Good Movie Redeems Bad Week

The headlines in politics and entertainment over the past several days have been disheartening – sometimes, downright maddening, And I know a movie can’t make the world go away, but a good one at least lets you think about something else for a couple hours.

Some weeks, it seems, can only be redeemed by a Friday night in with a glass of wine, your favorite takeout, and a good movie, and I was able to start this weekend by indulging in all three.

The movie I’m talking about is The Meyerowitz Stories, Noah Baumbach’s new film. Reading some Twitter conversation about the New York Film Festival on Friday (it played there), I was reminded that it was also watchable on Netflix – so that immediately became my Friday night plan.

I was predisposed to like Meyerowitz because I haven’t met a Noah Baumbach film I didn’t like. Frances Ha and Mistress America in particular are two films I could watch endlessly; as a young woman finding her way and making her life in New York, hardly a week goes by without something in real life echoing a moment from one of those movies.

Like those two, Meyerowitz is about Manhattan artist types, but I found its characters a lot more lovable. Especially Danny Meyerowitz, played by Adam Sandler, who’s perfect in the role. He’s warm, particularly in scenes with his daughter (played by Grace Van Patten, who I’d never seen in anything before this and also gives a fantastic performance). They capture a father-daughter relationship in which he’s clearly an authority figure and advice-giver, but they’re also friends, and he values her advice, too. I loved their scenes together.

Danny Meyerowitz is also too proud to ask for help, but not too proud to accept it. I liked that about him. I wouldn’t say this is a huge spoiler, but there are a couple instances in the film where Danny accepts help from his wealthy brother, Matthew (played by Ben Stiller). Given what you come to know about the brothers over the course of the film, I got the sense Matthew’s generosity is somewhat guilt-driven – he’s the sibling who escaped New York and got out from under the thumb of their difficult father (played by Dustin Hoffman), and is only beginning to understand the weight Danny bears in dealing with him day-to-day. But as the story progresses, their relationship deepens, and the film ends with Danny accepting a particularly special gift from his brother – one that would require more than monetary sacrifice on Matthew’s part.

Maybe I’m making it out to be too dramatic; it’s not like Matthew goes to the guillotine for him. But it was touching, and I felt as proud of Danny for accepting the gift as I did of Matthew for offering. And honestly, only now as I’m writing this am I realizing how much affection this film made me feel for its characters.

It may get lost in the shuffle of awards season because it’s a Netflix release, and it’s coming out a little before the crush of Oscar bait, but Adam Sandler deserves special attention. This is such a warm, wonderful film, though, that its awards potential shouldn’t matter. See it anyway and be moved by a great family story and a great New York story.

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Movie Meditations from a TIFF Newbie

The moment I caught “festival fever” at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend came Saturday at 8:00pm. My boyfriend and I darted out of a 6:00 showing of I, Tonya to start a 15-minute sprint through downtown to line up for an 8:45 screening of Lady Bird, my most anticipated movie of the festival. We knew we were cutting it close; we’d make it by 8:45, but with first-come, first-served seating, we weren’t setting ourselves up for the best seat in the house.

Of course, I anticipated a line. We’d been queued up for I, Tonya, but were only waiting at the corner of the block the theater was on. We stood in a long line earlier in the day for Downsizing, but had reserved seats that time. When we arrived at the Elgin Theatre for Lady Bird, we had our first taste of the true magnitude of the festival. The line stretched up a block, then over a couple more, then up again. Festival volunteers stood in crosswalks to ensure safe everyone’s safe passage.

That’s when the magic sunk in. This line might go on forever. But it’s filled entirely with people who love movies. People who think it’s kind of amazing to be among the first to see Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. People who probably think about Frances Ha as many times a day as I do. People who care whether Laurie Metcalf might get an Oscar nomination for this movie. And we’re all right here, under city lights, experiencing it together.

Lady Bird may not have ended up being my favorite film from the weekend (though I still loved it), but running through downtown Toronto, chasing down the end of the line, will be the memory that encapsulates this TIFF experience.

The TIFF experience began on something of a whim, when the lineup was released in late July and I saw lots of films on the schedule that I’d already heard some buzz about. I knew nothing about the logistics of attending the festival or how accessible it was for the everyday viewer, but did a little Googling and discovered the festival offered a back-half package which allowed you to see any six films in the final days of the festival for $100 Canadian dollars ($85 U.S.!). That ended up being the perfect option. The first weekend, I figured, would be more crowded and more expensive; going later also fit more comfortably with my work schedule this time of year.

