Monday, December 22, 2014

A fond farewell

The Belle of the Ball... She was the stuff of stories, made not merely of timber and nails, but of magic, too. And like so many magical things, she has faded, forgotten, into nothingness. Known as the White queen of the gulf, for her exterior design, the Belleview Biltmore, near Clearwater, is to be torn down. Her frame adorned with more than a dozen gables, and nearly twice as many corridors, has withered beyond repair and will soon be put out of her misery. And yet, our memories of her will live on. The hotel was not merely a resort, it was grand adventure, like something out of a movie. Similar to the Grand Hotel at Mackinac, the Belleview stretched for what seemed like a mile from one end to the other. Built by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant the resort accommodated wealthy travelers who spent long holidays escaping from the harsh northern winters. Long hallways, offered glimpses of pristine lawns primed for lawn bowling or badminton. At the far edge of the grounds were tennis courts; a golf course paralleled the opposite edge. Two swimming pools offered guests a choice of lounging in the sun, or swimming laps in a glass ceilinged pool-house adorned with french doors that opened to admit a balmy breeze on warm days. Late at night, wandering the long quiet corridors, one could even envision the spirits of former residents sashaying through the building, dancing and drinking champagne, and being completely scandalous. Originally, the train tracks would deliver people directly to the hotel’s front door, and guests could step from locomotive car to lobby into the hotel’s lavish world of fine woolen carpets, and chandeliers, and grand pianos. Verandas decorated the property for a bit of fresh air in winter, and a respite from the heat during summer (pre-air conditioning). I stayed at the hotel many times. The most magnificent room was a suite that had not only a decadent king-sized bed with a sitting area, and a lavish bathroom, but also a dressing room. Imagine a room dedicated just to changing clothes and preparing one’s appearance, from an era when people lived for weeks or months at the hotel and so, entertained guests in the sitting room. I spent hours gliding back and forth in the indoor heated pool (prominent in the movie Cocoon), and strolling the grounds. There was an oak tree that was so large, one could sit on the lowest bowed branch, as it nearly kissed the porch. Six piano decorated the halls; no one ever complained if someone decided to plunk out a tune. Stairways zigged and zagged, and seemingly led to nowhere, and delighted children of all ages who had an indoor maze to meander. Did I mention the best coffee I ever had anywhere, was in that dining room? Grand ballrooms, elegant dining halls, afternoon tea, and cocktails in the piano bar were the offerings when I visited the Belleview. Small salons in the main hallway offered books, souvenirs, ice cream, and jewelry. Holidays brought families from all around the bay area to magnificent brunches that stretched through three of those ballrooms, accommodating hundreds of diners. Like the Plant Museum, the Belleview entertained the wealthy and famous once upon a time. In more recent times she entertained families and golfing enthusiasts. The hotel was the site for weddings, anniversaries, reunions, proms, and getaways. It never advertised because it never had to...until the time came when flash and deals won out over the old world wonder. However, it’s hard to keep up a building that suffers sun and wind and rain damage, and nearly a century of age. Several corporations and preservation committees attempted to save, protect, resurrect her, unsuccessfully. Sometimes money just is not enough. The Belleview will be put to rest. With her, goes a grand bit of Florida history and an age of golden revelry. Goodbye to Cocoon, to verandas,to vintage New Year’s Eve soirees, and to the best cup of coffee, ever.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Apathy abounds!

It is time for a rant. Apathy is an infection that has swept the continent; it’s victims range from adults who can’t be bothered to drive their kids to a track meet, to nine year olds who can’t be bothered to participate in class “because”. Just because. My father long held that I didn’t have to agree with his perspectives on life, religion, or politics as long as I had an opinion and could support my opinion. “ Just ‘cause...” was never an answer for anything. My father was right. Every single day I encounter people who have no opinion on anything other than the latest sale at the mall. Even that isn’t so much opinion as excitement over the stimuli of color and bright yellow and red on sale signs (sort of the cartoon network for adults). The worst thing is that parents and adults allowing children to be mindless sheep baa-ing their way through life sets the kids up for failure. But then again, so many of these same adults will eventually blame a teacher for their kids’ apathy. Trust me, I have yet to meet a teacher who is apathetic or who promotes apathy in the classroom. Apathy is learned at home, and in the community. The “I don’t care” attitude might begin as a defensive device against disappointment, turning quickly to a “whatever” approach (a word I do not allow in my house, stage, or classroom, by the way). That’s how the infection begins, and then the plague erupts when an entire room of kids (or adults) shrug over everything from the importance of of writing a thank you note, to the ebola crisis, or civic responsibility of voting and jury duty. I sat in jury duty last month and listened to people whine for eight hours about sitting in an air conditioned room with a television and with access to all their electronic devices. They whined about how unfair it was that they had to sit there, and that they were being expected to wait to be questioned as potential jurors for our county. These are the same people who threaten to sue over scuffed tennis shoes and a delay at the doctor’s office. Heaven forbid they should step up and do something to make a difference in their community. That might be seen as being proactive. And of course, these people all have someone in their lives who emulates their behavior-- a niece, a nephew, or children of their own. Once upon a time (stop me if you’ve heard this one), there was a man who wanted to be a leader. As he bullied his way through the countryside, the villagers decided better him than them, and so they let him do whatever he wanted. Their apathy allowed the Third Reich to emerge. Yeah, it’s a bit melodramatic, but at least you have an opinion about it, now. Don’t you?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Playing Faire...

