2016 Unfinished Business – The Best of What I Read

It’s January 22, 2017, but I have some unfinished business from 2016 and I’m taking care of it right here.

I can only remember one resolution I made going into 2016: Keep track of all the media I consumed – movies, articles, books, music, television – that caught my eye. Looking back, I can actually say I did a good job. Not a perfect job, but a job good enough that I’m willing to elaborate on the process.

What I’m sharing here are the online articles I read, though some of them lived in print, too. Some are podcasts. To save everything, I emailed a link to myself and saved it in a designated Gmail folder (I used the Notes app on my phone to save lists of movies, books, and TV). As often as possible, I included some context in my email, as well – mentioning how I found the story, where I was when I read it, particular phrases or paragraphs that stood out, or people with whom I discussed the content.

In the beginning, I felt the weight of every article I added. Was this article “worthy”? Was I setting the right criteria? As time wore on, I realized that was the beauty of the project. There were no hard-and-fast criteria. I could make it my own. Anything interesting, thought-provoking, funny…I could add it all.

At the end of the year, there were 138 items in the folder. I recently went back through all of them, and decided these ones stood out – most of them purely for their overall content, but others because of a specific turn of phrase, or because they came to my attention in an interesting way.

There are a few more thoughts after the linkage, elaborating on the broader themes I noticed and my plans to do things a little differently in 2017, but without further adieu, here are some good reads from the past year, with assorted commentary, great phrasing, etc., included. I know it’s too long, but once I got started, I couldn’t stop. Enjoy.

(The dates listed here are generally the dates I consumed said story. Sometimes they match with the publication date, sometimes not.)

January 11 – The New York Times’ David Bowie obituary 

  • I love the description of Bowie as “infinitely changeable, fiercely forward-looking”

January 18 – WTF with Marc Maron episode 671: Charlie Kaufman

  • Kaufman on deciding to write Adaptation – “so I thought, what I if I write about me being stuck?”

February 8 – WTF with Marc Maron episode 678: Cindy Crawford

  • I love reading or listening to something that completely opens me up to a new person. Of course I knew who Cindy Crawford was, but did I know anything about her? Her interview with Maron was fascinating, because she basically broke down every preconception I had about her, and told really interesting stories about her early days in modeling, her work with artists like Richard Avedon and Mike Nichols, and her marriages.

February 8 – Colm Toibin on Saoirse Ronan’s New York (Spring Fashion cover story for New York magazine)

  • At the time, this was the best story I read all year. It’s still very high up there, I would say. I even wrote a lot about it on this very blog. Better than anything I’ve ever read, maybe, it perfectly captures what it’s like to move away from home and attempt to embody both the new place you live and the old place you live. “Sometimes she tries to fit in, to pretend that she has not changed at all and that being away is no big deal; other times she flaunts her new self. There is one moment when she walks through the small Irish town wearing sunglasses and a brightly colored dress when she seems like a returned Yank, like our neighbor’s sister, ready to gather the poor natives around her to show them the style she has acquired.”
  • My favorite sentence from the story, describing Saoirse Ronan and her own embodiment of both Ireland and New York: “She invites envy, she lives in light, she loves glamour, but she also moves easily into the shadows.”

February 19 – Jesse David Fox in Vulture, on Steve Martin opening for Seinfeld at a Beacon Theater show

  • I actually laughed out loud as I re-read the article a few days ago. There were such specific observations about Martin’s jokes, noting where he got the biggest laughs. The author clearly took so much joy from his experience watching Martin do a quick bit, and the joy passes easily to the reader of this piece.

February 19 – David Edelstein’s review of “Hail Caesar” on NPR’s “Fresh Air”

  • My favorite part of this review has nothing to do with “Hail Ceasar!” itself. It comes when Edelstein compares it to “The Big Lebowski,” and calls the latter film a “glorious stoner gumshoe hodgepodge,” which is probably the most perfect turn of phrase I heard this year. Have four words ever been so perfectly selected, assembled, and used to convey meaning? I now find it unnecessary to use any other words to describe that film.

February 26 – Richard Brody’s Oscar picks in The New Yorker

  • If “glorious stoner gumshoe hodgepodge” is my favorite turn of phrase for the year purely from a word economy standpoint, then Richard Brody’s explanation for why “The Revenant” was not Leonardo DiCaprio’s most Oscar-worthy performance wins for the phrase that most succinctly gets to a point: “Anyone can eat the liver.” Brody’s point is that Leo is a fine actor, who could have won the Oscar for parts in which he displayed skills few others have. But “The Revenant” was not such a display. “Anyone can eat the liver.” I actually think about that phrase all the time, and I think it applies to more in life than just the Oscars.

March 2 – New York Times story about Sarah Paulson playing Marcia Clark

  • I caught major “People vs. OJ” fever last year; Sarah Paulson’s performance was probably the best I saw in anything all year. I loved this story about her by Michael Schulman in the Times, which was published at the height of the show’s popularity. In particular, I loved his phrasing as he described how Paulson’s performance redeemed Marcia Clark: “As played by Ms. Paulson, she is recast as a chain-smoking feminist underdog.”