It was surprisingly easy to talk Timmy into going with me (this also perfectly coincided with his discovery of the Letterboxd app, which has turned him into quite the movie fan), so we found an Airbnb that seemed close to the action and bit the bullet. A friend’s roommate also tipped us off to Porter airlines, which flies smaller planes from Newark to Billy Bishop Airport, which exists on an island that’s just minutes from Toronto’s downtown. The novelty (and convenience) factor of this urban airport has not worn off for me. And Porter has a really cute raccoon logo.

Back to the movies.

Our window for selecting movies came at the end of August. We decided to select four in advance, meaning we left two of our tickets as “vouchers” that we could exchange for tickets once we got to Toronto – allowing us a little wiggle room with our schedule, and the chance to capitalize on any last-minute screenings that might be added.

We pre-selected Downsizing, the new Alexander Payne movie starring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig; I, Tonya, the Tonya Harding biopic with Margot Robbie in the title role; Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, and many others who will pop up on screen and make you go “oh yeah, I love him/her”; and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh’s new film starring Frances McDormand.

Saturday morning, upon the recommendation of a local podcaster we struck up conversation with, we added Sheikh Jackson, directed by Amr Salama and just recently named Egypt’s official submission for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category. So we ended up seeing five of our possible six films, and gifted our vouchers to a couple guys sitting near us at our Saturday screenings, hoping they could use them Sunday.

Though I enjoyed some of our selections more than others, I can honestly say we did not see one bad film. All five of them were entertaining in their own ways, and I’d recommend all of them to any adventurous moviegoer.

I’ll leave the full reviews to the real critics, but I certainly walked away with impressions. I, Tonya wins my award for most engaging – not to say I was bored by the other movies, but that one had me locked in the whole time. Part of that was its being set in my hometown of Portland, Oregon (I never expected to hear the words “Clackamas County” spoken in a TIFF movie), and Tonya Harding having been something of a local figure throughout my childhood. So there was a base layer of familiarity. But more than that, it was Margot Robbie. Her performance was committed and captivating. I could never tell if I was rooting for or against Tonya Harding, which says to me that Robbie made her a real person – sympathetic in one moment, exasperating in the next, complicated all the time. She really shone in the skating competition sequences. The shot of Tonya as she lands the triple axel jump, her arms open wide in victory and adrenaline, was gorgeous. I’d pay to see the movie in theaters just to watch that again.

I’ve been more down on Lady Bird as the days have gone on, but that’s unfair of me. I wanted it to be the next Frances Ha or Mistress America – movies that resonated with me deeply and that reflect life as a young adult in New York so beautifully. But Lady Bird isn’t about an adult in New York; it’s about a high school senior in Sacramento. And it tells an equally beautiful story about how complicated family relationships can be. I also thought it did a great job of capturing the specific weirdness of “senior year,” knowing it’s the last few months under your parents’ roof, in your own room, and among faces you’ve known your whole life.

The more I’ve thought about the movie, something I think it captured perfectly was the way family members don’t (or can’t, or don’t want to) address issues with each other head-on. In order to figure out her mom, Ronan’s character goes through her dad (Metcalf and Letts were aces as her parents). It’s her brother who has to tell her that mom’s disappointed she chose to go to her boyfriend’s house for Thanksgiving. I didn’t pick up on that as I watched the film, but that dynamic added a layer of truth and believability to the portrayal of a middle-class American family.

While the mother-daughter relationship in Lady Bird resonated with me, Timmy connected with the father-son dynamic in Sheikh Jackson, which focused heavily on an Egyptian imam’s trying relationship with his dad during his teenage years (told largely through flashbacks). We starting drawing these connections on Sunday afternoon, when we walked through Toronto’s downtown entertainment district to Lake Ontario, between the Sheik Jackson and Three Billboards showings. Having that space to reflect on the films, to talk through more than just our snap judgments, was something I loved about our TIFF experience. At home, it’s easy to see a movie just for something to do, or we see one and rush off to dinner afterwards. Movies were our primary reason for being in Toronto in the first place, so we enjoyed being able to discuss each one in-depth, and view them all in light of each other.

Just a couple hours before we saw Three Billboards, it was named the winner of the festival’s People’s Choice Award. Eight of the last nine winners have gone on to be Best Picture nominees at the Oscars, and I predict this one will make it nine out of ten. It tells such a compelling, original story, and is chock-full of indelible performance. Frances McDormand stars in a role that echoes – but doesn’t imitate – Marge Gunderson from Fargo; Sam Rockwell deserves an Oscar nomination for his part as a cop who squares off with McDormand; and Peter Dinklage, though I think his role is too small for major awards consideration, delivered a line that had me (and the entire theater) howling and that still makes me smile while thinking about it a week later.

I loved Three Billboards because it’s one of those movies that keeps getting better as it goes on. At the beginning, you’re intrigued. As it progresses, it still holds your attention. And then somewhere in the middle, you realize. Oh, this is great. These are completely new characters in a completely new story, I’m invested in everyone’s fate, and the plot makes sense but I can’t tell where it’s going. I think this one will get a lot of attention in its wide release.

