Wednesday, February 23, 2011

No. 13 - Oscar Predictions

 - by Bill Urbanski


Hollywood's Kodak Theatre - Oscar's Home
        It is that time of year again.  On Sunday night, the 83rd annual Academy Awards will be presented at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.  I’m something of a movie buff, so you can bet I’ll be watching.

      Every year for the last ten years or so, I’ve made an effort to see all of the movies that are nominated.  Yes, ALL.  I never do see all, but I do try and I end up seeing most, or at least a high percentage of the overall nominations.

      I concentrate on the “big ones” – those nominated for Best Picture, and those with nominations in acting and writing categories.  So that’s where I limit my predictions. 

      I won’t be voicing my opinion on Best Makeup – haven’t seen any of the films nominated – nor will I chime in on Best Editing.  I have seen four of five films in the Editing category.  It’s just I don’t understand how Academy members vote on this one without knowing what ended up on the cutting room floor.  I mean, you gotta be able to compare, right?   But I digress.

      Without further ado, here’s how I see it:

Best Supporting Actress

Winner: Melissa Leo, The Fighter -- not as dominating as Mo’Nique in Precious last year, but after leaving the theater, she’s the one character you’re talking about (Well, maybe there are two.  See supporting actor below).  

2nd Place: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit – good performance, but newcomers rarely take home the top prize.

No chance: Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom – only ‘cause I haven't seen the movie and I hate movies about animals – That penguin movie a few years ago was just tedious.  Have you seen Operation Dumbo Drop? More like Operation Dumbest Movie Ever Made.

Best Supporting Actor

Winner: Christian Bale, The Fighter – punch drunk drug addict equals Oscar gold, period.

2nd Place: Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech – solid performance by a gifted actor.

No chance: Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right – very little depth in the character, so no real opportunity for an actor to shine. 

Best Actress

Winner: Natalie Portman, Black Swan – she is at the top of a weak overall field.  Plus, I kinda have a crush.

2nd Place: Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right – psycho ballerina always beats lesbian alcoholic. It’s a rock-paper-scissors thing.

No chance: Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole – still haven’t forgiven her for making me sit through The Hours back in 2002.

Best Actor

Winner: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech – cashes in on goodwill and momentum from last year’s performance in A Single Man. Stellar showing again this year puts him far ahead of his competition. This one’s a lock.

2nd Place: Jeff Bridges, True Grit – closest we’ve had to a repeat since Tom Hanks in 1995, when it was almost a three-peat. 

No chance: Javier Bardem, Biutiful – couldn’t understand a damn word he said.  May have worked for Leo as Gilbert Grape; not happenin’ here. Capiche?

Best Picture

      This one’s as close as it gets, between The Social Network and The King’s Speech.  This is Affirmed/Alydar stuff.  Too bad we’ll never know exactly how close.  Hmm... wait a second. Wonder if Julian Assange has any interest in visiting the folks over at Price Waterhouse?

      The two films have split some of the precursor awards, with King’s taking top honors at Screen Actors and Directors Guild; Social winning the Golden Globe.

      The King’s Speech is a well-crafted and superbly acted film.  In the end however, Academy members will be swayed by the impact Facebook has had on American society and the world as a whole.  The Social Network will prevail.

Winner: The Social Network

2nd Place: The King’s Speech

No chance: Toy Story 3 – Stupid to even be here. It’s animated!  They have a separate category for that.  Makes as much sense as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but don’t get me started.

Last Two:  Best Adapted Screenplay - Winner: The Social Network. Best Original Screenplay - Winner: The King's Speech.

Enjoy the movies!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

No. 12 - Oh How Sweet It Is

Carl driving the first load of buckets to the sugar bush
- by Bill Urbanski   

      “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life.” – P. Connors

      On Sunday, in Northeast Pennsylvania at least, that long and bleak and dark winter finally showed signs of breaking.  Urbanski Farms is once again abuzz with life, and with temperatures above freezing, it is time to tap the trees.

       Every year at this time since 1976, the Urbanski family along with the occasional volunteer or curiosity seeker has trudged into the sugar bush to drill holes into maple trees, string lines of plastic tubing, and hang five gallon plastic buckets.

David - aka volunteer labor / curiosity seeker
       The ground is sometimes snow covered, sometimes muddy and sloppy.  The work is always tedious.  But the payoff is oh so sweet – pure Pennsylvania maple syrup.

      It all starts by tapping the trees and collecting the sap – the lifeblood of the tree.  The sap contains sugar which is a product of photosynthesis from the previous summer.  Sugar concentration in maple sap is higher than that of other trees, and nature’s special blend of amino acids gives it that distinctive flavor so many of us love.

