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Category: General

The Fortress of Solitude

[ 7 ] October 22, 2014 |

Hi all!  You may remember me from my guest blogging stint this summer. I’m supposed to be a new permanent blogger for LGM but I have been terribly remiss.  But I saw The Fortress of Solitude, a new musical at The Public theater based on the Jonathan Lethem novel, and I had so many swirling thoughts about it I knew they must become a blog post.  Hopefully I will get my act together to write more blog posts, perhaps about non-theatrical topics. Anyway:

The Fortress of Solitude is the story of the friendship of Dylan, a white boy in pre-gentrification Brooklyn, who after being abandoned by his mother, befriends Mingus Rude, son of Barrett Rude, Jr., a washed-up soul singer. To the credit of composer/lyricist Michael Friedman and bookwriter Itamar Moses the show is a continuously entertaining two-and-a-half hours. I appreciated their effort to write a musical motivated by character and story and rooted in time and place. During the first act, I both enjoyed and was bemused by its curiously slow, contemplative energy, which somehow persisted even during high-energy dance sequences. I think it managed this strange effect through its music. In a gesture toward the way Dylan is said to live his life trying to make meaning out of fragments of music (and yes, unfortunately, this show does sometimes get just that ponderous), the songs cycle rapidly through styles, and numbers sample and reincorporate each other. Of course it’s normal in a musical to hear songs reprised and refrains repeated, but it’s notably aggressive in this score. The effect is somewhat dissonant, resisting conventional satisfaction, never taking the audience to an emotional high, but instead propelling us through a wall of sound.

Notable exceptions are sung by Kevin Mambo, who plays Barrett Rude, Jr. with glowering, broken ferocity.  He and his fictional quartet, The Subtle Distinctions, get the most powerful, coherent music. “Who’s Calling Now?” is plausibly ruthless as a rage/despair anthem in the same emotional genre as “A Change Is Gonna Come.” It’s also a pleasure to watch André de Shields play Barrett Rude, Sr., with gleeful, devilish pomposity. He appears singing his own name with a hilariously sustained note and every time he’s on stage he struts like he’s skipping on the inside. Kyle Beltran as Mingus has an open face and a fluty voice. For days after I could hear his dreamy, otherworldly pride when he sang “If I could fly/Like superman through the sky/I’d live forever in my fortress of solitude/A fortress built for Mingus Rude.” These are the most memorable musical moments and the strongest moments of character building.

But despite the charge of these character sketches, the show as a whole fails on the level of story. The strength of Mingus and Dylan’s bond is never established sufficiently for the audience to mourn its eventual rupture. It doesn’t help that the sequence that is meant to portray their relationship in its fullest form is the sequence in which they become superheroes. This is handled clumsily on stage by director Daniel Aukin. Flying is variously represented by the actors standing on tiptoes and waving their arms, their shadows cast large on a screen behind them, two little figures projected on a screen, and weighted boots that allow them to tilt forward at an improbable angle. The interlude of magical realism doesn’t make sense amid a plot that’s otherwise naturalistic. It isn’t clear whether they are really supposed to be flying, or whether its a fantasy they have, and either way it serves no apparent plot purpose.

Adam Chanler-Berat is Dylan, the protagonist, and yet he doesn’t have much to do. The character doesn’t move or develop. His mom left; his best friend falls into misfortune; he is the observer. The story is supposed to be about his observing, of not being enough of an actor, not sufficiently self-aware. But this is a hard trick to pull, requiring a deft hand with storytelling, and the hand is not deft enough here.

The show’s failure to make a case for telling the story of its white hero means that despite fairly oozing liberal consciousness about race, it manages to verge on racist. It claims awareness of the problem of viewing black people as if they are props in a white story, of always making the implied subject white, as if it’s the white person’s journey that really matters. Dylan, we are told, has an attraction to black art and black pain, and uses their music as a substitute for understanding his own interior life. But this musical uses its black characters as props in its white protagonist’s journey. I don’t know how or whether the book managed to write itself out of this trap but this show totally fails to. It’s not as obvious in the first act, but the second act it becomes embarrassing. Older Dylan is given a black girlfriend (Rebecca Naomi Jones) who as a character spectacularly fails the Bechdel test, and whatever we should call the black/white analog, in an agonizingly clunky, on-the-nose song about how he hasn’t told her the truth about his childhood, she is worried about being a black collector’s item, and he’s attracted to black music because of its “authenticity” and is not in touch with his own real emotions. She then has literally nothing else to do, but she still hangs around on stage through much of the second act, singing refrains from this one song.  The irony is apparently lost on the writers. Mingus and Barrett Rude, Jr. and Sr. are interesting characters, but they are viewed through the lens of what they mean to the milquetoast white guy we, the audience, are presumed to identify with.

