Monday, March 28, 2016

New York-Boston trip highlights

I haven't even managed to fill in the highlight from our trip to New York and Boston, and we have just returned from Chicago!  Something tells me that I am just not going to be able to keep up with the blogging in any meaningful way, at least not until the transition to the new job is complete.

Anyway, we basically did cover all the events in this itinerary, though the weather wasn't great on Monday or Tuesday, so we skipped walking around Harlem.  We also did make it down to our old neighborhood in Brooklyn (edge of Gravesend and Kings Highway).  That definitely looked a bit different than I remembered it.

I'll just put down a few reflections on the trip and perhaps later I can add a post or two that are more picture-heavy.

I thought it was good taking the kids on a bit of a walking tour of Manhattan the first day.  We essentially covered Times Square to Washington Square Park.


I was kind of surprised that neither of the kids wanted to see the Vikings exhibit in Times Square, especially since my daughter studied it in school, but perhaps it was precisely for that reason it was just too much like school.  Anyway, it isn't like they didn't get plenty of culture in over the trip.  As it happens, the Vikings exhibit runs through early September, and I'll certainly consider making a stop on my solo trip to New York this summer, though it isn't at the top of the agenda.

I tried to convince my son to come along to the Metropolitan Museum of Art Saturday evening, but he was quite worn out from all the walking.  I actually didn't stay the entire allotted time but I got in about 90 minutes, mostly focusing on the 20th Century wing (and Beckmann's The Beginning was back on view), though I made sure to see the Rembrandts and Vermeers.  I also saw the Islamic galleries and made a very short visit to the Temple of Dundar.  I think this may be the first time I completely skipped the American wing and the rooms of Asian art.  It was a bit strange not having a really big exhibition on view at the Met.  My single biggest regret of this visit is that my photos of the Thomas Hart Benton mural didn't turn out that well, and I simply didn't see the Winter 2015 Bulletin that had some great reproductions.  There should still be some on sale on my next trip (or they will be on sale somewhere in New York if I just can't make the Met on my next trip).

Sunday was completely taken up with our visit to Brooklyn.  It was really great seeing our relatives out there, whom we hadn't seen in 10 years.  My wife also managed to see her friend, while I took the kids through the Brooklyn Museum.  I was so disappointed with the Brooklyn Museum, as the entire American painting section was closed and 90% of the European paintings.*  The Coney Island exhibit was ok, but not earth-shattering.  Interestingly, my daughter really liked the museum, since it had full scale rooms with furniture of different periods.  Knowing this, I will try to take her to the Met one day and focus on all the period rooms.  She would also like the Newark Museum perhaps even more.  (I had hoped to make a visit, but since it is closed Mondays and Tuesdays(!), it just wasn't possible to make it work, given our schedule.)

Monday was largely given over to a visit to MoMA, which was fun.  I was able to show them some of the most important paintings in the collection: Van Gogh's Starry Night, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Matisse's The Red Studio and so on.  Sadly, Beckmann's Departure was not on view.  (On the other hand, James Rosenquist's F-111 was, and that is rarely on view, so I guess it was an ok trade-off.) There was a large Jackson Pollack exhibit, as well as an interesting display on Japanese architecture.  I think that was my daughter's favorite part of the museum, though she also was quite interested in these dancers on the steps and on the main floor, doing these really, really slow movements.

I'm already struggling to remember the details, but I think after this, we just walked over to Grand Central Station (it wasn't really nice enough out for another long walking tour).

I dropped the family off and then met an old work colleague.  We had dinner and then went to the Jazz Standard to see the Mingus Big Band.  They did quite a few great tunes, particularly Nostalgia in Times Square (and Ronnie Cuber who originally orchestrated the piece was on hand to kick it off) and Haitian Fight Song.  Those were my two favorites for the night.  I will say that the weather was not ideal, and getting rained on for much of the day has meant that I simply have not been able to shake off this cough.  I probably do need to step out and see the doctor soon.

Tuesday was spent in the Museum of Natural History and then we went to lower Manhattan and checked out Wall Street and Battery Park City, so that the kids could at least say that they saw the Statue of Liberty.  We didn't go into the WTC memorial museum, but we did see the outdoor memorial, which is fairly impressive.  I thought it was interesting how the new PATH station feels a bit like going inside a whale.  I would have taken more photos of the inside, but frankly I didn't want to possibly get the police on my case for taking photos in a restricted site.  Finally, we headed out to a hotel near the Newark Airport, so that we wouldn't be dealing with trying to reverse commute out to the airport on NJ Transit during the morning rush.

Wednesday we flew to Boston and the weather finally improved a bit in Boston, particularly Thurs. and Friday.  We saw a saw a fair bit of history trail and took it into North End of Boston.  As it happened, we were the last guests to slip into Paul Revere's house.  My daughter liked that as well.  They did want to throw the tea into the harbor, but unfortunately, we didn't get there in time, and the lines were just too long. 

They were tired and crashed at the hotel, and I walked over and checked out the MFA Wednesday evening.  I don't think I have a whole lot to add, other than it is a very impressive museum, and I saw a lot of it, but skipped over a fair bit as well.  I saved the best for last, going up to the top floor which had the Lawren Harris exhibit, as well as a very nice Stuart Davis painting.

Lawren Harris, Icebergs, Davis Strait, 1930 @ McMichael Collection

Edward Hopper, Drug Store, 1927

Stuart Davis, Hot Still-Scape forSix Colors -- 7th Avenue Style, 1940
If I had known everything in advance, I might have cut the Freedom Trail down a bit to allow me to get to and from the MFA in time to go see a free concert just down the street (halfway between MFA and our hotel in fact).  They were doing Shostakovich's 5th Symphony and something else I have forgotten.  On the other hand, I was really having trouble controlling my cough that evening, so probably on the whole it was just as well I skipped this.

Thurs. we did get out to Cambridge and checked out Harvard and particularly the Fogg Art Museum.  I was pleased that they had a few Beckmann paintings on view, particularly The Acrobats.  While we hadn't walked all that much on Thurs., the family was still pretty tired, and I went to the Isabella Gardner Museum on my own.  It was an ok visit, but definitely it didn't live up to other visits when more of the art was on display and the rooms didn't seem so dim.  I wrote a bit about the visit already, so I'll just skip ahead to Friday.

