Record Review: “See You Around” by I’m With Her

23319095_1748141905195804_3419391698461470177_nForming a supergroup is a risky proposition. When several masters of a genre come together to form something new, there is a spectrum of possible end results. It could fail to live up to the hype and expectations, falling short of the talent of any of the individual members. More rarely, it can far exceed anyone’s loftiest expectations, creating something new and exciting and memorable. Most often, it falls somewhere in the middle.

In 2014, three of the biggest names in progressive bluegrass, Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins, and Aiofe O’Donovan, started playing together under the name I’m With Her. Earlier this year, the trio released its first album, called “See You Around.” I’m not sure if anyone is throwing around the “supergroup” label for this trio, but I strongly believe that’s how we should consider them, because all three members are great. And this album falls so far on the great end of the spectrum described above that I’m just awestruck. This is one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long, long time.

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Book Report: A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith

51A+jSADNOLFrom August 2012 through July 2013, I lived in Brooklyn with a woman I would end up marrying just under two years after we left New York. I had a scraggly beard and greasy hair and worked for a “New Media” company with offices in the East Village. Our apartment was filled with furniture that Franny found on the street, carried up the stairs of our third-floor walk-up, and completely re-made into something new. Money was always tight but we had great friends with whom we would go drinking on the weekends. Our life was just so Brooklyn, in the 21st century caricature of Brooklyn as a place where white gentrifiers from outside New York live and party when they’re not at their Manhattan-based tech, media, or finance jobs.

Like any place that has, inevitably, changed over the many generations since it was founded, the Brooklyn that we inhabited was the evolution of the legendary and historic Brooklyns of the past — legendary and historic Brooklyns that in some places continued to exist and thrive at the same time they were being displaced and/or appropriated by newcomers like me. It’s a city of over two and a half million that has existed for hundreds of years, so these historic and legendary Brooklyns are innumerable. They  include the Brooklyns of Spike Lee, Biggie Smalls, Mos Def, and Jay Z, as well as the Brooklyns of the Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers, Mel Brooks, and Jimmy Durante.  They also include the Brooklyn of Betty Smith, the Williamsburg-born author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

We got a copy of her landmark 1943 novel the way we got so many books and records during our year in Brooklyn: from a sidewalk near our apartment, after somebody had put a stack of books and magazines outside for the taking. I didn’t actually read it until this January, nearly four and a half years after we left Kings County.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi Has Been Out for a Month; I Have Thoughts

Star Wars: The Last Jedi theatrical poster.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi theatrical poster.

The Last Jedi came out out December 14, 2017. I saw it on December 16, then again on December 29. This continued my streak of seeing all of the new Star Wars movies in the theater twice, which I began with The Force Awakens and continued with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The Last Jedi is the best of the new Star Wars movies, and is maybe the best entry yet in this massively successful, 40-year-old franchise.

This is, of course, not an incontrovertible position. The White Male Resentment crowd has some problems with it, flooding the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes profile with negative reactions in an effort to artificially deflate its score. [Ed. Note: A long and forceful discussion of Rotten Tomatoes being a crappy metric has been removed. Nobody has time for that.] There are also good-faith reasons to dislike the movie, or at least have some problems with it. It is certainly not a perfect movie — no big-budget blockbuster will ever be a “perfect” movie — but some of those good-faith arguments against it are exactly why I liked it so much.

The following comes from an email I sent to a friend from high school, a doctor back in Baltimore, who emailed me with some of his concerns about the movie:

