Friday, July 06, 2007

The Month That Was - June 2007: I'm busily struggling to finish up the repositioning of Business As Usual with its new publisher, which has been an adventure (of a sort) that I may recall here once it's over.

Also, I am wrestling with a particularly insidious, frustrating and painful bout of tendonitis. Any suggested cures are welcome, however bizarre.

Harrisburg Hell
Chicago Heaven
Last Word on The Sopranos
John from Cincy Begins
Summer Photo Slop
How may we disserve you?: I had to get to Harrisburg, PA for work. That meant a foray into the organized asshattery that is the air travel industry. The itinerary was: Detroit to Harrisburg via Dulles in DC, a night at the Crowne Plaza, and then reverse the trip the following day.

Just during the first leg, Detroit to Dulles, we were treated to:
• 20 minute delay for a mechanical repair in Detroit
• 10 minute delay at the gate to wait for paperwork on the mechanical repair
• 15 minute delay on the tarmac in Detroit because the air corridor to Dulles was too busy
• 10 minute delay waiting in Dulles for another plane to vacate our gate
• 15 minute travel time to the connecting flight because Dulles has a midfield terminal so you must take a shuttle to other terminals

All this added up to a missed connection. That meant a trip to the customer service desk where approximately 40 people were waiting for one of two customer service clerks, although for some reason every customer was treated as a team effort so there wass really only one clerk for everybody. Didn't matter if you needed a quick seat assignment on a later flight (like me) or you were trying to reschedule a multi-day itinerary and you wanted to debate the cost of every possible route and discuss it with your spouse for an extended amount of time before you made any decision (the people in front of me). Everybody got to wait for the same team of clerks.

What's worse, United's 800-number for reservations was hosed -- it kept cycling me back to the same voice response system -- so there was no alternative.

It is annoying and disheartening to miss your flight, but then to have to stand in line completely uncertain of your future and worry whether you were missing another flight while you were in line, or wonder whether you might as well just head to a hotel for the evening, or be terrified of losing your place in line even though your bladder is bursting -- that is strictly third-world level service. Shame on United Airlines in Dulles.

I was one of the lucky ones. I was able to get on the line to my corporate American Express travel agent, and although she couldn't perform all the magic paperwork, she was able to reserve a seat for me on the next Harrisburg flight. I just had to complete my wait in line to get my boarding pass, but at least I had a (relatively) certain future.

Still, I was facing sitting around the airport for 4 hours until the next flight, but luckily, Kate and Anna saved the day. They managed to break away to make it out to the airport and we got to share a quick dinner at the airport Marriott which, incidentally, turned out to be where Miss Anna's upcoming prom was to be held. It's a nice enough hotel (a standard-issue Marriott), but Anna deemed it to be too "ghetto" for a prom.

Back to Dulles for the short jump to Harrisburg. The plane appeared to be a reworked Greyhound bus from the '70s with wings welded to either side. I was in the very last row, my chin resting on my knees, and I had a rather too intimate aural relationship with anyone using the lavatory across from me. Then, we sat for a while at the gate because someone had parked a plane behind us and we couldn't pull out. I am not making that up. Our pilots wanted to pull away and fly but they had been parked in. It took at least 35 minutes to find the keys and move the blocking plane. Thirty-five minutes sitting at the gate for a twenty-two minute flight. The Dulles airport authorities are consummately incompetent. Between the design of that airport and people who run it, we'd all be better off if it was burnt to the ground. (Note to TSA monitors: That last sentence was hyperbole. I am not intending to, nor do I advocate, setting Dulles airport ablaze. Please do not strip search me next time through.)

Also, for some reason, the pilots we unable to turn the engines on so we could have air conditioning. It got seriously hot sitting at the gate -- not that the outside temp was that high, but it was a humid evening and this very cramped plane was absolutely packed. I was damp with sweat. The fat guy next to me was sweating profusely and popping some kind of serious looking pill.

