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09 April 2014 @ 05:30 pm
I managed to get away for a few days to a flyertalk event, namely the Lexington Horse and Bourbon Do. For complicated reasons (i.e. it was cheaper and earned more miles), I flew to Chicago on Thursday n8ght, used a Marriott certificate to stay overnight at the Courtyard by Marriott, and flew to Louisville in the morning, where I rented a car to drive to Lexington.

The flight to Chicago was delayed about an hour. United has, apparently, stopped sending delay notifications, but they were updating the board at DCA. I had a bit of a wait for the hotel shuttle. Every time I am waiting for a hotel shuttle at ORD, I think I should really stay at the Hilton, which is right across from the airport shuttle center. But this was free and that trumps a 15 minute wait. Once I got to the hotel and checked in, I left my bags in the room and walked over to the Rivers Casino next door to the hotel to get something for dinner. On the way back, I figured I would play the slots a little. There was one with a Cheshire Cat theme, which I thought would be lucky for me. And it was. I hit a bonus that brought up three arrays with three reels on each wild, resulting in a very nice win. I know to quit when I’m ahead and I had an early flight, so I was quite pleased with the Chicago layover.

The morning flight to Louisville was fine. I picked up the rental car and headed east. The drive was easy, but the weather was pretty crappy, alternating between drizzles and outright downpours. I had no problem finding the Four Points by Sheraton which was to be party central. The hotel was just adequate, with all of the usual annoyances of low end hotels (poor lighting, soundproofing and wifi functionality). The weather was improving and I went off to meet up with part of the group at Country Boy Brewing, where I tried their Alpha Experiment Mosaic IPA, which was nice enough. The real point was the conversation about points and miles and other travel things.

It was no longer raining and the Lexington Legends (Kansas City Royals Low- A affiliate) were playing a double header against the West Virginia Power (Pittsburgh affiliate). The first game was actually the continuation of one that had been rained out the night before, so started with the third inning, while the second was a 7 inning game. One of the great things about minor league baseball is being able to walk up and pay 12 bucks for a seat along the first base line with no real planning. The only catch was that it was bloody cold out. Someday I will learn my lesson and not go to baseball games in April. The Legends pulled out a win in the ninth inning of the first game, while lost the second. I was reminded that quality of fielding is really the biggest difference between the majors and minors. I haven’t seen that many erros since the days of Marvelous Marv Throneberry. By the way, there were three British guys (in town for a conference) sitting behind me and it was fun listening to them discussing their first baseball game.

Saturday morning started with going to Keeneland to look at the morning workouts. I should mention that there are two basic approaches to choosing horses to bet on. My parents used to go to the races where Dad tried to be all scientific and Mom chose horses based on their names. So, for example, a frequent traveler might be well-advised to place a bet on Room Service. After looking at horses for a while, we walked over to the Race Track Kitchen for a cheap but unexciting breakfast. The next item on the agenda was touring a mare farm. This was the point at which my all too fallible sense of direction (ang google maps) failed and, after 45 minutes or so of frustration, I gave up. I later realized a particular issue with directions in that part of Kentucky. Namely, everybody gives directions using street names, but all of the signs have route numbers only. One is, apparently, supposed to magically divine the correlation between the two. (Admittedly, they do that here in Virginia also, with the added twist of planting trees in front of all helpful signs, making them unreadable.)

Anyway, I decided I could use the time instead to fulfill another obsession and drove over to Frankfort to do the capital volksmarch. It was a pleasant enough walk, though I wished I had had more time to read the various historic signs. I was rushed because I wanted to meet up with the group to tour Woodford Reserve Distillery. We had lunch there and then toured the distillery. While the tour was interesting, the tasting did not convert me into a bourbon drinker. The chocolates that accompanied the whiskey were excellent, however.

At that point, the thing I needed most was a nap, so I drove back to the hotel and attempted to satisfy that need. The evening featured the main party, held at the home of the main organizer’s parents. This was a lovely lakeside property and we enjoyed appetizers and drinks out in the backyard. I want to particularly note the homebrew bourbon barrel ales we sampled. The pale ale, in particular, may be the tastiest beer I’ve had in my life. Throw in lively conversation (and Bourbon Trail t-shirts) and life was good. We went on to dinner at City Barbecue, which was good, though I have northeastern tastes when it comes to side dishes (i.e. mac and cheese is not a vegetable and cole slaw should not be sweet).

I skipped the after party because I am old and boring. Sunday brought a pleasant brunch at Stella’s, where the best item was bourbon French toast. Most of the group was going back to Keeneland, but I had to drive back to Louisville to return the car and fly home. Other than a half hour or so delay, the trip home was fine. All in all, it was a fun weekend and I’d certainly consider going to this event again, schedule permitting.
03 April 2014 @ 12:25 pm
So how did I do on my annual goals over the past few months? Well, I have excuses.

