Author Archives: Ellen Blanchette

Delectable Durang: A Collection of Six Unruly Comedies

My review of this show was originally published in the Montague Reporter on October 4, 2018. Performances at the Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, Massachusetts, ran from September 27 through October 7, 2018. The Montague Reporter is a local, non-profit newspaper, published once a week in Turners Falls, Massachusetts.  All photography by Ellen Blanchette

“Nina in the Morning” with Kimberly Salditt-Poulin as Nina and Julian Findlay as Nina’s son, James, here showing his cruel side as he torments her about her appearance while she worries about growing older.

For today’s complex world, a little laughter provides relief. As luck would have it, here is Delectable Durang: A Collection of Six Unruly Comedies by Christopher Durang, the latest Silverthorne Theater Company production is now at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, providing just such an opportunity. Executive Producer Lucinda Kidder completes the company’s fifth season with this surprising comedy, providing lots of laughter thanks to this group of talented actors and the wild, free wheeling ideas of Christopher Durang, an American playwright who takes an unusual approach to the issues facing us, asking us to look at the things we fear and laugh.

Chris Devine plays Foote, a kind of butler who serves Nina loyally if somewhat cynically in “Nina in the Morning.”

These six one-act plays by Christopher Durang selected by the Silverthorne Theater Company have certain themes that run through them, even on occasion certain lines that repeat from one play to another, creating a flow that appears to connect them but may instead be meant to confound us. They seems to offer a cohesive, if complicated world view, but never choose one point of view over another. Instead Durang pits these ideas against each other, looking at dark sinister concepts along side the lighter, optimism view. So we see a cruel mother, (Nina in the Morning) or is it the son who is really cruel? Does he have good reason or is he just mean? No matter. Each view is presented in the most humorous manner, with so much physical comedy that one forgets to notice the underlying cruelty of the characters, or the tragic lonely desperation they may feel.

The one-act play, “Women in a Playground” by Durang with, left to right, Stephanie Carlson and Corinne Elisabeth.

Two mothers sit in a park, watching their children play (Women In A Playground). One sees all the dangers her child faces, and all the years of struggle ahead with misbehavior she may face, while the other sees only joy, certain of the goodness she can expect in life. Which is correct? Does it matter? The humor lies in the clash of the two points of view, as each undermines the other. Think life is so good? Wait, it will change.

Julian Findlay as Lawrence in “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls” with Stephanie Carlson as Amanda.

The gloomy pessimism of some of the characters frequently bumps up against politically incorrect thoughts. People say shocking things while reacting in wildly melodramatic ways to small, ordinary events. A boy who is really a man, obsessed with his collection of things no one would every value, hysterical when one is broken. Sad, miserable, no – funny, because his reaction is so over the top and in some way we can all identify with it, as we all know we are silly sometimes, foolish in our love of our possessions. People collect dolls long after they are grown. I had a friend who collected door stops, far too many to be useful. Some collect comic books, baseball cards then years later have to figure out what to do with them. So we laugh at him when he looses his mind over a broken swizzle stick.

It doesn’t hurt that the actors are so very good, willing to act (or over-react) in such bizarre ways. The cast functions as a mini-repertory company, with everything happening onstage. The actors change the sets right in front of the audience, change costumes quickly, sometimes wearing a costume for the next play in the last one even if it’s inappropriate to the scene.

Dave (Thom Griffin) sits on a bench and Polly (Kimberly Salditt-Poulin) stops to chat and gets a lot more than she bargained for in “One Minute Play.”

Silverthorne makes a point of hiring local talent when they can. These cast members are: Stephanie Carlson (Easthampton), Chris Devine (Sunderland), Corinne Elizabeth (Sunderland), Julian Findlay (Warwick), Thom Griffin (Colrain), and Kimberly Salditt-Poulin (Amherst). Director John Reese lives in Greenfield and was Deerfield Academy’s Theater Program Director. Also behind the scenes, Joan Haley, Stage Manager (Conway), John Iverson, Technical Director and Designer (Bernardston), Reba-Jean Shaw Pichette and Piper Pichette, Costume Designers (Deerfield). Executive Producer Lucinda Kidder lives in Turners Falls.

Each cast member brings a special quality to their various characters. Julian Findlay is especially good at physical comedy, with quick changes in mood and posture, throwing himself, literally, into the parts he plays. He can be gentle, frightened, cringing (For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls) at the suggestion he socialize with a woman. Or he can be horrible, cruel to his mother as he smiles with evil pleasure at torturing her (Nina in the Morning). Kimberly Salditt-Poulin shows a range of emotions as Nina in the same play, reacting to her son with pathos drenched in self pity. How obsessed she is with her fading beauty comes through in the melodrama of pure selfishness. No one would ever actually live like this, and so it is a caricature of reality; awful and yet to watch it, so very funny. Timing is everything and these actors under the clever guidance of director John Reese have got it.

