Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Art of Restrooms

Sochi Olympic Village restroom (2014)
No, this entry is not about restroom decorations, but more about the design and aesthetics of these essential establishments. I have been moved to write about this today, because as a traveller who tends to indulge in extended journeys, keeping an eye open for public restrooms comes with the territory.

The double ensemble of toilet bowls in the image above have become somewhat famous (or should that be infamous?), because they, and others like them, are located in the new Olympic Village in Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympic Games are currently under way. As you can imagine, they have become the focus of much mirth and comment, with social networks across the Internet reposting photographs of the restrooms, with additional comments and criticism to suit.

However, Sochi is not the only location where these shared restrooms can be found. During my 2010 visit to New York City, I was forced to use the public restrooms in Washington Square Park, in the heart of Greenwich Village (as can be seen in the photograph below), which  shows three of at least four bowls in the male restroom. I assume a similar line up of waste receptacles were to be found in the female restrooms, but I thought it wise not to check for myself.

Washington Square Park male restroom (2010)
As I wrote on this blog way back in July, 2010, “…to say I was surprised to see such an open public display of Thomas Crapper’s toilet bowls would be a gross understatement! Especially since Washington Square Park is probably one of New York’s most popular parks.”

Hopefully, the restrooms in Washington Square have been updated since my 2010 visit, but maybe they haven’t. If any reader can shed some light on the matter, please do so via the Comments section below. Still, I suppose one should be grateful that even these shared facilities were available, although that old adage; “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” comes to mind as I write this.

In the 1899 second revised edition of Baedeker’s travel guide to the United States, one finds this: “Public conveniences are not usually provided in American cities, but their place is practically supplied by the lavatories of hotels, to which passers-by resort freely. Accommodation is also furnished at railway stations. Such public conveniences as do exist in New York and other large cities are disgracefully inadequate in number, size, and equipment.”

Today, of course, if it wasn’t for the numerous Starbucks outlets, fast food franchises, and similar establishments open to the general public, New York City in particular, and other cities across America would be awash in waste of the worst type. It seems that public restrooms are amongst the last things city planners consider when it comes to caring for their own citizens, let alone the millions of travellers who criss-cross the continent each year.

Some things, it seems, never change.

Oh, and one last thing, at least the shared toilets in Sochi supplied some toilet paper, which was more than the loo I had to use in Washington Square Park in 2010 did. Since then, I always make sure I have some spare tissues with me, just in case I am caught short on the road somewhere.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Remembering Pete Seeger

One of the highlights of my 2010 American trip was getting to see Pete Seeger in a rare, full-length concert, thereby fulfilling one of my life-long ambitions. I had to travel to Woodstock, New York (yes, that Woodstock), to catch the show, which took place at the Bearsville Theater. I wrote about that performance, in an earlier blog post headed, Pete Seeger – Living Legend. It was a great honor to see him in concert.

Sadly, the living legend passed away this week (Monday, January 27, 2014). He was 94 years of age.

Singer, songwriter, actor, environmentalist, ecologist, humanist and socialist; husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather, Pete Seeger was all these and much more. When Pete Seeger passed away, it is not overstating the praise to say that the world lost one of its great champions and humanitarians.

Tributes have been flowing in for Mr. Seeger since his passing, from a veritable Who’s Who of fellow performers (Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Billy Bragg), politicians (President Obama, Bill Clinton), and thousands of folk music fans and activists everywhere.

Pete Seeger’s passing will be an occasion for much sadness, personal reflection, and no doubt for renewed commitment to the important causes that occupy his, and our waking hours. The greatest praise we can extend to Pete is to honor his memory by continuing to sing his songs, and to get involved in the many causes and issues that were close to Pete's heart. Much remains to be done.

