Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas 2009

I had a quiet Christmas weekend. There was nothing to do at work, with half our department gone. So, I left around noon on Thursday and did some quick grocery shopping before heading home. (I am astonished that roast beef is now almost $10/pound!)

As a kid, I clearly recall awakening early on Christmas morning, running downstairs, and eagerly anticipating the rest of the family waking up so we could open our presents. My father was usually up around the same time as I. By nature, we are both early risers. This year, to my surprise, we slept in until nearly 9am. Even Mason kept quiet.


Santa's li'l helper

Danny and I exchanged presents – my first present to him was some Caribou Coffee (Danny is a major coffee drinker), and I also bought him some clothes and assorted goodies. Danny bought me Star Trek and Wizard of Oz blu-rays, a wall calendar, and stocking stuffers. From my dad and stepmom, I got a reed diffuser. It was Mason who got the most booty, and he will be taken care of in the toys & treats department for quite some time.


Danny models his flannel

Danny was planning on making dinner in the slow cooker, so I took us out to IHOP for breakfast. It was rather busy there. All the stores around it were closed of course. Most of the rest of the day was quiet since Danny had to work the graveyard shift that night.

Much of the rest of the weekend involved Danny and me getting up to date with Lost and Dexter. Not very Christmas-y shows. We also did some minor rearranging of furniture to create a kind of breakfast nook and open up some counter space in the kitchen.

This morning, I woke up to a snowy driveway, and couldn’t start my snow blower. So, Danny and I shoveled the driveway the old fashioned way.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

True then. True now

“Let me warn you, and let me warn the Nation, against the smooth evasion which says: ‘Of course we believe all these things; we believe in Social Security; we believe in work for the unemployed; we believe in saving homes. Cross our hearts and hope to die, we believe in all these things; but we do not like the way the present Administration is doing them. Just turn them over to us. We will do all of them - we will do more of them - we will do them better; and, most important of all, the doing of them will not cost anybody anything.’”

-Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

Blue people

Saturday, Danny & I went to see Avatar at the Capitol Theater. This was our second trip to the newly refurbished theater and our first look inside the fabulous main auditorium. I was less impressed with the film itself. Yes, there are stunning GCI visuals. But the story itself is a ham-handed allegory about America’s genocide against Native American Indians. (Even to the extent that the natives are called Na’vi, and speak a language that sounds like the Navajo language.) Dances with Wolves is far preferable for that kind of film. Avatar was worth seeing once, just for the eye candy, but not worth seeing again.

After the movie, we headed to the Big Egg for an afternoon breakfast. Cleveland has made a great splash over the last decade with the explosion in haute cuisine restaurants. But I have a fondness for greasy spoons like the Big Egg.

Danny had to work second-shift on Sunday, so I headed to several malls for once last dose of retail hell to get a few last items. I’m very glad my Christmas shopping is over & done with.

This morning, we took Mason to the vet, where he was given his updated shots and a perfect bill of health.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Vacation in Puerto Rico - final entry

Saturday – December 12, 2009

Neither Danny nor I slept much Friday night. Travelling makes me tense – worrying about getting to the airplane on time and knowing in advance about the hassles to be endured. We awakened early, had breakfast, and said our goodbyes to Gladys and her wonderful staff.

By the time we left Passion Fruit, we were a half-hour ahead of schedule. We didn’t encounter much traffic, but ran into a super-slow gas pump at one gas station. One big complaint I have about Puerto Rico is that most gas pumps there do not have built-in credit card machines, which means you have to go into the station, throw down your money, fill up, then go back into the gas station and get your change – if any. What can I say? I’m a spoiled Gringo.


As mentioned in a prior post, San Juan has a great airport. But the airline workers are as annoying and useless as in any city. The check-in desk for United was understaffed, and after a USDA check to make sure we weren’t carrying any diseased snails in our luggage, we waited an eternity in line for our boarding passes.


