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Katie Surrence: “He’s not Joni Mitchell” — Benjamin Scheuer’s The Lion

[ 3 ] July 5, 2014 |
[Intro to Katie's theater reviews here.]
 In the beginning of The Lion, Benjamin Scheuer’s one-man mostly acoustic-folk musical memoir, he sings “Cookie Tin Banjo,” about a toy he had as a child, the day with his father when he graduated to a real instrument, and his gratitude that he learned to love music with his family. The scene with his father and the scene with us are both charming and intimate. It’s an invitation into the story of the person sitting in front of us. I’ll borrow from that song and the musical, and before I write about what I struggled with, I will say that I am grateful to Benjamin Scheuer for that invitation, and this show. But even though at the end I’d been obviously moved—I produce a lot of fluid when I cry—I told my companion afterwards:

 “Part of me wanted to resist this.”


“He’s not Joni Mitchell,” I began to try to explain.

Which is to say not all these songs are perfectly crafted, crystalline little jewels. There is a directness to his lyrics that can verge into clunkiness, and this occasionally made my walls go up.  I could veer between being on his side and feeling alienated in the course of a single song. In “You Make Me Laugh,” a song about what he loves about his girlfriend, his lines about the things she did—she pulls her stretchy pants over her head, she makes him challah bread—evoked a person with exuberant specificity, but then the phrase “the wacky things you do,” was artless and vague, made her seem less a person, more [insert manic pixie dream traits here].  At times I had an urge to mark up the manuscript: “This here is great, but this you need to push further.”  You can hear this tension in “Cookie Tin Banjo.” It’s one of the successful songs in the show, but it still sits on a knife edge. It feels rooted in a real relationship, and “he gave the gift of music to his boy” is true and unpretentious.  But some lines seem there to fill space.  Is it important that the pick is “little and black,” or is it an easy rhyme with “never looked back”?

They are very different shows, but because much of the thematic material is so similar, it was hard for me to avoid comparing it to last year’s Fun Home, the musical by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir.  Both are about troubled relationship the protagonist has with their father, who died young, and how that relationship planted the seeds that enabled them to grow into artists.  Fun Home was searing. I met Alison Bechdel about a month after I saw it, and I told her that it was about her and about all of us, and I had never in my life seen a play that was so much about its audience, that so confronted us, showed us the story of our lives and families.  I admired her bravery to write about her life as starkly as she had.

The Lion isn’t the kind of thing that will shake you so badly you have trouble calming down afterward. Its portrayal of pain is often gentle, at a bit of remove. Sometimes the stakes aren’t quite high enough. His song about being angry at his father, “St. Rick,” feels gently parodic of teenage angst. But what comes through brilliantly is a warm, adult compassion and appreciation for his parents, and his deep gratitude for music. Both in his songwriting and in his performance, Scheuer is a little better at joy than pain.  His whole person on stage communicates joy. He has a beaming smile and crinkling eyes, he sometimes jumps up and down, and even his mop of hair seems to say that he’s delighted to be there, delighted that we’re there—he invited the latecomers to “come on in,” and expressed concern for a coughing patron.  When he talked about dating his girlfriend it evoked an “aw” from an audience member that made him and the audience all laugh together.  And he’s even better at capturing peace and reconciliation. He sings about an imagined phone conversation between his dead father and his mother, now in a new relationship.  His father matter-of-factly checks in on the passage of time and their family, and takes comfort that she is not alone. Then he disappears out of consciousness again.  My resistance entirely melted.  Scheuer best shows loss as the quiet negative space left over when he shows love.

The ability to communicate peace, reconciliation, and gratitude and make them specific and genuine, not abstracted away from life story but embedded in one, is rare in songwriting.  By the end, when he answers the question posed by his father, “What makes a lion?”, “It’s not a roar that makes a lion/It’s the pride,” he has earned it.  A line that could have been cutesy or easy achieves the sweet, deep simplicity of great folk.

Fun Home felt like being in the overwhelming throes of memory; The Lion felt like coming to terms with it. This musical wasn’t raw like Fun Home, but in a different way I was impressed by the bravery it took to make and show such a simple, honest thing.  Even if at times it felt a little too prettily wrapped, it was still a powerful gift.

It plays till July 13 at New York City Center.  Go see it if you can.


[ 327 ] July 5, 2014 |

The right to water should be a basic human right and Detroit shutting off water to people who can’t afford to pay their bills is an immoral act. The federal government should intervene to stop this from happening.

