Archive: April, 2018

Everything wrong with Michelle Wolf's performance

posted by Jeff | Monday, April 30, 2018, 3:00 PM | comments: 0

Remember when the White House Correspondent's Dinner was an event where you could make fun of the president, and call out the press itself for the dumb things it does? Those were good times. The rules in Washington are changing though, and these days, no side or faction has the market cornered on stupid. It's not surprising then that the stakeholders in Michelle Wolf's performance at the event are all pissed off.

Let's start with the press reaction itself. There was no shortage of butthurt and criticism on their part. The spirit of the event was certainly proper at first, in the desire to celebrate the First Amendment and the critical role of the press in a free democracy when it comes to holding politicians accountable. This is 100 times true when we have a sitting president who lies about things trivial and important alike. That's not my opinion, that is absolute truth. The compulsive lying is well documented, and not any less real if you like the like guy. That said, the press is probably the most guilty party responsible for giving the man a platform in the first place. It sells news to those who either embrace the world of lies or are outraged for it. (I'm looking at you, TV "news.") For three years now, they've steered clear of policy and character to focus on the shit show, and they're profiting handsomely from it.

Why is the press angry? Because Wolf called them out, and she's spot on:

"You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him."

As a trained if not practicing journalist, I'm horrified at what the profession has become, except for a few places. If you have to consult with some asshole talking head who comes on TV and makes a living as an asshole talking head "expert" to pontificate on the personality of elected critters, that isn't journalism. I know it's not as exciting and it doesn't take as much time to fill the news cycle, but when a Trump action is limited to another Twitter attack, there is no news. There is no policy being made. There is no governing. That's the story: The president hasn't done anything.

Meanwhile, the Trump sympathizers have their usual reaction, and it's largely based on things that weren't even said. Seriously, watch the video below. The context most lost was this assertion that Wolf attacked the physical appearance of Sarah Sanders. But not so fast... this is what she really said:

"I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies."

There are a couple of things here to talk about. First of all, Sanders has made a choice to lie for a man that regularly does it himself. That's on her. She's not being kept against her free will. Spicer had the good sense to finally get out. Second, it's a real stretch to contextually interpret that as an attack on her appearance. But if it was, can you honestly not see the insane hypocrisy? She represents a man who calls women fat pigs, feels free to "grab them by the pussy," makes fun of the disabled and makes jokes about women menstruating. Again, that's not my opinion, those are facts. Even if it were a personal attack, you're falling into the absurd "butter emails" trap of your own making.

Michelle Wolf was vulgar in response to a vulgar situation. I miss the simpler times where we could make fun of a president's dog or joke about a fairly benign policy position. We aren't in those times. Wolf's comedy wasn't far from what she's been doing on the Daily Show or her standup routines. The association had to have seen it coming.

What's really wrong with her performance is the realization that we have to accept that our political culture is broken on all sides. We have a morally bankrupt shit show in the White House, a White House that makes the fascist and authoritarian declaration that the press is the enemy. Meanwhile, said press is doing a horrible job at fulfilling their obligation to cover what matters, with truth and integrity. We're losing on all sides, and if you can't accept that, you're the reason it's so bad. Enough with the scapegoating. It's your fault. Sack up and take responsibility for it. Michelle Wolf didn't make it this way.

Retail therapy

posted by Jeff | Sunday, April 29, 2018, 1:52 PM | comments: 0

We have seen more than our share of shitshows in the last week and a half. Between our parenting challenges, involuntary job loss and the death of a cat, we're emotionally exhausted. Losing Gideon really pushed me to the limit, even though I did my best to hold it together. After seeing him go, Diana and I did our best to engage in retail therapy, but walked away empty handed.

Our first thought was that we should buy a chair for our living room. We've had a 4-foot beanbag chair standing in now for the six months that we've lived here. It's super classy. We dropped into an Ikea and a "real" furniture store but didn't find anything we liked. I started flirting with buying the biggest, most expensive Lego sets available, but backed off when they suddenly announced a roller coaster set for next month. I still want to buy that video camera, but probably shouldn't be doing that for the cost of several mortgage payments. I've got a strange urge to buy a drum machine for some reason. The bottom line is that I really want to buy something to distract me from all of the angst, anger and sadness, even if it is temporary.

Honestly, that kind of spending was my automatic reaction to crappy situations in my 20's, but somewhere in my 30's I stopped doing it. Maybe it's because I started to mitigate the crappy situations, but I'm sure part of it was also that I stopped buying crap I didn't need, and definitely focused more on experience-based spending.

There's still a weird adrenaline hit when you buy stuff, I just don't need it like I used to. Now I get that feeling when I'm in New York going to see a show, or stepping off the cruise ship in an Alaskan or beach port. Heck, I get it sometimes just going to the beach. Travel is more expensive, but there's little question that the memories are more enduring than buying another gadget.

Gideon (2006-2018)

posted by Jeff | Friday, April 27, 2018, 4:15 PM | comments: 0

I was just over a month ago that we discovered that Gideon had a big tumor on his leg. As his leg got more and more stiff, we were kind of surprised the way he rolled with it, and how spoiling him with food demonstrated extraordinary appetite. But in the last week, it was obvious that his strength was going, if not his appetite, and we knew it was time. He passed away peacefully with Diana and I at his side this morning.