Kimberly also plays a heartless friend who makes the mistake of stopping to chat with the very depressed Dave, played by Thom Griffin. His body posture reflects the careless resignation to a total failure of his life. Their momentary encounter brings out a theme that occurs throughout, the reality that death is out there, as a choice, or inevitable end. Where Kimberly as Nina says, “Lunch, or death,” and Thom as Dave says, with cheerful resignation, “Tomorrow, death.” That these lines can sound so morbid and yet fill the room with laughter shows the value of humor in facing realities we all do our best to avoid.

In Medea, the Greek classic re-imagined in Durang’s mind, Stephanie Carlson reaches deep inside herself to portray a woman wronged and filled with desire for violent revenge. Drama could not be more bold as she threatens everyone, supported by a Greek chorus made up of Kimberly, Thom and Corinne Elizabeth. Chris Devine comes in on a horse, making very believable horsey sounds, smiling through it all as he ignores Medea’s threats and they all manage to bring about the happy ending (assisted by an angel played by Julian, on a ladder, with wings) and joyous music to the tune of “Camp Town Races.”

The saving grace at the end of the six plays comes when Medea (Stephanie Carlson) distraught about her husband leaving her, is visited by an angel (Julian Findlay).

There is no way to fully describe the juxtaposition of music, words, concepts, references, complex feelings, issues of sexuality prejudice and vanity so the best thing to do would be to just say, this is a rare opportunity to see a group of professional actors performing in a series of one act plays by and exceptional playwright directed by the brilliant actor/director John Reese with an gift for comic timing all of whom we are lucky enough to have here in the Pioneer Valley.


Reaching Out

The view across the Connecticut River in Turners Falls, MA  ~ December 2004.
Photography by Ellen Blanchette.

I have been so fortunate in working for the Montague Reporter in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. They have given me the opportunity to write a variety of articles this year including a new column about my experiences moving from Brooklyn, New York to Western Massachusetts in 2002. I also recently wrote an article about the limitations of public housing which was a departure for me from news reporting to expressing my own opinion in print. I think perhaps I’ll continue to look at that kind of reporting from time to time.  It is harder to just focus on the day to day news with the national challenges to our hard won accomplishments, forcing us to reconsider our positions on such matters as health care, child care, discrimination, immigration as well as the education of our children and how that is affected by social pressures and economic fairness.

I’ve also spent a lot of time in the last few years doing theater reviews and that has proven most enjoyable. The local theater companies have been so generous in opening their process to me, allowing me to photograph their work and watch their theatrical development, which has given me a unique opportunity to review a performance with better understanding of what went into creating that work. I grew up in a family that appreciated the creative arts and considered knowledge of art, music, theater, dance to be vital to the education of their children. In sharing this with others, I find the arts to be of great value to all the members of our community, young and old. And I find myself increasing my own inclination to be creative, bringing my own art out to the community. And so I will be sharing some of that here on my own blog, including posting some of my past writing here to share with a wider audience. I hope you enjoy it.

Being An Artist

An exquisite Hydrangea was in full bloom when we visited Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia, PA on  June 14, 2015.

It took me a long time to get to where I considered myself an artist. Perhaps it’s because I stepped away from it when I left art school in the 1960’s and mostly gave up my creative endeavors for many years.  Art school was tough for me.  I suffered from two major health crisis while I was there, plus super fights with my parents during my freshman year.  Hard to imagine now, in retrospect, what could have been in my brain, thinking it was a good idea to continue to live at home with my parents while attending college. I suppose I’m not the only one to do this, and I’m guessing my parents were the ones pushing it.  Mom always seemed to want to keep me close to home.  And probably the money was no small matter. They were both professionals, both with what looked like good jobs but not exactly rich.  Money was always tight.  Mom worrying over the bills each month.  Smart ass kid, I used to try to understand it, thought I could help.  By getting a job maybe.

When I left art school I moved to New York City.  I had big dreams. I wanted to sing.  I wanted to perform on the musical stage.  I got accepted to a small show being put on by a choreographer named Phil Black.  I was used to high school performances, big shows with lots of performers, no expense spared.  Beyond that all I knew was Broadway.  I didn’t have any understanding of the way things worked.  I stuck with the show until I saw the public school in Queens where we were going to perform.  I was disappointed and totally creeped out.  I thought, “What am I doing here?” and quit.