My theater companion asked: why did we have to see another white protagonist?  Why wasn’t this show about Mingus?  “Because The Fortress of Solitude is a semi-autobiographical novel” is an unsatisfying answer if I’m trying to evaluate a work of fiction by the universe its created, and not as a therapeutic act by the author. Dylan is a boring character. He doesn’t move or develop. His disconnection isn’t a compelling story next to Mingus or, who I’d propose as the real star: Barrett Rude, Jr. The black characters get stage time but it just doesn’t make up for the framing. The musical begins: white Dylan has something to explain about his childhood. It ends: white Dylan and his father, looking at his father’s abstract art film, in an awkwardly literary passage that made me picture the page in a novel it came from: the shape the father paints over and over represents the space inside, separated from the space outside. It’s not wrong to use that kind of abstraction on stage, or to tell a story about a character whose movements are very subtle, but in this case it’s not successful. The Fortress of Solitude never explains to the audience why it’s telling the story it chose, why we should care to be inside with Dylan, instead of any of a richer character who can carry their own story.

Those Who Fail To Learn From the Results of Nominating Shitty Candidates Are Doomed To Keep Losing

[ 75 ] October 22, 2014 |

The Titantic, the Hindenberg, the 2007 New York Mets, Martha Coakley:

National Democrats are haunted by memories of Martha Coakley’s unforced stumbles and missteps in 2010, which cost them a U.S. Senate seat in one of the country’s bluest states.

Four laters later, the Massachusetts attorney general might be about to blow another major contest: The race to succeed Deval Patrick as governor.

With two weeks left to go, a new poll by WBUR, which tracks the race weekly, found Coakley trailing for the first time against Republican Charlie Baker, a former health care CEO who served as secretary of finance and health under Gov. William Weld in the 1990s.

It’s still a close contest: Baker has 43 percent while Coakley has 42 percent, well inside the poll’s 4.4 percent margin of error.

But the troubling sign for Coakley is that Baker appears to be gaining steam down the stretch after consistently trailing throughout the campaign.

“It’s one of several polls which over the last week or so have shown a movement toward Baker,” Steve Koczela, the president of MassINC Polling Group, which conducts the polls, said. “Coakley has essentially been treading water while Baker’s been climbing.”

Coakley’s late drop-off seems eerily reminiscent of the 2010 special election against upstart Republican candidate Scott Brown, when the Democrat blew a huge lead, fell behind in the final stretch, and went on to lose.

Hopefully she’ll pull it out anyway, but it’s ridiculous that the Massachusetts bench is so shallow that someone who ran one of the worst campaigns in known human history — a bad campaign with very substantial consequences for the country, yet — could get nominated for a competitive race again.

Campaigning, Alaska-style

[ 42 ] October 22, 2014 |

Yes, the town of Wasilla will forever have to live with the shame of launching Sarah Palin’s political career, but it’s not their children’s fault, and they didn’t deserve this:

The Alaska Dispatch News reported that students and staff at Wasilla High School said U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-AK) “acted in a disrespectful and sometimes offensive manner to some students, used profanity and started talking about bull sex when confronted with a question about same-sex marriage” during his 60-minute appearance.

When one student asked Young why he thought same-sex marriage was so bad, the congressman responded: “You can’t have marriage with two men. What do you get with two bulls?” according to Wasilla Principal Amy Spargo.

Witnesses told the Dispatch News that Young’s comments on suicide also stunned the assembly, as students and staff were mourning the loss of a Wasilla student who took his own life last week. Young mentioned alcohol and depression and said that suicide shows a lack of support from friends and family, according to the witnesses.

This, of course, is coming right on the heels of Young implying that he may have murdered someone in retaliation for violating his personal space.

I’m sure the good people of Alaska will return him to congress to serve is 73rd term.

“Dane Cook with a better vocabulary and an accent.”

[ 55 ] October 22, 2014 |

Let’s just say that when Russell Brand briefly had that dreadful show that followed up Louie — come back Colin Quinn, all is forgiven — his choice of sidekick was Hank Kinsgley Mr. Matt Stoller.

