Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Art of Chautauqua

     As promised, here are the "best" of the photographs I shot while taking a photography class last week at the Chautauqua Institute in Chautauqua, NY.

     B and I were there for a week -- week No. 8 in their 9 week season. Our week centered on the international global situation, with a 1-1/2 hour lecture every morning by a renowned expert. The speakers covered various global hotspots, but focused primarily on the Middle East.

     We also saw a production of The Tempest, and we went to three different classical music performances, including a magnificent rendition of Beethoven's 5th symphony.

     We saw a brass band, attended several other lectures, and took a few classes. Well . . . B took a few classes. I took just the one. In the class we learned a few things about focus and exposure and shutter speed. But mostly we learned about composition -- how to frame a photograph, look for patterns and lines; get rid of clutter and focus in on what we truly want the photograph to be about.

     So, drum roll please, here are the Top Ten:

This one's about flowers. Our instructor liked flowers, and almost every porch at Chautauqua has flowers.

The instructor told us to look for diagonal lines.

I found this fire hydrant, hidden among the flowers, and I "filled the frame" as the teacher suggested.

The instructor liked this one-- she thought it was evocative.

I told you -- the instructor liked flowers! Especially when they're diagonal.

This one kind of tells a story.

The excursion boat on Lake Chautauqua.

This illustrates how to use foreground and background in a photo.

One of my fellow students was from England. He has a better camera than I do.

The teacher liked my view of the Hall of Philosophy where a speaker gives a lecture every afternoon.

And she thought I captured the grandeur of the flagship Athenaeum Hotel. You gotta admit, it's pretty grand!

     I hope you appreciate my restraint in selecting just these few photos. After all, the class was all about taking photographs, and I took well over 200 of them. And it could be a lot worse. B took a class in PowerPoint. She's going to use my photos for a PowerPoint presentation which she's going to inflict on her family and her friends at work.

     But anyway, I hope this selection gives you a peek into the world that is Chautauqua. If anyone's looking for an educational week in the summer, it's a great place to go.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Older but Wiser

     I am spending this week at the Chautauqua Institute in Chautauqua, NY, about an hour and a half southwest of Buffalo. Perhaps on the theory that, as Henry Ford said, "Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young."

The library
     Chautauqua was founded by the Methodists, almost 150 years ago, as a place where clergy could reinvigorate their spiritual lives, and enrich their intellectual activities through literature, music, the arts, and other educational pursuits.

     The Institute today has become more secular, but retains its religious roots on an interfaith basis. The program runs for nine weeks in the summer. Some people come for the whole summer (and a few people live here all year round), but most visitors stay for a week, as we are doing.

     Each week focuses on a different theme. Last week featured documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who led a session about the American West. This week explores international affairs, and the opening session, yesterday morning, was hosted by CNN's Fareed Zakaria, who is also a Washington Post columnist and Time magazine editor at large.

We're staying on the 3rd floor of this house
    Zakaria, who was born in India and earned a Ph.D. from Harvard, gave a very thoughtful and informative presentation about the Middle East. The audience responded with a standing ovation -- which (forgive me) is not that easy for many of those in the crowd. The people who come here tend to be on the older side. Or as B and I acknowledge when we see all those gray heads, "This is our demographic."

     Yes, there are a few families here, with some kids running around, but I'd say it's much more common to see older couples walking along the streets. And there's plenty of room for wheelchairs at the amphitheater.

     The demographic is definitely older, white, middle and upper-middle class. But people do come from all over. We've met couples from Missouri and North Carolina. There are of course plenty of people from New York and Pennsylvania. I've been surprised at how many people come from Ohio. I guess it shouldn't seem that extraordinary. We're only about 50 miles from Ohio. It's just that (forgive me again), when do you meet anyone who lives in Ohio? When do you even think about Ohio?

The snack bar
     We've been to two concerts so far, and a dance recital; and on Wednesday we're seeing a production of The Tempest. B went to the interfaith church service on Sunday, while I, er... I decided to commune with nature by sitting on our front porch and reading some background material on the Middle East.

     The Institute also offers a whole series of classes, covering art, crafts, language, literature, religion and philosophy. B had signed up for three classes before we even got here. I'd signed up for nothing. I figured the music and the theater and the morning lectures would be quite enough.

Fareed Zakaria speaks to our mature audience
    But I got embarrassed at my blank dance card, at least compared to the one B had filled out. So I finally decided to start a photography class.

     The photos you see here today are those I'd taken before I started my class, which runs for two hours, every afternoon for the rest of the week. So I'm going to be busy for the next few days, and will probably not be able to produce another blog post until sometime next week.

