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Goals: I am on track with 4 of my 9 goals. As you will see below, I’ve read 13 books over the first quarter. I entered the Style Invitational twice. I’ve done reasonably well at bringing lunch to work and at eating fruit daily, with a few weeks of slip=ups. Everything else, alas ….

Quarterly Movies: My quarterly movie list is easy this time, as I appear to have not seen a single movie over the past three months. I might have watched a couple on my flights to and from El Salvador, but the earbuds I had with me broke.

Quarterly Books: I did, however, read a bit. I wrote about the 8 books I read in January already, so here is my list for February and March.

  1. Tom Hodgkinson, How To Be Idle. This was a surprisingly humorless volume about the virtues of things like sleeping, slacking off at work, smoking, alcohol, etc. I suppose one could add reading this dull a book to the list of time wasters.

  2. Kathryn Lilley, Dying To Be Thin. This mystery, set at a weight-loss clinic, wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either. I could have lived without the diet tips thrown in, though they did make sense in context (as the heroine is focused on losing weight). Even more so, I could have lived without the romantic subplot, which has her being pursued by two different men. And I could have really lived without her being enough of an idiot to end up in a confrontation with the murderer that results in her being poisoned.

  3. Danielle Steele, Silent Honor. At last, a book I really enjoyed. This traces the story of a young woman from Japan, whose progressive father sends her to live with relatives and go to school in California. She gets stuck in the U.S. when World War II breaks out – and ends up in an internment camp with the family. There’s a romance with a (white) American man and a lot of complications before they end up living happily ever after post-war. I felt like I knew a lot more about the indignities suffered by Japanese Americans – and the differing reactions to them – after reading this. Recommended.

  4. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, The Nest. This was a book club selection, though I ended up missing our meeting because I was sick. The story involves 4 siblings who are waiting to receive their nest egg from their father’s estate on the 40th birthday of the youngest. Then, one of them has a drunk driving incident and their mother uses the money to pay off the woman he’s injured. Unfortunately, all of them need money and try to find ways to manipulate him into paying them back. This was interesting enough, but the siblings were all unlikeable enough that I wanted them to just grow up already.

  5. Helen Van Slyke, No Love Lost. This is the story of a woman who grows up rich, marries the man of her dreams, and loses everything when her daughter dies in childbirth. There’s plenty of infidelity plus betrayal by a one-time best friend. Then there’s a most unsuitable second marriage… Despite all the trauma, most of the bad behavior of the various characters is understandable. So, while I wanted to tell them to grow up and/or go to therapy, I didn’t cringe at all of their behavior. Reasonably entertaining, but could have used some trimming.

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Celebrity Death Watch: Rosamunde Pilcher wrote a lot of romance novels and some family sagas, of which the most famous was The Shell Seekers. .Yechiel Eckstein founded the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Albert Finney was a film actor, who for some reason I tend to confuse with Alfred Drake and Ron Moody. A few of his more notable movies include Tom Jones, Erin Brockovich, and Big Fish. John Dingell was a Democratic congressman from Michigan who served 59 years in Congress. Patricia Nell Warren wrote The Front Runner, the first gay novel to make the New York Times best seller list. Tomi Ungerer was an illustrator, best known for creating Flat Stanley. Walter Jones was a Republican congressman from North Carolina, best known for inventing the term "freedom fries." Lyndon Larouche was a politician, Presidential candidate, anti-Semite, racist, possibly a Soviet agent. Hmm, reminds me of someone else.

Frank Robinson played baseball for several teams, including the Cincinnati Reds and the Baltimore Orioles. He was the only player to be named MVP for both the National League and American League. He later became the first black manager in major league history (for the Cleveland Indians) and went on to manage several other teams, including the Washington Nationals. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982.

Don’t Analyze This Dream: I was eating lunch in a conference room. On an airplane.

A Brief Rant About Reporting on Taxes: I am tired of seeing articles about people complaining about their refunds being lower. One’s refund could be lower because they are paying more taxes, but it could also be lower because their withholding was lower. Of course, one should ideally aim for not getting a refund at all, since that means you are lending money to the government at no interest. What actually matters is what one’s overall tax bill is. Many people’s will be higher because of the limits on deductions for state and local taxes, but many people’s will be lower because of reduced tax rates.

One Day University – Lectures: Saturday was One Day University. The morning had two lectures, while the afternoon had a short film festival.

The first lecture was by Andrew Porwancher of the University of Oklahoma on The Constitution: Enduring Myths and Hidden Truths. He was rather more enthusiastic about Alexander Hamilton than I’d have preferred, though he did also credit James Madison, George Washington, and Ben Franklin. But how does anybody talk about the Constitution without mentioning Gouverneur Morris, who wrote most of it? Despite that obvious flaw, Porwancher did have several interesting points. One of his key ones is that the three branches of government were not intended to be equal. The legislative branch was supposed to be the most powerful and the judiciary the weakest, with the executive branch in the middle. He went on to talk bout several amendments, starting with the specific part of the first amendment dealing with freedom of religion. His key point there was that there were interpretations of freedom of religion which did not require separation of church and state, but Jefferson’s views won out over Hamilton’s there, largely because of nativism in the form of a fear of Catholicism. He also noted that Article VI, Section 3, which forbids religious tests for serving in office is more significant in practical terms. He also made an interesting point re: the 2nd Amendment. Namely, that Madison’s original language included a conscientious objector clause, which suggests his intention was the military context, not the individual context, for the right to bear arms. Overall, he was an interesting and enthusiastic speaker, albeit more enthusiastic about Hamilton than I am.

The other lecture was by Wendy Schiller of Brown University on What’s Wrong With Congress? Can an 18th Century Structure Still Work? One of the main things she objected to was the staggering of Senate elections, so that only a third of the Senate is up for reelection each term, though I am skeptical about how much of a difference that makes. Mostly, what she claimed is wrong is: 1) polarization, which used to be only about race and trade now being about everything, and 2) the responsibility of the Senate for confirming judges and cabinet members. She talked a lot about changes in how the Senate was chosen, including the corruption that dominated the process when state legislatures chose Senators and the impact of reform intents that resulted in many states going without one or both Senators. The 17th Amendment in 1913 (direct election of Senators) fixed that. Other things she suggested (most of which I agree with) were proportional representation in the electoral college (which is already done in Montana and Nebraska) and which really has more to do with the President than with Congress, lengthening the House term to 4 years to reduce the amount of time spent electioneering versus legislating, making the House bigger (which would, in my opinion, make it harder to manage and make deals), and requiring independent commissions for redistricting. I am more skeptical about requiring gender, racial, ethnic, and economic diversity in redistricting, because I think that would be likely to dilute the influence of underrepresented groups. She also suggested term limits for the Supreme Court and removing term limits for the President, but did not discuss term limits for Congress. Personally, I think term limits for elective offices are a bad idea, though I would support other ways to reduce the perceived advantage of incumbents. Finally, she supported an increase in on-line and mail voting, which sounds great, until you look at research on voting integrity and realize that it is likely to disenfranchise large segments of the population.

One Day University – Short Film Festival: After a lunch break, during which I walked over to Poppa Box for some Korean-ish food, it was time for the Short Film Festival. For this purpose, short films were defined as being under 20 minutes. There were 10 films, with a short intermission after the sixth. There was only one movie I really disliked (Bob, which had what I thought was a cheap ending), I had seen one (The Gunfighter) before, though I can’t remember where, and thought it was funny, but could have been tighter if it were a bit shorter. My favorites were Super Powers, The Tailor, Bridget, and Tanghi Argentini. Overall, it was a fun way to spend a cold afternoon.
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2018 was fairly stressful, largely due to a work situation that appears to be resolving itself. And, of course, the state of the world didn't help.

Books: I read 40 books, which is probably the fewest since I learned how to read. Also, surprisingly, only 6 were non-fiction. This is a little misleading in that I don’t count guidebooks, which end up being most of what I read when I’m traveling. My logic for not counting them is that I rarely read them cover to cover.

Favorites were Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon, and Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde.

The book I hated the most was Murder By Sacrilege by D. R. Meredith.

I really need to do a used bookstore run. I’m not even sure how many books I have ready to go out.

Volksmarch: I did three events – in New Orleans, Atlantic City, and Charleston, West Virginia. The latter was a State Capital walk. I should get back into focusing on special programs, but first I need to resolve some issues with my right foot.

Travel: I started the year out in Singapore. My last trip of the year was to the U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Thomas and St. John) which is only semi-international, involving a dependency of the U.S., not a separate country. My major trip of the year was my family roots trip to Latvia, Lithuania, and Belarus (plus a part of a day in Zurich), which was incredible.