A huge part of this movie, I think, was sort of blowing up what we expect a Star Wars movie to be. In the same way that lots of people expected Snoke to be nouveau Palpatine but then he ended up dying in the Second Act of the second film in the trilogy, a huge secondary theme has to do with Poe’s recklessness. So much of sci-fi relies on the dashing, daring hero speaking truth to power and taking the necessary steps that the powers-that-be refuse to. We’re expected to dislike Holdo in favor of Poe — I actually expected Laura Dern to be a double agent when I watched the movie the first time — but as it turns out she knows that if she gives Poe an inch he’ll undermine her authority and mess things up. Which he, Finn, and Rose end up doing anyway!
My thinking is, the stakes are actually super high for the Canto Bight/Benicio del Toro sequences, it’s just that the stakes aren’t what we expect. The normal stakes would be: They succeed in their mission, the Resistance survives; they fail and everyone dies. But because Holdo has an actual plan — which she withholds from them because of Poe’s documented refusal to follow orders — the actual stakes are that they need to minimize the damage they do. They DO need to succeed, but not for the usual reason: when they fail, Benicio del Toro sells them out, and hundreds of Resistance fighters die.
Their failure to follow orders, and subsequent failure to minimize the damage for that, means that suddenly the entire Resistance can fit inside the Millennium Falcon. This sets up a crazy, holy-crap-how-do-they-eventually-win third installment.
The Last Jedi did not follow the template for a Star Wars movie; nor did it follow the formula for a big-budget sci fi picture. This is very similar to how Rogue One took the standard action movie formula — daring heroes make a dramatic stand in the third act, narrowly and dramatically escaping at the end (with perhaps one or two tragic casualties) — and just crushed our expectations by having everybody you’d come to love over the previous two hours die in various ways.

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Thoughts on the New Year: 2018 Edition

I almost didn’t write this essay this year. Looking back on the ones I’ve written before, it seems like I write the same exact essay every  single year. When was the last time I finished a year genuinely satisfied with how it went, and excited about what the next one would bring? Well, at the end of 2015, the year I got married, probably. But other than that? Never.

Last year I even wrote this essay twice. I had to re-write it because the first one was so self-indulgent and mopey. As excited as I had been to enter 2016, I felt like the year crushed me. I finished last year hating myself and my surroundings — basically hating everything except my wife and my cat. (Not always in that order.) It was the lowest I’d felt since the spring of our year in New York.

This time last year, I set several goals for myself: to be at least a fraction as good a person as my wife; to run regularly and start racing again; to go to therapy and get myself right in the head; to write more regularly and more productively; and to follow current events but not so closely it threatened my mental health. To sum it all up, I wanted to take better care of myself. I wanted to get myself healthy.

I didn’t achieve a single one of these things! Even the therapy one — which really should have been the foundation upon which the rest of the getting-myself-right would be built — was a failure. It took me a month and a half to find a therapist (because insurance is bad!), and then she wanted me to come in more often than I could afford to. Yes, my biggest stressor is financial, and she wanted me to come in once a week even though I could barely afford to go in once a pay period.

When I re-read both of last year’s essays, I was shocked to realize how much those words mirror how I have felt this fall and early winter. Finishing out 2017, I felt exactly the same as at the end of 2016.

Just after Christmas, my wife and I were talking about our general dissatisfaction with this past year. I compared it to the year we lived in New York. The difference, we agreed, is that when things were really bad in New York, we made a change. In 2016, we did nothing to help ourselves.

(Ironically, just a few years ago this would have been a good thing! After we got ourselves right after our New York disaster, I craved stability more than anything, and in 2015 I got it! Just two years later, and it’s gone from benefit to detriment. Funny how important context is to what we value.)

In 2018, something has to change. What, I’m not sure — but I don’t think it has to be a big thing. At least not to start. The foundation upon which further change can be built lies within me. Over the last two years, I’ve allowed myself to wallow too much. I’ve allowed myself to be brought down by the way I live in a terribly boring place, or by my growing failure to create any art, or by the way I can barely pay my bills* despite making the best money I’ve ever made, because the cost of living in the Bay Area is so outrageous.

These things drive resentment inside me. In the — bear with me — Nitzschean sense. Ressentiment, allowing my internal state to be a reaction to external factors rather than maintaining control of what I feel within me.

I want so badly to be a happy, loving, positive person, the kind of person who empowers and uplifts those around him. But I become so worn down by the things bothering me that I can’t see or appreciate the good. More often than not, I’m just a big, blue crab.

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Here Are Some Things I Ate Recently

In 10 days back on the east coast, I ate lots of things at lots of places. Here is a ranking of the best of it (home-cooked meals and wedding dinners excluded):

  1. Ippudo West – Ramen – New York City
  2. Rubirosa – Pizza! – New York City
  3. Joe’s Pizza – Pizza! – New York City (West Village)
  4. Miller’s Twist – Pretzel and Pretzel Dog – Philadelphia (Reading Terminal Market)
  5. LES Pizza – Pizza! – New York City
  6. Red Emma’s – Falafel Sandwich – Baltimore
  7. Bube’s – Roast Duck – Mt. Joy, PA
  8. Lunch Box – Bagel Sandwich with Lox – New York City
  9. The Point – Crab Cake Sandwich – Arnold, MD
  10. Brewer’s Art – Sausage Plate with Beer Pairing – Baltimore
  11. Nom wah Tea Parlor – Dim Sum – New York City
  12. Encantada – Very Sloppy Portobello Sandwich – Baltimore (American Visionary Art Museum)

Ranking everything is a little unfair, because everything in these 12 meals was very, very good. Basically, I only wanted to rank it because the meals at Ippudo and Rubirosa were that good.