Lots of auditions followed but the process was not easy and the boys and the beach called out to me.  In no time I was dating and having a great time.  I got married, had a baby. Life got to be more about family.  I still liked to paint, draw, but there was a baby around now, and making a mess was not possible. So over time, my art form became photography.  For years it was just a distraction, something to entertain myself.  Not serious.

I do take it more seriously now but still, what is it that makes it art?  Is it when it’s beautiful, like some of the flower photos I take? Or is it when it reflects the human condition in some way?  Or is it just some innate quality that make some think, “Wow, that’s incredible,” while others think, “Boy is that weird!”  That’s kind of how I feel when I look at the choices for museums and award winners for arts grants and such. So I don’t know what makes something art in the wider sense, but I do know, today, that I am an artist and do say that with pride.Whether others think my work is art or just pretty, or interesting, informative, I’m happy if it pleases me.  I am my first and most important audience.


Inside Brigadoon

Azelie Aquadro (Fiona) and Josh Warren (Tommy) in rehearsal at the Shea Theater July 2010.

This is the unedited text of an article published in the July 8, 2010 edition of the Montague Reporter, a local weekly newspaper. In the interest of space and the editors preferences some changes were made to the published version. ~ Ellen Blanchette

For the past several months I have been in rehearsal for Brigadoon, the musical opening this weekend at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls. The Country Players produce one musical a year for the Shea Theater and this year it’s Brigadoon, by Lerner and Lowe, a magical concept of a Scottish town that appears only once every hundred years. It has a love story, of course, and lots of gorgeous music for us to sing, some dancing and lots of fun. For all the hard work and long hours of rehearsals, basically it is the fun of it that makes us want to stick with it, face our fears of making total fools of ourselves, and get out there on stage and sing and dance our hearts out for the audience.

Tim Wilder (Charlie) dancing with Marybeth Mizula (Jean) in a pre-wedding ballet that defies tradition.

It has always been my dream to be in musical theater. Ever since I was a young child and had a taste of what it felt like to perform on stage, this dream has persisted in my mind. It was why I moved to New York City in the mid-1960’s, why I took classes at HB Studio in lower Manhattan, grateful for the opportunity to study with renowned actors like with Sandy Dennis and William Hickey, and musical performance with George Axeltree. It was why I kept all of my sheet music and kept learning songs well past the age when it seemed to make sense. I love art and writing very much, but music is my heart. So here I am, forty years after my last stage performance back in the theater. As it turns out, I’m not alone in this process. As I talked to my fellow actors this week, I found many who had put aside their love of theater for other pursuits, only to return.

Azelie Aquadro, playing the romantic lead (Fiona) had set aside her love of theater to study English and Linguistics at Boston University. It was her friend, Ashley Blom, who she’d known in high school, who brought her back to community theater. Ashley plays Meg, a lively girl who is surely a bit of a tart, more or less the opposite of Fiona who is waiting for the right man to come along. Both of these beautiful, talented young women bring life to their parts and make the show an absolute pleasure. Azelie has a lovely high soprano voice and a charm and beauty that is unpretentious and delightful. Ashley has a strong voice and stage presence and great comic timing. Playing the male romantic lead is Joshua Kenneth Warren. Josh has a strong elegant singing voice, an ability to make each scene with Azelie (Fiona) truly romantic. The two of them singing their love songs will surely bring some tears.

Ashley Blom plays Meg in Brigadoon. Here in the rocking chair Meg’s mother sat in while her father slept (so the story goes.)There is a real family aspect to the Country Players. Of the Connelly family, there is Amy, the director, her daughters Maureen, the producer, and Emma who is part of the production staff. Then there is Dave Grout who is Maureen’s husband and a very funny man with a natural gift for physical humor in the tradition of such greats as Jackie Gleason. Dave plays Jeff, one of the two strangers from the 20th century that wander into this town caught in time. Along with Tommy (Josh) his traveling companion who is as serious, romantic, thoughtful as Jeff is the cynic, the two play off of each other in a contrast of life views, with Tommy struggling to have faith in what he believes and Jeff arguing for rational thought, with humor, of course. Dave Grout has also served a vital role as assistant director of the show.

Dave Grout, Alex Fortune, and Ashley Blom

Every aspect of the development of this show has been done with good humor, kindness, and great consideration for the feelings of the actors, many of whom are quite young. The cast goes from elders who have been part of the Country Players for many years, to young people who have just started performing. Jack Arnot, playing a village elder, Mr. MacLaren, has been with the Country Players for almost 30 years. Maureen Connelly says she started at 7 years old when her mother took her to audition for The King and I, beginning their involvement with this group that has lasted for over 15 years. Amy Connelly has been a producer, director and much more over the years. This is her first time directing a musical.