March 8 – Nora Ephron in The New Yorker: “My Life as an Heiress”

  • This story was written in 2010, but for some reason The New Yorker posted this on Facebook in March, 2016. I remember wondering why they’d chosen it; maybe it was just randomly selected from the archives for special attention that day. Of course I read it, because it’s Nora Ephron, and I found it to be a delightful piece of easy reading. You hardly even remember you’re reading when you’re reading something of hers – it just is, it is how people talk, it is a depiction of real life you feel instantly familiar with. She recounts drama ensuing from an inheritance she and her sisters were supposed to receive, and the story ties back to When Harry Met Sally…, the work that first made me an Ephron apologist.

March 24 – “How Tracy Morgan’s Accident Made Him Funnier” 

  • Here’s what I wrote when I first read this article: “I always knew I really liked him but there is something about this that I just love. That makes me love him. I think it runs so deeply with my love for 30 Rock that it is like, he’s my uncle or something. Like I’m so glad we have him. I’m so glad he has sharks.” I loved this story. Tracy Morgan is fascinating, and this story was worthy of him. His best line in it: “Gotta keep my octopus alive. Gotta keep my sharks alive. Those are God’s creatures! I’m needed!”

April 5 – Lin-Manuel Miranda featured in the New York Times’ “By the Book”

  • Having just seen Hamilton a few weeks prior to this story, I was in a full-on fever for the show; in some ways the timing of my personal obsession mirrored that of the national obsession. I read countless Ham-related articles that I could share here, but I’m highlighting this one because 1) I love knowing that Lin-Manuel and I share an affection for Doris Kearns Goodwin, and 2) neither of us could make it through Infinite Jest.

April 6 – Matt Zoller Seitz’s “People vs. OJ” post-mortem

  • Here we are with OJ again. I just re-read my notes about this and, man, this is a perfect assessment of the show. Every word of it has you nodding your head, shouting “yes” in agreement and realizing it gives voice to so many of the thoughts you had but couldn’t fully express. Like this about Sterling K. Brown’s performance as Christopher Darden: “Sterling K. Brown’s Darden has a woodwind voice that makes it sound as if he’s inhaling his own frustration…”

April 29 – Rob Reiner on “WTF with Marc Maron”

  • This was 90 minutes of showbiz story time. He talks about his projects, growing up in the business and in Los Angeles, the people he’s closely connected to. He talks about his father’s friendship with Mel Brooks and his own friendship with Albert Brooks (and about how “all of the Reiners were Reiners, but none of the Brookses were Brookses”).

May 31 – Joe Posnanski on taking his daughter to see Hamilton

  • Joe Posnanski turns the ordinary into the eloquent and sees the beauty in the everyday. That’s why I loved his Hamilton story so much. Hamilton itself is not “everyday,” but he tells us what going to Hamilton is like and helps us understand why such an experience is so special. This is the best piece I’ve read about the actual, magical experience of being in the theater, but it’s more than that – a story about fathers and daughters, the misery of being a teenage, the natural tendency to throw yourself into an obsession because it’s more fun than real life.

July 24 – James L. Brooks on “WTF with Marc Maron”

  • This didn’t get to the emotional place that a lot of Maron interviews do (Brooks was never exactly baring his soul), but like the Rob Reiner episode, it was story time. Just the kind of thing TV/movie obsessives like myself can’t get enough of. Brooks also had really nice words for Maron about his work on the podcast, and I love that he called out Maron’s interview with Terry Gross from 2015 as a particular favorite, because that’s the episode that really made me a fan of the show.

September 11 – “The Real Heroes are Dead” 

  • The New Yorker posted this 2002 story to Facebook on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. I remember laying in bed that night, clicking on it mindlessly, then finding I’d read the whole piece. It’s a love story (as its subtitle says)about a couple who found each other later in life; he worked in security for Morgan Stanley, worked in the World Trade Center, and died on September 11, 2001. My perspective on 9/11 – the day itself, not any attendant politics – has changed so much since moving to New York. Of course, as a kid in Oregon, we all knew what was happening and mourned. But New Yorkers – their husbands died. Dust and debris fell in their backyards. I’ve seen firsthand how deeply that day cut for people, and Susan Rescorla, the widow in this New Yorker story, is one such person.

September 13 – Billy Crystal on “WTF with Marc Maron”

  • Am I overdoing it with the Maron episodes here? I don’t care if I am! His show is great, and not that being on my list of must-consume media is some great prize, but I think it’s a testament to the quality of his interviewing skills and his ability to get to the heart of a person. People tell Maron stories they don’t tell anyone else. But anyway, this Billy Crystal interview. I realized how distinctive his voice is – like his actual speaking voice. Maybe I only realized it here because I have never otherwise heard him talk for such an extended period of time. His wit is effortless and unique, his one-liners perfection. And the story he told about watching the televised Vietnam draft (his birthday was never selected) will stay with me.

October 7 – Vulture on the joke density of 30 Rock 

  • This story was published in April, 2016, and I know I read it then, but I apparently didn’t add it to the folder until October. I think about this every time I watch 30 Rock now – how so many of the jokes are there just to be jokes, not to develop character or advance story. The whole point of this story was to compare season two of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to 30 Rock in that way, but it ended up changing a lot of my perspective on this show I love.