Domestic trips included business trips to Colorado Springs and to Layton, Utah. Personal travel was to New Orleans, Stamford (Connecticut, for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament), Atlantic City,New York (4 times, including a Brooklyn Cyclones game), Portland (Oregon), Rhode Island (mostly for a PawSox game), Memphis (Redbirds game), Milwaukee (Wisconsin for the National Puzzlers’ League con), Frederick (Maryland, for Loserfest. It counts because I did stay overnight), Richmond (Virginia – and, again, staying overnight makes it count), and Charleston (West Virginia). It seems unlikely, but it appears that I had an entire year without going to California.

Puzzles: This was pretty much a middle of the pack year. I ended up in the 62nd percentile at the ACPT, the 39th percentile at the Indie 500, and 55.7th percentile at Lollapuzzoola. Annoyingly, I didn’t solve cleanly at any of them.

I also had a good time (as always) at the NPL con. That included bringing along a hand-out puzzle, which I think went over reasonably well. I am planning for a walk-around puzzle for the 2019 con, since it’s in Boulder, Colorado, a city I have spent a lot of time in.

Ghoul Poul: I didn’t do particularly well in my second year. I finished 14th out of 20 participants, with 70 points. The people I scored with were Prince Henrik, Barbara Bush, John McCain, and George HW Bush.

Genealogy: I did the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks project, which got me writing about a few family stories, but didn’t really drive much research. I did, however, get in touch with a few unknown cousins (two from the FAINSTEIN family, one from the KHAIKEL / MEDINTS family) and made some progress on the GOLDWASSER family (my maternal grandfather’s mother’s side).

Baseball: I only made it to one Major League game this year – Red Sox at Nats on the Fourth of July. But it was a good year since: 1)I got to three minor league games (Memphis, Pawtucket, and Coney Island) and 2)my BoSox won the World Series.

Culture: If I counted correctly, I went to 16 musicals, 2 operas and 14 plays. My favorite musicals were Dave at Arena Stage and Me and My Girl at Encores in New York. My favorite plays were Heisenberg and 4380 Nights at Signature Theatre and Becoming Di. Ruth and Treyf at Theatre J. I also went to one ballet, one Cirque du Soleil shows, and 6 concerts. The most significant of the latter was seeing Jonathan Richman at the 9:30 Club. I had wanted to see him live for ages, so I was really glad to have the opportunity.

I went to One Day University 5 times. And I saw 16 movies, of which my favorites included What We Do in the Shadows, The Shape of Water. and Bathtubs Over Broadway

There was also a bunch of storytelling in there, some with me on stage and more with me in the audience.

Goals: I had six goals for 2018. So how did I score? I got about halfway through 2 afghans, so that gives me 33% on the goal to finish three. I did nothing about organizing photos, though I did find out about scanning resources at the library. I read 40 books, including 1 poetry book, so I I get 77% and 33% for that goal. I think I entered the Style Invitational twice, so will give myself 33% there. I did 3 Volksmarch events, so get 50% there. And I think I got through roughly 65% of catching up on household paperwork. I figure that gives me somewhere around a 40% on the year, which is not terrible, but not wonderful, either.

So what about goals for 2019?

  • Finish shredding and filing household paperwork.

  • Organize my genealogy files, both physical and electronic.

  • Organize my yarn stash. Ideally this would include using up at least 25% of the yarn. While I am at it, I also need to organize knitting needles and crochet hooks and the like.

  • Organize photos. Yes, really.

  • Read at least 52 books.

  • Enter the Style Invitational at least 4 times.

  • Do a 20 minute or longer workout at least 3 times a week.

  • Bring lunch to work at least twice a week.

  • Eat fruit every day.

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I am reasonably sure I won’t see any more movies in 2018, so I might as well do this wrap-up now. I saw only four movies this quarter, but they were all ones I liked.

  1. To Dust: I saw this as part of the year-round program of the Washington Jewish Film Festival. Shmuel is a Chasidic cantor in update New York, whose wife has died of cancer. He has nightmares about her continuing to suffer until her body has decayed. So he seeks out a college professor, Albert, to help him understand the process of bodies decaying. This leads to a lot of bizarre incidents, ranging from stealing a pig to Shmuel’s sons’ attempt at exorcising a dybbuk. There are excellent performances by Geza Rohrig as Shmuel and Matthew Broderick as Albert. The thing I found most striking is how much Shmuel obviously loved his wife – something one doesn’t expect in a culture that has arranged marriages. This isn’t a movie for everyone, but those who like dark humor will find it worth watching.

  2. Bathtubs Over Broadway: I learned about this documentary via a mention in the Forgotten Musicals facebook group and I knew I had to see it. As soon as I saw it was playing at a nearby movie theatre, I got myself there. And, indeed, it was right up my alley. Steve Young, a comedy writer for David Letterman, discovered the world of industrial musicals and obsessively tracked down recordings and footage and interviewed people involved. This was a huge industry, including many big names – ranging from lyricist Sheldon Harnick to performers like Florence Henderson, Chita Rivera, and Martin Short. The excerpts from the musicals are hysterically funny. I have long claimed that anybody talking about something they are passionate about is fascinating and this is a great example. If you have the opportunity to see this, please do so.

  3. Book Club: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen play four women who are part of the same book club. They’re reading 50 Shades of Grey and it triggers something in their love lives. The four love stories are quite different. Sharon (Candice Bergen) hasn’t dated in years, but tries out on-line dating. Vivian (Jane Fonda) rekindles an old romance. Diane (Diane Keaton) meets a handsome pilot who helps her get through her fear of flying, but her daughters try to parent her along the way. And Carol (Mary Steenburgen) has to deal with her husband’s lack of interest in sex since his retirement. Those struck me as relatively realistic situations. And it’s nice to see older women being treated as sexual beings. This is pretty much a predictable chick flick, with nothing horribly surprising, but it was an entertaining enough diversion on a flight.

  4. Crazy Rich Asians: I watched this on another plane. It’s somewhat standard romantic comedy fare in many ways, with a mildly exotic setting. Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu) is a likeable character, with a lovely and loving relationship with her mother. Her wealthy boyfriend, Nick (played by Henry Golding) has a more complex family situation, with expectations from being the heir to a real estate empire. I didn’t think his character was as well developed, nor did I really get what Rachel saw in him. It was, however, fun to recognize places in Singapore (a place I have deeply mixed feelings about, but that’s another subject). And Rachel’s self-awareness and the triumph it brings made the movie enjoyable. Recommended.

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I am pretty sure I won't see any movies this weekend, so I am getting a head start on quarterly things.

  1. Three Identical Strangers: I saw this as part of the year-round component of the Washington Jewish Film Festival. This is a documentary about triplets who meet accidentally at the age of 19, after having been separated at birth and placed with three very different families. There’s a fascinating – and disturbing – story about the circumstances behind that separation. There are lots of interesting issues that get raised, as well as unsolved questions at the end. Recommended.

  2. The Catcher Was a Spy: As many of you know, I am obsessed with the subject of Jewish baseball players. That explains why I went to see this in an actual movie theatre. Moe Berg was one of the most interesting of those players – not a great ball player, but a Princeton alumnus, with a wide knowledge of foreign languages. This film (based on the book of the same name) is focused on his having been sent on a mission to find out how close Heisenberg was to creating an atomic bomb. There’s plenty of action – which detracts from what Berg’s strengths as a spy were. The story is interesting, but the execution in this movie was disappointing. I also had some issues with the way Berg’s relationships (and possible homosexuality) were addressed. Aviva Kempner is working on a documentary about Berg and I expect that to be better.

  3. The Leisure Seeker: I saw this on an airplane. It’s the story of an elderly couple who go off for one final adventure in their RV. Ella has cancer and has chosen to stop treatment. John has Alzheimer’s. Their adult children are concerned, but unable to stop them from making the drive to Florida. Various things go wrong along the way, but lots of things go right. I particularly loved a scene when a group of younger people at a campsite choose to spend the evening with them watching old home movies. There’s excellent acting from Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland as the leads. I thought this was a warm and touching movie, with plenty of humor. I highly recommend it for people who are over 50 and/or those dealing with aging parents.

  4. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: This was the first of two movies I saw on my flight home from vacation. I have a confession to make. I have never seen an entire episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I do, however, appreciate how influential he was. After watching this documentary, I came away with an added appreciation of what a fundamentally good person he was and what he was trying to do. I do wish, however, that the documentary had more to say about his personal life. For example, there are hints about childhood trauma, but they were rather too vague for me. I did appreciate that the filmmakers stopped short of hagiography, e.g. by addressing how slow Mr. Rogers was to come to terms with homosexuality. I still have no particular desire to watch (old episodes of) the show, but this was a good documentary.

