Weekly Adventure: Mini-Break to Salem

The idea of witches has always been pretty fascinating to me. I’ve always loved reading Alice Hoffman novels, in high school I wore out my copy of The Probable Future, and I still return to her sprawling tales of New England women with complicated “gifts.” It’s no surprise that this was my favorite sign at the Women’s March in January:

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Because so much of the moral panic of witch trials can be tied back to women who didn’t fit into the idea of what a woman should do. Which is why its surprising that I actually hadn’t been to Salem, MA until this past weekend. Well, this weekend I took the Megabus up to visit Hanna in Cambridge (well actually Somerville…) and we took the train out to see what Salem had to offer.

And…it was awesome! For a few reasons:

1. It’s a super cute little New England harbor town, which is a particular kind of charm I really enjoy.

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2. The history, both of the witch trials and otherwise (it’s also Nathaniel Hawthorne’s hometown)

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3. The witchy wonderfulness. There is so much camp, and so much earnest Wiccan stuff. It was just exactly what I wanted it to be, and it was also incredibly strange once I stopped to think about it. The actual historical trials were about the paranoid superstition of a group of people who were wrongly accused of witchcraft, which is obviously a tragedy. But now the town is forever associated with witchcraft, and is a Mecca of sorts for the Wiccan and neo-Pagan community. Which is cool in that it’s sort of the ultimate fuck you to the Puritan authorities, but it also leads to a strange tension where the town can’t decide if they believe if witches are real or not, which opens the uncomfortable question about the (obvious at least to me) innocence of those executed. This narrative is most confused at the Salem Witch Museum, which I wish I could describe to you but it is beyond my power. Please just go, it costs $12 but you will never experience anything quite like it….

Anyway, it was also just a great first real Spring weekend up here in the Northeast, and Hanna and I had a delightful time being silly through the streets:

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I did not buy any, but I’m really regretting that now…

Best Picture Baking Project: Chariots of Fire

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Happy President’s Day! I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated this particular strange American holiday, and I’m certainly not going to start under the current administration, but I did take the opportunity to head home to New Haven for a bit of rest and relaxation. And for me that means movies and baking (though the baking was not my best effort…more on that later.) First, the film:

Had I seen this one before?

Nope. Which was surprising to both of my parents. All I knew was the opening sequence with the team running down the beach.

Top 3 observations on this viewing?

  1. This movie is so incredibly British. Which means, it’s charming, incredibly well acted, and obsessed with questions of whether it is acceptable to focus on individual excellence over a “feeling of esprit de corps.” Which as an American is hilarious to me.
  2. The depiction of Americans as professional, running machines that are borderline evil or Bible thumpers. It’s always funny to me (especially in later Richard Curtis movies), but here it is particularly pronounced.

    I mean, look at him with his hat on backwards, how gauche.
  3. I love a good sports movie, and this is one of the best. It’s a classic for a reason. And I like that it takes on other issues, anti-Semitism and commitment to faith, without getting too preachy or overreaching for metaphors. These men are more than just runners, but true Olympians, then as now, are a unique breed motivated by physical challenge, which, as I am very much not, will always be fascinating to me. 

What did it beat? Did it deserve to win?

Atlantic City –  Never heard of it.

On Golden Pond – I really only know of this, because of Jane Fonda accepting her dad‘s Oscar for it, which is a nice awards history moment, but doesn’t really help me judge the film

Raiders of the Lost Ark – I love that this was nominated, but of course it didn’t win.

Reds – Oh, I love this one so so much.

This is tough. Reds is one of my favorite movies of all time, but Chariots is pretty fantastic too. I’m going to go with, I would have voted for Reds but I’m not mad that Chariots of Fire won.

Bechdel Test Pass?

Nope. There are two named women, they are both reluctantly supportive partners to their respective champions. They never meet. (This is one of those cases where this didn’t bother me that much. Cambridge, where most of this narrative takes place, was an overwhelmingly male environment. It would be strange and forced to shoehorn women into this particular narrative.)

