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Photo: Jason Margolis
Signs & Shapes co-owner Scott Bowen with seamstress Tami Dahir. The Mom & Pop shop in Omaha, Nebraska, makes costumes and parade floats for customers around the world — and their only advertising is word of mouth.

Where do those gigantic Thanksgiving Day parade floats come from? Quite a few probably come from Omaha, Nebraska, according to Public Radio International program The World.

Jason Margolis reports, “Signs & Shapes’ space in Omaha is just about the coolest factory you’ve ever seen — a huge warehouse filled with dogs, ducks and astronaut costumes being stitched, then inflated and tested.

“ ‘The company was started in my dad’s basement, my folks’ basement, just about 30 years ago, and we started as distributors for inflatable signs,’ said Scott Bowen, the company’s co-owner.

“The company eventually expanded into props for plays, parade floats and inflatable costumes. Today, Signs & Shapes exports to 74 countries. …

“Lee Bowen, Scott’s father, who helps run international sales, explained how they find their foreign customers: ‘Word of mouth. … We don’t do any advertising.’

“Signs & Shapes relies on reputation and having a niche. If you want a high-end inflatable that won’t pop when your mascot is bouncing on its head in front of 20,000 people, call Omaha. …

“Scott Bowen has been at the export game for a while now and says the export process has become ‘quite easy’ for his company. Business is going well, but still, Signs & Shapes only has 25 employees. And Bowen said they’re limited in how much they can grow.

“ ‘We need seamstresses with a really high level of sewing intelligence that can look at a pattern of a couple of hundreds of pieces that’s never been made before, and put the whole thing together accurately,’ says Bowen. ‘But [they also must] have a business or commercial mentality in terms of speed.’ …

“While letting the product speak for itself has become the company’s best marketing strategy, they can’t take credit for some of the coolest stuff they make due to non-disclosure agreements. It can be a highly secretive industry.

“In a back room, airbrush artist Shane Perrin put the finishing touches on a mascot as Scott Bowen looked on.

“ ‘He’s had stuff on Broadway stages, the biggest amusement parks, huge international sporting events,’ said Bowen, who can’t name many of the actual places or events where Perrin’s work has been on display. …

“If you’re watching a Thanksgiving Day parade Thursday and see a float that you really, really like, chances are a group of folks in Nebraska may have had a hand putting that together. Or not.”

More at PRI, here.

112217-prepping-for-cranberry-sauce

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For a few years now, I have sent readers to the “From Scratch Club” to get the best-ever cranberry sauce. Alas, the club seems to have dispersed and is no longer maintaining a website. Fortunately, I printed out the recipe and will share it here. Enjoy!

Maple, Citrus & Ginger Cranberry Preserves
Makes about two pints

12 ounces whole cranberries
3 clementines or 1 very large orange, peeled and cut in small chunks
½ lemon, juice and zest
½ tart apple, in small chunks
¾ cup maple syrup
½ teaspoon freshly grated ginger root
a pinch of sea salt
(optional: a crank of freshly ground pepper)

1. Bring cranberries & maple syrup to a low boil. Keep a close eye on the mixture so the syrup doesn’t burn. You want the fruit to break down, and you can use a potato masher after 5-8 minutes to speed things up.

2. Once you have a rolling boil, add apple chunks, lemon juice & zest and clementines. Stir. Apples need to get soft but not mushy.

3. Add sea salt & ginger. Cook a bit more and use the potato masher to make sure all berries have popped.

If you end up using this, do let me know.

A City’s Poetry Map

Photo: KUOW
Civic poet Claudia Castro Luna created Seattle’s Poetic Grid and, leading workshops in libraries, helped residents express how they feel about the places they know.

My friend Ronnie Hess, a Wisconsin poet, linked to this story on Facebook, adding, “An excellent story but one that reminds me of Madison’s Echolocations, an anthology edited by past poets laureate of Madison Sarah Busse and Wendy Vardaman.”

On PBS News Hour, Jeffrey Brown interviewed Claudia Castro Luna and others about Seattle’s Poetic Grid.

“Brown: The idea of the Poetic Grid is to capture a sense of place in a city going through rapid change, and to use the words of the people who live here. … Claudia Castro Luna dreamed up the online digital map in 2015, when she became Seattle’s first civic poet. …

“Luna: We all have stories to tell about the place we live in. And we all have memories attached to the place we live in. And so, [our workshop effort] was like opening up a faucet.