I adore medieval faires and renaissance festivals. Within the gates of these quirky, raucous gatherings we find the most extraordinary and eclectic collection of talent and brains outside of Comicon. And yet, the faire folk are often misunderstood. It all starts with a love of art and of language. I have been a fan of these festivals since college. I have dated fencers and stage fighters, have worked as a tavern wench, and have dressed as everything from a royal, to a wench, to a Whovian time lord (remember Ramana?). Here are some observations that need to be noted. Renfolk are smart and talented. Some of the performers are locals who have day jobs as lawyers and real estate agents; their work on the weekends is an artistic escape whether they are acting, or are working as vendors in a craft booth. Other performers are professional actors who travel from faire to faire throughout the year on a schedule; they work diligently on their stage routines and at developing the “characters” that will entertain audiences. In both cases, the majority of these people have college degrees and are making a living doing what they love. I knew a man who worked 20 years selling medical equipment for a large corporation. When he retired from sales, he bought an old school bus, threw on a tunic and started selling custom-made boots at the faire. The work allowed him to travel the country, make a living, and have some fun. He met people from all around the world, and didn’t have to worry about dry cleaning or about shaving. What a life. Some of the smartest people I have met work at the faire. A few weeks ago, I toured a faire which was new to me. The level of writing for the scripts was astounding. Even more impressive were the conversations I overheard as I passed through the crowds. Philosophy, History, Physics, Language...everything was a topic for discussion. Even politics and world events. From pirates! And perhaps the greatest gift these people offer us is a reverence for Language and communication. Through comedy, song, music, dance, and art, these wonderful enthusiasts and professionals are preserving something that continues to fade as we become a tech-dependent society, heads bowed over our phones. Thumbs meet eye-contact. For eight hours a day (sometimes much longer), these performers are not texting, they are talking, making a connection with the crowd. They are communicating with words, rather than initials and emoticons. Of course this does not surprise me. I have long known that the ren-fest circuit is a home for creativity and for intelligence that just does not fit into a suit or cubicle. However, so many suit and cubicle people spy the colorful time travelers as the characters they portray. Books and covers, people...take a look and find the story beneath the colorful brocade and tights. Within the renaissance faire, there is a renaissance of thought and talent. A round of applause for all the wonderful, brilliant performers and artisans to have the courage to take center stage and take a chance.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Seed of an Idea

My husband mentioned a project being undertaken in Scandinavia. Apparently, trees and authors are coming together in an unusual way. Authors are being enlisted to dedicate an unpublished work to the planting of a tree. The manuscript will be held in an archive for the next 100 years, with its publication being dedicated to the particular tree being planted in its name. On the tree’s 100th anniversary, it will be felled, and used to produce the paper for the publication of the book. I find this intriguing and disturbing at the same time. There is something nearly “Distopian” about the ceremonial archiving of a book while the tree grows toward its own death to promote the author’s publication. And yet the idea of drawing attention to the written word, and to the destruction of trees (versus recycled materials) is equally mesmerizing. I keep thinking of Well’s Time machine and Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. I don’t know why this story brings those two tales to mind other than each exemplifies a society lost to reading, while this new project seems to be promoting the preservation of the printed word. Perhaps the true intent here, is just that--to heighten awareness that the cyber-words we read on our electronic devices are real. Once upon a time, writers touched quill to vellum to create books. Printers set rollers to metal type on parchment. Typewriters pounded ink onto paper. And now, we click keys and send the words into the ether. Plucked from the air, our ideas soar through the internet in a virtual world. The very success of virtual books begs the question, in one hundred years, will we really want to cut down a tree for the decadence of printing a paper book? More importantly, in one hundred years, will we still read? Or will reading be merely a legend?

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Plot Thickens...