Gideon was the second of Diana's three cats, and when we got married we had four between us with Cosmo (which is too many, by the way). Of the three, he took the longest to really like me, because despite his enormous size, he was scared of everything. Somewhere around 2014 I think he finally let me pick his gloriously fat ass up. Prior to that, I could only rub his belly when he'd do the fat cat thing, lying on his back, but he demonstrated remarkable trust, allowing me to do it with my foot. Despite his weak meow, he always had a huge motor when he was in the zone. Thunder Paws earned his nicknames as our gentle giant.

At his heaviest, he loved to climb up on Diana in bed, which teetered between sweetness and suffocation. He would lick her on the nose until she acknowledged him, and if she didn't he would resort to tapping her on the nose with his paw. He would get into wrestling matches by day with Oliver, lots of neck biting, and kind of ignored Emma most of the time. He never really warmed up to Simon, I imagine because young kids are a little too unpredictable.

In his Florida years (and keep in mind I've logged about 6,000 miles in the car with him while moving), he seemed to settle into more of a couch-side routine with us. There was always something satisfying about having such a beefy, enormous cat around.

I'll miss the panther. Our pride is now down to two.

Steel Vengeance and 20 years of PointBuzz

posted by Jeff | Thursday, April 26, 2018, 7:30 PM | comments: 0

I did a quick 24-hour trip to Northern Ohio for the Steel Vengeance media day at Cedar Point. I was talking with my PointBuzz co-creator Walt, when I realized that the site was essentially about to celebrate its 20th anniversary in May. I can't believe that it's been two decades. I mean, I don't think I've done anything for 20 years straight.

Way back in May of 1998, I started Guide To The Point, the predecessor to PointBuzz. At first it was just a place to share photos of the park (shot on film, by the way), and then I added a forum called Ultimate Bulletin Board, until I wrote my own forum a year or two later. Before too long, this community sprung up around it, and it has been there ever since. Two years after I started GTTP, Walt started a site called Virtual Midway, and in 2004, we combined our efforts and we've been doing that now for 14 years. For the most part, I've written the software and hosted the site, while Walt has created the content, which is particularly convenient now that I live in Orlando (and Seattle previously). Obviously, we've developed a relationship with the park over the years, so we've been going to new attraction openings ever since. The only major one I missed was Shoot The Rapids, which has since been removed anyway, so no biggie there.

Steel Vengeance was a unique opportunity because a bunch of people that we've known virtually for years got to meet up and hang out, in some cases for the first time. It's a reminder of what it meant to run the sites in the early days, when relatively small groups of people would connect on common interests. It reminded me a little of the wedding I went to a few years ago, where a surprising number of people first met via CoasterBuzz some years before. These small verticals are, I think, what made the Internet awesome in its early years as a commercial endeavor. It's strange how "social media" (in quotes because we were social media before it had a name) has made it all kind of generic. I can't put my finger on it, but building a group on Facebook definitely doesn't have the same effect as something you build yourself. I wonder if things may eventually swing back the other way as people become somewhat disenchanted with the big services.

The ad market hasn't been great in recent years, but we keep plugging away at it, sometimes doing the minimum, because momentum, the park relationship and these social interactions make it worth it. We have a good time when we get together in real life. I don't see any reason to stop.

As for Steel Vengeance, this is the first ride since Millennium Force that really surprised me. I said this to one of the reporters, but rides don't usually surprise roller coaster nerds because they're derivative of things you've been on before. This ride isn't that. You're up out of your seat constantly and in ridiculous directions. Maybe the weirdest thing about it is that it nearly follows the path of Mean Streak, which was boring and meandered around. But make it taller, switch to steel track, throw in some crazy inversions... it's nuts. It literally went from worst coaster in the park to first, and for real, it may be a contender for best ride anywhere. It's that good.

The weather wasn't great, and it was a ridiculously short 24 hours on the ground, but I'm so glad that I went. I'm hoping I can visit again next year with the entire family.

Earth Day and solar

posted by Jeff | Sunday, April 22, 2018, 12:52 PM | comments: 0

One of the things we considered heavily when deciding to move was whether or not we could figure out how to add solar to the house. The 30% tax credit won't last forever, and if we were going to go bigger, that means higher electric bills for cooling, too, and by extension, higher carbon footprint. In any case, once the sale of the previous house was all said and done, we pulled the trigger and we'll be generating more than two-thirds of our power from our roof in a few months.

Renewable energy is such an obvious way to help reduce the carbon problem, and the cost of doing so has been dropping in a significant way in the last few years. On the solar front, the important thing is that the technology is maturing while the strategy to use it effectively is also coming into focus. I think the first thing that has made it real is the acceptance that energy storage has to be a part of the equation. The sun doesn't shine at night, so if you can generate excess energy and hold on to it, that certainly makes a difference. The second part is that the models of generation are changing. People are starting to realize that the centralized generation model, big power plants that feed the grid, is not necessary. Conversely, you don't need to make it all about individual generation either. There's an entire range in between that makes total sense. Imagine if every new suburban development project included a plot of land for solar panels and battery storage. That would be brilliant. Dense cities could never meet the demand, but pipe in the power from places a few miles out of town, again from solar and storage, and you don't need to feed it in from a big utility 50 or 100 miles away.