  1. No progress on travelogues because I still don’t have a new computer. My excuse is that I have been unable to shop for one because of the weather. Maybe, now that it is approaching actual springtime…

  2. I got through maybe another 15 pages of the New Testament. And I don’t even have an actual reason for that one.

  3. I did one Volksmarch baseball event. There would have been more, but I had other commitments whenever the weather might have allowed walking.

  4. I didn’t go to any Minor League baseball games because baseball hadn’t started yet. I have plans, however, possibly as soon as this weekend, weather permitting.

  5. I have done at least two crossword puzzles every day. I’ve done more many of those days. So one goal is on track.

  6. I haven’t gone to any National Parks, but I have firm plans for two.

  7. I’ve memorized 2 poems - Invictus by William Ernest Henley and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas. I am close to having Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat down. That is pretty much on track, I think. I am open to suggestions on poems to memorize, by the way.

  8. I haven’t started on digitizing LPs and cassettes I need to make some room in the living room to get moving on this, because the equipment takes up space.
02 April 2014 @ 04:04 pm
It’s time for the quarterly movie review entry. Note that, while I didn’t set any specific goal for that this year, I am still working towards seeing every Oscar winning movie, which is a life list item. I added three this month. However, there are always other things to see.

  1. The Way. This was not the movie about the Camino del Santiago, which I had intended to rent. Instead, google play gave me this Barry Shay film about a boy in L.A. who gets involved with gangs, goes to prison, develops his body, and becomes a runner thanks to his parole officer. (Shay plays the parole officer, who sees the kid as sort of a surrogate for his son.) This was actually a pretty absorbing movie, although it was fairly predictable. I do still intend to see the Martin Sheen one about the Camino del Santiago, however.

  2. Cavalcade. This was part of the Oscar winner campaign, having won best picture for 1933. Based on a Noel Coward play, it traces an upper-class British family (and some of their servants) from the turn of the 20th century through the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic, and World War I. At one level, it’s something of an anti-war film. The whole thing is probably best summed up in the song 20th Century Blues. It’s interesting enough, but watching this now, I couldn’t escape knowing that things only got worse with World War II.

  3. Enough Said. This was the feature film on a United flight. Bsaically Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a neurotic (surprise!) who screws up a promising relationship by being a jerk when she also befriends the guy’s ex-wife. James Gandolfini did a good job as the love interest, but he couldn’t salvage this idiocy. Overall, this was one of the worst romantic comedies I’ve ever seen.

  4. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. The final movie of the trilogy continued to be fairly true to the book. That is good for the most part, but it also means that it shares what I’ve always thought was the main flaw of the final book. Namely, the material after the battles are over and done with is too long and not nearly as interesting. It’s still worth seeing, but one could actually skip the last half hour or so with no loss.

  5. About Time. United redeemed themselves on movie choices with this sweet romantic comedy about a young man who has the ability to go back in time to relive parts of his life, allowing him to fix various events (from preventing accident to improving a sexual experience). There are limitations on how this works and he ends up learning how to appreciate the extra time for little things. Despite the premise, the characters felt surprisingly realistic and I enjoyed watching this.

  6. Everything Must Go. I downloaded this to watch ona train trip under the misapprehension that it was a comedy. Despite starring Will Ferrell, it is anything but. I found this a self-indulgent story about a drunken asshole who progresses to being merely unlikeable and pitiful by the end. The premise of a guy living on his lawn because his wife has kicked him out of the house could be comedic. But, given that she has moved in with his AA sponsor in the meantime and isn't living in the house, it doesn’t even make sense. In case you haven’t figured it out, I absolutely hated this movie.

  7. The Great Ziegfield. This was another Oscar winner, from 1936. It’s hard to say how accurate it was, but it certainly isn’t a particularly flattering portrait of Flo Ziegfield, emphasizing his fiscal irresponsibility and his womanizing. The real reason to watch this is to see the production numbers, including actual performances by various famous people like Fanny Brice. Recommended.

  8. Under the Same Sun. This mockumentary was part of the Northern Virginia Jewish Film Festival. The plot involves two businessmen – one Israeli, one Palestinian – who try to start a joint solar energy company on the West Bank. They both have skeptical family members and have to deal with the political and personal fall out when the scheme gets publicized. They fight back via social media, with considerable success. This was definitely an absorbing movie, but, ultimately, I found the ease of the social media campaign unconvincing.

01 April 2014 @ 03:33 pm
I’ll apologize up front for the length of this, but I have lots of things to catch up on. As I have said before, if you have more than two interests in life, you are doomed.