November 13 – Van Jones on race, post-election

  • Whatever your thoughts on the election and its outcome, I think you’ll find something in this article, especially in this from Jones:

I see the rebels on the rise and I see the Establishment on the ropes and I have some sympathy for all the rebels. Whether it’s the Sanders voters and Black Lives Matter or whether it’s the tea party and the Trump voters. I agree that there’s an elite in the country that’s let a whole bunch of us down. What I am desperately trying to do is, if I can, help the rebels understand each other better. We’re not going to agree on much, but the way forward here is for liberals to really do what we accuse the Trump voters of not doing. In other words, to empathize with the pain of their fellow human beings. This idea that Trump voters are all bad and Hillary voters are all good or Hillary voters are all bad, Trump voters are all good — that’s what’s getting us into trouble. On all sides, I see hypocrisy and blind spots and pain.

November 30 – “While We Weren’t Looking, Snapchat Revolutionized Social Networks” 

  • Snapchat became part of my regular social network routine in spring/summer 2015, and I’ve become a bigger and bigger fan of it as time has gone on. This column by Farhad Manjoo solidified my understanding of its larger importance. And I loved how it highlighted Snapchat’s human quality: “And perhaps most important, its model for entertainment and journalism values human editing and curation over stories selected by personalization algorithms — and thus represents a departure from the filtered, viral feeds that dominate much of the rest of the online news environment.”

Nothing from December needed to be urgently added here, so I’m leaving it at that.

A few others I want to highlight but ran out of steam to dissect fully:

As I reflect on the whole experience, I’ve decided the biggest tweak I want to make in 2017 is to diversify – both in sources and in topics. So many of the articles I highlighted here are from New York Magazine, the New York Times, and The New Yorker. Those are all publications I love, and I’ll continue to read and save their stories. And while my overall list (beyond what I highlighted above) included many other sources, like GQ, The Washington Post, other podcasts, The A.V. Club, IndieWire, Vanity Fair, and more, I want to make an active effort to read stories I might not naturally be drawn to, from outlets whose purview is unique from that of what I already read.

I loved creating something piece-by-piece, day-by-day, not really thinking as the time went on about how I was actually compiling a time capsule of my year. Looking through everything I saved was a reminder of what I read, what held my interest, what made me sad, and what I learned. I’ll report back in 12 months with the next set of findings.

Advertisements

Hamilton, Round Two (I know, I know)

What I’ll always remember about seeing Hamilton on November 2, 2016, is that shortly after my boyfriend and I took our seats, an older couple came and sat in front of us, and the man was wearing a Cubs hat. Any other night, we would not think twice about this. But obviously, for Cubs fans, Wednesday was not any other night.

I can imagine the look on the man’s face when he realized Game 7 of the World Series would land on the exact same night that his wife had decided, before the baseball season even started, they should see Hamilton. Actually, I have no idea if this was the scenario – maybe he was the one who really wanted to see the show. He seemed cheerful enough for me to believe he had not been dragged to the show totally against his will. But what a dilemma! I’d already thought with slight disappointment about how there’d be no way I could follow the whole game, but I’m not a Cubs fan and the choice for me was obvious.

He checked his phone at intermission, and the show ended with enough time to catch the last couple innings, but I loved watching everyone around us commiserate with him. (I commiserated, but not so much that I didn’t go on a little diatribe about how I would not be happy about phone-checking during the show. I thought no one could hear me, but two girls sitting near me spoke out in agreement.)

And that’s the thing. Wednesday night, the Richard Rodgers Theatre was maybe the least acceptable place in New York to be checking your phone for the Game 7 score (no one did, by the way – and I truly hope no one did at any other theater, either). With Hamilton, your decision is made. You are at Hamilton. Nothing could top it.

Obsession-wise, nothing has topped Hamilton for me at all in 2016. I first saw the show in March (and I know I’m lucky to have seen it at all, let alone twice, in this calendar year), having longed to see it for months but not knowing much of the music or much about the musical’s development. After I won the lottery by some miracle, I was vaulted into the deepest, most consuming cultural obsession I’ve had in awhile. I will try not to overstate what the show has meant to me, but I can honestly say it’s brought me closer to some friends who also found themselves obsessed – it became our common ground – and it has broadened my interest in theater as a whole. This is all on top of the first and strongest reason I love this show: It’s history and theater presented in a totally new form. We’re drawn to it because nothing else has been or is now like it.

From March on, I’ve listened to every song, memorized nearly every lyric (I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never fully grasp “Guns and Ships”) and thrilled in the discovery of hidden meanings and wordplay. At a certain point, my familiarity with the soundtrack overtook my memory of specific moments from the show. The fact that I’d seen the show was mostly useful for being able to tell people I’d seen the show. I didn’t imagine the stage production when I listened to the songs, and honestly, I was fine with that.