  5. Lady Bird: This was the other movie I watched on my way home. Being a teenager is rough enough without having a father who is out of work, a mother who works too hard to support the family, and living in Sacramento. I thought the conflicts (choosing friends, exploring sexuality, hating one’s home town, deciding where to go to college) were realistic, although the anger in the mother-daughter relationship felt more prolonged than I expected. (I spent much of my teen years in screaming matches with my parents, but they tended not to last for weeks. Or maybe I’ve just forgotten?) The acting was excellent, with Saoirse Ronan convincingly sincere in the title role. Overall, worth watching.

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  1. Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel. I saw this documentary at the Washington Jewish Film Festival. Given my obsession with Jewish baseball players, I had to. A lot of the film has to do with a trip to Israel that several of the American players (who qualified for the team under the heritage rule) took before the 2017 World Baseball Classic. And, of course, there was the thrill of revisiting the team’s sweep of Pool A. Cody Decker came across as a fun guy who exhibited the best traditional spirit of baseball. Sam Fuld is adorable. And why, oh why, didn’t Ryan Lavarnway play so well during his days at the Red Sox? Overall, this was a fun film, but I am not sure I would recommend it to people who don’t share my obsession.

  2. The Shape of Water. United has excellent movie selections on their trans-con flights, so I took advantage of the opportunity to see this Oscar winner. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the plot, it involves a mute woman who works cleaning a secret research lab where an amphibian man is being studied. She develops an interesting relationship with him, opposing the scientist who sees the amphibian man as a monster. There’s another twist, involving Russian spies. Overall, this is a mixture of romance, fantasy, and thriller. I admit I had been skeptical based on the plot description and the rather mixed reviews, but I found this movie fascinating. Recommended.

  3. The Post. The story of Katherine Graham and her decision to pursue the story of the Pentagon Papers was dramatic enough to hold my attention, even though I knew the outcome. There were some excellent performances, particularly Meryl Streep’s as Graham. But I felt that the ending (touching on Watergate) was a bit of cheap melodrama.

  4. The Greatest Showman. I love musicals and I love P.T. Barnum, so I should have liked this movie, right? Wrong. The problem is that I actually know a lot about Barnum, so I found myself annoyed at the large number of inaccuracies. In addition, the music was not especially interesting, nor did it fit the era of the story. I’m not sure why I bothered to watch this piece of tripe all the way to the end.

Always Busy

May. 9th, 2018 11:05 am
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I have political rants to inflict on people, but let me first speak of what I have been up to.

Celebrity Death Watch: Sachio Kinugasa was a Japanese baseball player who played in 2215 consecutive games. Alice Provensen illustrated (and later wrote) children’s books. Larry Harvey founded Burning Man. Judith Leiber designed handbags (and died the same day as her husband, Gerson, a painter.) Abi Ofarim was an Israeli musician and dancer, best known for "Cinderella Rockeflla" with his wife Esther. Rabbi Aaron Panken was the President of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Charles Steger was a former president of Virginia Tech. Paolo Ferrari played Archie Goodwin in the Italian television adaptation of the Nero Wolfe books. George Deukmejian was the governor of California through much of the 1980’s.

Conference Going: I spent three days last week at a work-related forum that may or may not prove useful in the future. Parts of it were like having somebody read a dictionary to me, parts had me metaphorically throwing up my hands in despair on how little progress we’ve made in too many years, and only a couple of speakers seemed to have anything concrete to say. I suspect it is just that I am old and have been through a few too many fads on how to engineer systems better. Also, I am tired of people who are speaking at space-related events starting out by admitting they don’t know anything about space systems. Or I could just have been cranky because I had to drive and, while Route 28 is almost tolerable in the morning, it is inevitably a slow-moving hellstream in the afternoon.

Canadian Embassy: On Wednesday evening, I went to an MIT Club event at the Embassy of Canada. The talk was on renewable energy (hydropower on the part of the Canadians; wind and solar on the part of the Americans) and how our grids play together. The interesting part was the relative dearth of east-west transmission lines in both countries, while there is good north-south connectivity. Admittedly, it’s not like anybody actually lives in the Dakotas or Saskatchewan … (Er, yes, I am joking. Sort of.) The reception was pretty much the wine and cheese and crackers sort (plus charcuterie and excellent dried fruit and mixed nuts). One of the embassy people was from Saskatchewan and I extracted some tourist tips from her, e.g. the existence of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police Museum. (I have been trying to find a reason to go to that province, without much success. This sounds like a plausible weekend trip.) Aside from that, I talked with fellow alumni.

Around the World Embassy Tour: I did more embassy going on Saturday, which featured the annual Around the World Embassy Open House. (There is a separate event for EU embassies, which is this coming weekend, but I have prior commitments.) We started at the Embassy of Nepal, which had some photos, a short film, and food that it was too early in the day for. The Embassy of Guinea was just steps away, so we walked through, looked at the building and some photos, and listened to some music. Then we cabbed over to the Embassy of Angola, which was high on my list, largely because Paul Theroux hated it so much that it piqued my interest in going there. They had excellent snacks – some sort of peanut brittle like thing, chocolate cake, coconut rolls, what looked and tasted like malasadas (though I don’t know the Angolan name for them). There was also good coffee and some weird but not unpleasant drink made from corn. They also had a fair amount of swag, including paperweights and brochures and an issue of National Geographic.

We took the bus down 16th Street to the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center (roughly affiliated with the Embassy of Oman) where we dressed up in Omani clothing for selfies, drank coffee heavily scented with cardamom and rosewater, and ate dates. Then we cabbed over to the Embassy of Qatar, where we had more selfies in costume, more coffee, more dates, and some fairly substantial food (they had meat pies, chicken sandwiches, and cheese pies). They had advertised falconry but were unable to get permission for it.

That was as far as we had planned, so we looked at the map and settled on going to the northwest end of Embassy Row and the Embassy of South Africa. There was a long line, with free bottles of Nando’s lemon-herb sauce at the end of it, along with biltong samples. There was also a marketplace, mostly selling jewelry. (They had a food court, with food for sale, outside.) The Embassy of Bolivia was just across the street, so we went there and got some sort of alcoholic drinks. Inside, there was an art exhibit and a look at a fancy dining room. Back outside, there were costumed dancers. I was fading quickly and decided that I was better off going home at that point, but my friend wanted to stay to the bitter end. I abandoned her in line for the Embassy of Brazil (where, coincidentally, she was standing just a couple of people in front of a woman from my book club). I walked down to Dupont Circle and metroed home for a nap.

Paperwork: Our "improved" foreign travel reporting system at work (and, yes, that applies to embassy visits, unless you go to the embassy to get a visa for a real trip) is annoying. This is no surprise. I am especially peeved that they ignored all of my comments in the pre-rollout test session we had. Peeved but not, alas, surprised.

Team Israel: On Sunday, I satisfied my obsession with Jewish baseball players by seeing the documentary Heading Home: The Story of Team Israel as part of the Washington Jewish Film Festival. It was worth the schlep to Bethesda.

Crumbs and Whiskers: A few weeks ago, a friend had been talking about her struggles with depression and I asked what I could do to help. One of my suggestions was a visit to a cat café. (I have learned over the years that it is best to offer a few suggestions, because depressed people tend to be unable to think of what might help. And what helps me may not be right for you.) So we made that excursion Monday evening. Petting cats is good therapy and they’ve adopted out hundreds of cats, who get to live better in the café than they did in cages in shelters.

I mentioned that my mother sucked at naming cats. She had one named Mamacat and had named one of the ferals who hung out on her lawn Rita. So I was challenged on what makes a good name for a cat. I believe that the name of a god or goddess (ideally Egyptian, but others will do) is a good starting point. Beyond that, one should consider the cat’s physical characteristics. I’d love to have a pair of Siamese cats named Mocha and Java, for example. But avoid trite names like Tiger. Names of authors can work well. Royalty is always good. (My brother and his ex-wife had a cat named Empress Josefina, for example.) My former boss always named his cats after serial killers. Note: no matter how much I think you have misnamed your cat, I will never tell you this, because I am not a monster.

Other good therapy is walking and the weather was lovely for a stroll back to Foggy Bottom. M Street still annoys me, with large herds of slow-moving tourists, but the weather mostly made up for it.
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I saw only a few movies this quarter, all of them in January.

  1. What We Do in the Shadows: A few years ago I had asked for recommendations for vampire movies and this was one that a friend suggested. I finally got around to watching it on New Year’s Day. It’s a mockumentary about a group of vampires who share a flat in Wellington, New Zealand. I thought this was one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen – a truly original twist on a familiar genre. It probably helps to have seen a lot of the classic vampire films to get the references. Highly recommended.