Now, this was a United Express flight operated by Mesa Airlines. Mesa Airlines is the regional operator that farms itself out to United and USAir and America West and so forth. This is the second time I have spent an extended period sitting at the gate in sweltering heat with no a/c on a Mesa airlines flight. (The previous time was a few years ago in Phoenix.) If the pilots are forbidden to turn on the engines, thus providing a/c, because they don't want to waste fuel, Mesa should be sued out of existence immediately. If they are forbidden by airport or FAA policy, they should let people deplane back into the air-conditioned terminal until they get it sorted out.

If your reservation ever says United (or USAir, or America West) Express operated by Mesa Airlines, you are in for Hell -- be forewarned. Bluntly stated: I absolutely loathe Mesa Airlines.

Bottom line on getting to Harrisburg: 3.5 hours of planned travel became 9 hours. It would have been a 7-hour drive.

Oh, and when I arrived, the wireless in the Crowne Plaza was not working. Perfect.

The next day, I had planned to be in seminars and conference meetings until 5 and so had set up my flight out for 7:20pm. To my surprise, my duties were over by Noon. No problem, just get to the airport and get on standby for an earlier flight. I shamelessly copped a free ride on the Hilton airport shuttle even though I wasn't staying there. (The Hilton is right next door to the Crowne Plaza.)

Well, at the airport my first standby option had just closed the doors. It wouldn't have mattered anyway because a) it was overbooked to begin with and more importantly b) I had left my portfolio on the shuttle. Brilliant.

In my portfolio were my boarding passes, which were no problem because it's trivial to reprint them; my meeting notes, also no problem because I had already transcribed them into a Word doc; and a copy of my latest manuscript of Misspent Youth with scribbled edits over the first eight or so chapters. The manuscript itself was not a problem because it is ALWAYS backed up in a couple different places, but the scribbled edits, some extensive, were irreplaceable. After a couple of desperate phone calls to make sure the driver didn't throw it away, I was back in a cab heading back to the Hilton to retrieve it. Lucky I saved all that money by scamming an early ride to the airport, eh? At this point I didn't dare ask if things could get any worse.

The folks at the Hilton found and saved my notebook, and even tried to get it drive it back to me at the airport but we crossed paths. Excellent work from the Hilton. I'd feel guilty for scamming a free ride on their shuttle if I wasn't a regular at Hiltons for many years. Since I am screaming and yelling about some horrible service in this rant, it's only right to give equal time to the good experiences. Hilton has come through for me a number of times in my travel life; that's why I keep piling up Hilton Honors points. They are like the Toyota of hotels, nothing flashy but dead reliable.

Similarly, back at the Harrisburg airport, the United guys at the ticket counter got me re-routed on an earlier flight through O'Hare to cut a couple of hours off my travel time, and not only that, at the gate they changed my assigned coach-class middle seat to an Economy Plus (more legroom!) aisle seat. No charge. Those guys rule. A hundred and eighty degrees different from United in Dulles. Small airports rock.

But then things went quickly back to normal: about a fifteen minutes delay getting out of O'Hare to Detroit. At my arrival in Detroit I hopped a shuttle to the parking lot. The previous day I was happy when I assigned a parking space that was so close to the exit gate. Usually that means you will be the first one off the shuttle. But for some reason, the driver decided to start dropping folks at the far end first. I was dead last to get off. Then, coming home on I-94 I was stopped dead by night construction. It was knife twist upon knife twist.

Once again, what should have been a quick air trip took me as long as it would have to drive -- except in the car I could have stopped whenever, not worried about having my little bottle of mouthwash in a baggie, not been scrounging for elbow room on the plastic seats in the terminal, and been soothed by Sirius the whole way. How many hours wasted? I am too old to be wasting any of the time I have left on Earth. Probably the most infuriating and annoying bit of travel I have ever had. Ugh.
My Kind of Town: Most people identify with a certain big city. Generally, it's the big city nearest your home. You use it as shorthand to say where you are from when you are from a town nobody outside your circle could place. Often you maintain a loyalty to the sports teams and familiarity with the local geography. For me it is Detroit, but I don't want it to be Detroit anymore. Detroit is pathetic. I want it to be Chicago. (I suppose, technically, it could be Ann Arbor, since Ann Arbor is reasonably widely known. But Ann Arbor is hardly a big city.)