Friday was the last day of the trip, and everyone was getting a bit tired and cranky.  Anyway, we packed up and took everything over to the Museum of Science.  I think the kids enjoyed it, and they probably learned something as well...  The big lightning exhibit was pretty cool.  I was not able to get a good shot, but this one from Instagram user kellym7609 is impressive.

And that was that.  After the lightning show, we had lunch and managed to track down a cab.  We went to the airport and had a pretty uneventful flight home.  The kids got to rest up, but I had to go into work and take care of a number of things, including doing most of the packing up of the office.  Somewhere along the line, I just need a day or two to do nothing but laze around.  Maybe this upcoming weekend.  Fingers crossed.

* While there is no question I wasn't going to be satisfied with the closing down of the American collection, I was particularly looking forward to showing the kids one of the massive Stuart Davis paintings to see what they thought.  I don't even know if I have any photos of these paintings, since I haven't been back in 10 years and the photo policy may not have been quite as open (though I guess it was mid 90s that most museums started letting visitors take photos).

I like Stuart Davis's Pad No. 4 (also in the Brooklyn Museum), but The Mellow Pad is particularly epic and needs to be seen in person to grasp its scale.

Stuart Davis, The Mellow Pad, 1945-1951

Curiously, the large scale Davis paintings weren't on view at the Met either, though some smaller ones were.  I wonder if all of these are undergoing conservation and/or are en route to the Whitney in preparation for the big Stuart Davis show, though that doesn't open until June.  Hard to say.  I certainly hope to see them at that time, and perhaps the one I posted above from the MFA and potentially the one that the Art Institute of Chicago has.  With 100 or so paintings in the show, it will be a fairly big deal.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Commute of destiny

Last night I was coming back from The Public Servant (which I enjoyed immensely), and I looked down the street and saw that a police car was blocking off half of King Street.  This doesn't look good, I thought, and I walked over to the streetcar stop.  The eastbound lanes weren't being blocked, but I thought it was pretty likely that service had been suspended in both directions.  Fortunately, I installed a transit tracker app and it said that indeed all the King streetcars were running along Queen St.  (I am not at all big on apps, but this one pays off from time to time.)  It said it was due to a collision, which I assumed meant a car had hit a streetcar, and they were investigating.  It wasn't until I was home that I found out that a car had hit a pedestrian and she had been taken to the hospital, but it indeed was so serious that they were going to close down King to do some investigations.

This on its own would have made the trip feel just a bit like that from the "The Dull Life of a City Stockbroker" sketch.  But it was what happened (or might have happened to me) on the other end that really sealed the deal.  I found out that someone had been shot and killed right around Carlaw and Queen St., which is where you pick up the Pape bus after getting off the streetcar.  I think I must have left the intersection about 20 minutes before it happened.  While the odds are extremely low that I would have run across the suspect, I am still glad I wasn't there.  I have no idea what they did to the bus route, since they closed off Carlaw all the way north to Dundas.

I had actually considered going to the Shoppers Drugs, but I saw the bus coming.  That delay would have brought me uncomfortably close to the incident.

What would have put me squarely into the timeframe of the incident is if I had stuck around after the play for the talk back.  I was tempted.  I am going to be a government employee in only another week and a half, and there were quite a few moments that rang very true in the play (the youthful analyst who has her dreams of doing something for Canada slowly ground down by the bureaucracy, the focus on process over content, the difficulty in obtaining all the required signatures and sign-offs, even the crazy warren-like nature of so many government offices).  There is no question that the Harper administration was particularly soul-sucking for career bureaucrats who disagreed with pretty much everything he stood for -- and he returned their contempt in spades.  There is a moment when one of the embittered long-timers remembers how great things were for policy wonks under Pierre Trudeau.  What I didn't want to hear (and I thought there would be a lot of it during the talk back) was how everyone would sit around and congratulate themselves for kicking Harper out of power -- and how life was magically going to be better under Justin.  Perhaps I am being unfair, but that was what I thought would go down.  In any case, it was a good decision to skip it, as otherwise I would have been caught up in some bad craziness in Leslieville. 

I would certainly recommend the play to anyone who works in an office environment, particularly for the government (well, anyone with a bit of a sense of humour and/or who doesn't think Harper was right to muzzle government scientists and analysts).  The Public Servant runs through April 3.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Exhausting books (and movies)

I think I am on the edge of a collapse due to exhaustion, and I am hoping to get some rest on Sunday.  Probably the trip should have been one day shorter.  That probably would have meant skipping the Isabella Gardner Museum in the evening, but as I noted, it really was not a visit under ideal conditions.  While I would not say I am soured on the museum, my previous visits were far more rewarding.

During the trip, I was reading and hoping to finish Smollett's The Adventures of Roderick Random.  While it is far from the longest book I have read, I am finding it particularly exhausting and just wish it would end.  My plan is to push on for one more day, which should do it.  I'll read the first 50 pages of Peregrine Pickle and then the inset story "The Memoirs of a Lady of Quality."  Bizarrely enough this is actually written by someone else (the Viscountess Vane).  There are certainly other well-known digressions in older novels (Dostoevsky and particularly Tolstoy* are known for dropping the story for dozens if not 100+ pages and talking about history or natural history or philosophy), though Smollett may be the only case I'm aware of where he drops somebody else's writing into his work.

In any case, this has inspired me to think about books (and movies) that are just exhausting because they are somewhat repetitive and the extra length seems to be padding and not really essential to the plot, leading to tedium on my part.  This is actually quite a different thing from the "literature of exhaustion," i.e. postmodern literature that emerged from a feeling that everything had already been written before and all good plots used up.  Postmodern novels can be boring (and sterile for sure) but they at least usually have the good grace to wrap things up within 250 pages.