Maureen Connelly Grout, left, with Jeanne Miller, Sarah Rose Adan, Hannah Winans and Angela Grove.

The lovely Maureen has a smile that would light a room on the darkest day. She has been exceptionally kind to me as I struggled to find my way to face the challenging reality of working in live theater. We are so lucky to have as our musical director the talented Amy Crawford, whom I have known in the past as the accompanist for the GCC Chorus. She has also worked as musical director for many previous shows. Also, I must give credit to the talented choreographer, Haley Descavich who has worked tirelessly to make us all look good while we dance.

I must say something about the kids who are taking part in the show. They are serious minded and professional in their approach to the show even as they lend a spirit of carefree fun to our rehearsals and demonstrate the kind of joy in their performance that only the young and therefore unselfconscious can display. Among them, Stone Dresser, a fine dancer and charming young man. He was in fifth grade at Sheffield this year, formerly attended Montague Center School. He plans to attend Gill Elementary in the Fall. Spencer Hubert, now in eighth grade at Great Falls Middle School is a member of the Middle School Concert Band and the Turners Falls High School Marching Band, playing trumpet. Spenser sings and dances like a pro. Sarah Rose Aden from Erving will be going into eighth grade at Frontier Regional High School in the fall. This is her third show with the Country Players. Hannah Winans of Conway is 12 years old, just graduated from sixth grade. She has been doing musicals for five years. William Anderson Gregory loves to dance. This is his first theater production, joining his father, Weldon Gregory who told me this is his first show in 20 years, since high school days.

While we have been busy rehearsing, Gail Villieneuve has been busy working on costumes for all of us to wear. She has been assisted by Sharon Weyers and Judy Delany. Judy is married to Dr. Bob Delany who plays Mr. Lundy in the show and has been with the Country players for many years. So it seems to me that I have now joined a very large family, one that loves to sing and dance and play. We are in final rehearsals this week, opening in just a few days. I hope everyone will come see the show. There are still two shows left, Saturday evening, July 17 at 8 p.m. and the matinee on Sunday, July 18 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at the Shea Theater box office in Turners Falls. Reservations can be made by calling 413-863-2281.

A Musical Gift for the Holidays

Shelburne Falls, MA

Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts

These two songs sung by Ellen Blanchette and recorded on December 25, 2009, offered here  as a gift to friends and loved ones.  I hope you enjoy them. For those of you who like me were in the class of ’61, these songs should bring back fond memories. The love songs of our youth, when love was new and very romantic. Click on the link to play the song.

Mr. Wonderful

Loving You

I tried late last night (which was actually very early this morning) to post these songs on my facebook page.  It seems facebook doesn’t let you do that.  I even sent off an email around 2:30 a.m. to my friend Adam Bergeron to ask him how he posted his music to a facebook fan page.  Not that I expected an answer right then but it was a last bit of desperation before I let myself go to sleep. ÂThen this morning, as I lay listening to NPR and doing my lazy wake-up slowly thing I like to do when there’s nothing important to get up for, the answer suddenly occurred to me.  Isn’t it interesting how the mind continues to work on a problem while we sleep?  The solution, which I do hope works, is to post it here and then post the link to this page on facebook.

I was inspired to record this song as a gift to my fellow Overbrook High School classmates and my former high school sweetheart who said something very kind about my singing voice when we first reconnected. Music was the very most important thing in my life when I was a young girl. I sang all the time. It was in many ways the only thing that made me happy, and kept me going to school.  I didn’t like school, wasn’t smart like most of my classmates.  It was hard for me to learn things and I spent many hours doing homework and studying in order to maintain a generally B and C grade level. The rare A occurred only if there was a teacher or a subject in which I was actually interested.  That didn’t happen often. Mr. Loper’s chorus, which met every day at lunch hour, and brought us out to perform during this holiday season to places like Ocean City, NJ as well as our own school auditorium, and All City Chorus competition, gave me something in my life that truly mattered. What I learned there enriched my life and gave me skills that I have continued to use throughout my adult life.

I doubt many of my classmates, or even my closest childhood friends, knew that I was an unhappy child with many stresses at home.  Singing was what I did then to lift my spirits.  Singing these songs last night woke me up and kept me up because when I sing it fills me with energy and joy.

