SkaCast!

September 4, 2009

PRESSURE-SOUNDS-163Wanna learn more about the ska scene in Russia? But of course! The great Gabe Paredes interviewed me on his latest episode of Pressure Drop Soundcast.  I discuss my band, St. Petersburg Ska-Jazz Review, playing music in Russia, and my experience touring Europe. The interview begins about 30 minutes in. Check it out!

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The movement of Shen Wei

September 3, 2009

SumCVR09_lgHere’s a recent piece I wrote about acclaimed choreographer, painter, photographer, and artistic director Shen Wei published in Syracuse magazine. Shen Wei, originally from China’s Hunan province, is most famous for choreographing the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Below is an excerpt from Shen Wei’s piece, Connect Transfer, which was the inspiration for the opening ceremony of the Olympics. As dancers move accross the stage, they are painting the floor with their bodies.

Relentless low-pitched noise rumbles throughout the 300,000 square foot factory, ricocheting off the concrete floors and corrugated metal walls. The sounds of electronic beeps and shrill bells are punctuated by intermittent drilling—similar to what you hear in the pits at the Indy 500. My 62-year-old mother and I survey the assembly line of finished metal caskets as second-shift workers add finishing touches that resemble pin striping to the shiny façades. A hydrolic lift loads the coffins onto awaiting trucks—famous white and green trailers with the friendly warning on the back: “Drive Safe. Heaven Can Wait.” A model known as The Primrose model sails by on the line. “Our bestseller,” says Mark Lanning proudly, vice president of investor relations at Batesville Casket Factory in rural Batesville, Indiana—casket capital of the United States. Retailing at about $3,000, The Primrose gleams bright white beneath fluorescent lights. Featuring enamel plates decorated with delicate pink roses fixed to the corners and more roses machine-stitched on the white padded interior, The Primrose makes a perfect resting place for a beloved grandmother or schoolteacher.

Workers prepare caskets for paint

Workers prepare caskets for paint

All three of us wear large plastic safety glasses, which I keep pushing up on my head (a blatant disregard for safety). Lanning informs us that the factory cranks out a fresh casket every 58 seconds.

“It’s kinda similar to auto production,” says Lanning, watching the men and women, in t-shirts and jeans, dust off the finished caskets with a towel. “Like producing a mini version of a car with no motor or wheels.”

FinaliInspection

Final inspection

Dressed like a state assemblyman in a grey slacks, white shirt and a tie, every grey hair in place, Lanning is serious about his product. He has worked at Batesville Casket Company for 20 years, and he discusses the features of the Batesville casket with the kind of single-mindedness found in a successful door-to-door salesman. One of those features is the patented Memory-Safe Drawer, a little drawer inside the coffin where you can store personal affects like photos or letters, “instead of just throwing them in the casket.” There is no trace of irony to this man. Raking in $678 million last year, Batesville Casket Company is serious business.

DSC02211Sandwiched between Indianapolis and Cincinnati in Southeastern Indiana, Batesville has a population of roughly 6,000; slightly less than half of these folks work at the casket company, an industry that has supported this green, hilly town for the last century. Settled by Roman Catholic German immigrants, Batesville residents are proud of their heritage. Local eateries serve German specialties like wiener schnitzel and bratwurst and white stone statues of Mary stand in modest, well-manicured yards. Batesville’s most famous family, The Hillenbrands, are the Rockefellers of Batesville, and streets and public buildings are named in their honor. John Hillenbrand, a German immigrant, first began making hardwood caskets in 1861. His son, John A. Hillenbrand, a true captain of industry, purchased the failing Batesville coffin company1906, renamed it Batesville Casket Company, and built a thriving business. The Hillenbrands ran the company for four generations until August “Gus” Hillenbrand stepped down in 2006. Hillenbrand, Inc. branched out into hospital bed production in 1927 under a division called Hill-Rom, and today you’ll find Hill-Rom beds in nearly every hospital in America. Whether caskets or hospital beds, you know you got problems if you require a Hillenbrand product.

Batesville's first family: The Hillenbrands

Batesville's first family: The Hillenbrands

With roughly 45 percent of the market share nationwide, Batesville Casket Company is the Walmart of death care. Batesville Casket Company operates three other factories: two in Tennessee and one in Chihuahua, Mexico, but the headquarters in Batesville, Indiana, that produces metal caskets, remains the largest.  More popular than wood due to their lower price, Metal caskets make up about 60% of the caskets sold in the United States.