“And people have stories to tell. And that’s one of the marvelous things. At the end, I told them, you will write. You will see you will have a poem. And, indeed, they had one. …

“Brown: The poems for the grid span the city. Some are about home, memories of growing up in the affluent Blue Ridge neighborhood. Others are about homelessness, the cold concrete of a Seattle underpass.

“There are poems left in their native tongues, Spanish, Arabic. The writers run from well-established poets to first-timers. And they reflect the diversity of the changing city, where cranes dot the skyline.

“Luna: Some of the poems express very well what it feels like to not recognize the place you grew up in, because the buildings that you had so much attachment and were meaningful to you are no longer there …

“Koon Woon: I first moved in here when I couldn’t afford rent anywhere else in the city. And my uncle said well, there’s a room here for $60 a month. And I came here to look at it. And there’s this tiny little table. I said, I can put my typewriter on top of that. So, I took the room. …

“Brown: Koon Woon was born in China, but moved to Seattle in 1960. In the 1980s, he lived just a block from here, sometimes homeless, struggling with mental illness. His poem, ‘The High Walls I Cannot Scale,’ is now part of the grid. …

“For 17-year-old Lily Baumgart [Seattle Youth Poet Laureate], animals figured into her writing as well.

“Baumgart: The squirrels here are very aggressive. They expect to be fed by people. And so we’d write stories about why they’d come up to people, how humans’ interactions with animals change their behaviors. … Volunteer Park, they say there’s a giant squid in the reservoir, that if you could climb the fence, you could stick your hand into the bright water and feel his slimy body swimming by yours. When it rained we would hide in trees and feel their cold bark underneath our toes. We’d laugh so loud that the sky would be scared of us and our umbrella laughter. …

“Brown: Poetry brought something else to Claudia Castro Luna, a way to work through traumatic childhood memories of war in El Salvador that forced her family to leave their home when she was 14.

“Luna: It was a tremendous loss of place, of culture, of family, of language. [All] of my writing has to do with understanding that — what it meant to lose that place. And this is why I’m interested in other people’s lives and what they have to say about the place they occupy.”

More at PBS NewsHour, here. See the Poetic Grid here.


Photo: Arden Theatre Company
Staff of the Arden Theatre Company in 1995 celebrating their recently purchased home. The building is at 2nd and Arch, in the Old City neighborhood.

I always enjoy stories about the arts sparking neighborhood revitalization. John Timpane, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, recently covered one from the City of Brotherly Love.

“There’s a lot of turnover in the theater world, many an entrance and exit, so the Arden Theatre Company’s 30th anniversary this season is a testament to clear vision, luck, a lot of work, and even more talent.

“But this story embraces more than a theater – it’s about a neighborhood, Old City, that in part revitalized around the Arden, and how an arts venue plays a potent role in such transformations.

“It began with two 1980s theater buddies at Northwestern University near Chicago. ‘Aaron Posner and I talked all the time about starting a theater,’ says Arden cofounder and producing artistic director Terrence J. Nolen. …

“Cofounder Amy Murphy, who met Nolen when both were at Upper Darby Summer Stage, says … ‘When Terry said, “Let’s do this,” I thought, “Sure, I can go down for a few weeks and help out.” Right. We were 24, young, and dumb enough to do it.’ …

“Arden opened in 1988 with a Kurt Vonnegut adaptation. …

“Is there an Arden philosophy? ‘Our first commitment is to Philly actors,’ Nolen says. ‘When we first opened and started getting great reviews, people said, “Where did you get these actors?” We said, “They’re from here.” ‘

“You can feel that loyalty among grads of the Arden Professional Apprentice Program. … Raelle Myrick-Hodges is founder of Azuka Theatre and a busy theater professional. And she’ll direct an adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye at the F. Otto Haas Stage March 1-April 1. She says, ‘I began as an apprentice at the Arden 24 years ago, and I’m so grateful I went there instead of to a grad school.’ …

“[Former Arden apprentice Scott] Greer says Arden’s 1995 arrival helped revitalize the ’hood: ‘When they got the space in Old City, they were a big part of changing that neighborhood. There was hardly anything there, and they started bringing in subscribers eight nights a week.’