Free Agency And Contemporary Competitive Balance

[ 61 ] July 5, 2014 |

Anybody know who has the second best run differential in MLB right now?

That’s right, your Seattle Mariners:

OAK +129
SEA +64
LAD +57
WAS +45
DET +33

To dramatize the geographic power shift in the American League, the three top teams in baseball are all in the AL West. I don’t think the Mariners are actually the second best team in baseball or anything, but with better-than-even odds of making the playoffs I’d say that as of now Keri’s analysis of the Cano signing is looking better than mine.

I should elaborate a bit on why I agreed with Jonah conceptually although I disagreed with him about the specifics. I do agree that there’s a certain Stockholm Syndrome among some analytically inclined fans, who look at things from the perspective of the interests of the owners rather than the interests of the team. There are exceptions; if you’re a fan of the As or the Rays, the revenue potential of even an excellent team is so relatively limited that you have to worry about the $/WAR ratio. But, otherwise, winning is the point, not maximizing efficiency. What’s relevant is not whether someone is “overpaid” but the opportunity cost. As a Phillies fan, you should have hated the Ryan Howard signing, not because it cut into the owners’ profits but because it practically saddled you with an unproductive player for years (and not just in the back end after years of elite performance either.)  But if a guy can play, and signing him doesn’t make it impossible for you to sign someone else because baseball doesn’t have a salary cap, that’s a different issue. There’s some opportunity cost risk associated with Cano on the back end, but (especially with increasing revenues likely to produce salary inflation) if he delivers several years of elite level performance, you can live with that, as long as the team is competitive during the period when the player still has a elite value. To my surprise, the Mariners in year 1 are competitive.

The other relevant question is whether this is just a complete fluke. But — and I can’t really understand this — but I don’t see it. Zunino is playing right in line with his ZIPS projection. Both Smoak and the new jobholder Morrison have been slightly better than replacement level. Cano has actually been below projection — although he’s still been essentially as good as any 2B in baseball except Kinsler and Altuve. (Which is exactly why rare elite free agents are a better gamble — they have value in an off year that mid-level free agents don’t.) Miller’s in line with expectations. Seager is having a good year, outperforming his ZIPS, but at 26 I wouldn’t assume his first half performance is unsustainable. The OF and DH slots looked like a train wreck before the year…have has been exactly that. King Felix has perhaps even been better than expectations, although not dramatically so, but if anything the rest of the rotation has underachieved; if Paxton cam come back before the end of the month there could be some improvement. The bullpen looked solid-not-great and has been exactly that. I don’t see any reason why the Mariners shouldn’t be similarly competitive in the second half. Indeed, the black holes in the OF represent the potential for improvement if the organization is serious, which is another way of testing whether the Cano signing make sense. There’s no point in springing a big salary for major talent if you’re not going to try to find some real outfielders once you have a real threat to make the playoffs.

At any rate, as long as the current condition of major league baseball — i.e. very high levels of competitive balance and elite free agents, especially at up-the-middle defensive positions, rarely hitting the FA market in their primes — persists, signing those elite free agents may well be a better strategy than is commonly assumed. There’s not a lot separating below- and above-average teams right now, and in that context a 5 or 6 WAR player (let alone higher) has a very significant impact.

What Anti-Sweatshop Pressure Can Do

[ 26 ] July 5, 2014 |

As we talked about here earlier, the idea that the kids just aren’t doing their activism right because I’m too lazy to find out what the kids are doing today is a stupid critique of modern activism, in part because students are doing awesome things. Pressure from students at Rutgers led that university to cut off contracts from two apparel companies who refused to sign on to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Now Outdoor Cap, which made their hats, is crying about it.

This Day in Labor History: July 5, 1935

[ 18 ] July 5, 2014 |

On July 5, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act. This groundbreaking piece of legislation revolutionized the relationship between the federal government and organized labor and gave workers a fair shake from the government for the first time in American history.

When Franklin Roosevelt took over the presidency in 1933, the economy was in the worst state in American history. But Roosevelt wanted to help business, not hurt it. His first New Deal labor legislation was really more a pro-business measure. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) intended to bring business on the board with a reform program, and in fact parts of the act were welcomed by corporations, especially as it promoted bigness to undermine harmful competition. Somewhat unintentionally, the NIRA’s provision protecting collective bargaining for workers was interpreted by American workers as giving them approval to strike. 1934 saw some of the greatest militancy in American history, with major strikes in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Toledo, and the textile plants in New England and the South. This growing labor movement helped cleave corporate support from the New Deal.