Problem is, I can't really justify it. Chicago is within driving distance, but it's four times further than Detroit. My only history with Chicago is a few long weekends, as opposed to being born and raised in or near Detroit. If someone asked me where Dexter, MI was I could say "Oh, about four hours east of Chicago," but that's way too contrived. I could wear a Cubs cap and prattle on about Da Bears, but there's nothing worse than manufactured team loyalty. No sir. I can't do it, and that saddens me.

Still, at least I could consol myself with a spur of the moment weekend in Chi-town. One of my faves, The Fairmont, was running a special via Expedia. Amtrak tickets were available. (I even got business class on the way back.) And most importantly, I looked at my Outlook calendar and I saw no free days for weeks, except for the upcoming Friday; it was perhaps my last chance for spontaneous travel. Plans were laid and triggers were pulled.

As I have almost certainly mentioned before, when it makes sense time-wise, Amtrak is vastly superior to air travel, and I don't just say that because of the metaphorical impaling I took at the hands of the airline industry trying to get to and from Harrisburg (above).

You can arrive five minutes before the train leaves if you want to cut it that close. No one will check your bag for hidden 4oz liquids, ask you to take off your shoes, require picture ID; for that matter, they don't even check to see if you have a ticket until the train is underway. Even the tightest coach seat on the train has plenty of legroom. There are no seat belts; you can get up anytime you want, even during takeoff. There is no turning off of unapproved electronic devices. In fact, there are a/c plugs in next to the seats for recharging your phone or hooking up your laptop. The lavatories are about four times the size of those in a plane and there are two in each car. No one is blocking the aisle with a beverage cart -- there is a caf‚ car with lots of food and drink choices and it even has it's own seating so it doesn't feel like eating at the drive-thru.

The only thing they need to do to make it perfect is have assigned seats. That and speed up the trains so I could take it even when my destination was far off. If we had a lattice of high-speed train lines, say 200-300 mph, I would be done with the airline industry for good.

Oh, and have Hooter's girls as conductors. That too.

You arrive at Union Station in Chicago, which is utter bedlam. (By the way, why is it that virtually all big city train stations are either "Union Station" or "Penn Station"? Is there a reason for this apart from total lack of imagination?) From there it's about a $10 cab ride to your hotel, as opposed to a $50 ride from O'Hare.

My hotel, the Fairmont, is not the most luxurious hotel in the city, nor is it the trendiest. But I have settled on it for a few reasons. First, as always, excellent service. Second, location: in this case that means a shot at an excellent view of either the waterfront or the cityscape, but more importantly, you are on the north edge of The Loop giving you ready foot access to virtually anywhere in the downtown area you'd want to go. Millennium Park is just around the corner, the Art Institute is a block or so further. It's twenty minutes to the River North area or all the way up the Magnificent Mile. Lastly, for the workout junkie, the Fairmont is attached to the Lakeshore Athletic Club which is one of the finest health clubs I have ever been in, and I've been in a few, plus it's free if you are a member of Fairmont's President Club which, in itself, is free to join. The Fairmont Chicago makes me happy.

View from my room at the Fairmont (342K)

One unusual aspect of this trip was the bad food. After my mid-afternoon check-in I was hungry for lunch so a slid a few blocks over to Ada's, a place I remembered as being a top notch Jewish deli. (I once had to watch the season final of The Sopranos there because my hotel at the time did not have HBO.) Let's just say it did not measure up to my memory this time. I recall delicious potato-pancake style bread and nicely stacked meats. This time I got unfresh corned beef on what must have been store-bought rye. I was also a bit queasy the rest of night for which the sandwich may or may not have been at fault.

