Saturday, October 29, 2016

Saturated Nature - A Photo Gallery

This morning I went for a walk with my mom within the Stephen R. Keay Nature Center in Wilmette. It's a small preserve but pretty, and a few laps around made for a nice stroll.

Being a bit overcast, with trees in various stages of colorization and leaflessness, it didn't make for optimum fall photography, so I decided to cheat.

All of the photos here have been touched up a good bit, mostly by adding considerable saturation.

Still hopefully a nice gallery, if not entirely natural.

All photos copyright 2016 by Seth Arkin. Please do not repost without permission and attribution.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Films of 1999, or at least the ones I saw (a.k.a. stuck on a bus for 8 hours)

I'm presently stopped in Toledo, waiting for the Greyhound I took out of Cleveland--after seeing my beloved Cubs play in two World Series games against the Indians--to resume its approx. 8-hour trek to Chicago.

Thinking about the Chicago Film Discussion Group's next Lunch Meetup this Sunday--normally I'd include a hyperlink but can't on the Blogger app--on the topic of The Films of 1999, I decided to make a list of those I've seen (as best I can recall; I used the Wikipedia page on "1999 in Film" as my point of reference).

Anyway, this certainly won't make for the most scintillating blog post, and I can't add any graphics from the road, but some planning to attend Sunday's Meetup may enjoy perusing my list.

All the Movies From 1999 That I've Seen

10 Things I Hate About You
American Beauty 
American Pie
Analyze This
Any Given Sunday
Anywhere But Here
At First Sight
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
The Bachelor
Being John Malkovich
Big Daddy
The Blair Witch Project
The Bone Collector
Boys Don't Cry
Bringing Out the Dead
Brokedown Palace
The Cider House Rules
Detroit Rock City
Double Jeopardy 
Drop Dead Gorgeous
Eye of the Beholder
Eyes Wide Shut
Fight Club
For the Love of the Game
The General's Daughter
Girl, Interrupted 
The Green Mile
Holy Smoke
The Hurricane
The Insider
(not Magnolia)
Man on the Moon
The Matrix
The Mummy
The Muse
Notting Hill
Office Space
Pushing Tin
Runaway Bride
She's All That
The Sixth Sense
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
Summer of Sam
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Tea With Mussolini (I think)
The Thomas Crown Affair
Three Kings
Toy Story 2
Two Girls and a Guy
The World is Not Enough

My Favorite 11

1. Fight Club
2. The Matrix
3. Being John Malkovich 
4. The Insider
5. Toy Story 2
6. The Sixth Sense
7. American Beauty
8. The Hurricane
9. Notting Hill
10. Boys Don't Cry
11. The Green Mile

Plus a few more 
The General's Daugher
Girl, Interrupted 
10 Things I Hate About You
Man on the Moon
Eyes Wide Shut
Analyze This

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Historic Vote, A Historic Note

Today, at approximate 1:00pm, thanks to early voting in suburban Cook County, at the Centennial Park ice rink in Wilmette, IL, I voted for Hillary Clinton to be the next president of the United States of America.

(I asked the election officials if I could take a photo of my ballot, and though they didn't know, other waiting voters informed me (now verified as correctly) that it isn't allowed in Illinois; thus I can't share an image of the actual check mark.)

Though significant reservations about Mrs. Clinton's political beliefs, aims and loyalties precluded any sense of ebullience in casting my ballot, given the wretchedness of her opponent it was an obvious choice, and if for no other reason than it was the first time I've ever voted for a woman to lead the U.S., it felt historic.

This isn't to brazenly dismiss the respected opinions of close friends who dislike Hillary--and the oligarchical establishment within which she seems to exist--to the point of voting for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, or abstaining altogether, but given the two names on the ballot with any legitimate chance of assuming the most important role in the free world, I made the only choice I could live with.

Much more enthusiastically, I've also made the choice to travel to Cleveland, Ohio, for games 1 and 2 of the World Series, where the Indians--I think it's time to change the team name, and definitely get rid of the insulting Chief Wahoo logo--will play my beloved Chicago Cubs.

This is, as everyone knows, the Cubs' first World Series appearance since 1945--before baseball's color barrier was broken--and the cheapest seat at Wrigley Field for games 3, 4 & 5 on StubHub is about $3,500, and even more in most cases.

This is far more than I can justify, and though tickets in Cleveland aren't inestimable, I bought single seats to two games for far less than one in Chicago would cost. (And maddeningly, despite repeated attempts to register for the Cubs' lottery for the chance to purchase postseason tickets, for the second straight year I haven't even received the "sorry, you weren't chosen" emails friends and family have received. But if you have a Wrigley ticket for a much more reasonable cost, let's talk.)

Anyway, I've made a choice I'm quite excited about, and barring any catastrophes, will board a Greyhound bus Tuesday morning, arrive in Cleveland--sans any luggage, as I won't have time to comfortably go to my suburban motel first--in time for Tuesday game, then stay overnight for Wednesday's game before catching a bus back Thursday morning.