Mom asks Lanning if employees get a free coffin as part of their benefits package. He informs us for the second time today that Batesville Casket Company does not sell directly from the factory. For the first time today I ask why. “You don’t just go buy your product and have your own funeral,” he says. “The only person that can conduct a funeral and handle a body is a licensed funeral director.” Batesville only sells its products through licensed funeral homes.

There’s something appealing about the mechanical orderliness and sheer productivity of a factory (in the time it takes for me to take a shower, the workers at Batesville Casket Company have produced fifteen caskets!). I’ve admired factories ever since childhood when I watched Mr. Rogers and his field trips to the suitcase factory and printing plant—the smooth systems of conveyor belts hypnotized my young eyes, and each finished, quality-tested product served as a sturdy example of human achievement. Mom admits sadly that she never visited her father at the U.S. Steel mills in Gary, Indiana where he worked his whole life. My grandfather, son of Polish immigrants, was working at the mill the day I was born, and decided to sneak off for a catnap in the utility closet (he was already in his mid-sixties at this time).  My grandfather once told me how his supervisor went searching for him when my grandmother called the plant to tell him I had been born. His supervisor found him asleep on the job, kicked him in the legs, and told him he was in big trouble. But grandpa didn’t care when he heard the news of my safe, healthy birth.

After the casket factory, we head to a famed Batesville establishment, The Sherman House, a German restaurant and Inn established in 1852. At 5 p.m. on a Thursday, the empty streets of downtown Batesville give the city a eerie feel—like a dusty set from Stephen King’s Children of the Corn; the old-fashioned movie theater and quaint diner advertising homemade pies are closed. You can almost see the tumbleweeds rolling by. The Sherman House, huge and sprawling, with large banquet halls for weddings and conferences, is also bereft of clientele. With it’s exposed wood beams and stained glass, the interior was designed to look like a rustic German cottage, at least according to the designer charged with the task of reproducing German kitsch in 1975. It needs an update. Countless wooden chairs with brown leather cushions are scattered around heavy wooden tables; the pink and grey paisley carpet is worn from years of company dinners on the Batesville Casket tab. Our attentive, middle-aged waitress, brings us complementary fried biscuits with apple butter, an Indiana favorite. I’m disappointed to discover there’s only one German beer on the menu—Warsteiner, the classic wheat beer available pretty much everywhere. I order one and mom gets hot tea as usual.

The Sherman House, restaurant and inn

The Sherman House, restaurant and inn

Our meal, entitled “German Fare,” is a little sampling of everything: wiener schnitzel, sausage, and sauerbraten. Served lukewarm, each item is very brown and mushy, and indistinguishable from the other. “No offense to Batesville,” mom says. “But this is not a vacation, it’s more like a sentencing. Let’s hit the road.”

As we head home on 74 West to Indianapolis, I switch on a light rock station.  My mom, who always insists on driving, also insists that I check her blind spots before she changes lanes, meaning that if we crash into another car, it’s probably my fault. “Straight From the Heart” by Bryan Adams comes on the radio and I sing along.

“Who’s this?” mom asks.

Despite having been married to my father who sang in a rock band for ten years and raising two music-obsessed kids, my mom never ever knows who’s singing.  She loves to tell the story about how she rode in a New York City elevator once with the Rolling Stones in 1965, right after the release of “Satisfaction,” and had no idea who they were. My 18-year-old mom and her seven girl friends, who called themselves The Great Eight were visiting NYC for the first time, According to mom, Mick Jagger told them that they were the Rolling Stones. My mother answered, “We’re the Great Eight.” The story always makes me cringe because somehow I know that’s exactly what my mother, born and raised in Gary, Indiana, daughter of a U.S. Steel worker and one of seven children, said to Mick. She really didn’t give a shit who he was and she’s never been afraid of anyone.

I decide to give mom some more clues as to the author of “Straight from the Heart.” “You know this one, mom. You took me to see him in concert in fourth grade. He’s Canadian,” I offer

She thinks long and hard. “Hmmm…is it quick hand, I mean, fast hand?”

I roll my eyes. “You mean slow hand, and this is not Eric Clapton. It’s Bryan Adams,” I say.

