Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Scrutinizing the Brooklyn Bridge through Nikon Glass

For me, the point of this photo tour was to learn more about how my Nikon can take photographs in low-light. I have a pretty good sense of what buttons and dials to mess with for sunlit and bright interior shots, but those low-light experiences, both interior and exterior, have evaded me so far. That the tour took place in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan, some geography I've been wanting to explore, was a bonus.

That's Dave checking out a student's gear.
The deal-maker was that the tour was offered by a friend who I know is a really good photographer and teacher. Dave Simchock has an interesting story. He's originally from the Central New Jersey area, worked as an engineer in New York City and London, and then put that career aside to explore a life filled with travel and photography. In a relatively short period of time he grew a thriving career as a photographer and teacher in the Central New Jersey area. Unfortunately for me, he moved to Asheville, North Carolina, a couple of years ago. Fortunately for me, he offers photo tours in the Northeast a couple times a year, and, I overheard him this weekend talking about plans to move some of his courses online! Check out Dave's breathtaking photographs at his website,

Now, back to Brooklyn. We started in the morning and took advantage of the morning light on the Brooklyn Bridge and the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. Dave gave us some tips on shooting the bridge and skyscrapers, and some ideas for creating collections of photos based on colors, shapes, and themes. There was a lot to think about. I was thrilled to finally be on the Brooklyn Bridge, partly because of the David McCullough book

and partly because the designers of the bridge, the Roeblings, were from Trenton, New Jersey. This bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it was completed in 1883. It is a fascinating story, so if you're at all interested get your hands on David McCullough's The Great Bridge.   

It's easy to get some cool photos from the bridge in daylight: the famous bridge towers, the cables, the skyscrapers, the ships in the water, the other bridges, and the people on the bridge.
People watching on the Bridge
After some shooting in Lower Manhattan including a lesson in low-light interiors in a church, Dave brought us back to the Brooklyn side to pick up our tripods and head to Brooklyn Bridge Park for the highlight of the tour. This is what I was waiting for: the twilight Brooklyn Bridge shoot. Dave worked with each of us, but most importantly showed ME exactly which dials and buttons to manipulate on the Nikon to get the best shots of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. (ISO up to about 800, set the timer to two seconds, VR off, NR on, and TRIPOD) I'm thrilled with my photographs, and yes, I wrote down all those settings!  
Check these out (I took them!):
The Brooklyn Bridge at night
The Manhattan Bridge at twilight
 I even put together some shots from the day in a little movie:

Thursday, November 22, 2012

That Other Thanksgiving Tradition: Football!

Now please understand that I really don't care for football all that much. There were those four years in high school and three years in college that I attended every single home game, and many, many away games. This was not because of a love of the game, but because I was in the marching band. I played clarinet, then saxophone, and then clarinet again, and during those years learned some very important life lessons which I'll tell you about later. First some pics...

The Steinert Spartan pressbox
The Hamilton Hornet
We arrived early enough to score seats between the 50- and 45-yard lines and relatively high up so that we could get a good look at the bands. The Thanksgiving Day football game is an important tradition. The rivalry between Hamilton High West (near where I live now) and Hamilton High East (more commonly known as Steinert) goes back into the 1960s when there were only two high schools in the township. A third high school, Nottingham, or North, was refashioned from a middle school in the mid-eighties. (Just to confuse things, this building had originally been a high school, called Steinert.) Nottingham does not get involved with the Hamilton-Steinert Thanksgiving rivalry. I kind of feel bad for them. The rivalry is fun even though Hamilton usually beats Steinert. Steinert's band is usually better (and I'm not just saying that because I went there). I will give Hamilton the prize for best mascot because Steinert doesn't have one and because their Hornet is cute.

Hamilton's band performed a pre-game show based on Gypsy melodies including some themes form the opera Carmen. The band directors from my era worked this out so that both bands would have ample time to perform: the visiting band would do the pre-game and the home band gets the halftime show. Here's the Hamilton band performing in front of some of their Gypsy scenery.

Hamilton's percussionists get to wear Gypsy costumes.

Then there was football. The crowd was enthusiastic when Steinert scored first, and Hamilton then scored more. The ball was kicked and passed, guys ran this way and that, and frequently collided. No, I don't know much about this game, but I understand that there are a certain amount of attempts allowed each team to get the ball past the goal. When this happens, the refs throw both arms in the air and the crowd goes wild. I'm not going to describe the game any further since there are few folks alive, at least in the United States, who understand or appreciate this game less than me. Fred, the person I dragged to this sporting contest with me today, is one of those people. He may understand it more, but he probably appreciates it less. I am glad he went with me today, and I think he did enjoy the bands. OH! There's another band to talk about!

