Sami's Reporter Blog

Moments of impact

Monday, July 28th, 2014
Sami Gillette

There are moments that one forgets a second later, moments that evoke a smile or crease the brow in frustration, moments that alter one’s mood throughout the week before they flit away into the foggy realm of forgetting. Moments that define a relationship, turning someone from stranger to friend or lover to enemy. But once in a while there are moments that change everything.

These moments must be the big milestones, right? The universal ones like birth, death, graduation, a proposal, marriage, divorce, sickness. These are milestones that unite everyone in a shared experience.

While these are powerful occurrences, the small moments leading up and surrounding them can be even more important, even more memorable.

What made him kiss her the first time? How many casual conversations did they have before they shared their deepest, darkest secret?

What led up to that fight? What made him remember that moment with his son more than all the others? What last words did she say that made it impossible to forgive her?

Such moments can result in incredible enlightenment. Incredible pain. Incredible happiness. Or a once in a lifetime connection.

It’s true that humans are fallible. Horrendously so. Sometimes these moments can be so painful that one hopes to get high on alcohol, drugs, sex, risky behavior. Anything to escape.

But sometimes there are those moments that are unbelievably perfect, better than a scripted Hollywood scene with all of the lighting and background sound.

These are the moments – good and bad – that change people forever. Careers, partnerships, having or not having children, forgiveness, anger, being overcome by a situation or choosing to move past it. All of these occurrences can be broken into moment(s). And this has been the case since the beginning of the first human experience.

What is frightening is that people’s ability to experience these moments is changing. Television, technology, social media, the immediacy of the internet – all of these factors have benefitted society. But there is also a cost. People are less connected to the here and now. Or if they are present, they are less able to communicate effectively. We, as a culture, have become increasingly adept at participating in a moment without fully experiencing or connecting to it.

It seems we are in a world where nothing is shocking. People are desensitized to the point that they are no longer as caring towards each other. We are in danger of becoming automatons in a world that could not care less… as long as the right price tag is attached.

Said Henry David Thoreau, “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”

Instead of tuning out, one needs to relearn how to experience. Feel the happiness, the pain, the grief, the hilarity. Whatever it is. Experience it. It may be difficult to claim every moment, but it’s far better to be an agent in one’s own life than to be a passive viewer.

Food plus Patrick Swayze = girls’ night in

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014
Sami Gillette

Having money to spend and going somewhere opulent to spend it definitely has an appeal. Yet, often I’ve found that being creative and spending less money in the pursuit of fun can be much more rewarding. That’s what happened this weekend.

My friend Mary Rose and I wanted to meet up in Syracuse, where she resides. At first we discussed meeting at a restaurant. Normally I would love to join her for a nice dinner and a glass of wine with all of the appropriate ambiance. But together we have very expensive tastes, which I unfortunately can’t afford.

So, after relaying my concern about the cost she suggested we have a girls’ night in at her place.
That was by far the best decision.

We gorged ourselves on a variety of homemade, fabulous food and drinks. There were two different types of cheeses to go with the baguette I brought – one of which Mary Rose had me try with fig jam. It was a great blend of sour and sweet and the flavors melded beautifully.

I had also brought raspberries, pineapple and sliced tomato to serve as an appetizer with the bread and cheese. Mary Rose had made a fresh zucchini salad, which was a new experience for me. She had sliced the zucchini paper-thin and length-wise. She tossed the vegetables with a homemade vinaigrette, prosciutto and parmesan cheese.

“If this isn’t good, I’m going to be mad!” she laughingly said. She had found the recipe in a magazine earlier that day and was eager to try it. Mary Rose had no reason to be upset – the salad was refreshing and as vibrant on the tongue as it was on the eyes. I couldn’t help but go back for seconds.

To go with the salad she had made roasted chicken breasts and thighs that were nicely seasoned and reminded me of the barbecue chicken that the fire department always makes during the summer.

In keeping with the freshness and lightness of the meal, she also made fresh blueberry lemonade mixed with top shelf vodka.

By the end of the meal I was content and felt altogether spoiled. What made it even better was watching the movie “Dirty Dancing,” (1987) starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. Mary Rose had never seen it before and seemed to really enjoy it.

I wasn’t surprised that she was a fan. Who doesn’t love a leather wearing, tough guy who is also an expert, elegant dancer? She didn’t understand the Swayze obsession… until she did.

