless of my actions, a second pile is stuff that I have deliberately or inadvertently opted-in to over the years. It's not that big a deal on my dedicated computer - I have spam filters, junk filters, folder filters to move stuff around and my in-box is traditionally a dozen or so emails a day. But on my phone or tablet - well, there are 100s of emails every day to scroll through. 

So this week I set out to thin the email herd a little bit. I sorted my SPAM / JUNK folder by sender, and for anything that looked like opt-in email (SPAM comes in 1-2 day waves, opt-in stuff comes pretty consistently) I chose to either accept it (setting a filter to dump it into a semi-organized / useful folder, such as "electrical newsletters" or "consumer" or "musical" for places I do frequent) or to unsubscribe.

It's a huge task (over a decade of not really paying attention) but I think I'm making some inroads. the work continues....

February 12, 2015

Dream Log: Long Island, Dad, Yoga

Last night's short dream. I was inside an older house that was (apparently) recently purchased by my parents; it was kind of empty in that "not yet moved in" kind of way. It was located on Long Island, right off the Whitestone Bridge entrance, and I recalled thinking "Dad's moving home" (Dad passed away in 1979). Neither of my parents was in the dream though or in the house, just me and Elo, my dog. I walked around the house, the doors and windows were mostly open. I think the kitchen door had been left open overnight.

I took Elo out on a leash; he chased a squirrel who seemed a little too unafraid, not used to a dog in its yard. A couple of neighborhood dogs came around to check out the new arrival, and I was concerned about Elo getting into a fight with one of them.

Then, I ran into a young yoga teacher who was talking about her iPad; think she was teaching classes online or something, and I did not have much to say to her. And then an older yoga teacher came by who commented "I see you're addicted to sugar" and I replied "I see you're not very yogic" and she smiled and I got the feeling we were going to be friends. 

February 07, 2015

David Wilcox and Patty Larkin at The Iron Horse

Old friends. That's what David Wilcox and Patty Larkin are, in my folk / acoustic / singer-songwriter fandom. Way back in the early 90's, I found them both; pretty sure there was a cassette tape dub of Wilcox's How Did You Find Me Here in my "pre-CD" collection, courtesy of a former partner. Both Patty and David were featured on the root document in my folk / acoustic journey,"On a Winter's Night" which also introduced me to John Gorka, Cheryl Wheeler, Christine Lavin, Bill Morrissey, and others. And I've seen them both multiple times, at Falcon Ridge, other folk fests, and in solo concerts and coffeehouses.

Wilcox was more of an earlier fave - I covered "Eye of the Hurricane" years ago on the open mic circuit; his creative tunings and capo use were my first introduction to those techniques. I've got his earlier works on CD, and downloaded a handful of his mid-career albums via eMusic. Patty's strong songwriting and musicianship has kept me engaged throughout the ensuing years; I have early and late stuff downloaded, the middle career is all CD. Come to think of it, I think I covered her version of "The Letter" back in my open mic days as well.

I was not planning to go (I've got tix for the Nields CD release party at the Iron Horse this evening, two trips north is a stretch for me), but my friend Amy, who does Patty's website, got a couple of comp tickets, so along I went. So happy I got the opportunity.

Patty, and then David, each played a short solo set, that included many faves (David quipped about getting "Eye of the Hurricane" out of the way). Although I've seen Patty many times over the years, I've never been close enough to really watch her hands, and I was fascinated by her right hand technique and the way she just pulls so much sound - bass, mids, highs - distinctly and simultaneously out of a single instrument.

I've mostly loved her song-writing over the years, although the "Patty Larkin is an amazing guitarist" meme has been out there all along. I think I have not fully appreciated how amazing until tonight. Mostly playing acoustic, she did pick up a Strat for one piece that she augmented with a bow - although truthfully she needs neither an electric guitar nor other props to impress and engage.

David is an amazing guitarist in his own right (as Patty quipped "I'm playing this brand guitar because it's the one David was playing back in the day") but while Patty is a force of nature, who plays with such ferocity and authority that she barely needs a sound system, David is a craftsman who draws the listener in with the subtlest of notes and lyrics. We're leaning in to get it all, and he's quietly offering what he has.

