Friday, May 27, 2011

You're Going Where? (My First Time part II)

Okay, this question is for my Disney friends, but I would imagine many others might have the same issue - different location.

What do you tell people when they say to you "You are going back to Disneyland (or Disney World) ... AGAIN?" If you are a frequent guest, as I and my family are, I am sure you have heard that question more than once.

To fully understand, let's go back to the beginning. I made my first trips to Disneyland (DL) in 1968 and 1969. That 1969 trip was filled with wonderful things - watching Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon (in Las Vegas), seeing The Mets hit rock bottom and then start their climb to a World's Championship, and my first trip through the Haunted Mansion in DL - still my favorite Disney attraction.

But then it would be December 25, 1971 until I would next step into the Magic Kingdom - but this time it would be more than 2  thousand miles to the east. That was our first visit to (a still unfinished) Walt Disney World (WDW). It had opened in the previous October, and Tomorrowland was not yet opened, but I was back at a Disney theme park. I got to go on many DL favorites including the Haunted Mansion - no Pirates of the Caribbean yet. The designers of this park thought that people wouldn't want to see a pirates attraction so close to where the pirates actually operated back in the day. (What were they thinking?)

If you would have asked me on that day how I liked it, I would have told you that it was "okay" but I liked DL better. (Today I will tell you that I like both of them and they really shouldn't be compared as they serve different demographics.)

But now that there was an East Coast Disney theme park, we would be visiting often. In the beginning it was every year, but for a while - after I got married and first had my children - it was a bit less often. My kids didn't get there until my daughter was 4 and my son was 2 - though my wife and I visited during that time by ourselves.

Then we started to go every year. In the past we may have traveled quite a bit to Toronto for our summer vacations, but now summers were filled with other things and we had our big vacation trips during the school vacations in December or February. WDW was not only our favorite place to go, it (usually) was warmer than it was in NYC then, so we started going there every year.

When my kids were in high school, their marching band performed every Presidents' Week vacation in WDW, and aside from their performance time, the rest of the week was for playing in the parks. As parents we had to see them march, right?

Then came the big incentive. When my son was in his freshman year in college, he applied for and was accepted into the Walt Disney World College Program (WDWCP) and would be spending his first semester of his sophomore year working at WDW! Where was he assigned? His role was an attraction host at the (wait for it ... ) Haunted Mansion! (Way to catch Dad's attention!) So naturally mom and dad had to come see him, right?

Then, in her senior year, my daughter applied for the program, and planned on doing the WDWCP in the semester after she graduated. The big difference between her and her brother's plan was that she was going to stay in Florida when the program was over and continue working at WDW. She has been there almost 11 years now, moving from Disney's Animal Kingdom to Caribbean Beach Resort and now in IT. Of course, mom and dad have to come visit their daughter, right? And if WDW happens to be in the neighborhood, it only makes sense to stay at a Disney resort, again right? And once a year isn't enough, we have to visit her at least twice. (That's my story and I am sticking to it!)

So now, when people ask me why I go so often, I can tell them it is all about visiting my daughter ... and soon my daughter and son-in-law as they will be getting married (at WDW of course) this summer.

I don't have to tell them about how going to any Disney destination is just about escaping into another world for a while. A world which still calls to me as it did when I was a kid. I can let that part of me that is still a child do things at a Disney park which I would never do other places. (You know those silly hats ... would you wear Mickey ears outside of Disney ... well, maybe you would. LOL!)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Teens, High School, Theater - A "Good News" Story

Usually when you read about teens in the news, it isn't good. Today I share with you a very good story about teens, their high school, and the largest theater on Staten Island.

Every spring, high schools here traditionally put on a musical. It usually involves a lot of students in the orchestra, the cast, and the technical crew to put it on. Generally the quality is pretty much what you might expect from a high school performance, and unless you are a parent, relative, or friend of someone involved in the show, you take little note of it.

This spring, however, one particular high school here on Staten Island was getting a lot of attention regarding their Spring Musical. Susan E. Wagner High School was performing Les Misérables, a very ambitious show for a high school to produce - even the slightly condensed school version. Yet, the word was that the show was far beyond the quality that one might expect from a high school production. Having been involved in musical theater myself for more than 40 years (as a musician and musical director) I considered going to see it, even though I do not have a child in the school. (Well, not as a student at least - my son is a science teacher there.) But, I never got around to it.

Then, something totally unheard of happened. The custodians of The St. George Theater, a nearly 100 year old landmark theater, went to see a performance. They liked what they saw so much that they decided to produce two performances at the St. George. This high school show would be performed in a classic theater, with a professional technical crew! The theater would arrange for and pay the rights for the two performances, the technical staff, and the transportation of all the sets from the school to the theater. I might mention now that this theater sits only blocks away from the ferry terminal where you would take a short ferry ride to get to Manhattan, and Broadway itself. These high school students would indeed be performing in the shadow of the Great White Way!