TIFF was a unique experience and one I hope to repeat next year and in years to come. It reminded me why I love movies – and why so many thousands of others love them, too. And since TIFF unofficially marks the beginning of fall moviegoing and awards season, I’m ready to catch up on the buzzy films I missed at the festival and start seeing the movies we’ll be talking about for the next five months during the Oscar race. There’s so much to be seen, and I can’t wait to start.

Whole30 So Far (or, “Eight Days Away From a Chocolate Chip Cookie”)

Eight nights from now, I’ll be getting ready for bed and letting it sink in that what I’ve dreamed of for a month can become reality once I wake up in the morning.

That dream? Eating one of these.

I’ve been denying myself of Levain Bakery’s deliciousness for the past three weeks while doing Whole30, and now only a week + day stand between me and that cookie.

Truth be told, I don’t even crave Levain on a regular basis. They’re the best cookies in the city, but they’re definitely an indulgence, mostly purchased for special occasions. But if making it through 30 days without grains, dairy, added sugar, alcohol, and legumes isn’t a special occasion, I don’t know what is.

I really wanted to blog extensively as I went through Whole30, but I think I’m only now in a spot healthy enough to process it: Far enough away from the painful first week that I can assess with some perspective, and close enough to the end that I’m not discouraged about how far there is to go. Plus, at least in the first couple weeks, all the time I thought would go to blogging went to meal prep – and that’s only a slight exaggeration.

For some reason, tonight, I really felt like I could sense the light at the end of the tunnel. So while I’m riding that wave of inspiration, I wanted to share a few thoughts on my Whole30 so far (today, officially, was Day 22). It’s organized in the same way I find myself talking about the program – all the negative stuff at the top, and then the positives (“All I do is prep meals now and I really want a cookie but I haven’t had a stomachache since I started and I can really tell that eliminating dairy is helping my digestion.”).

The Whole30 creators are famous for saying the program “isn’t hard,” but I’d also say it isn’t for the faint of heart. Aside from the obvious dietary changes it requires you to make, it forces you to plan meals, shop for groceries, and cook to a degree you might not be used to. I certainly wasn’t used to it, and I even pride myself on not eating out too much in New York City. I love dining out with friends, but I’m good about not just picking up dinner on any random weeknight, and I bring my lunch to work every day. But coming home and whipping up cost-effective orange chicken from Trader Joe’s (hey, only eight days until I can have that, too!) is not the same as making a recipe from scratch. And shopping and prepping to make all your meals from scratch is not the same as zipping through the store, picking up a lot of pre-prepared foods that require minimal effort to assemble into a meal, and maybe grabbing an ingredient or two that’s needed for the one real recipe you might attempt that week.

The prepping-shopping-cooking is just the tactical element. There’s also the emotional strain, and if that sounds silly, I promise you, it’s not. I don’t want to speak for anyone reading this, but my emotional attachment to food is real. Deep down, I think I recognized that and made it the driving force for starting Whole30. I don’t come home and devour a box of donuts on a bad day, but I often have a hard time saying “no,” especially to sweets, and especially when I’m stressed or upset or nervous.

I’ve found myself describing certain foods as a “crutch.” I’ve realized how much I leaned on an afternoon snack, or chocolate after dinner – how much I looked forward to those foods, and how much I thought I needed them to help me deal with external frustrations. So far, the results of Whole30 for me have been less about not craving that stuff at all (I led this post by admitting I dreamed of a chocolate chip cookie, after all) and more about realizing the place “crutch” foods had in my life. Even after a month of no added sugars of any kind, I’m still going to want that cookie. But I think I’ll emerge from Whole30 with a much healthier sense of why I run to certain foods. I have confidence that I’ll be eating the Levain cookie because I find it delicious and totally worth every calorie and ounce of sugar – and not because I need a bite of the cookie just to cope with a certain feeling or get me through the afternoon.

I’d say that sense of clarity about the place I let food have in my life has been the biggest positive of my Whole30. That realization didn’t come easy, though. The program preaches “food freedom,” which I suppose I have found to some degree, but while you’re actually in it, you’re totally enslaved to food – always checking ingredient lists, becoming “that guy” who asks a million questions about how food is prepared at restaurants, unable to have even a sip of wine when out with friends. And that sucks. But I’m far enough along now that I can appreciate needing to follow the rules to a T for awhile, so that once you give yourself leeway again, you know which rules are worth breaking.