There are many great videos of Seeger available via YouTube, and I urge you to take a look at as many of them as you can. On learning of his death I immediately searched through my 2010 travel archives for the one song I recorded at that Bearsville performance. At the time, Pete was 91, and his singing voice was all but gone, but I was more than happy just to be in his presence, as I’m sure were other members of the sold out concert. I could have filmed much more, but I was more intent on enjoying the show. I did not want to be distracted by my camera, nor did I want to spoil the experience for other audience members. In the end, I satisfied myself with some photographs before recording Pete’s encore, the song, Quite Early Morning, which is embedded below.

Pete Seeger, Thank you for the joy your music has given me these past 50 years. Thank you for your boundless humanity; your optimism; your humility, and for the ongoing examples you continue to set as performer, songwriter, mentor, and advocate for peace and justice. For all this and so much more, I thank you.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

August: Osage County

At the end of each year it has become the fashion for movie critics to list their top ten best movies of the year, and to also rate their top ten worst films of the year. It says something about August: Osage County, that the film has probably made it on to as many best lists as it has on to lists of the worst films.

I think I can understand why. This is not a film that you can ‘enjoy’ in the accepted sense of the word. Watching the dysfunctional family at the centre of August: Osage County, implode in spectacular fashion is not fun – even though the film is classed as a comedy/drama. As family secrets are painfully revealed during the course of the film, characters are sucked deeper and deeper in a mire of their own making.

Meryl Streep heads an ensemble cast that also features Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch and several others in this film adaptation of the Tracy Letts Pulitzer Prize winning stage show. Letts also wrote the screenplay for the movie.

A digression. Many years ago, when I was fantasizing about being a writer, I used to buy a magazine for aspiring writers called appropriately enough, The Writer. Of the hundreds of articles I read in the magazine over a period of several years, only one has stuck in my mind, and of that article only the general theme remains with me. The article was headed, Where’s The Magic? The author of that piece, whose name of course I’ve long forgotten, suggested that every piece of writing had to have at least one moment of ‘magic’ in it. Not the abracadabra kind of magic, but the kind that would make a scene, or piece of dialogue, or action sequence really jump off the page. It was, and still remains great advice that can be applied across a wide range of artistic and creative endeavours.

August: Osage County, has magic by the truck load. And most of it is delivered by Meryl Streep. There are moments in the film when you watch Streep in action and you say to yourself, “There goes the Oscar for Best Actress again!”

A brief synopsis (minus spoilers) courtesy of Wikipedia follows:

Sisters Barbara, Karen, and Ivy Weston (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, and Julianne Nicholson) are called back home when their father, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), goes missing. They have kept their distance from their mother Violet (Meryl Streep) because she has become addicted to pills and loaded up on prescriptions after getting mouth cancer. The entire family gather for an awkward dinner, led by the high and brutally honest Violet. Barbara, the favourite daughter, hunts down all of Violet's pills and gets rid of them in an attempt to force her to sober up. Eventually, we learn of the sisters' back-stories…

The pivotal dinner scene is about to get underway
We also earn much about the lives of the other characters, and it is during these revealing moments that the real action takes place and the magic happens. As we have come to expect, Meryl Street is on top of her game as the matriarch who wields such profound power and influence over her brood, and other extended family members. Julia Roberts has never been better as the only person who seems able to push back against her mother’s “truth telling” and controlling behaviour.

Not all the members of this large cast get a chance to shine in the film. Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, and Benedict Cumberbach have small but important roles, but are overshadowed by the numerous female performances. In fact, the females in August: Osage County, pretty much steal the show.

By the way, is Tracy Letts working some type of ‘in joke’ on us here? While most people would consider Tracy to be a female name, Letts is a male writer, and I find it interesting that one of the male characters in the film also sports what many would consider to be a ‘female’ name, Beverly. I can find no reason to prove Letts is trying to slip one past us, but the thought has occurred to me. But I digress, again.

August: Osage County, was (mostly) filmed in Bartlesville and Pawhuska, Oklahoma, and the backdrops utilizing wide open plains and small town locations, add to the sense of isolation and alienation the characters in the film are experiencing.

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the trailer for the movie.

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