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Long form Throwback Thursday: Eleven years ago, we were stepping out of time in New Zealand

Remember the era of writing long emails to a select group of family and friends, when we weren’t all quite as instantly connected? I did just that in January 2004 on a Hampshire College outdoors trip to New Zealand, which focused on sea kayaking and hiking. Below is a selection from the second group email I sent on January 23, 2004.

…we boarded a van for a new journey across the mountains to Nelson, an artistic northern center of the South Island and gateway to the adventurous activities of several national parks in the area. We stopped in the downtown city area of Nelson (near the sea) for a few hours and I was impressed by the incredibly cosmopolitan and independent spirit of the downtown. Street performers and art exhibitions were everywhere I could look and everyone walking along the main street seemed very happy to be there. The historical British influence was certainly more direct there, with “Trafalgar St” being Main Street and several bands sounding just like British pop. A few hours later we continued the journey in the van up a nozzle of the coast to the Abel Tasman National Park, likely one of NZ’s most popular national parks and especially crowded in the summer months. The next five days were to be spent in the park “tramping” (hiking) from north to south, opposite the traditional tourist track.

Snapping a photo of my classmates on a memorably narrow bridge along the trail.

Snapping a photo of my classmates on a memorably narrow bridge along the trail.

I knew that we were in for something different and exciting as soon as the journey began the next morning. We boarded a water taxi (small boat) that was towed by a tractor down to the ocean shore, and then became self sufficient to drive us completely up the golden coast of the park. We passed high bluffs, rich surf, and several seal colonies en route to the top of the tourist track. The entire coast of the Tasman is a rich fine golden brown, unlike any other type of sand I had ever seen before. It was immensely refreshing to swim in after a hot day and beneficial just to look at when the route got sweaty. We began the tramping that day with a northerly loop around the park’s less-travelled northern quadrant. The track, or road, that we followed stayed quite close to the coast through several beaches and low sea forests. Eventually we reached a place called Seperation Point, which is one of the most northerly points of the South Island and had a quiet calmness to it as we gazed out from the rocks at the open, endless horizon to the north. The next day was a steeper incline up and down a large “hill” heading back to the coast but ultimately was no less rewarding. As we climbed the track, we could only see on the right side doughy bog-like marshland and water, and on the left was semi-Alpine green forest that snaked around back to the shore. Nonetheless it was very welcoming to get back to the water after hiking in the heat of the day. We stayed that night at a very family-oriented camp ground where at least 15 children biked through after dinner, asking us to help them with equipment for the hot scavenger hunt of the evening (which meant requesting books in a foriegn language, foriegn passports (!), and objects that could be used to make goods.) On the third day of tramping, we began to merge into the more commonly and frequently traversed coastal track. It was a LOT of hiking, at least 11 miles. The high point of that day was a coastal crossing that had to be done at least 1 1/2 hours before high tide otherwise it would flood. We ended up crossing in water anyway, which felt like a clamming trip in the bogs of the shore (and indeed we ended up stepping on several hundred clam shells.) It was a great delight to finally reach the campsite that day, even if it was raining. The next day brought another, shorter, estuary crossing and lots more of coastal beach scenery that also managed to mix in with the forest. I was intrigued by the dimensions and dynamics of a bridge that could only hold five people one way at a time and was swinging at least 50 feet above a river; the trail itself quickly plunged back down to semi-coastal level. That night, it was again a delight to be able to sleep right on the beach and be rocked to sleep by the energetic waves. The final day of tramping felt like coming full circle. The trail continued back down to where we had been before, and this time it was finally at a level gradient along the water. We saw endless blue and much boat traffic navigating the seas to the left of us. Eventually five short pedestrian bridges signalled the end of the line. Many of us had blisters from the tramping experience but I highly doubt that anyone was in bad spirits cause of the energy and faith of doing things together as a team.

An especially memorable sunset earlier in the New Zealand trip.

An especially memorable sunset earlier in the New Zealand trip.