  2. Foxcatcher: I’m not entirely sure why I decided to watch this on a long flight, but it was not a great choice. I vaguely remember the murder case in which a du Pont heir killed a wrestler who had been coaching his team, but I didn’t really know much about it. After watching it, I mostly concluded that John du Pont was a pathetic wannabe, incapable of establishing relationships with other people. Maybe I’d have liked this movie better if I cared more about wrestling, but I thought it was too long and too slow-paced. On the plus side, there are good performances from Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo.

  3. In Between: This was a fascinating movie about three Arabic women living in Tel Aviv. Leila is a secular Muslim who works as a criminal defense lawyer. Salma is a Christian – and a lesbian – who works as a bartender and disc jockey. And Noor is a religious Muslim woman studying computer science. They’re caught up in the conflicts between tradition and modernity, each in their own way. What I particularly liked is the friendship between the three women, despite their very different backgrounds. The issues they confront are sometimes difficult to watch, but felt realistic (alas). I did wish that Layla didn’t smoke (and use drugs) so much, but toxic behaviors are not uncommon among people who are exploring their freedoms. Recommended.


Jan. 17th, 2018 04:16 pm
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Celebrity Death Watch: Anna Mae Hays was the 13th chief of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and the first woman in the U.S. armed forces to become a general officer. France Gall wa a French singer. Doreen Tracey was one of the original Mouseketeers. Keith Jackson was a sportscaster, particularly known for college football. Dan Gurney was a race car driver and is credited with creating the tradition of spraying champagne on the podium after the race. Dolores O’Riordan was the lead singer of The Cranberries. Edwin Hawkins was a gospel musician, best known for "Oh Happy Day." Jo Jo White played basketball, largely for the Celtics. Jessica Falkholt was an Australian soap opera actress. Her greatest significance is that she’s the first person anybody scored on in this year’s ghoul pool.

Joe Frank was a radio personality. I used to listen to his show, Work in Progress, on KCRW when I lived in Los Angeles. He was always interesting and, often, quite funny. There is apparently a documentary about him scheduled to be released this year.

Ghoul Pool – 2018: Speaking of ghoul pool (a contest to predict what famous people will die in the next year), the entry lists are now out of the beginning of the game embargo, so I can reveal mine. Note that the number indicates how many points a person is worth and you get an extra 12 points for uniqueness, i.e. being the only participant to have someone on your list.

20. I.M. Pei
19. Robert Mugabe
18. Ed Kranepool
17. Honor Blackman
16. Beverly Cleary
15. Dervla Murphy
14. John McCain
13. Johnny Clegg
12. Al Jaffe
11. Herman Wouk
10. Jimmy Carter
9. Javier Perez de Cuellar
8. John Paul Stevens
7. Tom Jones (the lyricist, not the Welsh singer)
6. Lawrence Ferlinghetti
5. Norman Lloyd
4. Jerry Herman
3. Olivia de Haviland
2. Sheldon Harnick
1. Sara Paretsky

The Pajama Game: Looking back, I realized I never wrote about the production of The Pajama Game at Arena Stage, which I saw just before leaving for my vacation. It’s a problematic show to modern sensibilities. I’m tempted to retitle it to something like "Sexual Harassment at the Sleep-Tite Factory." I also find a lot of the lyrics to be full of cheap, amateurish rhymes ("A new town is a blue town…")

But – and this is a huge redeeming factor – there is fabulous choreography. I was particularly pleased to see that Donna McKechnie, who played Mabel, still has it at age 74. (I saw her as Cassie in A Chorus Line back in the 1970’s!) The most striking dance moves, though, came from Blakely Slaybaugh as Prez (the union president).

I do prefer the modern sensibilities and deplore the sexism. But I also miss the days when people broke out into spectacular dance moves with little provocation. In fact, I often wish that people in real life would spontaneously broke into song and dance. It would certainly liven up many a design review.

Losers’ Post-Holiday Party: Getting back to the present time, Saturday night was the annual post-holiday party for the Style Invitational Losers. As usual with potlucks, I have a long debate with myself over what to bring. Someday I will use up the spring roll wrappers that I bought way too many of because I misunderstood the package labeling. But this time, I went for quick and easy in the form of stuffed mushrooms. You just take baby bella mushroom caps, arrange them on a baking pan. Fill each cap with some alouette (or similar) cheese. Dip the cheese-stuffed end in panko (Japanese bread crumbs). Bake at 375 degrees for about 15 minutes or so.

As for the party itself, it was conveniently metro-accessible. Or, conveniently if the Red Line weren’t running only half-hourly over the weekend, so I got there later than I intended. Still, I was in time to get food and, more importantly, in time for the sing-along, which is always a highlight of these things. Throw in lots of intelligent conversation, both with people I already knew and those I hadn’t met before, and it was a good time.

One Day University: On Sunday, I went to One Day University. This time out, it was at the Lansburgh Theatre and consisted of two lectures. The first was The Presidential Library given by Joseph Luzzi of Bard College. I had actually heard Luzzi lecture (on a different literature topic) previously and he’s quite a dynamic speaker. He posed a few general questions about the relationship between reading and ability to be an effective leader. He discussed several presidents in depth, focusing on what they read. George Washington, for example, used Cato as a model of manhood. He also collected etiquette books. Thomas Jefferson read pretty much everything. Lincoln was, of course, an autodidact. As a counterexample, Warren Harding’s reading was limited to things like Rules of Poker. Buchanan and Fillmore supposedly both read a lot, but neither was much of a leader. Grant didn’t get mentioned, but I find it hard to imagine him reading much of anything beyond the labels on liquor bottles. (Apparently, he got in trouble at West Point for spending his time reading James Fenimore Cooper, instead of his textbooks.)

Luzzi compiled an American Library List that included some obvious authors (Locke, Rousseau) and works (Plutarch’s Lives, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Bible). He also recommended things like Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and Ben Franklin’s autobiography. Fictional works which got mentioned included Great Expectations and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Didn’t any presidents appreciate the real Great American Novel – namely Moby Dick?

Anyway, Luzzi’s conclusion was, essentially, that good readers make good leaders. He made four points to support this: 1) reading fundamentally suggests a person knows he doesn’t know everything, 2) readers are curious, 3) reading supports collaboration, and 4) reading puts one in another’s shoes. As a self-confessed biblioholic, I tend to agree.

The second speaker was Mark Lapadusa of Yale University, speaking on How to Watch Movies Like a Film Professor. He started out by pointing out that this applies to seeing a movie repeatedly and, for first viewing, one should just enjoy it for what it is. Then he showed various film clips and talked about aspects of them. The films he discussed were Casablance, Citizen Kane, Psycho, Dr. Strangelove, and The Godfather (Both I and II). That’s a pretty wide assortment of styles and subject matter. He touched on one subject that I have a long-standing interest in, namely film music, specifically in the case of the shower scene from Psycho. If he’d had time for questions, I might have asked him more about that.

I was also a little disappointed that he didn’t talk about source material. For example, The Godfather is one of a handful of movies that is generally considered far more successful than the novel it is based on. Casablanca was based on an unsuccessful play. What makes a film adaptation successful and why do so many movies based on bestsellers fail either by being too true to the novel or not true enough?

I had a chance to discuss the lectures a bit more after. I had gotten into a conversation with a woman named Ann before the program. We ended up sitting together in the auditorium and decided to go out to lunch (at China Chilcano – tasty Peruvian / Asian fusion food) afterwards. It was nice to have the opportunity to digest some of what I’ve heard. All in all, an excellent way to spend part of a day.

Murder Was Her Hobby: I took advantage of being in the city to go to the Renwick Gallery and see their exhibit of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death by Frances Glessner Lee. This is a series of miniature rooms depicting what may or may not be murder scenes. They were built to be a teaching tool for forensic science and are incredibly detailed. Apparently, Lee even made underwear for the dead bodies. Because they are still used for teaching, the exhibit does not include solutions to the cases. There were a few where I thought I had a good idea of what had happened, but I was completely puzzled by the majority of them. So much for all the hours I’ve spent reading murder mysteries!

The craftsmanship is amazing and the exhibit included flashlights to allow for closer examination of the crime scenes. However, there wasn’t very much thought given to the flow through the room, so one was stuck standing and waiting for people to move for long stretches of time. It would have been better to set things up so people moved only in one direction through the exhibit. And it would have been much better to limit the number of people allowed in at a time. Even with these annoyances, it was worth seeing the exhibit and I’m glad I took the time to.
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I got home late last night and am slowly trying to catch up at work. I also need to find time for my year-end review, but, in the meantime, I saw 5 movies over the past three months. (And 3 more already this year, but that's another story.)