     At which point I will display my new photographs. And then you can be the judge about whether or not I learned anything.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Fall Girl

     When I was in junior high school, my parents bundled us four kids into the Buick, and the family started off on vacation. We were planning to make the long drive -- because everyone has to see this place once in their life -- while making a few stops along the way. But two days into the trip my dad called in to check at his office, and he was told that his boss, his long-time mentor, had suffered a heart attack (and died shortly after). So my dad cancelled our vacation, and we turned around and went home.

     It's taken me half a century to complete the trip. But I finally made it.

     Where am I? Do you know your coordinates? I'm at approx. 43 degrees N and 79 degrees W.

     The place is almost a cliche, the butt of many jokes. 

     It's called the Queen City. Also, a city of water, with a lake, a river and a canal. They're doing some revitalization along the waterfront of Lake Erie. A new Blue Cross/Blue Shield building recently opened up downtown, along with a modern-looking Federal courthouse. Next to our big old hotel, which has been mostly renovated, is a hip-looking building that houses NPR and the local PBS affiliate. A huge new hockey complex is going up. And there are a few funky neighborhoods where 20-something hipsters live -- people connected to the university, or the expanding medical complex, or who work in some aspect of computer technology.
View from downtown hotel

One of the city's nicer streets, in the Elmwood neighborhood

     But for the most part, this is still an old manufacturing, rustbelt city:  Buffalo, NY.

     But when you get here, a few miles north of town, no matter how much you've heard about it -- the honeymoon jokes, the over-the-falls-in-a-barrel jokes -- there's a truly awesome site. It's absolutely mind boggling.

Something's coming


Niagara Falls!

The American viewing platform

The Canadian side

See the rainbow?

     By the way, the first person ever to go over the falls in a barrel and survive was an American woman, Annie Edson Taylor, who did it on her 63rd birthday, Oct. 21, 1901. She readily admitted it was a stunt to make money, but while she did get her 15 minutes of fame, she never was able to cash in on the feat. She spent the rest of her life posing for pictures and talking about taking another plunge. She died in 1921 at age 82 and is buried in the town of Niagara Falls.

     So, take my advice ... don't try it!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Piece of the In-Crowd

     When I was in junior high school, and in high school, there was nothing I wanted more than to be part of the In-crowd. The idea consumed my life. I tried to hang out with the "in" people as much as I could -- as much as they would let me -- and I felt a deep hole in my stomach when I was left out of one of their activities.

     Honestly, I don't know why I was so obsessed with that crowd. Most of those people didn't do much that was very interesting -- although as we got a little older they were the ones who had parties, where you could drink as much Coke as you wanted, eat as many potato chips, and slow dance with the coolest, best-looking girls.

     Maybe it was the chance to slow dance with the best-looking girls. For the best looking girls definitely formed the In-crowd on the female side of the aisle, led by Julie, the prettiest girl in the class. But, honestly, must of those good looking girls were not particularly interesting or smart or unique in any way -- although, to be fair, Julie was nicer to me than she ever had to be.

     There was one girl, though. Her name was Sharon. She had striking reddish-blonde hair and ... well, she had developed physically, which captured the attention of the boys in junior high. She was definitely part of the In-crowd.

     Obviously, I was attracted to Sharon, and was thrilled when we were assigned to be lab partners for biology class, which we took in 8th grade because we were in the honors section.

     In our third or fourth lab session, the teacher introduced us to the concept of cells. I remember standing there at the lab bench next to Sharon, when the teacher directed one member of each team to swab the inside of their mouth with a little stick. Sharon volunteered to be the swabber for us. And so she took the stick, opened her mouth, and wiggled the stick inside her mouth, scraping off some cells from the inside of her cheek.

      She took the stick out and proudly held it out to me. There was the stick, with this glob of goop hanging off the end, all drippy and shiny and looking kind of like snot.

     I took one look at it -- and immediately lost my attraction to my lab partner. But that was actually a good thing, because from then on I could concentrate on biology instead of Sharon. And as I remember, we both went on to get A's in that class (well, Sharon did anyway).

     It was also in 8th grade when I caught wind of a rumor. The four coolest boys in our class were forming a club. They called themselves The Mamas. They let it be known that they had a secret handshake, and met together after school. Of course, all this made them even cooler than before.

     As soon as knowledge of The Mamas got out, another group of boys who were almost as cool decided to get together and form a second group which they called The Papas. One of the boys, Larry, approached me to see if I'd be interested in joining The Papas. I was thrilled to be asked and told Larry, sure, count me in.

     But a day or two later, Larry found me in the school hallway, and informed me that they'd decided to offer someone else the fourth spot in The Papas. I was out. I was rejected. Just one more leftover loser in 8th grade.

     A few days later another friend of mine, a neighbor named Mike, started making fun of The Mamas and The Papas out on the playground. He snickered at them -- not to their faces, but to me and another friend of ours, David, who lived up the hill behind my house. Then Mike suggested the three of us form our own group. I, of course, feeling rejected, jumped at the chance.