When my son called to say that he was getting tickets for him, his wife and some friends, and would my wife and I be interested, I immediately said yes.

Before the show started, the producers came out to say a few words about how they had seen the show at the high school and were so impressed that they decided to offer the school the opportunity to perform at the theater. They introduced the Deputy Boro President who also said a few words, but then introduced yet another dignitary - the Chancellor of the New York City Public School System ... the largest school system in the country. This was indeed a big event and all of the big guns were coming out. The fact that he came this evening - despite what you may think of his agenda - showed that he did indeed see this as a very positive thing for NYC's schools. It was wonderful seeing children honored for something positive for a change.

The show itself was all it was touted as being. The voices of the principal characters were very strong and the parts were all well sung. I was particularly impressed with the student playing Javert, a role which calls for a very powerful voice and performance. He was all of that and more!

The sets were not what you would expect of a high school production. Each set was a work of art, and they even had the signature revolving barricade.

The staging was on par with the rest of the production, and even some of the more difficult choreography pieces from the original show were kept and simplified so that this cast of non-professionals could perform it with the same effect as you would have seen on Broadway.

But of course, my favorite part of a show is always the orchestra and this one did not disappoint. The musical director - the assistant principal in charge of the music and performing arts departments, a former classmate of my own kids, and a musician I have performed with in the past - put together a full orchestra including all the necessary voices from strings, to brass, woodwind and percussion, which sounded totally professional.

There were times I totally forgot that I was watching a high school show!

As good as the show itself was, the story here was how the community, in the form of our most prestigious theater, recognized the good things that the faculty and students of Susan E. Wagner High School had accomplished. With the bad rap that teens and schools have been getting lately, it's important to see the positive side as well.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

It Started With a Grunt!

One grunt for "yes" and two grunts for "no".

Okay, we don't have to go that far back to examine the revolution in communications that we are in the midst of. In fact, we don't have to go back before the internet became a common household fixture. One can choose a number of starting dates, but the one I choose is 1982, because that was that year that the TCP/IP standards were adopted, allowing for a world-wide network of interconnected computers which we call The Internet.

My first contact with the online world came in the mid 1980's when I discovered BBS's, CompuServe and MCI Mail. Of course the only available modems at the time were dial up, 300 baud, so you had to tie up your phone line for a very slow connection. You could literally watch the letters appear on your screen one at a time. And if you didn't have a local number (or 800 number) to call, the phone call could get very expensive all by itself.

At this point "being online" consisted generally of being a member of a large database such as CompuServe, or a home based bulletin board system (BBS). The advantage of the large databases were that they consisted of more than forums, and you could actually get a bit of information from them, and perhaps buy something from one of the few pioneer vendors involved. And you also had access to the newest cool thing on the block ... email. However, bulletin boards had the advantage of being free - there were rather substantial fees for CompuServe - and were all about the forums. In fact, sitting right next to me on the table near my desk where I am writing this, is an old "AT" model computer on which I ran my own BBS. Problem was that when I first started it I could only run it at night, since it tied up my phone line. When I moved into a house, it got its own phone line.

MCI Mail was a great service for me while I was writing for a UK magazine. I could upload my article directly from my computer to MCI Mail who would send it to their office in the UK where it would get printed and then delivered to my editor in London.

Another popular place for like minded people to gather was on Usenet - a series of newsgroups arranged as forums for particular topics.

Then it happened. The internet - not quite as we know it now - started to become available to the general public. (I was lucky that I worked for a magazine publisher who was connected to the internet in the days before graphical browsers. Anyone remember Gopher?) In the 1990's company's known as Internet Service Providers (ISP's) began to crop up. For a monthly fee you could dial into their servers for access to the internet. 2400 baud modems had appeared on the scene. Eventually, BBS's started disappearing and online forums started appearing. The local dial-up BBS disappeared quickly. It took a bit longer, but services such as CompuServe (and later America Online) would no longer serve the function that was being served much better on the internet - especially once graphical browsers appeared on the scene. Email also became more and more prevalent since signing up for an ISP also gave you a number of email addresses. Now you could connect with online merchants as well as find places to gather with others of similar interests. Information started to become available until you could find almost anything you needed to. With the right software - basically BBS type software but now written to work within the browser - you could now gather and meet people from not only your immediate calling area - but from around the world. Forums proliferated and you could find one (or many) on just about any topic.

Then the next step came - social networking. With MySpace and then Facebook, the social aspect of the internet changed completely. More and more the forums lost their steam (though thousands still exist and are very popular) and people started connecting through this new social network. Very different than what had gone before - people started connecting - not only with current friends, but reconnecting with friends from the past. Twitter followed - connecting people in 140 character bursts. All of a sudden, you could even connect with your favorite celebrity or politician. Twitter was a large part of Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

And let's not forget things such as Skype which gives us the ability to talk in real time - face to face with anyone, anywhere in the world!