The impediment will be the incumbent utilities. They obviously don't want this, because they spend top dollar building the big plants (mostly using natural gas these days). They also own the distribution, and not every state forces them to treat them separately. (Side note: This is one thing Ohio gets right... you pay for the distribution by the local utility, the grid, but you can choose who you buy the power from that feeds into the grid.) Here in Florida, the utilities last year worked in a constitutional amendment on the ballot that had deceptive wording. Basically it said that you shouldn't have to "subsidize" your neighbor's solar, which is code for a prohibition on net metering, where you put your excess power back on the grid and the utility pays you wholesale rate credit for that power, as if you were a power plant. Fortunately, we struck that bullshit down, but not by much.

This isn't just good for the environment, it's good for the economy. Solar jobs already account for more work than every other form of energy other than oil, and it's getting very close to beating out natural gas. This doesn't fit the current political narrative, but the numbers are what they are.

These are exciting times, and they just happen to be good for the planet, too.

Butter emails and moral compromise

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, April 17, 2018, 7:11 PM | comments: 1

Butter Emails

The presidential election is now 18 months behind us, but it's extraordinary how angry some people still are about Hillary Clinton, the person who lost the election. A lot of people are sure she's guilty of a hundred different things.

Let's say for the sake of argument that they're all true. I mean, within reason. I would think that anyone with reasonable intelligence wouldn't actually believe she had someone killed, and if you think that, you're kind of lost anyway. But whatever else you think made her a bad person, let's go with that. Now let's look at the president. At the very least, you can prove how terrible he is just for what he says about other people. There isn't a lot of room for interpretation about whether or not he's mocked the disabled, disparaged veterans, objectified or sexually assaulted women, drawn moral equivalency between white supremacists and, well, everyone else... these are his words. He has also consistently defended Russians and others who do not have America's interests at heart. He has continuously lied about things that are plainly true, whether they be silly like the size of the inauguration crowd, or serious like the assertion that Americans pay more taxes than other Western countries. There are adequate records and lawsuits showing his business record, rich with bankruptcy and fraud allegations. It's plausible that he's had affairs during his current marriage, because one doesn't have a lawyer paying women off if there's nothing to hide. He's certainly had a lot of people around him go down in flames for committing crimes. The revolving door of administration appointees isn't normal either. There is no president in our lifetime that has exhibited immoral behavior like this. No person in polite society could hold down a job with this behavior.

So here's the thing... if the alleged behavior of Hillary was so terrible or immoral, and it's the source of such hatred and concern, why is the moral character of this president unimportant to you? I'm assuming all you've got is that he plays for the right team, and if that's all you've got, you're everything wrong with our culture right now. It's not OK to selectively apply standards of moral behavior.

I've said this a hundred times, but treating politics like a sports rivalry is toxic and destructive. I get that one party or the other may generally, if not always, align with your beliefs, and that's cool. I'm fairly split on issues, and even believe the middle ground (which no party represents) is often the right answer. But if I did align more completely one way or the other, it doesn't mean that any elected official is devoid of moral responsibility or character. Throughout American history, elected people from both parties have been found to break the law, and no position on issues (if they even have any) should be an excuse to overlook that.

If you believe in the broader positions of a particular party, insist on the highest moral character. You don't have to take what they give you.

In search of inspiration

posted by Jeff | Monday, April 16, 2018, 7:55 PM | comments: 0

Today was one of those days at work where I could sign-off for the day and feel pretty good about the work we did. Our net burndown (that's the amount of work we finished for the next release, for y'all non-software makin' folks) was pretty solid, we made some headway on some non-trivial issues, and in the general sense I can see a pretty great future for our product.

I ended the day feeling reasonably inspired. Today the inspiration came from a combination of new things I learned, a great solution from one of the people on my team and some news about a past project I had. Inspiration makes it easier to do the next thing. It also reminds me that, in a leadership position, tone and inspiration is something I'm very much responsible for.

This is an example of workplace inspiration, but I think in the general sense it's important to find inspiration throughout the different aspects of your life. Admittedly, it's not always easy in our culture lately. There are entire subsets of the population who only know how to be victims, who are intent on reinforcing hateful attitudes and thrive off of the fear of others. (And that's just the president. Zing!) But there are people all around you, in your community, that can inspire you every day. They're your neighbors, teachers, volunteers, etc.

In addition to the people around me, I tend to seek out opportunities to learn. History is a great source for understanding the way we operate as humans, and science and technology in many ways helps show a way forward. In my profession there are great resources online to learn, and I'm also really intrigued by some of the expert classes by famous people (like MasterClass).

I can't emphasize enough that any kind of art that makes you feel, like music and movies, is a great place to gain inspiration. A favorite movie or a track from my short list of best songs ever go a long way toward making me feel I can conquer something.

Something that I have to remind myself of all the time is that none of us are endless springs of relentless awesomeness. I mean, we'd like to be, but it's not a character flaw that we're not. It's OK to seek other people and things to light a fire under your Twin Cities.

Trip report: NYC, day 3, 4/7/18, Kinky Boots, Frozen and friends

posted by Jeff | Friday, April 13, 2018, 7:30 PM | comments: 0

Our third day in the city was mercifully not one that involved a ton of running around (only 7k steps on the Fitbit). I loved exploring the city the two previous days, and still find it remarkable that it's so easy to get around quickly. But as I mentioned previously, that Saturday was going to be cold, and we did have two shows to see. We didn't spring out of bed that morning either. As 11 o'clock approached, we headed down to Red Flame again, only to find they were swamped. We backtracked on 44th to Cafe Un Deux Trois, which was priced about the same but felt a little fancier. It got the job done.

