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A “folksy” feel

Posted on July 27, 2011 by Leave a comment

It’s the end of July, which means one thing around here – the Lowell Folk Festival.

It’s been that way for 25 years, a great record, for sure, for one of the region’s premier events. And it’s free and always will be, organizers pledge.

I was working at the Sun 25 years ago, and no one paid much heed to the first Festival, brought here by the National Council for Traditional Arts as the National Folk Festival, an event that moved to various cities every two or three years.

I didn’t  go to the first one, since I was working on a food story on a local banker who was a gourmet cook. I can’t remember the banker’s name, but I recall doing the interview at his house, as he cooked seafood for a pasta sauce and we briefly discussed the festival taking place downtown. Little else.

Some talk in the newsroom the following Monday, but little else. The next year, the Globe picked up on the Festival and visitors to Lowell were spotted toting copies of the Globe Calendar section around, using it as their guide. That created a firestorm in the newsroom, and the following year, we did our own guide, with lots of laboring over cover art, schedules, maps and menus.

I somehow inherited the crafter profiles, something I’ve done for years. Most years, I didn’t cover the fest, just came and soaked up the ambiance, music and food. Got to know a lot of the food folk, too, since we’d always do a story the Wednesday before that concentrated on one of the groups, their recipes and the hard work that went in to getting it all together.

A few memories stand out. One year, early on, I volunteered as a musician escort – that meant I was the person assigned to herd my assigned musician to his appointed stages on Friday night and Saturday, when he was performing. I shelled out more of my own money for orange popsicles for the guy. But the topper came when he asked if I could find him a little female companionship for the night. I didn’t realize the title “musician escort” meant finding him an escort and wasn’t about to head to Appleton or Middlesex Street to locate a girl for him. End of that job, thanks very much.

Another highlight was always the high-stepping parade with former LNHP superintendant George Price at the helm. Loved the excitement he always generated with his trademark umbrella.

Other highlights: Audrey Ambrosino’s wedding to Gregg Lamping a few years ago the night before the Festival started, with the venerable Joe Wilson serving as clergy; the fun-filled opening night party, hosted by Mike Kuenzler, that’s become one of the most coveted tickets in town and always serves as a great spot to hob-nob and catch up with folks, and the food, of course, that glorious food.

Glad the whole downtown now embraces the Folk Festival, with activities on every street corner, sales at the shops and the bars throbbing with their own musical energy.

Last year was my last year as a Sun staffer covering the festival. I retired a week later. But they asked me to write the crafter profiles again this year in the Steppin’ Out special section, coming out on Thursday and serving as the definitive guide to the festival. And I’ll be back again, covering Friday night’s opening for the paper – hope the heat, humidity and rain hold off this year.

It will be fun to see people, especially Audrey Ambrosino and Gregg Lamping. They’ll join Jack Baldwin and me on Thursday at 11:15 on WCAP-AM to reminisce about past Fests and what this one holds.

And it will be great, once more, to celebrate the Lowell Folk Festival with  the folk of Lowell. Hope it goes on for another 25 years and 125 years after that…

My midsummer funk

Posted on July 17, 2011 by Leave a comment

I’m in a funk and I don’t know why.

After all, it’s summer and there’s beauty all around me – gorgeous gardens; warm, sunny days; time spent with loved ones enjoying relaxing activities with little to worry or care about; silly movies, lobster rolls and ice cream; beaches, sand castles,   picnics, festivals, fireworks and more.

But I still have a sense of foreboding, and it usually hits me around mid-July, half way between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when summer clothes go on clearance, stores start advertising early back-to-school sales and the days get noticeably shorter each sunrise and sunset.

I love summer and all that it offers. And I felt so invigorated on its first day in June as I savored all of its promise. But the promise turns at times to disappointment, frustration, even fear and anger during these so-called idyllic days. Trouble can lurk around the corner, bees sting, knees get scraped, mosquitoes bite. Ouch!

So what’t the cure to my midsummer malaise? Trying to look on the bright side of life by keeping busy, weeding the garden, writing a story, venting to friends. All this helps and makes me realize that, while it’s mid-July and summer’s now entering its second half  and racing towards the finish, good days still lie ahead before we face autumn’s brilliant colors and falling leaves and winter’s snow, cold and ice.