I could go on and on about everything this process has taught me from an emotional standpoint, but there’s also the physical element to consider. Without going into too much detail about my digestive tract, I’ve felt amazing the last couple weeks. I usually don’t make it through the week without getting backed up or experiencing some sort of stomach discomfort, and it’s been very smooth sailing during Whole30. And while I don’t think I’ll ever go completely coffee-free in my life, I’ve found it much easier to get up and moving with a smaller cup of joe. I still get tired and cranky if I don’t eat enough (or enough of the right stuff) during the day, but I’ve been waking up much less groggy.

On top of all that, I’ve become much more confident in the kitchen. I’ve followed more unique recipes from start to finish in the last three weeks than I had in, honestly, maybe the previous year. Definitely the previous six months. I have a long ways to go, but I feel less daunted by recipes, am more excited about trying new ingredients, have developed more of a well-stocked pantry that allows me to whip up things without making a trip to the store for a single item, and have more of a knack for understanding how I can utilize leftovers. All of this may sound pretty basic for the average home cook, but for a city dweller who’s used to preparing easy food for one person, it’s something I’m proud of.

At this point, I’m not such a Whole30 convert that I’ll tell any of my friends or acquaintances that they just need to do it because it’ll make them feel so amazing. But if anyone I knew was considering it, I’d encourage them to try – but not before doing extensive research into the program rules and reading up on how much prep goes in to each week.

There are still eight days to go, and I’m sure at many times in that span, it’ll feel like an eternity. But right now, I feel good, have my lunch prepped for tomorrow, and am ready to be one night closer to a warm chocolate chip cookie.

Italy, Part I: Rome Recap

There’s a balance I try to strike on big trips, between living in the moment but also pausing long enough to reflect and document – whether by taking photos, jotting down the name of a restaurant, or writing a paragraph about the magic of a particular moment. I want to be in the best position possible to recapture, or at least recall, all those impactful experiences once I’m home.

I returned on Tuesday from a week (and change) in Italy, and I’m taking time now to sift through my notes, look back on photos, and put all my memories and travel tips together in a coherent story. Already, there are moments I’ve forgotten, but I was careful on this trip not to let a major memory escape my notes.

The basic trip details: I traveled with my sister, Hope, who lives in Germany, and my roommate, Jeanine. The three of us did Munich, Salzburg, and Prague together last year, so we feel good about our travel dynamic. We all flew into Rome on a Monday morning; we stayed there until Thursday morning, when we traveled by train and ferry to Positano on the Amalfi coast. We left Positano on Saturday afternoon for Sorrento, which became our home base until Monday (we took a day trip to Capri on Sunday). On Monday morning, we stopped and toured Pompeii on our way back to Rome (Hope left from Naples, which is reachable from Pompeii by commuter rail, and Jeanine and I caught a train in Naples back to Rome for one more night before our flight Tuesday morning).

If we did the trip over again, we’d skip Sorrento and make Positano our home base for enjoying all of the Amalfi coast. We spoiled ourselves by doing Positano first – it’s the most beautiful place any of us had ever been. Sorrento grew on us, but we enjoyed Positano considerably more, and could have easily stayed there longer and made it our jumping-off point for Capri and Pompeii.

I want to go into detail on each place, and I’m starting with Rome. Yes, it’s long-winded. I’m writing this mostly for myself, trying to preserve every meaningful detail. More to come on Positano, Sorrento, and more.

Rome

Rome is my favorite city in Europe. That might be a big statement, and I haven’t visited that many European cities, but the combination of modern, livable, navigable metropolis + the birthplace of so much of our western tradition made it irresistible. We stayed in the Monti neighborhood, and to be walking through a buzzing square, filled with locals enjoying their after-work cocktails…while spotting the Colosseum out of the corner of your eye, down the road? That’s the kind of old-meets-new feel I loved about London (and that I love even now about New York) – but it’s the Colosseum. The Renaissance is old, but 79 A.D. is a whole different ballgame.

I loved the way that history was woven so seamlessly into the city. Staying in Monti (we had an Airbnb) gave us close access to the Colosseum and Roman Forum, and the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and Pantheon were all walkable in 20-30 minutes. Heading home on our first night, we passed some ruins that I thought at first were part of the Roman Forum. Upon closer inspection…they were just ruins. Some pedestrian walkways had been constructed so we could take a look, and a couple of signs talked about what the structures served as in Ancient Rome, but what shocked me was how recently they’d been excavated – they were uncovered between 2004-2006! And had just been sitting there for 2,000 years prior. That’s what astounded me about Rome – so much of our Western heritage exists there, and they’re still finding more of it. Who knows what could be right underneath your feet.