“Nobody puts Baby in the corner,” may not be the most significant line in the late 80′s, but it was certainly the best way to end a great girls’ night in.

Sweet memories of maple syrup: a family legacy

Sunday, July 13th, 2014
Sami Gillette

There are many people in the world who grow up never knowing their father, or never understand what he does and who he is. I was fortunate enough to be raised in a family where my dad was not only present, but where I was able to participate in his business.

He produces maple syrup and has been doing so since his grandfather taught him the craft as a young child. There is a small, run down sugar shack behind the Methodist Church in Poolville that my dad built as a teenager for his first large scale production. The sugar house behind my house is much bigger than this first sugar shack but the memories are just as dear.

My experience growing up involved going to the woods with my dad and siblings to tap trees, collect sap and do small tasks in the sugar house while he boiled. I remember tasting the sap – clear and slightly sweet with only a small percentage of sugar content. In contrast, the syrup has a golden amber color that mirrors its sweet, deep flavor. Many of my favorite memories revolve around the neighbors, friends and families that would come visit and help during sugar season. There would be laughter, comradery, teasing and sometimes complaining as everyone worked together in the intense, lengthy process that is maple syrup production.

Often we would celebrate the beginning of the season with pancakes, usually in the afternoon after many hours of work. My mom would make pancakes, eggs and sausage for the all of the people who were in the sugar house. I would eat until I couldn’t eat any more and then, as stealthily as I could, run my finger over my plate so I could taste every last drop of the syrup.

People who buy maple syrup in the store or use artificial syrup (yes, I’m judging you) may not know how much effort goes into producing one gallon of syrup. It take approximately 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. That adds up quickly as my dad needs to make enough product for his retail and wholesale clients each year.

Despite the hard work, maple syrup production is something that my dad loves and will never give up. It represents a legacy, tradition and regional heritage that he is proud of. First begun by Native Americans who lived in the region, maple syrup production is one of the few industries that manages to be innovative but stays true to an unchanging, age-old process. It is a lifelong endeavor for my dad, and will always be a part of his identity. I feel so lucky that he has been able to share it with me and my siblings.

Gillette’s Maple Products is located at 125 County Road 20, Sherburne. Call 674-4026 for more details or to place an order.

Love and crime in ‘Great Expectations’

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014
Sami Gillette

The movie “Great Expectations,” directed by Mike Newell (2012) is a lovely, poignant adaption of the classic novel by Charles Dickens. Ralph Fiennes plays an intimidating, but later sympathetic Magwitch and Jason Flemyng plays a loveable Joe Gargery. The main character, Pip, played by Jeremy Irvine, is as handsome, earnest and naive as one could hope for and does a convincing job of portraying Pip’s confusing, convoluted journey to win Estella’s heart.

But the characters who steal the show are Miss Havisham, played by Helena Bonham Carter, and her coldly beautiful protégé, Estella (played by Halliday Grainger). Miss Havisham is at times easy to hate, funny, sympathetic and pitiful. Estella remains aloof and calculating, but hints of her need for love and warmth shine through.

While “Great Expectations” is a love story, it is also a study of society and capitalism. This critique can be seen in the relationship between the lawyer Jaggers and his assistant Wemmick. Though the characters are only secondary in film, they serve as important players throughout the novel.

In the novel, both characters refrain from any sentimentality or pleasantness because their jobs focus around the cold reality of the state system. Only by distancing themselves from their personal lives can Jaggers and Wemmick have an unobstructed view of the world and the systems that make it up.

Early in the novel Wemmick reveals this separation through his desire for “portable property,” which is the only thing that can move between the spheres of the private and professional – usually taking the form of money or small material possessions.

By emphasizing the importance of portable property Wemmick seems to be excluding sentimentality, which cannot be disposed of easily like portable property.

Jaggers furthers the importance of sensibility, rather than sentimentality, in the passage when he describes the idea of a “pleasant home” as “poor dreams.” By describing these “dreams” as poor Jaggers suggests that they are burdensome in the realm of his office and, consequently, not worth talking about (393). This aloofness allows them to work within and around the rules of the state and society of Dickens’ London. Only by disguising their personal lives can Jaggers and Wemmick thrive in their positions as servants of the state.

Jaggers tells Pip and Wemmick that “he lived in an atmosphere of evil… [children were] generated in great numbers for certain destruction” (393). In this line a more detailed picture of Dickens’ fictional London is created. There many people’s fates are determined by their circumstances of birth and the social structure, which responds to crime with punishment, rather than promoting the betterment of the individual.

