Sunday, December 29, 2013

My Friend Lowell is Gone

I knew it was coming, but when Lowell Moulton died yesterday, I let out a big sigh and didn’t want to believe it. It wasn’t long ago that we were playing music together in the congeniality of the Odd Fellows monthly blues jams.

We sometimes say, when someone dies, that they are finally at peace. In his brave, Zen-minded way, Lowell faced the end of his life with curiosity and patience, and was at peace before he died. He tried every medical treatment available, but when none would work, he courageously accepted his fatal condition and lived his remaining days with full consciousness. I can only hope that if my final days are spent with a terrible illness, that I can have his attitude.

I met Lowell in 2007, when he took over my bass slot in the Beatles tribute band, Fab Fever. With his high musical competence, fine ear, and ready smile, he always added so much to the music he performed. Although the iteration of Fab Fever containing Lowell didn’t last long, I got to play with him later during jam sessions, where he proved to be a capable blues lead guitar player. His Herd of Cats band showed his Jazz chops, too.

As in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, you can measure the kind of life you’ve lived by the number and quality of friends you have at the end. By this calculation, Lowell was the richest man in town. As his illness progressed, many stepped forward to help him with his daily living, including meals, trips to appointments, yard clearing, and professional medical care. Using MealTrain, an online program that works like a gift registry, you could see what Lowell needed and sign up to provide it. Meal Train made sure that Lowell retained his independence at home but got adequate nutrition and could see his doctors. And, it kept the flow of visitors right for his schedule.

I had the privilege of preparing and bringing Lowell dinner one night, and we played some music together. On another occasion, I drove him to San Francisco for a medical appointment. I also was able to get in one last phone call a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t know it would be the last time we spoke, but it ended with “I love you, Lowell.”

Because I have known that he was leaving us, I’ve thought about Lowell a lot, and mourned him in advance, even before his actual death yesterday. Now, I feel emptiness. When someone dies suddenly, it’s a shock, and it takes a while to absorb the news. But when your friend or family member declines, you can carry the knowledge of their imminent departure with you every day, and begin missing them before they’re gone. I feel like I will carry Lowell in my heart forever.

I have set his photo on my iPhone lock screen for the last couple of weeks. Whenever I open the phone to text or make a call, I see him standing on the stage at the Hayward Plunge, playing a blues solo in front of his friends. It was his final appearance in this summer music program. I also have a set of photos of him playing with Herd of Cats, at the Sycamore 129 Odd Fellows Lodge in Hayward. I’ll treasure them.

I’ve lost three people this year—one suddenly, but two after debilitating illnesses. The sudden loss, my cousin Tom, was a shock, out of nowhere. Because I didn’t know him well, it had little impact on my daily life. My real concern was for his parents, my aunt and uncle, who will feel this great loss for the rest of their lives.

For the two other losses, Barbara Garber in July and Lowell yesterday, I had time to say goodbye over time. Barbara, a feisty, red-headed standup comedian, was diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease – a few years ago and, despite gradually losing her speech and mobility, she continued to post hysterically funny jokes and comments on Facebook until very shortly before she died. Barbara found humor in a fatal disease! She stared ALS in the eye and told it that it couldn’t silence her—even when she couldn’t speak.

As a memorial, several comedian friends read some of Barbara’s Facebook posts out loud to an audience at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley. Even without Barbara’s unique voice and laugh, the jokes still had it. At Barbara’s “Celebration of Life” in August, the church was filled with the many people whom she had touched. They stood up, one after the other, to talk about Barbara. There were plenty of tears but lots of laughs, too.

Lowell was not a comedian, but he had a great sense of humor, and also a bright, positive view of life. He and I attended a Gordon Lightfoot concert together a couple of years ago and he was fun to hang with—and we enjoyed a great health food restaurant before the show. I treasure that time now—in the days when he was strong and healthy. But Lowell was always that way, until pancreatic cancer struck him down at a youthful 64 years old.

Barbara and Lowell didn’t do anything to deserve the way they were taken from us. The great story is how they both bravely and strongly remained true to themselves until the end. If there was any anger or bitterness, they kept it private. If you have to go, you can die with dignity.