Celebrity Death Watch: Reubin Askew was a progressive governor of Florida, back in the days when such a thing was possible. Fred Phelps headed the Westboro Baptist Church, known for anti-gay bigotry. James R. Schlesinger held a number of government positions throughout his career, most notably as CIA director and as Secretary of Defense (and, later, Secretary of Energy.) After his government career, he was chairman of the board of Mitre. From my personal standpoint, his most notable position was as chair of the Position, Navigation and Timing board (which oversees GPS) and I have drafted at least a few white papers dealing with his recommendations.

Gene Feist founded the Roundabout Theatre Company, which has produced many notable performances, particularly revivals of musicals. David Brenner was a Canadian comedian. And Mitch Leigh wrote Man of La Mancha. His musical failures include Home Sweet Homer. He also wrote the Sara Lee jingle. Nobody doesn’t like Mitch Leigh. (Whose birth name was, by the way, Irwin Michnick, but that scans even worse.)

Non-celebrity Obituary: Kevin Brooks passed away last week. He was a storyteller who had a Ph.D. from MIT (via the Media lab) and worked at Motorola. I only met him briefly,, but I saw his dedication to storytelling and to Laura Packer, his widow. He was a bright, creative, and kind man and his loss will be sorely felt in both Boston and Kansas City.

Loveland: Loveland is Ann Randolph’s one-woman (plus an off-stage male voice) show, currently at Arena Stage. She plays Frannie Potts, whose talent is facial gesturing to sounds. Frannie is on a plane trip from California to her home town in Ohio and the story is a mixture of incidents on the plane with flashbacks involving Frannie’s relationship with her mother. This was billed as a comedy and it did have some funny moments. Unfortunately, most of the humor was a lot cruder than I’d prefer and I suspect thinner-skinned people would find a lot of the show remarkably offensive. I am sure Randolph knows this and is doing it deliberately. Or, at least, I hope anybody who would include a bit in which someone plays the harmonium to nursing home residents while singing, "listen to the drone, it will help you die," is being shocking intentionally. (I will admit I laughed at that bit. Then I went home and took three consecutive showers.) I didn’t stay for Randolph’s brief writing workshop after the show because her material was too far from anything I’d ever want to do.

House of Blue Leaves: I saw tickets on Goldstar for a production by the Providence Players of House of Blue Leaves, a play I remembered enjoying the previous time I saw it. They did a good job, with notable performances by Adam Downs as Artie and (especially) by Jayne Victor as Bunny. The play is a bit dated in some ways, but it is still an interesting dark comedy. I’m uncomfortable with the treatment of mental illness in it, but I recognize that one is supposed to be uncomfortable with that.

Chavurah Movie and Dinner Night: My chavurah had an outing to the Northern Virginia Jewish Film Festival. We saw a movie called Under the Same Sun, which I will write about as part of a movie wrap-up in a day or so. Afterwards we had dinner at Noodles and Company, which isn’t really the most congenial atmosphere for mingling and conversation, though I do like their Indonesian peanut noodle sauté (which I get with tofu).

MIT Summer Intern Reception: The annual reception for MIT summer interns who are interested in the blend of technology and policy is always interesting. Unfortunately, none of this year’s crop of interns was interested in space, so I don’t think I was very helpful to them. There were a couple who expressed an interest in energy, but the overwhelming majority this year were interested in health care. That’s not surprising, but it is disappointing. Still, there was a lot of intelligent conversation (including some with fellow alumni) so was worth going to.

Corcoran Tour and Reception: The MIT Club of Washington had a reception at the Corcoran Gallery and a tour of the collection. The reception was quite lush, with things like smoked salmon and chocolate truffles. Interestingly, they serve only white wine to minimize risk of damage to the artwork. The museum highlights tour was excellent. Our docent was both informative and entertaining. My favorite piece was a sort of pastiche of Van Gogh painted by Robert Colescott. That probably says more about my tastes (dark humor and modernism) than it does about the collection, which is heavy on 19th century American art.

Minor Yarn Frenzy: A friend cleared out her stash and gave me 15 pounds of yarn she didn’t want. In exchange, I gave her old towels to donate to the animal shelter she sometimes volunteers at. About half of the yarn was stuff I could use. The rest of the yarn included rather more novelty yarns (ribbon yarn, pompon, muppet fur, etc.) than I would do anything with, but I know other yarnoholics and most of it has been distributed to grateful crafters. I have someone to send the rest to, but need time to package it and mail it off.

Baltimore Rock Opera Society: Friday night, I went to see the Baltimore Rock Opera Society production of Grundelhammer at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria. Because it is easy (and free) to get to Old Town from my office, I had some time to shop beforehand. Shops along King Street include both a used bookstore and a yarn store, so you can imagine what happened. I also stopped at Mischa’s, because I had been running low on coffee. I am now restocked with some of Sulawesi’s finest. I also had time for dinner at Eammon’s, which has excellent fish and chips.