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Sybil (Alice Krige) seeing Harold off at port – in a shot later echoed in a future Best Picture, Titanic

OK, dessert time, I wanted to do a flaming dessert for obvious reasons, but…that turns out to be trickier than I thought…

Flaming Baked Alaska Cupcakes

Ingredients for cupcakes

  • 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons milk
  • 2 cups of your favorite ice cream, I used strawberry field

Ingredients for meringue and flambe

  • 6 large egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tarter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2-2 cups brandy

Directions 

Prepare the cupcakes

  • Heat oven to 350F and line cupcake pan with papers
  • Mix together flour, baking powder, and salt
  • In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy
  • Add eggs one at a time, mixing well between additions
  • Beat in vanilla extract
  • Add flour mixture and milk alternately, beginning and ending with flour
  • Divide batter evenly into liners, filling them about 2/3 full
  • Bake for 15-20 minutes (*check them at 15, mine took 18 minutes)
  • Remove from oven and let cool
  • Peel away cupcake liners and discard
  • Cut a small divot out of the top of each cupcake, large enough to hold ice cream
  • Fill each divot with ice cream
  • Put filled cupcakes in freezer

Prepare the meringues

  • In a large mixing bowl, beat egg whites until foamy
  • Add the cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form
  • Gradually beat in the sugar until the meringue is stiff and glossy
  • Preheat oven to the hottest setting
  • Remove the cupcakes from freezer
  • Set each cupcake on their own small place
  • Place the plates onto a baking sheet
  • Cover each cupcake with meringue using an offset spatula
  • Place the sheet into the oven until lightly browned (*pay close attention and take them out exactly when they are browned) 
  • Remove from oven
  • Pour tablespoons of brandy over each cupcake
  • Ignite the brandy and let burn until the flame subsides
  • When the flame dies down serve immediately

Or…this could happen:

We did try them, they tasted like cheap brandy… But the unlit ones (ie the ones I didn’t put in the oven/douse with brandy tasted good…)

Six Degrees of Cinema: Silence

I’m not sure how to write about SilenceAs a film fan I was struck by the beauty of the cinematography and the ambition of telling a story that in many ways is very internal, in a visual medium. As a person who, while admiring of his obvious genius, has a really complicated relationship with Martin Scorsese, I must say that I appreciate his contemplative side much more than whatever you want to call The Wolf of Wall Street

But, despite fantastic performances all around, not much of this movie stuck with me when I left the theater as I expected it to. Well, nothing artistic at least. As an exploration of religion and the nature of belief, I cannot stop thinking about it. It raised so many deep questions about martyrdom and apostasy and what faith in the face of the actual persecution looks like, and why governments engage in it. (I think it has something to do with fear of a power greater than themselves.) It’s an exploration of evangelism, and when its more dangerous for converts than liberating, what then is asked of a believer?

I don’t have answers, but its been a very long time since a movie made me think this deeply about spiritual things. So, let’s see if 1980s era Scorsese will pull that off as well with the next link, his The Last Temptation of Christ.

In this chain: Paterson – Silence

Songs That Hit Me Harder Now

I started working on this playlist a couple of days after the election. I was an emotional wreck. Like not sure I was capable of pulling myself out of bed levels of despair. I’m still very sad and angry, but I’ve begun to channel that energy in more productive directions. But certain songs have been making me cry that never did before. Some of their lyrics made a new kind of sense, and some I can’t really explain, but they listening to them and letting myself cry has been cathartic for me so I thought I would share them with you all:

Second Nature – Original Broadway Cast of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson 

I understand why people have issues with this show. It definitely can be read as glorifying Jackson, and parts of it are really just dumb. But I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately and how American populism is often such a dangerous, violent thing. I think it’s, unfortunately, worth a revisit in our current climate.

My Shot – Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton 

Just as a corrective.

Truth No. 2– Dixie Chicks

Bread & Roses– Judy Collins
I know I’ve shared the Joan Baez and Mimi Farina version of this before, but literally every version has always made me cry and especially now…

Pompeii – Bastille 

Ghosts That We Knew – Mumford and Sons 

He Thinks He’ll Keep Her – Mary Chapin Carpenter 

OK this one doesn’t make me cry, but I don’t think I had listened to it before this weekend since I was like 10. And I really didn’t understand it before. Also, this video is such a find. Look at all of those powerhouses! (And all that 90s hair..)