I am bereft, but also inspired by their lives and their deaths.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cinderella on Steroids - La Cenerentola, in Italian

Everyone knows the story of Cinderella. She’s the virtuous, but abused, stepsister whose virtue is eventually rewarded when she meets and marries the prince. But you probably have never seen it as an opera, in Italian. You really should.

Last night, I enjoyed La Cenerentola, composed by Gioachino Rossini, at the California Conservatory Theater in San Leandro, California. The 67-seat performance space guarantees intimacy, as it has for the other fine productions I’ve seen there. I had literally front-row center seats, too, so I was not only looking up at the actors/singers, but one time one of the stepsister’s hands brushed again my knee during a scene played in front of the stage.

You may not think of yourself as an opera enthusiast, and many people are put off by the intense performance of these highly trained singers. A show like this could change your opinion. The entire performance was sung in Italian, but I found that I forgot about the words, thanks to some supertitles (which gave the gist of the action) and the emotion communicated by the singers’ physical presence and voices.

This production was presented with the sincerity the story requires but also was filled with humor. The costumes, for example, were modern, but in the first scene, the two stepsisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, appear in their garish, tightly-stretched track suits, “getting in shape” for an expected appearance by the prince, who has to take a bride. And their clothing never gets more tasteful than that, as these two play comic buffoons through the whole show—while still maintaining the high standards of professional opera.

This production, which runs for only a single Friday through Sunday, December 13-15, 2013, is put on by Opera on Tap (OOT), a non-profit organization whose mission is to make opera a real choice for people who may have never considered going to experience one. If you can appreciate a dramatic pop singer, how about a whole cast of them? OOT brings opera to accessible neighborhood venues, at reasonable prices, to expose more people to this classical style in an informal way. Nobody in the audience was wearing jewels, and the sets were quite simple—the kind you’d see in a community playhouse. But it worked beautifully. Visit their website for more information.

Part of this effort includes two matinees on Saturday and Sunday, abridged for children, with a different cast. Next time, I’m planning on attending one of those too to see how they do it.

The music was supported—you might even say driven—by the rousing performance of the six-member chamber orchestra, directed by Michael Anthony Schuler. At stage right, facing away from the actors in their own virtual “pit,” sat a string quartet plus bass and piano. They provided a stirring platform for the voices. Occasionally, I looked over to watch Schuler directing the musicians as he followed and conveyed the stage action, and the musicians focused intensely on their music—and each other.

It’s really hard to single out one particular vocal performance because I thought they were universally excellent. I am not an expert on opera, so I had no way to evaluate the technique. I do see from the program that all of the performers studied under expert teachers to perfect their art, and some have long performance histories.

Jessica Winn, as Cenerentola, is a powerful mezzo-soprano, and managed to convey, in her jeans and headscarf, the downtrodden and miserable house servant who is then transformed into the beautiful future princess and queen. It’s a comic touch in a sad situation when as Cenerentola, she pulls out a pack of cigarettes from her jeans pocket.

Cenerentola’s stepsisters, played by Krista Wigle and Jamie McDonald, kept the tension high with their overreaction to their various disappointments and their pervasive sibling rivalry. It was hard to be sympathetic to these characters—they are meant to be “mean” -- but the singers’ performances were powerful.

The male characters were complicated by a classic switch. Prince Ramiro, played by Jonathan Smucker, spent more than half of the play disguised as his squire/valet, Dandini (Daniel Cameron) who has to act as a prince should. This device, of course, is to ferret out how the women will really treat people, and it works. It also gives the actors a chance to play two parts, essentially. As the pretend valet, Smucker almost seems like he’s watching a science experiment, from the side holding his chin and observing. When he takes back his identity again, he not only gains his suit jacket and royal red sash, but doffs the glasses he’s worn—and they go onto Dandini, who suddenly seems the servant again, while the Prince becomes royal.

Andrew J. Chung, as Don Magnifico, is a powerful singer and he fills the stage, even with he’s out there alone. His role is not as a good guy—he craves power and attention, and is, after all, the father of those two obnoxious daughters—but what a performance!