David in particular, seemed impish and playful all evening. After their solo sets, they took the stage together in a sort of "round robin / song swap" format that each has participated in at Falcon Ridge. Patty was a bit more formal, playing favorite songs that she felt drawn to (including one of my faves, Me and That Train). But David was kind of a trip - taking cues from Patty's songs or stories to advise his own song choices, folding pieces of Patty's dialogue into a song coda. He was listening intently as Patty played, and often he heard something that made him whisper "yes!" or shake his head at the language.

At one point, he asked the audience to dig up some some lyrics for a song that Patty's last song brought to mind (but that he could not fully remember) - 2008's Captain Wanker. After running through the verse once or twice (and letting us watch as he searched for one tricky chord), he started the song, calling out for the first line of each subsequent verse, and obviously amused at each verse as if he were hearing it for the first time. It was performance art, hilarious, endearing, hard to resist.

They each played solo (although each injected a little bit of harmony, some lead, a little slide guitar on Patty's part). Although they ostensibly dueted on "The Cranes, which David contributed to for Patty's "25" project, it was mostly Patty with some quiet harmonies by David.

For an encore, they came back with an unexpected blast from the near past ' Jean Rohe's Arise! Arise! - which David touted from the stage, and led as a sing-along. (David played, Patty held the lyrics, Jude yelped and tweeted to Ms. Rohe)

Being a new convert to the cult of Jean Rohe myself (having just seen her a few weeks back), I was thrilled to have her song brought forth to what was perhaps a more conservative, old-school folk crowd.

Delightful evening of music with some old friends. And headed back this evening for what I imagine will be a bit more of a raucous love fest with The Nields.

January 29, 2015

Jay Mankita and Jean Rohe at Unity House Concerts

I trekked north to Springfield a few weeks back for a concert at a new (to me) venue - Unity House Concerts at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Greater Springfield. Long time favorite Jay Mankita shared the bill with FRFF Emerging Artist Jean Rohe, who brought along sideman Liam Robinson.

The concert series is both old and new - a longtime uNi Coffeehouse Series run at the church by Ed Brown ceased operation in June after a 29 year (!) run, and Joshua Farber, a longtime fixture / friend from Falcon Ridge Folk Fest, blogger at Cover Lay Down, and house concert promoter has taken up the reins. This was the second Unity House Concert promoted show at the UUS of Greater Springfield.  

The venue is lovely and seems healthy - long time volunteers in attendance, a big crowd that skewed somewhat older, a high-ceiling'd rectangular space with lots of modernish stained glass, and a good selection of beverages and home-made baked goods. Talking with Josh before the show, he indicated that the uNi Coffee House, albeit successful with a local crowd, had not embraced the younger singer-songwriter and folk artists and audiences, and had not really marketed much outside of the local area (I'm good evidence of that, 20+ years as a regular and somewhat adventurous folk fan, and I've never been to the series nor even been aware of it). Josh is seeking to maintain connection to the veterans (performers and audiences) while introducing new artists. This double-bill was a good example of that. 

First Jay Mankita. I was introduced to Jay and his music close to 20 years ago at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. If I recall correctly, he and Nancy Tucker were a one-two punch of humor that year, I adored his whimsy, his conscientious songs. He was a bit of an overgrown kid with baseball cap askew and a guitar slung over his shoulder. I particularly loved "From a Dog's Stance", a parody of Julie Gold's "From a Distance"

Jay has aged a bit since then (haven't we all) - but retains his boyish energy and charm. He had some technical issues (a buzz in the PA system and/or his guitar, and a sprained thumb later in the set) but got some laughs out of the resulting mic stand gyrations, played a good set of funny and more serious music, and was well received.

Jean Rohe (with side player Liam Robinson) was more of an unknown to me - she was a Falcon Ridge emerging artist last year (and I recently learned she'll be returning as a Most Wanted artist) but she slipped under my radar last year. Silly me - she was pretty much amazing in this small, two person set.

I've been pondering why she slipped past me last July. I have made it a habit over the past few years to purchase (via the most recent works of as many of the emerging artists as I can find and listen pre and post fest (in 2014, I got 20 of 24), but looking back, she must not have had anything there because I did not get her music. And, playing as part of an ensemble (the "End of the World Show") she may have gotten a bit lost in the mix for me; I've got a bit on an internal bias against emerging artist groups because they tend to be over-represented in terms of "most wanted" by dint of (I think) their energy and volume. I'd rather see the showcase be more solo artist / small groups, but that's another issue.