The Big Sick: This is Kumail Nanjiani’s autobiographical film about his courtship of Emily Gordon, which included her serious illness. The culture clash aspect is interesting, with amusing scenes in which his family has a series of Pakistani women just happen to be in the neighborhood while he is over for dinner. There’s a different sort of clash with her parents. I didn’t really buy the scene in which a doctor pushes Kumail to say he is Emily’s husband so he can grant permission for her to be put into a medically-induced coma. But that’s a minor nit. There was a lot of genuine, character-based humor. Recommended if you like romantic comedy.

Inside Out: This is pretty strange as animated movies go, dealing with the conflict between emotions running a young girl’s life. Riley is in despair over her family’s relocation to San Francisco and the cartoon characters representing her emotions need to keep her memories (and, hence, identity) intact. It was an interesting concept and well-executed. I particularly liked her long-forgotten imaginary friend. But I have to admit I am hard pressed to figure out who the intended audience for this was. It seems to me it would go over the heads of most children, while feeling somewhat obvious and preachy to adults.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: I saw this in an actual movie theatre. My main reason for doing so was that I am a huge fan of Martin McDonagh, who wrote and directed it. The story involves a woman, Mildred Hayes, who is trying to use the titular billboards to stimulate police activity on solving her daughter’s murder. This brings her into conflict with much of the town, with lots of twists along the way. Mildred isn’t very likeable, who makes Frances McDormand’s performance in the role particularly notable. Sam Rockwell also gives an excellent performance as a cop who is more complex than the dumb, angry racist he seems to be. This isn’t a movie I’d recommend to everyone, however. You have to tolerate a lot of violence along the way. But if you’ve liked McDonagh’s other work (e.g. In Bruges), this is worth seeing.

Calendar Girls: Yes, this is from 2003, but I don’t think I had seen it before and I think I would have remembered it. The story involves a Women’s’ Institute fundraising calendar – with the twist of a bit of semi-nudity. It’s mostly a quirky character-based story, with Helen Mirren playing the quirkiest of all the women. The best part is that it is based on a true story. It’s very sweet and well-worth watching.

Gifted: This is the story of the conflict between two relatives over what is best for a gifted child. The girl’s grandmother wants to exploit her mathematical genius, while her uncle wants her to be a normal girl. There’s a backstory involving the girl’s mother, which adds an interesting dimension to the story – and something of a solution to the real issues. It’s a bit predictable, but that’s a minor flaw in what is, essentially, a heart-warming family drama. Highly recommended.
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I have much catching up to do, but let's start with the quarterly things.

Quarterly Goals: I have been working on both household organizing and crafting projects, but am nowhere near completing anything. I have not really paid any attention to writing projects, nor have I been reading anything from my life list. (However, I have been making progress on my goal of learning a story from every country in the world.) I’ve contacted a few "lost" family members, with quite interesting results. And I am good at self-indulgence. So maybe a score of just under 50% for the first half of the year?

Movies – Second Quarter 2017:
Film festivals and airplanes affect my movie-watching pace.

  1. Moos: This is a Dutch movie I saw at the Washington Jewish Film Festival. Moos is a young woman who has been spending her time caring for her father. A childhood friend, Sam, returns from Israel and encourages her to follow her dreams, so she auditions for a performing arts school. Her failure to actually get accepted doesn’t stop her. Some of it was pretty predictable romantic comedy fare, but the characters were interesting and Jip Smit was likeable in the title role. There’s also a guest performance by Asaf Hertz. Overall, I thought this was sweet and enjoyable, if not as funny as I’d been led to expect.

  2. OMG, I’m a Robot: This is the other movie I saw at the Washington Jewish Film Festival and I have to admit I chose it largely because of the title. The story involves Danny, whose girlfriend leaves him because he is too sensitive. In attempting to commit suicide, he discovers he is actually a robot. It turns out his girlfriend didn’t actually leave, but was kidnapped and sets out to rescue her, with the help of his boss and an Orthodox Jewish robot named Robo-Joseph. There is plenty of absurdity, so watching this requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. But it is also very funny. If you can deal with a fairly high level of violence and like silly science fiction, I recommend it.

  3. Lion: Based on a true story, this involves a young boy, Saroo, who gets on a train and ends up in Calcutta. He wants to go home, but nobody can figure out where that is. He gets adopted by a family in Australia. As an adult, Saroo tells some friends his story, gets the suggestion of using Google Earth to help find where he came from. This is really an extraordinary film. I was particularly pleased with the way that Saroo interacts with his adoptive family, making it clear that he’s not rejecting them. The story is the sort of thing that could be played up as mawkish inspiration. That it isn’t is a true tribute to the art that can happen on film. I highly recommend watching this – but do have a box of tissues at your side when doing so.

  4. La La Land I like musicals, I like jazz, and I own a book of Ryan Gosling paper dolls. So I was set to enjoy this movie. Unfortunately, I found it dull, predictable, and slow-paced. Very disappointing.

  5. Arrival: I liked the concept of this movie, in which a linguist has to figure out how to communicate with aliens. But the execution annoyed me for a number of reasons. It may just be that I was tired (and, in fact, had to go back and rewatch some sections a few times), but the non-linear storytelling was sometimes hard to follow. Mostly, though, it seemed that nothing changed at the end for anybody but the main character. In which case, why bother?

  6. The Lobster: This is one of the weirdest movies I’ve seen in ages. The premise is that people have to be coupled up, so single people (including the main character, who is recently divorced) are sent to a hotel where they have to find a suitable mate or be turned into an animal. The matchmaking is based on superficial things, e.g. both partners limping or both getting nosebleeds. They also go on hunts for loners. The whole thing takes a very dark and twisted turn. While this held my attention, I can’t say it was pleasant to watch. It was provocative enough to be worth seeing, but one would have to be in the right mood.

  7. Loving: Richard and Mildred Loving were quiet people, but their arrest for interracial marriage led to a multi-year battle, culminating in a Supreme Court decision in their favor. The thing that was most powerful in this movie was how understated it was. They were just a couple who loved each other and wanted to live a quiet country life. I was particularly impressed by Ruth Negga’s performance as Mildred. The one thing missing is a bit more of the backstory of how they met and got involved in the first place. This is a well-done and important movie and was well worth seeing.
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Washington Jewish Film Festival: I made it to two movies this year. There were others I was interested in, but couldn’t make the schedule work for. The two I saw were both comedies - Moos and OMG, I’m a Robot. More about those when I do my quarterly movie wrap-up.

Laura Bush Killed a Guy: I went to see this one-woman play, produced by The Klunch, at Caos on Friday night with a friend. We had intended to have drinks and happy hour food at Hill Country BBQ, but there was a long wait for a table and the bar was too crowded, so we sought out something else. The Smith doesn’t do a happy hour and was too noisy. We ended up going to Pi Pizzeria, which was okay. As it turns out, I was wrong about what time the play started, so we could probably have managed Hill Country. So we ended up having a wait to get in to the theatre, during which two homeless guys got into a fistfight several yards from where we were waiting. Oy.

Anyway, the show was worth it. Lisa Hodsoll captured Laura Bush’s voice and manners effectively. Ian Allen’s script had three different versions of the traffic accident in which 17-year-old Laura ran a stop sign and hit another car, killing its driver. In one, it’s a deliberate plot. In the second, she’s drunk. Only the third version is a true accident. There are also multiple versions of how she met her husband. And then there is a lot of material about the Bush family in general, how she was treated by other dignitaries (Caroline Kennedy, in particular, snubbed her), and how she is pretty much the forgotten first lady. It was an interesting show and often quite funny.

Story Swap: The monthly Voices in the Glen swap was Saturday night. We even had a new attendee, who had found us via NSN. There was a good mix of stories, as usual. I told "Sawing Off Manhattan," which I had not done in a long time. I had played with the ending, unsuccessfully, so I decided that I won’t use it at the Folk Festival. If I want an American story, I can always tell a Bill Greenfield tale.

The Man Who: This play, written by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, was inspired by The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver Sacks, but only some of the vignettes are based on patients Sacks wrote about. All four actors in this production at Spooky Action Theater played multiple roles, both as patients and doctors. The stories are really those of the patients, confronting the puzzling realities of neurological disorders. There was a talkback afterwards and it was interesting that the actors said they focused on performing the physical actions because many of the words were like speaking a foreign language.

Anyway, it’s an interesting show and worth seeing if you’re in the area in the next couple of weeks.