The other disappointment was Lou Malnati's. I wanted some real Chicago style deep dish and was wondering what the current sentiment was for the top joint. A friend of mine insisted Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co. was not to be beat, but that was a cab ride away and too much trouble.'s editor's choice was Lou Malnati's which is in River North. So at lunchtime on a rainy Saturday I trolled on over and snagged a seat at the bar. The verdict: good stuff, but really no better than your basic Uno's or Giordano's. I guess it's wrong to call it a bad food experience. It was ace Chicago Dish, and that is always good, but it was disappointing in that I was hoping for something special. Kick-ass spinach bread, however.

By the way, although it may be heresy not to pick a Chicago or New York joint for the top slot, the very best pizza I have ever had was at Pizzeria Paradiso in Dupont Circle, Washington D.C. It's not deep, but they use the same fresh ingredients and semi-sweet tangy sauce that the better Chicago joints use, except they don't drown it in molten mozzarella. They use feta with a light touch. As good as it gets. But I digress.

About Millennium Park: The City of Chicago really nailed this one cold. Of the unending number of urban renewal and upgrading projects that go on around the country most are boondoggles and white elephants. Most city administrations are so unimaginative, out-of-touch, and downright corrupt that these things become laughable slapstick before ground is broken. Millennium Park, in contrast, is a triumph.

Firstly, there is an open air amphitheatre designed by Frank Gehry. It is a substantial and strikingly contemporary piece of sculpture in and of itself, looking like an unfolding aluminum cloud. Emerging from it is a lattice of metal tubes that extend out over the lawn and somehow seem to amplify the skyline. Just a very cool place to be.

The amphitheatre and lattice (280K)
The Chicago skyline through the lattice (329K)

During my visit they were running free concerts (classical mostly) under the guise of the Grant Park Music Festival. (Why the Grant Park Music Festival is held in Millennium Park as opposed to Grant Park, I don't know.) People were picnicking and bottles of wine were in evidence all across the lawn as folks reclined lazily and enjoyed the music. I plopped myself down and joined them briefly. I was not enamored with the music that night -- I think it was an orchestra from Mexico City, there in honor of Mexico/USA gold cup soccer final being played down the road at Soldier Field. They were obviously very talented, just not to my taste. But I was quite happy to chill there in the cool green grass.

Equally sweet are the other dramatic sculptures. At the forefront of the park stands what is affectionately referred to as The Bean: a large metallic, well...bean -- an oversized elliptical shape made of highly reflective stainless steel. Like the lattice over the lawn in front of the amphitheater, it offers and altered perspective of the city's skyline in reflection. Nifty.

The Chicago skyline in the Bean (231K)
Self-portrait in the Bean (226K)

Then there are the two brick monoliths. But they are not monoliths, they are fountains and video screens. That is to say the inside facing monolith walls are filled with LEDs of some sort that project the video image of a face. It's difficult to describe, but exceedingly clever. The wall displays the face of a seemingly average person, one suspects it could have been one of the locals picked up off the street, just subtly changing expression until at one point, the image's lips are pursed and water spews out of its "mouth". Very fun. Kids love it and scurry around in the water. Again, it seems perfectly integrated with the city itself, spraying water to counteract the sweltering city heat while displaying the faces of the perfectly average folks who look like the same sort of people walking by at any given moment.

Face in the Monolith (431K)
Spitting Monolith (424K)

In addition to the sculptures, there is a decent open air restaurant/bar which is always crowded and seems like a happening hangout. There's a lot more too; you could probably spend an entire day exploring Millennium Park at a leisurely pace. It has instantly moved into the upper echelon of my favorite places list.

Just to the immediate south of Millennium Park is another of my favorite places: the Art Institute. I suspect I have written about it before, but if I haven't let's just say it remains one of the best and brightest lights of the museum world, comparable to anything NYC has to offer and a perfect place to spend a couple of hours, which I did.