And, while I don’t want to wish my life away, I know that looking ahead, six months from now, it will be January, the days will get longer, spring catalogues will be in the mail and I will again have the promise of summer approaching in the future, instead of looking it squarely and watching it disappear before my eyes.

One-on-one with the baby Grands…

Posted on July 10, 2011 by Leave a comment

Anyone lucky enough to be blessed with grandkids – hereafter called the  Grands – knows there’s nothing quite like it.

You’ve had your kids and now you get to enjoy their kids without the hassles of clothing, feeding and educating them – unless you choose to help out on your terms.

It’s great to cuddle them, read to them, play with them and babysit them, when you get a chance. But hands-down, the best part of being a grandparent is enjoying your offspring’s offspring one-on-one.

When it’s just you and a Grand, it’s often magic, especially since there’s no sibling rivalry, jealousy or guilt that often accompanies group sessions with the Grands.

Today, I had a great one-on-one with my youngest Grand, Claire, adorable and chatty at three years and three months. It was a day for Claire, Grammy and Pa, since the rest of the family was off to the Red Sox to watch Grampy Matthews throw out the first pitch at venerable Fenway Park.

 Claire loved the idea of taking off with me when I picked her up bright and early.  Her bag was packed, and we were off to the Acton Farmers Market first for fresh veggies and crafts at the amiable place.

She held my hand and looked around, smiling and saying hi to people. She loved the craft area, making two cut-out ladybugs from construction paper and glue. Then we picked green beans and zucchini for dinner and headed on home to show Pa our treasures.

Teatime followed in front of the TV as we watched the Red Sox start their fourth, and final, onslaught of the Orioles at Fenway. No sign of Grampy, but Claire cheered nonetheless, sipping water “tea”  laced with sugar and enjoying the scene.

We then packed a picnic and head to NARA Park for a swim. Hot and steamy on a warm July day, it was fun nonetheless to dig in the sand and reconnect with Vin Wallack, an Acton friend, who shared her umbrella to ward off the sun.

Home again, snacks, watercolor painting on the front lawn, seeing Dad on TV next to the Orioles bullpen, a tubby and, finally, eight hours later, John, Heather, Jack and Molly were back with tales of being out on the field, meeting Wally, the Green Monster mascot, facepainting, free food and a couple of game balls for Jack.

But Claire showed off her ladybugs and said she’d had fun, even though she may have been a bit jealous that she missed the game after seeing the pictures.

But for Grammy, at least, it was another not-to-be-forgotten day with a Grand. Sweet, memorable, with lots to savor and recall as they get older and decide it’s no lonfwe cool to hang out with Grammy after all….

I love a good chick flick…

Posted on July 8, 2011 by Leave a comment

Chick flicks are mindless, I know. But sometimes mindless is good and makes you think a bit, too, when you least expect it.

That’s what happened the past two afternoons, sitting in cinemas in Lowell and Burlington watching the chick flicks Midnight in Paris and Larry Crowne with my daughter, Wendy.

She and I both love movies. And we also love watching them on the big screen TV at home. But going to the movies is a ritual we love to revive each time we get together, recalling the halcyon days of her (and my) youth when we’d stage movie marathons when she came home from college each spring.

The fare this summer is sparse, for sure, until a couple more open in August. But we both enjoyed our choices this time, even if critics haven’t been generous with their praise.

Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’s latest, starring Owen Wilson as a depressed Hollywood screenwriter, engaged to Inez, ably played by Rachel McAdam. They’re in Paris on her parents’ dime, enjoying the scenery, dining and wine. Then  he decides he’d like to ditch all their future Malibu beach house frivolity and move here, settling in like Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Picasso did in the ’20s to pursue art by day and party by night.

Then, voila!, one dark night strolling Paris’ magical streets, he’s picked up by partiers in a vintage car and transported back to the golden age. Cole Porter plays on the piano, Scott and Zelda hold court and Hemingway weighs in on everything from writing to wooing women.