16th Street NW: I think 16th Street NW has to be one of the most interesting streets in D.C., at least from an architectural perspective. There are lots of grand old residences (pretty much converted to apartment complexes), assorted embassies, and interesting churches. Best of all is the House of the Temple, which has something to do with the Scottish Rite Freemasons and has a couple of sphinxes in front of it. Apparently, you can tour the building and I really ought to do that one of these days.

Overheard at Dupont Circle: Two men were embracing at the corner of 18th and Q. One said to the other, "Don’t die in Missouri."

Sleep, or Lack Thereof: I hate it when I wake up around 2 a.m. and never really manage to get back to sleep. Nothing was obviously wrong, but I just couldn’t seem to turn my mind to sleep mode. I did get up for a half hour or so and look at facebook, but, mostly, I stayed in bed, trying vainly to get a decent amount of rest. Sigh.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Just a few:

  1. Hidden Figures: This was a must-see, given its subject (technical women, related to space), so I got myself to a an actual movie theatre. It was excellent and well worth that effort. Yes, not every single moment in it was absolute fact, e.g. it was only Mary Jackson who had to seek out a "colored" bathroom to use, while Katherine Johnson just ignored the signs all along. And, while John Glenn did insist on Johnson's calculations, that was actually quite a bit before the launch, not at the last minute. But those are nits. The movie rang true, with plenty of inspiring moments. Highly recommended.

  2. Hunt for the Wilderpeople: This was a rather odd movie from New Zealand, involving a child running from child protective services, who are trying to take him from his foster father after the death of his foster mother. It won me over from the beginning with an interesting soundtrack and quirky characters. I thought this was genuinely funny and was mildly embarrassed to laugh out loud on an airplane. It probably isn't everyone's cup of tea, but if you like character-based humor, give it a look-see.

  3. The Maltese Falcon: I'm sure I must have seen this before, but it had been a while and it was about the right length for the plane trip I watched it on. It's a classic of the noir genre and justly famous. But a lot of that has to do with the performances (especially Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade), since a fair amount of the plot is unconvincing.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Celebrity Death Watch: Charles J. Colgan was a long-time member of the Virginia senate and founded Colgan Air. Mario Soares served as President and Prime Minister of Portugal for a couple of decades. Nat Hentoff wrote for The Village Voice and The Wall Street Journal, primarily about jazz music and politics. Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani served a couple of terms as the President of Iran. Clare Hollingworth was the British journalist who broke the news of the outbreak of World War II.

Sister Frances Carr was one of the last three Shakers. There are now only two members of the sect at Sabbathday Lake in Maine. I have a long-standing interest in the Shakers (and other 19th century Utopian communities), who I admire for their philosophy of "hands to work, hearts to G-d." Their combination of egalitarianism, craftsmanship, and innovation is intriguing and their music is a huge influence on American folk music in general.

Om Puri was an Indian actor, who also appeared in a number of British and American movies, e.g. East is East. I am highlighting him because I had actually thought of putting him on my ghoul pool list, but didn’t because I thought he had died a couple of years ago. I should have googled him to check. Oh, well.

For the record, my list of people I predict will die in 2017 is:
20. Buzz Aldrin
19. June Foray
18. Beverly Cleary
17. Robert Mugabe
16. Gord Downie
15. Irwin Corey
14. Shannon Doherty
13. Valerie Harper
12. Tommy Chong
11. Frank Langella
10. John Cullum
9. Tommy Tune
8. Queen Elizabeth II
7. Javier Perez de Cuellar
6. Jimmy Carter
5. Dick Van Dyke
4. Sidney Poitier
3 James L. Buckley
2. Birch Bayh
1. John Paul Stevens

Titanic: I went to see Titanic at Signature Theatre on Saturday. Because of the snow, I used metro plus bus, which worked well enough, especially since I was lucky enough to not have to wait for the bus at all.

As for the show, the performances were excellent. I want to particularly note Sam Ludwig as the stoker, Frederick Barrett, who gets a couple of great songs – one comparing working on the ship to working as a coal miner and one proposing (over the wireless) to his girl back home. Tracy Lynn Olvera was also notable as a social-climbing second class passenger. I also thought Katie McManus was very good as the forthright third class Irish immigrant, Kate McGowan.

The show is grand and the second act (after the iceberg) is moving. But, there are both too many and too few subplots. It’s hard to care about characters when you’re switching between lots of them with each song. Unfortunately, I don’t see a way around that without making the show 4 hours long. I also have to admit that I didn’t really care for most of the score, which was rather more operatic than my tastes. There were exceptions, e.g. "The Proposal / The Night Was Alive" and the lively "Ladies Maid." I also want to note that Yeston apparently believed the myth that the band played "Autumn" while the ship sank (which is, I suppose, better than the "Nearer My G-d to Thee" myth), while historians now claim the actual hymn played was "Oughten."

By the way, every attendee gets a boarding card describing a passenger. I got Mr. William Cruthers Dulles, a 39 year-old first class passenger. They provide a web page to look up the fate of your alter ego. He died in the sinking.

JGSGW Meeting: I was really interested in the topic for Sunday’s meeting of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington, which had to do with how to get reluctant relatives interested in talking with you. How interested? Well, when I went out to drive to darkest Maryland for it, I found my car had a flat tire and I paid for a taxi to get there. (I got a ride home from friends.) I’m not convinced it was worth it. I did pick up a few tips, but most of the talk was stuff I already knew.

And, sigh, I still have to find time to get the tire replaced.

Hidden Figures: Finally, last night I went to see Hidden Figures, the current movie about African-American women who worked as computers for NASA, performing mathematical computations in the early days of the space program. The story is a compelling one, involving three women doing their very best to make things happen, despite all the obstacles (both racial and gender) thrown in their paths. It’s not a word I use often, but I found it inspiring and highly recommend seeing it.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
2016 was not a great year for me, though I did have a few great things happen. I had certainly underestimated the impact of changing jobs, mostly in terms of how much mental energy that absorbed. I can't count how many nights I went to bed more or less right after supper.

I did finish one life list item, namely seeing the stone monoliths of Babeldaop. I got somewhat more involved with the Style Invitational Loser community, going to a few related social events. I started doing graze, which has, in addition to providing interesting snacks, given me something to write about here. And I had a particularly interesting year with respect to storytelling and to genealogy. Here are the details, in my usual categories.

Books: I only read 88 books last year, 48 of which were fiction. Only 6 were rereads. The ones I disliked include Lenore Glenn Offord’s Clues to Burn and Parnell Hall’s The Puzzle Lady and the Sudoku Lady. The absolute worst was a Laos Travel Guide which had about 40 pages about Laos and 100+ pages about studying mixed martial arts in Thailand, plus a chapter on ketogenic diets. I described this as the literary equivalent of the movie Disco Beaver From Outer Space.

On the positive side, some of the nonfiction books I enjoyed wereCocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness and Leaving Before the Rains Come (two of Alexandra Fuller’s memoirs), Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux (about his travels in Angola), Crossworld by Marc Romano (about the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament), and Motoring With Mohammed by Eric Hansen (about Yemen). As for fiction, I enjoyed Christopher Buckley’s No Way to Treat a First Lady, To the Power of Three by Laura Lippman (who often writes teenage girls well), and three books by Tess Gerritsen - The Apprentice, Ice Cold, and, especially, The Bone Garden.

Volksmarch: Nothing, zero, nada, nil. Sigh. I’m not sure why, but I just don’t seem to have been very interested in walking other than as a means of transportation.

Travel: The biggest trip of the year was, obviously, the eclipse cruise in the South Pacific, which included the visit to Babeldaop, as well as seeing the giant stone money of Yap, and, of course, my third total solar eclipse. It also pushed me over the edge of qualifying for the Travelers’ Century Club, so I joined it, even though I still think their country list is pretty silly. My only other international trip of the year was to Martinique, mostly to take advantage of a cheap airfare.

I had business trips to Los Angeles, Florida (the Space Coast), and Colorado Springs.

Personal domestic travel included a trip to L.A. and Denver for Captain Denny Flanagan’s pre-retirement get-together, Stamford (Connecticut, that is, for the ACPT), Salt Lake City (for the NPL con), New York (for Lolapuzzoola and for my high school reunion), Pittsburgh (for Loserfest), Chicago (to see the Art Institute and go to an Elvis Costello concert), and Key West. On the way home from Salt Lake City, I achieved Million Mile status on United.

I should also note that I flew a few times on Jet Blue, which I hadn’t done before. I’m fairly impressed with their service, though I don’t think much of their frequent flyer program.

Culture: I went to several story swaps, of course, as well as several of the shows at The Grapevine and a couple of storytelling-related fringe shows. In terms of performing, I did the Washington Folk Festival. But, more importantly, I performed in three Better Said Than Done shows, including the Best in Show competition. I’m particularly happy to have the summer camp story on video. And I’m glad to be working with some family material in a way that I think works for humor without being disrespectful.