Jetlag had its way by the end of Monday, but we made the most of our functional hours, seeing the Pantheon and getting to know the heart of the city. We oriented ourself by doing a combination of Rick Steves’ “Dolce Vita Stroll” and his “Heart of Rome” walk, which take you through the central neighborhoods and piazzas. Rick Steves was our honorary fourth travel companion. There’s something to be said for making sure you don’t rely too heavily on his suggestions, but his walks are helpful for understanding a new place, and it’s nice to have a go-to guide tell you were to eat when decision fatigue sets in and you just want something that’s been vetted by another human. Rick (yeah, we’re on a first-name basis) led us to Alle Carrette in Monti for dinner, where we got our first, joyful taste of real Italian pizza. And our first, joyful taste of a good house red.

Tuesday, we tackled the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. They’re a combined site, and you can see both with one entrance fee. The Colosseum is awe-inspiring and 100% worth visiting (I’d do a repeat visit the next time I’m in Rome) but I found the Forum to be more illuminating. It’s worth reading a lot of the Colosseum’s info panels for background. My favorite was titled “Cine-Colosseum.” It highlighted the structure’s place in American and Italian film and television – everything from “Roman Holiday” to “Spectre” and more.

After about an hour or so, we strolled to the Roman Forum, which houses dozens of ancient structures, from temples to the meeting place of the senate. It was an experience with history unlike any I’d ever had. We were there on a gorgeous, warm day, and I consciously took a minute to stand there and let it sink in – I am actually here at this place so foundational to the government of the country I call home, at this place I learned about in Latin class as a kid. Maybe I’m overstating it – I wasn’t near tears or anything – but visiting the Roman Forum was the highlight of the entire trip for me, and it convinced me Rome is a place I want to keep returning to and learning from.

On the sobering side, though, there’s an interesting element to consider when at the Forum (or even at the Colosseum). When all these structures stood in their original glory, the Roman Empire appeared invincible. And look at it all now. We literally call them “ruins.”

We embraced the “siesta” in Rome, and returned to our apartment after touring the Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill (another adjacent site; heading to the top offered a sweeping view of the ancient sights we just saw, and the city beyond) for some foot-resting and wi-fi-using. In the evening, we visited the Borghese Gardens (we didn’t do the Borghese Gallery on this trip, which was probably good for our sanity so we didn’t get lost in a fog of museums, but it’s at the top of my list for a future visit) and then walked toward the heart of town for an incredible dinner near the Spanish Steps. We ate at Antica Enoteca and I had the best carbonara of my life – and some pretty good Cabernet Sauvignon and tiramisu. Later that evening, we had drinks at Salotto42, a nearby spot Jeanine’s coworker recommended. I recommend, as well! Drinks were great, and they had a fabulous playlist (I wrote down what I thought the name was, based on what I could see of their Spotify, but I must have it wrong, because nothing shows up when I search. If anyone knows the name of a band whose sound could be described as “Italian Beach Boys,” please lmk.)

That evening, we saw the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. The steps were gorgeous by sunset, and we got a real treat when a lovely couple started taking their wedding photos near where we sat. There’s something that restores your faith in humanity, just a bit, about dozens of people instinctively knowing to move out of the way for a moment so the photographer can get the perfect shot.

Wednesday was our Vatican day – we had tickets for the Vatican Museums, and went into St. Peter’s Basilica. I am truly grateful to have seen the Vatican, but honestly was overwhelmed by it all. The Museums are vast, and I wasn’t prepared enough for their scale. Besides the Sistine Chapel, my favorite part was the Gallery of Maps, a hall lined with gorgeous paintings of topographical maps of Italy and its islands. The works were impressive both as maps and as paintings – rich greens and blues and gold.

On every vacation, there comes a moment where you’re just hot, tired, and hungry, and even your best-laid plans must go awry. This happened to us at St. Peter’s Basilica, which we toured right after the Vatican Museums. We had a fine visit, but after waiting in a long line to enter, well into lunchtime, we were kind of done, and abandoned a lunch reservation that was a 20-minute walk away in favor of something more convenient near the Vatican. After that, we took a bus to Trastavere, a neighborhood we wanted to check out, but even then, had limited enjoyment due to our conditions. I hate to sound whiny; it wasn’t like any of us were completely miserable, and obviously we could have just sucked it up. But after two full days of sightseeing, combined with a crowded site like the Vatican, and a hot day…we’d reached the point of just needing a rest.

Wednesday was our last official day in Rome, though, so we did want to make something of our evening. After freshening up, we took the night to explore Monti, our Airbnb neighborhood. We revisited a restaurant that caught our eyes on Night 1. There, we took full advantage of what I believe is Italy’s best quality: The aperitif tradition. When you order drinks, you don’t just get the drinks. A whole array of snacks is brought before you – mostly variations on crackers, olives, nuts, and bread. The three of us snacked and split a bottle of red. Moments like these were the ones I cherished most during the trip. They gave us time to relax, get a little something in our stomachs, and reflect on our adventures up to that point. I treasure the time I had to talk freely and openly with two of my closest friends – in the way that you really only can when you’re removed from the realities of everyday life.