I see that I have used the phrase "one damn thing after another" in describing the movie Gravity, and that is also an apt description of The Martian.  I think the main theme was established fairly early on, and in both cases, several of the episodes could have been cut out and the films would not have suffered and might have been better.  (I suppose it is always subjective.  One might well ask whether in King Lear or Kurosawa's Ran it was really necessary to repeat the disenchantment with the second daughter, though to me that drives home what a foolish choice Lear made.  If he had 4 or 5 daughters and the same thing happened with each, then this would be unnecessary repetition!)

So many episodic novels of the Victorian era are basically one thing piled onto another with the hero or heroine just barely avoiding the worst vicissitudes of fate, though Roderick Random suffers so many beatings along with other reversals of fortune that one wonders how he can keep bouncing back.  I suspect Smollett was drawing on the Medieval idea of the Wheel of Fortune, since most of Random's good outcomes are as equally likely as the bad outcomes.  In particular, Random never seemed to learn anything from these various adventures and was still as hot-headed as ever towards the end of the novel.  This is not completely unknown behavior in these episodic novels, though in the better ones, the characters do arrive at a better knowledge of the world around them and acquire some self-knowledge.  I am finding Random to still be a total prat who basically deserves most of the bad things that happen to him, and I really don't like him.  Reading about characters that one doesn't like is exhausting -- when one is put into the position of identifying with them because they are the main character.  (It's not so bad when they are clearly a villain.)

I've heard that Peregrine Pickle is actually worse on that account with Peregrine just doing whatever he feels like with no true accountability, so will just skim a bit of the beginning where it is still funny and isn't the morally compromised novel it becomes by the middle.**  Smollett's Humphry Clinker, on the other hand, is a much better novel and perhaps the title character actually learns something along the way.  (This will definitely be the last dealings I have with Smollett, as he is clearly not to my taste.  Nonetheless, I did have a vision that Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmundson could have done a pretty amazing version of Roderick Random if they had put their mind to it, like Steve Coogan did with Tristram Shandy, though they could have done it as a straight-up version.)

What I don't like about these novels is that they are essentially shapeless, particularly if there is no internal character growth.  One thing happens, then another (generally unrelated), then another.  Eventually the novel ends, but it could have been 100 pages shorter (definitely my preference for Roderick Random) or longer.  On the other hand, if there is a clear structure in place, I generally can read longer novels without feeling total exhausted, though as I noted, there is almost no stand-alone novel over 600 pages that wouldn't be better if 50-100 pages were cut out.  Looking over my list of long novels, the ones that exhausted me the most were DeLillo's Underworld, Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, Silko's The Almanac of the Dead, and Gunther Grass's The Tin Drum.  I didn't really care for Of Human Bondage or Middlemarch, though there was more narrative shape to both and my problems with the books didn't really come down to sheer exhaustion from reading them.  On the other hand, in the non-fiction category, Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago is the epitome of one horrible event piled onto another piled onto another.  While I realize his intent was to make an impression in the historical record and not come up with a "readable" history of Stalin's reign of terror, reading this was often exhausting, and it took me a long time to get through the final volume, as I was frankly bored by the end.

To avoid dragging this out any longer (and to go get some rest), I will end here.

* I would not say I am looking forward to the last chunk of War and Peace which is almost entirely a digression, but I'll get through it once.

** Perhaps it goes without saying that if the writing was truly stunning, I would leave aside my moral interpretations of these novels, but Smollett doesn't move me to that degree.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The vagaries of memory

We are back from the trip to New York and Boston.  It was jam-packed, and we are all exhausted.  I actually cut quite a few things off the initial list, and there were three evenings that I went off to see a museum on my own in the evening without trying to guilt trip any of the rest of the family to come along.  Still, my wife was keeping track of our steps/miles and we were well above 10,000 steps (approximately 5 miles) every day except the last one.  We probably did walk close to 30 miles over the vacation, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if I was over 35 miles.  If I can get a more accurate total I will put it in.

I don't really know how much I will be able to cover in the blog, as I am getting a bit weary of always being a few posts behind, but I'll probably write about a few highlights and get at least a few photos posted.

On the flight to Boston, my wife asked me how many times had I visited Boston, and I am not entirely sure.  It is probably between 5-8, being a bit closer to 8.  It was her first time, since we had planned to make the trip the weekend after 9/11, and understandably didn't really want to go after that...

After combing my memory, I recall an early trip to pick up my father who was on sabbatical at Tufts.  (This was back in the day when parents couldn't just arrange to take kids out of school for "educational purposes," (like taking kids to see Spring Training), let alone home-school them.  Still, I imagine there were some difficult discussions back then when the idea first was broached.)  Then a few years later, I somehow convinced my parents that I was going to go to an Ivy, so we did a tour of most of them.  I know we saw Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown and probably Cornell.  We didn't visit Columbia as far as I recall.

Then I ended up in Boston for a few days in the summer between my sophomore and junior years at UMich.  I believe that would have been the summer of 1989.

I'm pretty sure that I went for another visit at some point after my move to the East Coast in 1991, maybe in 1992 when I had a break from temping in the city over summer break (I was a public school teacher but worked most of the summer).

I went up to Boston in 1995 or so to attend the wedding of one of the young women I knew through volunteering for the East Side High School Color Guard.

Then I moved to Chicago for grad school and didn't get to Boston nearly as much.  After I became a consultant and moved back to New York in 2000, I was sent off to Newton, Mass. for software training, but had the evenings free and spent a fair bit of time in Boston.

Then several years later, I joined Cambridge Systematics, and I was sent to Boston at least once for project management training and perhaps a second time.  I think that is all the trips I've made to Boston, but I may be missing one more.  That seems to add up to 7 different trips (before this one) though it could even be as high as 9.

Why is this really on my mind so much?  Thurs. evening I stopped in at the Isabella Gardner Museum.  I think it was a bit of a mistake to visit in the evening, as many of the galleries just are not lit as well as I would like, and everything just seemed murky and dim.  Also, the second floor was being renovated and was closed off, though some of the most important pieces were on display in the new wing.  On top of everything else, they had a bar area completely blocking off access to Sargent's El Jaleo.  I understand you can't get right up next to it, but I wasn't able to get anywhere near the rope (another 8 feet or so was barred by the drinks table and the milling crowd), so I have borrowed someone else's photo.

