March 30, 2004

The sun shines on school music program

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 3:27 pm

A year ago I wrote a column skewering Acalanes Union High School District superintendent Randy Olson and the Acalanes School Board for issuing preliminary layoff notices to district choral teachers. I had taken the news of those preliminary layoffs very personally. The day I heard, I called my husband at work in tears of anger, fear and frustration. He and I are both products of the choral music program at Acalanes and for each of us, singing at Acalanes was a highlight of our adolescence. One reason we wanted to raise our children within the district was so that they could one day participate in the wonderful arts programs these high schools provide for the students. To learn that individuals in decision-making positions might be undermining our past memories and our future dreams was very hard for me to take.

The layoff situation had a happy ending for the choral teachers. School board members emailed me and said that they were huge fans and ardent supporters of music education and did not want to see those programs crumble. Parents and community members stepped up to save the programs and the school board has since made public statements that the music programs at the high schools are of the highest priority for them to protect.

One year later, I find myself crying in joy and exultation that the choral programs in our high schools are alive and thriving, reaching higher heights than ever before. On March 20, I was privileged to be in the audience of Campolindo High School’s closing night performance of “Les Misérables.” I was looking forward to the show. Not only am I a “Les Miz” fan, but in the week leading up to this performance, I had been hearing a lot of buzz about how incredible the show was. Folks were emailing me, stopping me at the store, and calling to ask breathlessly, “Have you seen ‘Les Miz.’ I have covered theater in this area for six years but I have never experienced that kind of unsolicited enthusiasm for a show. It amused me that the epicenter of the buzz was a high school music program.

Categorizing Campolindo’s “Les Miz” as a mere high school musical is pejorative. The production was transcendent. The student talent on stage, in the orchestra pit, through the set design, and behind the scenes represented professionalism equal to and beyond most of the professional and semi-professional theater companies in Contra Costa. I don’t mean to belittle those other companies, but rather to underscore that our public high school kids are getting a musical education that puts them in the same league as many professionals. As a member of the larger community, I was very proud of Campolindo that night. I can’t even imagine what the students, their parents, the Campolindo staff and the community volunteers who worked to put that show together must be feeling.

And there was Campolindo’s director of choral activities, Gene Peterson, leading the orchestra and at the helm of this tremendous program. What would have happened if we had lost him last year to budget cuts? Thank goodness, we didn’t! I see Campolindo’s “Les Miz” as a victory celebration for arts education throughout the Acalanes District. Their ambitious musical production showed what our young people have the power to accomplish when a community and a school district make the arts a priority.

A line from “Les Miz” says, “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” I am so glad to be on the other side of last year’s dark night and warming myself under a radiant sun.

March 27, 2004

Finding an artistic surprise inside the box

Filed under: Art and About Changing the World — admin @ 3:55 pm

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for governor, I was incensed by the media coverage. Schwarzenegger’s name and “the actor” were interchangeable when reporters and broadcasters gave us the news of his campaign. So the man has made boatloads of cash through a career in the arts. Why do we have to pigeonhole him based on only one aspect of his life? He’s decided to try something different. Why don’t we give him a clean slate and look at the whole Schwarzenegger package?

Of course, in the last twenty years, Clint Eastwood, Sonny Bono and Ronald Reagan have had to sit in the same pigeonhole. Reagan went as far as he could go in his second career, and he is still referred to as the actor-gone-politician.

While the recall election dragged on, I routinely got to the breakfast table, saw the headlines, and pulled my soapbox out of a nearby closet. With rolled eyes and half-open ears, my husband was the lucky guy who got to hear lecture upon rant about how ridiculous it was to limit our perceptions of a person, and then perpetuate it with finite monikers. It’s not uncommon to refer to a next-door-neighbor as “the doctor,” completely overlooking the fact that she plays trombone on nights and weekends. In New York, you might have a high percentage of actors bringing you your burger and fries, but that doesn’t mean they’re not talented in, and highly stimulated by, food service as well. Folks are multi-faceted, which makes the world an interesting place to live.

And when an accountant runs for office, we don’t see headlines replacing Joe Blow’s name with “Accountant Says California Needs to Stop Spending.” Accountants-turned-politician don’t get big play. Although every time I read the professions underneath the names on my ballot, I notice quite a few accountants moonlighting in politics.

I think I always saw and heard Bustamante referred to by his proper name. I read in his bio that he studied to be a butcher. I bet the man still has more talent in that area than most of us. Even a career politician has facets.

“Can’t you just write a column about this, or something?” my husband would plead. I wanted to write a column, but the timeliness of current events and my column deadlines never quite synced up right for a column to be appropriate.

Now I’ve had several weeks to watch Governor Schwarzenegger and I realize that had I filed a column, it would have been the dumbest bit of prose I’ve ever submitted. Arnold doesn’t want to drop the actor thing. It is a part of him, and he is using it in his political career, just like a multi-faceted person should. Duh. I was packaging him into boxes, and putting some in storage while unpacking the others in the living room. That’s not how it works. Everything about us is theoretically accessible and available at all times, and that makes us who we are. And that’s what made Arnold interesting to the media, and the world, as a political candidate.

I so deeply believe that everyone can claim an artistic facet that I feel foolish for expecting the media to downplay Arnold’s. In fact, in a perfect world the media would up-play every candidate’s creative bent. Don’t they surmise that Bill Clinton’s saxophone playing on “Arsenio Hall” won him the younger voters? Gavin Newsom’s very public commitment to the arts is supposedly one of his facets that got him elected. Maybe if public figures who aren’t more obviously creative find something artistic to share about themselves, we may not have such a communication gap between politicians and their constituencies. We could connect viscerally through a common artistic language.