The Granger-Weasley Wedding: A Muggle Perspective (Fan-Fic)

The car rolled over the moors, lumbering through the humid June morning. It was a respectable car, certainly nothing flashy, moving at a reasonable pace. Seated in the front seat was a couple that were similarly respectable, reasonable, and certainly nothing flashy. The driver was a middle-aged man with thinning red-brown hair and a slightly ruddy complexion; seated beside him, poring over maps printed from the internet, was his wife, whose brown hair was tied loosely back. Both wore spectacles and were the model of middle-class practicality.

Filtering from the Peugeot’s speakers was a CD by the Australian rock band Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, which the couple had bought on a year-long holiday down under a couple of years prior. That trip had been one of the few impulsive things either of them had ever done: Looking back, they were hard-pressed to explain what had driven them to suspend their dentistry practice and leave for Australia for an entire year.

“Lovely country, isn’t it?” the husband said to his wife. “Do you think they’re going to stay out here after the wedding?” She looked up from the maps that she was studiously examining and smiled.

“Well, they both work in London so I imagine they might end up at least a little closer to us. Oh, look,” she added, pointing to a signpost, “Ottery St. Catchpole, 1 mile. It should be coming up.” She buried her head back into the maps.

As the narrow road curved around a bulbous little hill, they spotted a narrow drive cutting through a bog marked by what appeared to be a freshly painted sign:

No. 127
THE BURROW

The husband was about to ask his wife if this was the driveway they were looking for, but realized he had no need: This was certainly it.

The evidence was a man standing some ways down from the sign, who began waving excitedly as soon as he saw the car slow down. He was middle-aged, with thinning hair that still retained much of its original bright red, wearing what could only be described as a wizard’s robe.

“The Grangers, at long last!” he exclaimed as the car pulled to a stop and Mr. Granger rolled down the window.

“Hello, Arthur! You didn’t have to meet us at the end of the drive,” said Mr. Granger by way of greeting, as Mrs. Granger leaned across her husband to wave her hello.

“Oh, it was no problem at all! I wasn’t sure if I did the number right — our home is usually unmarked. We don’t get your post, you know. Besides, I’m always fascinated by how unmodified muggle cars work.”

The Granger shared a bemused look, before Mrs. Granger spoke. “Would you like to drive it back to your house, then?” she asked.

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Frozen Grapes and Apple Juice Saved My Actor’s Life

Labor Day weekend 2017 was an extraordinarily hot one in the Bay Area. Headlines shouted that the heat wave “shattered” all-time records in San Francisco, with the thermometer hitting 106 in The City. Santa Cruz was the hottest it’s ever been, since records started being kept in 1874. Beforehand, news reports warned of “potentially deadly” heat, though I can’t find any reports of deaths. In Berkeley, where I was scheduled to shoot a short film in an un-air conditioned apartment (because very few people in San Francisco, Oakland, or Berkeley have AC) it hit 99 on Saturday. This posed problems.

I’d been working on this shoot since May, when I first wrote the script. While my professional commitment is to publishing and the general spread of knowledge, I still love writing and wanted to graduate from writing scripts solely as exercises. So I decided to write something I could actually shoot. On June 2, I met with my first actor, a co-worker of mine with a theater degree, for whom I had written the lead role. On June 19, I had what I considered to be the “Go/No Go” meeting: I called my father-in-law and asked if I could borrow his camera for the production. He said yes. So, with one actor and a camera — and with my wife lined up as producer and production designer — it was time to get going.

With Franny in charge of props, set dressing, and wardrobe, I was freed up to work through July and August on securing the rest of the talent (two more actors), scouting and securing locations, rehearsing, and learning how to shoot video well. In theory, this was plenty of time to prepare.

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