I cannot wait.

Go Cubs Go!!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Amen: The Cubs Restore My Faith, Whatever Happens Now (or So I'd Like to Believe)

What a difference a day makes.

If you're a fellow Chicago Cubs fan, you obviously well understand the importance, in a baseball context, of the Cubs' 10-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers Wednesday night to even up the National League Championship Series at 2 games apiece.

Going down 3 games to 1 in a Best of 7 series is never promising, especially with Game 5 to be played tonight in Los Angeles.

But I'm probably not the only one who considers last night's sizable victory even more important from a psychological standpoint.

For while I obviously want the Cubs to win, the pennant for the first time since 1945 and a World Series for the first time since 1908--and believe this year's team is entirely talented enough to do so--if they don't I will be alright with it.

I will still cherish the 103 regular season games they won this year, as clearly the best team in baseball from wire-to-wire. I will still be a Cubs fan and root for them the rest of my life. I will wait, as I always have, 'til next year.

But unless they should happen to lose in extraordinarily confounding fashion--and believe me, I know that's a possibility--thanks to last night's win, which saw the team and especially stars like Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell truly hit for the first time in the postseason, I won't be left to wonder why the Cubs didn't show up or how they managed to blow up.

Methinks this is a first.

And while jubilation is the ultimate goal, a sense of pride is the next best thing and feels pretty darn

Forget all the seasons of absolute suckage and misery. Forget about goats and Gatorade soaked gloves and the guy in the stands who doesn't deserve to have his name forever cursed.

What really has had me vexed as a lifelong Cubs fan is the number of times they ended a promising season especially meekly or utterly disastrously.

1969 (the year after I was born so I don't remember it much). 1984. 1989. 1998. 2003. (read this) 2004. 2007. 2008. 2015.

Cubs fans know all too well to what I'm referring so I don't need to spell out every instance, but the litany of low includes choking to miss the playoffs, blowing 2-0 and 3-1 series leads, getting repeatedly swept in the NLDS and, even in an otherwise expectation-exceeding 2015, getting swepts by the Mets in the NLCS after beating the Cardinals in the division series and being established as betting favorites to win it all. (This was a piece I wrote upon last season's conclusion.)

Not all cases were the same; sometimes the Cubs were clearly overmatched. There were series in which they played rather well but still got beat soundly. But all too often, even when the team was really good--and 2016 marks their 5th postseason appearance this century; only 4 other teams who've made that many playoffs since 2000 have failed to reach a World Series--the Cubs have frustratingly gone down without much of a fight.

Or, as in 1984 and 2003, they managed to steal defeat from the jaws of victory in the most excruciating fashion.

At NLCS Game 2; I also attended Game 2 of the NLDS
But although this year's Cubs beat the Giants in the NLCS--thanks to a Game 4 miracle that staved off a gut-wrenching Game 5 after a 2-game lead was at risk of completely evaporating--and won Game 1 of the NLCS, then lost understandably to the best pitcher in baseball (Clayton Kershaw), it was a feeble 6-0 Game 3 loss in L.A. to soft throwing journeyman ex-Cub Rich Hill, in which most of the Cubs' powerful lineup continued their dreadful slump, that had me fearing not just another disappointing end to the season, but an anemic embarrassment that would seem statistically incomprehensible.

Yet again.

But thanks to Russell and Rizzo and even Jason Heyward, who all managed to crack 20-year-old Dodger pitcher Julio Urias after blowing some early chances, that didn't happen.

And all is well with the world.

At least for now.

So no matter what happens tonight or in the days ahead, it at least feels great--especially when compared to the ever present past for Chicago's north side baseball team--to know joy in Cubville.

Go Cubs Go!
Some may enjoy this Spotify playlist I made for my drive to work this morning.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

How Does It Note Bob Dylan Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature? The Answer My Friend....

Last Thursday, October 13, amid the endless churn of Facebook News Feed items about Donald Trump, and within a year where breaking news about famous musicians has all too frequently revealed their passings, came an unexpected but welcome tidbit:

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Although Dylan, now 75 and born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, wrote a well-received memoir--Chronicles, Volume 1--he is, of course, principally a singer and songwriter.

And in announcing the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy proclaimed his selection was "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."

Without thinking about it too deeply, at first blush this news sounded like reason to celebrate (without actually celebrating).

Although Dylan undoubtedly has millions of more fervent fans, who know his catalog much more deeply and who possibly followed him first-hand as he became a cultural icon in the 1960s, I hold him in extremely high esteem and consider myself a considerable fan.

You can easily find much more in-depth and astute appreciations of Bob Dylan--in awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, President Obama aptly said, ""There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music."--than I will attempt here, but of all the ways to explain his genius and his impact on music, culture, society and more, my favorite is a paraphrasing of something I once heard said about his 1965 song, "Like A Rolling Stone."