As for the show, it was somewhat over the top, but quite entertaining. The premise was a sort of medieval society where battle is fought with guitar riffs. The young son of the true king, Benedon, has to defeat the evil king, Lothario, who secures his power by feeding enemies to a monster (The Grundle). That way Benedon can save the kingdom (and, of course, get the girl). I’ll note the performance of Christopher Krysztifiak as Benedon, who showed a surprisingly wide range for this type of thing. This was also a complicated show technically, with elaborate puppetry (including some very amusing shadow puppets). The downside is that the scene changes took forever. Since they started almost a half hour late and the scene changes probably added up to an hour total, it made for a very late night.

Better Said Than Done – Into the Woods: I was part of a storytelling show on Saturday night. I told a story about our annual summer camp raft trip down the Delaware River. While I had told the story before, I reworked it a lot, which ate up a lot of my mental energy for a couple of weeks. One of the people I used to work on stories with used the phrase "kill your darlings" to refer to the need to cut out material that may be good but just doesn’t belong in that story. It was good advice to keep in mind and I was reasonably happy with how the story turned out. The audience reacted well, too.

I should also note that it was an excellent show, overall. It’s always interesting to me how many different ways a general theme can be interpreted and what a wide range of material and styles there are.
This is partly a reaction to this post by jim_p about his feelings towards MIT. Given that we’re now into college acceptance season, I thought it would be timely. I’m hoping a few of the things I have to say may be of some use to people trying to deal with the college decision.

My experience at MIT was rather different than Jim's. I certainly shared the shock of having to actually study to get decent grades and I particularly remember the low grade on my very first exam in that context. But I think a few things made a difference in how I handled that:

1) I had had previous exposure to being around other smart people, primarily thanks to the National Science Foundation. I went to Columbia University’s NSF-sponsored Science Honors Program on Saturdays for three years in high school. While SHP did not have exams or grades, it provided both an opportunity to feel lost with material that was over my head and an opportunity to learn that other students felt that way. The summer before my senior year, I went to another NSF program, the Program in Biochemistry at the Loomis-Chaffee School. That was an intense summer of learning biochemistry techniques, killing rats and pureeing their livers for our research, and having to make a reservation to take a nap on the lab couch. But more than pipetting or the ability to tie a knot one-handed, it taught me I could keep up in a competitive environment.

2) I also had the advantage of knowing that there was a fair chance that I’d change my mind about what I wanted to do. I entered MIT thinking I would major in chemistry and do biochemistry, specifically neurochemistry. But my brother was busy setting the Michigan State University record for changing majors. And I knew that there were a lot of other things I was interested in. In fact, one of the reasons I went to MIT was the idea that if I changed my mind, there would be other strong math / science departments to go to, which was potentially an issue at Yale or Dartmouth. A large number of the people I know who had problems at MIT had always known exactly what they wanted to do and didn’t know how to handle it when that didn’t work for them. (For those who don’t know, my degrees are in mechanical engineering.)

3) I grew up in a small town and had the sort of suburban childhood that involved lots of extracurricular activities. The small town aspect is important because one of the ironies of that sort of environment is that you’re forced to be exposed to things you might not realize you’d be interested in. When something was happening in town, everybody went, because there weren’t so many things to choose from. (I suspect this is no longer the case, given the internet.) And the extracurricular activities mattered because it never occurred to me not to get involved in things at MIT, which gave me both balance and community. Freshman year being all pass / fail definitely helped with that. I think that having other things to do forced me to be somewhat more organized about my time and gave me a chance to get some perspective when I was stressed out about school.

Along those lines, I once went to a movie with some friends the night before a final and ran into the TA for that class. He made some snide comment about my going to a movie instead of studying and I pointed out that, if I didn’t know the material then, I wasn’t going to know it much better the next morning. I felt it was more important to be relaxed for the final. (And, yes, I got a good grade in the class.)

4) Somewhere around the middle of my sophomore year, I decided on the consumerist approach to my education. MIT is not exactly a cheap place, so I figured the way to get my (well, my father’s) money’s worth was to take advantage of the resources that were available. It was that attitude that let me get over my psychological barriers to asking for help when I didn’t understand something. I found that professors (at least in the mechanical engineering department) were willing to spend time (either their office hours or an appointment) to help me understand the material.

I do feel lucky that I stumbled into something I liked and was good at fairly early in my college career. Part of 2.02 (Introduction to System Dynamics) clicked with me. People told me that if I liked that, I should take the introductory controls class, 2.14. Control Theory just worked with the way my mind works, so that’s what I ended up doing and what eventually led me to my career (which is much broader). Not everybody does find something that resonates with them the same way, so I appreciate that there is no particular advice I can give on how to do that, beyond being open to it happening.