Cut to early July, when I’m opening my boyfriend’s birthday gift to me (his true gift has been tolerating my constant Hamilton sing-a-longs for most of this year). It was a not-well-kept secret that he was getting me the Hamilton soundtrack on vinyl, but a couple times at dinner, he expressed how excited he was for me to open my present. Had he forgotten that I basically knew what it was? It wasn’t that I wasn’t excited; I just couldn’t understand why this was being so built up. I didn’t even think about the possibility that something else might be involved, so I know I wore a confused look when I opened an envelope taped to the back of the box and removed two tickets to Hamilton on November 2.

I can’t remember exactly how the conversation went from there, but he revealed that he’d purchased the tickets when a block went on sale in February – and that was even before I won the lottery. I felt a little bad that I’d unknowingly ruined his plan to take me to Hamilton for my first viewing, but because he’s a gracious human and fully attune to the inner workings of the show, he said he was just happy I got to see the original Broadway cast. My thoughts turned to how to prepare Timmy for his own first Hamilton viewing. Over the next few months we listened to most of the soundtrack together, and I think he’d say his viewing of Hamilton’s America was also helpful.

So, that’s the scene-setting. As far as the show itself, it hasn’t missed a beat. Yes, there were slight variations in the way certain parts sounded or were acted, but isn’t that the whole point of seeing it live? The (mostly) new cast carries on the spirit of the old with energy and precision. It was a joy to watch.

Part of my joy came from experiencing it in fantastic seats (left side of the orchestra). Far be it from me to complain about winning the lottery, but the downside is that front-row seats make it impossible to appreciate the full spectacle. So. much. happens. visually in this show that it’s a completely different experience with a little distance. “Satisfied” especially – I was eager to see the “rewind” section play out in person, and I was blown away. I feel like I’ve now seen the musical in its true, full context.

Most of the lead roles have been replaced from the original cast; Christopher Jackson remains as Washington, but he was out with an injury on Wednesday night. His understudy, Nik Walker, did a great job and played some of Washington’s spoken lines a lot differently (in a good way!) from how Chris Jackson does them on the soundtrack.

My favorite performances of the night came from Mandy Gonzalez, who replaced the goddess Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, and Michael Luwoye, who performed as Burr (he is both the Hamilton alternate on Sunday and Brandon Victor Dixon’s understudy for Burr). Mandy Gonzalez hit all the right notes as Angelica, and it was fun watching her in “Satisfied” especially – I liked the ways she played Angelica’s initial conversation with Hamilton. Her line “where’s your family from” sounded less like interrogation and more like someone smitten and searching for any way to keep the conversation going.

And Michael Luwoye was phenomenal, too. I heard that Leslie Odom, Jr., the original Burr, said he would play Burr differently depending on the night; some nights Burr was a sympathetic character, other times, he was a true villain. I wouldn’t say he was played as a villain on Wednesday, but he certainly had a mean streak. You believed he and Hamilton could have 30 years of disagreements, and you believed that he pushed everyone away while figuring out his own plans (Burr singing “I’llllllllll keep all my plans close to my chest” in “Non-Stop” is one of my favorite parts of the entire show). Part of me thinks the success of the entire show rides on the success of Burr’s performance, and this was a success for sure.

This is a special show, and it will always hold a special place in my heart. To see it with a rapt audience and see it thrive after so many major casting changes gave me hope that it’ll endure all its coming iterations, from the London production to the tour. That my mom will love it just as much as I do when she sees it come to Portland in 2018. That I’ll love it just as much as I do now when I maybe win the lottery again five years from now (who am I kidding, I’m never winning anything again). If/whenever I see it again, I’ll experience the joy anew.

Odds & Ends (spoiler alerts, I guess, if you haven’t seen Hamilton, but these are mostly just elements that come across in the stage production but can’t be caught on the soundtrack): 

*Hercules Mulligan is the flower girl at Hamilton and Eliza’s wedding. I completely missed that the first time around, and it brought me insane joy.

*One of my favorite parts of the soundtrack is Burr introducing Jefferson at the beginning of the second act in “What’d I Miss?” “You simply must meet Thomas, Thomas!” he sings. I always heard it as him repeating the name, but when Jevon McFerrin (Seth Stewart’s understudy, performing for the night) sang it, the first Thomas was introductory, and then the second one was said to Jefferson, like “come on out!” Even now, listening to the soundtrack, I hear that intonation from Leslie Odom., Jr., but I didn’t pick up on it before, and I love it.

*One of the revolutionaries hands a Reynolds Pamphlet to the conductor.
*I count myself especially lucky to have seen Jonathan Groff as King George III, since he was the first original cast member to depart, but let me tell you – Rory O’Malley is just as perfect as his replacement. Timmy, my boyfriend, leaned over me during his first song and asked “is he an original?” meaning….if he’s this good, he must be.
*When Philip Hamilton confronts George Eacker while the latter is attending a play, some of the ensemble members actually stage a little play-within-a-play for that moment of the song.

Is this thing on?

Not a lot to say here, other than…it’s been awhile.

Why, exactly?

I don’t really know.

I’ve actually come here to write several times in the past few months, but nothing happened. I have a few drafts saved that recount all my summer adventures, from my college friends’ visit in June to my July trip to visit my sister in Germany. But it all felt a little forced. Everything seemed to follow a steady pattern of “Thing A happened to me, and I learned Lesson B.” Even what I’m writing right now feels a little forced, but I’m chalking it up to transition and putting it out there anyway.