Ben drilling a tap hole
      Sap “flow” is at its peak at this precise time of year – when temperatures rise above freezing during the day but drop below freezing at night.  This temperature fluctuation is critical for sap flow.  It causes a change of pressure within the tree which in turn causes the flow.  By piercing the tree with a spile or tap, just inside the bark line and into the actively growing cells of the tree where the sap is present, the sap can be captured.

     Tapping produces a small wound which will heal over in 3-5 years, but ultimately does not harm the tree, provided or course the tree is healthy and mature enough.  And so the same trees can be tapped year after year.  Typically, trees need to be 10-12 inches in diameter before they are mature enough to be  tapped.  Older and larger trees can accept multiple taps.

Ed placing multiple taps on one of the larger maples on the farm
Ben cleaning a tap hole before placing the tap
       Five gallon buckets are placed below the taps, while larger containers catch the flow from tap lines – multiple trees strung together with plastic tubing.  When the buckets fill, a crew of laborers is dispatched into the sugar bush to collect.

     Larger commercial sugaring operations use vacuum systems to aid in collection, bringing the sap to massive collection tanks or even directly to the sugar house for finishing.  At Urbanski Farms, we rely on gravity and human muscle, and a few time-honored and trusted Farmall tractors.

Ben eyes up line #9, hanging and waiting for a driller
     The sap is transported to the sugar house where it is pumped into a 200 gallon tank.  From there the sap feeds directly into the evaporator, where it is boiled down into syrup.

      Our evaporator has a capacity of thirty gallons and is fueled by a wood fire burning beneath.  As water is boiled off, the specific gravity of the liquid increases and sugars are caramelized, and when the sugar solids reach 66%, it’s time to draw off the finished product.  Final filtering, bottling, and labeling are done in the farmhouse and once cooled and sealed the syrup is ready for the public.

      At Urbanski Farms, making maple syrup is a labor of love, with an emphasis on the word labor.  It is also a cross generational enterprise, with workers ranging in age from eight to eighty-two.

coils and coils of tap lines
        On weekends when the sap is flowing, when the buckets are full and when the evaporator fire burns non-stop through the night, the farm is special place to be.  More particularly, the sugar house is a special place to be.  Steam and sweet aromas fill the air, along with music, and the laughter and fellowship of family and friends.

      Stop on by if you’re in the neighborhood and see for yourself.  Syrup is available for sampling and for sale.  But be forewarned.  Bring a pair of boots.  We may just put you to work.

** Click here for a link to Channel 16's story on us last year.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

No. 11 - American Mountaineering Museum

- by Bill Urbanski

Patrick Gensel under the Iconic Arch on Washington Ave.
      When many people think of Golden Colorado, they instantly associate it with Coors beer.  The brewing company was established by German immigrant Adolph Coors in 1873, and today, the facility in Golden is the largest single brewery facility in the world. 

Bill with Adolph Coors
        I first visited Golden on my way to climb Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest mountain.  A steady rain caused a one-day delay in my climbing plans, so I needed to find a way to kill some time.  I did as many tourists do – I took the tour of the Coors Brewery.  I spent the night with friends and when the weather cleared, I climbed the next day.

      Last August, I once again found myself in metro Denver with some time to kill, as I waited on a late afternoon flight back east after climbing Devils Tower.  I returned to Golden, but this time I discovered a tourist gem, much more worth my time than some silly brewery tour.  I paid a visit to the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum

Main Exhibit Hall as Viewed From Above
       The museum opened in 2008 and, as its website proudly informs, is the “first and only museum in the United States dedicated to the heroism, technology, culture and spirit of mountaineering.”  It is named for Brad Washburn, a pioneer and legend in the field of mountaineering and cartography.  Washburn also served as director of the Boston Museum of Science for more than forty years.

Patrick Examining the Portaledge Display
      As you enter the museum’s main hall, be sure to watch your step.  A mock up of a glacial crevasse must be crossed.  Once you’re safely across, you will find exhibits on climbing gear, mountaineering history, mountain climate and culture, and much, much more.
      The centerpiece exhibit is a scale model of Everest, constructed in 1990 under the watchful eye of Mr. Washburn himself.

Mount Everest Scale Model
       Nearby the model of Everest is an interactive touch-screen exhibit.  Touch a region of the world, and pictures and descriptions of mountains will be displayed.

      This exhibit is a particular and personal source of pride for me, as photographs I have taken during my travels are actually a part of it.  A visitor can touch an icon for US state highpoints, and find on several states the attribution, “photo by Bill Urbanski.”  

Two of My Photographs on Display in the Museum
        Also housed in the same building is the American Alpine Club library.  It is one of the world’s largest libraries dedicated to mountaineering research and education, with over 20,000 books and video in its circulation.  I can say from personal experience, the staff is dedicated, knowledgeable and friendly. 

Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum
      So if you find yourself in the Denver area and you have some time to kill, drive on over to Golden, but skip the brewery tour.  Instead, spend an hour or two or three exploring the true gem of the city – the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum.  You will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

No. 10 - Fireworks at Five AM

 - by Bill Urbanski

       Five AM, and it’s five below (F). I’m standing in a small clearing in the middle of the woods.


     “Pop! Crackle! Bang!”

      Reverberations echo in my ears and the 10,000 or so faces shivering alongside me are instantly lit by fireworks exploding above our heads.  Rock music blares from surrounding speakers.  The crowd cheers and bounces to the rhythm, in just as much an effort to keep warm as to enjoy the music and the moment.

      At one end of the clearing a makeshift stage has been erected, in the middle of which is a large tree stump with a door.  As a backdrop, a ten by twelve foot painted plywood sign announces to all in attendance: “Weather Capital of the World.”

    On any other day of the year, this clearing would likely be, well clear. But today is no ordinary day.  It’s February 2nd – Groundhog’s Day, and today I’m standing at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

      I was living in Columbus, Ohio at the time, and for years had considered making a trip to the sleepy little hamlet in western Pennsylvania to observe and to take part in the festivities surrounding this most curious of American holidays.

      My girlfriend Cheryl, who was just as mischievous and spontaneous and, well as crazy as I was, did not hesitate when I proposed that we drive four hours to see a rodent pop out from under a rock.

      “Let’s go. Sounds like fun,” was her immediate response.

      We left Columbus on the evening of the 1st and drove to Brookville, the closest town to Punxsutawney where we could find a hotel.  We got in well after midnight, and managed just a few hours of sleep before it was time to push on the final twenty miles to Punxsutawney.

      Gobbler’s Knob is actually on the outskirts of town, not in the town square, as depicted in the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day.   And on February 2nd, the only way to get to the Knob is on foot or by shuttle bus.

      The local public schools are closed for the day and school buses are used to shuttle revelers the mile and a half from a mall parking lot to the Knob.  The road is otherwise closed to traffic.

      Cheryl and I disembarked our shuttle at 4:30 AM and found ourselves in the middle of a huge outdoor party.  Thousands roamed the vicinity.  Satellite trucks ringed the Knob.  Floodlights lit the nearby barren trees which served as backdrops for live news shots.  Reporters were on hand from local stations and major networks and of course, The Weather Channel.

Bill Murray reporting live in Groundhog Day
       We mingled with the mostly college-aged set, and searched for a good vantage point from which to view the stage.  A bonfire kept those warm who were lucky enough to be near.   All others were forced to rely on their own heavy coats, blankets or the huddled warmth of a close friend.

      As the appointed hour drew near, the temperatures climbed slightly, and the dawn began to break.

      Then, just when we thought the scene could not be more surreal, a small army of men clad in top hats and tuxedos emerged from the woods and took to the stage.  These men are “The Inner Circle,” a group of fifteen or so dedicated followers of Punxsutawney Phil.

      The tradition at Gobbler’s Knob dates back to the late Nineteenth Century.  In fact, 2011 marks the 125th celebration.  The date itself coincides with Candlemas Day, an old European celebration roughly marking the mid-way point between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox.  Tradition told that a sunny Candlemas Day meant a longer winter.  Hence, when Phil sees his shadow, six more weeks of winter is forecast.

      Seven twenty-four AM. Phil’s handler knocks on the door to the stump using a silver-tipped cane.  No answer, so he knocks again.

      “We want Phil. We want Phil…” the boisterous crowd is now chanting in unison.

      Phil’s keeper opens the door, reaches inside the stump and pulls out the plump, furry creature, holding him aloft to the rapturous approval of the masses.

Phil and his handler greet the crowd

      Phil is placed on top of the stump and the Inner Circle crowds around.  Those who are fluent in Groundhogese are closest.  Murmurs are heard in the crowd as Phil makes his pronouncement to his handlers.

      And then, with the requisite ceremony and solemnity attendant an Habemus Papam announcement, the proclamation is read aloud.  Phil, we are told, has seen his shadow – six more weeks of winter.  The crowd groans and laughs its disappointment.

      Three hours of standing in near zero temperatures is wearing thin Cheryl’s normal cheerful spirit.  It takes a little convincing but she agrees to stand with me at the end of the line of people waiting their turn to pet the rat, and to get a personalized photograph.

Phil, his handler, and Bill

      Shortly after eight, I take the stage grinning for posterity.   Cheryl snaps the shutter, and we race for our yellow shuttle.  A hot cup of tea and a hearty breakfast in a heated restaurant await us down below.  With bodies warmed and spirits renewed, we climb back into our car and leave Punxsutawney behind.   

            Happy Groundhog’s Day!