I’m somewhat hesitant to write this, because it sounds arrogant, but by the time I was a senior, I felt pretty much like I could do anything I wanted. What I hadn’t learned was how to structure my time when I didn’t have anything external to impose structure on me. That became an issue in grad school after I had finished classes and was in the pure research mode. But that’s another story. As are at least three other things I will write about education sooner or later (which, alas, generally means later).
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19 March 2014 @ 03:49 pm
This past weekend was Culpeper Tells, a new annual storytelling festival in Culpeper, Virginia. Since this is about the same time of year as we've been doing the annual Virginia Storytelling Gathering, the Virginia Storytelling Alliance (VASA) board (which I am finishing a term on) decided to combine the events. In practice, what that meant was that there was a showcase of VASA storytellers on Friday night and the annual VASA membership meeting, followed by a "sacred stories" swap and a punfest on Sunday morning. If you are a long term member of VASA and know people, there was opportunity to socialize, but I'm not sure how much a new member would have gotten out of the Gathering activities.

Anyway, as I said, there was a VASA showcase on Friday night. I am too busy at work to have attempted to go to the workshops that the Culpeper Tells folks were having on Friday afternoon, so that was the first official event I was at. As it was, I left work early, which meade the drive reasonably tolerable, other than the several levels of hell involved in passing through Gainesville. I arrived at the host hotel (the Holiday Inn Express - let us just say that accomodations in Culpeper are limited) in time to run into other people who were planning to go to dinner at Luigi's. So I ended up joining in what I'd call an unofficial event. The food was about what one would expect of Italian food in rural Virginia. You may interpret that as you like.

The showcase had a djverse selection of tellers. It started with Mackenzie Vanover telling a fractured fairy tale. The story was amusing, but I found her style a bit more actorly than I'd prefer and I thought it would have been stronger if I could have understood all of the voices she used. Next up was Katie Ross with an interesting personal story about overcoming prejudices. Margaret Chatham did a fine job with a Scottish folk tale. Denise Bennett sang an Irish song and told about the first immigrant to enter the U.S. via Ellis Island. I found that story absolutely enthralling. Finally, Jennifer Jones told a personal story about trying to be cool and the power of storeis. All in all, it was a wide range of stories and styles. I should also mention Les Schaffer's good job of emceeing.

Saturday started with a short olio of the four featured tellers - Kim Weitkamp, Sheila Arnold, Linda Goodman, and Ed Stivender. Kim had told me that she was going to perform a new song based on a story I had told, which had me slightly apprehensive. It turned out fine - she had picked up on my very detailed sense of place in "The Secret Place" and used that in her vastly different childhood landscape. Linda, Ed, and Kim each had a solo set in the afternoon, and Sheila taught a workshop. Since her focus was on telling to children, I skipped that and minded the VASA table during that period (as well as through the second half of the lunch break). The evening ended with a post-dinner performance by all four featured tellers. I will not manage to remember everything I heard, but I want to especially note Linda's story in the evening concert, which involved a young woman who learns about the dangers of getting what you wish for, and Ed's rendition of a Mark Twain story about burglars.

Before dinner there was a story slam. We did not have a theme, but simply asked people to tell their best 5 minute story. I was one of the three judges and was pleased that the stories were mostly entertaining. Denise Bennett won, with Les Schaffer placing second and Gary Buchanan, a first time teller, placing third.

I will spare you details of the VASA meeting. It accomplished most of what it needed to, but, being a fan of following parliamentary procedure, I had some frustrations. The sacred story swap is normally not my sort of thing, but I was glad for the opportunity to pay tribute to Leslie Perry by telling "The Prize Mule," which was the first story I heard him tell and, sadly, the last. Puns are, to the probable dismay of other people, very much my thing.

Overall, it was a fun weekend. I think, however, that it would be better to have a separate VASA gathering, so that the focus would be on our members and connecting them, which was difficult with this format.

Culpeper Tells will return in 2015 and I already have it penciled in on my calendar.
11 March 2014 @ 02:21 pm
The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament was this past weekend in Brooklyn. Surprisingly, I did not have a conflict with the date, so I was able to compete for the third time. I’ll keep this write-up free of spoilers, given that there are still people solving at home.

I took the train up on Friday, arriving just about as the Friday evening activities were starting. There were ten ringmasters with different types of puzzles and participants could choose which four they wanted to do. I started with Digital Trivia, which quickly made me feel dumb. You had to estimate various numbers. The only one I could actually say I knew was the rotational speed of the earth at the equator. For many, I had no idea at all, so I took the approach of just writing the same number (specifically 300, for reasons I can’t really explain) for those. That was not actually a successful approach, so I don’t recommend it. I moved on the cryptic crossword, but didn’t come close to finishing it in the 15 minutes allotted. Since I felt the need to do something I would feel more competent at, I moved next to the spiral puzzle. That was a "so close but so far" experience, since I could not figure out two (overlapping) words and complete it. Finally, I did a puzzle that involved filling in consonants to answer a number of clues. Again, it was a good puzzle, but I’d have needed significantly more time. Fortunately, the wine and cheese reception part didn’t make me feel quite so dumb. And it is, of course, good to catch up with people I see infrequently and meet some others.