In response to this dreary circumstance of London Jaggers reveals that there “was one pretty little child out of the heap who could be saved” (393). Estella, the daughter of the criminal Magwitch and Maggie, a murderess, is adopted by Miss Havisham. This change in circumstance as a young child is the only thing that saves Estella from the sad fate experienced by both her biological father and her mother. Through her adoption Estella was able to escape her “destiny” of crime. Yet, the price is high because she is just a toy for the amusement of the rich Miss Havisham.

At the end of the film Estella and Pip are finally in circumstances that will allow them to be together. But rather than a joyous, romantic occasion, both seem weary. Their innocence is lost and life has taken a toll on both of them. Perhaps that is the point. They will find solace in each other, despite society’s flaws and life’s imperfections.

The space between the notes

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014
Sami Gillette

While the world is diverse in its populations, cultures and languages, there is one aspect that permeates every part of the globe – music. An art form, a political statement, an outlet for anger, an expression of love, or a pure form of celebration – music has all of these purposes and more, no matter the genre. A good beat, a smooth rhythm and a catchy hook can transport listeners and often express the human experience for those who aren’t naturally artistic or vocal.

“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything,” Plato once wrote.

Music can also provide relaxation and stress relief. It would probably shock the average person how much they turn to music as a release of some sort. For the good times and the bad.

Maya Angelou said it eloquently, “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”

People find such solace through music, no matter the genre. Preferences range greatly. In fact, “What’s your favorite type of music?” is a popular question on a first date. Some may even consider the answer insight into future happiness or a dire warning of complete, irrevocable incompatibility.

One of my favorite recent experiences was attending The Taste of Country Music Festival in Hunter, NY. Country music used to be a staple for me as a child – the songs of LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain and Tim McGraw still flood my brain with memories. While I did move on to other genres, such as rock, pop and more recently R&B and hip-hop, the festival reminded me that country music can be profound, as well as inspire a great time.

“To the things, I believe in / My faith, your love, our freedom / To the things I can count on / To keep me going strong / Yeah I hold on, I hold on,” sang Dierks Bentley during his performance. This type of experience with friends around and the crowd singing along, connecting to a song that was his, but also ours, is one of the most powerful ways to stay in a moment.

These same type of moments were experienced during the BET Awards, which premiered this Sunday on BET. There was an array of great performances – some of the best are worth replaying over and over again. Yolanda Adams gave an amazing, powerhouse performance when she sang “Jesus is Love” in tribute to Lionel Richie, the BET Awards honoree. Nicki Minaj, Trey Songz, Chris Brown, August Alsina and Beyonce’s performances were also memorable, but with a very different focus. Love, sex and romance anyone?

What was most interesting about the show was the variety of ages and tastes that were able to come together in a celebration of music. New and old artists came together, recognizing their craft but also taking the time to acknowledge artists on the rise.

No matter one’s taste in music, it is there to be enjoyed and serves to bring people together. Love, rebellion, national pride, partying – those themes transcend all genres. One of the strongest abilities of music of any genre is its ability to remind us of our commonalities.

Bonjour Montréal!

Monday, June 23rd, 2014
Sami Gillette

A trip to Montréal, a city in Quebec, Canada, proved a great place to visit for foodies, history buffs, francophones and art fanatics alike. From Syracuse, the drive takes about four hours by car and a passport, as well as a story to tell the official about the prospective trip, are required to cross the border.

Rather than spending a steep price to stay at a local hotel, a fun, affordable option can be found through airbnb.com. It is a site that allows one to search for rooms and vacation rentals that are offered by various homeowners in the area. My friend, Mary Rose, and I found a pretty, spacious room for $50 a night in Le-Plateau-Mont-Royal, which was the perfect place to find fantastic food and practice our rudimentary French.

Numerous restaurants were open late into the night. Many advertised as “Apportez votre vin” (bring your own wine). Many restaurants were open with quaint tables on the street. People laughed and talked while enjoying their own wine and tapas or entrees that they had ordered.

I decided on a “prix fixe” menu. The French speaking waiter switched to English to help us navigate the menu. I had escargot in garlic butter as an appetizer, followed by steak with caramelized shallots, greens and steak frites. Dessert was a shared experience of an apple and caramel tart. All of the flavors were well developed and all ingredients were fresh. I was in food heaven.