“He’s Canadian?” she adds.

Mom and I start laughing hysterically.  I can barely breathe.  As we pull into our garage in Carmel, Indiana, we continue to giggle with the motor running and the garage door shut behind us.

“Hey mom,” I say.  “Let’s turn off the car.”

“Good idea,” she says, tears from laughter pouring out of her eyes. “Suicide. How’s that for an ending to our day at the casket factory.”

Get your skank on!

May 22, 2009

Ska music, born in Jamaica, raised in England, and transplanted to America, has long been the soundtrack to an active subculture. Syracuse ska concert promoters, SkaDanny and Brendan McCarey, discuss ska fashion. From British mods in the 60s to two-tone ska kids today, ska style is constantly evolving.

This is a video I recently made for my Fashion Communications class. I’m currently working on a thesis article about ska music in America today.  Watch out for more ska posts.

blancospic6_04_300dpiLos Blancos, as the Spanish name suggests, is a group of white guys who play the blues. Formed twelve years ago, the successful Syracuse quartet tours nationally and still packs the house at local haunts like Al’s, Empire Brewery, and Shifty’s.

“I think that people get stuck in a cultural vortex where you have to be, you know, a black guy to sing blues music,” said lead Singer and guitarist Colin Aberdeen. “I think that blues music, in the same way as great literature, is universal. It speaks to all people and all times.”

In a denim shirt and tan Stetson, Aberdeen looks like a slimmer John Popper of Blues Traveler. Both on stage and off, Aberdeen’s got an easy smile, and an even easier demeanor. He’s friendly, open, willing to share. Sometimes he shares too much and tenses up. After a lengthy interview for this article, he politely asked that certain anecdotes, stories from his past, be stricken from the record. I obliged. These are events that happened during his teenage years and early twenties. At 43, Aberdeen is older and wiser, a self-proclaimed graduate of “the school of hard knocks.” Like any honest bluesman, he’s done things he isn’t proud of. Like any good bluesman, he sings about them with brutal honesty.

“It spoke to me as a young guy,” said Aberdeen. “The blues is a great vehicle to write about your life and experiences.”

Born in London, England to an American expat mother and an Australian father, Aberdeen moved to Philadelphia with his family when he was five years old. He’s traveled extensively in Europe, Africa, and Australia, where his two older sisters live. “A down soccer player” as a child, Aberdeen didn’t feel like he had much aptitude for music growing up.  He learned a little piano and saxophone but firmly planted himself on the soccer field until his family moved to Syracuse when he was fifteen.

“I ended up playing music with a bunch of rednecks I met out in Manlius who lived on a dairy farm,” said Aberdeen. “They all played. Nobody sang…it’s like the hardest thing in the world to do for a young person—let their voice out. So, I wound up being the de facto singer.”

Aberdeen began learning guitar when he suggested songs for the repertoire that the rest of the band didn’t know. They played mainly rock: Grateful Dead and Neil Young covers. “I always gravitated towards the bluesier stuff,” he said. “Eventually I got into ‘Where’d that come from?’ and chasing it on down the line.” By the time he was 19, Aberdeen was listening exclusively to records made in the 1920s’ and 30s’.

He launched his own project, The Westcott Jugsuckers, soon after.  A band that played ragtime and old jug band music, The Jugsuckers were a regular fixture at Westcott’s favorite dive bar, Taps.

Aberdeen remembers when Syracuse had a heavy blues scene back in the late 80’s and 90s’. Local bands like the Kingsnakes, who eventually toured with legend John Lee Hooker, and beloved Syracuse icons, Roosevelt Dean and the Spellbinders, played weekly. Guitarist Robert Cray and The Fabulous Thunderbirds were at the top of the charts. “It was a great time because a lot of the progenitors were still playing,” he said. “You could see, like, ten really good blues bands any Friday or Saturday night.  There was tons of work for musicians.”

Los Blancos evolved from an open mike held at the Inn Complete on South Campus in the mid-nineties. Aberdeen was jamming with current Los Blancos bassist, Steve Winston, and a young guitar prodigy from Mexico City named Jose Alvarez.