The taxi returned to drive us 250 miles through snakey mountains and dramatic oceansides down the west coast of New Zealand. We saw more farmlands, wineries and even a whitewater rafting river before the road came alongside the ocean again. This time we were bordering the Tasman Sea, but the waves had all the energy of good Pacific hits. We stopped briefly at a tourist attraction called the Pancake Rocks, where large amounts of rocks have been so windswept and weather beaten, they have gradually become part of the sea, and eroded down into pancake shapes. Meanwhile the land surrounding them has started to sprout blowholes where water sneaks in to a small crevasse at high tide and then erupts back up as if part of a geyser. We continued down the coastal road to Greymouth, the West Coast’s hub city, for a two day stay. The locals call the west coast area New Zealand’s “wild west” and it was somewhat painfully obivous to see why. Greymouth was somewhat creepy and well past its prime, perhaps like an abandoned mine town might be in the Western United States. It only had a small town center that closed up shop every night at 5pm and no one seemed to go out of doors after then, even though the town is positioned at the mouth of a gusty river that guarantees great coastal views. The next day we found something to write home about in the town by participating in a “caveing” experience through an adventure company. We put on wetsuits once again and were bussed up to the hills to a deep subterranean cave. A guide led us through an experience of rafting by glowworm light, swimming in COLD water and hiking along different rocks. It was fun to see, but not unique, and I felt like the group was a little cast aside when two following tour groups came into the cave to do the exact same activities.

We left Greymouth via train on the spectacular TransScenic railway that is the most efficent connection between the East and West coasts of the central part of the South Island. It was a special thrill to sit back and feel the steam machine climb up the mountains to Arthur’s Pass, a small township and national park nestled right in the middle of the Southern Alps. The peaks and some of the villiages look almost identical to Switzerland, so the resemblance from place to place was very overt, and resonant. We spent one night in Arthur’s Pass, which is exactly like a charming Swiss villiage, only nestled here in the middle of the South Island instead. A small array of services and crafts line the main street, nestled in a ridge between high peaks with names like Avalanche Peak and Rollaston Pass. Disappearances of hikers are sadly not that uncommon there. The town itself had a pleasant character, with many natural amenities including a 50 foot (or so) tall waterfall that I saw on a short hiking experience today. We continued the journey on the train this afternoon, finishing the route back to Christchurch along mountain peaks, farmlands, and flat plains bordered by icey rivers before hitting the metropolitan area of the city for one more time. And indeed it is down to the last hurrah, as our journey home begins tomorrow (the 24th) at 1:30pm, but due to the “magic” of the International Dateline, will only conclude early morning of the 25th. It will certainly be a jarring temparature change, and probably the longest day ever (48 hours) for several of us. Then will get to have less than 24 hours back at home before returning to Hampshire, so hope the transition isn’t too abrupt…

Our intrepid group of travelers.

Our intrepid group of travelers.


Chocolate: More Than Sweet

I wrote an article that is featured in the program for the Hilberry Theatre’s soon to open production of THE WAY OF THE WORLD.

The Hilberry Theatre

Chocolate House BW Image Source:

When you sip a cup of hot chocolate today, you may not realize that the well-loved drink had a completely different identity during the age of The Way of the World. Chocolate, then an exotic spice to many eyes and palettes, first arrived in continental Europe in 1585. Over the next few years, the taste and aroma quickly became fashionable in many locations around the continent.

For those living in England, chocolate remained unknown until the mid-17th century. At that time, the city’s first chocolate house opened in East London, run by a Frenchman who sold a beverage described as an “excellent West India drink.” The mysterious substance quickly gained a strong reputation from those “in the know.” Various advertisements claimed that chocolate would reverse the aging process, serve as an aphrodisiac, and cure the previous evening’s hangover. Recipes for chocolate drinks included such mixtures as sugar…

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One Morning on a Train

I wrote a post on Wednesday morning meaning to post it later when internet connections returned. But here it is now instead.

It’s my third morning on a train this year – interesting to realize that the previous trip (Ann Arbor – Los Angeles) was earlier this year, where it feels like longer.

In contrast to my observations in 2012, Amtrak now seems more comfortable in the digital age. This long distance train still does not have a wifi service, and who knows why, but there are plenty of people using their digital devices and not blinking an eye. I think that coming into a snowy atmosphere, with accumulation being constant and building as we head East, adds a different flair to the atmosphere.

The bus driver from Detroit to Toledo was certainly one of the most democratic drivers I have ever had on public transportation. He asked the full bus to “not use profanity” if we/they were talking on cellphones, and then initiated a vote as to whether people would like to get concessions at a convenience store prior to boarding the train in Toledo. We did, and it proved to be a good move.