Until recently I hadn’t thought much about my former classmates, many of whom who went all through school with me.  We never saw each other after graduation.  We went off to college or other lives in other places.  We didn’t live close together, our parents didn’t know each other except for those in my own little neighborhood.  I am surprised at how much their presence in my life has comforted me in these my elder years. It brought back happy memories and let me view that part of my life in a much more positive way than I had before.  I am grateful for their return to my life and so I offer this gift of music to them and to all of my friends and loved ones.

Life Takes It’s Own Path


The last of the spring iris blooming in Turner Falls- June 25, 2009

The last of the spring iris blooming in Turner Falls- June 25, 2009

I’ve been neglecting this blog for most of the year. I got busy doing other things. Living life. I signed up for a class last fall without planning to. I met Margery Heins in Fosters Market in Greenfield, Mass. which is where I go for most things because there’s not much in Turners Falls. Somehow she managed to talk me into joining the Greenfield Community College chorus. She’s the director/professor. She told me she needed sopranos and I should come sing with them. It’s a little confusing because this is a class but functions as a regular choir. She has us perform all over the place and does twice as much as would normally be required of a class. I belonged back in 2005 and it was a lot of fun but they changed some rules and I couldn’t get a “senior waiver” for tuition so I didn’t go back. I turned her down at first. Then it played on my mind. The draw of music. How I love to sing. So I joined. I’d forgotten how much work it was. I was exhausted. I got sick. I kept going, kept singing, almost died of fatigue but still showed up. Something in me drives me to work and do my best no matter what the obstacles. That’s good and bad. It’s how I destroyed my health years ago, working in the city, taking the train back and forth from Brooklyn to Manhattan, ignoring the pain in my body. Everyone does it. I thought when I moved to the country it would be easier but my health was too compromised by then. So I retired early and thought I’d just stop. Apparently I don’t know how to stop.

I didn’t go back to chorus this spring but when I saw a seminar being taught by the well respected photographer, Tom Young, I ran in and signed up. It was quite a challenge and I’ll talk more about it in the future, but it gave me a new way to look at my photography. I think I was getting bored with photographing the same things all the time. However much other people liked my work, I was beginning to lose interest. Tom got me to look at things differently and now I go out with a new attitude. I’m noticing things I never saw before and even finding old work that I ignored because it wasn’t what I thought I wanted. Now I see it differently.

So the question isn’t anymore about whether it’s business or art. Art is all there is. The question seems to be is it commercial art, or is it fine art. And what is the difference? And can it be both?

That is the question that the work itself will answer.



In the dark days of winter these plants brighten our lives.

“Holiday Poinsettia” photo by Ellen Blanchette

On the New York Times website are photos from the concert at the Lincoln Memorial this afternoon.  Great photos of the people gathered to see it, of the President and Vice President elect along with their families, and the artists who performed.  Along with the photos are some descriptions of the event – who sang, what they said, what Barack Obama said.  On the Huffington Post I found a link to a web broadcast of the concert.  Unfortunately, by the time I found it, the concert was over.  If I like, though, I can go back at 7 p.m. or 11 p.m. and try again.  This generous gesture from HBO does some small bit to make up for the fact that they basically stole this event from the American people by purchasing the exclusive rights to the broadcast.  Why stole, you may ask, if they paid for the rights?  Because this was not something that should have been sold.  This was part of the Inaugural events that should be open and freely available to everyone whether they could afford access to HBO on cable or through it’s internet link.  This is a part of history, it is a public event that could only be held as exclusive if all the other networks and news organizations were willing to accept the fact that they couldn’t cover it.  What was it that made ABC cover Obama’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial live but not show the concert?  Somebody told them not to?  How dare anyone decide that something held on public property, with the participation of our newly elected public officials participating, an event leading up to the swearing in of our 44th President, with millions of people excited to see everything to do with the day that we finally get to see the new President take office, how dare they steal this and keep it for the few from the many?  By what right?