Although Dylan had already created indelible masterpieces in a folk musical vein--including "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War," "The Times They Are a-Changing," etc., etc.--with rather strident social commentary, "Like a Rolling Stone" was a 6+ minute single (among the longest ever at that time) with sophisticated lyrics, electric guitars and an organ solo.

Its release came just days before the infamous "Dylan Goes Electric" set at the Newport Folk Festival, and represented Dylan's first foray into rock 'n roll.

I don't know where credit is due for pointing this out to me, but before "Like a Rolling Stone" rock music--even by the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Kinks and other legendary visionaries--was almost exclusively the dominion of short songs, mostly about love, cars, surfing and nothing too serious.

It was only after "Like a Rolling Stone"--with the caveat that the Byrds had released their hit, rock-tinged cover of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" earlier in 1965--that rock songs became longer, more commentative and/or political, with John Lennon's "Nowhere Man" first taking the Beatles in this direction and others soon to follow.

So although the latter-day state of his singing voice--think Cookie Monster, and it was never dulcet to begin with--has left me a bit disappointed in his concerts this century (the most recent I saw, in Nov. 2014, actually wasn't too bad), my regard for his talent, genius, impact and influence couldn't be much greater.

And while I would take it as a given that every year the Nobel Prize in Literature--which seems only to be awarded to living writers and usually honoring a lifetime of work (rather than a specific one)--is chosen by the Swedish Academy numerous deserving choices are passed over, my knee jerk reaction to the news about Dylan was along the lines of "That's damn cool." (It came the same day I was already celebrating the 75th birthday of another legendary American rock songwriter, Paul Simon, prompting me to draft this list of the greatest living practitioners.)

Obviously, with the internet constantly flooded with zillions of freely-offered opinions, and often complaints, on any topic, it wasn't hard to imagine dissension over Dylan's Nobel selection, but I hadn't noticed any until I saw a Tweet by Hamilton-creator Lin-Manuel Miranda--himself a brilliant (song)writer--jabbing at novelists who were presumably condemning the choice.

I subsequently saw articles such as this one, which noted positive reactions by musicians and authors, but also some derision, notably by the latter. The most vicious slam I noted came from Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting).

Then over the weekend, my friend Ken--a literature buff but also a believer in the cultural importance of groundbreaking rock 'n roll such as Dylan's--asked if I was going to write a Seth Saith post about the Nobel Prize, seeming to suggest that he found the selection askew. Despite stipulating to Dylan's inarguable genius and import, he didn't feel Bob merited a "literature" award.

I disagreed, but not particularly vociferously, and with various other matters at hand--the wedding of Ken's son, my birthday, the Chicago Cubs in the playoffs, the last week of my current work assignment--I wasn't planning to pontificate about the matter in writing.

But with time to do so, and no theater or concert reviews to pen, it would appear that I have decided to.

Even though I really don't care that much about it. Nor seemingly does Dylan, who at last report hadn't returned any calls or emails from the Nobel committee in the wake of his win.

Although through this blog I've published a couple million words over the past several years and consider myself a writer, I don't consider myself an author. I've never written a book nor can identify with writers on that level, so don't really have a dog in this fight. I certainly can't argue this from the standpoint of those who have seen their--or their brethren's--chances to win a Nobel Prize diminished or corrupted.

But giving it a bit more thought, here's what I'm thinking:

• Given that Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, which in 1901 began being awarded annually to an author from any country who has, in the words of the will of Alfred Nobel, produced "in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction" [Wikipedia], I imagine the word "Literature" may be much of the issue in Ken's mind and others'. Typically when I think of literature, I think of Dickens and Hugo, Steinbeck and Hemingway.

In other words, novelists.

But defines literature as: writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.

And indeed, a look at past recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature shows that along with novels, laureates have included a good smattering of poets, essayists, historians, essayists, playwrights and short story writers.

I don't believe it particularly brazen, controversial or even original to describe Dylan's song lyrics as brilliantly poetic--heck, the Swedish Academy's proclamation that he "created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition" seems rather inarguable--and if poets such as William Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda and Seamus Heaney have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, why not Bob Dylan?

• And if Bob Dylan, why not Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Brian Wilson, Neil Young, Lin-Manuel Miranda and myriad other songwriters?

Yet while I feel all of these--though LMM sometime down the road--would be worthy choices, I also understand the perspective of traditionalists loathe to see the Nobel Prize in Literature venture away from primarily honoring those who write words sans music. (Though it does seem strange that journalists and non-fiction authors have been excluded.)

Theoretically it would seem there should be a Nobel Prize in Arts that could more widely--but also narrowly--honor songwriters, musicians, screenwriters, directors, actors, etc., but the fact is that there isn't. So this is a prize that honors writers, of many ilks, and anyone who doesn't consider Bob Dylan a great and important one is both a Luddite and a lummox.