After dinner we decided to visit Bar le Lab, which was highly recommended by a friend. The bartender informed us that le Lab is the top 17th bar in the world, and it certainly lived up to its reputation. Le Lab makes its own fresh syrups for mixing, and has a wide range of labels to select from. Some drinks had liqueur that was mixed and set on fire to caramelize and intensify the flavor, other drinks were served with fresh fruit and orchids as decoration. There was no limit as to what type of drinks were available and the bartenders were both informative and entertaining. Juggling glasses, anyone?

The next day involved one great culinary experience after another. Breakfast was eaten outside at a little terrace bakery/restaurant called Godley & Crème, which served fresh omelets and pastries. We then spent a couple of hours of shopping at a underground mall complex. Later we had an early dinner of fresh, flavorful Vietnamese food in the Quartier Chinois. We could not stay for Les FrancoFolies de Montréal, which is massive francophone music festival. Despite this, there was a great deal of street art and various museums in which to visit and spend time.

Montréal proved to be a fantastic weekend trip with much to offer. For more information or to plan your own trip visit tourisme-montreal.org.

Overview of “Dirty Wars”

Sunday, June 15th, 2014
Sami Gillette

Cycles are powerful and seemingly unescapable, especially when one reviews the annals of history. It is this power and impact of cycles that serves as a focus of the documentary “Dirty Wars” – a film that displays the discoveries of journalist and author Jeremy Scahill as he investigates covert US involvement in places such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen.

He explores the activities of Joint Operations Special Command (JSOC), which was for years a hidden organization that fought behind the scenes as part of the War on Terror. Scahill reveals the impact of drone strikes and night raids on various people and families, some of whom were attacked for a variety of unknown, unestablished reasons (according to Scahill’s research).

According to the film’s website, “JSOC teams ‘find, fix, and finish’ their targets, who are selected through a secret process. No target is off limits for the ‘kill list,’ including U.S. citizens.”

The documentary was haunting with images and tales of innocent children, men and women killed as JSOC sought its targets. An interview with a man associated with JSOC reveals disillusionment and regret as to the history and mission of JSOC. Scahill also reviews his multiple attempts to garner answers from those in power and in Congress – to no avail.

What was most powerful was Scahill’s interaction with the family of Anwar al-Awlaki who, according to CCN, was an “American-born Muslim scholar and cleric who acted as a spokesperson for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.” Scahill reveals al-Awlaki’s earlier transformation from a moderate to militant because of events that occurred in the Middle East that turned him against the United States.

In an interview Scahill outlines one of his biggest issues with al-Awlaki’s death following a US drone strike.

“Awlaki had never been charged of a crime by the United States in connection with any terrorist plot, there was no indictment against him, and he was basically sentenced to death without having even been charged with a crime,” he explained. It is this covertness, this lack of transparency and action without accountability that Scahill draws most attention to during the film.

“Dirty Wars” ends with the news that al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son had been blown to pieces in another covert US strike. Scahill explains that it is this type of act that should be known about. The son was killed for who he might become, rather than who he was. Violence begets violence, and while many may disagree with Scahill’s viewpoint, it is always important to see both sides of a story.

States “The Guardian,” “The argument that the war on terror is ultimately unwinnable because indiscriminate killings radicalise whole populations is persuasive.”

Power of words in “The Book Thief”

Sunday, June 8th, 2014
Sami Gillette

“The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak portrays life in Nazi Germany during World War II as a family attempts to survive, but also maintain their humanity. Death serves as the narrator of the book and through its eyes we are brought to Liesel Meminger, a young teenage girl who arrives in Molching to live with foster parents after her brother dies. The novel explores the growth of her relationship with her caring, but eccentric foster parents (the Hubermanns); a next door boy named Rudy; other local Germans; and the Jewish man, Max, whom the Hubermanns shelter in their basement for two years. **spoiler alert**

While the novel has a well-developed plot and is at times funny, tragic and haunting, what is most interesting is its lyricism and use of powerful imagery.

“Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out.”

Such examples are threaded throughout the story and capture the reader – pull him or her in so that there is no escaping the author’s meaning.

One of the most powerful aspects of the novel is the survey of words – their power and importance. Liesel is the Book Thief. She learns to read and steals books in order to escape from her reality, but also to create a foundation of understanding that strengthens her in a country that has been brain washed. Words foster her relationship with Max who writes to cope with and understand his situation – he is constantly bordering on the brink of possible discovery and death.