The real action started on Saturday at 11. That’s a late enough start that I had time for a diner breakfast and walk around Brooklyn Heights. Puzzle #1 was by Kelly Clark. It was straightforward and the theme made no real difference to my ability to solve it. The theme also made no difference to Puzzle #2 by Patrick Blindauer. In fact, I didn’t even notice the theme on that one. There was, alas, one crossing where I was just unsure enough of the spelling of a name and just convinced enough that something was not an actual world to get snookered into guessing an incorrect vowel, costing me a clean solve. It was a minor relief that a lot of other people made the same mistake. Fortunately, I redeemed myself with a clean solve on Puzzle #3. That was by Merl Reagle and had the sort of punnish theme that I consider characteristic of his puzzles. Since I do his puzzle in the Sunday magazine section of the Washington Pos every weekt, I am used to his style, but I imagine it could be particularly difficult if you weren’t.

I’d eaten a large enough breakfast that all I wanted for lunch was some yogurt. I attempted to refresh my mind with a nice walk. That probably made no difference to Puzzle #4, a reasonably easy one by MaryEllen Uthlaut, which I solved decently quickly and (I believe – the scan is missing) cleanly. Then, alas, came the dreaded Puzzle #5. There was a bit of a story to go with it, as Will had accidentally exposed the original puzzle while being interviewed, leading to a last minute substitute by the dreaded Brendan Emmett Quigley. Just once before I die, I’d like to solve a complete Puzzle #5. This was not to be the year. I did figure out the trick, but I got bogged down in the fill in the upper right corner. More annoyingly, I was so focused on trying to break into that corner that I didn’t notice a few squares I had left blank in the middle left, which I could have gone back and filled in at that point. Still, it isn’t as if all that many people did finish it. Puzzle #6 made me feel less dumb. In fact, I pretty much zoomed through it.

I felt lukewarm towards the Saturday night program, so decided theatre going was a better option. There were a few things I was interested in and I decided on the one that was geographically closest. That was a production of Candiede by Theater 2020. The show was at St. Charles Borromeo Church, a short walk from the hotel. They used the pared down 1973 version, which has some limitations (e.g. lacking the only song I know of that contains the word "spirochete," as well as missing at least one major character and an important detail about the sheep of El Dorado. Or maybe I am just the only person on the planet who thinks the phrase "100 red pack sheep" is hysterically funny.). There were also some interesting decisions about how to utilize the space, some of which made me a bit uncomfortable since I am not really used to actors climbing over a pew where I’m seated. The puzzle world will note that Lorinne Lampert did a fine job as the Old Lady. I also want to note the performance of Ellie Bensinger as Cunegonde, who has a fabulous voice and did an impressive job with the challenging "Glitter and Be Gay." Anyway, it was an entertaining evening and worth skipping out on the official program for.

Sunday morning began bright and early – a little too bright and early due to Daylight Savings Time – with Puzzle #7. This was a cleverly themed one by David J. Kahn. I thought I had solved it cleanly, but the scan indicates that I somehow managed not to notice a square I had left blank. Aaargh! I don’t mind when I honestly don’t know something, but carelessness like that frustrates me. It meant that I ended up finishing 202 out of 580. However, to be fair, that is better than my previous attempts:

2009 – 265 / 654 (55th percentile)
2012 – 241 / 594 (59th percentile)
2014 – 202 / 580 (65th percentile)

If I keep improving at this rate, I might reach the B division by 2024. (I will also note that, looking back at my past write-ups, I have made an error on Puzzle #2 each time. So maybe I should lower my goal from finishing Puzzle #5 to solving that one cleanly.)

All in all, it was a fun weekend and I recommend the experience to anyone who either thinks they are good at crossword puzzles or needs some general humbling. Next year is March 27-29 in Stamford, Connecticut. That probably limits my opportunities for a theatre excursion and definitely limits my ability to spend money at Sahadi (a very large Middle Eastern grocery store on Atlantic Avenue). But it’s just a couple of more stops away on Amtrak. (The real issue regarding whether or not I can make it is, of course, various storytelling obligations.)
07 March 2014 @ 10:46 am
Here are various odds and ends, with no theatre involved.

Celebrity Death Watch: Harold Ramis was an interesting comic actor. Sean Potts played the tin whistle and was one of the founders of The Chieftains.

Retiring Celebrity Watch: Carl Kassell of NPR is retiring. I am not sure what impact that will have on the value of my Carl Kassell doll. Not that I was planning to sell.