I saw 11 movies over the past year, with only one in a theatre. I think the best of them was The Imitation Game. I went to three music events. Both of those categories are things I would like to do more of this coming year. I also went to a Cirque du Soleil show and to a comedy show.

My biggest cultural activity of the year was going to the theatre. If I’ve counted right, I went to six non-musicals and 21 musicals. The worst of those was The Flick at Signature Theatre. As a friend said, "How many people walked out when you saw it?" Highlights included Matilda at the Kennedy Center, 110 in the Shade at Ford’s Theatre, The Lonesome West at Keegan Theatre, The Wild Party at Iron Crow in Baltimore, Freaky Friday at Signature Theatre, and, especially, Caroline, or Change and Monsters of the Villa Diodati at Creative Cauldron. The latter has become one of my favorite theatres in the region, with high quality performances in an intimate setting.

Genealogy: Note that I added this category this year. I made a fair amount of progress, particularly on my mother’s side of the family, with highlights including meeting a cousin and tracking down info on a couple of my grandfather’s siblings. I’m also proud of having funded the translation of the chapters my paternal grandfather contributed to the Lite Yizkor Book. And I got my DNA tested, though that hasn’t led me to any major revelations yet.

Goals: I pretty much failed miserably on my goals for last year, other than reaching million mile status on United. It isn’t even worth enumerating progress on others, all of which were, at best, one step forward and two steps back. I’m giving myself a 25% for the year.

As for the coming year, I still have hope that I can get things done. I’m tempted to write something like "oh, just grow up already," but let’s be somewhat specific and measurable.

  • Complete at least one household organizing project.

  • Complete at least one knitting or crochet project.

  • Complete at least one writing project.

  • Contact one "lost" family member every month to request genealogical information.

  • Spend at least a half hour each week reading things from the reading goals on my life list.

  • Treat myself to one indulgence (e.g. spa treatment or special meal or the like) every month.

fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
I will do the 2016 wrap-up and 2017 goal setting later this week. But, first, let's finish off a few odds and ends.

Celebrity Death Watch: To finish off 2016, Huston Smith was a religious scholar and wrote an important book on the subject of world religions. Tyrus Wong was the lead artist on the Disney film, Bambi. William Christopher was an actor, best known for playing father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H.

To start 2017, John Berger wrote Ways of Seeing, a very influential book on art and the basis of a BBC television series.

Quarterly Movies: 2016 wasn’t much of a movie-going year, I guess. I only saw two movies this past quarter. The first was Next Year in Jerusalem, an interesting low-budget film about a young Orthodox Jewish man coming to terms with his homosexuality, while his cousin, who has been living the gay life in lower Manhattan reconnects to his Jewish identity. I thought it had some good things to say about identity and family.

The other movie, seen in an actual cinema on Christmas Day, was Jackie. I have to say I did not much care for it, alas. It was focused too closely on the short period of time right after JFK’s assassination and, thus, did not really provide enough perspective on what about Jackie shaped her reactions.

Graze Box #16

This box was all repeats, so I’ll keep comments brief. It also came a full week late, for which I blame the post office at holiday times.

Kettlecorn Kern Pops: This consists of partially popped corn kernels with a sweet and salty coating. It has 130 calories. I like the texture and the taste is okay, but I prefer the more savory flavors of kern pops.

Snickerdoodle Dip: This cookie flavored dip with cinnamon pretzel sticks has 150 calories. It is delicious – one of my favorite Graze snacks.

Original Protein Flapjack: This is one of the rolled oat soft granola bars that Graze does so well. This particular variety has flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds. It has 260 calories, but with 8 grams of protein, at least it is comparable to (if not better than) store-bought granola bars. Golden syrup is the key to the flavor of these, which made a good lunch for an inconveniently-scheduled flight.

Sesame Garlic Crunch: This consists of garlic sesame sticks, oat bran sesame sticks, and multigrain soy rice crackers. It has 140 calories. The oat bran sesame sticks are particularly good. Overall, this is a tasty savory snack.

Peanut Butter & Jelly: This is a mixture of baked salted peanuts, raspberry fruit strings, and vanilla fudge squares. It has 220 calories and 7 grams of protein. The fudge doesn’t really contribute much of anything as far as I’m concerned. The best part is the raspberry fruit strings. It’s a tasty combination, at any rate.

Cinnamon Pretzel: Poppyseed pretzels plus cinnamon and honey glazed almonds make a tasty sweet mix. At 140 calories this doesn't feel too damaging a treat. Though, really, I admit that the pretzels are superfluous.

Chocolate Cherry Protein Granola Topper: This has cocoa granola, chopped hazelnuts, freeze-dried cherry pieces, and soy protein crisps. And 150 calories. Overall, it’s a nice crispy addition to plain yogurt, with a strong cocoa flavor. The cherry flavor is pretty subtle, which makes it blend in well. Very good.

Malaysian Laksa: This is a somewhat spicy coconut broth, with a side snack of chili and lime cashes and coconut flakes. It has 140 calories.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Celebrity Death Watch: The only death that crossed my radar this time out was that of Shimon Peres. He served a couple of terms as Prime Minister of Israel, as well as holding several other prominent political jobs there, notably Foreign Minister. I’d say his most significant accomplishment was the peace treaty with Jordan. But he also deserves a lot of credit for Israel being as much of a technologically advanced nation as it is. He also wrote poetry, but I am loathe to list that as an accomplishment for any politician after having heard praise for Stalin’s poetry at his house museum in Georgia.

Baseball: The Red Sox clinched the American League East. Yay! I am also reasonably pleased that the Nationals won the National League East. As for the wild card slots, I’d kind of like to see Detroit pull things out and beat out Toronto, just because the Tigers have some appealing history.

Quarterly Movies: Well, make that "movie," singular. The only movie I saw over the past few months was Seven Psychopaths. I chose it because it was written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Like pretty much all of McDonagh’s work, it is weird and violent, but funny. At any rate, it held my attention.

The Quarterly Goal Update: I didn’t make much of an attempt over the past few months, largely because I’ve been so swamped at work. My email inbox at work is ridiculous – back up over 6000 items. The only other thing I’ve made any actual progress on is dealing with papers, having handled about 2/3 of what had migrated to the bedroom floor.

Speaking of Paperwork: I went to pay my county property tax bill for my car on-line. And I discovered that they had changed my address to some address in a town I’d never heard of that isn’t even in the same county. I called and got it changed back, but the point is that they should notify people when there is an address change so they can verify that they did it. (Apparently, someone did it by phone and the clerk typed in the wrong property number.) The whole thing was bizarre and the security implications are scary.

New Years Rosh Hashanah is Monday and Tuesday, so let me pass along my wishes for a happy, healthy 5777. I will also pass along wishes for a happy fiscal year 2017 for all of my friends who have some sort of U.S. government affiliations.

Two, two, two new years in one.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Yes, I’m behind. Life gets like that.

Celebrity Death Watch: Stuart Anderson founded the Black Angus Steakhouse chain. Richard Seltzer wrote a number of books abut of popular medicine / medical philosophy. Lois Duncan wrote suspense novels for young adults. Goro Hasegawa patented the game Othello. Ralph Stanley was a bluegrass star. Rabbi Chaim Avrohom Horowitz was the Bostoner Rebbe of New York (and, later, Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel) and wrote a lot of influential Jewish music. Barbara Goldsmith wrote several non-fiction books, including a well-received 2005 biography of Marie Cure. Alvin Toffler was a futurist and author, best known for Future Shock. Mack Rice wrote such songs as "Mustang Sally." Finally (and most relevantly to my career), Simon Ramo was the "R" in TRW, and is pretty much considered the founder of systems engineering.

The Breakfast Club: Apparently, I saw exactly one movie over the past quarter. I think I kept falling asleep on airplanes instead of watching movies. Anyway, I had somehow never seen this teenage classic before. It may be 31 years old, but I think it stands up reasonably well. Maybe I think that because my teenage years are a long time ago. It has obvious flaws – clichéd roles and an unlikely ending – but it is watchable despite those. I do, however, wish there were better female role models.

Story Swap: I had two things on my calendar a week ago Saturday night, and decided I could only do one of them. As tempting as coral crocheting at a local yarn store was, I do love story swaps. And the person who was hosting it has a particularly amiable cat. (That reminds me of The Minister’s Cat, a parlor game that way too few people seem to know. The minister’s cat is an amiable cat who adores avocadoes. The minister’s cat is a belligerent cat who batters bandicoots. And so on.) Anyway, it was a good time, with some fun stories, particularly a quest story that Eve told. I told the story I had done for the Better Said Than Done competition.