The Kinky Boots matinee was at 2, but prior to that, we wanted to make an attempt at meeting up with one of Diana's college friends. She is currently working in the Carousel revival, which was in previews last week but opened yesterday (Thursday, 4/12), so work for her was just two blocks away. I only knew this friend via comments she made on Diana's Facebook posts, but had to resist being a fanboy because she was also the 11th actress to play Christine on Broadway in Phantom. As is often the case with people you only keep in touch with via social media, they had not seen each other in decades. They didn't have a ton of time to talk, but we walked her to the theater and she showed us tiny photos of her on stage in one of those photo collages that make a bigger photo out in front of the Majestic, where Phantom is still playing. (I was amused by the people queuing kind of checking her out, wondering if they should recognize her or say something.) I wish we had more time to talk, but I'll get to that shortly.

With the late breakfast, I was not really up for a big lunch, so we obtained baked goods from a Starbucks on 8th. From there, it was on to the Al Hirschfeld Theater for our second big show!

I didn't realize until we were sitting down, Playbill in hand, that Wayne Brady was starring in this show as Lola. It also has Kirstin Maldonado from Penatonix as Lauren. I missed the touring show in Orlando because that was the first year at Dr. Phillips Center, when we weren't subscribers, but I did see the movie, which I was kind of indifferent about. But knowing there was essentially a drag show finale, I figured at the very least the stage show would be a spectacle.

It ended up being pretty great in the general sense, and in fact the big conflict moments between the leads were way more powerful than they were in the movie. The minor twist as it relates to Lola's past is also a pretty powerful moment. Beyond that, yes, the dance sequences are pretty spectacular, and involve men doing moves that would certainly damage me for life. The members of the ensemble and minor characters are also pretty well drawn and generally charming. It's probably the most laughs I've seen in any show this season, too. If you can see it, see it. The music probably doesn't land in my soundtrack rotation, but it does have a few memorable songs for sure. 

Between, shows, we had dinner with another one of Diana's college friends, who by day is a sound engineer and mixer, currently working on Rocktopia, but responsible for sound in a number of current and touring shows. He's also producing shows, so he's fairly plugged in. He also does some TV gigs now and then, which you've seen. The thing that I found interesting about his story is that he's managed to raise a couple of kids and still balance what is really a lifestyle occupation with family life, and I give him all of the credit in the world for that. I wish we had more time to talk with him as well, because my techie nerd side would love to hear more about what he does, while my closet business guy self would like to hear more about the producing.

Meeting up with friends that deep into Diana's past is always neat for me, because we didn't meet until our mid-30's. We have these gigantic parts of life, parts that shaped who we are, that pre-date our connection, and that's weird. I try to be topical with her earlier profession by my flirtations with college and community theater. Now and then I have a story about radio or TV days for me. But these are essentially different lives, and I wish we could give each other more context about them.

I'm also fascinated with anyone who has been able to make a living in the entertainment business. You have to fight like hell to "make it," and then keep fighting to stay in it. You're always looking for your next job. You have to believe in your creative gifts enough, willing to share them, to keep at it. It seems exhausting, but I wonder what it's like to be a part of something that moves more than a thousand people every night. I admire the people who do it not for some kind of celebrity reason, but because they have the tenacity and energy to keep doing it.

The funny thing about Disney is people love to hate them when it comes to art and integrity. And I get that, because deciding to do a stage version of Frozen certainly sounds like a cash grab. The thing is, they've made some staggeringly good, enduring movies, and Lion King on stage easily eclipsed the film. So while the company is a crazy gigantic conglomerate of sizable wealth, I think it's unfair to suggest that they can't make great art.

Still, Frozen, I think, is very nearly a perfect film. The strongest criticism that I've read about it is that it's hard to say who the film is about, though I think the question should be what, and not who. My answer is that it's about relationships of all kinds, including those you have with yourself. To that extent, the movie is like three or four subplots that overlap, and I think that's OK. The challenge in making it a stage musical is that there's virtually no music in the second act. They also recruited the screenwriter to write the book, which I think is a different talent. My hope for the show was that it would be as good as the film or better, and I wanted just once to see something with the original cast, so I can say I did.

I left the theater feeling that they did in fact make something better than the movie, and I really liked it. The spectacle of it was what you would expect, and if you saw the show on the Disney Wonder, they definitely borrowed some ideas from there in terms of visual design. The costumes and puppetry are amazing, the sets beautiful, and the lighting, video and effects generally serve the story. (Fun fact: The video designer, because that's a thing now, is the same person that did The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which frankly uses video as the set itself.)

The changes to the plot are not huge, but they necessarily added a lot of songs to the second act. None of these are filler. Like Lion King, they go a little darker, when Elsa contemplates the outcome of her own death, and Anna wonders if she'll die without really knowing love. I wouldn't go so far as to call this edgy, but it's a little more adult themed than the movie. The comedic highlight of the show comes right after the intermission, with a song called "Hygge," the Norwegian word for feeling comfortable. Shop owner Oaken wanders in from the crowd and eases you back into the show with a joke about the lines at the restrooms, when Anna, Kristoff, Sven and Olaf show up and find themselves in the middle of a kick line of Oaken's naked family.

This original cast is something to behold. In an unsurprising lineage to Wicked, Cassie Levy playing Elsa is a former Elphaba, which of course was originated by Idina Menzel, the movie Elsa. Patti Murin as Anna played Glinda, though not at the same time as Levy. Not to take anything away from Idina or Kristen Bell, but these two on stage take every song you know to a new level. The guy playing Olaf seems to be channeling Josh Gad, but I don't know how much people would tolerate deviating for that.