John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo, 1882

So it wasn't really the best visit this time around.  I hadn't really realized that my taste and Gardner's taste were so divergent (though I certainly liked El Jaleo and wished I could have gotten closer...).

I hadn't done much research before the trip, and I sort of made a fool of myself asking about the Vermeer to one of the guards.  Well, in one of the most infamous art heists of all time, 13 paintings were stolen from the Gardner Museum in 1990, including the Vermeer and one of the Rembrandts.  It's fairly likely that the paintings still exist somewhere, and there has been a bit of a lead recently in what is a very cold case, but I am not sure I would wager these paintings will be recovered in my lifetime.  I do hope so, obviously.

Johannes Vermeer, The Concert, ca. 1664 (still missing)

I then tried to cast my mind back to whether I actually had visited the Gardner on one of the three trips prior to 1990.*  I suspect we would have gone on that first visit, and I'll check with my father to see if he remembers, since it seems like something my mother would have wanted to do.  I also probably went in 1989, though I'll have to see if I kept a diary of that trip.

Where things get really weird is that I was paging through the excellent guide to the museum.  (I definitely should have read this before the visit instead of afterwards back in the hotel!)  There is a photo of the way the Rembrandt portrait is laid out that triggered a memory I had.

Or more of a shadow memory, where you remember something that you once remembered a lot better, but it is kind of hazy when you try to really remember the details.  I was convinced that on my first visit to Victoria, BC (in 1994), I went into this small house that was actually a gallery, and that there were small gem-like paintings (perhaps Dutch) when you came down around the stairs.  On a subsequent visit to Victoria (in 2013) I couldn't find anything that remotely matched that.  And while Victoria is quite nice, it would be completely shocking to me if this artistic treasure was completely hidden.  They just never had the kind of collectors with serious money out on the Pacific Northwest.

But flipping through the Gardner Museum guide, it is not at all impossible that I somehow shrunk the mansion to something a bit more modest but kept a few of the Dutch masterpieces in the back of my mind.  I could of course be completely mistaken, and I wasn't conflating two different museums.  Still, I would say the odds are better than 50-50 that I did see The Concert at some point prior to the heist.

My guess is that it will be a while before my next visit to Boston, but now that we have relocated to Toronto (and the kids are getting to be fairly seasoned travelers), trips to New York, DC and perhaps Philadelphia will become an annual or at least semi-annual tradition.  (I just have to make sure they are in better shape next time before we set out...)

* I'm sure I visited the Gardner on the trip in 2000, but that would have been too late for the Vermeer.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The rise and fall of the consulting class

It's been an interesting perspective to watch as engineering consultancies have been increasingly squeezed by competition, domestic and particularly international.  Many of the perks have been removed, and certainly pressure to complete tasks on time is much higher and the need to be fully chargeable is extremely important.  Many employees that would have slid by in the past (say 10 years ago) are being furloughed, even at the larger firms.  Perhaps especially at the larger firms.  I realize that the public never really appreciates this, simply pointing to the increasing expense of infrastructure projects as if consultants were simply pulling a fast one. 

What is particularly novel (and perhaps a bit disheartening for long-time consultants) is that consultancy has less prestige than it ever had.  (At least some people did relish the idea of working on multiple key projects across the country.)  And, at least in the States (though not really in Canada) the public sector has begun to increase its compensation to the point where it is not absurd for talented engineers and planners to migrate to MPO and state DOTs.  Of course, the most talented usually opted for academia after a couple of years in the trenches as a consultant.

I probably would not encourage my children to become consultants, at least not to plan to do it for a long time.  The main reason this is on my mind is that I have decided to move back to the public sector, starting in April.  There are all kinds of other pressures, particularly when the outcomes the agency I am joining are quite visible and often the decisions taken are often highly criticized.  Overall, it seems like the right move for me, but I can't really get into all the details.  I won't even vow never to return to consulting, though at the moment it seems unlikely, as I would like to finish out my career in a place that feels a bit more stable.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Incredibly intimate theatre

I've seen quite a few shows that were really up close and personal with the actors, including most of the events at the Campbell House Museum, and Wolf Manor's Richard III left the audience really close to the action.  I saw Lear really close up as well in Vancouver (I believe the company was the Honest Fishmongers).  In most of these cases, you have two rows of seats around the stage, and if you choose you can be in the second row (generally a good decision if there will be swordplay or blood gushing as in so many of Shakespeare's historical plays).

For Conor McPherson's Port Authority, they turned the downstairs room into a pub (with a working bar no less), and you could sit at any table you chose.  If you showed up early that is.  We made it inside by about 7:15 and most of the tables had been taken, though we could have had seats with our backs to the performers, which then means turning the seat around and is generally a bit awkward.  That left the two tables up front, right next to the three chairs where the performers would be.  I would say we were within 5 feet of the performers and they often looked right at us, though only occasionally talking directly to us.  This was definitely a bit of a different play where the focus was on characters who by their own admission kind of let things happen to them, i.e. they weren't doers for the most part.  That is a bit different from many plays, particularly American plays, though sometimes you have a character like Willy Loman realize that he no longer is a mover and shaker and that realization is the tragedy -- for an American audience especially.  Two of the three characters seemed more content with their lot, at least in terms of their occupations, but then they still had unrealized longings for something (or someone) that just seemed out of reach.

I would actually recommend one table back from where we were (where you thought if you reached out you would touch the actors), but there is no question that this is an intimate evening anywhere in the room.  It also means that there are not a lot of seats at each performance.  I would be surprised if they have more than 36 spaces per show.  Nonetheless, the actors did ask us to spread the word, so if you are interested, you should check here to see if there are any further slots open for the last week of performance. 

I don't really know why this is called Port Authority, aside from Dublin actually having a port, and at one point one character discusses taking a long walk down to where you could see the sea stretching out endlessly.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Student productions

I suppose there are several schools of those about student productions -- probably the number one rule is that they are generally not reviewed by the major papers, though occasionally Now bends that rule.  However, Mooney's has definitely been reviewing the Hart House* productions and most of the George Brown productions, though I don't believe they reviewed The Suicide.  There is no question that the ticket prices at Hart House and George Brown are creeping up there, and they are actively advertising to a wider public (unlike the Ryerson productions or some of the more obscure UT productions), so on those grounds, a balanced review probably would be a good thing.