If We Make It Through December – Merle Haggard 
Thanks to Stu-Bot on TBTL for this one.

Make Them Hear You – Brian Stokes Mitchell from Ragtime 

Helplessness Blues – Fleet Foxes

Five Star Book: The First Collection by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper

I know, two 5 Star book posts in as many weeks! But I couldn’t let a book that made me grab a pen and underline things as often as this one did go unrecommended.

I saw Jessica Hopper speak about this book at the Texas Book Festival last year and bought it based on her & (frankly) a sense of feminist obligation. If the title is true, which it seems to be, then we have to buy this one to ensure there will be more.

Reading it didn’t feel at all like a chore though. Hopper is insightful and witty, hard hitting when she needs to be (like in her interview with Jim DeRogatis about R.Kelly’s very disturbing [alleged] obsession with underage girls) and compassionate always (even in the sections titled “Bad Reviews”).

It’s actually sort of intimidating to even write a review of her book, because she has mastered the form. So instead here are 5 of my underlined favorite lines:

“Girls in emo songs today do not have names. We are not identified beyond our absence, our shape drawn by the pain we’ve caused. Out lives, our day-to-day-to-day does not exist, we do not get colored in.”

From “Emo: Where The Girls Aren’t” Punk Planet #56, July 2003

“It’s often uncool to be the person who gives a shit.”

This is from her conversation about R. Kelly, but it also speaks to the book as a whole. One of my favorite writers, Rob Sheffield, wrote a blurb for the back of this book that says, “She concedes nothing to the idea that it is dumb to care so much.”

“lord alive, there is not a more earnest and tenderhearted person in rock n’ roll than Eddie Vedder, in case you doubting just how sensitacho he rolls.”

I’ve always suspected this to be true. from “Vedderan: Notes on Pearl Jam’s 20th Anniversary Concert” TinyLuckyGenius, September 2011

“They stand for hope and big ideas as well as simple ones: have fun, include everyone, be positive, do good work. It’s an active rejection of adult cynicism. You could call it anti-capitalist, but there’s no indication anyone involved has given it that much thought.”

From “Will the Stink of Success Ruin the Smell?” LA Weekly, February 2009

“It’s subtler than patriotism; the abstraction is a nostalgic ruing for that old=-fashioned American freedom (not the 2012 GOP’s hijacked late-stage-capitalism-amok-in-you-uterus version), the sort that might entice a young girl to move up from Georgia with just a lamp, a chair and her guitar.”

From “Cat Power: Sun” SPIN magazine, September 2012 

I’ll probably put together a playlist sometime soon of songs this book introduced me to. But though its about music, its really about not being afraid to give a shit, to care too much about something other people call trivial, which i think you can tell from the name of this blog is a sentiment I can get behind.

Weekly Adventure: Art Therapy Edition

I’m not sure how to start this post. I spent a lot of last week in tears and I am still pretty fragile. But, despair is defeat, so I’ve picked myself up and am working on being a proactive helper to those I know the new President and his supporters either don’t care about or actively hate. But in the meantime I have to take care of myself too. And for me that means movies (I saw Loving on Friday), books (I’m reading a great one about Yeats right now), and art. So this Saturday I pulled myself out of bed and used my museum employee free admission to see some art.

Kerry James Marshall – “Mastry” at the Met Breuer 

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Still Life with Wedding Portrait, 2015

What sadly serendipitous timing for this large exhibition of work by this African American political artist. A little boy in the elevator with me told his mom that he found the paintings on the exhibition’s first floor “scary,” I had accidentally walked through the show backwards (a mistake I make a lot somehow) but was surprised. The work on the second floor was powerful & (especially given our current political moment) sad at times, but not graphically violent. (Even his portrait of Nat Turner with his master’s head was remarkably restrained in my mind.) I’m not a child obviously, but I think we all need to be willing to be scared and disturbed by the injustices that work like Marshall’s depicts.