Overall, I loved it. I don't have strong feelings about it, since it is a derivative work, but I'd definitely see it again (if it wasn't one of the most expensive shows in town). They'll have to make some compromises in the staging when it tours (there are an awful lot of holes in that stage), and I wonder if they'd be clever enough to do some of the video projection custom to each theater.

We settled back into our room around 11, and I couldn't sleep again. Honestly, I would have liked one day more (yeah, I went there) to run around and see stuff. It would have been cool to see Carousel, too, if only because I "knew" someone in the cast. But as far as grownup, child free trips go, this one was fairly epic. It wasn't cheap, but I feel like we made the most of "us time" in a way that we have not in some time. I look forward to going back to New York, though I'm going to shoot for a May time frame instead.

Trip report: NYC, day 2, 4/6/18, Trinity Church, 9/11 Memorial, Hamilton: An American Musical

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, April 11, 2018, 11:30 PM | comments: 0

For our second full day, I knew we'd go downtown, but didn't get real specific until the night before. What we settled on was a trip to the cemetery to find Alexander and Eliza Hamilton, do the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, and make time to get back to midtown for dinner before seeing Hamilton. Squishy possibilities included going to Battery Park and doing the observation platform in One World Trade, but given another slowish start to the day, there just wouldn't have been enough time.

After breakfast, we took the R train from Times Square to Cortland St., which actually lets out in the hideous Westfield World Trade Center shopping mall, sort of, which seems to connect below ground to World Trade Center Three and Four. That put us up on Church St., about two blocks from Trinity Church, our first stop for the day. It's here that we would find the final resting place of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton, the very subjects of the musical that motivated our visit to the city. It was surprising, the number of people who came there to see the grave. Most of the headstones in the cemetery are in very poor condition and many are not readable. Hamilton's inscription reads as that of a founding father should, but as his biography reads, he was certainly no saint. Still, he was killed too early, and his personal choices limited his impact. He definitely ran out of time.

After a lap around the grounds, we headed a block over to the former World Trade Center site, now the 9/11 National Memorial and Museum. I know there was a lot of emotion and controversy over what to do in that space, but I think they got it right. It's a beautiful and peaceful spot. It's weird to think that Diana worked in one of the towers briefly in the 90's doing temp work.

The line for museum tickets was enormous, so we quickly bought them online via my phone. Our entry time was 1:00, a half-hour out, so we went back over to Church St. (after finding nothing in the mall) for some bona fide New York City pizza at some place called Steve's Pizza. I don't think anyone there was actually named Steve, but I still enjoyed it as a quick bite to get me through the afternoon (in lieu of more museum food). I'm not a fan of NY-style pizza, but you know what they say about pizza.

At our entry time, we ended up queueing for another 20 minutes to get in, as a number of groups went in ahead of us and had to go through the security screening. The museum begins as a series of ramps and stairs that go several stories under ground, in the larger pit that acted as the foundation for the original buildings and surrounding support structures. If you look at the photos from the 70's of the construction, you'll see that "trident" structures at street level are many stories above the actual base of the building, and that the area around it was eventually built up to street level with parking structures, train stations and mechanical support for the towers. Similarly, you'll see the same thing in photos of what would eventually be called Ground Zero. The museum and outdoor memorial occupies most of that space, leveled off at street level.

As you descend the ramp, you'll first see what they call Foundation Hall, which is the open area between the former north tower and the slurry wall, which held back the Hudson River across West Street, before there were more buildings there. It's from this vantage point that you can see the memorial "cubes" that seem to hang from street level above, where the fountains are. Around both of these, the original foundations of the towers are preserved, the steel box columns cut down to the concrete, though in a few places (as in the photo below), you can see the concrete pulled away to see the steel beams in their entirety. There is some fascinating architectural and engineering history here, and it's striking how controversial the buildings were, which is not surprising because they weren't particularly attractive buildings.

The area beneath the south tower fountain has a short film, an education center and a hall with photos of all of the 9/11 victims, including those at the Pentagon and in PA, as well as the handful from the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. It's probably the most difficult part of the memorial, because it's not easy to disconnect thousands of faces from the destruction. These were after all people with families and friends whose only real fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The area beneath the north tower fountain contains artifacts and a walk-through timeline of the day, and despite the big steel building fragments displayed elsewhere, it's the core of the museum. You've probably seen most of the video and photos before, and these are combined with pieces of plane wreckage, charred office items, wrecked vehicles and other items from the disaster sites. This part wasn't as difficult as I expected, in part because we have seen so much of this on TV, and in documentaries made later, that it wasn't new. You never accept it all as normal, but it's not unfamiliar.

By the time we got back to the hotel, it was clear that Saturday was gonna be cold, so running around town wasn't appealing. But you know, staying in the middle of the Broadway area, another show was a great plan. You can get tickets for all but the most popular shows (i.e., HamiltonFrozenEven Hansen) at solid discount prices a day in advance through TKTS, this little stand that has three locations. The Times Square location, for whatever reason, was more restricted and not selling Saturday matinees, so we had to go up to the Lincoln Center location, which was easy enough on the D train. The weather was flirting with 60, and it was a beautiful day to be out. Round trip I think it was a half-hour, and we got great seats for Kinky Boots for 40% off.