I found (as I had expected) that the initial travel experience brought back sharp flashbacks of my earlier visits to Michigan, before I was a resident in the state and had not gotten to know it as well as I do now. In particular, being back in the same places – the Detroit and Toledo Amtrak stations – brought back very clear memories of what I had done in the previous visits there, such as calling California friends – so I called one of them – and observing Ohio’s old – style porcelain highway signs, which have now been replaced at some point in the last couple of years. And being resident in Michigan, with its troubling bumpy roads, made me notice the smoothness of I-75 immediately after crossing the state line.

As for the rest of today, since I’ve just gotten over the mesmerizing quality of observing the passing snow, I’m hoping that the lack of internet distractions gives rise to some productivity on my assortment of homework assignments due in December….

Amtrak in the Digital Age

Tonight I will re-board Amtrak’s Capitol Limited train for the first time since 2012. My previous trip on that route, which was coming to Michigan rather than from it, also marked my last post in a previous blog. And so I thought I’d re-post that entry here. I will be turning off my smartphone tonight.

Return to Amtrak in the Digital Age

I did not realize how much of a distraction this iPhone would become tonight. Something about having it along is making me see tonight as just another digital night. EXCEPT that the 3G signal disappeared around Harpers Ferry, and seems unlikely to return until Pittsburgh at the earliest. I now see how Internet dependent the phone is, as if I did not know that already. Unfortunately, the same situation is running rampant like a virus across the train – I see at least half of the passengers tangled up in their digital devices . People are still taking in the scenery, but now it is dark and some have already fallen asleep.

While the aforementioned digital issue has given this trip a different feel, it has certainly still been memorable. My second ever visit to Washington DC allowed more flexibility than the first, which was coincidentally the last time I did this train itinerary. The US Capitol building was within reach, though securely guarded, and I took it all in with some surprise at the scope of The District. Perhaps my close knit (native New Englander) geographic orientation also extends to my perception of the capital city. I am sure that is the case, where it is a similar scenario when 2 inches on a Massachusetts map does NOT equal 2 inches on a … New Mexico map. The physical sensation of seeing more of DC was grandiose, and more about the WOW feeling than a question of melodrama.

Now the focus turns to the great state of Michigan, site of intense political scrutiny today and at least SOME fallout or backlash tomorrow. I have greatly enjoyed my previous stays in the state, especially this past August going from the distant lands of the UP all the way down to the Ohio border. This time the focus will return to the city of Ann Arbor and its immediate vicinity, and I am sure that being there with the University in full swing will be just as memorable with a Leap Day fresh spin.

How David Ives Does It…

The Hilberry Theatre’r production of ALL IN THE TIMING is worth a trip, in my biased opinion. Opening this Friday, November 21, then returning the first weekend in December and the last weekend in January.

In this linked article, read more about the work of acclaimed playwright David Ives, who continues to amass a diverse portfolio of writing, most recently seen in the acclaimed and successful VENUS IN FUR.

The Hilberry Theatre

David Ives’s Quick-Hit Approach To Staging the Human Comedy

Published in The New York Times, January 4, 1994

In the world of the playwright David Ives, situations float at the far edge of the social map and quickly drift off into uncharted territory.

A shy young woman with a stutter shows up for a language lesson and ends up speaking fluent Unamunda, an Esperanto-like tongue that, unbeknownst to her, she is making up on the spot. Three monkeys with typewriters bicker over the problem of trying to write “Hamlet.” A man offers advice to a friend who’s stuck in “a Philadelphia,” a perverse parallel universe in which basic needs, like cheese in an omelet, can never be satisfied. The man tells his friend not to worry, to flow with it. But then again, he would; he’s stuck in a terminally laid-back state known as “a Los…

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Personal Blog: You Just Don’t Know – A Sharp Focus on the Big Picture

I was intending to make a post referencing The Penny Seats successful opening night last night and my pleasure in being part of the production and initial opening festivities last night. The show enjoyed a sold out crowd and was spotlighted in a new review from Encore Michigan, the state’s premiere source for theatre news and goings – on.

But, as sometimes happens after a festive occasion, I got a curveball in my email as I set off back to Detroit last night, with news that an acquaintance has contracted the Ebola virus.
So that has been on my mind today, as the reality of a serious world health situation hits home and gains a personal face.