• Not only do I feel Bob Dylan warrants the current honor, but speaking only for myself while imagining others may have done likewise, his winning the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature prompted me to look up past winners. I'm sure it bespeaks my ignorance, but of the past 10 recipients--Svetlana Alexievich, Patrick Modiano, Alice Munro, Mo Yan, Tomas Tranströmer, Mario Vargas Llosa, Herta Müller, J. M. G. Le Clézio, Doris Lessing, Orhan Pamuk--only Munro and Lessing are names I knew, and I haven't read any of their works.

I realize it can be a thin line between wanting to remain culturally relevant in the social media age and seeming to pander in the name of publicity, but I can't condemn the Nobel organization for bestowing a rock star--albeit an aging one likely not on the lips of today's teenagers--with its Literature prize.

In going in a non-traditional direction, which I think it fine to do occasionally if not regularly, Nobel probably shined a greater spotlight on its traditional honorees than another deserving-but-perhaps-esoteric choice would have engendered.

And if Bob Dylan doesn't show up at the Nobel Prize ceremony to accept his honor--or even if he does--good for him.

Either way, the author of lines such as:

She was married when we first met Soon to be divorced 
I helped her out of a jam I guess 
But I used a little too much force
(from "Tangled Up in Blue")

...and myriad other brilliant observations, insights, rhymes, etc., seems, to me, perfectly deserving of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

And if you disagree, so be it.

But while I could keep prattling on, as usual Bob says it best, albeit from a song he wrote 52 years ago:

Come writers and critics 
Who prophesize with your pen 
And keep your eyes wide 
The chance won't come again 
And don't speak too soon 
For the wheel's still in spin 
And there's no telling who that it's naming 
For the loser now will be later to win 
'Cause the times they are a-changing

Saturday, October 15, 2016

I, Me, Mine: On Turning 48, The Seth Saith Interview...With Myself

Hi Seth, thanks for doing this
Hi Seth, you're welcome. Thanks for asking.

This probably seems a bit strange, but it felt like a fun way to do a self-reflection post for the 48th birthday.
Sure, and probably quite self-absorbed, too, but although I haven't conducted too many blog interviews lately, I've always enjoyed what can be learned and revealed in the process. Plus, I like to self-reflect--probably as some kind of ego salve. So ask away.

So how does it feel to turn 48?
Well, my pat answer is: better than the alternative. And while 48 does sound a bit old, especially with the reality that I've already lived far more years than I'll continue to, probably by a wide margin, that doesn't really daunt me and I'm pretty happy in my day-to-day existence. That's all that you can really ask.

Why are you so happy? 
I wouldn't necessarily say "so happy," as there are many joys in life I can't celebrate, such as that a wife and kids can undoubtedly bring, and I've never had much in the way of romance, companionship, dating, etc. Career wise, I've long been mired in unemployment or intermittency, and although I've had a good (if not all that creatively-fulfilling) job for the past 6 months, it was only temporary and is slated to end this Friday.

But I have great relationships with a few close relatives and friends, find terrific nourishment in culture, entertainment, sports fandom and other outlets--such as this blog--and while there certainly are moments of doubt, despair and darkness, I guess on most days, and in most hours of most days, I find reasons to enjoy life, actively.

What are some of those reasons?
As much as possible, I do things that I enjoy--going to concerts and theater and museums, watching sports and movies and TV, reading a bit, appreciating art, learning, even if no longer in an academic way, traveling, trying a variety of restaurants, etc.--and that give me, perhaps, a grounding, nourishment and emotional sustenance.

It may sound trite, but I really believe art is our salvation, and being able to embrace Springsteen or Sondheim or Picasso, etc., etc., etc., as deeply as I do is probably what keeps me happy, and perhaps even sane and alive.

Without it seems, other overt forms of self-medication? 
Well, I obviously eat too much, and I'm sure there's some sort of psychological bandage at play there, so in no way do I purport that I'm doing things better than anyone else. Probably worse. But I likely consume fewer than 10 alcoholic drinks in a given year and never touch recreational drugs. And without meaning to convey any negativity about these things, the strength and support many seem to find through religion, psychiatry, etc., so far for me have been sufficiently supplied by rock 'n roll, theater, art, etc. And of course, the love and support of family and friends. My outlook would certainly not be as psychologically or philosophically bright without some key people in my life, most especially my mom.

What would be your advice in regards to maintaining a healthy outlook? 
Try your best to avoid comparison, envy, judgment and anger. There will always be people doing better than you, and others struggling far worse. And always believe that you're special, just not any more so than anyone else.

How are you feeling physically at 48?
Day-to-day, very well, at least as opposed to illness, again, knock on wood. I've been working at a job for the last 6 months and haven't missed a day of work. In my adult life, I've never spent a day in the hospital. But without wanting to get too specific, I'm on a variety of medications to essentially combat being overweight, and I'm not oblivious to the risks I've engendered. My heart is still supposedly in good shape, thankfully, but I'm aware I'm at an age when people start having heart attacks.

So why don't you lose weight?
My doctor would tell you I don't have a good answer for that, just excuses. Such as that I don't drink, don't smoke, don't do drugs, etc., so damn if I'm giving up cheeseburgers.