The mop-footed shoft shoe

Filed under: Art and About Dance — admin @ 3:51 pm

I dance while I’m cleaning. I don’t mean in that surrealistic ‘50s-housewife-pitching-a-cleaning-product way. I don’t put on make-up and set my hair before I do it. I don’t even turn on music. I do put on two custom designed mopping shoes, tap into the show tunes selections in my mind and slide my feet around the hardwood, slate and vinyl surfaces in my house. I call it the mop-footed soft-shoe.

I love to dance old-fashioned ballroom style. If I could come back as a different person, I would be Ginger Rogers. Actually, I would be Vera-Ellen, but not many folks under 50 know who I’m talking about. My husband doesn’t like to dance, and therefore I don’t do a lot of dancing in my daily life. Dance clubs aren’t for me, and just putting on some music and be-bopping alone isn’t very satisfying.

I also like to clean. Not only do I enjoy a clean house, but I find that efficiently cleaning a 2700 square foot house is a great cardiovascular workout. On cleaning days, I don’t feel guilty about not having a gym membership or being too lazy to put on my walking shoes and walking.

My three-year-old has a bit of an obsessive compulsive streak and likes to clean too. When he was old enough, I started devising ways to make cleaning a game. Back when I was pregnant with him, I switched to a nontoxic white vinegar and water mixture which is a wonderful cleaner and I feel totally safe with it around my kids.
Cleaning bathrooms and kitchens with a 3-foot person is easy. He does all the low surfaces and I do the high ones. He lost interest in vacuuming a while ago, so I do that solo. One challenge I had was cleaning the floors with a partner. It was too easy for a wet mop to get out of control and leave a sloppy mess all over everything once Tyrian had shown me his special mopping techniques. One thing I don’t like to do is clean up after cleaning. Getting on our hands and knees with rags wasn’t fun for either of us. I tried giving him a squirt bottle with vinegar water and had him spray while I mopped up, but he decided it was more fun to supersaturate one spot rather than cover the entire floor surface. But that one spot sure was clean.

One day, I had the idea of having us both put rags under our feet and shuffle our way across the floor. It was the beginning of the mop-footed soft-shoe. It’s actually more like ice skating than soft-shoe since the point is never to lift your feet while the rag is picking up dirt. We slip and slide, make figure eights, lunge under tables and point our toes to get into corners. No one has actually twirled yet, but maybe someday that will make it into the choreography. We cover a lot of floor fast, and the weight of our bodies on the rags picks up dirt very effectively.

Now for the part that will probably frighten my friends and family: I do the mop-footed soft-shoe when the kids aren’t around too. That’s why I upgraded from rags to a pair of replacement mop heads that fit my feet surprisingly well. I’m getting my dancing fix while I’m cleaning, with all the wonderful spiritual and physical rewards dance brings to the human body. That’s what I call clean and refreshing.

My mother the alien

Filed under: Art and About Family — admin @ 2:43 pm

I’ve heard about it happening to other mothers, but I never thought it would happen to mine. Women who have raised their children, thrown off the shackles of PTA propriety and started getting tattoos and buying Harleys, or donning bikinis and sipping mai tais on foreign beaches. When the aliens abducted my mom, they left us with a woman who makes art purchases.

My mom never seemed to respond to visual art all that much. Ballet, classical music, colorful quilts and John Denver appealed to her aesthetic. The art on the walls of my childhood home can be easily grouped into four categories — family photos, mosaics made by my paternal grandfather, Asian artwork picked up by my dad during his military days stationed in the Orient, and an eclectic catch-all category of art given to us. My aunt and uncle were artsy types and my aunt even custom batiked some work for my parents. But we didn’t have much emotional attachment to any of the pieces. When I helped my mom pack up the house after 30 years, we gave away most of the artwork without qualm. None of us had any personal investment in any of it, with the exception of grandpa’s mosaics, and we even edited those pretty severely.

Then one day last year, Mom announced that she was purchasing a piece of art by Sausalito artist Jeff Leedy as a birthday gift for my step-dad, Gene. Gene is a wine lover, and apparently responded to a humorous piece entitled, “Now This Wine Has Legs,” spoofing the wine taster’s adage. Since Gene is the quintessential man who has everything, Mom decided this would be a perfect gift.

My mom had several conversations with the artist discussing the various media he worked in, and the variants on the piece mom was purchasing. They talked about his work and his career. Jeff was obviously excited that mom was excited about his work, and they arranged a time to pick up the art at his Sausalito gallery.

The date of the artistic rendezvous was a family event. We made a day of it, strolling Bayside, commenting on the sunlight shimmering off the water, eating a seafood lunch, and perusing Jeff’s gallery. At the end of the day, we took our new baby home, where mom wrapped it and presented it at the birthday dinner. It is now distinctively displayed in the family room next to the thematically appropriate bar, and I’ve watched as guests stroll by and respond to the humor. It is definitely a conversation piece.

The decision to purchase the art made me suspicious of other-worldly foul play, but that was not evidence enough to verify that my real mother must be on a starship speeding out of the galaxy. The confirmation came upon learning that Mr. Leedy’s art has a bit of a price tag attached to it. My old mom bought from the sale rack at T.J. Maxx. We all had to go down to the potato cellar on the days she learned that something for which she had paid full was recently marked down. The body walking around calling itself “Mom” is definitely an imposter.

Perhaps most astounding to me was a recent admission by my so-called mom that the artwork she and Gene are buying on their travels actually touches her life on a daily basis. They have it custom framed, hang it in prominent places and Mom says she relives the trips, smiles at the memories and gets an all-around warm fuzzy feeling. She says she responds to it much more than the photographs they take. Gene is accustomed to this connection with art, but I have never heard my mom talk this way. She has opened up the lines of communication with art, and it has enriched her life.

So you can clearly see, my mom has lost her mind. And I hope she never finds it.