Changes in VMT forecasting

[ 18 ] October 22, 2014 |

Earlier this year, in a lengthy post about the disastrously stupid plan to replace the Alaskan Way viaduct with a risky, costly deep bore tunnel with no access to downtown Seattle (update: still not looking good!), I expanded my complaint to WSDOT’s planning process, mirrored by DOTs around the country. They exhibited a stubborn refusal to adjust their future projections about vehicle miles traveled based on a new information; up through the 2013 projection, they were insisting that the steady increase in VMT that characterized the second half of the 20th century is likely to return immediately.  The September 2014 WSDOT projections are now available, and something appeared to get through to them this time:

Washington State Transportation Revenue Forecast Council - Peak Traffic

Looking at the data, the change here is really striking: they went from assuming the 80′s are coming back immediately to assuming the modest declines in VMT per capita will not just continue but accelerate, such that VMT per capita is now projected to drop by over 1% per year, at a slightly increasing rate, throughout the 2020′s and 2030′s, resulting in a 2041 VMT per capita a full 33% below the peak rate (see pg 28 here). I would have expected formulas and assumptions to be tweaked and nudged, not radically revised. I think these projections are more sensible, and I obviously certainly hope they’re correct, but it’s striking to see such a dramatic change. One possible reason might be political–forecasts like this make extravagant highway projects funded by assumptions about the future more politically difficult. (That WSDOT might now recognize this is a good thing is a happy possibility to contemplate). Whatever the reason, this shift in forecasting is good political news regardless of whether it’s accurate or not, as Clark Williams-Derry explains:

Second, even if the forecast is wrong, assuming that traffic won’t grow much is the most fiscally prudent way to plan a transportation budget.

For far too long, “build now, pay later” has been the transportation budgeter’s mantra. In the 2000s, for example, Washington committed itself to massive road projects that it didn’t have the money to build. So the state floated bonds, assuming that revenue from gas taxes would show up to pay them off.

That hasn’t worked out so well. Traffic didn’t grow as expected, and gasoline and tolling revenue has gone AWOL as a result. Gradually, planners have come to realize that debt service will swallow up most of the state’s gas tax receipts, crowding out everything else. As the chart below shows, WSDOT predicts that within a few years three-quarters of the state’s gas tax receipts will pay for old projects.

And because so much of the state’s gas revenue is going to pay off old debts, state and local governments simply don’t have the money to keep existing streets and roads in good repair—let alone complete projects, such as the SR-520 bridge, that we’ve already started. And there’s even less money left for the transportation priorities where demand is actually growing, such as walking, transit, and biking.

The irony here is that one reason we might see future VMT decline is declining investment in transportation infrastructure maintenance, caused by foolishly overspending in the 00′s based on budgeting on future VMT increases. It will be interesting to see (and when I have more time I may do some digging) if this is part of a national trend. USDOT’s last VMT forecast appeared to be straight from the late 20th century, even as the US Energy Information Agency projected little to no growth. It’ll be interesting to see what they’ll do with the 2014 report.


Ben Bradlee

[ 21 ] October 22, 2014 |



Can You Beat Aimai?

[ 55 ] October 21, 2014 |

Do you remember my “one pot, one skillet” post awhile back? Well, a lot of you shared some of your favorite one-pot meals. I read through just about the entire thread, and there were LOTS of delicious offerings, but one dish really stood out (to me) and that was Aimai’s Jamie Oliver roasted chicken recipe. It was truly one-pot cooking, with an ease, a hint of sophistication, a depth of flavor, and a built-in sauce that you simply do not often find, even in beloved one-pot recipes.

I’ve made Jamie’s Aimai’s recipe probably close to to ten times since she shared it, varying ingredients (only very slightly) and cooking methods. It’s never turned out poorly. In fact, each time it’s been somewhere between “this is great” to “my tastebuds are climaxing.” The bones of this recipe are that solid.

Take one 4 lb chicken
10 garlic cloves
Handful of fresh sage
1 cinnamon stick
1 dried red pepper (or two)
Peel of one lemon
Juice of one lemon
1 cup milk
1/2 cup or 1 cup of dry white wine
Onions–Sliced in quarters longitudinally so the shape will be preserved.
Celery–sliced in long batons about 2 inches
sometimes parsnips–same size as the carrots

Salt and pepper the chicken all over. Brown it in butter or olive oil. Drain pan but save any sticky bits. Then put the vegetables and all the other ingredients in a roasting pan or a dutch oven and put the chicken down on top, nested in the liquid, and cook until the top is browned and golden, chicken is done, and the base vegetables are cooked. The milk and the lemon will “break” and make a classic sauce. For extra killer deprssion repair you can add some cream at the last minute to the sauce and you get an unbelievably rich sauce for pouring over potatoes or rice or dipping bread.