Clearly I know that it would be beneficial from a health standpoint, in reducing prescription costs and even theoretically in helping to meet women (or at least feeling more confident about it). But I don't particularly enjoy exercising, nor depriving myself of foods that I favor, and excepting the repercussions, being fat doesn't make me acutely unhappy.

How are you going to celebrate your birthday?
As silly as it sounds in juxtaposition, undoubtedly with some good meals. Yesterday a friend at work took me to a good lunch. Last night I had dinner with my mom, sister Allison and some good family friends. Tonight I'm going to the wedding of a close friend's son. My friend Paolo is taking me to the Cubs playoff game tomorrow, then I'll have another dinner with mom and Allison Monday. Plus likely other meals with co-workers and friends. And I tend to treat myself pretty well. So even though there won't be any kind of party, or even a Movie Night, which I've hosted in previous years but have postponed in deference to the Cubs, there shouldn't be a shortage of merriment.

That was quite some game the other night, huh?
I probably shouldn't admit this--or even have asked about it--for fear of excommunication from Kingdom Cub, but I fell asleep before the 9th inning on Tuesday night. It certainly wasn't looking good for Cubs and after staying up most--but not all--of the way on Monday night, I was really tired, plus I had begun fasting for Yom Kippur (despite not being particularly observant) so I was a bit hungry too.

So around the 8th inning, I conked out, but while thinking how cool it would be to wake and learn the Cubs had miraculously won. And that's exactly what happened, actually around 2:30am. So though I felt sheepish to have missed it, it nonetheless felt pretty terrific.

So have you been praying for the Cubs?
No. Although I was raised Jewish and have respect for my heritage--hence the Yom Kippur fasting, and family dinners on holidays--I'm not religious, and any "belief" in a higher power feels more like superstition than faith. So I don't really pray in any officious way, and when I do, let's say, ask for help from above, it's about life and death matters. Recently, I did so about two close relatives facing health challenges, and things turned out well (knock on wood). That's far more important than baseball outcomes, so the Cubs will have to be on their own.

And what about the upcoming election?
Again, not for me a reason for prayer, but I'm certainly hoping Hillary wins, and expect her to. Which normally wouldn't be cause for great jubilation, but under the circumstances...

Are you concerned about the state of America right now?
Yes and no. I don't think it's possible to know that a sizable percentage of Americans will be casting a vote for Donald Trump to be our president, and not be greatly concerned for what that means about the principles of equality, respect, tolerance, etc. And believe me, I don't see Hillary as a savior, and have been disappointed with what Obama was able to get done. The crushing of the middle class while Wall Street ran criminally unchecked is what has led not only to Bernie Sanders--who I supported--but Donald Trump.

But instead of taking the professorial approach like Bernie, which can't work because concepts like financial derivatives and credit default swaps and other triggers for the financial meltdown from which we've never really recovered are too hard for most to grasp--though I really suggest everyone read The Big Short, and also Flash Boys, also by Michael Lewis--Trump just points at scapegoats. The historical precedent is obviously chilling.

Still, much as when you watch a newscast and largely see bad news, but not day-to-day stories of teachers inspiring kids or doctors working miracles or even just friends chatting over lunch, I believe it's possible to be realistic, pessimistic and optimistic all at the same time. Savor the good, try to fix the bad.

What about personally? What's your outlook look like?
It's not impossible to believe I could land a new job--at least another temporary one--in a few weeks, but also not inconceivable that I could be without income for quite some time. I may never get another full-time, career-advancing job.

But even with my current one slated to end, because the work I was hired to help with is slowing down, I was told that I did excellent work, they liked having me around, they will miss me and wish they could keep me. And colleagues are even trying to help position me for another possible role with the company.

So even though the situation might seem distressing, it actually makes me feel pretty good about myself.

What are you proudest about through your first 48 years of life?
That I have great relationships with my family. That I've had the same best friend since the first day of kindergarten. That I have a good handful of other great friends, including some made in fairly recent years. That I have passions that enrich my life, and which I try to share. That I've traveled extensively. That I amuse myself.

Just for the record, where have you traveled?
Most major U.S. cities and many European capitals, some National Parks, Australia, Rio, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Israel and Egypt. A nice photographic retrospective can be seen here.

I've been to every current Major League ballpark except the one in Tampa (and soon Atlanta), more than 150 art museums, dozens of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed houses, some of the best restaurants in the world. 

What's on your bucket list?
Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal. I'm hoping to get to Cuba fairly soon. I'd like to explore much of the Far East, which I haven't to date. And Colmar, France has caught my fancy, perhaps paired with Basel, Switzerland.

You seem to have many cultural interests; why is that important to you?
Put simply, I think exploring, witnessing, experiencing and appreciating greatness gives me purpose in life, and as I noted before, sustenance. And a reason to write this blog, which I enjoy.