Steinert's band took the field at halftime, and to my delight performed a tribute to big in Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and the like. There is no kind of music I like more on the football field than some good swing music. Steinert didn't disappoint, and even selected my favorite Benny Goodman, "Sing, Sing, Sing." The ladies of the band front displayed some Jitterbug dancing, and the whole show was over too soon.
Here they come!

SHS in action!
 So I promised you those lessons I learned in marching band that actually translate to real life.

1. See those clarinet players over there? Well, I started on clarinet and switched to tenor saxophone for some of high school. Clarinet was always my best instrument, though, and it was my main instrument as a Music major in college. But, I was never, ever the best clarinet player. That's not me being humble, that's me being truthful. From my very first lesson in fifth grade all the way through high school, I was in the shadow of a gifted classmate. That's just the way it was and I got used to it. It didn't spoil my enthusiasm for band and music in general. I took my mom's advice and just worried about Margie, and I had a great time. (I actually remind myself, "You just worry about Margie!" quite a lot.)

2. I was pretty good at clarinet and tenor saxophone, and I loved playing in all the bands. I never made Regional Band, though, but that other girl did! I auditioned in junior and senior year, and I even enjoyed that experience. Here's  the thing, though: it doesn't matter how well you've prepared your audition piece, it matters who else is at the audition! (Or, who else applied for the job.)

3. See those drum majors over there? I never was drum major. I could have auditioned, but I didn't want to, even when my beloved band director encouraged me. See, I knew back then that I would not enjoy having all those eyes on me in that white outfit as much as I would enjoy marching around the field with my saxophone and my buddies in a green and black band uniform. I did not perceive the drum major position as the culmination of my high school music career. (This translates to the working world, too.)

Ahhh, marching band. I wonder if I would have liked it as much if I had realized it was teaching me life lessons! 

No, we didn't "Swat those Hornets" today. We lost 16-10.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

My Funniest Thanksgiving Story Ever

Last weekend, the weekend before Thanksgiving, I went to the grocery store to gather some ingredients for beef barley soup. I like soup. The check-out guy told me I earned a free turkey for spending $300 on groceries since whatever date. I didn't think much of it until I told Fred, and he said, "How did you earn a turkey? You hardly ever shop." 

not me

I thought about it and he is right--he does most of the general shopping and I buy stuff for specific meals, half the time at the other store near work. 

That card I have is old and must be linked to...the ex-husband's card! People tell me I think too much about stuff, but can you imagine if I had redeemed the offer for the free turkey (or turkey breast, frozen lasagna, or canned ham) and then he was denied when he went to get his free bird?!

I laughed over this, Fred laughed over this, and people at work laughed (and encouraged me to do it!!) I would never actually take the turkey he (mostly) earned, but I momentarily entertained the idea of holding his frozen free turkey ransom until he returned that other half of the wedding china that walked away as part of the divorce settlement. (They're only things...I'll replace them someday.) It wouldn't have worked, of course--he'd just buy a different turkey.

not my turkey

I could have gotten locked up for serving a fraudulent bird, but luckily I realized that this whole thing happened because I was too lazy to go sign up for a new card after the divorce a decade ago. I'm going to sign up for a shiny new card in my own name this weekend!

But wait, that's not where the story ends. I shared the story with another divorcee I know via Facebook. I was expecting her to like the story and maybe send me a smiley face in return. Instead, I was rewarded with her better story. Years ago, she went to redeem the free Thanksgiving turkey she earned at the same supermarket and was told that her free bird had already been redeemed. By her ex. He had even changed the address on her card to his new address. The store gave her a free turkey anyway and sent her shiny new cards in the mail. Way to go Shop Rite! Anyway, even though she got her shiny new Shop Rite cards, she kept the old one...and...before the next Thanksgiving...she may or may not have redeemed his free turkey...

Too funny

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Curious about Opera?

Currently on my coffee table
I jumped at the chance to teach a three-week non-credit Opera Appreciation course. Concerned that my opera savvy might not be savvy enough, I immersed myself in the art. Opera has this reputation for being stuffy, serious, and elitist, but it really isn't that way. I find it to be escapist, accessible, and wildly entertaining. I have to figure out how to convince my students of this. Ms. de Niese here might be able to help:

That aria, or solo, is just a piece of a whole opera. How can I make an entire opera, usually more than three hours long, more interesting to my future students? Well, the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series has brought its productions into the ears, eyes and minds of thousands of people who wouldn't normally make the trip to New York to see the opera in person. Besides the fantastic productions, Live in HD patrons get to enjoy interviews, backstage tours, and inside information during intermissions, and close-ups of the performers onstage (no opera glasses necessary). I would dare to say that it is a more comprehensive opera experience than one experiences in the opera house. The following video, from CBS's Sunday Morning, describes the Met HD broadcasts and features an interview with Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb, talking about making opera more accessible. But for some reason it sometimes vanishes from this blog. And then comes back I dunno. If it's there, definitely watch it because you will also get to see the elaborate backstage.