“Ellen Yin, proprietor of Fork at 306 Market St., … said the Arden presence ‘helped build a clientele for the earlier 5:30-8 p.m. dining hours, which are crucial.’ She and several other restaurant owners regularly have partnerships with the theater. …

” ‘Blown away’ is a term Murphy uses for the whole Arden story. ‘All the people we know, all the good work we’ve done because of it,’ she says. ‘I’m very grateful. All of us are, and I think we always will be.’ ”

More here.


Photo: The Stage
Open Access Smart Capture’s glasses enable deaf theatergoers in Britain to read live captioning during a performance.

Earlier this month I posted about how the Vienna State Opera provides captions in six languages.

Today’s entry is on making dramatic productions more accessible to the deaf by means of glasses that churn out captions.

Georgia Snow writes at the Stage, “The National Theatre has unveiled new technology that will enable deaf audiences to see captions for performances in front of their eyes using special glasses, … removing the need for captioning screens in the auditorium.

“Developed by the NT with its innovation partner, consultancy firm Accenture, Open Access Smart Capture is being introduced during a year-long pilot.

“If it is a success, the result would be ‘transformational,’ [NT director Rufus] Norris said. …

“The glasses boast 97% accuracy in the timing of the captions, and can also facilitate audio description, for audiences with restricted vision. …

“The project is one of two new initiatives being introduced by the NT around accessibility, the second being an online video database showcasing deaf and disabled actors. …

“It is part of a drive to tackle the under-representation of disabled actors working in the profession, Norris said. …

“He added that ProFile also hopes to remove some of the barriers for deaf and disabled performers, for whom travelling to auditions and meetings can be difficult and expensive.” More at the Stage, here.

If nothing the else, the glasses will be fun. A few years ago, I got to see that for myself using Google Glass. An executive where I worked was having summer interns play around with programming the glasses to test the possibilities for the Fed. That didn’t go anywhere, but it was definitely fun.

Boston Area Gleaners

Photo: Boston Area Gleaners

In September, I posted pictures at a community garden where a sign said not to pick anything that wasn’t yours. I expressed the hope that when the gardeners were completely finished with their harvest, gleaners for food pantries would be allowed in. I don’t know if they were, but I did learn that my church contacted Boston Area Gleaners to help collect fresh surplus produce at local farms.

Kathy Shiels Tully provides background on Boston Area Gleaners at the Christian Science Monitor.

“As a volunteer for the past four years with Boston Area Gleaners (BAG), which collects excess fresh produce at local farms for those in need, I’ve watched the nonprofit grow into something of a gleaning giant. …

“[Laurie ‘Duck’] Caldwell, the executive director of BAG, is pretty much responsible for the group’s, shall we say, mushrooming growth. Though she deflects any praise, her story shows how one person can have a powerful effect on an organization. Caldwell, in fact, was BAG’s first paid employee.

“She believes deeply in BAG’s mission of ‘rescuing’ surplus produce (as the group puts it). Last year, BAG helped deliver 1.45 million four-ounce servings to those who might not otherwise enjoy the benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables. …

“I learn that she is a carpenter with more than 20 years of experience. Her entry into nonprofits came while living in Vermont, through a program she helped pioneer at Vermont Works for Women. There, she taught incarcerated women skilled trades like carpentry and plumbing, and they built a modular home that was then sold as affordable housing. The pilot program gained national attention.”

Having lost her job after the 2008 financial crisis, “she searched for volunteering opportunities to buoy her spirits while job hunting and discovered BAG. …

“Gleaning gave Caldwell an emotional boost and challenged her to develop new skills. She and [founder Oakes] Plimpton became the organization’s first ‘gleaning coordinators’ – arranging farm visits, picking pantries to deliver to, and rounding up volunteers. …

“On Jan. 2, 2010, with salary money secured, that she signed on as BAG’s first employee.

“Caldwell dug into her new work immediately. She made the gleaning process easier for the farmers, proactively calling them instead of waiting for the farmers to speak up. She grew the solid list of 30 volunteers by recruiting like-minded people at farm, alternative energy, and ecology events. And, knowing she couldn’t do it alone, she almost doubled the size of the board of directors. …

“Strawberries, zucchini, corn, beans, carrots, tomatoes, kale, radishes, turnips, beets, squash, apples – everything but bananas fills empty, cardboard banana boxes, which are driven into Boston to a distribution partner such as the Greater Boston Food Bank or Food for Free in Cambridge, Mass.