Young Gil (Wilson) is hooked and travels back a few more times in this delightful confection of a flick. A bit far-fetched but it drives home the point that it’s best to live in the present, no matter how beguiling the past. Loved the scenery, the music and the quirky characters that Allen brings back to recall the Roaring ’20s in Paris.

Larry Crowne is another frou-frou piece but pretty to look at despite its predictability. Hanks’ character, Larry, is a do-gooder at the U-Mart, where he’s carved a career as a perfect employee after 20 years in the Navy. Only problem, he never went to, let alone, finished college. And it’s a black mark against him, as he gets the ax from the higher-ups.

He signs up at the local community college for speech, economics and English comp. Naturally, the speech teacher Julia Roberts, tart, tangy and hell-bent to cancel her classes for low enrollment is a dazzler. She’s dealing with a sluggard husband, a former teacher and writer, now turned blogger (what does that say about us?), who peruses porn sites while she supports the household. .

One thing leads to another, of course, in this predicatable, yet entertaining, comedy. And, needless to say, teacher and student evenutally connect and, asclosing credits attest, will live happily everafter.

Corny? Sure. But entertaing? Absolutely.

And that’s why I always love a good chick flick on a hot or rainy summer afternoon. Sheer escape and nothing else. And isn’t that what summer is all about?

In a word…Perfection

Posted on June 30, 2011 by Leave a comment

How do you describe perfection? Is it a lovely flower? A delicious meal? An inviting scene? A memorable occasion? The people you know, love and care about?

It was all of that – and more – to me Wednesday as I experienced an absolutely perfect June day.

It started early on my way to Ayer, catching up with my friend Joanne on the phone, sharing stories and tidbits of our lives. Then, at my kids’ house, handsome grandson Jack greeted me with painted hair – red and blue – for crazy hair day at his lacrosse camp.

Piling in to the car,  Heather, Molly, Claire and I traipsed to Westford for Molly’s second day of junior camp, run by the delightfully creative and inventive Emily Piper of Rumphius Creativity Unhinged. We pulled into the lovely preserved farm on Gould Road  just in time for Molly to get started with her new friends in camp.

“This is so cute,” Heather said. I agreed and knew she would love what Emily had done to the space, turning shabby chic into warm and inviting for her young charges.

We left Molly with her campmates and headed to Dunkin’ Donuts for a little caffeine and conversation. There, Claire met up with a lovely French Canadian woman who took to her and shared her little dog Mittens with her for a little canine bonding.

Back at camp, Molly and her cohorts all got to ride the sweetest, most docile steed around the riding ring twice. Then the nice barn folks let Claire board the horse, too, even though she wasn’t an official camper. She looked so big and self-assured up there, holding the reins, her little legs straddling the horse’s back. It almost made you forget she’s only three.

Then I got to bounce an adorable, seven-month-old, all cute, chubby and smiling, on my lap.

After camp, driving Molly home, seeing the wind sift through her hair as she sat with the window open, grasping summer in all its glory and spying a deer off in a distant field.

Back home in Acton,  it was time for a memorable afternoon visit with a delightful woman who is sharing her memoir-writing tips with me for a story I will write later this month for a special section of the Globe. We sat in her lush, green backyard, swapped stories of growing up and remembered the good old days. I felt like I’d made a new friend, and maybe I have.

Then more outdoor perfection finishing up my front garden. Digging in the dirt and seeing it grow  banishes my cold memories of its barren winter look. Still needs a few more blooms to fill out the plot and give it more color. I’ll take care of that this week. But the eggplant is growing, the tomatoes, too. Fresh produce for parmesan and caprese salad in August, I hope.

Back out to Ayer for dinner, a delicious salad, burgers and dogs from the grill and  seeing the kids and their friends Charlie and Caroline troop in from the circus in Pepperell, faces painted and hearts and minds filled with the excitement of riding elephants, fire-eating men (no, kids, don’t try it!) and creating a circus of their own.

Then home to spill out my feelings in emails and notes to family and friends. And falling into bed, exhausted, but happy, with a breeze wafting through the window, just cool enough for a cover, but not so cold to make you shut the window on this luscious June night.