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Our Town, 1995

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Art of Hanging Pictures, 2002

This is part of a 2002 installation depicting life where Marshall lived on the South Side of Chicago. The depictions hit me hard as a proud Chicagoan in exile. I’ve been grappling with what it means that the places I love are so segregated and only safe for some people. Just like this piece. I don’t have answers for this, but the representation helped me to articulate it.

Agnes Martin at The Guggenheim 

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I struggle a lot with minimalism, especially in contrast to the vibrancy and emotion of the Marshall show. (Yes, I know the irony of working in the Noguchi archive and having a hard time connecting to minimalism.) But I always want to support institutions that give single artist exhibitions to female artists. So, Agnes Martin. Her work is technically astounding – all those tiny straight lines! – but most of it did strike me personally as cold.

It fit really well with the Guggenheim’s architecture though! And I very much enjoyed reading about Martin’s life. A Canadian immigrant who traveled between NYC & Taos, NM she worked to create and maintain a style separate form, as one wall panel put it, “the visual and rhetorical bravado” of the Abstract Expressionists. She endeavored to create “innocent” and “happy” work that she felt was life affirming, which is an inspiring project on its own. Especially given her place as a female artist who suffered from schizophrenia in a male dominated, abelist art world.

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Friendship, 1963

Vigil for Hope & Human Kindness – Not art I know, but certainly therapeutic

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I haven’t taken to the streets since the election, I have so much love and respect for my friends & family members who have and I’m sure I will join the soon. But I, as a person, don’t do rage well. (I think most people are anger-leading people or sadness-leading people and I am the latter.) But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been craving collective action and catharsis. So I was really glad to see this event in Brooklyn pop up on my Facebook.

I didn’t know just how much needed to cry and sing and plan with other people until I got there. On my way home I kept thinking about how we make fun of 60s activists for “singing Kumbuya” in the face of oppression. And sure, that song is silly, but the need to be quiet and still and take solace together is just as real as the need to yell and stomp. (And I really mean that, we need both.)

So, here’s the way we closed the vigil (well this followed by hugs from strangers, because cliche hippie stuff actually feels really good in the darkness.):

And now that I trust we are all going to try to take to care of each other – I’ll see you at the barricades.
 

 

Weekly Adventures: First Week in NYC

I meant to write like 3 separate posts this week, but it’s been 2 years since I’ve worked 9-5 and remembered to blog. Most nights by the time I’m home I have the energy to lie down in front of my fan and watch clips of John Oliver (and The Bachelorette – and my British soaps). But that’s because I’ve been having so much fun exploring the city. I’ve been visiting New York since I was in middle school, but in the past few years I haven’t been here as much and I’ve never been here for longer than a couple of days at a time before. So, I took advantage of that full force in my first week. (And caught up with a couple of my favorite people who are here now too!)

Highlights include:

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Catching the final day of the Poetry Project’s Beats and Beyond poetry festival, including a reading from Michael McClure, who was one of the other poets to read the night that Allen Ginsberg first read Howl.

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It was pretty awesome.

On Friday my fellow Tenement Museum summer interns used our free entry to museums to visit the Whitney. Their new building is beautiful, and right now they have a great exhibit of portraits from their permanent collection spanning two floors. It includes traditional painted portraits and street photography (my favorite), and more experimental pieces, like this one:

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Called Standing Julian, by Urs Fischer, this piece is actually a gigantic candle, that burns all day (it’s extinguished at night), and allowed to melt down.

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There was also a exhibit dedicated to Stuart Davis , whom I had never heard of before (because my art history knowledge is completely selective), but I really loved. Especially his use of color.

 

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Super Table – Stuart Davis (1924)

Afterwards we got tacos at Chelsea Market and walked the Highline, which was both super touristy and very pretty.

For my other main adventure of the week, I went with Hanna and a few of her Princeton friends to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, which was the best. Although, we missed the peak flowering season for a lot of the sections, the Rockefeller Rose Garden was spectacular:

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You can see a lot more pictures I took at my flower-centric Instagram @Itaketoomanypicsofflowers

Then on the way home, I happened upon the Hare Krishna Festival in Washington Square Park, which was so vibrant it was overwhelming.