The flip side to the performers not being professional or "seasoned" is that the productions benefit (or can benefit) from far more attention and rehearsal than can be pulled together by almost any of the independent theatres, not least of which is because student productions don't have to pay for rehearsal space (at least not as far as I know).

Now different programs run things differently, and Northwestern seemed to really maximize the number of productions.  Indeed, many of the plays ran two shows back to back (one starting at 10:30 or 11) just so that all the professors could get around to all of them.  I don't ever recall that happening at other universities.  It may well be unique.  Consequently there was a lot of experimental stuff, but everything was just a bit rough around the edges.  Not that I minded, at least not back in my late 20s and early 30s.  In contrast, UT and George Brown focus their energy on a relatively few productions, and some of them are incredibly polished.

I managed to get to Boeing Boeing at Hart House on Sat.  (That was the last day** -- sorry, though I had mentioned it previously.)  It surpassed my expectations.  It was gut-bustingly funny, particularly this long, lanky best friend from Wisconsin who really had a knack for physical comedy.  The Mooney's review is spot on, particularly in how the maid Berthe pretty much steals every scene she is in.  I actually passed on a chance to see Arts Club do this in Vancouver, but I suspect this performance was even better than that one (and about half the price).  In any case, it is definitely going to be in my top 10 for the year (at least I assume so).

I mentioned a couple of times that I was a bit annoyed I had just missed Hart House doing Goodnight, Desdemona, Good Morning, Juliet by a week 2 or 3 years ago.  I am sure it was a killer performance, but the weekend before this I went down to St. Catherines to see Brock University do the play, and they did a fantastic job.  So I can stop feeling sorry for missing out, though that has also closed for those of you who didn't see my previous listing.  I will spend a bit more time reviewing that production and the trip down and back, but the main point remains that often student productions are very well done.  I usually do not hesitate to go to a student production, particularly if it is a play that I want to see which isn't staged that frequently.

* Come to think of it, Hart House used to be clearly student-oriented theatre, but many of the roles are being filled by non-students (this was particularly the case with Walker's We the Family).

** I really wish there was a way to watch the recording of some of these performances, as I imagine they are recorded (particularly if any of the actors are getting academic credit for their work on stage), but if they are, they are not made public.

Letting go (of stuff)

While I probably do need to be better at letter go of things like slights or bad moods, I really meant getting rid of material things.  It's a bit of an up and down thing with me.  I still get excited about new music and particularly books, and I am trying to at least make sure the inflow is less than the outflow.  Usually if I can wait over a week on buying a book or CD, then the temptation passes.  If it is something that keeps calling to me, then I will occasionally give in.  I will say (and probably have in the past) that the high shipping costs to Canada, particularly from US sellers) has been a useful tool in making me twice or thrice about purchasing anything.  I suppose I am glad that I compiled my stockpile of things in the era of cheap shipping.  Of course, for the Millenials and Gen Z they won't want material objects hardly at all and will have digital versions of just about everything.  It's probably just as well, since if they live in the city, they will be in small studio apartments for much of their lives.

I actually finally turned up an important box with quite a few missing objects, such as the Blu-Ray of La Vita Dolce and a couple of box sets, including one that I am quite sure I've never played.  I managed to reunite a few CDs with their cases, and I think I am down to only missing Herbie Hancock's Secrets, Zoot Sims Goes to Jazzville, an Art Pepper CD,  and Mendelssohn's Octet (the last would have been something I was playing just before the last move and is probably in a stack of random data DVDs, but I will keep my eye out for it).*  I turned up a few more books I was looking for, though there isn't much to do with them, as all the bookcases are full.  Anyway, the most important thing was I turned up my diplomas, as I actually needed them, believe it or not.  So there is a long way to go until order is fully restored downstairs, but I was pleased at finding these things.  In a few cases, now that I have reunited the CDs, I can sell them off (for close to nothing of course).

I had basically given up, but I called the owner of a used classical/jazz store and she was willing to take a look at a bunch of classical box sets.  I'm holding off on the really valuable stuff, trying to sell it on Amazon, but I had some good mid-line sets, and she took them all, though she is really preferring to buy and sell jazz these days.  I'll try to get one more batch to her next week, but then she'll probably be back in the same cashflow problem that derailed all my previous attempts to sell to her.  Still, I was quite happy to clear out a few things from my office.

Finally, I donated a large box of urban books to York University.  When the woman picked them up, she asked if I was retiring.  Oof.  I know I am not in the best shape these days, but still...  I suppose I have retired my dream of teaching urban studies.  I said if all goes well, there would be a second, though smaller, donation in April.  I'm also steadily donating books to the public library at a rate of 2 or 3 a month, so slow and steady progress I suppose.

* Actually, Amazon just reminded me that I bought a Brahms Double Concerto CD (Ormandy conducting) that I had shipped to my cousin in Wisconsin and eventually retrieved last summer.  It is probably in one of the last boxes we packed up of random stuff.  But I will eventually find it.  Eventually...

Edit (3/6) This is too droll.  The Toronto Public Library, which often doesn't even let its novels circulate, has a physical copy of the Brahms Double Concerto.  (It is lending this, even though the CD is OOP.)  So my ingenious plan is to borrow the copy from the library, and as soon as I get it home, my copy will turn up (on the same basic principle that you find something as soon as you no longer need it). 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Spring Break Itinerary

Things have come together fairly well for the spring break, though there will probably be a few tense moments, hoping that my daughter doesn't get carsick, or rather cabsick!  But we've tried to maximize the time spend on trains or walking and should only need to take a few cabs.  We also need to try to pack as light as possible, since there is at least one time we might try to check our bags at a museum.

Anyway, we will head out on Sat. for New York or rather Newark Airport (EWK) and then take NJ Transit into Penn Station.  We're staying fairly close to Penn Station.  I think Sat. afternoon will be spent checking out midtown and Times Square, and then I'll head off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, most likely taking my son.