In any case, Jean Rohe, by herself and with a single side player, blew me away. She's got a beautiful voice, wonderful song-writing, and a great stage presence. I picked up two of her CDs, 2013's Jean Rohe and the End of the World Show (which has to win some folk award for most interesting / entertaining packaging and design) and what appears to be a home-published re-release of 2008's Lead Me Home. 

Listening to her albums, she's got a lot of different energies and sounds - from spanish language songs that sound latin / salsa (5 of 9 songs on her first CD are in spanish), to more quieter folk songs. Her "National Anthem: Arise, Arise" linked above, is pretty amazing, as are many of her other quieter songs. I confess to being brought to tears at least once during the evening.

All in all, a real win of an evening. I do not get to see Josh enough, so good excuse to travel north. The venue is just over the MA border, about the same travel time as New Haven from me - so wonderful to have yet another space to go hear live music. And as wonderful as it was to see Jay Mankita again, "discovering" Jean Rohe (for the second time, albeit) was wonderful; and gets me excited for the 2015 "most wanted" song swap at Falcon Ridge!

January 22, 2015

Writing on the (Yelp) Wall

In yesterday's Hartford Courant: Jojo's Coffee To Close At Month's End

If you can't get past the Courant's new paywall, the story is (mostly) a "...local business driven away by the economy and a big bad corporation..." (in this case, a new, nearby Panera)
The past few months for the Pratt Street coffee shop have not been good. It has lost money for the first time since it opened about 15 years ago. At the end of this month, he said, the shop will close.

"The last six months have been the toughest for us businesswise," said Sze, 56, standing next to the giant red coffee roaster, occasionally picking at the beans.
But buried deep in the article, some more fundamental truth:
He said for the hundreds if not thousands of insurance workers nearby, only a few darken his door. "A good amount of them come out and want something fast, and our setup is not designed for that."
Visiting the Jo-Jo's business page at Yelp provides ample evidence of this. Some snippets from many reviews:
  • "I have been loyal and loving. I have been forgiving, even though they have one very rude barista. Recently, it's been closed for no posted reason on days when they say they will be open."
  • "Hours read: 9am to 3pm on Sunday. I drove here on a Sunday obliviously expecting the place to be open. It was closed! Post your hours correctly!"
  • "When you have one person to act as cashier, barista, and general helper, you're going to get lines (check), slow service (check) and then rude service (check)"
  • "Rude, brash service at the register when asking about breakfast sandwichs with eggs.  Lady pointed up near the roof like I was stupid and I almost just walked out yet hunger can make you tolerate such."
  • "I've been here several times and had great service. Today was terrible, the cook was rude, the cashier was rude. Made us feel unwelcome. I will most likely not come back."
  • "I wanted to love Jojo's so much, and time and time again I have not been able to. Hands down, the biggest issue with Jojo's is the timing of it's service." 
And it's not like this is a new issue. I visited in October 2012, and in my Yelp review, wrote:
As I stood in a short (3-4 people) line, I watched as 5-6 people came in, stood in line for a bit, and left. I can just see a corporate coffee place coming in and kicking butt with the location - which would be a pity on a "local business" basis but probably a boon for those wanting a cup of coffee on a Sunday afternoon. 
Back in 2008, I wrote about The Romance of Small and Old Things and spoke of another beloved Hartford coffeehouse, La Paloma Sabanera.
Hartford recently lost a mini-landmark, La Paloma Sabanera. And it was a good place: great coffee, great people, a commitment to the neighborhood, a central gathering place for many communities. But it was not making money. And as a small business owner, I know that if you do not have income, you can't pay the rent, the heating bills, the cost of goods sold. It's just a matter of time before one runs out of money or energy, and has to close shop. But oh how romantic! How special a place! Would the shop have been any less special had it focused more on it's bottom line and less on the greater good? Perhaps. But it might also have remained open, to fight again.
I've only visited Jo-Jo's a few times over the years, and have never had a wonderful customer experience - and I'm probably batting about 0.500 when it comes to actually walking out with something to drink (as opposed to walking out empty handed because I did not have the time to wait). Multiply that by the "...hundreds, if not thousands..." of potential customers that Jo-Jo's has disappointed or turned away over the years, and you get the idea that this failure is less about Hartford, less about chains, and more about an inability to recognize the customers' needs and/or an unwillingness to meet them. 