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Also, I’ve lost the Hamilton lottery a bunch of times.

Weekly Adventure: Spring Break Getaway Edition

It’s South by Southwest time here in Austin, and like a true local, I spent most of it out of town. (This isn’t a slam on SXSW, I find people that complain about it more insufferable than festival goers, I just had other places to be.) Mainly, one of my dear friends was getting married in Chicago last weekend and because plane tickets into Austin spike in price for the festival I chose to take a detour through Dallas. And just in case you were ever in doubt about whether or not I’m a huge nerd, I spent my time there visiting a couple of presidential history museums (oh, and taking advantage of my hotel’s cable to watch Shadowhunters in real time…).

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I seemed to have brought the gray weather north with me, but nothing can ruin this view for me. It gets me every time I come around the curve on LSD.

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As previously stated, this is not a wedding blog, but I’m just so incredibly proud of Julia and my gift to the happy couple. It seems Pinterest worthy, so I’m uploading here so we can make that happen. (Basically it’s a basket full of booze for them to mark milestones in their marriage. And Jules did the bow, I have no crafting talent.)

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The happy couple at their wedding brunch at Farmhouse

 

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Jules expertly Vanna White-ing the delicious pastries

The next day, I went for a good old fashioned urban hike through a long stretch of Lincoln Park, and stumbled upon the Lincoln Park Conservatory, which is currently hosting the Chicago Spring Flower Show. I didn’t know that was a thing, but it’s right up  my alley.

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I took a million pictures, many of which you can see on my new all-flowers Instagram account.

It was one of those Chicago spring days where it can not decide if it’s gray or bright or cold or warm. But Grant looked pretty good in the afternoon light:

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My destination on the walk was the Chicago History Museum, which I had somehow never been to before. (I know, it makes no sense.) But I’m glad I went, it was a lovely mix of traditional and socially conscious, and I nerded out a lot.

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The 1893 Columbian Exposition as depicted in the diorama room. These have been on display since the 1930s.

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A suffragist in the exhibit on social protest

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They have a temporary exhibit right now called “The Secret Lives of Objects,” which is essentially a hodgepodge of intriguing things curators found in storage. Some fun and some ssurprisingly poignant. Like this lamp, it started the Iroqouis Theater Fire (which is the reason we have doors that open out in public spaces.) A really cool exhibit if you’re in Chicago.

The old part of the CHM building is gorgeous:

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In the permanent exhibit, I learned that the Harlem Globetrotters were founded in Chicago (and remained headquartered there until the 1970s but have been named after the NYC neighborhood since the 1920s, which doesn’t make sense), and saw these important historical artifacts:

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They also have a really well designed, small exhibit of some of Vivian Maier‘s street photography, which I really loved:

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What I loved about the exhibit was the way I felt surrounded by the faces of the people Maier captured. It felt like being on the street with her. Very transporting.

That night I got some post-work Bourgeois Pig with Jules and then enjoyed The Bachelor finale with the girls I started the season with. (Such a treat to see them all again so soon!) And then the next morning it was off to Dallas.

Despite the swing in temperature & humidity, it turned out to be another lovely day for a walk, and I was surprised by how pretty the part of downtown I was staying in was. And they had cool, historical photo based, public art:

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I was walking to Dealey Plaza.To pay my respects as a longtime Kennedy fanatic (I won’t go into that now, this post is long enough) and to visit the Sixth Floor Museum (which is a great mix of tribute to Kennedy’s legacy and examination of what happened on 11/22/63).

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The Plaza itself was a WPA project, and is really pretty. But it’s sort of surreal to walk around it. I’ve seen footage and photos of it so many times, and other than the models of the cars and the heights of the trees not much looks that different. It was very surreal.

Also strange, the amount of men walking around carrying strange homemade signs trying to convince you to pay them for their tour of “what really happened”

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Very high tech conspiracy HQ

They don’t let you take pictures inside the museum, but it was a moving and thought provoking experience for me. (For the record, I think Oswald did it. I’m not completely sure how to explain Jack Ruby, maybe the mob was involved, maybe not. Oliver Stone is full of shit.)