Sunday we are going to be visiting friends and relatives in Brooklyn.  I suppose there is a tiny chance that we would go out to Gravesend to show them where we lived, but most likely not.  It's definitely too cold for Coney Island to be open and any fun.  On the other hand if it ends up being really cold and the park is out (either Prospect Park or the Botanical Gardens) we could theoretically go down and check out the Aquarium.  Still, it isn't particularly likely.  I am going to want to go to the Brooklyn Museum, which I haven't visited in many years.

Monday, the only absolutely critical thing on my list is to visit MoMA, and the kids will need to come along.  I suspect there will be time to go to lower Manhattan and see Wall St. and Battery Park and possibly even take the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty and/or Ellis Island.  I'm trying to leave this day relatively open.

Tuesday, I think we'll go to the Museum of Natural History and wander through Central Park, particularly if the weather is nice.  My wife would also like to check out Harlem, so I think we'll do that.

There are a lot of things I have crossed off the list to keep this from being a completely manic and unpleasant trip.  The Guggenheim and the Whitney and the Cloisters are out.  (I would definitely like to take the kids to the Cloisters, but it is so far from everything.)  I considered the Museum of the City of New York, but honestly the current exhibits aren't all that interesting and the most interesting one will have closed for museum renovations by the time we turn up.  I actually had wanted to go over to Newark, but the timing doesn't work very well, particularly since the Newark Museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

I'm planing a short jaunt for myself in the summer to see the Stuart Davis exhibit at the Whitney, and I'll plan on going to the Guggenheim then.  I may or may not be able to squeeze in a side trip to Newark.

Anyway, we are actually then going to grab our stuff and take the train to Newark and stay Tuesday night near the Newark Airport, since we are flying over to Boston.

The itinerary for Boston looks like doing some historical walks and probably Faneuil Hall in the afternoon.  Then the MFA, since it is open quite late.  I'm hoping to take the family, but they may be exhausted.

Thurs. it looks like we will go to Cambridge and check out the museums at Harvard, particularly the Art Museum and the Museum of History.  Then we'll return, and I'll go to the Isabella Gardner Museum, since it has evening hours on Thurs.  Again, I'll go on my own or with my son.  I don't really expect my wife and daughter to go, but you never know.  We're staying fairly close, so they could come along for a short time and leave when they get bored...

Friday, we have the morning and very early afternoon to do one last thing in Boston.  I am leaning towards the Museum of Science.

So it will be a very eventful week.  I'm actually quite glad that we will be home on Saturday to recuperate. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Dogs of War

It's really amazing just how much theatre there is in Toronto right now.  Mooney's is not even able to get around to everything, and the Star has lost its mainstay critic and are getting some reviews from a freelancer.  I would probably be tempted to go see Blithe Spirit, but we saw the big budget version at Mirvish last year, and I just don't see the need.

While the reviews for Salt-Water Moon have been quite good, I still feel it is stunt casting, and then they added this narrator who reads out the stage directions while the actors sometimes do and sometimes do not follow the directions, which sounds like a ridiculous conceit to me.  The one thing I disliked about Steppenwolf's staging of McCraney's Brother-Sister Plays was the characters reading out their own stage directions and the company often taking a deep breath all at the same time.  I virtually never like devices that draw attention to themselves (away from the acting) and emphasize the artificiality of the theatre experience.  So on those grounds alone, I am going to pass on this production.

I am back from Richard III (Wolf Manor) playing upstairs at Tarragon.  I would recommend it.  It is incredibly intimate, two rows of seats only on three sides of the stage.  They have a device or a gimmick, which is most of the performers are emphasizing animalistic traits and they may come up to Richard on their bellies (like a snake perhaps or a very abject dog) and a few others were doglike in other ways.  This had the benefit of making it clear that much of what was going on during these wars of succession really was one pack against another (Plantagent vs. Lancaster -- did I get that right?).  I was getting a bit bored of the device in the second act, though I think there is a solid payoff at the end, which I don't wish to spoil.  There was a lot to like about this production, but beware that if you sit in the front row, you will almost certainly have Richard come right up to you and speak at least a few lines directly at you.  So not for the shy...

It's really hard to beat the price, and who doesn't want to get up close and personal with one of the most villainous characters Shakespeare portrayed?  Richard III runs through March 13, so about a week and a half to go.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Looking forward again

I probably could merge this post with this list, but this is more about looking way past the current season to events in 2017 and beyond.  I did mention that this year Video Cabaret is only doing one show, but next year they are hoping to do in the neighbourhood of 4-6, which is quite exciting.  (This also reminds me that I ought to get my tickets to Soulpepper soon.)

Not too surprisingly, I am not interested in what Canadian Stage nor Mirvish is doing, though I did hear rumors that Mirvish was going to bring The Book of Mormon back for a short stint.  I would probably go see that again.

Tarragon's new season looks a bit more appealing than this year's season, which left me quite cold.  This upcoming season they are rehashing Infinity and The Watershed.  I have to say I find their scheduling very odd.  Loyal subscribers (and I do not count myself among them) sort of get shafted when they keep remounting things so often.  I've noticed Soulpepper does this as well, but they have so many different events going on that probably few people subscribe to the entire season.  I did enjoy Infinity, though I don't feel I need to see it again.  I'm not that interested in The Watershed, but I may go just so I can see I finally saw Eric Peterson on stage, since I am increasingly being mixed up with him.  I am leaning towards seeing Sequence and The Realistic Joneses, and I may go see The Circle, since it is about high schoolers.  It might help -- or it might block me -- from finishing The Study Group.  I have around 8 months to decide.  I am quite on the fence about Midsummer (a "play with songs") but leaning against.

Where I have no ambivalence is the upcoming exhibitions at AGO.  They are looking quite enticing, so I will certainly renew our membership.  This summer they are bringing the Lawren Harris exhibit to town.  I've blogged about this already, so I will refrain now.