We wrapped up with gelato (from a place in Monti that is, I’m sure, just a regular place, but it was one of our favorite gelato spots on the whole trip) and a surprise visit to Blackmarket Hall, a jazz spot down the street from our apartment. We were about to turn in for the night when a sign outside lured us in with the promise of “jazz funk.” For our last night in Rome, we enjoyed (really) delicious cocktails and fabulous jazz; the group played “Moanin’,” one of my favorites, for their first song.

The next morning, we were at Termini Station (also walkable from our apartment – a huge plus) early and en route to the Amalfi coast. More to come!

If you’ve been to Rome and have recommendations (food/drink/museums/places to stay), I’d love to hear them. I will be back.

Read Lately: “Personal History”

This Memorial Day (in New York City, at least) was one of my favorite kinds of days: A day off, but not one where it’s warm and sunny and I’m filled with guilt about not being outside. It’s cloudy, a little rainy, and I’m sitting on my bed in a mood to write about nothing in particular.

Right now my mind is on Rome. I’ll be there in a week and I’m ready. Well, ready in the sense that I have planned a lot of outfits, acquired lots of miscellaneous toiletry items, and formed a basic outline of what to do each day. But the fact that I’ll actually be walking around Rome in a week hasn’t quite sunk in.

I’m going with my roommate, and my sister will fly down from Germany to meet us. The three of us tackled Munich, Salzburg, and Prague last summer, and while that was a great trip, I’m excited to keep our travels to a tighter range this year; after Rome, we’re just going down to the Amalfi coast. Most of my prep so far has concentrated on Rome, and I’ve been poring over Rick Steves’ Italy guide (if this trip is anything like last year’s, Rick will essentially be our fourth travel companion; we took his book everywhere and had a lot of “well, what does Rick say we should do?” moments). Also consulted: This post from one of my favorite bloggers, and this Conde Nast Traveler article.

In preparation for this trip, though, I had one major task: Finish a book I’d been reading for way too long (it would have been embarrassing to take it on another plane ride). Last weekend, I finally wrapped up Katharine Graham’s memoir, Personal History. It’s a tremendous book, so filled with detail and vulnerability. The specificity with which she remembered events that were 60 or almost 70 years in the past is impressive. I’ll admit there were times it felt like a slog (a section about the Washington Post’s battle with striking press operators made me feel like I was re-reading A People’s History of the United States). But I’d recommend this book in a heartbeat, because I learned a lot from the way she shared a thoughtful lesson from every experience in life, whether it was her privileged upbringing, the deep personal tragedy of her husband’s suicide, or her learn-as-you-go experience as publisher of the Post.

A few favorite moments, or interesting ideas the book presented to me:

  • Katharine Graham was born in 1917, and was a pioneer as far as women in the publishing world. She talks at length about issues related to this, and openly discusses how she and other women at the Post endured sexism in big and small ways (I remember her talking about how Meg Greenfield, a leader on the Post’s editorial page, was treated with great respect in many senses by her male counterpart, in that he valued her ideas, but she was still the one expected to type up notes from their meetings). But she also talks a lot about how, despite being an industry pioneer, she still came of age in an era where it was ingrained in women that they couldn’t do what men did. And she had a hard time overcoming that. She spent nearly an entire chapter talking about how she came to understand what “feminism” really meant – Gloria Steinem helped educate her – and admitting she didn’t do enough to support female talent at Newsweek, overlooking researchers (a traditionally female role) and not promoting them to bigger writing jobs. One such overlooked researcher? Nora Ephron.

 

  • One thought I kept having: Katharine Graham ruled in a journalism era largely untouched by the pressures of the internet, and she died almost a decade before social media precipitated so much change in media. She always seemed able to look back and honestly assess how she and the Post handled various changes in technology and various unstable times in the country’s history, and I kept thinking about how she would have handled all the issues that would have come up today – yes, the internet, but also Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones. She talked about getting a call from Ben Bradlee on the day of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, discussing whether they should call a print circulation manager and literally stop the presses. What would she have thought about her paper, purchased by her father in 1933, being sold in 2013 to a man whose other company delivers stuff you buy on the internet to your door in two days?