Alidoro, the tutor, has a special role as the catalyst and advisor, who links the scenes and action. Kenneth Keel serves ably in this capacity. He also appears early in the show as a homeless beggar with a huge gray beard with a black mustache. In this scene we observe Cenerentola’s compassion versus the contempt Alidoro receives from the stepsisters. This, of course, leads the prince to seek her out, and there’s our story.

The program contains a five-page cartoon, explaining the story. Amusing in itself, it also helps provide the familiarity you want to have when you attend an opera, so you can concentrate on the exquisite beauty of the performance.

With one short intermission, this evening kept my attention and enthusiasm, and the passion shown in the singing and instrumental performances at times had me in tears. I look forward to seeing future operas by this company, and you should plan to go, too. Curtain Call Performing Arts is the theatre company in residence at The California Conservatory Theater. These opera performances by OOT fit perfectly into Curtain Call's vision of bringing fine art performances to everyone.

Coming for a weekend in July, 2014 – Carmen!

California Conservatory Theater
999 E. 14th Street
San Leandro, CA  94577

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Honda Fit EV - The Agony and the Ecstasy of Electric Motoring

My Fit EV fills up at the Blink Network charging station.
The Honda Fit EV is a great example of everything that’s wonderful — and terrible — about living with an electric car. I just spent a week with a Reflection Blue FIT EV and it took me on a real adventure.

Let’s start with the upsides first. Nobody can argue that electric cars aren’t cleaner than gasoline burners. Of course, how much cleaner depends on how the electricity that you use is generated (coal-fired plant? Hydro-electric dam? Nuclear power plant?). But you aren’t burning anything in the car itself — there isn’t even a tailpipe.

The EPA’s green ratings for the Fit EV are a perfect 10 for Smog and Greenhouse Gas. The window sticker says you’ll save $9,100 in fuel costs over five years compared to the average new vehicle.

Electric motors are quiet and smooth. My tester made a little high-pitched whine when it gained momentum, but otherwise all I heard, even at freeway speeds, was a little hum from the tires and a very minimal bit of wind noise. Being a Honda, the car was well built and rattle- and buzz-free.

The price of electricity is significantly less than gasoline, especially if you generate it from your own rooftop solar panels. I don’t have any yet, but my research showed that to go 30 miles in a gas version of the Fit would take one gallon of gas at $4.00; an Electric fit would use about $1.00 worth of electricity.

How about the negatives? At this point, the biggest problem with electric cars, including the Fit, is range. Imagine if you had to put gas into your car’s tank three gallons at a time. With a 73-mile range like the Fit, you need a daily charge, if not twice a day. Charging at home in reasonable time means installing a 220-volt charger in your garage. Otherwise, at 110 volts, it could take longer to fill an empty battery than overnight. A 220-volt public charger takes about four hours.

Another range-related issue is usage. If you plan to drive your EV only for commuting, and your daily mileage fits comfortably within the car’s range, then you can charge it up at night and the cycle works. However, if you want to come home after work and then take your car out again, you may not be able to do it. Also, forget those 150-mile round trips to visit the grandkids or long vacation excursions. In these cases, you’d better take the other (gas) car.

Another problem is price. The Fit EV drives very nicely, is well finished, and comes pretty well equipped, but it’s still based on the Fit, which is Honda’s cheapest car. You can buy the basic gas-powered Fit starting at $16,215, while the price of my test car was $37,415! And despite their wildly different drivetrains, the two versions look nearly identical, except for a chrome smile up front and EV badges on the electric.

Nissan’s, the pioneer in the mainstream EV market, created a new model — the Leaf — to avoid this kind of comparison between basic gas model and upscale electric. Honda, along with Ford, Fiat, and Chevrolet, is using available platforms — a cost-saving move but one that may be harder to sell to the public.

There are significant federal and state rebates that can take up to $10,000 off the price of an EV, but it still costs a lot more than a gas-powered model. Good leasing deals are out there. Currently, you can lease a Fit EV for three years at $259 a month, although availability is very limited.

Of course, the Tesla Model S is another case entirely. It’s very expensive, starting at $71,070, but the range is not an issue, at 208 or 265 miles, depending on model. Most of us, though, will have to opt for the more ordinary EVs.

The challenge of driving an EV is learning how to live carefully on your meager energy budget. The Fit’s instrument panel has a Power/Charge gauge on the left that shows you if you’re using electricity or generating it and on the right is a full/empty gauge for the battery.