Friends in Harmony: A friend had given me a ticket to a concert that a chorus she sings in was part of. Seeing that it was very close to home, why not? The event was called Friends in Harmony and featured four choral groups - Mosaic Harmony, Olam Tikvah Chorale, Ketzal Chorus, and the Sakura Choir. The idea was to celebrate the diversity of Fairfax County, so there was an invocation by the imam of a local mosque, followed by the singing, which included gospel, Jewish liturgical, Mexican, and Japanese music. They even provided a CD to take home. All in all, it was well organized and I enjoyed most of the music.

Business Trip: Then I went off to Colorado Springs on a business trip, which meant lots of work and not enough sleep. It was reasonably productive, particularly in terms of meeting some folks in person who I had only talked to on the phone in the past. And, on the way home, I reached my million miles on United!

La Cage Aux Folles: When I got home Friday, I had time for a brief nap before driving over to Signature Theatre to see the final show of the subscription year. I had seen La Cage Aux Folles during its original Broadway run many years ago. Signature’s version is, of course, scaled down, but is still a large show for them. It was very enjoyable, with an excellent performance by Bobby Smith as Albin. I continue to believe that "I Am What I Am" is one of the strongest first act closing numbers in musical theatre. There’s Jerry Herman’s catchy music, a reasonably witty book, and fun choreography, so it made for an enjoyable evening. Given the competing drag queen stories playing local theatres now, I’d say this is well worth prioritizing above Kinky Boots if you are going to see just one of them.

Conference Going: I spent much of the weekend in a state of suspended animation, recovering from my trip, though I did get a few errands done. Then the beginning of this week involved a work-related conference that was decently informative. I am reminded again and again that space is a small world, as there were several people there who I know from various of my past lives in the business (i.e. other jobs within my company, supporting different customers). I hate to say this, but I really hope I haven’t aged as badly as some of them have.

And now I am caught up, for, oh, about 3 hours. Especially as I have theatre tickets tonight.
fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
Time for the quarterly movie wrap-up. I actually saw fewer movies than I expected, since I ended up sleeping on some longer flights. But, then, there were a lot of flights.

  1. Papirosen: An Argentinian movie about a family whose matriarch is a Shoah survivor. Unfortunately, aside from general dysfunctionality, not much happens and I found this tedious and dull. Which is probably what I get for choosing to watch a movie only because I like the song it's named after.

  2. Trumbo: There was a substitute teacher back at Lincoln Orens Junior High who regularly read to us from Dalton Trumbo's novel, Johnny Got His Gun.. But he was more prominent as a screenwriter and this movie had to do with his choice to go to jail rather than name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. It's a good story about the impacts of taking a moral stand and the consequences of sticking to one's guns despite an unpopular position. Recommended.

  3. The Walk: This film deals with Philippe Petite's walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Which is interesting enough, but the documentary Man on Wire told the same story more effectively. Not that this was bad, but it was unnecessary.

  4. Pitch Perfect 2: Sequels are almost always unnecessary and this one is pretty contrived. But fans of a capella music won't care, since the point is listening to the music, not the fairly silly plot. If you need a couple of hours of airplane distraction, you could do worse.

  5. The Imitation Game: This biopic told the story of Alan Turing and his work to decipher the Enigma Machine. It is, apparently, not particularly accurate regarding his personality and relationships, so treat it with a grain of salt. Still, I thought it was interesting and worth seeing.

  6. The Wolfpack: This documentary involves a family in New York in which the children are completely sheltered from the outside world and learn about it almost entirely through movies. Things change when one of them decides to start exploring the outside world. This sounds interesting, but the problem is that it isn't clear how much the filmmaker influenced the boys' explorations. (There is one girl, but she seems peripheral to the film.) Disappointing.

  7. The Big Short: Economics - and, specifically, the question of how derivatives influenced the markets - seems an unlikely subject for a movie. By concentrating on some of the people involved in the markets, the film did work and had several amusing moments. But I thought it was also a bit too long and a bit too slow paced. It is, however, possible that I was just too tired to focus completely on it. At any rate, it did make me want to read the book, which is about the best you can hope for with a movie based on a book.

fauxklore: (storyteller doll)
It’s not quite the end of the quarter, but I don’t expect to see any movies today or tomorrow, so I figured I could do this now.

  1. I Kissed a Vampire: I’d asked on facebook for recommendations of vampire movies for October. But none of the good ones are free with Amazon prime and this one was. It’s a teen vampire musical. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? And, in fact, it is a pretty bad movie. But, other than the teen part, it’s actually right my speed. The music is unmemorable at best, but I can never resist people breaking into song for no good reason. The story involves a boy who got a mild vampire bite and is concerned that, as he turns, he may also turn his girlfriend. She’s actually not all that unwilling, especially when she catches the eye of the rock star vampire who leads the whole gang. There is also a mad scientist who may have a cure. This just shrieks of midnight movies in college. I can’t say I’d recommend it, but it was more or less the sort of thing I was looking for to keep me distracted during a flight.

  2. The Vampire and the Ballerina: Also free on Amazon prime, this is a surprisingly stylish Italian movie, in which a couple of ballerinas at a country house stumble upon a castle, its owner, and her servant. The dancing is a peculiar mix of styles and the special effects are almost comical (let’s just say a mask is just a mask). But the story more or less makes sense and I thought this was, overall, a lot better than I had any right to expect.

  3. A Mighty Wind: Copa actually has a decent movie selection on their flights and this was my choice from IAD to PTY. It’s a Christopher Guest mockumentary, centered on folk music. The idea is that three groups are reuniting for a concert in honor of their late producer. This is mostly character driven humor, but it also helps that the songs feel pretty authentic for the 60’s folk revival they’re intended to portray. If you like Guest’s other mockumentaries (e.g. This is Spinal Tap or Best in Show) and can at least tolerate folk music, you should enjoy this.

  4. Mud: One of two movies I watched on the Copa flight from PTY to MVD, I had seen at least part of it before, but I think I had drifted off and missed a lot that previous time. The plot involves two boys who stumble upon a fugitive hiding on an island and help him repair a boat to make his escape. There’s a lot of coming of age stuff mixed in there. It was also effective in manipulating which characters one felt sympathetic towards. Overall, it held my attention and I thought it worth watching, but it could have been tighter.

  5. Frozen: There was still time on the flight to MVD and I needed something light to watch, so this animated musical filled the bill nicely. I don’t have any sisters (just a brother, who I don’t always get along with), so I can’t completely relate, but I did think it was sweet. As far as I can tell, Elsa is more popular with little girls who see it, which is exactly what is wrong with little girls, since Anna is a much better role model. Overall, this was a deeply flawed but cute enough movie and one could do worse.

  6. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: Okay, so it isn’t like this sequel (which I watched on the way home from South America) was actually necessary. But the characters remained interesting, the conflicts felt realistic, and it’s rare enough to see a movie that treats elderly people with respect that one should encourage those efforts. Plus there is Bollywood music and dancing. Mildly recommended, but the first movie was definitely better.

  7. The Skeleton Twins: The plot involves a twin brother and sister reconnecting after his failed suicide attempt. This was billed as a comedy, but the only remotely funny scenes are one uncomfortable encounter with their flaky new-age mother and one involving a bunch of fart jokes after they take nitrous oxide together. Basically, they are both screwed up people and neither of them is doing anything to heal other than looking for other people to blame. An unpleasant film about unlikeable people, which is a pity because it starts people (Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader) who are competent actors.

  8. Spotlight: I chose this for my Christmas movie excursion (yes, an actual movie theatre) because I’ve been a huge fan of Tom McCarthy, who wrote and directed it, ever since seeing The Visitor some years ago. And it was an excellent choice. The story involves the Boston Globe’s reporting on the Catholic Church pedophile priest scandal. The emphasis is on the Globe staffers and their triumphs and frustrations as they discover the depth of the scandal and how many people it has affected. There is a particularly powerful moment involving the realization of the paper’s own complicity in lackadaisical treatment of accusations. All in all, a superb movie, treating a sensitive subject seriously and professionally. Highly recommended.

  9. The Station Agent: Since Tom McCarthy was on my mind, I downloaded (from Amazon Prime) the first film he wrote and directed. And it is also a winner – the sort of quirky slice of life movie I like. There isn’t a lot that happens, but a friendship develops between a train enthusiast with dwarfism, a woman who has lost a young child, and a garrulous but lonely Cuban hot dog vendor. The three don’t seem to have much in common, but it all works because they somehow manage to accept one another just as they are and grow as a result of the relationships. Recommended.


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