For anyone who is a fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the dynamic Starz series, of the same name, reveals few shocks. We who have read the books over and over again know these characters almost as well as the backs of our hands (hey, that freckle is new...). And yet, each week, as we watch the storyline unfold, and allow ourselves to be drawn into the backdrop of 18th century Scotland to mingle with the MacKenzies, Jamie, Claire, and the dastardly Black Jack Randall, we hold our breath in anticipation as each scene unfolds. To say that the creators have done a wonderful job, is an understatement. The adaptation of Gabaldon’s ongoing saga of war and love and time travel is mesmerizing. A good deal of the scenes take place outdoors, in forests and glens, and the cinematography could offer no better tourist inducement than the natural beauty of the landscape. I suspect flights will be full to Scotland next summer. As breathtaking as the landscapes are, the interior scenes are haunting. Where so many shows offer rich and opulent interiors meant to remind us of the days when velvet and brocade were commonplace, the Outlander interiors subtly remind us that luxury, both in the post WWII era and in the 18th century was not always an option, even for the wealthy. The lighting casts shadows, even in the daylight hours; there is a chill in the air at midday, and the cool demeanor of the clansmen and their English interlopers is palpable even when they are not speaking. One of the greatest testaments to the clever handling of the work is how the company (everyone connected with the production), allows the people to be real. More dirt and mud and dust adorn the actors faces, than make up. The hair may be matted, shaggy; the nails may be dirty and ragged; the eyes pale and creased, but we believe we are looking upon the characters as they have stepped from the pages, not from central casting or the makeup trailer. We are repulsed by the battle wounds, and are entranced by the simple unadorned beauty of a smile. And because of all of this, and so much more, as I watch each episode, I treasure those minutes as if that time has been suspended. I do not want the story to rush. Each scene is so priceless, that I listen for the sound of the ticking clock on my mantle to slow, to pause, to stop, just briefly, as I get swept away and travel back through time for an hour or so... Until the music swells, the credits flash, and I breathe, once more.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A look back to our future

Having just finished watching several episodes of the 60s drama The Avengers, I contend that Emma Peel is without a doubt one of the most inspirational female characters written for twentieth century television. She embodied the transitional paradigm for women in a modern society. While we might look upon the show, now, and smile at the predictibility of the scripts, the tongue-in-cheek turn of phrase, or the simplistic choreography of the fight scenes, we must note that in her creation, the writers of The Avengers television series departed the usual text, and reached into the future. While Honor Blackman was the original side-kick sleuthing agent for the secret and never-named British homeland investigative branch, she departed as the series was beginning to ride the crest of the cold war spy show craze. Honor’s character was very much like a character she would later play in the James Bond film, Goldfinger. 1963, however, welcomed Diana Rigg as a new partner for the ever-so-British John Steed. Rigg’s character broke most of the stereotypes for sidekicks, especially female sidekicks. First of all she was married. “Mrs. Peele, we’re needed,” introduced an attractive and presumably not available woman who was neither a housewife, nor churchmouse. Emma Peele fenced, fought (martial arts), and penned papers on physics in her spare time. Wait! A woman who was self sufficient, self aware, and had a sense of humor? Indeed. Emma could take a joke, throw a punch, and calculate a physics computation without breaking a nail. Not that she bothered about her nails. She was too busy foiling bad guys to worry about a manicure. And, she wore the most practical wardrobe ever seen on television. No stranger to heels and stylish hemlines, Emma Peele wore pants and flat ankle boots to do her snooping. Catsuits, or capes were the costume of choice when breaking and entering by night, or when tromping through the hills and dales of the English countryside. She climbed ladders, did not squeal when her hair got in her eyes, and even carried a second pair of shoes when out and about (just in case the car broke down and she had to walk to the nearest RAF station). More over, Emma Peele defended herself. On occasion, Steed would ride in to save the day, and her life, but more often than not, Emma threw her own high kicks and karate chops, parried and thrust her own sword, and played hero for herself. She seldom screamed, did not wimper or cry, and never once-in 51 episodes- fell into a fit of hystrionics. And Steed, admirably, never once challenged her on her reason, her intellect, or her biorhythms (although he did on occasion criticize her driving). She was sexy and confident in her attitude, compassionate and empathetic when necessary, and pragmatic and professional on the job. Remember, there were no other women doing this in 1963. She became a role model for millions of female viewers, world wide. She was cultured, well read, and did not shy away from expressing opinions or ideas. Legend has it that her name was a play on words, themselves. “M appeal” or male appeal was the hook that the producers were looking for in her character; that’s how she came to be Emma Peele. Millions of men, also were watching. Apparently, even in the sixties, smart was sexy. The writers allowed her to have a flirtatious, intelligent relationship with her coworker that did not involve her fetching coffee, or wearing a frilly apron, or ironing his shirts...ever. And we love her for it.