There is also a digital estimated range display front and center. You can make this figure larger or smaller depending on whether you choose Econ, Normal, or Sport mode on the left side of the steering column. With, Econ, the 100% full range is 73 miles. Pushing the Normal button drops that to 62, and Sport drops further to 56. These are approximations, and they can vary tremendously depending on how you drive.

Econ is the most frugal setting, but during the cold snap of my test week, I found that it reduced the heater function to nearly nothing. Switching to Normal restores normal climate function, and also makes the car much quicker off the line when you press the accelerator. Sport mode gives another boost to acceleration, but seems unnecessary otherwise.

My real adventure and educational experience was in getting the car charged up. My first day, I was surprised to drive my 30 miles to work and see the range drop from 59 to just 48. I had recovered a lot of the electricity because I was in terrible stop-and-go traffic. Secret: EVs do exceptionally well in these conditions, because speeds are low and there is plenty of opportunity to recharge the battery with regenerative braking.

With this success, I figured I was safe to take the trip back without a recharge. However, by the time I got close to home that Tuesday evening, the instruments were displaying a worrisome 11-mile range and a Low Battery warning light came on as I approached my house.

To avoid stress, on Wednesday, I went looking for a charging station near my office. I had used one before that was a 20-minute walk away, but it was a Blink Network site and I only had a ChargePoint card from the press fleet. So, I went to the nearest ChargePoint station — more than a mile away — and found that I couldn’t use it. It was on a major software company’s campus, and it was reserved.

However, I made a call to ChargePoint and was able to get connected — but I had to use the personal ChargePoint account I had set up months ago. I enjoyed a vigorous 35-minute walk back to the office, but I’d hate to have to do that every day. I got a ride to pick up the car later.

The following day, I decided to try using the ChargePoint chargers right across the street from my office. Although they were in front of a well-known video rental company, I thought that maybe the wizards at ChargePoint could open them up for me the way they had on Wednesday. The polite woman on the other side of the line did her best, but it was a no go. I then decided to try the Blink Network station again, hoping for a miracle.

I got my miracle. When I called Blink, Dustin told me that they have a Guest User plan. So, in five minutes, my hungry Fit was charging up. One more day was taken care of, and I got my nice 20-minute walk back to work.

I was beginning to feel like I had it together. I was much more relaxed having the security of a full charge morning and night. So, I drove in Normal instead of Econ mode and enjoyed the warmth and responsiveness that the Fit offers. That’s when I realized how much I enjoyed the car. The Fit is absolutely stable and feels light and taut, although my driving was not on exciting roads. The motor’s torque pulls you forward nicely, and the expansive glass greenhouse and long dash make it feel spacious. The silvery panels and light gray plastic (none of it padded) helped, too. I was able to play the audio system without any apparent impact on my electricity budget.

Charge companies keep in touch with you. I received text messages from ChargePoint telling me when the car was full — and also when I removed the charger from the car (in case it was someone else!). Blink Network sent me emails with the same contents. After my experience with them, I signed up for a free membership, so I’ll be ready when the next electric test car comes along.

The bottom line is, if you are willing to put up with the obvious issues of range and price, an EV may be for you — and the Honda is nice to drive and handy to use, with its hatchback. If I owned one, I would be sure there was a charger at my workplace and install one in my garage. I would also be sure to have a reliable second car that burns petrol available for longer trips.

There are other options. Besides the several EVs on the market, there are plug-in hybrids, which allow you limited all-electric driving and then switch to efficient hybrid operation. The Toyota Prius Plug-In and Ford C-Max Energi are good examples. Another choice is the Chevrolet Volt, which is an electric car with a built-in gasoline engine that’s used only as a generator to charge the battery for extended range.

These cars eliminate the range issues, but are still more expensive than comparable gasoline vehicles. They are even more expensive than their regular hybrid versions. And, they still use some gas.

The electric-only range for plug-in hybrids varies from about 13 miles for the Prius to 21 for the C-Max and 38 for the Volt. These models, like the current EVs and standard hybrids, are all interim steps that will eventually lead to what we really want — electric vehicles with a useful range, quick and convenient charging, and an affordable price.