Last weekend, I was on a retreat in New Jersey and spent some time talking to friends I hadn’t had a meaningful chat with in awhile. One is a dancer who’s great at encouraging others in their artistic pursuits, and she asked me about writing. Had I been writing? My answer was no, and what struck me most about our brief conversation was that it made me realize…I didn’t even notice I wasn’t writing. I’ve actually done a decent job this year of journaling privately, and keeping track of articles/stories/movies/media I consume. But in terms of writing here on my blog, or sitting down to flesh out little story ideas that come into my mind? I haven’t made any time for that.

I wish I could say that conversation last weekend prompted me to create an intentional schedule where I carve out tons of time for writing and reflection. That’s not exactly the case. But it did put the thought in my mind. If this is purportedly so important to me, why am I not doing more of it? What do I want to write about? What stories do I want to tell? What’s happening in my story – my life in New York City, my relationships, my aspirations?

So, more to come. The next thing I post here could be an essay about four years in New York and that moment you realize you’re not “new” at this anymore…or it could be 1,000 words about how much I love Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But it will be written, and right now, that’s what I find most important.

Spring Things

I haven’t posted anything here in awhile, and quite honestly, I’m not posting this because I’m brimming with inspiration, but I had a good conversation with a friend last night about having to do creative-ish things – or at least indulge your creative habits – even when you don’t feel like it.

There’s not a whole lot of creativity going on here, either. Just a few podcasts and documentaries and articles that have made me think lately. It’s for the exercise.

Sleepless in Seattle is on TV right now, and it has me thinking about the Nora Ephron documentary, Everything is Copy, which premiered on HBO in March. I’ve watched it once in full, and probably 3/4 of the way through it again, and I know it’s going to be one of those works I keep coming back to. Not even because it is so brilliant (though it was extremely well-done) but because it tells me truths I know I’ll need to remind myself of down the road.

I didn’t really know who Nora Ephron was when I first watched When Harry Met Sally my freshman year of college, but as soon as Sally said, “The story of my life? The story of my life won’t even get me out of Chicago. I mean, nothing’s happened to me yet. That’s why I’m going to New York,” I knew Nora Ephron was for me. The person who made characters who said things like that must get me. That deep connection to those words, though, did not turn me into an expert on the entire Ephron catalogue. I have seen all her Meg Ryan movies, plus Julie and Julia; I’ve read I Feel Bad About My Neck and saw Lucky Guy on Broadway; I know I’ve read assorted other works by her and about her (actually, earlier this year, apropos of nothing, the New Yorker posted this Ephron essay from 2010 to their Facebook page; I’d never heard of it but it was a delight to read).

It was not until Everything is Copy that I felt I had a complete sense of her. The documentary reminded me of her sensibility, and how badly I want to be her. She was a writer, she was funny, she chased adventure, she had an interesting life, she herself was interesting, she was an adult in New York.

I never realized until the documentary how much the subject matter of films like When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail was a departure from her journalism of the 1970s. I loved hearing David Remnick explain how Nora and the “wised-up, New York comic seriousness” of her Esquire pieces taught him, as a teenager in New Jersey, about feminism. I loved watching Meg Ryan remember her fondly. And even though their marriage didn’t end well, I loved learning about how she met and fell in love with Carl Bernstein.

There are lines I want to remember, yes, in the context of Nora Ephron, but also just as generally great writing advice, or as ideals I want to aspire to as a writer and a New Yorker:

Nora saying, “writers are cannibals,” always stealing from their friends’ and families’ lives and experiences.

Mike Nichols on Nora writing Heartburn following her divorce from Bernstein: “She wrote it funny, and in writing it funny, she won.”

And this is not so much advice but rather a line a want to steal: Nora calling Julie Nixon “a chocolate-covered spider.”

Other items on my mind:

Marc Maron celebrated 700 episodes of his tremendous WTF podcast last month with what he deemed a two-part episode, but was really two full-length WTF interviews, one with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and the other with Louis C.K. I picked more specific takeaways out of the JLD episode, but listening to Maron and Louis C.K. talk about comedy and life is a treat, too. Both episodes were masterclasses about how TV and the entertainment industry operate.

What I loved about the Julia Louis-Dreyfus episode was not just her own stories, though they were great (I never noticed that was her in Hannah and Her Sisters!); what I really loved about it was its function as a testament to Maron’s skill as an interviewer. At one point, she told a story about something she did with her teeth as a kid, when she would be out in public, because she thought it made her seem older and more adult to others around her. It was something of an afterthought, but she explained the full story. At the end, she said a little wistfully, “I’ve never told anyone that story before.” I think that’s a testament to Maron’s power. The conversation and the atmosphere naturally guided her to something of a revelation.

I was just about to type, “that’s it,” but I thought of one more recent, fantastic Maron interview. Rob Reiner did WTF just a couple weeks ago and the conversation is exactly what any fan of movies, comedy and showbiz wants it to be. He talks about his dad’s friendship with Mel Brooks, his own friendship with Albert Brooks (“Three generations of Reiners and Brookses, and all of the Reiners were Reiners but none of the Brookses were Brookses”), growing up in Hollywood, making movies, and more. It’s a warm and funny 90 minutes.