Towards the end of the novel both Liesel and Max realize the healing power of words, but also the danger of words. Words were what enabled Adolf Hitler to gain power – his book “Mein Kempf” (My Struggle) leads to the murder of millions of Jews.

This setting solidifies the use of Death as narrator. Rather than appearing eager for its duty, Death is weary and gathers up souls with some detachment , and with sadness (when he allows it). Ironically, Death’s perspective adds an aspect of humanity to often bleak and sometimes tragic events throughout the novel.

In describing one man’s death, Death recalled, “His soul sat up. It met me. Those kinds of souls always do – the best ones. The ones who rise up and say ‘I know who you are and I am ready. Not that I want to go, of course, but I will come.’ Those souls are always light because more of them have been put out. More of them have already found their way to other places.”

Overall, “The Book Thief” is a beautiful and unique perspective on life in Nazi Germany during WWII. Lightened with humour and intensified by quiet, intimate moments it is an inspiring novel that will stay with the reader.

Said Death of Liesel, ”Yes, I’m often reminded of her, and in one of my array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt – an immense leap of an attempt – to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it.”

The real Philomena Lee

Sunday, June 1st, 2014
Sami Gillette

The film “Philomena” is a beautiful, heart wrenching portrayal of a mother’s search for her long-lost son 50 years after he is taken from her. It focuses on the real life story of Irishwoman Philomena Lee, who as a teenager, was sent to a convent after she became pregnant out of wedlock. Throughout the film there is a focus on Catholicism and sin – Philomena is sent to the covenant in the first place because her family is shamed by her. At one point in the film the young Philomena explains that it is as if she had died, rather than gotten pregnant.

Philomena is forced to work long, hard hours at the abbey to pay off the debt to the nuns for providing shelter for her and her son. The sense of guilt and sin permeates the whole film and is what keeps Philomena silent for 50 years after her son is stolen from her and taken to America by adoptive parents. What is most tragic is that Philomena never wanted to lose her son, which is why she finally asks for assistance from journalist Martin Sixsmith.

Judi Dench does a fantastic job portraying the older Philomena Lee and her co-star is Steve Coogan, who plays the cynical Martin Sixsmith. The film highlights the very real problem of young Irish women losing their children because of manipulative, profiteering convents in mid-1900′s Ireland.
Explains a Washington Post article, “The mothers did get to see their children every day, but they didn’t always fully realize that those children were offered for adoption, as orphans, to American couples.”

In an interview, Philomena explained that the convent always refused to disclose information about her son – nuns even blatantly lied to her. She explained that if they had been truthful there probably would never have been a book or movie.

While truth may have made her search easier, many are thankful that Philomena’s story came out. It has raised awareness about the sometimes harrowing circumstances surrounding adoption, especially in Ireland in the mid 1900’s. Numerous adoptees have also reached out to her in hopes she can help guide them to their birth mothers.

A New York Times review states, “Philomena has many facets. It is a comedic road movie, a detective story, an infuriated anticlerical screed, and an inquiry into faith and the limitations of reason, all rolled together. Fairly sophisticated about spiritual matters, it takes pains to distinguish faith from institutionalized piety.”

Irrigation of life’s deserts

Monday, May 26th, 2014
Sami Gillette

A discussion with a former English teacher raised some ideas about the importance of education, history and literature. Yes, STEM courses are becoming even more vital as technology and innovation entrench themselves in the economy and leading industries. But to forget the humanities or to dismiss them as frivolous is dangerous and careless.

While my perspective is completely biased – I have been a nerdy English student since I first learned to read – there are many who would agree with me.

The study of history, languages, art, literature and the like are important in that they provide a perspective and context to the present. Who are we? Where do we come from? How are we connected? These are all questions that can be answered by studying the humanities.

Many argue that without the study of the humanities there would only be cold, hard logic. Is this knowledge useful? Of course.

Yet, without the humanities there would be no soul to the head and body of education. Instead students would learn how to compute numbers, study biology, analyze markets, etc. without balancing this knowledge with connections to the larger world.

Mark Slouka, an American novelist and essayist argues:
“The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their ‘product’ not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their ‘success’ something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion.”

As every school is in a mad scramble to hire more STEM teachers, it is imperative that humanities teachers are not forgotten. While every student may not love to read Shakespeare or may not understand the importance of studying the Napoleonic Wars, they should still have a background upon which to build their understanding of the world at large.

“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” – C.S. Lewis.