Why do I care about this?  Because it is just another example of how free TV is being replaced by pay TV. There is an assumption that everyone has cable.  They don’t.  There is an expectation that most people can have access to the internet. Not true. People think that because libraries have computers and there are schools with internet access that the majority of Americans are connected.  They are not.  Most people living under the poverty level cannot afford the $100+ per month to pay for cable.  Dial-up internet barely gets you anything anymore with the bandwidth required for any live streaming totally beyond what such old-fashioned methods allow.  And libraries?  Are you kidding?  In our town the library has maybe four computers available when they’re open and that’s not all that much so what are they talking about?  That’s for people who want to go check email in the afternoon on their way to the grocery.  It’s more a way of life for penny-pinching senior citizens. For anyone with serious interest in anything more, a home computer and internet connection is what they need.  I pay for it because I couldn’t stand doing without it, and I offset the cost by using it for my phone service, which makes it cheaper than any land-line telephone service alone.  Still, it’s money I really shouldn’t spend. Anybody living below the poverty level with kids to feed is never going to be able to afford it.  As for cable, I only have what they call “basic” which means I get to pay for what I used to get for free, network broadcasts plus some a couple of extra channels that offer nothing much of value.  There’s a debate in the courts now about maybe cable companies won’t be required to carry C-SPAN if they have to offer too many local access stations.  Our local access channels (which I do have) carry a little of this and that, some local bands, some talk between a couple of geezers, mostly poorly shot with generally terrible sound quality. They cover town meetings, which is of value although probably pretty boring for most people.  They do have a kind of neat view of the eagle bird’s nest above Barton Cove. You can watch the chicks get hatched and the eagles feeding the chicks and all, very cool.  But should this replace CSPAN?  No.  Not that I get CSPAN.  I would have to subscribe to an “expanded standard” cable package.  So, no CSPAN, no CNN, and mostly I’m locked out of everything important that goes on because the networks have abdicated their responsibility for news coverage, claiming they no longer have to because now there’s all those cable news channels.  Is this anyway to run a country?  Nope.


Falls behind the Montague Book Mill

Falls behind the Montague Book Mill, December 22, 2008

On Monday I went to the Book Mill in Montague to photograph a lovely young women who at 17 years old is in her senior year at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  She began the program at the university when she was 14.  David Detmold of “The Montague Reporter” asked me to take the photo for the paper. Someone else had already written the article so all I had to do was meet her and take the picture and leave but I chose not to rush.  I like to take my time with portraits.  It helps me get a better picture if I can get the person to relax and quit paying attention to the camera. It gave me an opportunity to talk with her and she turned out to be totally charming.  She said in public school her 4th grade teacher made her sit off by herself because she didn’t know what to do with her. I thought that was awful.  What a wasted opportunity on the part of the teacher.  After that her mother home-schooled her, and then the university brought her into a program they had for exceptionally bright young people.

That morning I drove very slowly on roughly plowed streets to get to the mostly frozen bookstore/restaurant. Today the roads are clear of snow although it’s still piled up on lawns and open spaces.  The ice has been melted by warmer temperatures. What’s left behind is sand and gravel that makes the road crackle under my tires.  In the higher elevation there is still ice along the side of the road, and slush that makes the ride up and down the hills quite a challenge. As I drove through the forest Saturday night on my way to Wendell, it was the fog that made the trip heart-stopping.  I surely held my breath through most of the 30 minute drive with no cars on the road ahead of me to follow and no visibility beyond the range of my headlights.  Putting on the brights only made the lights bounce back at me off the fog. The party, however, was totally worth it with a live band to die for and fun people to share the night.  It was a 60th birthday party for an old friend who danced the night away with the energy of a teenager. Hooray for Deva!

While we party and celebrate family events and the long awaited end of 2008, we also wait for the world to change. We are holding our breath waiting for our new President to take office.  We are waiting for signs that the economy will improve before we go out and buy that sweater or new pair of boots.  Truth be told, if we just wait a little bit longer we won’t need those sweaters or boots because spring will be just over the horizon and we’ll be thinking of summer clothes. Sometimes waiting brings change that makes new opportunity possible.  If I were in the garment business, I’d be thinking about really great summer dresses. When’s the last time anybody had a nice summer dress for us to buy?

Barack Obama said during the campaign that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  The meaning of this was unclear to a lot of people (and frequently made fun of by the press) but his supporters seemed to get it.  Did they?  Or did they just like the sound of it?

I took it to mean that we are the ones that will solve the problems of this nation. We wait, and wait, for a leader or a saviour but in fact we are the ones that have to save ourselves.

Take the matter of clothing.  Of all the reasons out there for the disappointing holiday sales, the one most overlooked is the total lack of invention and creative thinking in the garment industry. Having made the decision to outsource most of the production of clothing to third world nations like Vietnam and Hondorus, a choice promptly followed by a dumbing down of the clothing designs to accommodate the less experienced employee pool, what is found in most clothing stores is just plain boring.  I say, if clothing manufacturers want to improve their sales, and really this is true for all categories of products, they need to bring their production back home to the good, well educated, experienced, American workers who have produced quality goods for over 50 years and were once considered to be the backbone of this society.  You cannot have a strong consumer economy without two things – good paying jobs and good quality products. If we start making things here at home, we build the quantity and quality of the goods we have to sell overseas. That helps solve our trade imbalance and improves the lives of Americans by giving them good paying jobs.  Which obviously gives them money to spend.  That is the way the economy used to work, before somebody decided that Americans could make less money and still spend lots of it on products that were made more and more overseas.