Simple stuff, sure. But perfect, nonetheless. As Morrie Swartz explained to Mitch Albom in Tuesdays with Morrie, the perfect day is just these things: doing things and being with the people you know and love.

It was a day to remember, and in a word – perfect.

A new exec…from close to home

Posted on May 26, 2011 by Leave a comment

Steven Leon is Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s new executive director. The announcement was made official yesterday in a press release, and my full story is in The Sun today. 

Ironically, while MRT scoured the country and interviewed four finalists for the position, Leon comes from right down the road in Cambridge – the American Repertory Theatre, to be exact. He’s been assistant general manager for six years at the prestigious Harvard Square theater and has a 30 year career in theater, including directing, lighting design and management duties, on his impressive resume.

He’s a Chicago area native and married to painter Sarah Leon. He replaces Tom Parrish, who left MRT in early February to head the GEVA Theater Center in Rochester, N.Y.

The press release includes kudos for Leon from such big names in American theater as Bob Brustein, founding director of the ART, and Rob Orchard, former executive director of the ART and current executive director of Boston’s ArtsEmerson.

Leon found a lot to like about Lowell on his four official visits here. But it’s the quality of work on the MRT stage that first attracted him to the job, he said.

Unbeknownst to Charles Towers, MRT’s artistic director, Leon has been in the audience for several  MRT productions in recent years and praised Towers’ talents and eagerness to present new works.

It sounds like a match made in theatrical heaven, and both Towers and Leon seemed ecstatic about the prospects of working together during phone interviews yesterday.

“It ‘s better than we could have ever expected,” said Towers.

“I’m thrilled to be coming to the Merrimack Rep,” said Leon.

He officially begins the job at the start of the next fiscal year on July 1. But he’s already in the email loop and will be officially introduced to the community at MRT’s annual meeting on June 28.

What I like about Lowell

Posted on May 11, 2011 by Leave a comment

Delighted to be in Lowell today for three significant events. First, the COOL breakfast, celebrating 10 years of outreach, support and involvement with the artists, businesses and tourism in the city, making Lowell a very cool place to live, work and play.

Congrats to MRT for the $325,000 Kresge Foundation grant that will help refurbish the theater (first time in 25 years) and make it more user-friendly. And also kudos to the Revolving Museum for its semi-final status for a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. They’re waiting for the end of June to learn if they are one of 12 finalists that get invited to the White House.

Then on to the Owl Diner and a chance to catch up with Jack Neary, Lowell playwright and blogger sublime. His The Porch, a Lowell-centric comedy, is being presented June 2-4 at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center. I’ll write on this on May 26.

Finally, off to the American Textile History Museum, where two new exhibits, one about soldier graffiti on a troop ship heading to Vietnam in the 1960s, and another about the glammy fashions of the 1930s, both open on May 21. See my story next Thursday, May 19 in Steppin’ Out.

I was breathless by then and remain amazed at how far Lowell has come in the years I have covered it…There really is a lot to like about Lowell…

A passionate cause

Posted on April 20, 2011 by Leave a comment

Suzz Cromwell visited my Film, Video and Society class yesterday at Middlesex Community College to share info on the Lowell Film Collaborative and upcoming Lowell Film Festival, with its Civil War theme.

But she also brought in Rich Garella, producer of the documentary Who Killed Chea Vichea?, which the Lowell Film Collaborative was screening that night at the National Park Visitors Center.

The film is about the assassination of Chea Vichea, who was Cambodia’s most prominent, respected labor leader, and director Bradley Cox’s five-year-effort to unmask the forces behind the murder that sent fear through this country.

Garella shared his experiences as a producer with my students, who were full of questions and clearly fascinated and moved by the clips of the film that he showed. It opened their eyes to another culture and what is happening there. It also elicited their sympathies and made them realize quite vividly what horrors still exist in Cambodia. I had shared some this with them in discussions last week, but this film made it so much more real to them.

Kudos to Garella and Cox for their efforts, which will be shown across the country on PBS stations in May. And thanks to Suzz and Brett Cromwell for their efforts to bring such films to audiences here, at no cost to viewers.