What do you recommend these days?
I recently got to see Hamilton for the first time, and can't recommend it enough. But to get what you should out of it, I think you need to put some time into it. Listen to the cast recording, read the lyrics, check out some reviews, interviews with the show's creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and feature articles. Understand some of the history the show contains, before you get to the theater. Because while there is nothing like live theater, I think 75% of the brilliance of Hamilton can be appreciated without having to get yourself a ticket, which can obviously be quite difficult and/or expensive.

What are you reading, watching, etc.
I recently signed up for Hulu in order to see Ron Howard's documentary on the Beatles, Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, which was fun though not really all that revelatory.

But having Hulu let me watch the 11.22.63 mini-series (8 episodes) based on the Stephen King book about a guy who goes back in time to try to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK. I enjoyed it, but probably because I had read the book some years ago. I'm currently reading the Bruce Springsteen autobiography, Born to Run. I've written here often about Harlan Coben, my favorite contemporary author, and enjoyed his latest, Home, though wouldn't suggest starting there. And of course, I'm watching the Cubs. 

How do you afford to go to so many events?
MasterCard. But though I do spend a good bit on spectator events, it's less than it may seem. Most theater I go to these days is either part of a subscription costing me around $25 per show, or complimentary as some theaters have been inviting me to Press Nights. Concerts aren't cheap, but I usually go for the cheapest ticket available--often under face on the aftermarket--and whenever possible, don't pay for parking (such as at the United Center, where I park on the street). I have a relatively low mortgage and property taxes, no car loan--I have 157,000 miles on my 2005 Dodge Stratus and hope it lasts another 50K miles--and, of course, I don't have to pay for orthodontists or school clothes or expenses others may have.

What makes this a happy birthday?
All of the above, everyone who may be reading this--even those I don't know personally--and the possibilities of what's to come. 

Any closing thoughts for me?
My three favorite abiding principles:

1, by Monty Python: "Always look on the bright side of life."

2, by my hero, Bruce Springsteen, from the song Badlands, "Badlands, you gotta live it every day, let the broken hearts stand as the price you've gotta pay, we'll keep pushin' till it's understood and these badlands start treating us good."


3, by me, or in this case, you: "If it won't matter tomorrow, it don't matter today." In other words, don't get pissed at traffic jams or other minor annoyances; I think you'll be happier for it.

Thanks again, Seth

Sure, no problem.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Ours Go to 11: Volume 20, America's Greatest Living Songwriters (in a Pop/Rock/Country vein)

Today, Paul Simon, who was writing notable songs by the age of 15, turns 75.

And this morning, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” in the words of the Swedish Academy.

So it seems like a good day to scratch out a list of the men and women I believe to be America's greatest living songwriters.

For purposes of this list, I am excluding Broadway composers--otherwise Stephen Sondheim would likely top it--and writers in jazz, classical and other non-pop idioms.

Also, as apt for a few cases, "America" includes Canada.

1. Bob Dylan
2. Brian Wilson 
3. Paul Simon
4. Stevie Wonder
5. Smokey Robinson 
6. Bruce Springsteen 
7. John Fogerty
8. Carole King
9. Neil Young
10. Chuck Berry
11. Holland/Dozier/Holland (Brian & Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier)

And a few more
Donald Fagan & Walter Becker
Jackson Browne
Leonard Cohen
Paul Westerberg
Billy Joel 
Tom Petty
Neil Diamond
Burt Bacharach
Willie Nelson
Sly Stone
Randy Newman
Joni Mitchell
James Taylor
David Byrne
Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe (R.E.M.)
Robbie Robertson
Patti Smith

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Ours Go to 11: Volume 19, My Favorite Former Cubs

1. Ernie Banks
2. Billy Williams
3. Fergie Jenkins
4. Greg Maddux
5. Mark Grace
6. Andre Dawson
7. Ryne Sandberg
8. Gary Matthews
9. Lee Smith
10. Bruce Sutter
11. Rick Monday

Plus a few more
Jose Cardenal
Rick Sutcliffe
Shawon Dunston
Steve Trout
Ken Holtzman
Leon Durham
Bill Buckner 
Jody Davis
Kerry Wood

Monday, October 10, 2016

No Debate: Lively, Mostly Civil, Interaction Makes 'Dying City' a Worthwhile Way to Spend an Evening -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Dying City
by Christopher Shinn
Directed by Elizabeth Lovelady
The Comrades
at Heartland Studio, Chicago
Thru October 30

Sunday night, rather than tune into the lunacy of the second presidential debate, I attended a 2-person play that undoubtedly--especially from what I gleaned of the debate afterwards--involved much more worthwhile dialogue, from both individuals.

Actually, that would be three individuals, as Dying City--a 2006 play by Christopher Shinn that was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama--chronicles a visit by Peter (Mickey O'Sullivan) to Kelly (Laura Matthews), the wife of his late identical brother, Craig, who O'Sullivan also plays in flashback scenes. Craig had died within the past year while serving in Iraq.