I never could understand how the economic policies of the conservatives, starting with the Reagan administration in the 1980s, were supposed to work.  It just didn’t make sense to me.  If they sent all our jobs overseas, who was it they expected to buy all those products when they brought them back to the U.S.?  The concept of outsourcing our jobs while still expecting the American people to keep shopping in order to support an economy built on American consumerism seemed bizarre. And yet, it worked for a really long time.  I finally got it after the entire system imploded a few months ago.  The answer was simply to provide a whole lot of credit to everyone and encourage Americans to borrow beyond their means and go into debt to purchase foreign made goods.  This house of cards was doomed to ultimately fail.  There have been warnings. The tech bubble. The Wall St. collapse in 1987, the recession at the end of the first Bush administration.  Sadly, the failings that caused that recession were overlooked and attributed to “bad actors” instead of the failure of supply-side economics.  Then we had trickle-down misery, with the rich mostly protected from the consequences of their bad behavior.  This time it just crashed down on everyone.

So why am I writing this – to depress everyone even more? No.  To say that we are the ones who can save this economy.  If the world depends on us buying their goods, then we should, prudently, return to buying what we need, and even a little of what we want, with an eye to saving some money in an actual bank so the banks won’t have to always have their hands out to the feds to give them money to lend.  If we continue to wait, and wait, and wait, then we are waiting for something that cannot come without us.  It is in fact our inaction that is at least in part responsible for the economic downturn that, ironically, is causing us to not shop. So, shopping is good as long as we have the money to pay for what we buy.  Spending is a necessary part of the process of living in this modern society.  Saving is very good and we should do more of it.  And cash is better than credit when you’ve got it but credit is good too, to get you through a time when you have less money than you need, as long as you can feel secure that in the future you’ll be able to pay it back. Digging yourself into a hole you can never get out of, that’s the part that’s bad.  And living like there’s no tomorrow is bad because tomorrow always comes and sometimes that can be a big surprise if you’ve been living in denial.  Reality.  That’s what this is.  In the end, we will all be better off living in reality.  Maybe then we can all stop taking all those anti-anxiety medications and we can get a night’s sleep without sleeping pills.  That would be a good thing.


Rockefeller Center holiday display December 2001
Angels & American Flags
Rockefeller Center, December 2001

I feel like the world is slowly collapsing around us as we sit and watch, helpless to stop it.  We are waiting for the new President.  We’re waiting for Wall Street to start acting rationally again.  We’re waiting for banks to start lending, for somebody to help the people who are daily being forced out of their homes as foreclosures continue unabated, for something to stop the constant loss of jobs and company closings.  We watch, we wait.  I’ve felt this way before.

It’s like the days after Katrina when the people of New Orleans couldn’t do anything but wait for someone to come help them.  The waters had stopped rising but everything was ruined.  There was no place to buy food, no fresh water, no way in or out of the city because there was water all around and so they sat in shelters or on roof tops while bodies floated by.  Those on dry land couldn’t get gas for their cars or money from their banks.  The gas stations were dry.  The banks were closed.  Nothing worked.

In the days after the attacks on the World Trade Center, the trains stopped running in Brooklyn where I lived.  The quiet was eerie. A lot of the stores were closed.  People were afraid of what would come next.  We hid in our homes, only going out for food or other necessities.  I remember I kept a radio in my ear as I did my errands because I was afraid to be away from the news for even a minute.  People put together survival packs with water and flashlights and portable radios and – yes, gas masks.  We were afraid someone would drop chemical weapons on us next.  We were afraid of everything.  People couldn’t sleep because every time they heard a plane fly overhead they thought it was another attack.  The whole city was sleep deprived, paranoid.  An entire new meaning to the saying, the city that never sleeps.

Now we wait while the members of the current administration try this and that, and mostly fail to make a difference.  They’ve spend billions of dollars to prop up the banking and financial institutions that were at fault to begin with.  Money that was supposed to be used to help people stay in their homes somehow ended up being spent on bonuses and dividends to stockholders in companies that back in September were supposedly about to collapse.  Nobody understands anything, the American people have absolutely no faith in those in charge, and so everyone is sitting and waiting for a sign that it’s safe to spend a few dollars on Christmas gifts before they take that risky trip to the mall.  We could all just skip Christmas, we’ve done it before.  In 2001 my son and I agreed there would be no holiday gifts exchanged. It just didn’t seem right.  Instead I sent out cards to all my friends and family with a photo of the American flags flying at Rockefeller Center in place of the usual gold and silver holiday flags.  Around the nation, the idea of all those American flags on display was taken to be a sign of patriotism.  For many of us in New York City it was more about honoring the dead – like the flags we put on graves on Memorial Day.  We were a city grieving, the flags were our way of expressing our grief.