Alvarez and Aberdeen had met a few years previously at the National Guitar Solo Workshop, a kind of guitar summer camp based in Milford, Connecticut. Aberdeen was on the faculty; Alvarez was a participant. They struck up a friendship when Aberdeen noticed Alvarez’s Gibson Les Paul—a classic blues guitar. “He took me under his wing,” Alvarez said in a phone interview. “If you were friends with Colin then you were cool, especially as a kid. Colin was the first blues player I was really exposed to. He knew all the roots of it.”

After graduating from high school in Mexico, Alvarez moved to Syracuse at Aberdeen’s urging to play with Roosevelt Dean and the Spellbinders. He was only 17 but showed huge promise. “He was a galvanizing force,” said Alvarez. “Had I not met him, my life would have been completely different.”

Today, at 32, Alvarez is a Grammy award-winning guitarist who plays with Terrence Simien and the Zydeco Experience. Currently based in San Antonio, Texas which he refers to as the “safest neighborhood in Mexico City,” Alvarez is on the road six to eight months a year. Terrence Simien and the Zydeco Experience won a Grammy last year for their album, “Live! Worldwide” in the new category they helped establish, “Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album.

Alvarez and Aberdeen remain close friends. “Colin is like a brother to me,” Alvarez said. “He is definitely the guy to call if you have something going on. He will immediately drop what he’s doing and come help.”

True to form, our interview was interrupted several times by calls to Aberdeen’s cell phone from a friend going through a rough patch. “Sometimes I feel like I’m part of the clergy,” he said with a sigh. “It’s crazy. Trust me. I wouldn’t be asking me for advice.”

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Los Blancos’ latest album, Just This Once, released in 2007 is the band’s ninth.  Recorded at the Subcat studios in Skaneateles, Just This Once is an independent release available for purchase at live shows or via the band website (www.casablancos.com).  Polished and professional, Just This Once, is an eclectic mix of blues styles and zydeco, a traditional Creole music that features accordion and washboard.  The current lineup consists of Aberdeen on lead vocals and guitar, Steven T. Winston on vocals and bass, Mark Nanni on keyboards and accordion, and Mark Tiffault on Drums and percussion.

For the most part, the band records live in the studio. “We do as much live as possible because we’re a live band,” said Steven  T. Wintston. “The studio is kind of an alien thing.”

All the tracks are originals except for the blues standard, Memphis Women and Fried Chicken. Aberdeen’s vocals are rough and rocking; Nanni’s riffs on the Hammond organ are funky and inspired; the band is tight. There’s a strong Southern rock/blues influence in this disk, a la ZZ Top. The band plans to record a new album sometime this year. “We play over 200 gigs a year,” said Winston. “So sometimes it’s hard to get everyone into the studio.”

The audience at a Los Blancos show is diverse: white, black, young, old, even Native American. “We get everybody from little hippie music heads to old school New Orleans music and R&B fans,” said Aberdeen. “We play country music. We play funk. We’ll go from a Merle Haggard tune to an original song to a James Brown tune.”

Los Blancos went on their first major tour last year: ten dates across the South. All members of the band are professionals, who have long since quite their day jobs. However, the current economic crisis has hit smaller bands hard. “It’s a very difficult time fiscally right now,” he said. “A lot of clubs are shutting down or doing no live music at all.”

Aberdeen has a lot of reasons to sing the blues. Along with weathering a tough recession, he’s going through a divorce and caring for his 20-month daughter, Marley, who was born with cerebral palsy. Much like the players before him, the music keeps him going. “I think the highest praise is when somebody requests a song that you wrote,” he said. “When somebody can relate to what you are saying and it helped them get through the day…either through sadness or joy.”

ghostbusters-trioWho ya gonna call? Back in the summer of 1984, there was only one clear answer: Ghostbusters! Bill Murray, Dan Akyroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson, an odd group of social misfits turned national heroes, could handle any paranormal problem in New York City with a light, comedic touch.

As madcap hilarity ensued on screen, cash registers rang all across Reagan’s America. Ghostbusters was the unchallenged, top-grossing movie in 1984 and has raked in nearly $230,000,000 in domestic lifetime gross since its release, making it the 55th top-grossing film of all time, according to boxofficemojo.com.