As I mentioned, we ended up having dinner a second time at Connolly's, because the curry chicken is amazing and it was convenient across from the hotel. I didn't have much to drink the entire trip, I guess because cold weather isn't really great "drinking weather" and we didn't have time to risk any hangover-ish feelings, but they did have Magners, which is a little harder to find around where I live.

We made a quick stop back up to the room to kill a little time, then headed out to the Richard Rodgers Theater for our primary motivation for this trip: Hamilton. We arrived around 7:15 and were third in line (behind this teenage girl with the most amazing purple hair you've ever seen). I had noticed that every show had these enormous queues of people hanging out before shows, and I wondered why they didn't let people in sooner to buy drinks and such. When we got inside, I realized that most of my theatrical experience is with really big theaters, or at least theaters with big lobbies. Playhouse Square in Cleveland doesn't hurt for lobby space, and obviously our pride and joy, Dr. Phillips Center, is enormous. Beyond that, I've been in some big musical halls, and the Paramount in Seattle, all with adequate lobbies. Most Broadway theaters have no such luxury. The Richard Rodgers has about 1,300 seats though, and it's a beautiful place to see a show. We were in the second to last row of the balcony (no mezzanine) and I was perfectly cool with it. As I mentioned in my previous post, we scored tickets first-hand via a "verified fan" email list, at a face value of $200 each. That's still more than twice what we pay for any show in Orlando, but the market is what it is.

The show has been all the hotness for a long time, and when I started to really listen to it in earnest in late 2016, I was skeptical of the hype in part because it seemed like integrating hip hop lyrics into a musical would be a gimmick. I was totally wrong about that. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a creative genius who managed to blend most every genre into the show, and even the rap influences tend to span decades of styles (including those from my 80's childhood). More importantly, it's really dense, which is fitting for a historical drama about a guy who did an awful lot in his 47 years.

Hamilton is an ultimate love letter to the founding principles of the United States, a nation founded by immigrants, and the founders themselves, who were anything but confident in the democratic experiment they would begin. Its self-awareness is extraordinary, not just because it takes on the ideology of freedom in a time where humans were traded as slaves, but by casting diverse people, most of whom would not have had any rights if they lived in Hamilton's lifetime. These were imperfect people, and we're challenged to embrace their achievement while acknowledging their flaws. It's not something they teach in school.

Seeing the show fills in the blanks not made obvious by the soundtrack. You witness more than two hours of movement, which I'm sure is a deliberate choice to match the man that Aaron Burr suggests "writes like he's running out of time." Indeed, the turntable in the stage makes it possible for the cast to move continuously. The blocking also enables funny moments between Hamilton and his friends, King George and those leaving the stage, and of course, the cabinet battles, complete with hand held microphones.

Most amazing is the choreography. It's precise and dynamic and mind blowing, unlike any show I've seen. (And one of the women in the chorus is from Orlando!) Songs like "Yorktown" attempt to wrap up the Revolutionary War and the place that the principles have in it ("Hercules Mulligan, I need no introduction! When you knock me down I get the fuck back up again!"), and it's intense and beautiful and borders on overload to see.

I was familiar enough with the scene design from the various documentaries and clips, and it's a very utilitarian space that's versatile enough to do whatever they need with minimal props and some moving stairs. But the lighting design is something else entirely. I'm a total lighting nerd, and when I was a kid I wanted to grow up to be one of the four people in the world who design lighting for arena rock concerts. In lieu of that, I did it in college for a year, but I studied the shit out of it and to this day I notice it more than most of the production work. Hamilton integrates the lighting tightly with every aspect of the show... with the set itself, the actors, the choreography, the blocking, the costumes... all of it. It serves the story and the action in every way, whether it's censoring Hamiltion with red light ("Sit down, John, you fat m[BEEP] f[BEEP]er!"), setting a painful night scene ("Burn") or grouping lines of soldiers together in formation, it's tight.

The hardest thing about the show is that the original cast recording has been out for years, and those performances were epic and set the standard. It's impossible not to have some expectations. Still, I might argue that the story is the main character, and the hip-hop nature of many songs makes it possible for any performer to put their spin on the part without departing from the intent of the text. James Monroe Iglehart, who is probably best known as the guy who originated the Broadway Genie role in Aladdin, or Titus' nemesis in Kimmy Schmidt, absolutely kills it as Lafayette/Jefferson. The rest of the cast did a pretty great job, though I do think it's hard to live up to Christopher Jackson's George Washington. That particular role with that actor was something special and rare. Michael Luwoye as Hamilton may have been better than Miranda. Like I said, there is generally room for actors to make these roles their own, I think.

Overall, it was the emotional experience I expected the show to be, finally being in "the room where it happens." My favorites, "Wait For It," "Yorktown," "Say No To This," "One Last Time," "It's Quiet Uptown" and "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story" were the moving moments that I hoped for. It met all of my expectations, and I can't wait to see it again next year in Orlando.

It was an emotionally exhausting day, but entirely worth it. I didn't want the day to end, and I couldn't sleep.

Trip report: NYC, day 1, 4/5/18, The Met and Late Night With Seth Meyers

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, April 10, 2018, 4:00 PM | comments: 1

Last August, I received an email from the Hamilton mailing list, indicating that a batch of tickets were going on sale for "verified fans" first. While I knew it would be touring to Orlando at some point in 2019, I didn't want to wait another entire year to see what I feel is one of the most important pieces of art to be made in years, so I was open to seeing it. Sure enough, we scored tickets without having to deal with the resale market. They were still $200 each, but people were paying a lot more than that, so we made plans eight months out to visit New York. (#thegreatestcityintheworld, if you're a Hamilton fan.)