Ok. That’s really it. I think there’s some inspiration cooking now. Thanks for reading.

I won the Hamilton lottery! Here is the story.

The Broadway gods smiled upon me Tuesday night, and I won the lottery for Hamilton. I had a front-row seat to the show I’ve wanted to see for a year, and I’m now living in its glow.

I’m not a theater critic, so I’ll leave it to Ben Brantley to tell you how marvelous Hamilton is as a show (note his first line). Yet while I’m not qualified to tell you how Hamilton is changing the American musical, I can at least explain what it meant to me, as a history nerd, theater lover, and someone drawn to works of art that are totally and completely new.

Since winning the online lottery Tuesday (a complete out-of-body experience, by the way…I’ve definitely gone back and re-read the email even after the fact since I’m not totally convinced it happened), I’ve been trying to re-assemble the timeline of my Hamilton obsession. It started last spring, when I began hearing buzz about its run at the Public. At that point, I don’t think my interest went much beyond general intrigue. I think often about how history might become more accessible for the general public. What would get people, especially young people, interested in those topics that seem dry on paper? I loved the idea that a musical about one of the Founding Fathers was actually really good.

Last summer, when the show transitioned to Broadway, it crossed over into phenomenon phase. Tickets were impossible to acquire (or afford) and each time I played the lottery outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre, thousands of other fans were playing, too, so chances of seeing it that way were slim.

For awhile, my desire to see the show was driven by my desire to be part of the conversation; it was less about the show itself. Even in the summer, I knew little about it, minus the names of a few of its stars, but my interest in the show and its creator/star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, grew even larger after a New York Times Magazine story from July, which was the first place I read about how the show portrayed Hamilton: It wasn’t a straightforward retelling of what happened in America’s early days, but a meta-narrative, exploring Hamilton’s place in history, how he and other founding fathers considered the ways they’d be perceived in future generations, and how their stories were carried forward.

That concept has long fascinated me; I thought most about it when I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” and learned how Lincoln was so concerned with doing something important enough to be remembered, because the idea of an eternal afterlife wasn’t comforting; he needed to do something that would make his name indelible on earth. Hamilton doesn’t present its titular character as having quite the same motivation (and I haven’t read the Ron Chernow biography that inspired Miranda to create the musical) but I see parallels. It’s that layer of historical perspective that makes the show so fascinating to me.

What Hamilton really comes down to for me, though is Lin-Manuel Miranda. The man’s a genius. He read the Chernow biography and saw something in it no one ever noticed: Alexander Hamilton embodies hip-hop. (Watch the snickers he gets when he explains that to an audience at the White House when he first performed what became Hamilton’s opening number there in 2009.) More than that, he created an entire musical out of it, and not a cheesy song-and-dance, which I’m sure it could have become if treated by less capable hands. It’s a feast for your ears and eyes, on top of being a fresh presentation of history.

To watch Hamilton in the theater is to know you are witnessing something new and different. You have never seen a musical like this. You have never learned about history like this. It pays homage to its predecessors across musical forms, but in channeling them all, it becomes something they were not. Lin-Manuel Miranda created this whole thing – the concept, the music – and as you sit in the theater, knowing this man playing Alexander Hamilton conceived the whole idea, you realize it is extraordinary.

Now that Hamilton is such a phenomenon, actually seeing the show is a meta experience. You’re there to see Hamilton, but you’re also THERE TO SEE HAMILTON! I’ve never seen a show with such an engaged audience. And since all the lottery winners sit in the front row, it’s obvious to everyone else in the audience that you’re one of the lucky 21 who had their name picked. Who got to see the show just by chance. When I handed the usher my ticket, she shared in the excitement, saying “Oh my gosh, you won the lottery, congratulations!” That made it fun. I also treated myself to an adult beverage because I was going to have myself a night (and I wanted the souvenir cup).

Now it’s annoying for me to say, “oh, you just HAVE to see it” because I know that for a lot of people, it’ll be impossible to see this show unless they suddenly fall into wealth, or they get lucky like I did and win the lottery. It’s true, though. There’s an energy in the theater you simply won’t get just listening to the soundtrack. The cheers start when the lights first go down, and the clapping and hollering never let up. Of course at other shows, certain lines will get a laugh, but at Hamilton, “immigrants, we get the job done” gets straight-up applause.

Something unique about the performance I attended: It happened the day after the cast was all over the news for performing at the White House. Even that morning, Lin-Manuel had been in DC with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. I remember noticing his tweet early in the day, replying to a fan and confirming that he would be performing that evening. Little did I know.

I also realized it was the first time I’d sat in the front row at any show. I got to see the spit and the sweat. Thanks to the proximity and the depth of emotion I could sometimes witness, I think I love songs that otherwise might not mean much, like “Dear Theodosia,” the ode Burr and Hamilton sing to their newborns. I’ll always listen to that song thinking of Leslie Odom, Jr., sitting onstage not far from me, beaming at this imaginary child. I was amazed at how easily he transitioned from rap to this gorgeous ballad.