2009 marks the 25th anniversary of Ghostbusters. To celebrate this milestone, Atari, in conjunction with Sony Pictures Consumer Products Inc., is releasing Ghostbusters: The Video Game featuring a script penned by the film’s original screenwriters, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd. The Ghostbusters game, slated for release on June 16, 2009, is certainly not the first. Activision created a Ghostbusters game for Commodore 64 in 1984. There have been at least eight versions for computer, gaming systems, and mobile phones since then. However, Ghostbusters: The Video Game is the first to feature the voices and likenesses of original cast members. It will be available on Playstation 2, Xbox 360, Microsoft Games for Windows, Wii, and Nintendo DS.

“I think that they realized that the Ghostbusters franchise will simply be an old generation’s memory unless they re-inject it into a new generation,” said Robert Thompson, Trustee Professor and Director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “The biological clock on any pop culture thing is about twenty-five years. If they don’t do it now…people are going to start forgetting.”

Hollywood producers have been looking back to the 80s’ and repackaging old blockbuster franchises for the new millennium. Paramount released Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in May, and the movie has already grossed over $750,000,000 worldwide.  The Star Wars prequels led by The Phantom Menace in 1999 have dominated the box office over the last decade.  Could a Ghostbusters sequel be far behind?

According to Variety magazine, Ghostbusters III is in the works. Ghostbusters II was released in summer 1989 to disappointing reviews and ticket sales. Columbia Pictures has hired co-executive producers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky of the hit NBC sitcom The Office to write a script that is set to feature the original cast. Although, no casting decisions have been officially announced.

The script is shrouded in mystery but rumors are swirling in cyberspace about the plot.  Apparently, the four original Ghostbusters (all in their late fifties and early sixties) will pass on the business to a younger, more vibrant team of current comedians.  One can imagine Seth Rogan, Vince Vaughn, or Jack Black suited up with proton packs raring to go, as Grandpa Bill and Dan try to teach them the ins and outs of this very risky business.

“Making a movie where they put their seal of approval on a bunch of new goofy younger people is a good idea,” said Thompson, professor of popular culture. “There’s no reason why you couldn’t do Ghostbusters and make it a good movie.”

Ghostbusters is a snapshot of the Reagan 80s: America was embroiled in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and Americans lived with the threat of nuclear annihilation; the country had not yet been hit hard by the AIDs epidemic; political correctness and sexual harassment had yet to be defined. The next generation of Ghostbusters is living in a very different world and faces a different set of enemies. We can only wait to see how they handle America’s ghost problem in the new millennium. Are Americans poised to remember the four men who easily fought supernatural forces in order to save the world in the mid-80s’ or would they rather forget?

For more Ghostbusters on Beet Salad click here.

The Arrival of ABBA

February 21, 2009

Tonight, I felt the spirit of ABBA: the ’70s glam, the joy, the silliness, and the ultra catchy melodies of Sweden’s world-famous band backed by the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. ABBA has arrived and they brought their disco ball with them.

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ARRIVAL, from Sweden, is only one of nearly fifty well-known ABBA tribute bands across the world (and it isn’t even the only one called ARRIVAL.) However, ARRIVAL From Sweden is the only band that has exclusive rights to wear exact replicas of ABBA’s original costumes.

And what costumes they are! White satin ponchos over shiny spandex bodysuits, thigh-high boots, and purple shimmery bow ties adorn the lead vocalists, Victoria Norback (Frida) and Jenny Guftafson (Agnetha). Bell-bottom jumpsuits, sequined scarves, and white platforms for the men, Rolf Ivraeus (Benny) and Henrick Paulson (Bjorn). The members of ARRIVAL wear their costumes with reverence, like Marines suiting up in their dress whites for a formal dance with their sweethearts. You can’t help but love them for their earnestness and dedication to the cause of spreading the gooey goodness of ABBA’s sound and style. They are global ministers of peace in troubled times.

ARRIVAL played all the hits: Knowing me Knowing You, Dancing Queen, SOS, Fernando, Mama Mia. They played them so convincingly and with such heart, I often got chills. And then I felt ridiculous. But, then again, Fernando is just a freakishly good song.

Buried Treasures

February 19, 2009

dsc00486They say never look a gift horse in the mouth.  But what if that horse is hauling three truck loads of free, rare and historic 78-rpm records to your door?