You may have guessed that I am enjoying these Met HD broadcasts. There are twelve in a season, and I am challenging myself to experience each. What I have found each week is a packed, excited house, and lots of conversation about the day's opera experience. After three HD experiences I'm starting to recognize folks that attend every time. During yesterday's intermission from Thomas Ades's The Tempest, I had an interesting conversation with the older gentleman next to me about whether this modern opera was in a major or minor key or some other tonal organization. (The poor guy got more than her bargained for--he had no way of knowing that many moons ago I earned a Master's degree in Music Theory. I spent lots of times with those "other tonal organizations.") The conversation in the row in front of us was about those kids sitting down in front. It turns out some of them were the children of the singer playing the part of the King in The Tempest. They were well-behaved throughout, but cheered with wild abandon during the King's curtain call. It seems Mom decided to bring them to the movie theater hi-definition production rather than schlepping them all the way to Manhattan. They probably enjoyed this more, and even got to see Dad the King walk by the intermission interview (did he do that on-purpose just for them?). Take a look at the trailer for The Tempest HERE.

Earlier this season I have enjoyed Donizetti's sparkling, happy L'Elisir d'Amore,

and Verdi's somber Otello.

December brings three Saturday afternoons in a row of opera escapism, and I'm especially looking forward to Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera since that is one I've chosen to study in-depth in my upcoming course. There are six more in the first half of 2013 including Wagner's Parsifal and Berlioz's Les Troyens, each over five and a half hours! (Luckily, the movie theater management doesn't seem to notice the snacks and almost picnic lunches the opera folks bring.)

That said, though, a trip to an opera house offers a different delectable opera experience one can only get by having their eyes and ears in the same venue as the performers. I try to attend at least one Opera Company of Philadelphia performance each season. This year it was their very clever La Boheme, the story of a girl named Mimi who has tuberculosis and very cold, small hands, and her on-again, off-again writer boyfriend Rodolfo, and his boho friends in the Latin Quarter of Paris. If there were an election for these kinds of things, La Boheme might get the prize for Most Beautiful Opera, but some might also vote it Most Sappy. I would vote for the first prize because I think Puccini got it all right here. The Philadelphia company added to the right-ness by adding a clever visual: paintings inspired by the art in the Barnes Foundation and Philadelphia Museum of Art projected onto the stage. Sometimes the art was contained to a collection of squares and rectangles on the stage, and sometimes it contributed to the scene. Some of the paintings were animated. I was concerned that this might be hokey before I saw it but the effect turned out to be spectacular. A video representation of this, even in HD, would have been lacking, I suspect. By the way, my ticket for this performance cost all of $10 making it accessible to all but those with vertigo or acrophobia.

I set out to convince you that opera is not stuffy and elitist, so maybe some tips are in order here:
  1. At the very least, read a summary of the plot before attending. Check your library or bookstore for a compilation of plots for almost anything that might be produced. I think I picked up my ancient 1940s Milton Cross compilation came from a used book sale and serves me well.
  2. Notice what year the opera was written, and this will give you a clue about what to expect. Before the 1800s, opera was more rigid and formal than the iconic romantic stuff  that Verdi created. From the second half of the twentieth century on, you may find yourself in one of those "other tonal organizations" I mentioned above. Those take a little (a lot) more listening energy, but as with yesterday's The Tempest can be quite satisfying. (And if someone asks you your opinion on tonality, just say, "Dunno. I'd have to take a look at the score." If it's a newer opera, chances are they won't have one to show you.)
  3. Try to find out how long the opera is, and how many intermissions there are. I mentioned there are a pair of 5+ hour opera experiences in my future, so I will pack sustenance (only because we'll be in a movie theater) and a shawl. My feet will be in shoes that can wiggle off easily. I will have visited the ladies' room before the curtain rises.
  4. If you opt to visit the Met in HD in your movie theater, plan for it to be packed and get there about an hour early. Bring a book or magazine for the extra time before and just chillax. Here is the schedule. Information about which theaters offer this delight are on the website, too.
  5. Message me if you are interested in my opera course, and I will let you know when I have exact dates...or tell your library or adult school to bring me to you!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hurricane Sandy in Cape May