I had never been to the city, which is weird to say out loud, but I didn't see LA until I was 37 either. The only top-5 big city I had any experience with was Chicago, which I liked in small doses, but honestly I found generally exhausting on every visit. I think part of the reason for that was having to drive there. I didn't care for LA at all, even though I didn't see much of it. So while I was optimistic about New York, I was a little worried that I wouldn't care for it. Fortunately, that was not the case. Aside from an extended wait for our shuttle at LGA (which was refunded), getting around was easy enough on the subway and walking, and we ended up spending about $35 on subway fares and walking just under 20 miles for the three-ish days we were there. It didn't even bother me that much that it was cold much of the time, though I certainly missed the Florida heat.

Our general plans were fairly loose beyond Hamilton and Frozen, the latter of which had just opened two weeks before and we were lucky enough to get tickets. I also scoured the late night shows for ticket lotteries, but SNL did theirs at the start of the season, Fallon does his monthly and Colbert wasn't even taping, but we got lucky and scored for Seth Meyers. Even then, since it was free, it wasn't a hard commitment. I vaguely knew I wanted to see the main branch of the library and Grand Central, since both were near our hotel, the Millennium on 44th just off of Time Square (an ideal location for quickly crashing after the shows). After we arrived Wednesday night, I realized that I had not really researched any of the museums, and I always wanted to see the Egyptian stuff at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so we made an audible to go do that on Thursday.

We started our morning (slowly) with breakfast at a diner called the Red Flame. Aside from their insane juice pricing, it was as reasonable as I would expect for being in the proximity it is to Broadway. They were also crazy fast, and we ended up eating there three of the four mornings, and I'd do it again. We were out by 11, and headed a few blocks south to our first stop, the main branch of the New York Public Library. It's an extraordinary building, for sure, but also a functional library. I wanted to see it mostly because of the scene in Ghostbusters. Around back is Bryant Park, which I'm sure is lovely when there are leaves on the trees, but we were battling sub-40 temperatures and some crazy wind.

From there we headed to Grand Central to see the beautiful building up close, but also to get on the subway. This was a theme in all of the things we did, that these beautiful, old, well-maintained buildings were also used every day. That really speaks to the vitality of the city. We bought a couple of Metrocards, and the swipe readers almost never worked for me first time until I realized I had to go slower. We wanted to take the 4 uptown to 86th, which would put us a few blocks from the Met. It was surprisingly crowded, and we chatted with a young woman who was apparently going to law school (and thought Diana's nosering was cute). The express train threatened to make local stops, but then it didn't, and there was much rejoicing.

The Met was something I've seen in countless movies, and as I said, their Egyptian collection is extraordinary. It was always my favorite stuff at Cleveland's museum, and they plus it up dozens of times over in New York. Of particular note is the Temple of Dendur, which was a gift to the United States from Egypt, as it was relocated from an area being routinely flooded by way of a dam. You don't find many 2,000-year-old buildings being relocated. They have a number of artifacts even older, where you can actually touch the carvings in the rock, and it's extraordinary that you can connect to some person who has been dead for millennia that way. I found it to be deeply moving.

We also spent a little time looking at an exhibit of paintings of parks and gardens, including a number of familiar pieces by van Gogh, Seurat and Monet. I'm not even remotely an art historian, but there were a lot of paintings there I've certainly seen in books countless times, and it was cool to see them up close. Oil paintings are fascinating to me because of the texture they show in person. We also toured their medieval collection, and a stunning collection of French luxury rooms reconstructed from actual rooms decorated in the late 18th Century. We could have spent more time there, but instead we ate some of their crappy cafeteria food (for the arts!) and checked out familiar sculptures before heading back to the hotel for a brief rest. I'll also admit that we got fast food to tide us over through the taping, which would last until almost 8.

Check-in for Seth Meyers began at 4:45, and they over-provision tickets to make sure the studio is full, so you don't want to be late. NBC does a really nice job welcoming you and making you comfortable for the shows, and I was immediately struck by the familiarity of the decor inside 30 Rock, as it obviously dictated the interiors of the Jimmy Fallon ride at Universal Orlando. They didn't want you taking photos anywhere, and especially not in the studio, but you could see the back of our heads in the televised show (S5 E87), so we were totally there.

As a former TV guy, there was nothing surprising about the taping of the show, which was live to tape, meaning the breaks were all timed to actual commercial times. I explained to Diana that the intention is to not have to edit anything, so they run the show as if it were live. They did, however, stop tape and Seth came up into the audience to take questions for some reason. He seems like a really solid guy, definitely a writer at heart, because he was very gracious to some (frankly) dumb questions that amounted to "favorite color" queries. Standing right next to us, I asked him if he found parenthood difficult working in show business. He said that in this gig it wasn't bad because he doesn't have to work weekends, the way he did for SNL. His second child was just born Sunday, in the lobby of his building no less.

The audience entrance for the show is right next to that of SNL, so on the way out we saw Mikey Day and Kyle Mooney leaving. After sending us down the elevators, no joke, they route you out through the gift shop. Obviously a company that now owns theme parks.