My challenge for you is this: Can you top Aimai’s recipe?

Also…marinated cheese? Yes.

Royal Series

[ 35 ] October 21, 2014 |


Really good fan’s perspective from Rany Jazayerli, especially the risk you know going in that this could be like the ’07 Rockies. I’ll be rooting for KC, but above all it would be nice to have a series that isn’t over quickly.

On the other side, Jonah’s piece on Bruce Bochy is excellent. As he says, the Jaffe/Birnbaum data established him as a first-rate manager even in San Diego, and he’s done a terrific job with the Giants.

…James Shields’s parents should have given him a name that kind of rhymes with “perfectly decent #2 starter.”

Job Interviews at Academic Conferences

[ 106 ] October 21, 2014 |

Forcing impoverished graduate students and adjunct faculty to travel to a random expensive city for 30 minute first round job interview is one of the least morally defensible parts of academia. Professional associations need to stop it.

[SL] Make sure to click through and read this as well. Even before the age of Skype this practice was absolutely indefensible; the application materials and perhaps a phone call are perfectly sufficient for a preliminary interview process. It’s just a bigger disgrace now.

Area Hack Pundit Attempts to Defend GOP Vote Suppression, Makes Most Ridiculous Argument Ever

[ 117 ] October 21, 2014 |

Shorter verbatim John Fund: “There’s no doubt that many people in our increasingly mobile and hectic society want voting to be as easy and convenient as buying fast food. But too much of anything can be bad — just ask someone who has gorged on drive-thru burgers and fries.”

Admittedly, Fund drew the short straw on this; attempts to stop or roll back early voting lack even the pretense of a non-partisan justification that other Republican vote suppression efforts have. Still, you’d think someone in Fund’s pay grade could up with something just a tad less transparently self-refuting than “voting on a Sunday is like eating 8 Double Quarter Pounders in one sitting!” The bullshitting about a single election day being “in the Constitution” is a little better, but really.

Your Point Being?

[ 30 ] October 21, 2014 |

A Heritage Foundation hack has taken time off from crafting Democratic health care policy to point out the horrors of Obama’s nominee to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division discussing the War on (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs:

To begin, she believes that the misnamed war on drugs “is an atrocity and that it must be stopped.” She has written that the war on drugs has been a “war on communities of color” and that the “racial disparities are staggering.” As the reliably-liberal Huffington Post proclaimed, she would be one of the most liberal nominees in the Obama administration.

Pointing out the racial disparities of the drug war — facts you do not actually dispute — makes Gupta the real racist or something. As Serwer shorters it:

Not Even Casey Is As Bad As the 5th Circuit Thinks

[ 14 ] October 21, 2014 |

As Anderson noted in comments recently, Judge Dennis’s dissent from the 5th Circuit’s denial of an en banc hearing of its opinion allowing Texas to force most of the state’s abortion clinics to close without any legitimate independent justification is very good:

In upholding Texas’s unconstitutional admitting-privileges requirement for abortion providers and medication-abortion restrictions, the panel opinion flouts the Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania. v. Casey by refusing to apply the undue burden standard expressly required by Casey. Instead, the panel applied what effectively amounts to a rational basis test — a standard rejected by Casey — under the guise of applying the undue burden standard. The panel’s assertion that it applies Casey is false because it does not assess the strength of the state’s justifications for the restrictive abortion laws or weigh them against the obstacles the laws place in the path of women seeking abortions, as required by Casey. A correct application of the Casey undue burden standard would require that the admitting – privileges provision and medication – abortion restrictions be stricken as undue burdens because the significant obstacles those legal restrictions place in the way of women’s rights to previability abortions clearly outweigh the strength of their purported justifications.

If not overruled, the panel’s sham undue burden test will continue to exert its precedential force in courts’ review of challenges to similar types of recently minted abortion restrictions in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.”

Certainly, the history of Casey has shown the vast inferiority of the “undue burden” test compared to Roe’s strict scrutiny test. Nevertheless, despite its vagueness it has to mean a higher standard of scrutiny than rational basis, and the Texas statute could not survive any scrutiny more heightened than the rational basis the 5CA panel applied in practice. The panel acted as if the rational basis test Rehnquist tried to replace Roe with in his throw-Roe-from-the-caboose draft in Webster, and not Casey, was the controlling precedent. I fear that Kennedy might be headed in this direction, but at he very least 5CA can’t do it before he does.

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