The Lowell Film Collaborative is another institution that adds luster to the city’s shine.

Greenlaw chats

Posted on April 20, 2011 by Leave a comment

I can’t wait to hear what Linda Greenlaw has to say when she visits the Pollard Memorial Library next Thursday – that’s the 28th – to share her life story at the annual benefit for library programs hosted by the library’s friends and foundation.

Chatting with Greenlaw a couple of weeks ago, for a story running on the cover of The Sun’s Steppin’ Out tomorrow – that’s the 21st – was a dream come true for me.

My husband and I are big Greenlaw fans and have all her books on our shelves. We were first introduced to her, as was the rest of the world, in Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, which sheds light on the infamous 1991 maelstrom along the East Coast that took the lives of all on board the Andrea Gale, sister ship to the Hannah Boden, which Greenlaw skippered.

What’s amazing about her is that she stands no taller than 5-foot 2-inches, yet has gained fame and fortune as the only female swordboat skipper in the U.S.

But thanks to Junger’s praise on that account – he called her “the best captain on the East Coast, period” in his book – Greenlaw was tapped by publishers to tell her story. Eleven years later, she’s become an acclaimed writer and publishing success story with numerous books under her belt and more on the way. That’s all the better for us, her fans.

I particularly like The Lobster Chronicles,  which details her return to Isle au Haut, the family’s Maine island home, and her foray into lobstering after years on the high seas. Like Greenlaw, it’s witty, feisty and a bit salty. She’s also done a fine job on the cookbook Recipes from a Very Small Island, which she co-authored with her equally feisty mom, Martha, a noteworthy cook.

She promises that her talk will be light-hearted and casual, and she’s eager to answer questions. So bring them on.

I’ll be there, six books in hand for her to sign. It’s $40 at the door and includes a reception. It all starts at 6 p.m.

Check out my story in tomorrow’s Sun on the cover of Steppin’ Out for more on Linda Greenlaw.

A timely vaudevillian treat at MRT

Posted on March 31, 2011 by Leave a comment

“A vaudeville” is the subtitle of playwright Seth Rozin’s  bittersweet comedy Two Jews Walk Into A War, now playing through April 10 at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell.

And that is indeed what it seems on the surface as Will LeBow and Jerry Kissel, both master comedic actors, cavort on stage. At times it’s like the best comic banter of, say,  a Bud Abbott and Lou Costello or Alan King and Billy Crystal, or any of the other borscht belt comics who make people laugh with their perfectly-timed, perfectly targeted one-liners.

In fact, I felt like going “ba-da-bing” as Kissel or LeBow uttered the punch line and the lights and bombs bursting offstage kept time to the joke.

But there’s more to Two Jews than just silly set-ups and  funny lines. This is a story that is  based on the truth. It’s about the last two Jews remaining in Kabul, Afghanistan and their determined efforts to keep their temple afloat even as the bombs burst in the air about them.

But the punch line here is that these two guys,  Zeblyan, perfectly played by Kissel, and Ishaq, played to equal perfection by LeBow can’t stand each other’s guts. There were really two Jews left in Afghanistan that inspired this story and Rozin took the concept and ran, making a funny, telling, yet poignant play about them.

The premise revolves around their determination to re-create the Torah, the five books of Moses that is central to the Jewish religion, and then, hopefully, repopulate their congregation so it becomes strong again.

Zeblyan does the writing on a blood-stained scroll (not exactly kosher, but God makes exceptions in dire situations, they figure) and Ishaq does the dictating. Their snappy discussions on the stringent rules of Judaisim set down in Leviticus is  worth the price of admission and keeps the banter moving along rapidly in the 90-minute, one-act production.

But, along with the comedy, there’s a tender heart to Two Jews as well, one that anyone, Jewish or not, can relate to. It’s about the importance, no necessity, of working together, even with the enemy, and about the resiliance of the human spirit in times of peace and times of peril.

Two Jews Walk Into A War will make you laugh, for sure, but it will also make you thing – and that is what good theater is all about.

Through April 10. Visit for tickets.

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