Our flight, including the long wait at Dulles for our connection, was uneventful. After getting home to drop off our luggage and turn the heat back up (I had set it at 50* for the trip, cold enough to save money, but warm enough to keep the pipes from freezing), we headed to Mark’s house to pick up Mason and Valdo. Mason was his usual loving self, signaling his joy at seeing us by jumping on us and emitting hypersonic whimpers. I was unable to judge Valdo’s reaction. Danny and I had a wonderful time in Puerto Rico, but it was great to be home.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Vacation in Puerto Rico - 6

Friday – December 11, 2009

Danny & I did not have much planned for Friday. We had purchased so much stuff over the last several days, carrying it home would have been impossible. So, we headed to the local post office, only to find that it didn’t open until 10am. With some time to kill, we went to the local K-mart – another example of American corporatism encroaching upon Puerto Rico. Finally, as 10am approached, we headed back to the post office. Puerto Rico is served by the USPS, if served is the right word – as the service is every bit as bad as on the mainland. Long lines, not enough clerks, it’s the same all over. We shipped much of what we bought in Puerto Rico, and even some of our laundry. This left us with plenty of room in our bags for the items, mainly alcoholic, we were planning to buy in the duty free shop at the airport.

After getting back to the B&B, we changed clothes and took a short walk to Seven Seas beach. There was a loud gathering of young servicemen near the entrance, so Danny and I headed down the beach to a deserted section for some peace & quiet. Smarting a bit from Wednesday’s sunburn, I set our beach towels under a tree and relaxed while watching the waves and contemplating my return to cold weather.
That evening, on Gladys’ advice, we headed to Ely’s Place, a small gay bar in the kiosks of Luquillo. The kiosks are an early version of a strip mall, sandwiched between the highway and the beach: Mostly restaurants, fast food joints, and stores selling convenience items. Ely’s, like the other kiosks, is mostly open to the air.

 

Much has been brought up about homophobia in Puerto Rico lately, particularly in light of the brutal murder of a gay teen in November. Yet, here was a place that was obviously gay oriented, playing gay associated music (like The Village People), and with rainbow items everywhere in sight - and there were no gangs of youths driving by, shouting obscenities from their vehicle (as I once witnessed in Boston), there were no strange looks from pedestrians - only the usual Puerto Rican scene of people chatting with each other in Spanglish, drinking beer and enjoying themselves. While I don’t want to downplay that homophobia exists in Puerto Rico, it’s really no worse there than in a good many places on the American mainland. Another aspect of gay life in Puerto Rico is how gay men and lesbians commingle with each other. This is in contrast to the schism that exists between gay men and lesbians on the mainland. All too often, it seems as if same-sex loving men and women only come together for political purposes.

Danny and I sat at a table near the jukebox and enjoyed our drinks and food (Ely’s has a kitchen). To my horror, Danny ordered a Coors beer. I pretended to ignore his selection while chatting with the locals and petting the stray dogs that frequent the kiosks.
On the whole, this was a fun, active trip. Danny and I have already decided to return next December, and hopefully we’ll bring along some friends as well.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Vacation in Puerto Rico - 5

Thursday – December 10, 2009
We were able to relax Thursday morning before heading to Caguas. We met up with Danny’s family at the Botanical Garden, which is a newer attraction, built on what was once a sugar cane plantation. Puerto Rico industrialized heavily in the 20th Century. But now there is a burgeoning ecological movement, with increased interest in the early, pre-colonial history of the island once called Borikén. Petroglyphs left by the Taino Indians are on display here, along with flora, fauna, and a rare species of parrot native to Puerto Rico. There is also a replication of an early settler’s shack, with a garden of the type that would have been seen at the time. Toward the front of the facility are the ruins of a sugar cane plantation, with old equipment and displays explaining how cane was converted to syrup, and then into sugar.

Our caravan headed to an open air eatery in Cayey where the cook was offering samples of roasted pork. The whole pig was roasting on a spit, and he chopped off pieces of flesh and gave it right to us. This is not the kind of thing one encounters in the mainland. But I think it’s worthwhile to be reminded from time to time that humans, even vegetarians, feed on death. The rest of the meal was mainline Boricuan cuisine, plantains, cod fritters, and guanimes, washed down with Pepsi (which is far more popular than Coca-Cola in Puerto Rico).

My GPS didn’t seem to be acting up as before, so we decided to return to Fajardo without using the highways. Our trip took us through the rural, mountainous area of Puerto Rico. We passed several horse ranches and farms. I noticed that many of the cows seemed skinny, then realized I was used to seeing American cows, pumped up on growth hormones which are not used here.

The driving left me a bit tired, so I took a nap before heading out to get some evening air by the pool. On the mainland, my favorite part of the day is morning. But in Puerto Rico, I prefer the evening, when the Coquis are singing in the tropical air.