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I took the DART light-rail to get around. I found it clean and easy to navigate. I also could have rode for free the whole time, but chose to pay, because I believe in supporting public transportation.

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Across from my hotel there was a place called Thanksgiving Square, it had murals and interfaith scriptures, and this ring you were meant to pause under and give thanks. It felt sort of stuck in where it was, but I said a little prayer under the ring. (I didn’t go into the chapel, but I sort of wish I had, it looks really cool.)

On my second day in Dallas I took the train out to SMU to visit George W. Bush’s Presidential Library and Museum. I did this, because of my life goal to visit all of the President’s landmarks (see LBJ and Lincoln).

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Although, I was not and am not W’s biggest fan, I’m not going to go into a political rant here. Mostly, because most of my experience at this museum was apolitical and nice. The staff were all really lovely. They had a temporary exhibit about how campaigning has changed that included this carpet that showed all the results of every presidential election:

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On loan from his library in Little Rock

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And this awesome looking board game that I am not allowing myself to look up on eBay, because I will buy it

The building itself is really beautiful:

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And, while I found myself disagreeing with the emphasis of the permanent exhibit there were some pieces that were done unquestionably well.

For instance, the 9/11 memorial, which includes a part of one of the Towers and a lot of very moving archival news footage:

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And the recreated Oval Office (one step up from LBJs because you can step in, walk around, and even take pictures at the desk!):

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There were also some nice lighter moments featuring the First Family. Hilariously, when I went searching for a statue to take a selfie with, I couldn’t find one, but these were prominently displayed:

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The only part of the whole thing that made me truly angry was the “Situation Room” simulation.

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Basically, you sit down in rows with a bunch of strangers, and vote on a screen in front of you on which “crisis” you want to tackle. (My group chose Hurricane Katrina. Other options include Saddam Hussein and The Financial Crisis). They then give you a briefing and 3 options to choose from. You can track what others in the room are thinking with a CNN-like approval line on the big screen. Then you vote on what you would do. Then they tell you what Bush did. As I was walking out of the room it felt like a cool multimedia experience, and I was surprised that I had chosen the same response that Bush did to the crisis. (I do not generally think I agree with how he handled Katrina.) And then I started to feel queasy. The flashiness and official look of the presentation makes it seem like in each of these situations, Bush had exactly 3 options, none of which were all that good and that’s why he made some of his least popular choices. Now, I do agree that being the President is an impossible job, and perfection is not an attainable goal, but I think this presentation simplifies the most important failures of my government during my lifetime to “well things are complicated, you couldn’t do any better.”

What sucks, is that this was right at the end of the exhibits, so I left with the bad taste in my mouth. As you can see from the newest addition to my Presidential Photo Collage:

Post W

Now that I’m back in town, I’ve mostly been lying around exhausted. Though I did go see Midnight Special yesterday. It’s amazing. I want to go see it again. Like I want to go pay full ticket price a second time. That’s an extremely rare feeling for me. But like, I may go see Midnight Special again tomorrow if anyone wants to join me.

Five Star Book: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

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I really thought that I knew what this book was. I thought it was a personal account of Vietnam, a memoir, a gritty rough, “you’ll feel like you were there,” aggressively macho read. And for the reason, I never read it. There’s nothing wrong with a book like that (well yes there are, but what I mean is books like that have every right to exist), but I wasn’t going to spend my time reading one. But then my anthropology professor assigned us the titular story from this collection, and by the time I was 5 pages in I was teary eyed and e-mailing my dad to request his copy.

It’s hard to classify, it’s stories, they’re fiction. But it’s also pretty clearly rooted in Tim O’Brien’s lived experience (both of Vietnam and life after), and it can be hard to tell where the blurry edge of fact and creation is. That’s by design, there are whole chapters in here that are just extended authorial tangents on the notion of truth and the importance of stories. How Truth, particularly about traumas like wars, is often untellable, but stories can help us understand. He’s able to say it much more eloquently than I can. You should just read the book. (Which apparently, most of you already have. I feel like the only American my age who wasn’t assigned it in high school. But I’m glad I read it now, being older than most of the boys actually made me feel more deeply the loss not just of the ones who died but also of the non-soldier lives of the others. Because as O’Brien’s career attests, that shit sticks with you.)