In July, When Syracuse University received a gift of about 200,000 78-rpm records from the family of the late Morton Savada, the library’s holdings doubled in size, making it the largest collection of antique 78-rpm records in the world outside the Library of Congress. The donation, consisting of Savada’s entire inventory from his famed “Records Revisited” store in Manhattan, garnered national attention after the story was picked up by the Associated Press and The New York Times. As University officials bask in the glow of good publicity, the anxious library staff is faced with the task of unloading and cataloguing 1,300 boxes of records.

“The biggest challenge is to catalog the recordings,” said Suzanne Thorin, Dean of the Libraries at SU. “So that they can be found by scholars and others who want to listen to or study them. The size of the collection is daunting, yet the collection is so rich in history that we believe it must be available.”

The painstaking job of cataloguing the collection must be broken down into manageable steps. According to Melinda Dermody, head of arts and humanities services for the SU Library, the first stage is determining which records are duplicated within the collection. Because Savada ran a record store, he had multiple copies of albums. Next, the audio archive research specialist will compare the Savada collection with the current 78 collection at SU. If the library already owns a copy of a particular record, the specialist will decide which copy is in better condition. Extra copies will be sold. As for the extra copies, “there are other archives that might want donations of the ones we aren’t able to use,” said Dermody. Selling the extras, possibly through auctioneers, is also an option.

Absorbing the collection will be SU’s Belfer Audio Laboratory and Archive, commonly known as Belfer Archive. Located in a small stone building next to the Bird Library on the SU campus, the Belfer’s storage is already at maximum capacity. Meanwhile, the Savada Collection sits in the basement of the Warehouse, SU’s satellite building near Armory Square, where it will remain until a new off-site storage facility is built.

Constructed in 1982, The Belfer Archive was the first building in the world specially designed to house audio collections. Savada, familiar with the archive and its staff from his meetings with the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC), bestowed his legacy to Belfer upon his death on February 11, 2008.

But users can’t just waltz into the Belfer, grab a stack of 78s, and play them on one of the archive’s many antique turntables. Whereas Savada’s store was made for browsing, records in the Savada Collection will be made available in a digital format on special request, to protect these fragile records from unnecessary wear and tear.

Developed at the turn of the century, the 78-rpm disk is the ancestor of the modern LP. The records ranging from 10 to 16 inches in diameter are made out of various materials such as shellac, lacquer, vinyl or even aluminum. Thick and heavy, each disk weighs nearly a one-half pound, and the entire Savada collection weighs in at about 50 tons.  By the mid-1950s, the 78-rpm record was replaced by the LP which plays at 33 rpm.

Library staff members are not quite sure what they will find in the boxes, as Savada never catalogued his store. However, the majority of the 78s are thought to have been produced from 1930-1950.

“I think that the context of these recordings are important in the teaching world,” said Thorin. “Because, yes, there are Duke Ellington recordings, and yes, the music industry can use them, but there are also speeches, spoken word, recordings sent overseas during WWII. These are ways for the social history of the country to come alive for students.”

The donation from Savada reestablishes the Belfer Archive and Syracuse University as one of the core audio collections in the United States, along with Yale, Stanford, the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress, according to Thorin. SU’s status as a top audio archive audio research laboratory slipped in the late 80s due to budget cuts, Thorin, a former Opera singer and music lover, began the process of reviving and restructuring Belfer two years ago.  The University won a $250,000 grant last year from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to catalog its existing collection of 78s recorded on the Decca label.

Thorin estimates that the process of cataloging the Savada collection will take several years. “Trying to prioritize to get the hottest stuff out first is the way libraries do it,” she said. “We hope we will get another Mellon grant to continue the work.”

“If we hadn’t started (restructuring) and we hadn’t received the grant, I don’t think I would have taken the Savada Collection,” Thorin said. “We’re experiencing a kind of ressurection. I think Belfer is the crown jewel of Syracuse University.

For a audio soundslide on the Savada Collection click here.

Learning to Love the Snow

February 13, 2009

A Syracuse winter rages on till March. Snow piles up in towering ten-foot mounds on the edge of parking lots—hills of dirty gray ice. The winter is ugly and relentless, and, by mid-January, even a psychologically sound person may succumb to despair. When the sun peaks out from under thick cloud cover, I savor the fleeting moments of blue skies and light. The city snow is depressing. But, just 20 minutes away, the snow at Beaver Lake can be magical.