Within an impressive yet static set design (by Elyse Balogh) of a New York City apartment, O'Sullivan does a fine job in making Peter and Craig feel distinct, abetted by some nice nuances by Matthews in helping to clearly denote the separate time frames and relationships.

Yet while the need for several quick costume changes back & forth is clearly understandable and handled fluidly, the breaks between scenes did somewhat deflate the tension within and between the dual scenarios, and only late in the 85-minute play did things start to become emotionally searing.

There are some twists I certainly won't share, but early on as Peter--a successful actor currently onstage in New York--engages with Kelly, a therapist (but not one treating him), I couldn't readily discern either's motivations and noted a somewhat odd absence of obvious grief.

That the two characters didn't seem particularly comfortable with each other--Peter being particularly  skittish--is perfectly apt per what reality would dictate, and how the narrative unfolds, but perhaps as a result, for much of the play I found myself observing rather than emotionally embracing the happenings onstage.

Near the beginning, Peter states that he is gay--which Kelly would  already know but the audience doesn't--and while realizing the folly of my picking at a Pulitzer-nominated script and acclaimed playwright, I'm not sure why we weren't left to wonder a bit longer if the discomfitting interaction involved romantic feelings.

Under the direction of Elizabeth Lovelady, Dying City--the second play staged by Chicago's fledgling theater company, The Comrades--is well paced, and at the very least makes for an engaging night of theater (especially for just $15 or even less if HotTix are offered).

But I was left uncertain of what Shinn was ultimately trying to say, even with its title, and I wasn't much clearer about who Peter and Kelly were--and what each wanted and needed--at the end of the play than I was when it began.

Still, especially for those who value live theater at value-packed prices--in an intimate, comfortable setting around the corner from the Heartland Cafe--Dying City is worth your time and attention.

Even on nights when the harrumphs of Mr. Trump aren't the primary alternative.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Pithy Philosophies #30

My friend Ken conveyeth:

Life is not a narrative but rather a series of present moments strung together.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Masterpiece Theater: Taking Its Shot in Chicago, 'Hamilton' Is Historically Brilliant -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

PrivateBank Theatre, Chicago
Open run

Should you or shouldn't you?

By all means, yes.

Which isn't acutely to reference the question of whether you should see Hamilton--officially subtitled An American Musical--now running in Chicago, as well as New York, for the foreseeable future.

That to me is a given--if and when you can get an affordable ticket--whether you are a fan of Broadway musicals, popular music, hip-hop, American history, artistic ingenuity, cultural touchstones or any combination thereof.

Obviously I'm not the first to suggest this, given the unprecedented success of Hamilton, including 11 Tony Awards (from a record 16 nominations) and stratospheric ticket scalping, but Lin-Manuel Miranda has created a masterpiece that--with due respect for Rent, Mamma Mia, Spring Awakening, his own In the Heights and others--has revolutionized the musical theater soundscape.

Photo credit on all: David Korins
Responsible for the show's book, music & lyrics--and originating the title role--Miranda fused his love of rap with a deep embrace of the musical art form (and other pop/high culture, literature, television and more) to create a score that is urgently and transcendently contemporary while masterfully respecting the traditions of the idiom. (i.e. Shorthand references to Hamilton as a "hip hop musical" shortchange the breadth of its brilliance.)

And while there have long been biographical and/or historical musicals--Fiorello, 1776Evita, Les Miserables, Jersey Boys, Beautiful, etc., etc.--I don't think any have as acutely or adroitly provided academically sound insights (albeit with a few creative liberties) into a famous name but relatively obscure figure as Miranda and Co. have done here, based on Ron Chernow's 2004 Alexander Hamilton biography.

So yes, I have become a full-fledged Hamilton acolyte, don't think any of the hype is overstated--even if the ticketing frenzy and aftermarket pricing seems over-the-top--and, without having seen the show on Broadway, found the Chicago rendition completely sublime, with the only possible diminution being a few instances of vocal timbres not quite equalling those on the original cast recording.

Which gets me to the actual gist of my opening question:

Should you listen to the album, read the lyrics and otherwise well-acquaint yourself with Hamilton before heading to see it? (As opposed to going the hottest show in history, cold.)

I certainly understand the notion of wanting to be fully surprised by a fresh first encounter at the theater, and especially as Hamilton is almost entirely sung-through, with virtually no dialogue beyond the songs, thorough pre-show familiarization would negate that.

And I have to assume that not everyone delivering an instant standing ovation at the packed PrivateBank Theatre on Wednesday night had wholly ingested the cast recording, let alone studied the lyrics and annotations about them--on the album website and within the excellent Hamilton: The Revolution book by Miranda and Jeremy McCarter.

I myself won't profess to having read Chernow's 832-page Hamilton biography--which Miranda famously chose as vacation reading, bringing rather historic inspiration--nor knowing many of the rap songs or even artists the composer slyly references in the show's lyrics.