BBS ---> Usenet ---> private databases ---> World Wide Web ---> Social Network ---> video chatting ... and it is still evolving. At each turn, at least part of the previous technology became obsolete and the use slowed down or stopped. Many a very active forum has now gone all but inactive as its participants switch to other means of staying in touch. Who knows what will come next to make our current communications obsolete?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Day That Changed Everything

With the killing of Osama bin Laden at the beginning of this week, a lot of attention has been focused on September 11, 2001 ... 9/11. As you might imagine, it brings still raw feelings to the surface, especially here in New York City where practically everyone knows someone who was lost that day.

photo ©2001 Laurance Fendrick
I had taken the day off from work, not feeling 100%, so I was actually asleep when the telephone rang. It was my daughter calling from Florida. She asked me if the world was coming to an end. Since I had been asleep I had no idea what she was talking about. I turned on the TV and saw images that should have been from a science fiction movie. Outside of my window the sky was filling with foul smelling black smoke which would soon be filled with debris which had blown over from Ground Zero. I watched as first one tower and then the second tower collapsed on themselves. This couldn't be happening! I watched those towers being built while I was in college. They were replacing the Empire State Building as not only the tallest building in NYC, but - at the time - the world. People didn't really like the twin towers because they had none of the beauty of the Empire State Building, and as Faye Wray said, there was no place for a giant gorilla to climb!

photo ©2001 Laurance Fendrick
And here we were, watching them collapse because of some fanatics. But it wasn't really about the buildings that day - it was about the thousands of innocent people who were in them who lost their lives when they came down. Over the next few days we would be hearing voice mail messages left by those who knew they were not coming home again. Imagine how bad it was inside the building when it was preferable to jump to certain death rather than stay put. And it was more than just those who were already in the towers who were killed, but so many first responders who went into the buildings to help people, and never got out themselves.

My son's father-in-law stopped in the WTC every morning to get his coffee. This morning he stepped off the ferry just in time to see the first plane hit. He wisely turned around and went back on the boat to head home. Good thing too, because all ferry service was stopped after that. In fact, all NYC bridges were closed as well. 4 of 5 NYC boroughs are on islands so with the ferries stopped and the bridges closed, if you weren't home you were stranded. Had I not been home that day - I worked in New Jersey - I would not have been able to return home for the next 3 days!

At the time, we didn't know exactly what was happening, all we knew was that our home was under attack.  Shortly, soldiers carrying automatic weapons started appearing in my neighborhood. Military helicopters were flying down my block at rooftop level. We were advised, if possible, to stay in our houses. We were in a war zone. This was not something that we just saw on TV - such as the Oklahoma bombings of a few years earlier - this was happening to us! On the news, we followed a chase of a car suspected of containing terrorists. Once again ... this was happening in my neighborhood ... blocks from my house. We didn't know if it was over or not.

All flights were cancelled, nothing but the military was in the air. Very strange and scary when you realize that I live 10 minutes from a major NYC airport - we have three - and there was no commercial traffic flying! All sports events in the country were cancelled for fear of attack. When baseball returned a week later here in NYC, it was under airport type security. No one knew what to expect, and when the teams - major divisional rivals at the time - met in the infield and shook hands and embraced each other prior to the start of the game, it was a very emotional moment. The hometown NY Mets won that game from the Atlanta Braves on a very dramatic late inning home run, and even the players on the other team were happy that happened ... it started the healing here in NY and the start of a return to life for those of us who live here.

As you can imagine, between a major telephone switching center being destroyed when the towers collapsed, and the sheer volume of attempted phone calls into the city, telephone service - landline and cell - was nearly non-existent. I could not call my children - neither of whom were in NYC ... my daughter had moved to Florida a year earlier, and my son was away at college. I had recently made the switch from dial up internet service to cable based, and it was the only way I was able to talk with my children - through an online chat. Remember that this was 2001 and many of the "instant communication" abilities we have on the net now were not available then.

But the hardest of all to deal with were the children my wife was teaching. The schools immediately went into lock-down mode. Children could not leave school unless a parent came to pick them up. Yet you have to remember that many of her students had just lost a mom or a dad and did not yet know it. And there were many indeed. During a celebrity fund raising concert a few weeks later, a young boy accompanied Joe Torre to the stage. He had lost his father in the attack. He was one of my wife's students.

So forgive us NYers if we celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. I feel sorry for the families of the victims of the attack, not the mastermind of such carnage. Life continues here as it does in Washington, DC and Pennsylvania - in fact around the country and the world ... but it has never been the same.

Weeks after the attack we visited our daughter in Florida, and saw The Voices of Liberty perform at the American Adventure in EPCOT in Walt Disney World. This clip was a part of that performance (which I filmed) that I usually share each 9/11.