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Beaver Lake Nature Center, located in Baldwinsville, NY, is a 650-acre Onondaga County park that features miles of trails crisscrossing gentle pine-covered hills. It’s picturesque in summer, vibrant in fall, but in winter it truly sparkles, and one of the best ways to explore this winter wonderland is on snowshoes.

I’ve always considered snowshoeing to be a rather folksy, wholesome activity. I’m a city girl, and, therefore, I am rarely inclined to engage in folksy, wholesome activities. I’ve survived eight Russian winters in the bitter cold of St. Petersburg, drinking brandy on the streets at night to keep warm walking to and from rock clubs. I avoided nature in the winter months, because it is treacherous and unpredictable: innocent victims are impaled my icicles, mauled by bears, or simply lose limbs to hypothermia. In winter, Russians huddle together at home and hibernate. Everyone’s late for work and can excuse sick days by explaining, “I just wasn’t in a good mood.” The country comes to a grinding halt for 10 long days in January for winter holidays. There are vacations to Egypt for those who can afford it. There’s vodka for those who can’t.

For three dollars, Syracuse city slickers can participate in a Saturday afternoon snowshoeing clinic at Beaver Lake. Our group, consisting mainly of SU grad students, arrived at 12:30 pm for our date with Meg, a Beaver Lake Nature Center guide. None of us had ever been snowshoeing before.

Meg handed us our wooden shoes resembling narrow tennis rackets and explained how to attach them to our boots. Before we set off, she discussed the different types of turns: the daisy turn, where you rotate bit by bit, slowly creating a flower in the snow, the wide turn, where you turn out one foot at a 90 degree angle and lift your other foot to join it, and the more difficult jump turn, which requires serious athleticism and frequent falling.

Treading lightly over several feet of fluffy, untracked snow is physically demanding. But it’s also vigorous and rewarding, especially when the sun is shining and the air is crisp and sweet. As a child, I loved to put on my snow pants on a winter day and play in the woods behind our house, scooping up handfuls of blue-white snow to munch on as I walked under leafless oak trees. I satisfied my fresh snow craving with Beaver Lake’s finest flakes: crunchy, refreshing, with a slight earthy flavor. Meg led the way across meadows and packed trails pointing out squirrel tracks and beech trees. For a couple of hours, winter’s not so bad at all.

bloodtrailRichard Parry’s astonishing documentary, Blood Trail, follows the career of American Photographer Robert King as he covers conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, and Iraq. Chasing a dream of capturing Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, King stalks the bloody battlefields of war-torn cities. He knows that pictures of dead bodies sell the best.

We first meet King in 1993 when he is a naïve twenty-four year old living at the Sarajevo Holiday Inn.  Clueless about the conflict but eager to get his hands dirty, he was mocked by veteran reporters for his inexperience. Oblivious, King smokes endless cigarettes and keeps a journal of his ambitions in the candlelight of his modest room: a romantic prelude to the ensuing violence.

When King gets his first taste of the frontline, he is visibly terrified; the camera follows him as he runs across an empty field, armed with only his Nikon, as sniper fire flies overhead.

In a Tennessee drawl, King describes his motivation to photograph wars, citing his self-destructive tendencies and attraction to extreme lifestyles as key factors. When he’s not out in the trenches, he self-medicates with drugs and alcohol.  After witnessing brutal attacks in Chechnya, he is understandably shell-shocked. In moments of peace in downtown Grozny, he sets off firecrackers and cackles hysterically.

Parry intersperses graphic footage of battles with interviews with King taken on a hunting trip in Tennessee. As King recounts his experience covering wars, he frequently stops to take aim at deer grazing nearby.  Dressed in camouflage, with a shotgun in hand, King explains how hunting in the woods provides him with the solitude he needs to “decompress”.

King is certainly a contradictory character, but he comes across as honest, humble, and genuinely interested in understanding himself and the bloodthirsty world where he makes his living. He has become desensitized to horrific violence and that disturbs him. He is the American everyman thrust into exotic foreign countries to record death. We get a sense that King himself doesn’t know how to process what he’s seen, and he’s taking photos for a public that doesn’t want to look. When Parry asks him if he’s cynical at the end of the film, King doesn’t know how to answer. He merely says that he’s had to step over hundreds of dead bodies during his lifetime.

Written in September 2008 at the Toronto International Film Festival.