My enthusiasm for Hamilton has not tempered since I’ve seen the live show. Now I’m hard at work memorizing the soundtrack, and I’m still soaking up every piece of information about the show and its creation I can get my hands on. It’s a fun show to be obsessed with, and I’m happy that Tuesday’s performance was just the beginning for me.

I leave you with a few random Hamilton-related clips that I hope help you fall in love with this show if you haven’t already:

A performance of “One Last Time,” which is emerging as one of my favorite songs from the show. Christopher Jackson, who plays Washington, gave probably my favorite performance at the show itself. How can a song can be so beautiful, and explain why Washington stepped away from the presidency after two terms better than any history textbook?

A #Ham4Ham performance outside the Richard Rodgers in October; the three actors to have played King George during the Public and Broadway runs perform, “The Schuyler Sisters,” one of my favorite songs (with Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays one of the sisters, rapping the Aaron Burr part):

Aforementioned clip of Lin-Manuel Miranda rapping what became the opening number at the White House in 2009:

Goddess Kelli O’Hara performing at a #Ham4Ham:

The Hamilton Cast at the Public last year, paying tribute to A Chorus Line on its 40th anniversary (it also played that theater):

 

“Brooklyn” and Reinvention

In keeping with my previously stated goal of keeping better track of all that inspires me in 2016, I’m sitting here to meditate on a beautiful piece of writing I encountered today: “Bronx, Brooklyn, Broadway: Saoirse Ronan’s New York,” by Colm Tóibín, who also authored Brooklyn, the novel upon which the Ronan-starring film is based. The piece is the cover story for the current issue of New York magazine, its annual spring fashion issue. I love Saoirse Ronan, but it wasn’t her as the subject that made me love this; it was Tóibín’s turns of phrase, his perfect articulation of what it’s like to reinvent yourself, and his understanding of why you’d want to in the first place.

One of my favorite elements of the movie Brooklyn, which I saw a couple weekends ago, was that it understood homesickness in a very real way. I have not moved between countries, but I moved from Oregon to New York at a key transitional point in life – right after I graduated from college and entered the quote-unquote real world – and I identified so strongly with Ronan’s character, Eilis, as she left Ireland for Brooklyn and began a new life. I have cried like Eilis cried in the movie, felt the same hopelessness and wondered why I ever did this. But I’ve also made friends, started a career and built a life in this new place, and felt with unshakeable certainty that this is where I am meant to exist right now.

In the article, Tóibín describes Ronan (in comparison with her Brooklyn character) “as someone familiar with rural Ireland who was also intensely glamorous and ready to be transformed.” That phrase “ready to be transformed” leapt out at me. My transformation has been less a physical transformation than one of attitude, one of thought. I have changed since moving to New York in ways I did not expect, but the more I thought about Tóibín’s words, the more they rang true. The expectation of some kind of transformation was inherent in my longstanding desire to move to New York.

The strangest parts of being home are those subtle moments when I realize how much I’ve changed. I’ll notice moments when I say something, or react to a comment, or take an action that makes so much perfect sense to me now, that I only realize later how out-of-character that would have been for the pre-New York me.

I left the theater after Brooklyn concentrated on one shot: Eilis, briefly back in Ireland following a family tragedy, running errands around her sleepy town in a bright dress and sunglasses. It embodied the transformation she’d undergone in Brooklyn; not just that she now wore sunglasses, but that it was only natural for her to wear them in public, even in rural Ireland.

saoirse ronan brooklyn sunglasses

I’ve thought about that shot for days. In the context of the film, it says more about homesickness and reinvention than I ever could with words, and I grinned when I got to the end of Tóibín’s New York magazine story and saw he referenced it:

Sometimes she tries to fit in, to pretend that she has not changed at all and that being away is no big deal; other times she flaunts her new self. There is one moment when she walks through the small Irish town wearing sunglasses and a brightly colored dress when she seems like a returned Yank…ready to gather the poor natives around her to show them the style she has acquired.

I’m still working on the literal style part of my transformation (I do think I dress better than I did in college, though when I made this observation to some friends I visited at home over Christmas, I realized I was wearing a plaid Gap button-down technically made for men) but in the broader sense, this is exactly what I experience any time I’m home, or when I’m in New York and stop to think about how I am different because of this city.

The Tóibín piece can be enjoyed apart from deep reflection on self-reinvention, though. His turns of phrase alone are a joy to read. A few of my favorite parts:

On observing people like a childhood neighbor in Ireland, who emigrated to America but would come back to visit: “They had white teeth and good suntans. They thought life was short.”

On the specific childhood neighbor, compared with her sister who moved from Ireland to England: “The American sister, on the other hand, was all glitter and fascinating talk.”

On the realization Irish immigrants to America had when fully understanding their freedom in the new country – no family members to bump into on the street, etc.: “You could invent yourself here, even if the term self-invention was not yet understood by you.”

On Saoirse Ronan in this moment: “She has come home to a place that is neither Brooklyn nor Ireland but rather a place that she herself has imagined and embodies.”

And more on Saoirse: “She invites envy, she lives in light, she loves glamour, but she also moves easily into the shadows.”

Read the whole thing yourself, and enjoy. And see Brooklyn while you’re at it.