The turning of the calendar

The symbolic “end of summer” on this date of the year has me feeling reflective. There’s been much to be grateful for and remember from this summer, but I feel as time goes on I will be most appreciative of the extended time spent back home in New England.

mv skyline

Martha’s Vineyard from the air, August 16, my first time ever flying off the island.

Visual comfort food

I really ought to write a detailed post about my longtime relationship with The Avengers (no, not that movie) – the 1960’s era British television show. I’ve been fortunate to see several of the leading stars of the series (Diana Rigg, Honor Blackman, Joanna Lumley) live onstage.

In the present day, the show continues to have timeless appeal for me as a sort of visual comfort food, meaning that I keep the DVDs close at hand, but don’t always turn them on. But when I do, I can sit back, and enjoy, and even look at the individual episodes with refreshed eyes, since I have been watching some of them semi – regularly for 24 years. The show remains popular thanks to its blend of wit, style and unique storytelling. 

And so tonight I was oddly drawn to the series’ most polarizing episode, with its most ridiculous title: Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) but there were these two fellers.


This story is one of the early episodes of the series’ final season, filmed in 1968, and finds John Steed and Tara King on the trail of a series of bizarre murders of businessmen across London. Various clues point towards culprits in the comedy industry, and the two agents are hot on their trail to see where it all connects. Along the way, they meet a handful of British comedy stars known and unknown at the time, including a pre-Monty Python John Cleese, and Bernard Cribbins.

The villains’ actions are accompanied by a distinctive piece of music that I recall often imitating when i first saw the episode as an impressionable six year old during the series’ rebroadcast on A&E in 1990. In a dramatic sense, the musical accompaniment of the episode doesn’t seem to register until close to the end, when composer Laurie Johnson chooses to insert music originally seen in an earlier season episode into this particular story. (Prior to that, there’s much repetition of a somber, grey theme broken up by the jaunty villain music.)

I could write for quite a while on the art of periodically revisiting these TV episodes. I think it’s interesting that the “lesser known” (to the popular opinion) stories are more appealing to me as time goes on – as in preferring the Linda Thorson season to the Diana Rigg episodes. And, with a more refined artistic sensibility, i notice various acting and story choices that I would not have caught at all in my younger years.

For instance, this episode is bogged down with a lengthy sequence about two-thirds of the way through the story. Tara King is assigned to protect a businessman in danger, and long story short, she doesn’t succeed. Their banter is awkwardly protracted and the story seems to forget about the more interesting villain characters. The Tara King character is also at her most naive here, while later episodes in this long season, which was filmed over a 15 month period between late 1967 and early 1969, show Tara as more confident and experienced.

For The Avengers at its most endearingly self – referential, see here:

Summer Solstice Arts Binge

I spontaneously yet purposefully structured this year’s Summer Solstice as an opportunity to focus on local culture and arts offerings. I felt that the harsh winter made Detroit – area culture rescind into the background for me more than I would have liked – though it was probably more a case of having to seek it out more directly – and so I am happy to see various cultural festivals and outdoor attractions now back in force. (Including my current project of working on The Penny Seats production of Elektra, due to open on July 10.)

First up was a drive to Detroit to check out this year’s edition of the River Days Festival. (I was in the city during last year’s festival, but did not attend for unknown reasons… I think that was the first time I went over to Windsor instead. Shows how times and priorities change!)

This festival is a great way for the city to turn its eye to the river, which seemed more blue and inviting than ever, and there was a similar festival apparently taking place on the other side in Windsor. Multiple ships were plowing the waters, some seeming to party more than others, and there was even a Tall Ship at dock, which had come down from a point in the Saginaw area. 

I don’t usually post travel-blog type photos here but I feel compelled to share a few highlights since it was such a scenic day:


As I enjoyed the sights, I couldn’t help recalling what the same vista had looked like just five months ago:


But it’s the wrong time of year to focus on a view like that 😀

I might have stayed longer in the city, but had made a decision earlier in the day to stop by Tipping Point Theatre in Northville to finally catch a production at that company. Their current production, The Red King’s Dream, will be running for one more week in its US premiere.

Written by a Canadian playwright, this script reminded me very much of Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet, which my friends and colleagues The Penny Seats produced in their inaugural season three years ago, and later seemed to enjoy a brief revival of interest, with productions popping up in San Francisco and New York City, and probably a few other places. As for this show, I’m not sure if it will enjoy continued productions, but Tipping Point seems to appreciate it.