“ ‘BAG is the Cadillac of food distribution to food pantries,’ says farmer Carl Hills. … Last year, he let BAG glean more than 71,000 pounds of produce on the 200-acre family farm. The crops gleaned are high-quality, the kind sought out by top chefs at high-end restaurants. ..

“Sasha Purpura, executive director of Food for Free … says, [it’s] “beautiful food” – something that for many people is out of reach.”

Read more and learn how to take action at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

Iranian Chess Wizard


Photo: David Llada
Dorsa Derakhshani could read before the age of 2 and grew up to be a chess champion. She was banned from Iran’s chess association for not wearing a headscarf.

After you read this article on an Iranian chess prodigy, you are sure to be surprised by her current career goal. Not that there’s anything wrong with it; it’s just surprising.

Mika Klein interviewed Dorsa Derakhshani at WBUR radio’s Only a Game, first watching an old video of Dorsa to get some background.

“The year was 2000. Dorsa was 2, and appearing on a children’s television show. Dorsa wears a red velvet dress with puffy sleeves and dark tights. She’s tightly clutching a stuffed puppy, so the interviewer holds the microphone for her. Dorsa breaks into song, with the poise of seasoned performer, and the studio audience applauds.

“The camera cuts to the audience. Most of the girls are sitting in the back, many are wearing headscarves. Dorsa’s head is uncovered.

“Dorsa was born in Tehran in 1998. And this is just one of many times she appeared on Iranian TV. This time, she reads a story from a children’s book. …

” ‘Are you saying you could read at the age of 2?’

“ ‘No,’ Dorsa says. ‘I could read when I was 1 1/2. But I finished first grade when I was 2.’

“Dorsa’s television career as a child prodigy was never going to last forever, but it ended abruptly when she was 6.

“ ‘They made me wear a scarf against my will,’ says Dorsa … ‘I never went back for the TV.

“ ‘I finished fourth grade when I was 4 1/2. Math, science, everything. … My parents tried to fill my time with other things like music, swimming, ballet, gymnastics, painting.”

“Right next door to her painting class was a chess class. Dorsa decided to join. …

” ‘Chess was really different, because you are actually playing with a live human being,” Dorsa says. … ‘You can’t be 100 percent ready and sure that you play good when you go to a tournament.’

“Dorsa’s first big success came in the Iranian national youth under-8 tournament.

“ ‘It was a big surprise for everyone, because there were players who already had private coaches and they came to win,’ Dorsa says. ‘I came out of nowhere, and I won the tournament. I remember that everybody else was wearing a scarf, even under 8. But I wore a princess dress and a tiara. And it was really cute. …

“Dorsa went on to win three straight gold medals at the 2012, 2013 and 2014 Asian Junior Championships. In the numerical chess ratings lists, Dorsa was at the top for all girls in Asia. …

“I first met Dorsa at the Chess Olympiad in September 2016. She was attending as a journalist, not a player. The tournament was in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, a country that is 98 percent Muslim. She did not wear a headscarf at the tournament or on the street. I’ve never seen her wear one.”

Klein continues with a story of the time when Dorsa was traveling and saw that her Instagram account was going crazy. She went to bed and forgot about it. In the morning friends explained that ” ‘they saw on newspaper that my federation banned me — my brother and I, actually, both of us. It was just very out of the blue.’ ”

Dorsa’s brother, Borna, was banned for competing against someone from Israel, Dorsa for not wearing a headscarf.

“She believes the action against her and her brother was a tactic to divert from other news. The announcement came in the middle of the Women’s World Chess Championship, which was being held in Tehran. Several notable players, including the reigning U.S. women’s champion, boycotted the event because players were required to wear a headscarf. All three Iranian women competing had just been eliminated in the opening round. …

“This July, she moved to the U.S. after being accepted to the chess team at St. Louis University. She said there were no problems when she landed in New York and cleared immigration.

” ‘I’m hoping to become a dentist,’ Dorsa says. ‘I’m looking forward to finally having a stable trainer and a team, and I really wish to become grandmaster.’ ”

More at WBUR, here.