Then in the fall they are bringing an exhibition of "masterworks" from the Musee d'Orsay and elsewhere.  I've probably seen many of these paintings, but not that often.  It is a very good opportunity to go again.  There will be paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe, Monet, Gauguin, Van Gogh and many others.  I'm most excited about seeing Van Gogh's Starry Night over the Rhone at Arles.

The kids should be able to see the Starry Night at MoMA in a couple of weeks (along with Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which is on my mind after seeing Steve Martin's play last Saturday), so hopefully they can imagine the two together.  I actually saw the Vollard exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago where the two were paired, and that was so cool.  I think I went back 3 times just to see that.

Finally, in the summer of 2017, the AGO is going to have an exhibit on Georgia O'Keeffe, primarily organized by the Tate Modern.  I'm looking forward to that as well, especially as this is the only North American stop.  That doesn't happen too often that Toronto gets an exclusive.  So if you are a major O'Keeffe fan, start making your travel arrangements soon...

Hidden Toronto Part #1

I've really been enjoying coming across interesting neighbourhoods in Toronto while on the way to some new destination.  What seems to happen in Toronto is that small theatres are scattered all over the place (south of Bloor) in places that are still fairly accessible.  The Harbourfront theatre is perhaps less accessible (at least mentally) but now that the 509 streetcar is back up and running, it isn't that bad.  Actually, the Canadian Stage Berkeley stage and Alumnae Theatre are a bit out of the way, though they are quite easy for me to get to so long as I can bike.  This dispersion with decent access is similar to Chicago, though I found Vancouver was pretty miserable in that the main stages and small indy theatres all were hard to get to with only one or two exceptions.

At any rate, this leads me to taking the streetcar and exploring.  My favourite streetcar line is the Carlton/College/Gerrard line, which goes through Little India, a small Asian district, Cabbagetown, Little Italy and finally ends up at this weird island at the edge of High Park.  I'll have to take a photo of that some day.

In any case, last Saturday I went to a new venue (new to me anyway) called Bounce.  It is really a fully functioning bar, but they had a few tables set aside for the actors, then the rest for the audience.  Interesting, a fair number of the tables were elevated on a rise (perhaps because this place also has dancing?) which worked pretty well.  I was running just a bit late, then it turned out that the Spadina streetcar wasn't running and they had replacement buses but they were not running well and the number of people on the platform was kind of dangerous.  I decided to try to catch a cab the rest of the way, though I didn't see any at all.  In my whole trip down Spadina I think I only saw three occupied cabs.  I would think that the cabbies might keep an eye out for TTC disruptions and hang out in those areas, but they did not.  As it happened, the buses finally started arriving, and I did squeeze onto one.  I still had to force my way through the Chinatown crowds and run to Bounce (it's just off Dundas about halfway between Spadina and Bathurst).  I made it with about 5 minutes to spare.

I enjoyed the play, though I agree there isn't a whole lot of plot to it.  It's mostly concerned with artistic and scientific innovation.  Perhaps its greatest contribution is to portray a world where Cubism isn't old hat and there is still so much "new" to discover.

After the play I actually had to head over to Dundas and Bathurst, since it was the only library I was likely to have time to get to before closing.  I am not sure quite when it happened, but it appears that Chinatown has stretched down along Dundas to Bathurst and most of the stores were oriented towards a Chinese or Vietnamese clientele.  There were actually two vegetarian restaurants, and I ate a very delayed lunch at one.  I wasn't that crazy about the flavour though, and will try the other one the next time I am in the area.

The library sort of flowed into a community centre and then another official-looking building.  But what was particularly interesting is that there were little stores made out of shipping containers right in front.  It is more permanent than a food truck.  I suppose at least some of these stores had water hook-ups, but I can't imagine these are very comfortable places to work, probably quite cold and drafty in the winter and then hot in the summer.  But they were cool to look at, and I'll have a few pictures below.  I'm hoping that this summer, particularly weekends in June and then through July, I can take the family around to these various neighbourhoods and show them how fascinating Toronto can be.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Slesinger and other artists of the left

This is going to be an imbalanced post, but I don't really have the energy to smooth it out (or to do all the necessary research).

Last Thurs. I heard about a party at the Chester subway station, and I managed to leave a little bit early.  However, my impression was that the party was going to be 6-7, and I turned up at the tail end of that time.  Unfortunately, the organizers ended up starting much earlier at 3, and it was definitely over by the time I showed up.  There were a couple of pieces of cake hidden in the storefront for people connected to the event.  Maybe if I had shown up 15 minutes earlier there would have been a bit more activity.  Anyway, the party was not an official TTC celebration but more of an informal thing that these artists renting out the kiosk at Chester dreamed up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Bloor-Danforth line.

You can see the way they had decorated the kiosk below.  It was supposed to be a kind of pinata.

I poked around at what was actually on sale, and it was mostly 'zines and a mix tape (about reproductive rights) and a number of other artistic products with a definite leftist slant.  I decided upon reflection that I really ought to buy something, as they are not renewing their lease come April, and I picked up this postcard celebrating Eugene Debs.  (I could have used it to get feedback from the Star short story contest, but I decided to not enter at the last minute, though the deadline itself was still helpful.)

I am no longer that tied into artistic circles, even to the point to evaluate whether it is surprising that there is still a relatively large collective of leftist artists in Toronto (to the point they can rent a storefront from the TTC for a year).  It may be that the safety net, while somewhat frayed in Canada, is still sufficiently strong that political and politicized artists can still survive, whereas leftists artists seem to be really marginalized in the States, though I am sure part of this is not being around and active on the scene, as well as complete lack of access to the mainstream media.  My impression is that leftist artists have a slightly easier time of it in Canada than the U.S., but I am open to being proved wrong.

Most of the theatre that I go to is not overtly politicized, though there are some exceptions, like the Svitch piece I saw at the Theatre Centre last year.  I could go to quite a bit of that if I so chose, but I suppose I am not that convinced that having a specific political agenda makes for very good theatre.  Usually it descends into celebrating a hero or heroine and then castigating everyone else.  Where things get tricky is dealing with the audience -- either the playwright allows them a bit of smugness since they are aligned with the forces of good, while the most challenging work makes the audience think about its privilege (not least of which involves the money they spent on entertainment rather than giving directly to the needy -- this is a bit of a rabbit hole when you push things too far).  I used to go to that kind of theatre, but I don't get much of a charge out of it anymore.  It all comes across as the same to me now.