Non-celebrity Death Watch: Leslie Perry had been suffering from ALS for the past five years, so his death is not surprising. He was a mainstay of the Los Angeles storytelling community and a great builder of community, as well as a fine storyteller. I remember, in particular, a letter he once sent out that pointed out the need for storytellers to support one another, attending and advertising other tellers’ programs, for example. He also talked about the need for tellers to tell the difficult stories. Both of those triggered discussions that have influenced how I try to deal with storytelling. After he became ill, he had two books published, had a play produced, and was the subject of a documentary. He may not have been a household name, but Leslie was a celebrity in my community and in my life. He was a good man and I will miss him.

Weather: We got about 5 inches of snow on Monday. This had been predicted, so I had brought my laptop home and was productive. But it is proof that I don’t live in Camelot, where winter exits March the second on the dot.

Washington Jewish Film Festival: Because of the snow, the showing of The Herring Queens (a documentary about Lower East Side appetizing store, Russ and Daughters) on Monday night was cancelled. So the only WJFF event I made it to was not a film, but a Yiddish music program on Tuesday night. That featured Cantor Sara Geller and was a mix of concert and sing-along. She has a fine voice, but the songs she did started out with art songs, which are not really what I was expecting. The sing-along part was fine but consisted entirely of overly familiar songs. Can we please have some Yiddish music event someday that does not feature "Oyfen Pripitchik," "Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen," and "Tubalalaika?" The rest of the concert part was somewhat more to my taste, since it was largely theatre music. My favorite piece was "It’s Tough" (sung in English), which tells of the tragedy when Izzy Rosenstein loves Genevieve Malone.

In Other News: Between various work and non-work commitments, I am stressed and frustrated and grouchy. It is a good thing I am not a violent person.

And now I am all caught up. Of course, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is this weekend, so I will be behind again. And my non-LJ to-do list is the length of my arm. But I’ll take what small victories I can.
03 March 2014 @ 07:23 pm
Brunch and Travel Show: I took an early train back from New York after my minor theatre binge so I could go out to brunch with a couple of people from flyertalk before going to the Travel and Adventure Show. We ate at City Tap Room, which had a somewhat odd brunch menu. I had a frittata with potatoes, mushrooms, kale and gruyere, which was okay, though a bit too salty. Don't things like that usually come with toast or the like, though?

Anyway, the travel show has gotten smaller, but is still dangerous as I get ideas. In some cases, I have no interest in a tour, but I use itineraries to get an idea of what I want to do when I go somewhere on my own. In other cases, there are places with poor enough infrastructure that having things organized makes sense. The bottom line is that (as usual) there are more things I want to do than there is time or money for.

Pro Musica Hebraica - Evgeny Kissin: I continue to go to the Pro Musica Hebraica concerts of Jewish classical music when I can, i.e. when I am in town. This edition was pianist Evgeny Kissin playing 20th century music and reciting Yiddish poetry. The first piece was Moyshe Milner's Farn opsheyd (Kleyne rapsodie) which I enjoyed. It had a definite Jewish feel to it, partly through the rhythms as well as the folk-tune like melody. That was followed by Ernest Bloch's Piano Sonata. Op. 40, which was the most familiar piece of the evening. Unfortunately, I remain lukewarm towards Bloch, whose music seems like generic modernism to me, with no particular Jewish flavor. The first half of the evening concluded with Kissin reciting several poems by Haim Nachman Bialik, with supertitled English translations. Kissin taught himself Yiddish, so I'm not surprised by the formal sound of his accent, which sounds too Germanic to me. (Bear in mind that I am a biased Litvak and understand little Yiddish myself, so my opinion may not matter. I think it is supposed to sound like my father and grandfather and this didn't.) At any rate, Bialik's poems were not really to my taste. My maternal grandfather was a big fan of Bialik, but of his Hebrew poetry, so I don't feel as disloyal as I otherwise might.

The second half started with Alexander Veprik's Sonata No. 2, which was pleasant enough, but not especially memorable. Then came several poems by I. L. Peretz. I particularly liked "The World is a Theater." It's obvious that Kissin is passionate about reciting these poems, but I thought the segment went on a bit too long. The evening ended with Alexander Krein's Suite dansee, op. 44, which was my favorite piece of the concert, with strong echoes of klezmer styling.

Overall, it was an interesting evening and it's good to support the ability to hear some of the more obscure works that got played, especially in the hands of as expressive a musician as Kissin.

Opera - Moby Dick: I'm not really an opera person, but I love Moby Dick, so I was curious as to how it would be transformed to the stage. There was a lot of spectacle involved, with a tilting stage and supernumaries climbing ladders and ropes and so on. What surprised me was how well Jake Heggie's music fit the action. Gene Scheer's libretto did take some liberties with the novel, but it had to in order to make sense. The performances were excellent and I want to especially call out Matthew Worth as Starbuck and Eric Greene as Queequeg. All in all, this was interesting and well worth seeing and made me more likely to go to the opera in the future.