What I really loved was the emotional frankness. He doesn’t seem to give a shit anymore about maintaining the bravado that being a soldier required of him. He was scared and sad and also exhilarated and he lets us all know that. He sees the flaws in his actions, but he maintains an amazing level of compassion for why his younger self did what he did. It’s emotional and filled with sentiment, but somehow never succumbs to sentimentality. I’ll be thinking about it for a very long time.

And the Nominees Are 2016: Round 3

This is going to be another monster post. In past years I’ve tried to keep up with posting once a week everything I see this time of year, but with traveling I’ve now gone two, very movie filled, weeks without an update. (And I haven’t even updated my list with yesterday’s BAFTA nominations yet…) So bear with me, because I saw some great stuff.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief 

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I’m actually kind of shocked that I hadn’t written about this before. I watched it when it first aired on HBO, and (unsurprisingly given my fascination with alternative religious philosophies) found it compelling, and frankly terrifying. I had read the book over winter break last year, so I already knew a lot of the juicier revelations in this doc, but it was still a good watch. What I like most about the book and film is the way that Lawrence Wright sincerely wants to understand the motivations and mechanisms that attract members to Scientology and keep them there.

Scientology’s theology is easy to laugh at, but the abuses of power Wright and his collaborators describe are seriously scary. So it can boggle the mind how otherwise functional people allow themselves to be caught up in an obviously (at least to a detached observer) exploitative system. The stories the subjects share here aren’t necessarily relatable but they are much closer to it than anything else about the Church I’ve ever read or seen before.

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Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors 

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Here’s the thing. I love Dolly Parton. She’s a legend. This “movie” is terrible. It’s like those overly religious, gold-embossed Hallmark cards that take up way too much space on the rack at Walgreen’s. OK, that’s harsh. But, I couldn’t take the preachy schmaltz of this. Frankly, after about 10 minutes, I just had this on in the background and read my book. Jennifer Nettles is very pretty though. And Alyvia Alyn Lind is cute and spunky as a young Dolly, but do yourself a favor and skip this one.

Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors - Season 1

The Danish Girl

2015-12-29-1451404098-7547215-thedanishgirlThe first half of this movie is intimate I almost felt like a voyeur. The story of Lili Elbe (born Einar Wegener) and her wife, fellow painter, Gerta Wegener, is historically important. (Elbe was one of the first patients to attempt full sex reassignment surgery.) But this movie illustrates well how deeply personal (rather than political) gender dysmorphia and transition is. And it was even more difficult for Elbe since she didn’t even have the modern context and language of the Trans Rights Movement to describe herself to herself (let alone her wife or anyone else.) Although the scenes of the psychologists misdiagnosing her are horrific, they also make sense, at times her attempts to describe how she’s feeling to sound almost schizophrenic.

I was able to think this deeply about these issues because my two loves Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander were both so raw and wonderful. It wasn’t my favorite movie of the season so far. (Brooklyn and Spotlight are vying for that spot right now), but it was beautiful, both visually and emotionally and it makes clear, not just the drama, of Lili and Gerda’s lives but their complexity. (Ben Whishaw and Matthias Schoenaerts – also great this year in Far From the Madding Crowd and Amber Heard were all also lovely.)

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The Intern

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen a non-Parent TrapNancy Myers movie before*, which is pretty awful of me considering the fact that as a feminist I should be buying tickets to female directed movies (especially those that tell women’s stories) as often as possible, but somehow it never happened.

But, I liked this one enough that I’ll probably go back and watch her other ones. This is a pretty world filled with rich, pretty, well-dressed people, but sometimes you just want to live in a world where everyone in Brooklyn can afford a claw foot bathtub and a revolving tie rack.

This movie works because Anne Hathaway and Robert DeNiro can charm a stone. I especially loved DeNiro in this. I tend to think of him as an intimidating presence, but here he plays as a big softie. (Like my mom and I literally “awed” multiple times.)