January 10, 2015

Folk Friday at CT Folk: Lara Herscovitch and Kristen Graves

In what may be turning into a tradition, I wandered down to New Haven last evening for the first Folk Friday concert of 2015, featuring Kristen Graves and Lara Herscovitch. I really did not have any expectations - I knew both artists were CT State Troubadours (Lara in 2009-10, Kristen at present) and I'm sure I've run across Lara here and there (most recently, in a spoken word piece at The MOuTH at the Mark Twain House), but I did not really know what to expect.

Instead of the traditional, "two artists, one opens, one closes, and they do a few songs together", or the less common but still engaging "multiple artists in the round" format, Lara and Kristen have been actively practicing, and working together. Their preparation, reportedly handing each other their respective catalogs and inviting the other to "pick some songs we can do together", seemed a recipe for creativity and the unexpected. Lara confessed "that's a song I never do" (one that Kristen chose) and I imagine the whole of their performance was quite different than the sum of their individual performances.

It must be said - these two are an unusual pairing.  Lara is a cat person, and Kristen a dog person (for one), but I have a hard time coming up with two musicians who are seemingly more different. Kristen has the warm and fuzzy feeling of that first grade teacher who got down on the carpet and sang Pete Seeger songs; her crunchy hippie roots are not far from the surface. Lara is sharp as a tack (and wickedly funny) in a New York City kind of way, and seems like she could be lobbying the state legislature instead of playing folk music. Although she's not really that similar musically, I kept thinking of Lucy Kaplansky as I watched her sing and perform - polished, confidant, talented.

But both musicians are a lot deeper and more complex than my initial impressions. Lara brought an African chant / round she learned while visiting the continent, as well as a totally goofy C-O-N-N-E-C-T-I-C-U-T chant to the party (following Kristen's more staid "troubadour" song entry). Kristen dropped a few names (Yarrow, Seeger) without sounding pretentious, has a more wry but totally subversive sense of humor, borrowed a Uke for one song (seemingly on a whim), and wandered off stage for a bit to listen to one of her songs on Youtube because she forgot the chords.  There was a "what the heck will they do next?" feel to the evening that was totally engaging and fun.

Together, they were pretty wonderful. As they worked through their songs together, each stepped back to let the other shine, and their harmonies were a lot more lush and polished than one might expect from a "two solo artists sharing the stage" performance. I went in with a "I'll probably buy one CD, let's see who impresses me...." attitude, and walked out with one from each of them (Lara's 2009 "Through a Frozen Midnight Sky" and Kristen's 2014 "Now Ain't the Time for Tears"). I was not familiar enough with their music to note particular performances, but I'm pretty sure I'll be a lot more familiar the next time I hear them (and there WILL be a next time, pretty sure)

Lara has earned a little extra attention. She related a story about an encounter with a Boston blogger / DJ who refused to promote her show because she was not "folk enough" (told as a prelude to a song entitled "Folk You" or some such). And I kind of get that - there's a certain segment of the folk world that insists on sing-alongs, traditional tunes, and a willingness to pull up a log at a campfire on the drop of a hat. Lara seems like she might not want to be too far from a blow-dryer or curling iron for the folk fest camping experience to really resonate. And when she played the John Jenning's tweaked "Mississippi Lullaby" (from her more recent "Four Wise Monkeys") I could hear that Mary Chapin Carpenter drive and arrangement, and could almost hear her shining with a bass, drummer, and lead guitarist with a telecaster or a dobro.

All that being said, Lara and Kristen ended with "This Little Light of Mine", aided by Robert Messore (cajon) and Mark Zaretsky (harp) and you do not get more folk than that.

I'll be keeping an eye out for them, together and as solo performers. Neither has hit the Emerging Artist stage at Falcon Ridge Folk Fest, and both of them would be welcome additions, in my opinion.

CT State Troubadours indeed. Wonderful local music!


January 03, 2015

Frozen Buns Balloon Rally 2015

One of my many hobbies / interests is hot air ballooning. I crew or "chase" for a commercial pilot, Berkshire Balloons, and belong to a local hot air balloon club, the CT Lighter-than-Air Society (CLAS). And although ballooning might seem to be a fair weather sport, one can fly all year round. In fact, winter flying, with calm winds, cool air, and sparse vegetation, has it's own special charms.