Leaving those kinds of plays aside, there are some plays that can be interesting when they feature a number of leftists characters all sitting around and trying to be the most virtuous but secretly conniving and being not that different from everyone else, despite their politics.  Probably the more interesting (but rarer) plays would combine characters of different political backgrounds and have them duke it out.  I would say that Kushner's Angels in America does this reasonably well.  I am sure there are other plays along these lines, but I am not going to investigate right now.

Kushner's latest opus is much more like the first approach.  I mentioned already that I went down and saw The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide To Capitalism And Socialism ... at Shaw this past summer.  It was a challenging piece, but it was at heart about a family who were (with a few exceptions) always trying to prove that they had the best socialist or even communist credentials.  I would have had no interest in sticking around and being part of this discussion, and yet the play still worked for me.  In contrast, I just am not willing to give any slack to Amy Herzog, who is writing almost the exact same plot in After the Revolution.  I particularly disliked the grandmother figure who seemed to take advantage of her age as a wise yente to say some really terrible things about others.  I read 4000 Miles and it is all about her and her grandson, and I am so glad I didn't see that in Chicago when I had the chance.

Clearly at this point in my life, I am not that interested in hearing directly from the true believers but I don't mind plays or other literature that pokes at least a little fun at leftist intellectuals.  This finally brings me around to Tess Slesinger, who is a fairly marginal literary figure due to her dying quite young.  Her novel, The Unpossessed, was reissued a while back by NYRB, and I read it and enjoyed it quite a bit.  I am actually reasonably sure this is the second go-around but it has made a much bigger impression this time around for a few reasons, which I will get to in a minute.

I would warn anyone reading the NYRB edition of the book that you really should hold off on reading Hardwick's introduction until the end.  She simply gives away too many important plot points.  Interestingly, many people considered this a bit of a roman a clef, with Lionel and Diana Trilling being prominently featured (or at least somewhere in the composite mix of characters).  Later on, Lionel Trilling wrote an Afterward to the book, which is quite perceptive and appropriately placed at the end of the book.  I think NYRB should have fought harder to get the rights to put this in their edition, but it actually isn't that hard to turn up Trilling's piece.  It is titled "A Novel of the 30s" and is reprinted a few places, including in The Last Decade.

In case you haven't read the book, I would recommend turning away, as I will probably SPOIL it to some degree in the last part of this post.

SPOILERS on the left, but no SPOILERS on the right.

I probably should have picked up the influence sooner, but I am reasonably proud that a scene (Part 2, Chapter 2) with Prof. Bruno Leonard talking to and mixing it up with the Black Sheep (his undergraduate students competing to be the most righteous) made me think back to a similar scene with the same kind of manic comic energy found in Dostoevsky's Demons (Part 2, Chapter 7) when a number of plotters are all in the same room and two of the women in the room keep insisting on bringing up female liberation no matter the topic being discussed.

Some time after this, I decided to flip through Hardwick's introduction and she said that in many ways Slesinger was riffing off of Dostoevsky's book (perhaps not quite to the same extent of Joyce transforming Homer in Ulysses but not completely dissimilar either).  Hardwick made it clear that Leonard's failed speech at the tail end of the party is drawn directly from a similar fete in Demons that becomes a complete shambles.  (The Unpossessed is certainly worth reading for Part 3, which ends up just about as madcap as a Marx Brothers film or prefiguring the nightclub scene in Tati's Playtime.)  At any rate, Hardwick reassures us that it would have been much easier in Slesinger's day to make the connection, since Demons was typically translated as The Possessed back then (whereas the title morphed to The Devils at some point, but probably Demons will stick).

What Hardwick doesn't capture is that Slesinger was mixing up the party politics issues with modern literature.  She name drops Ulysses, and I am reasonably confident that when we are introduced to Elizabeth (Bruno's cousin) she is drawing on Eliot's The Waste Land.  Generally, the artistic level is amped up the most when Elizabeth is center stage, and there will be long sections on what she might have or ought to have said with then a short passage indicating what she actually said.

There really is a lot going on in this book, but what is quite apparent is that most of the main actors are working out their issues, either sexual hang-ups or childhood traumas, and it is almost accidental that they are trying to start a socialist revolution.  (I think Slesinger was also picking up all the Freud in the air in the 1930s.)  Most of the people she describes are complete headcases, though the most annoying to me is Miles Flinders who decides that it is simple weakness to love his wife and that there is no justification for bringing another baby into the world (before the revolution), so he convinces her somehow to have an abortion, mostly out of fear masquerading as political principles.  I was so disgusted with this that it was just as well that this happens at the end of the book.  Not that you don't find some people claiming the same sort of thing nowadays (that due to climate change it is irresponsible to have more children), but that is a whole different thing from forcing an illegal abortion on a woman who clearly wanted the child (and apparently Slesinger's first husband put her in exactly this same position in real life, but she had the sense to leave him eventually).  So that was a pretty big downer to me, and it was probably intended to make that impression -- that these leftist intellectuals could talk the big talk all they wanted, but fundamentally they were anti-life.  No wonder the New Masses crowd hated this book so much.  What is quite baffling to me is that apparently she stayed in touch with people on the left and after she moved to Hollywood, Slesinger joined the Communist Party (maybe because it was an effective anti-Nazi moment in the early 1940s).  However, she did have two children, though she died tragically young at 39.

In short, The Unpossessed is an idiosyncratic novel about leftist intellectuals of the 1930s and their struggles and their hang-ups.  There is quite a bit of humor (black and otherwise) throughout the novel (and I think I mentioned enjoying the delivery of the file cabinet which indirectly sets off the party which proves so disastrous for Prof. Leonard), though I do think the last section casts a bit of a pall over the book as a whole, and certainly I lost pretty much any sympathy I had for Miles Flinders.  However, I would not recommend it if you consider yourself a leftist with unimpeachable credentials, since you will certainly not enjoy seeing yourself reflected back in this book.