After the show, we dropped into an Irish pub called Connolly's, which was a largely unambitious effort because it was across the street from our hotel and we were pretty spent from the day of running around. Figuring on proximity to Times Square, I assumed it would be, at best, convenience food, but it turned out to be really good. I had a chicken curry that was fabulous. It wasn't cheap, but meh, I'm used to eating at theme parks. It was so low friction and convenient that we ate there again the next night, because I really wanted that curry again.

A word about Times Square... it's obnoxious. It's filled with chain restaurants and retail that you can see literally anywhere in the United States. Why the hell would you care about any of that there? There were people lined up in the cold around the block for a fucking Buca di Beppo, while local places a block away had tables available and better food.

We were back to our room by 10, but we were pretty tired. It wasn't even the running around as much as it was the cold. Florida has ruined me for cold. It makes me tense up every muscle in my back and it just starts to hurt. Still, it was an awesome, successful start to our vacation.

Adventure vs. relaxation vacations

posted by Jeff | Saturday, April 7, 2018, 11:02 PM | comments: 0

We're just about winding down four nights in New York, which in practical terms has been three action-packed days. I'll write more about the activities later, but I want to talk a little bit about the way I think of vacationing.

It's no secret that since moving to Central Florida I developed something of a cruising problem. The context of that is important: I went about 8 months after moving with no real break from work, in part because I was contracting (which means you don't get paid when you're not working), and in part because I was saving for our house that was being built. A Florida resident offer came up for a cruise, and it was a compelling proposition. All we had to do was drive an hour to the port, get on the ship, and people would take care of us and tell us where to go to eat. For one day, they would do the same on a beach. As burned out as I was feeling, that made perfect sense.

The cruises are what I would call relaxation vacations. They have very little in the way of structure and there's a lot of sitting around sipping girly drinks. My personality is such that I need that kind of thing periodically. I try to make at least 15 to 30 minutes a day, not at bedtime, to chill out and think about nothing. I need that time. A relaxation vacation does this for me.

On the other hand, you can engage in a kind of travel that is purely about the adventure. Maybe "adventure" is too strong of a word, because I'm not suggesting that you have to participate in extreme sports. But sometimes, you want to go at your locations hard and do as much stuff as you can. That's what this New York trip was about for me. I was going to a new place with literally endless possibilities. It doesn't mean that I had to plan it all out, but I never had The Met, Grand Central, a trip uptown just to get tickets, or a third show on my agenda. We did all of that anyway. I haven't had a vacation like this since our Alaska cruise (which was not like the tropical "normal" cruises we take because of all the port adventures).

I suppose you could do both on a trip, but it sure depends on the locale. I mean, I can't ever imagine going to New York to relax. I can't imagine going to the beach for adventure.

I was looking forward to this vacation for all of the entertainment that you can't get elsewhere, but kind of dreading being in a big city, because my half-dozen visits to Chicago were always exhausting. As it turns out, I'm definitely tired, but New York isn't nearly as exhausting as I expected, probably because I don't have to drive anywhere. Most of our subway riding was in non-rush hours, so the only thing exhausting was having to walk through Times Square, which is obnoxious. The rest of the adventure was excellent.

Our next vacation will be with Simon, and of the relaxation variety. After that, who knows. At some point, I'd love to take Simon on an amusement park road trip (when I know he'll ride stuff). Washington DC is on the list. Diana and I would like to cruise Northern Europe, mostly as a sampler so we can figure out where we'd like to return.

Finally beyond the McMansion financial drama

posted by Jeff | Monday, April 2, 2018, 10:30 PM | comments: 0

We finally closed on the house sale today. That was more drama than I would have liked. We closed on the new house at the start of November, and had a buyer one month later. They strung us along through late February before the deal fell apart. Actually, it wasn't so much that the buyer was being a pain as much as the lender. I figured since they were putting half down, it was a slam dunk, but they had a bunch of debt in whatever country they were from, and the American lender is the one that was playing games. Fortunately we had them put up some non-refundable money to help us out, but time is money in this case. We had another buyer soon after, and the deal was pretty solid. Would have liked a few grand more, but overall it was fair.

Now the challenge is to execute a series of financial gymnastics moves with the proceeds from the house. First thing is to get solar on the roof, which will reduce our electric bills and add value to the house. Next, we sell the Model S and buy a Model 3, because a less expensive car means a smaller car payment. That was never a very rational purchase, and I'm tired of paying for it now that there's something cheaper (I won't deny that it sure has been fun to drive though). Once the car transaction is done, we can roll the rest into the house loan to get that payment under control. I was always trying to figure out how to get more space without major decreases to our monthly cash flow, so much of the anxiety I had was in the ability to realize all of that. Every month that passed caused doubt in my master plan.

This process caused a lot of self-inflicted stress. We didn't have to move, but the opportunities weren't going to get cheaper, and the walls were really closing in on me in my office (occupational hazard of remote work). I feel like I'm just now having the chance to enjoy the space, because the process is essentially finished. I'd be OK with not having to move again for a solid decade. Next move will hopefully be to a smaller place with a view, after Simon is out in the world.

Now, it's time to be more in the moment and enjoy life. This neighborhood has been awesome so far, with kids constantly knocking on the door and dragging Simon out to play. We quite literally see and talk to almost all of our neighbors, all of the time. The development is small enough that frankly we're getting to know a ton of people (and their kids), and that's very cool. I do miss some of our old neighbors, but they're only a mile away.