H. Sandy clouds still over the Delaware Bay

Gladys with the Storm at Sea quilt
I started Hurricane Sandy Week just outside Trenton, predicting that if the storm was as bad as the weather forecasters were saying, I wouldn't see work on Monday or Tuesday. The hurricane, they said, would join forces with a Nor'Easter and a cold front, and as the week went on H. Sandy was predicted to make landfall at my original home of Cape May, New Jersey. The hurricane winds were frightening and brought with them strange noises (trees and limbs falling), and finally, darkness. I had candles and flashlights ready and pep-talked myself into making the best of the situation. We ran the generator from time to time creating intermittent power and wifi, but that thing takes a lot of gas and makes a lot of noise. I was able to gather some news from those few hours of television news and 3G social media sources. It turned out that the Central Jersey, Staten Island, and Lower Manhattan coasts took the full force of the storm, while Cape May was largely spared. My work was closed all week because the hurricane traveled inland and wreaked havoc in Bucks County and other southeastern Pennsylvania locations. This was a blessing for those of us sitting on couches without power as the shocking images of the Jersey Shore became public. 

I shared on Facebook whatever news of Cape May I could find since almost everyone who knew I had a connection there was asking how we fared. Exit Zero and Cape May Times turned out to be the most reliable and informative. This was impressive: the staff of Exit Zero offered to email photographs for properties for homeowners who couldn't get away to check on them.They must have understood the anxiety we face owning a beloved, memory-filled home so far from where we live.  Slowly it became apparent that although there was some flooding, some damage, and a whole lot of sand piled up in town, Cape May did pretty well. At the same time, though, we were seeing the pictures of a devastated coast just a little bit to the north. Could it be that Cape May really dodged a bullet? I had to drive down to see for myself and check on our family's house.

There's a path in there somewhere.
It's all good news, really. The house is fine, and I suspect maybe power never went out here at all. The flowerpots I thought may have turned into projectiles in the hurricane winds were just where I left them. There were branches and trees down here and there, but the kids around here were already back in school for a couple days. After checking around the house and finding no damage, I took Gladys for a walk on the bay beach where we walk all the time. There has been some erosion, and our usual path from the street through the dunes now contains a small (two-foot) cliff. Some paths  are unusable with five- or six-foot cliffs, and some were untouched. I had to walk the whole length of our usual baywalk in spite of the wind and cold just to prove to myself it was okay and to reclaim it from H. Sandy. (And it was windy!)
Gladys actually likes the wind.

Some stores were closed.
Next on my agenda was a trip into Cape May City. This favorite place was evacuated before the storm and people were not let back until the flooding went down and all was safe. News must not have gotten out that Cape May was reopened, because I had the shops to myself! I shopped a little, but mainly walked around town reassuring myself that all is okay. People I met were eager to share stories and learn about the Trenton and Bucks County areas, and what I saw on my way down to the shore. (No, I had no trouble and no, I didn't wait in long gas station lines like they saw on TV. All of NJ is not like that. I had luckily filled my tank just before the storm.) They were hungry for a broader perspective. Curiously, some seemed unaware of the magnitude of the damage less than an hour north. I chatted with one woman as she decorated her beautiful, damage-free inn for Christmas, blissfully clueless. On a brighter note, and these are just the things I know about, the Washington Street Mall merchants have committed to donating ten percent of their profits for the next month, and Captain Ginny of the Skimmer Salt Marsh Safari is running three salt marsh cruises tomorrow to benefit the Red Cross. We'll be on the 1:30. It seems the birding is fantastic these days.

That lake behind the Arcade is not supposed to be there.
The Cape May beach showed the most H. Sandy damage. There was water where sand was supposed to be, and sand all over the Promenade and streets. Some of the first amazing photos to come out of Cape May showed six feet of sand being removed from the streets on the east end of town. The sand on the beach moved. The volleyball nets now look like really narrow tennis nets,

Those are supposed to be volleyball nets at Steger's Beach.

and the stand that rents chairs and umbrellas in the summer was almost completely buried. 

Steger's umbrella and chair rental stand is buried in that crusty alien sand.

There's a new berm created by erosion, giving my familiar beach spot a whole new look. 

A new bump in the beach.

The sand is not the fluffy kind we're used to in Cape May, but a flat, hard, crusty, alien variety. I figure the massive rain hardened it and the wind flattened it.

So that's it, my H. Sandy Cape May update. We were darn lucky in Cape May and Trenton. My heart goes out to those neighbors to the north facing unimaginable, sickening loss. New Jersey will rebuild the shore it is so proud of, but for now there's the anxiety and grief through which there is no shortcut.