Much as there are myriad fans who have loved Hamilton: An American Musical largely uninitiated on a first theatrical encounter, there are undoubtedly many who have enjoyed, devoured and savored the musical far more deeply and holistically than I have to this point, even after I finally! got to see it (early in the Chicago run, where it's officially still in previews, thanks to being a longstanding Broadway in Chicago subscriber).

But while one should presumably find Hamilton fantastic simply as a night of theater--directed by Thomas Kail, with terrific choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, the show is phenomenally entertaining, never a dreary history lecture--its genius goes well beyond the surface.

So while noting the inherent sacrifice of some unsuspecting, in-your-seat awe, I would strongly recommend doing some homework in order to more richly experience what well may be the greatest artistic accomplishment of the 21st Century to date.

With a considerable amount of rapping, Hamilton contains a whole lot of words--and clever rhymes--and they come at you quite rapidly. Hence, buying the cast album or listening on Spotify, and reading through the entire lyrics at least once will undoubtedly aid comprehension.

Digesting the lyrics will likely lead you to Wikipedia to explore entries on Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Marquis de Lafayette and others chronicled in the show, as well some of the key Revolutionary War battles mentioned, including those at Monmouth and Yorktown. This should also be beneficial.

You would do well to look up reviews and articles on the show from its initial Off-Broadway run, and then on Broadway, to better understand the genesis and better grasp what Miranda is trying to express and convey, notably in his decision to cast individuals of color as the American founding fathers.

I also liked perusing the lyric annotations, exploring citations about lyrical & musical allusions/references--not only to rap songs & artists, but South Pacific, Gilbert & Sullivan, The Beatles and more--and learning more about Miranda's influences (in general and specifically for Hamilton), plus advice & encouragement he received from Stephen Sondheim, John Weidman, John Kander, Paul McCartney and numerous hip-hop legends.

A little Googling should go a long way, along with the references mentioned above.

And especially for those in the Chicago area, checking out a fine local production of In the Heights, the first Tony-winning musical that Lin-Manuel Miranda created, should also aid your appreciation for his vast talents and the road to & though Hamilton.

Now, at this point, you might be thinking that all of this probably belongs in its own blog article, not in what purports to be a review of Hamilton based on my seeing it on Wednesday night.

But I believe it beneficial to explain how the brief study--only over the last few weeks--I brought into my first live encounter with Hamilton helped me to love it as deeply as I did, while suggesting that something akin could considerably abet your appreciation.

If nothing else, note the double meaning of the "I'm not throwing away my shot" refrain of the show's anthem "My Shot," which Alexander Hamilton sings early in Act I.

And realize that as much as being about its title character, the musical chronicles Aaron Burr--initially Hamilton's friend and ultimately his nemesis--and Alexander's wife, Eliza, as well as her similarly-smitten sister, Angelica.

On Broadway, Leslie Odom Jr., who played Burr, won the Tony Award over Miranda as Hamilton, and in Chicago, I found Joshua Henry as Burr to slightly outshine Miguel Cervantes in the title role.

This isn't to suggest that Cervantes isn't terrific--and given his legendary literary name, I wish Miranda had snuck in a Man of La Mancha homage for the Chicago production--but his singing voice and persona didn't quite match the edge of the original (based on the cast album and YouTube clips from the Tonys, Grammys and elsewhere).

Likewise, while I have nothing but plaudits for Chris De'Sean Lee, a college student who wonderfully handles the rapid-fire rapping of both the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, he's just a smidgen below Daveed Diggs from Broadway.

But compared to the overall majesty of Hamilton, these are trivial triflings, and you can comfortably know that Chicago is getting the full-octane treatment.

Ali Asfar and Tony winner Karen Olivo are sublime as Eliza and Angelica Schuyler, whose wonderful takes on songs such as "The Schuyler Sisters," "Helpless," "Satisfied," "Take a Break" and "The Quiet Uptown" delightfully demonstrate the stylistic range and depth of Hamilton's score, which goes well beyond rap.

And while I was wary whether anyone could match the drollness Jonathan Groff brought to the cast
recording as King George on "You'll Be Back" and two complementary British Invasion-infused songs, Broadway vet Alexander Gemignani is a sheer delight.

I could continue to name standout songs and performances--Jonathan Kirkland (George Washington), José Ramos (John Laurens/Phillip Hamilton) and Wallace Smith (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison) merit mention--but I found every moment in Hamilton quite astonishing, and it's not merely dropping a pun (Miranda clearly loves them too) to call it historically brilliant.

(Set designer David Korins, whose Instagram photos I've gleaned, also deserves an emphatic shout out.)

Especially given the familiarity I acquired before arriving at the PrivateBank Theatre, the show felt like encountering an old friend who becomes a new love.

So while I don't advise taking out a second mortgage or selling a child--if need be, wait awhile for demand to drop while trying the digital lottery for $10 (a Hamilton, get it?) day-of-show tickets--I can't recommend Hamilton any more highly.

Having enjoyed an unforgettable evening, I'm already looking forward to the next time I see it. (I have a ticket for March).

After I learn a good bit more.