Each year, on the first flyable weekend after new years, CLAS holds an informal balloon rally or fly-out called the Frozen Buns Rally. Commercial balloon pilots must make three take-offs / landings within a 90 day period to "stay current", or else they need to recertify. So a mid-winter flight is a great way to maintain certification - between the fall foliage season and early spring flying.

This morning, at the Aqua Turf Club in Southington, 14 hot air balloons made their way into the cold morning sky.

The club will be holding an annual banquet later this winter; and then a period of quiet until the warmer weather returns. If you are interested in the sport hot air ballooning, do consider joining CLAS - pilots are always looking for crew members, you can get notice of fly-outs, festivals, and events, and you just might decide to take lessons and learn to fly yourself!

January 01, 2015

New Year, New Art

A dear friend, Audrey, gifted me with some artwork this holiday.

After Image
"After Image" by Mary Fussell

The piece is a watercolor original by CT artist Mary Fussell. Audrey is a bit of an arts community fixture and sponsor - and I have no doubt this piece is worth far more than I deserve or want to know.

It's lovely and has found a place of honor in my home. My art collection is somewhat eclectic and random - photographs by myself, by friends, and by strangers, a number of pieces of bird in various media and techniques, some framed posters and prints, and a few random abstract pieces I have been gifted, or purchased at charity auctions or benefits.

I do not really collect art per se; art, I think, collects me. 

#RealLiveTransAdult and the Trans Culture of Death

First, let me say that the recent trans suicide has affected me more deeply than most, enough to break radio silence and contribute a few tweets to hashtag . It's been moving reading these tweets over the past few days.

But to follow up, I have been for many years, and remain, very concerned about how the trans community embraces and promotes these tragic losses. In 2010, over on Helen Boyd's My Husband Betty message board, I posted (in response to a call to action about a recent trans suicide):
So no, I will not blog or post to facebook or increase the media footprint of this sort of event. Because there is another GLBT youth sitting out there right now feeling unloved and unimportant, and that young person might just decide that, like this young man, he or she is worth more to the cause as a beloved martyr than as an obscure, lonely youth 
And Leelah Alcorn's suicide note posted on tumbler points exactly in this direction:

My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.
Following that formula to it's logical conclusion, the more trans suicides the better. Get the numbers up...

This is not a new idea, back in 2011, David McFarland, of The Trevor Project, wrote an Advocate editorial entitled Our Role in Stopping a Suicide Crisis
But there are ways of talking about suicide that could increase the likelihood of other at-risk people attempting to take their own lives.  This is because suicide is closely tied to psychological well-being.

When we draw direct lines from sexual orientation or bullying to suicide, it can influence someone who is at-risk to assume that taking your own life is what you’re supposed to do next if you are LGBT or bullied. This may not seem rational, but attempting to take your own life is an irrational act.

As a caring community, we can help avoid making suicide appear like a logical choice by putting distance between statements or stories describing instances of bullying and instances of suicide.
I'm not sure what the answer is, not even sure there is an answer. The only thing I can come up with is visibility for those who choose life - but even that has its downside. Knowing how fraught a transgender life can be and the personal costs of visibility and outness, I wonder how many suicides by out and proud transfolk (and there are many, all of the suicide victims I have known personally have been post-transition, supposedly "over the mountain" in terms of this difficult path) could have been avoided by a little more turning inward, a little less flying the flag.

There are probably two dozen reasons why I have chosen a less public life, post-transition. Some of those are self serving, no doubt, aware of my own acquired cisgender privilege and ability to move through the world with my trans history below the surface. Some are based on my own awareness of the need to "affix my oxygen mask before helping others". Some come from watching transfolk ripped to shreds by others in the community for espousing other than the company line; my attitudes and beliefs are more nuanced and less politically correct and have drawn fire in the past. And some are based on an awareness of how transfolk like me have dominated the discourse over the decades, how perhaps the best way to permit other voices to be heard is to self-silence, to step off the stage.

Perhaps there are no good answers. There is another dead trans youth. Her image and name are already making their way onto the wall of beloved martyrs. And there is a lost and lonely trans kid sitting at a keyboard somewhere, balancing a difficult and seemingly intractable life with the fame and glory that a public death would bring.