In 1935, when the right-wing Supreme Court ruled the NIRA unconstitutional, Roosevelt moved for greater empowerment of workers. In fact, it was only when the NIRA was shut down that FDR moved toward this greater empowerment of workers. He was originally skeptical of the act because it did so much for workers and seemed anti-business. But the election of 1934 created an overwhelmingly liberal Congress that the political space existed for Roosevelt to take such a significant step. Senator Robert Wagner (D-NY) shepherded the bill through Congress (and giving it its popular name of the Wagner Act). Wagner had long been a champion of labor. He had served as chairman of the New York State Factory Inspection Commission in the aftermath of the Triangle Fire and built upon that to become a Democratic senator from the state in 1927. Wagner was the Senate’s leading liberal during the New Deal, shepherding a variety of legislation through the body, particularly around labor issues.

The NLRA guaranteed “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection.” The law applied to all workers involved in interstate commerce except those working for government, railroads, airlines, and agriculture. The agriculture exception, as in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, continues to lead to the exploitation of agricultural workers today and is one of the more unfortunate aspects of the New Deal, although arguably including agricultural workers might have dampened support for these laws enough that they wouldn’t have passed.

The most important part of the NLRA was the establishment of the National Labor Relations Board, creating a government agency with real authority to oversee the nation’s labor relations. The government had now officially declared its neutrality in labor relations, seeing its role as mediating them rather than openly siding with employers to crush unions. This was a remarkable turnaround in a nation where unionbusting was a good political move for the ambitious pol. After all, Calvin Coolidge, out of office only 4 years before Roosevelt took over, made his name by busting the 1919 Boston police strike.

Business went ballistic after the NLRA passed. Business Week ran an editorial titled “NO OBEDIENCE!” It read: “Although the Wagner Labor Relations Act has been passed by Congress and signed by the President, it is not yet law. For nothing is law that is not constitutional.”

Conservatives immediately challenged the constitutionality of the NLRA. But Roosevelt’s war on the Supreme Court, while damaging his prestige and ability to get new legislation passed, did have an effect. The pressure of a changing nation by the time the case came to them had an effect. In the 1937 decision in NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation, the Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the government and the act’s future was ensured. Within a year of the decision, three justices retired and Roosevelt ensured the future of his programs.

It’s also important to remember what life for workers was life before the National Labor Relations Act. It wasn’t just that they couldn’t form strong unions and thus were poor, although that was a piece of it. It’s that companies could do basically anything they wanted to in order to stop or bust a union. They could hire spies. They could hire a police force. They could kill union organizers. They could fire you for joining a union. Corporations had all the power and workers had none because in the end, the government was willing to back up the companies through legislation or even through military intervention to bust unions. The NLRA ended that, perhaps not entirely, but largely. Leveling the playing field meant workers now had the right to a decent life, a right they were happy to grasp and fight for. And fight for they did, as union membership skyrocketed after the NLRA was upheld by the Court.

In other words, social movements require accessing the levers of power, even if that means compromising on key principles, in order to codify change.

As is the case with most legislation, it proved susceptible to conservative regulatory capture and today the NLRB is a shell of its former robust self thanks to Republican attacks on it as one of the few agencies dedicated to giving workers a fair voice on the job, a principle to which the Republican Party opposed in 1935 and opposes in 2014.

This is the 113th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Friday Creature Feature

[ 21 ] July 4, 2014 |

Say “hello” to today’s creature feature–the oarfish! The oarfish is a fish whose body keeps going when you think it should stop. It’s like “Hey look at that fish. Oh, looks like there’s more of it. And more. And mo– HOLY CRAP WHAT STEWARD OF SEA-SATAN IS THIS?!!!”

The oarfish is the shy, retiring type, a loner who likes to hang out in the deep. Probably because it’s dark down there and he’s so freaky-looking.

Anyway, oarfish can reach lengths of over 50 feet long, making them the longest bony fish in the ocean. Pretty horrifying neat, huh?


[ 132 ] July 4, 2014 |

PSYCH!!! This post is not about the exploited tall blue cat-people who have braid-sex and the nice white man who saves them. HA HA!! Too late to click away now!!!

This post is about internet avatars. Do you have one? What is it? Why’d you choose it? Aaaaaaand…GO! Avatars open thread!



[ 59 ] July 4, 2014 |

Hope you all aren’t too torn up by the demise of Richard Mellon Scaife. Hard to lose such a good and kindly citizen.


Are You American?