     We called ourselves the Three Little Pigs -- an obvious reference to the two groups that were more "in" than we were. But it was also obvious to everyone that we were making fun of the other guys who thought they were so very cool. Which, we thought, made us cool.

     The whole thing burned out in a few weeks, and was soon forgotten. But the next time we all convened for a party on a Saturday night, the lights went down, the slow song came on, and I summoned up the nerve to ask Julie to dance with me. I was floored when she said yes. And we slow danced under the dim lights for the length of the next record.

     But then, a few minutes later, I saw her with Larry. They were talking. And giggling. Then they were dancing. And I was back to drinking Coke and eating potato chips with Mike and David.

     Finally, when I got to college, I lost interest in trying to be in the In-crowd -- partly because there were too many people in college for there to be a single In-crowd. There were athletes who were cool; there was a theater group that thought it was cool; the kids who ran the school newspaper were cool in a certain way; and a lot of fraternity brothers thought they were super cool.
     I finally realized what I needed to do was not try to be cool, but to do my own thing -- which I eventually did, and found my own group of friends who liked me and accepted me, and who were interesting, and even cool in their own way.

      In other words, what I learned was, I'll always be a Three Little Pig.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Remember Him?

     He was born on August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, NY, while his father was attending Cornell University to earn a master's degree in agriculture. His father went on to become a professor at Alabama A&M, and hold other positions at several southern universities.

     He was the grandson of slaves -- both his grandparents on his father's side had been slaves who had been fathered by white slave owners.

     He attended Alcorn State University, a black college in Mississippi, where his father had gone to school. After one year he transferred to Elizabeth City State College in North Carolina. And a year after that he withdrew from college altogether. His father decided he needed some discipline and persuaded the boy to enlist in the military. So in May 1939 be began a 20-year career with the Coast Guard.

     He started as a mess attendant and advanced to petty officer third class. He worked in the kitchen, washing dishes, stocking food, serving meals.

     He was sent to the Pacific during World War II and, with the long hours of boredom aboard ship, he began writing stories. He had a natural talent, and pretty soon other sailors began paying him to write their love letters home to their girlfriends.

     After World War II he stayed in the Coast Guard and advanced to petty officer first class and then chief petty officer. He won several awards and decorations including a Coast Guard Good Conduct Medal and an Expert Marksmanship Medal.

     He retired from the Coast Guard in 1959 to try to make his living as a journalist. In 1962 he conducted the first interview for a fledgling new magazine called Playboy. His subject was jazz great Miles Davis, and he got the musician to reveal his thoughts and feelings about racism. He went on to do other Playboy interviews with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammed Ali, Quincy Jones, Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis, Jr. He also interviewed the head of the American Nazi Party, who agreed to meet with him only after he assured the Nazi leader that he was not Jewish.

     For his first book, he collaborated with Malcolm X to recount the black leader's journey from street criminal to national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. The book, The Autobiography of Malcom X, was published soon after Malcolm X's February 1965 assassination. It became a bestseller -- and later was named by Time magazine as one of the ten most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century.

     During the 1960s and '70s he worked for various publications, including Reader's Digest which helped to bankroll his next project. He had become interested in his ancestry, and spent ten years researching his past and traveling around the world to track down his ancestors. He went to the village of Juffure, Gambia, where his seventh-generation forebearer named Kunta Kinte grew up, before he was captured and brought to America aboard The Lord Ligonier.

     And by now you must know the man is Alex Haley, Jr., who said the most emotional moment of his life occurred on Sept. 27, 1967, when he stood at the site in Annapolis, Md., where his ancestor Kunta Kinte arrived from Africa in chains, exactly 200 years before. Today there is a Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial in downtown Annapolis, which depicts Haley reading a story to young children.

     Haley's novel Roots, published in August 1976, became a runaway bestseller, and the subsequent TV mini-series, which ran early in 1977, reached a record-breaking 130 million viewers. Haley's book earned a Pulitzer prize, and the show won nine Emmy awards.

     Genealogists have since questioned some of Haley's research. In addition, writer Harold Courlander charged that Haley had plagiarized some of his work from his novel The African. Haley and Courlander eventually settled the suit with a financial payment and a statement that "Alex Haley acknowledges and regrets that various materials from The African by Harold Courlander found their way into his book Roots."

     In the late 1970s Haley began working on another book that traced the story of his grandmother. But Haley died in 1992 with the work still in progress. It was finished by author David Stevens and published as Alex Haley's Queen in 1993.

    Today, most historians believe that Roots is more a work of imagination than strict historical scholarship. Haley himself never denied that his book was a work of fiction, although he maintained to the end that he had found his real ancestor, Kunta Kinte, and had traced the boy to his fate in America.

     Regardless, Alex Haley remains the bestselling African American writer of all time. He sparked a new interest in genealogy among Americans, and he changed the way his fellow countrymen viewed the world, and the history, of African Americans.