A Few Items for Sunday and the Start of 2016

It’s Sunday, and there’s nothing terribly urgent to say, but this weekend won’t let me leave it without writing something. Three weeks into the new year. Good excuse as any to process some stuff.

Does it feel longer than three weeks to anyone else? I don’t say that with negative connotations; maybe it just feels long because a lot has happened. Actually, not even that much has happened. But I think I sensed a shift between 2015 and 2016, more than I usually would as the years change. 2015 wasn’t a dud by any means, but nothing really new happened. And I get it. Years will go by in life where nothing really new happens. It’s not bad. But I sense 2016 holds some action. Who really knows what yet.

As the year starts to reveal what it will be, I’ve noticed one priority emerge: Keeping better track of everything. Not just physical items, though it would be great if I stopped losing my MetroCards…but ideas, articles, photos, songs – anything that, when I read/hear/see/listen/otherwise consume, immediately catches my eye. If I don’t save it in the moment, I’ll forget to save it at all (or worse, remember it but without the spark of the original inspiration).

So far, this is happening in a semi-makeshift way; I’m mostly saving items to a Gmail folder and working to keep better track of them with tags and titles. Not pretty, necessarily, but always with me, easily navigable, and free. I also use Pinterest, tumblr, and the Notes app on my phone.

Ideally, I’ll look back on this folder at the end of the year and recall a clear picture of everything that inspired me. “Inspired” may be too strong a word, though I’d say even at this early point there are a few items that fit that bill. Anything that captures how I feel in a moment, enlightens me, makes me smarter, intrigues me, opens me to a new person or idea, provokes me to dance…I want to remember what it was and what it made me feel.

Here are some of the items I’ve documented so far:

Interviews with Elizabeth Banks and Sarah Silverman on Vanity Fair’s “Little Gold Men” podcast. This podcast debuted somewhat recently and I’ve found each episode I’ve listened to extremely insightful. It’s fun to listen to people who love movies and awards season as much as I do – but who actually know what they are talking about, and have informed reasons for thinking this woman will win Best Actress or why the Hollywood Foreign Press will probably give the Golden Globe to this person. Their recent interviews with Elizabeth Banks and Sarah Silverman were particularly notable. The Vanity Fair writers who host ask such precise, revealing questions. I loved Elizabeth Banks talking about two real-life women she has played lately – Melinda Ledbetter Wilson, wife of Brian; and Laura Bush – explaining how she tried to connect to a real-life part of each woman, while understanding she could never 100% “be” them. And the Sarah Silverman conversation; I can’t point to as many specifics, but I found her to be so self-deprecating and smart and loved hearing a first-person account of some of her experiences as an actress.

New York Times Bowie obituary. David Bowie was never part of my music education, to be honest. Of course I knew who he was, but my parents didn’t listen to him and I never picked up an appreciation in any other part of my life. But we’d been talking at work about wanting to go see Lazarus, the Bowie musical that had been off-Broadway. And then on a Monday morning a few days later, news broke that he died. I couldn’t take part with any truly personal tribute, but I enjoyed following the remembrances. His obit in the Times contained an electric line, and in my mind, I can’t think of any other way someone could want to be described: “infinitely changeable, fiercely forward-looking.”

Emma Thompson on Alan Rickman. This one really upset me. It might sound silly, but in my deepest dreams of someday writing a movie and seeing it made…Alan Rickman could have been in the movie. I would have written for him. I loved watching him. And now he is gone. My mourning will not be complete until I hold a special viewing of Sense and Sensibility. In the wake of his death, my favorite tribute came from Emma Thompson, his friend and frequent co-star (who also wrote for him). Read the entire statement, but this line seemed to reveal the purity and knowingness of their friendship: “…the clarity with which he saw most things, including me…”

Movies. I haven’t seen as many new films at this point as I would have liked to, but it’s too early to be discouraged. I’ve been underwhelmed with this year’s Oscar season choices (I like anything I saw this summer, from The End of the Tour to Love and Mercy and Trainwreck more than anything from the fall/winter, with the exception of Spotlight) but have at least found a lot to value in The Big Short and Carol. And I’m still excited for the Oscars ceremony. Movies aside, there will be glamour and gossip and people writing the first line of their obituaries.

I have recently enjoyed re-watching a couple films – first, Adaptation, which I watched a few years ago. Listening to Charlie Kaufman’s interview on WTF with Marc Maron made me want to revisit it (Kaufman to Maron, about finding the story: “What if I write about me being stuck?”), and I learned a lot viewing the film with that backstory in mind.

The second recent re-watch, which I enjoyed just last night with my roommate when we decided we were not going out in any more of this blizzard madness: Guys and Dolls. I watched this movie tons as a kid (I think my mom first showed it to me because my dance class performed to “Bushel and a Peck,” a song from the stage musical which actually isn’t in the film) but hadn’t seen the whole thing in ages. It’s so witty and brilliant, and I never picked up on any of that as a kid. One-liners galore. And I can finally say I understand that the crap game is not literally floating.

And with that, there are just a few minutes to Monday, so these Sunday thoughts aren’t worth a lot anymore. But there they are. More to come in 2016.