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*Note: I have also seen The Holiday 

Joy

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I know that David O. Russell is insane, but I’m pretty excited that Jennifer Lawrence wants to work with him until one of them dies, because they make damn good movies together. This one may not be the most consistent (that’s probably American Hustle) but its rough edge match its subject matter and I found it incredibly watchable. I especially loved the strange soap opera sequences starring actual soap actors and the way the permeated the early story, because Joy (Lawrence)’s reality was so tough you almost (key word there) understood why her mother (the delightful Virginia Madsen) would rather stay in bed watching TV.

Lawrence carries the film wonderfully with chillingly great supporting turns from DeNiro, Elisabeth Rohm, Isabella Rossellini. Lawrence and Bradley Cooper have their same electric chemistry (channeled in a new direction) and Joy’s truly loveable ex-husband was played by my new discovery, Édgar Ramírez . It’s not a love fest, but there is love in the mess and inspiration in the chaos.

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Youth 

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I loved the trailer for this, but really hated the director‘s last (somehow Oscar winning)film The Great BeautySo I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about this one. Well, it feels like a much improved 2nd draft of Beauty. It’s still an exploration of aging artists –  Michael Caine plays a composer and Harvey Keitel his film director friend – and their coming to terms with the proverbial gaps in life.

I don’t want to describe this too much it’s a surreal fever dream, but somehow also a very real investigation of relationships romantic, platonic and familial. But I really don’t think I can convey its strange tone. So, I’ll just say the performances, particularly Keitel and Paul Dano (as a disaffected Hollywood actor contemplating a role), are captivating and full. It’s a weird one, but ultimately moving.

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Carol

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I don’t know if this suffered from inflated expectations or what, but I didn’t find this as moving as I would have liked. That being said, it was visually gorgeous, the colors and lighting are mesmerizing, and the 1950s clothes and set dressing are impeccable.

I’m trying to figure out what held me back from buying into this. The performances were exceptional, from Sarah Paulson and Jake Lacey in great supporting turns to Kyle Chandler doing an excellent job of playing what could have been a villain – Carol (Cate Blanchett)’s estranged husband who can’t handle her sexuality – as an essentially good person who is acting out of fear, ignorance, and hurt.

Which brings me to the central duo. Rooney Mara is breathtaking, both like she’s beautiful and her performance is subtle and lovely. Blanchett, while obviously striking built a character that had so many layers of artiface that it took me a long time to like her. Not that likability should be the goal of a performance, but I kept thinking they way she talked was reminiscent of her Blue Jasmine turn, which as I said then, felt more like a caricature than character. So, maybe (and this feels like a confession I’ll get some flack for) I’m just not a big Cate Blanchett fan. She’s undoubtedly talented, but I can’t seem to connect to her.

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The Big Short

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I’m having trouble deciding how I want to write about The Big Short. On the one hand, it’s a technically interesting film – it combines montage and meta-narrative (voice overs, winks at the camera, Margot Robbie in a bathtub explaining arcane economic instruments) to tell us about culture using the manic visual language of our culture.

And it’s also a large ensemble comedy (though it didn’t make me laugh much, but I’ll come back to that) starring great actors both famous (Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, etc.) and new to me (standouts include Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater, John Magaro, and Finn Wittrock), and a host of cameos (the pop culture junky in my lives for cameos.)

In other words, I wanted to love this, I wanted to be taken along on the ride and feel the righteous indignation director/co-writer Adam McKay wants us to about the crash. But in the end I felt indignant sure, but I mostly felt sad. Sad that we, as a country and a world, continually find new ways to exploit poor people. Sad at the way we (and I am completely including myself in this) seem to worship money and business as if wealth were some kind of self-justifying Good.

The movie attempts, in a roundabout ways to address this, but mostly it left me feeling like, you know what the whole thing (as in the economic system) is fucked anyway, may as well get what you can. This is probably my issue, not the movie’s but let’s just say I didn’t find it to be a laugh riot.

(Also, as Julia texted me, this is a total Bechdel fail.)

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Just a bunch of white dudes in oxfords fucking over the world…