Friday, November 23, 2007

My turn en pointe

Shortly after the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) opened in Newark, the American Ballet Theater staged a series of holiday season performances of Cinderella. As is customary, they put the call out for supernumeraries - extras - to fill the stage at the needed times. Since those roles require no dance skills, the troupe saves the cost of paid performers and takes walk-ons. I'm not a big ballet aficionado, but since I was working in Newark, anyway, I went to check it out.

The "audition" was little more than lining up in height order. The children needed to demonstrate a little grace since they'd be on stage as the Seasons, but beyond that, we adults had no idea what criteria we were being judged on. I Hope I Get It, indeed.

I was chosen as an "extra super" (an extra extra, as it were) who would participate in performances only if one of the other adults didn't show up. We were required to be there for several rehearsals and were expected to arrive an hour before each performance, regardless of when we appeared in the program. Most of us appeared only in the wedding scene, the last three minutes of the show. That meant a lot of waiting around in the large group dressing room upstairs, watching the show on closed-circuit TV.

Being backstage was a pretty cool experience. I got an up-close view of the dancers' athleticism and the hard work they put into their craft. It was also fun to watch the reactions of the little girls who were chosen to be the Seasons in the show. Looking up to the dancers with awe, they went totally over the moon when some of the ballerinas gave them their battered toe shoes.

One of the things I learned was that traditionally, the wicked stepsisters in Cinderella are played by men, I guess to ensure that they're ugly women. The dressing room for those dancers was right next to ours, so we'd clear the way for them in the hall when they'd run between scenes to change costumes. They were pretty nice guys, happy to chat with the ballet groupies among the extras.

On the Sunday of the show's run, we had three or four hours between performances, and while several of the supers went home for an early dinner, I chose to hang out at the PAC. As I sipped my clam chowder, I suddenly heard random shouting and groans, and then progressively louder audio from a football game. Sticking my head out the dressing room door, I found the wicked stepsisters watching a playoff game on the closed-circuit TV in the hallway. That would have been fine, but it was just a little weird to see two extraordinarily ugly "women" wearing heavy rouge and stripped down to their bloomers, cursing the referee. I've seen a lot of weird things at football games, but that one takes the cake.

Anyway... ultimately, I appeared in about a dozen performances since one of the "regular" supers decided she was too good to show up at the appointed hour before the curtain rose. For ten days, once a night and twice on each weekend day, I stood two people away from the Fairy Godmother during the wedding scene. I never got up the nerve to ask her to help me find my prince charming, but then, glass slippers tend to cause blisters.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Under the pre-text

A recent article on bemoaned the death of e-mail in favor of text messaging. When you consider that e-mail as a medium has been around for over 20 years now, I guess it's not surprising. Nevertheless, I posit that we've still got some time to go before it goes the way of 8-track tapes.

People are apt to say that this is another one of those youth-driven trends. However, I've been noticing with greater frequency that middle-aged folks are doing it, too. It became most evident to me when I started dating again. At first I thought it was something the men had learned from their teenagers, but then I got a number of texts from a man with no kids. Come to think of it, he had the maturity level of a 17 year old, so it made sense.

Though I do text at times, I'm still trying to reason the whole thing out. Yes, texting is useful when you're in a place where it would be rude to talk on the phone: business meetings, funerals, group therapy sessions. It's also helpful for quick reminders: "pick up milk," "meet me at 8," or, in the case of a text a former boyfriend got from his ex-wife, "you continue to be a complete asshole." It does have a sense of immediacy that's lost when you step away from your PC, but I just don't see it totally replacing e-mail as a mode of communication. You can't really get a good story across in 150 characters or less (well, the ex's ex did). And those little buttons are tough on your thumbs.

Going the next step, I'm totally mystified as to why some people have entire conversations by text. For God's sake, they have a phone in their hands! They could just dial the number and talk, which is much quicker than the back and forth with thumbs flying. And texting while driving brings it to a new level of absurdity. Potentially lethal absurdity. If it's really that important, pull over and make the call.

So what is it that people are avoiding? If we're so loathe to actually talk, or to share more than a dozen words at a time, maybe we need to reconsider our relationships.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Spy vs. Spy

A squadron of nuclear weapons ringed major U.S. cities during the Cold War, undetected by the vast majority of Americans. Until the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles in the early 70's, the last defense America had against Soviet incursion was the Nike Ajax missile, and then the nuclear-tipped Nike Hercules. And many Nike bases were located in suburban neighborhoods, not always or entirely known by the residents of the split-level ranches nearby.

Most of the bases have been dismantled, but there's still one in pretty decent shape at Fort Hancock on Sandy Hook in New Jersey. It's within the Gateway National Recreation Area, which was created in 1974 after the Department of Defense decommissioned it and transferred ownership to the National Park Service.

I had the opportunity to check out the base a few weeks ago. There's just one missile on display, unarmed, and the golfball-shaped covers aren't on the radar platforms anymore, but the control centers are still there. About the size of a small Ryder rental truck, they could easily be pulled up and trucked to another location, just like an old-time diner. Oh, and they're incredibly ugly and depressing inside, kind of like a submarine.

The Park Service is allegedly working to stabilize and restore the base, but right now they're letting visitors check out the trailers and other parts of the base in their current, crappy condition. Though the electronics have been removed, you can still get a sense of the technology that once tracked and controlled nuclear weaponry. It's pretty wild to think that there's more powerful circuitry in my pocket PC than there was in that whole set up. In fact, our guide pulled out a huge floppy disc, the older, bigger brother to the 5-1/4 floppies I remember from my early computing days. Oh, and while there are still plenty of switches and dials on the control panels, someone thoughtfully removed "the button." I guess you can never be too careful.

I also got a kick out of an old phone booth on the base. It still had a rotary phone with a 201 number, though that area code hasn't been accurate in nearly 20 years. It seemed weirdly out of place, a relic of normalcy in a kind of surreal doomsday environment. My thoughts turned to the scene in the satirical Dr. Strangelove , when the one sane officer left on the base is reduced to using a pay phone to contact the Pentagon during an attack ... and Ma Bell won't spot him the 55 cents for the long-distance call. You have to wonder if the Fort Hancock phone booth is there for the one sane officer left... And, of course, there's always Maxwell Smart and the secret entrance to CONTROL. In any case, the Park Service is keeping it there for eventual restoration.

As I took a few snapshots, I realized that had I gotten into the base with a camera 40 years ago, I'd have landed in a military jail. Now photos of the equipment are posted here, for all to see, without any penalty to me. Maybe some Russian blogger like me has posted photos of nuke base phone booths, too. Glasnost.