[ 122 ] July 4, 2014 |

To the Republican Party, this is apparently the same question as “are you an affluent white suburbanite?

Harris Aftermath

[ 19 ] July 4, 2014 |

Mostly, this is a good rundown of reactions to the Harris decision. In particular the piece by Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein and the Joshua Freeman essay get at one key issue–that the work of women and especially poor women is consistently undervalued in our society.

From Boris and Klein:

So why do the Court’s conservatives advance an argument that is out of step with historical, economic and social reality? Part of the reason certainly lies with the nature of the work: domestic tasks done by women in the location of the home, unrecognized as a place of waged labor. Additionally, the labor has been devalued and dismissed because of the stigmatization attached to the work of poor women of color, the legacy of slavery and discrimination. In this context, Harris v. Quinn becomes a direct assault on the livelihood of some of the nation’s lowest paid workers. It is part of the right’s war on women, its demonization of public employees and battle against the union idea.

And from Freeman:

Instead, Harris is an extension of a different tradition in American labor law, the denial of rights to workers in industries dominated by female and non-white workers. Far from universal, the major New Deal labor laws—the National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act—explicitly excluded particular occupations, including farm work and domestic labor, which had large numbers of female, African-American and Mexican-American workers. While some racially and sexually biased exclusions were later eliminated, Harris effectively extends this history of discrimination.

I do have to take exception to Jane McAlevey’s article because unlike the historians quoted above, it pushes ideology over analysis as to the real problem at hand in the decision. For McAlevey the problem is not enough internal democracy in modern unions. While I don’t dispute this is a weakness of the American labor movement (although aren’t European unions even more bureaucratic and top-down than American unions? European unions are certainly far larger and more integrated into corporate decision-making than in the US), I fail to see what it has to do with the Harris decision or how pushing more internal democracy unions will to do to influence the Supreme Court. Unfortunately this sort of ideologically charged critique is far more common in left-labor circles than it should be, not because those making it are wrong exactly but because it gets in the way of understanding the real reasons labor is in trouble that are far more persuasive than blaming it on Big Labor. But it’s at lot easier to whip your enemies in the labor movement than deal with the major structural problems causing labor’s decline like capital mobility, the organized conservative movement, and the growth of the business lobby after the Powell Memo.

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor

[ 104 ] July 4, 2014 |

The whites of Murrieta, California sure know how to celebrate July 4. They kick it old school, through expressions of white supremacy.

MURRIETA, Calif. — Suddenly, this city in the desert has become the place that turned away the immigrants.

When the three busloads of immigrant mothers and children rolled into town for processing at a Border Patrol station this week, they were met by protesters carrying American flags and signs proclaiming “return to sender” as they screamed “go home” and chanted “U.S.A.” Fearing for the safety of the migrants and federal officers, immigration officials decided to reroute the buses to San Diego, an hour south.

And a day after many here celebrated what they saw as a temporary victory, more than a thousand residents packed a high school auditorium on Wednesday night for a town-hall-style meeting that lasted more than four hours, voicing fears about an influx of migrants.

“What happens when they come here with diseases and can overrun our schools? How much is this costing us?” one resident, Jodie Howard, asked the mayor.

“How do you know they are really families and aren’t some kind of gang or drug cartel?” another person asked federal officials.

What about when they violate our white women creating mongrelized children and undermining the white race? Who will protect our young women from committing race suicide with these savages? And what about their foreign ideologies they bring up with them from the jungles? Only a campaign of 100% Americanism will save us from this foreign threat.

The Party of Ideas (TM)

[ 19 ] July 4, 2014 |

Many smart people are, for obvious reasons, making fun of the latest round of Young Reactionaries With Exciting New Ideas. (You will be thrilled to learn that their plans for poverty involve letting them eat states’ rights.) A commenter had an idea, which I later originated, of a link that would serve as an all-purpose description of this genre of articles:

With great fanfare Monday, Taco Bell unveiled the Grandito, an exciting new permutation of refried beans, ground beef, cheddar cheese, lettuce, and a corn tortilla. “You’ve never tasted Taco Bell’s five ingredients combined quite like this,” Taco Bell CEO Walter Berenyi said. “The revolutionary new Grandito, with its ground beef on top of the cheese but under the beans, is configured unlike anything you’ve ever eaten here at Taco Bell.” The fast-food chain made waves earlier this year with its introduction of the Zestito, in which the beans are on top of the lettuce, and the Mexiwrap, in which the tortilla is slightly more oblong.

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