Danny and I had planned to head to a small restaurant called La Estacion, built out of an old gas station. But we found they were not open on Thursdays. So, we headed down the road to Tasca ole Lelolai, which turned out to be an excellent choice. We were seated at a table on the balcony overlooking the Fajardo harbor, and we saw a ferry making its way to Culebra, its lights reflecting in the evening water. Our attractive waiter, Maelo, (have I mentioned that Puerto Rican men are almost universally hot?) told us about some great specials. We enjoyed our drinks and the effect they gave us as we took in the view. I realized once again how lucky I am. Great job, check; Great lover and partner in life, check; Canine companion who loves me, check. Danny and I enjoyed both our appetizers and meals, but were too full to take in dessert. We will definitely be returning to this restaurant on our next trip to Fajardo.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Vacation in Puerto Rico - 4

Wednesday - December 9, 2009
Wednesday was at once the most relaxing and the most aggravating day of our trip. It started out pleasantly enough. Gladys arranged to serve our breakfast early so we would be on time for the ferry to Culebra, where we met up with Ian. While waiting in line to buy tickets, I got a nice phone call from my niece Laura, thanking me for the Christmas card I sent. The tickets to Fajardo were only $2.25 each way.
We boarded the ferry and sat topside. The 17-mile ride was about one hour, and there were some rough waves which made the ride like a low energy roller coaster. Upon arrival in Culebra, a taxi-van took us to Flamenco Beach. This is the most pristine beach I have ever seen: Lovely, and un-crowded. I brought along SPF50, but in less than two hours I was moderately sunburned. After looking like a ghost for the last few months, I didn’t mind.

Around noon, we grabbed a snack at one of the shacks the line the beach, and I petted a stray cat before boarding the taxi-van to the 1pm ferry.


Back in Fajardo, Danny and I said our goodbyes to Ian, who was headed back to Caguas.
After a quick shower, Danny and I headed toward Bayamon to the local Costco so we could buy a gift basket for Gladys, and to see if any bargains were to be found. Driving in Bayamon was even more aggravating than in San Juan (Danny’s brother had advised us to be careful). We found the gift basket I wanted, but not much else was there that couldn’t be found at any other Costco. Nor did they have a gas station. So, out trip was mostly a bust, as we could have found a nice gift basket elsewhere.

I wasn’t about to drive back to Fajardo in rush hour traffic, so we ate at the Sizzler across the street before heading back. There are remarkably few fat people in Puerto Rico, but some obese guy kept cutting me off in the buffet there.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Vacation in Puerto Rico - 3

Tuesday - December 8, 2009
Tuesday was in many ways the high point of our trip, for several reasons.
We awakened fairly early and, after breakfast, headed to El Yunque National rainforest. This is one of the wonders of the world, set aside as a park by order of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. We were greeted at the gate of the visitors’ center by an exceptionally good looking young man. Entrance to the visitors’ center is only $3 per person – the park itself is free.


After perusing the visitors’ center we headed toward the parking lot to meet Ian, who I've known via the Internet for several months. After watching a short orientation movie, we headed up the hill to La Coca waterfall, where Danny and I climbed a side path to a large boulder in front of the waterfall.


Then we headed all the way to the top of the hill for a long downhill hike along the river to the main waterfall – which was a spectacular sight.



The hike back was moderately challenging, and we built up an appetite for dinner. After agreeing on the relatively gringo choice of Outback Steakhouse, we headed toward the hotel/casino in San Juan where it was located. Unfortunately, upon arrival, we discovered they didn’t open until 5:30. (Establishments tend to open late in Puerto Rico. The local Post Office didn’t open until 10am.) So, we ate at the hotel restaurant. There was a great deal of very loud renovation going on, but we enjoyed our meal and our good looking waiter.
At dinner, we decided to meet up the next morning to take the ferry to Culebra. Following an adventurous drive out of San Juan (I hate driving in cities, and San Juan is one of the worst cities for driving), Ian headed home while Danny and I shopped at the outlet mall in Canovanas. We didn’t find many bargains, and made it back to the B&B early enough to get some much needed rest.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Vacation in Puerto Rico - 2

Monday - December 7, 2009
Fajardo is a smallish town on the far northeast corner of Puerto Rico. The economy is almost entirely driven by tourism. The terrain is very hilly, and like everywhere in Puerto Rico, the streets are very narrow. The houses, which are built of concrete due to the hurricanes, are placed very close to the street, and front yards of the type seen in the Midwest do not exist. Status in Fajardo is displayed by having a home on a hill. The higher on the hill, the more upscale the owner. Our B&B was near the top of a hill, just below some very expensive condos and some astronomically priced homes in a gated neighborhood.
Monday morning, Danny and I headed west to see his family in Aguadilla. It’s a two hour drive from the far east end of the island to the west side – although heavy traffic can increase that time. Danny’s father has done some renovation to his home since we were there in 2006, and the result is most impressive. Sitting in the driveway was the Range Rover he bought via Ebay from a man in Mentor earlier this year. Danny’s brother, Javier lives a few blocks away with his wife and two children. Their son, Gabriel, is six years old, goes to a bilingual school and speaks English fluently – better than many American kids of his age. Their black Labrador dog, Foxy, just gave birth to a litter.

We all hopped into Javier’s Astrovan and went to Pino’s in Cabo Rojo for an early dinner. The food was authentic Puerto Rican cuisine: mofongo, tostones, and pollo with rice & beans. After eating, we trekked over a very bumpy dirt road to view the lighthouse there. We had to hike to the top of a steep hill. Danny’s father and I, the two oldest people in the group, made it to the top first. We took in a spectacular view of the Carribean from the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico.


On the way back to Aguadilla, we were nearly struck by a van headed the wrong way down the street, driving with its lights off in the dark of night. This was followed by a torrential but relatively brief downpour. By the time Danny and I were on our way back to Fajardo, the rain had stopped and the roads were dry. It was a long day, and we got back to the B&B around 10pm.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Vacation in Puerto Rico - 1

As I type this, I am sitting poolside at Passion Fruit Bed & Breakfast in Fajardo, Puerto Rico. It is Friday, the last full day of our trip. As always when traveling with Danny, our time here has been a pleasure. Danny has an easygoing vibe that makes time spent with him very agreeable, and is in marked contrast to my own rather hypertensive nature.
Sunday - December 6, 2009
We dropped off Mason and Valdo (Danny’s fish) at Mark’s around 8:30am. Then we headed home and took care of a few incidentals before heading to the airport for our two part flight to San Juan. Our flight to Dulles was in a small commuter plane, and the highlight of that was a twinkish flight attendant with a rather cheesy flight routine. Our layover at Dulles was about two hours. The plane was bigger for the flight to San Juan, of course. Our experience was typical of the new airline service, we paid for our meal: $9 for a sandwich and chips. Then I slept for the rest of the flight since we were getting at 10:45pm and had a long drive to Fajardo. San Juan’s airport is exceptional: very clean and well organized. We hopped a shuttle and were at the Hertz counter within minutes. Renting a Toyota Camry, we were soon on our way to Fajardo.
Immediately, I realized how out of date my GPS is, as there is a new highway in eastern Puerto Rico, Route 66, that didn’t even show. We took it and made it to B&B shortly after midnight.
Gladys, the owner of Passion Fruit Bed & Breakfast was there to greet us, show us around, and take us to our room. I’ve stayed at a number of B&Bs over the years, and this is by far the best. The rates are very reasonable, the location is prime, and our room was immaculate. There is also the service: Each morning at poolside, we were served a full breakfast, including oatmeal and fresh fruit, and alternating dishes of eggs, bacon, toast and home fries; or banana pancakes with bacon (featuring bananas grown right on the property); or French toast and bacon. There were beverages also, of course. At most B&Bs I’ve been to, I was lucky to get coffee and a stale doughnut.

A word about the Camry we rented: rather disappointing car for the price point. Comfortable ride, but louder than I expected, and – as usual with Toyota – the ergonomics are counter intuitive. Just reaching for the door handle or the window controls was an exercise in frustration.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

My review of: Vladimir Horowitz- The Complete Original Jacket Collection

Vladimir Horowitz- The Complete Original Jacket Collection
Vladimir Horowitz- The Complete Original Jacket Collection

4.0 out of 5 stars Horowitz finally gets his due - sort of, December 2, 2009
By Hank Drake (Cleveland, OH United States) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)
After being released in a piecemeal, disorganized manner for decades, all of Vladimir Horowitz's RCA, Columbia, and Sony recordings are available in one convenient, budget priced boxed set. (The Deutsche Grammophon recordings are not included, of course, nor are the HMV/EMI.) This set contains some newly issued performances, which I will comment on below. For space reasons, I refer you to my other reviews on Amazon for the previously issued material.

While this 70CD set is not remastered from scratch, this set does use the best existing versions of each recording. As for the RCA recordings, wherever possible, the Gold Seal versions from the 1980s and early 1990s are not being used. For example, the Beethoven Moonlight and Waldstein Sonatas from 1956 utilize the Classics Library master from 2004, which is far superior to the Gold Seal CD that was issued around 1990. Likewise, the 1943 Tchaikovsky Concerto with Toscanini uses the source material that appeared in the 1992 Toscanini Collection, rather than the lower quality version that was used in the Gold Seal CD issued in 1990. There are numerous other examples. For those of you who are wondering, the correct takes for the 1976 Schumann Concerto without Orchestra are used in this issue (a set of outtakes was briefly issued by mistake in 1989).

As to the Columbia recordings, Sony is using the same remasterings that were used for the big blue boxed set in 1993. (The sole exception is the 1962 Kinderszenen, which was remastered in 2003.) In the 1969 Kreisleriana, the (wrong) takes that were issued on the 1993 boxed set and every CD since are used again here. So, hang on to your LPs and the MK42409 CDs if you still have them.

As with all the Original Jacket issues, the cover art from the original LPs (or, in a few cases, CDs) is used. The original programming is also strictly being adhered to, which has not always been the case with this series. The advantage is that Horowitz's programming concepts are respected (and Horowitz was a master at building a contrasted and interesting program). The disadvantage is that the playing time for most of these CDs is short. However, at budget price, I'm not complaining. Some trivia: in the early LP era, RCA issued both 10" and 12" LPs, depending on the playing time of the program. For this set, only the 12" LPs are used, with one exception: the Brahms Violin Sonata with Millstein, which was originally issued as a 10" record and only appeared on a 12" LP decades after the fact. Also, none of the 45RPM issues are being used (RCA had issued 45s as a transition between 78RPMs and LPs).

One CD includes assorted RCA recordings that were never issued on LP. This includes both the 1928 and the 1957 expanded version of Horowitz's Carmen Fantasy. The Chopin Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4 from 1975 that was issued on the Japanese version only of Horowitz Rediscovered is likewise included.

Now, some information on the two "new" recitals: both the 1951 and 1967 recitals show Horowitz in excellent form and are valuable additions to his discography - though there is no new repertoire in either recital. The sound for the 1951 recital is mixed, because two different sources are being used: RCA's tapes and 33 1/3 transcription discs that were made for Horowitz's review. Both the taped and disc items sound cleaner than those in the Private Collection recordings. Mozart's K. 333 Sonata is a radically different (and more musicologically "correct") interpretation than the pianist's 1987 performances - yet I find the later recordings more pleasurable to listen to. Prokofiev's Seventh Sonata is thundering and compelling, similar in conception to Horowitz's 1945 studio recording, but with the added adrenaline he invariably put into his live performances. The Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 illustrates one of Horowitz's unique attributes: he could play "cool" and "hot" at the same time. The ending to this piece defines the word climactic.

The 1967 recital from Brooklyn College is in spectacular sound - indeed it sounds more like the Horowitz I heard live than many of his digital recordings. Horowitz plays the music (including Beethoven's Sonata, Op. 101, five Scarlatti Sonatas, Chopin and Rachmaninoff) in much the same manner as his existing Columbia recordings. Two exceptions are Chopin's Barcarolle, which is played lovingly and in contrast to his other rather tempestuous recordings, and Horowitz's own Carmen Variations, which has a different coda. Both the 1951 and 1967 recordings are unedited, so this is the real Horowitz without any interference: imperfect and compelling.

Where this set falls short is documentation. While the liner notes are reproduced on the back of the mini-LP jacket, not all the LPs have notes. The 200 page booklet includes track listings, recording dates (some of which are not accurate), another photo of each LP cover, a perceptive essay on Horowitz by Jon Samuels, and a chronology of his life. The chronology contains errors, and there is a humorous misspelling on one of the LP jackets. (I detect the work of interns.) It's not realistic these days to expect that Sony/BMG can give Horowitz the red carpet treatment that Arthur Rubinstein was accorded in 1999 (although Horowitz certainly deserves it), but is it too much to ask for adequate and accurate documentation? The above complaints demote this set from five stars to four.

One further note: The Horowitz material issued in 2009, including the 1986 Berlin Concert and the two Private Collection recitals (an additional CD is planned for 2010) are not included in this set. 2009 is the twentieth anniversary of Horowitz's death. It's nice to know he hasn't been forgotten.