Now in a way we are grieving again but nobody feels like flying flags.  We are the ones being buried now, buried under a mountain of debt.  We have been victims of multiple outrageous schemes that have stolen our future.  We look down a long tunnel of despair and fear is surely creeping back into our psyches once again.  We get daily advice from people on CNN who still have their jobs, preaching about being frugal and planning our 2009 budget, cheerful young folk who imagine that a 50 year old man with kids in college who just lost a high paying job and is now about to lose his home can solve his problems by planning a family budget.  Frugality is a given when you’ve lost everything.  With any luck the guy losing his home won’t have cable news anymore so he won’t have to listen to their nonsense.

After fiddling for a week, the President finally announced on Friday that he would give the money to the auto industry to keep them from collapsing along with the rest of the economy.  He did basically what he could have done a week ago but somehow needed to look like he was giving it a lot of thought first.  In the meantime the stock market did its panic dance and people stayed away from the stores wondering if they would have jobs next week.  Way to go W.

Everyone’s counting on Obama to save us.  NY Times columnist Tom Friedman wanted him to take over last month instead of waiting until January.  Too bad we have those pesky laws to get in our way.  I thought he was nuts when he said it but now I wonder if there will be much left to save by the time he gets to take the oath of office on January 20.  Of course, the lack of confidence in our future is at least in part due to the steady drumbeat of dire predictions – the statements of “the worst economic crisis since the great depression” do nothing to encourage the Americans who still have homes and jobs and money in their pockets to go out and spend some.  Having been on a 10 year shopping binge, there really isn’t all that much we need to buy right now and there’s nothing wrong with a nice pair of socks for a Christmas present.  Being frugal is what we’re all about right now.

The financial storm

Photo by Ellen Blanchette:  Cypress and Lily Pond
Chanticleer Gardens, Wayne PA, May 15, 2008

Reading about how the financial crisis keeps spreading ever outward, into the far reaches of the globe, makes me sad for all those who struggle yet somehow separate from it all. While thousands of people (or is it millions?) worry over the loss of everything, their homes, stock portfolios (I do have art portfolios, does that count?) now hedge funds whatever they are, I sit quietly in the eye of the storm with not a single thing changed in my life. That is because I have nothing and therefore nothing to lose.

I do have a safe warm place to live. I have food in my cupboard and in my refrigerator even if it is tiny and I keep hitting my head on the freezer door when I get up from looking inside. I have clothes, shoes, I do need a winter coat but no worry, my credit is intact.  In this upside down economy, as long as you pay your bills you are a good bet but if you own a house that once was worth $500,000 and now is worth only $300,000 you are up a creek. How does that make any sense?

The thing is that people in this country who are used to having a lot of stuff don’t know how to live without. They don’t know what I know, that in America, if you lose your job after working hard all your life, you should not starve or freeze. Unlike those people in China that I saw last week on TV, standing outside a factory that used to make stuff for Mattel, who had just lost their jobs and now were worried about being able to buy food for their children, in America we look out for our own. There are unemployment benefits, food stamps, help to get you through. There is a safety net.  And if you are elderly, there is Social Security to make sure you don’t suffer in your “golden years.” You don’t need a big house with solid gold bathroom faucets (Kenny Rogers once showed off his on some TV show years ago and I never forgot it.) You don’t need 10 bedrooms. You don’t need a big lawn or a lily pond although they are really nice. You need a roof over your head and food in your belly and some clothes to keep you warm. After that, it’s all gravy. And you know, gravy is fattening and may make you slow and lazy. There’s more to life than gravy.

There was a song years ago, The Best Things In Life Are Free. If you doubt that, go for a walk, look up at the sky, listen to the birds sing, watch the ducks play in the lake, or the seagulls fly over the ocean, watch some dogs play or some squirrels hunt for acorns in the grass and think about what it takes to live in this world and what makes you happy. I find when I’m doing something useful I feel better and when I worked for people whose only purpose in life was to make more money for themselves and other rich people who had more money than they knew what to do with I wasn’t happy at all. Our financial world is upside down because our values are upside down. A lot of people already know that. More will be learning the lesson now. Maybe in the end that’s a good thing.