 

  • Watergate is the reason I knew who Katharine Graham was in the first place, so I was excited to read her perspective on the scandal. I don’t want to say I was disappointed in her Watergate chapters, but they weren’t quite as illuminating as I thought, in large part because Mrs. Graham wasn’t making day-to-day reporting and editing decisions the way someone like Ben Bradlee was. She didn’t really have juicy tidbits about how the story was chased. But, her telling of Watergate gave great insight into Bradlee’s personality and working style, and she shared a few choice anecdotes that are especially satisfying for people with at least a working knowledge of the Watergate tale. My favorite: One of Woodward and Bernstein’s biggest breaks came in the fall of 1972, when they printed that John Mitchell had controlled payments from the Nixon re-election committee slush fund while he had been Attorney General. Famously, when Bernstein called Mitchell to tell him about the story, Mitchell threatened that Graham would “get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” Later, a dentist from California fashioned a tiny wringer out of the gold used to fill teeth, and sent it to her. Someone at the paper made a tiny gold breast to go with it, and she sometimes wore them together on a chain around her neck.

I learned a lot from Personal History. There was something alluring about Katharine Graham’s proximity to so many powerful people, her front-row seat to Washington society and practically all the important political events of the second half of the 20th century. She seemed to be unlike anyone else I’d encountered, in real life or in a book, and I enjoyed getting to know her through this work.

For vacation, I have a couple titles ready to go: Senator Ben Sasse’s new book, The Vanishing American Adult, and Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’m notorious for biting off more than I can chew, reading-wise, on trips, so we’ll see how it goes. I’ll report back.

In The Presence of an Icon (Or, “That Night I Waited Five Hours for Tickets to See Bette Midler on Broadway”)

At 4am Saturday, my alarm rang. By 4:45, I (along with my boyfriend, a saint) was sitting in Shubert Alley with the seven others already in line. Our mission? Secure standing room tickets to see Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! that night.

At 10am, the box office opened. We each walked away with two SRO tickets.

At 8pm, the overture began. At 8:10 or so, Bette Midler appeared onstage, and one of the greatest nights of theater I’ve ever experienced took off.

Some background on why this was such an early wakeup call:

Months ago, I came to terms with the fact that I was only going to see Hello, Dolly! by a great stroke of luck or by suddenly coming into wealth. Once the Tony nominations were announced Tuesday and the show racked up ten nods, my determination to see the show was renewed and I took luck into my own hands. I researched the cheap ticket situation (no rush or lottery, but $47 for SRO). Going off the advice of a kind stranger on Twitter (whose tweets appeared when I searched “hello dolly standing room”), I decided to wake up (very) early Saturday, head down to the box office, and see what I could do.

A brief aside to sing the praises of my boyfriend: Not only did he wake up at 4am and sit with me for every minute of our 5-hour wait for the box office to open – he also brought camping chairs so we each had a real seat. But that’s not all. Since each person can purchase up to two SRO tickets, he snagged a pair, but instead of going to the show himself, he bequeathed them to my theater-obsessed coworkers (my roommate took the fourth ticket). Yes, I know, he’s the best person ever.

Seven people were already in line when we arrived, but given what my Twitter friend had told me (he assumed 15-18 SRO per show), and knowing they would be selling for both matinee and evening, I felt good about our chances. Five hours later, we emerged victorious.

Ok, now for Bette.

I honestly had no idea what I was in for. I mean, I kind of did, because it’s an icon in an iconic musical role. But what I didn’t understand until reading the Playbill is that she really hasn’t been on Broadway much (before 2013, it had been 40 years), and that this is her first huge, headlining musical on Broadway ever.

The first time she appears onstage, she’s disguised; she and two other actresses ride out on a carriage, their faces buried in newspapers. One by one, they drop the papers into their laps, and when you see that third face is Bette Midler’s, some crazy musical theater reflex is activated and you start clapping without even realizing it.

The clapping never really stops. Actually, it even goes beyond clapping; in some cases, it was full-on arm-waving, as if the person expected her to notice, stop and point, and proclaim, “Yes, I love you, too.” She may as well have done just that; the electricity in that audience never waned. David Rooney’s review in The Hollywood Reporter puts it perfectly: “Midler soaks [the enthusiasm] up like a heat-seeking beacon and then beams it right back out into the house.”

If simply being in Bette Midler’s presence was the best part, I still would have walked away happy. But more than that, she was also fantastic in the role. I loved hearing her sing, watching her dance and ham it up for the audience.

Every other element of the production was fantastic, too. It reminded me why I love classic musicals. As I’ve become a more knowledgeable theatergoer, I’ve discovered the joy of those that are more outside the box, too – Dear Evan Hansen, or, yes, even Hamilton – but seeing Hello, Dolly!, with its stage awash in colorful costumes, its songs catchy and classic, the whole thing borderline cheesy, I was reminded why I love standard musicals. I didn’t grow up with much attachment to Hello, Dolly! in particular, but it reminded me of the shows that first drew me to a love of musical theater.