Beaches: Back on more familiar ground, I went to see Beaches at Signature Theatre on Saturday. This is a brand new musical and is an adaptation of the novel and movie. The story involves the bond between two women, Cee Cee and Bertie, who meet as children in Atlantic City and continue their friendship through various crises, culminating in Bertie's untimely death. This could be maudlin, but there was so much humor (largely due to the brassy Cee Cee, excellently played by Alysha Umpress) that it avoided that trap. Not that it was free of tearjerker moments, but the tone was more balanced. There was also a tuneful score by David Austin (plus "The Wind Beneath My Wings" from the movie, thrown in surprisingly unobtrusively). There was even some amusing choreography in the form of a 1970's disco number. And I can't resist mentioning what great eye candy Matthew Scott provided. Damn, he looks amazing with a beard.

I have had mixed feelings over the years towards the new musicals that Signature puts on, but I want them to keep producing new musicals, and this was a good example of why.
27 February 2014 @ 08:06 pm
I've been taking advantage of live entertainment a lot recently. That includes three musicals - one in Washington and two in New York.

American Idiot: This was a touring production at the National Theatre. I knew and liked the Green Day concept album that the show is based on, but knew little beyond that going in. It turns out that there is not really much to know. The plot line is extremely thin - a year in the life of three young men trying to find themselves by leaving their home town and going off ot the city. Will turns back right away, because his girlfriend is pregnant. Tunny spends a little time doing little but sleeping, then joins the Army. Johnny gets seduced by drugs and a woman. At the end, the three friends are reunited, having learned and grown just a little.

I liked the music but I thought the plot was unengaging. And the choreography was dreadful, mostly consisting of a large number of extras jerking spasmodically and throwing themselves on the ground athletically. I don't have an objection to that sort of dance, per se, but it had no actual relationship to what was going on. I also had issues with the set, a significant portion of which was obscured from my side orchestra seat by a tall amplifier tower.

Overall, I'd have liked this a lot more if I had been thinking of it as a Green Day tribute concert. But it didn't work for me as musical theatre.

Smiling, the Boy Fell Dead: York Theatre Company has a series they call Musicals in Mufti, which consists of semi-staged readings of lesser-known musicals. Their current series is a tribute to Sheldon Harnick, one of the great lyricists of the musical theatre. I couldn't resist a quick trip to New York to see Smiling, the Boy Fell Dead, a musical parody of Horatio Alger's novels.

The show had a brief (22 performance) run off-Broadway in 1961 and has not been staged since. For this production, Harnick merged the best aspects of five versions of the book. There are still some gaping holes in the story, which involves a young man named Waldo, who needs to get his late father's machine to work in order to save a local tool company - and his family's financial future, as well as to get the girl. Opposing him is the sinister Simeon Moodis, who is evil just for the sake of being evil. As an example of the flaws in the book, at the end of the first act, the machine gets blown up, but at the beginning of the second act, Waldo again needs just one part to finish it.

But the relatively minor book flaws were overcome by a pleasant score by David Baker and some very clever Harnick lyrics. I particularly liked the songs "Environment - Heredity," "All the Best Girls in Town," and "Temperance Polks." I also want to note the fine cast. In particular, Matt Dengler struck just the right note of innocence as Waldo and Rose Hemingway was charming as Dorothea, the love interest, while Tony Roberts sneered his way amusingly as Simeon. It would be nice to see this as a fully staged production at some point.

By the way, there was a talk-back after the performance. Among other things, Sheldon Harnick mentioned interest in a possible revival of The Rothschilds.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder: If I'm already in New York for a Saturday matinee, it makes sense to get tickets to something on Saturday night. I settled on A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder because: 1) it got good reviews and 2) it is based on a movie I loved, Kind Hearts and Coronets. The plot involves a young man, Monty Navarro, who discovers his late mother was rejected by the aristocratic D'Ysquith family when she married a Spaniard. He's eighth in line for the earldom and he decides to avenge the family's poor treatment of his mother by killing his way to the position. There's also the problem of the two women he loves - Sibella, who married a rich man but still carries on an affair with him, and his cousin, Phoebe.

The gimmick is that the same actor, Jefferson Mays, plays all of the murder victims (as had Alec Guiness in the movie). Mays did an excellent job, making each of those characters distinctive. I also want to note Bryce Pinkham as Monty and Lisa O'Hare as Sibella. I was unfamiliar with the creative team of Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics), but I thought they did a fine job with a traditional musical style. The songs effectively conveyed character and advanced the action, as well as being reasonably witty. I also want to note the choreography. This was Peggy Hickey's Broadway debut and I thought that she did an effective job, especially on "Lady Hyacinth Abroad." All in all, this was a very enjoyable show and I'm glad I took the chance on it .