It follows the story of Steven, a classic loner type who works diligently in his crowded apartment to created indexes for an overbearing boss. The boss figure, a domineering woman, often visits him and clearly exerts a strong control over his actions and activities. He’s also often visited by a close friend who lives nearby, and his mother calls him, but there seem to be no other people in his life. One day, an attractive woman, Zoe, moves into his building and they meet by chance. Steven begins to feel an attraction to Zoe, but because he’s so socially inexperienced, he isn’t sure if he wants to reveal that attraction or not. Naturally, everyone’s relationships with Steven come to a head in a climactic dinner party scene. The script also includes some not well thought out (IMO) references to Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland (hence the title) although that element does give a chance for the actresses to sport some great costumes in bookend-type scenes.

Sooo… this show struck me as something I’d usually refer to as a “crowd pleaser,” meaning that it can appeal to a wide audience but won’t necessarily end up on a critic’s top 10 list. All four actors deliver committed performances, although Zoe (Maggie Mayer) isn’t really given a chance to speak for herself until the final scene. The script often ventured a bit too readily into slapstick or “oh I can’t believe he said that” moments, and the awkwardness of the Steven character could have been easily suggested rather than so obviously spelled out.



On the other hand, the set design, as seen in the above image, could have been a character in itself, with a richly detailed checkerboard floor, hundreds of books carefully set in locations around the 3/4 thrust stage, and a hint of offstage activity as well.

Later in the day, back in Ann Arbor, I paid a visit to the unique Carriage House Theatre for the first time. This group shows an impressive commitment to challenging works. This summer they plan three productions, and their first one, Phedre, was enjoying a sold-out closing performance.

I tried not to compare the production too much to the filmed-theatre version I saw in 2009 with Helen Mirren in the lead role. This time the action was much more immediate, with just a small suggestion of a set and the actors doing their best to let the words speak louder than their actions. I don’t feel like I want to single out a particular moment in this production, but I was impressed with the actors capability and commitment. 

Attending the production gave me the stamina I was looking for to finally attend an installment of the State Theatre’s monthly midnight movie series. After noticing, wanting to attend, and ultimately not making it to screenings of films including 2001Fight Club and Wet Hot American Summer, this time the movie of the night was Serenity, which is now (gulp) nine years old but was met with much anticipation when it was released in late September 2005. Several friends from Hampshire College and I eagerly attended one of the first screenings at CInemark Hampshire Mall soon after it opened.

But despite that early anticipation, the movie’s box office returns disappointed, and no further sequels were made, though the film’s storyline leaves the possibility open.

And so in 2014 I was/am looking at the film in a historical context … would it be more successful if it was released today? (perhaps.) could Joss Whedon’s vastly increased celebrity and cache impact a future revival of this show? (probably.) did this show contribute to the now popular binge watching trend, where its predecessor Firefly TV series was under appreciated in initial airing but became hugely successful on DVD? (yes.) was the show and movie a launching pad for greater success for the actors involved? (mostly, from what I can tell.)

The State was at least 3/4 full for the screening, and the audience was more like a live audience at times, eagerly responding to twists and turns in the plot. Seeing the film again left me with an active looking-back feeling, where something I/you appreciated some time ago is right there in front of you, and so associated sensations and memories come back… but then it’s time to return to the present.


Cecile Encore

On Wednesday night I was very pleased to catch a performance by “up and coming” jazz vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant for the second time, after previously being wowed by her late last summer at the Detroit Jazz Festival. She did not disappoint, and seemed to add more insight and character in this performance. In the previous show, she had been more of a “featured vocalist” while here she was the star attraction. With a velvet voice and graceful stage presence, she is amazingly only in her mid 20s.

I wish I knew my jazz catalogue better to be able to specifically cite the songs that she and her very tight three piece band performed. It seemed to veer between lesser-known compositions and more familiar works, with a few songs not usually portrayed as jazz thrown in, such as “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story. All four performers displayed a delicate balance of complimenting each other while finding moments for their individual contributions to shine.

It’s great to see that McLorin Salvant has an active presence on YouTube. I feel this excerpt, which must be from the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival, is a particularly good example of her performance power and skills: