In Israel, Desalinization Has a Created Abundance of Water, Even in the Desert

I just read a very inspiring article in Scientific American about how Israel has built the world’s largest desalinization plant, and they not only are water sufficient, they have water to spare.  Water is the crucial battle of the decades ahead….even a short draught can have such a terrible impact. This is encouraging that in the Middle East desalinization is taking root, and it is going to be the savior for the folks who live there. Here is a snip of the story by Rowan Jacobson.


“Now, that’s a pump!” Edo Bar-Zeev shouts to me over the din of the motors, grinning with undisguised awe at the scene before us. The reservoirs beneath us contain several feet of sand through which the seawater filters before making its way to a vast metal hangar, where it is transformed into enough drinking water to supply 1.5 million people.

We are standing above the new Sorek desalination plant, the largest reverse-osmosis desal facility in the world, and we are staring at Israel’s salvation. Just a few years ago, in the depths of its worst drought in at least 900 years, Israel was running out of water. Now it has a surplus. That remarkable turnaround was accomplished through national campaigns to conserve and reuse Israel’s meager water resources, but the biggest impact came from a new wave of desalination plants.”

Bar-Zeev and colleagues developed a chemical-free system using porous lava stone to capture the microorganisms before they reach the membranes. It’s just one of many breakthroughs in membrane technology that have made desalination much more efficient. Israel now gets 55 percent of its domestic water from desalination, and that has helped to turn one of the world’s driest countries into the unlikeliest of water giants.”


Jar the Floor: With Family Like This, Would You Want to Go Home?

Shannon Lamb, Maggie Miller, Johnnie Mae, Brianna Sloane and Toni Ann DeNoble at the end of Jar the Door at New Century Theatre.

Shannon Lamb, Maggie Miller, Johnnie Mae, Brianna Sloane and Toni Ann DeNoble at the end of Jar the Door at New Century Theatre.

Jar the Floor might be a bit like your memory of going back home for a family gathering.  A little booze, some awkward party gifts, and a whole lot of family disagreements and dirty laundry set to air.  Bring your new gal-pal with you, you might need some help.

Hopefully, your family reunion memories are a bit happier than what happens when these five characters, four African-American and one white woman, gather to celebrate their matriarch’s 90th birthday in a suburban Chicago home.

Like Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, what we see are a bickering bunch, young and old, who seem set on lighting fires under each other and picking scabs that go back generations.  It’s a tough slog, funny in parts, but a comedy it’s not.  The characters are complicated, and the script was a tough exercise in being angry nearly all of the time.

The exception is the one outsider, Raisa, girlfriend and cheerer-up-in-chief while mom, grandmom and great grand mother do battle and accuse, lament, rinse, resent and repeat. There is plenty of ammo to keep everyone mad, from resentment over taking care of dottering MaDear, the birthday girl, to the struggle of every black woman who has had to fight to comb her hair every morning. And don’t even get Maydee (Shannon Lamb) going on the topic of whether her daughter Vinnie should have finished college.

The play, written in 1989 by Cheryl West, was New Century Theatre’s last in their four-show summer fun, and the audience stood up and gave it a standing ovation when it was done. But the third and fourth acts with the arguing, truth telling and simmering resentment made me want it to be over sooner.  MaDear, played by Johnnie Mae, begins the first act as if she’s lost her marbles. She pines for her life on a farm and for a man who her daughter says never existed.  She has some poignant moments recalling how hard it was as a young woman to be called ugly.

Vinnie (Toni Ann DeNoble) is a graceful dancer and versatile actress who shines, even while pretty much having to defend herself the whole play through.  Maggie Miller’s portrayal of Lola got a few laughs, but the script’s consistently pugilistic tone hampers the ability for the audience to have much empathy. This was true of all of these characters, with the exception of Riasa, the lone ray of sunshine.

When her daughter Lola begins throwing around talk about ‘disgusting oral sex’  we realize that MaDear is anything but out of it.   The frustrating part of the play is how close these actors come to the edge of reality–each generation is giving the other guilt trips and the level of narcissism is frighteningly familiar to so many people’s experiences with their own parents.  No compassion, little empathy, and a lot of very harsh words are tossed around this suburban living room.

Vinnie, the grand daughter who has come to see Great Granny’s 90th birthday, can’t seem to do anything right in her prim and proper very well educated mother Maydee’s opinion.  She can barely get a sentence out without the requisite grammar correction….and it takes a plot reveal to tell us just why Maydee was so against Vinnie trying a career as a singer, holding her college fund hostage when it’s clear that more classes are not in Vinnie’s vision of her future.

This is a rich and heavy play, with themes that we rarely see on stage.  Raisa’s (Brianna Stone) costume, one large breast and prominent nipple that MaDear can’t stop looking at raises eyebrows.  Raisa bravely confronts her breast cancer and it is revealed that there’s worse news–but she skillfully makes a point about not putting on the prosthetic breast because that’s not who she is.  Brianna’s character tries valiantly to be the sunshine in a room full of rain, but soon we see multiple conversations happening at the same moment, very little listening and empathy, and any chance of sun is pretty dimmed.

Jar the Door, New Century Theatre, Mendenhall Center for the Arts, Smith College. Tickets New Century, runs through Sat August 6.

Field Guide to Trains is a Rail Geek’s Right Arm

Railroad crossing signals upgrade, Deerfield, Mass.

Railroad crossing signals upgrade, Deerfield, Mass.

Field Guide to Trains, locomotives and rolling stock.

Field Guide to Trains, locomotives and rolling stock.

I’ll admit to being a bit of a railroad geek.  I am fascinated by the tracks, the signals, the locomotives, the cars and the detailed interworkings of how transit systems get people from one place to another.  So  you can imagine my delight when I got a new book in the mail, called “Field Guide to Trains, Locomotives and Rolling Stock,” that is a railroad car compendium and ‘your complete guide to everything on the rails today.’

I love poring through books like this. From the intricate details about historic steam locomotives, to bullet trains whizzing along on rails through Europe, to lowly streetcars, both vintage and new are all examined, showed in color and detailed. This book is crammed full of color photos, and divided into chapters such as commuter rail, freight cars, self propelled trains etc.

The book is also a treasure trove of little known facts:

Plain boxcars were once the universal conveyor of railroad freight, and once carried most everything. Today more specialized cars are used, especially intermodal units that go from train to truck.  In 1980, American railroads had more than 251,000 of these and 179,000 insulated or specialty cars. Now 30 years later, that number is down to 12,078 boxcars and 83,436 of the specialty car. But today’s boxcars are up to 70 feet long, versus a typical 40-foot boxcar of the 1930s.

Author Brian Sullivan has written more than sixty books, truly he’s a railroad fan and lover of trains, since nearly all of his titles are about this subject. He was once the editor of Pacific RailNews.

Buy this book on Amazon Field Guide to Trains 

Time Stands Still: A Powerful Story about Love, War and Life

Sarah (Kim Stauffer), Mandy (Alana Young), Richard (Sam Rush) and James (Nathan Kaufman), the cast of Time Stands Still, at New Century Theatre this weekend.

Sarah (Kim Stauffer), Mandy (Alana Young), Richard (Sam Rush) and James (Nathan Kaufman), the cast of Time Stands Still, at New Century Theatre this weekend.

Tonight we were happy to miss hearing Donald Trump make another speech, and instead, dove into a rich and emotional performance of a top notch play at New Century Theatre.  From the opening moments when I saw the set of Time Stands Still I knew we were in for a treat. Set designer Daniel D. Rist adds touches of verisimilitude like running water, a real exterior door, even a hallway outside that looks like it belongs in a Williamsburg, Brooklyn apartment. It was all a prelude to a play written by a Pulitzer winning playwright, Donald Margulies, and a cast that matched the top notch script with their own poignant portrayals of life in a hard time.

It’s hard because Sarah Goodwin has just returned from a hospital in Germany, injured, after a tour of duty in Iraq. She is a war photographer, who, like so many soldiers, ran over an IED and almost lost her life.   When that accident occurred, it not only injured her but it killed her “fixer,” Tariq, who features heavily into the narrative, as it is revealed that he was a bit more than a fixer, he was her lover in Iraq after her boyfriend James left the country with shell shock over what he witnessed.  The pair are hardened war reporters and have tales to tell, though the darkness of their world isn’t appealing to everyone around them.

Sarah is a wreck, barely able to contain her anger over her inability to walk, and she lashes out at James, her partner of 8 years as he tries hard to make her comfortable in their tiny apartment. There is no where to escape to, except the tiny bathroom. “I just want a cup of f—g coffee!” she screams, tired of his worrying about her caffeine and so many other details like her meds and regimen of therapy and doctor’s appointments.  Clearly she isn’t comfortable being comfortable–she yearns for her life in the battle zones, shooting images of dying children, weeping at one point as she recalls a woman who bloodied her camera lens when she kept shooting after a market is car-bombed. “There I was, a ghoul, shooting away. A life of the suffering of strangers.”

The play takes on a intriguing question about the role of war photographers…should they keep shooting as people are dying, don’t they owe the victims a chance to be saved? Shouldn’t these photographers be doing more to help than simply pushing the shutter over and over?  And ultimately, what can we here in the comfortable US do to help those war victims?  Nobody has the answer, and soon it comes to a head when company arrives at the apartment.

We get a break from these two journalists who have both spent years covering wars when Richard and Mandy show up. He’s her 50-something editor at the magazine, and Mandy (played by Alana Young) is his naive, pretty young girlfriend.  When Mandy exits the stage to go to the bathroom, the knives come out against Richard’s choice of a partner. “You always wanted a little girl, Richard. There’s young and there’s embryonic,” she says with a sneer. But Richard won’t have it, remarking on his age-appropriate former mate Astrid. “I’m done with brilliant. I want something simple for a change.”   He’s never been happier than in the arms of young Mandy. “It’s like going from black and white to color,” he says, “or when the Berlin wall came down.”

Kim Stauffer and James Dodd.

Kim Stauffer and James Dodd.

The play shows the characters evolving, and doing the things they all think will make them happy. Richard and Mandy have a child, delighting both of them, and James and Sarah marry, hey it’s been 8 1/2 years after all.  But we can tell that the comfortable life that James relishes on the couch, watching old horror movies is exactly what Sarah never wanted.  She still yearns for the smell of mortar rounds and the adrenaline of war photography duty.

But after a decade of sleeping on the ground, James realizes he just wants to be comfortable. “Why go back there?” he asks, as it becomes clear that Sarah once recovered will be going back.  Despite their marriage, she’s wedded to the life she left, and they amicably split. But James explains, “I don’t want to be on a mission every time I get on a plane.”  He wants to have children…and take them to Disneyworld.

James wrestles with life as a freelancer as his story about refugees becomes a victim of today’s media landscape. “Sorry, no room, it’s our Hollywood issue,” Richard says, trying to defend a decision made above him. Despite the terrible depravity of life as a refugee, no one has time to read about them, there is only room for one crisis per month in our minds and in the magazine.

Each of these actors wring the absolute most they can out of this great script–Sam Rush as Richard perfectly captures that editor’s dilemma, all too familiar, that tough balance between what needs to be published and what ultimately does get published.  Alana Young as Mandy (in the New York production, Mandy was played by Alicia Silverstone) does a spot on job of showing how she evolves with motherhood, and her daffy comments at the play’s beginning contrast with the true wisdom about what’s really important in life…and the things we can’t do anything about.

Time Stands Still. New Century Theatre, Mendenhall Center for the Arts, Smith College. Friday-Sunday. Tickets: New Century Theatre 413-585-3220


Tanglewood is the Setting. Rhapsody in Blue is the Work

Tanglewood is always a production...bringing the right foods, keeping the kids entertained, and being quiet after the bells ring. Toni Cunningham photos.

Tanglewood is always a production…bringing the right foods, keeping the kids entertained, and being quiet after the bells ring. Toni Cunningham photos.

On Sunday afternoon we took some relatives to Tanglewood for the first time. They have two daughters, ages 3 and 5. It could have been a cringefest but instead, the little cherubs enjoyed themselves very quietly with coloring books and some toys they brought, so narry an eyebrow was raised.

We had told our relatives about the bells…. one toll five minutes before then another and a final ring that means absolutely shut the heck up!  They were ready.

This afternoon’s performance on July 17 had a highlight. A full performance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, with the mesmerizing Yuja Wang on the grand piano. While the Ravel and Prokofiev works were wonderful, this was the one I was really excited about. I looked up what Gershwin said about the work and found this interesting quote, explaining how he came up with this unusual piece.

“It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise…. And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.” 

This was an unforgettable rendition, done absolutely to the letter, from the opening wailing clarinet glissanso to the plinking piano keys deep in the piece, the Boston Symphony conducted by Andris Nelsons never missed a beat.  I can’t wait to come back to Tanglewood next Sunday with some other relatives–also T’wood Newbies–and share the wonder of the lawn.  Tanglewood tickets:

Restaurants Become Work Bars During the Day

Inside the restaurant DBGB in New York City, workers enjoy the space while the restaurant is closed, and they pay to use it.

Inside the restaurant DBGB in New York City, workers enjoy the space while the restaurant is closed, and they pay to use it.

I read about an innovative way to utilize the unused space inside restaurants that are only open at night on a site based in London that tracks great ideas.  There is a new outfit called Spacious that is organizing workers without offices who want a place besides their small apartments to gather and work. Voila, here is what they created.

I kept thinking of the many restaurants in the Valley that aren’t open during the day. Maybe they could use some extra revenue.  Unfortunately, many of the restaurants that I can think of are actually closed for good, like Spoleto’s huge former space on Main St in Northampton and the former MRKT in South Deerfield that’s been shut for nearly a year.  Maybe some of these landlords would benefit from an idea like this.

“Spacious finds large, upmarket restaurants in New York and repurposes them as office spaces during the hours when they are closed, usually from early morning until 5pm. Members, after a free trial day, can subscribe to Spacious locations for USD 95 per month, or USD 29 for a day pass. Guests can also be invited for free for an hour, and services include coffee and snacks and a text-based concierge. Restaurants, including L’Apicio in the East Village, operate the scheme on a profit share basis, and have reported that users often stay on to eat once the restaurant opens for the evening’s service.

These spaces would be especially useful for freelancers looking to take clients somewhere more upscale for important meetings. Could other spaces be co-opted in this way, such as schools or bars?”