Whew!:I had a very busy week at work last week, accompanied by a busy week at home. The latter was largely due to taxes. Almost all of the effort of doing taxes is in finding all of the paperwork. Every year it seems that one or more pieces of paper (a 1099 interest statement or a receipt for a charitable donation, typically) goes missing, resulting in much scrambling to find it or search for a replacement source of the relevant info. And every year I swear I will do a better job of filing. At any rate, it did get done. Only to get into the other annual whirlwind known as cleaning for Passover. If it weren’t for that, I’d probably never discover that my pantry has a jar of marshmallow fluff and a can of water chestnuts, not to mention an absurd number of bottles of vinegar. (Presumably each of those was bought with a different recipe in mind.) I still have to clean the oven, vacuum, and achieve total world domination.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t also have a busy weekend.
Grand Hotel: I went to see Grand Hotel at Signature Theatre on Saturday afternoon. I saw the movie long ago and, as far as I remember it, the musical is reasonably true to it. The plot revolves around several people staying in the hotel in Berlin during one day in the late 1920’s. Elizaveta Grushinskaya is an aging ballerina, accompanied by her companion, Raffaela, who secretly yearns for her. Flammchen is a secretary who wants to be a Hollywood actress. Otto Kringelein is a dying Jewish man who is trying to experience some of what has passed him by before the end. Baron Felix von Gaigern is an impoverished nobleman – and thief. The most passionate moment in the whole thing involves the romance that develops between Grushinskaya and the Baron. The Baron is easily the most appealing character in the ensemble, raising the hopes of several of the others, while ending up doomed himself.
The performers included a number of familiar faces. Natascia Diaz was excellent as Grushinskaya and Nkrumah Gatling, as the Baron, made a fine romantic foil for her. But the most striking performance was by Bobby Smith as Otto Klingelein.
Overall, this isn’t one of my favorite musicals, largely because I think it is rather shallow. Maury Yeston seems to have gotten involved with too many of these shows that try to follow too many characters at a superficial level. (I have the same issue with Titanic, for example.) Still, I liked it well enough to find it a diverting couple of hours.
Story Swap: Saturday night was a story swap. We had a small group, but it was still enjoyable. Eve had a long pourquoi story, which I think was from Guatemala. I told my father’s version of the crossing of the Red Sea. And there was a lot of general schmoozing.
One Day University: Sunday was One Day University. I was a bit annoyed that they did not include coffee this time out – unlike all the other times I’ve attended. I wasn’t going to pay four bucks just for a caffeine fix. (Instead, I went over to the nearby CVS and got a coke zero for 2 bucks.) Still, this really seemed pretty chintzy to me.
There were three lectures this time. The first talk was by William Burke-White of the University of Pennsylvania Law School on America and the World 2019: Where Are We Now (And where are we going?. His basic message was that, since World War II, the U.S. has led the global order with four pillars: 1) sovereignty (nation state as basic actor), 2) security (territorial integrity), 3) economic liberalization (currency convertibility, financial stability), and 4) open, rules-based system. What is changing now is the rise of China, leading to a trade war, along with a rise of populist nationalism, due partly to economic disparities. Information transparency and manipulation has led to a lack of secrecy in diplomacy. He also mentioned artificial intelligence and climate change as influencers, though he was less clear about their effects. I can’t say he really said anything I found startlingly new and original, but he was a reasonably interesting speaker.
The best lecture of the day was by Jennifer Keene of Chapman University on World War I: What Really Happened and Why It Matters. She emphasized the importance of the decision for conscription, which included public draft registration on particular days. Despite the public nature of registration, there was an almost 11% rate of draft evasion, which is higher than for Vietnam. While 95% of the men in the Civil War were combatants, only 40% were combatants in World War I. The work of those support troops was not as recognized and respected, which had a disproportionate impact on African Americans, who were overwhelmingly (89%) assigned to non-combatant roles like lading ships.
As for the importance of WWI, she noted that the German threat to the U.S. was real, including both the threat to shipping and sabotage within the U.S. But a more lasting impact was the rise of interest in Civil Rights, partly in response to the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act (which made it illegal to oppose the government and led to the founding of the ACLU). She had several stories related to issues like women suffrage, rights of African-Americans, rights of immigrants, and the peace movement that grew in the 1930’s, which made the U.S. reluctant to enter WWII. Overall, she was a dynamic speaker and held my interest.
I had expected to enjoy the final talk, by Mark Mazullo of Macalester College on Mozart and Beethoven: The Lives and Legacies of History’s Most Famous Composers. But I just didn’t buy his key premise that both composers were inherently tied to the revolutions of the era (both political and industrial) and to empathy as a road to democracy and human rights. Yes, they were entrepreneurial compared to, say, Haydn, who worked for Count Esterhazy, but I’d argue that gave them more freedom to write what they wanted, while also adding greater insecurity. Mazzullo brought up the point as the reason why Beethoven wrote only 9 symphonies while Mozart wrote 41 and Haydn wrote 104. But Haydn lived to 77 and Mozart died at 35, so you could argue they were roughly equally productive. (Beethoven is a bit more complicated – he never really composed quickly and modern scholarship suggests his lifelong poor health was due to chronic lead poisoning. But he also had plenty of patronage during his earlier years.) Overall, I don’t think I really learned anything new from this talk.
Notre Dame: I went to Notre Dame with Robert (the gentleman with whom I conducted the world’s longest running brief meaningless fling) during a weekend in Paris In 2009. It took some effort (and Berthillon ice cream) for me to persuade him to wait in line to get in, but we were both suitably impressed with its grandeur. I believe that grand works of art and architecture are proof of the value of divine inspiration. However, as I read about the large donations to restore the building, I can’t help wondering how much else could be accomplished with that money – education, job creation, etc.
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