I will admit to being bummed when we learned David Hyde Pierce’s understudy would be on that night as Horace Vandergelder. Next to Bette, he was a big reason I wanted to see the show (because, Niles Crane, hello). But Michael McCormick, who performed that night, didn’t seem to miss a beat, and played Vandergelder as the character I knew him to be; he had a gruffness that I almost couldn’t imagine in David Hyde Pierce.

The man standing next to me during the show had also seen the show a few nights earlier, with Pierce. He said he was also terrific, but McCormick wasn’t leaving anything to be desired. (And for the record, this man I spoke with was visiting NYC, had purchased his earlier tickets well in advance, but loved the show so much that he decided to tough it out in the standing room line for another chance.)

Gavin Creel, who played Vandergelder’s employee, Cornelius Hackl, was the great discovery for me. He’s been in tons of shows, but I’d never seen him before, and I absolutely loved him. It was when he started singing “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” that I realized there was much more to this show than just Bette Midler.

And yet, there still was Bette Midler. At the risk of sounding incredibly corny, I’m kind of excited to thumb through my old Playbills someday and think about how lucky I was to collide with this show, with that star.

Then I’ll remember I only secured the tickets because I spent five hours in the middle of the night waiting in line. So I wasn’t just lucky; I had to work for I, too. I hesitate to say I’d do it again, because Saturday night was such a purely lovely theater experience (and because no one should lose that much sleep on a weekend). But I’m so glad I did it once.

It Feels Like February (And That’s a Good Thing)

One miserable February day in high school, I remember one of my teachers illustrating how we all felt. On the white board, he drew two diagonal lines that intersected toward the bottom, each one representing half the school year. He labeled the low point, where the lines met, “February.” He meant it to encourage us; yes, it’s dark outside, but it only gets better from here.

For the last few months, I’ve been living firmly on that downhill slide, heading toward the low point. I should offer a caveat: Nothing objectively traumatic has occurred. I’m in one piece and grateful for my (ultimately very stable) life. But the low point has appeared in the form of wrestling with the realization that, especially in New York City, I’ll never be able to do it all.

One of the most important realizations I’ve made since living in New York/becoming an adult (for me, those two are one in the same) is that time is your most valuable asset. In a city with infinite activity, you have to make choices, and I feel like I’ve had to make a lot of them in the first part of 2017.

These choices are all centered on time – who you hang out with, what hobbies you pursue, where you go, what relationships you prioritize. Inevitably, people, places, and pursuits come and go as the years pass. I’ve only been in New York just shy of five years, and the way I spend my time now looks dramatically different from the way it did when I first moved. And that’s a good thing. But I’m also much more aware of the ways I spend my time now, and while I think the awareness is a good thing, constantly obsessing over how to spend time – and fretting about how I might be wasting it – seems like a rather fruitless endeavor.

“Epiphany” is too strong a word, but as I was washing a few dishes this evening, after just having watched an episode of 30 Rock and an hour of Hail, Caesar!, I thought of that illustration from my high school teacher. I just watched some of my favorite show, and a good chunk of a great movie. Last night, 15 people crammed in my apartment to watch the Oscars. Yes, the process of managing time and priorities never stops. But life is still good, and it only gets better from here.

While I have you here, and since I just mentioned it, let’s briefly discuss the Oscars, shall we? I really don’t have that much to say, except the screenplay winners gave my favorite speeches, and I’m bummed the Best Picture fiasco overshadowed 1) a win by a phenomenal film and 2) a fantastic hosting job by Jimmy Kimmel.

Tonight I decided to honor Hail, Caesar!’s nomination for Production Design with a re-watch while I scrolled through slideshows of the red carpet and Vanity Fair party. It was heaven. (I still think a convincing Supporting Actor case could have been made for Ralph Fiennes, although why would you really want to compete with Mahershala Ali.)

Despite all my love of movies and award shows, this was the first year I’d seen all the Best Picture nominees before the actual Oscars ceremony. Manchester by the Sea was my favorite film this season, but I am thrilled for Moonlight and would have been thrilled for La La Land, too. Even though it wasn’t my favorite of the year, I’ve become something of a La La Land defender in the past few weeks; no, the movie isn’t perfect, but it’s got music, dance, Technicolor, and dreams. I don’t think it deserves all the backlash.

Every year during the Oscar ceremony, there’s a moment where I consciously think about how I spent four months watching these movies for, more or less, the very purpose of enjoying this one night. And every year I question why I do such a thing. And then a few months later I’m yearning for awards season again. We all have our vices.

Last thing.

One of my resolutions for 2017 was to continue, and expand upon, the work I did in 2016 to document as much as I could about what I read, watched, and listened to. From an ease-of-documentation standpoint, at least for TV and movies, I find tumblr to be a more effective medium than this blog. I will definitely still be writing here, but I’m keeping a more updated, visually focused look at my cultural intake on tumblr.

Good night.