And while we are on the topic of recommended cultural activities, I give top recommendation for the architecture boat tours that are run by the CAF (Chicago Architecture Foundation). You can really get a sense of the sort of thought and creativity that has gone into much of Chicago's development. There's a contrast for you: the "hog butcher to the world" turns out to be long time hotbed of artistic enterprise. It's very easy to see the skyline as just another city skyline, but this tour does a good job of highlighting the decision making process that went into a number of the buildings and how it was balanced with aesthetics. (Interesting note: the doyen's suggestion that the famed Chicago fire that destroyed much of the city actually provided a hidden blessing in that it let them rebuild from a clean slate. Would that contemporary New Orleans took the same attitude.)

A number of tour operators run architecture tours up the Chicago River, but to be on the safe side, I would stick with the ones run by the CAF.

A beautiful city on an ugly day (504K)
Bridge abutments near the Wrigley Building (443K)
The Sears building soars into the clouds (483K)
It's lonely at the top (311K)
Condos for sardines (479K)

There was also a touch of the absurd in store for me. The morning before I left, I headed down to Navy Pier and happened on to a speedboat tour of the lake on a boat called the Sea Dog. I was hoping for a roller-coasterish ride along the Lake Michigan shore, but it was disappointingly gentle. It got even more gentle when the motor overheated and we found ourselves adrift. The crew handled the situation with aplomb, as if they had dealt with it a hundred times before (hmmm...). Another Sea Dog speedboat was called on to tow us in. So onlookers were treated to the sight of two ultra high performance watercraft limping back into port at a snail's pace.

Just another day at Navy Pier (390K)
The garden at Navy Pier (421K)

The entire trip was a mixed bag of fun and disappointment. After most such trips, I would be left feeling lukewarm or mildly frustrated. But somehow, Chicago makes me feel like it was great. I sure wish it was my city.
The End of the Family: I have a long history of commenting HBO series, so now that the dust has settled on The Sopranos I suppose we can recap the big theories about the ending. (I am assuming you saw it.)

Theory number one is that Tony is dead. As Bobby Baccala said in the first episode this year, "They say when it happens, you don't even hear it coming." That would be the meaning of the instant black. That is what Tony experienced, one second he is having a completely innocuous dinner with his family, the next he has ceased to exist. This theory is bolstered by the tension over the shady characters in Holsten's and the fact that there would be a nice symmetry considering he just had Phil Leotardo killed in front of his family.

The problem I have with it is that it is too easy. Is the ultimate lesson of The Sopranos "When you least expect it expect it" or "If you're going to be a gangster, you're likely to get shot"? I don't think so.

Theory number two is that the whole sequence is meant to show that although Tony goes on as before he is always going to live in fear. Fear for himself and fear for his family. The tension is the last scene is unresolved. It just hovers there. For all Tony has done, his punishment is to never know when it's coming, to never have peace. Folks also point out that this leaves the door open for a future movie or reprise of the series.

This is the weakest theory as far as I'm concerned. I provides no meaningful reason for the instant black ending and again, it just doesn't jibe with the timeless themes that David Chase has really tried to emphasize.

The theory I subscribe to is that it doesn't matter, see? Tony got whacked/Tony went on as before -- it doesn't matter. That's not what The Sopranos was about. Ever.

David Chase has said time and time again that The Sopranos is about family. Now you add that to the recurring theme of the show -- criminal level self-delusion -- and you have your answer. It doesn't matter.

The ultimate scene of the entire series actually happened the week before in Dr. Mefli's office. She finally realizes what an abyss Tony is; that she has made no progress; that she has been used in the service of Tony's dysfunction. She kicks Tony out, acknowledging her failure, and he turns to her declaring, without a hint of irony, that what she is doing is "immoral." (Note how he instinctively starts the charade again with A.J.'s therapist.)

Tony is hopeless. Whether it was referring to himself as a "soldier" or a "captain of industry" he could always build a fortress of justification around himself. But what about the family? Carmella, whose conscience once tortured her and sent her to therapy and to her priest desperate for redemption doesn't even think about it anymore; she just focuses on her real estate career. A.J., who for a brief moment seemed to gather up the courage to act in some way, is bought off with a BMW and two-bit job in the film business. He was never much for self-reflection anyway. Meadow is headed for a career civil rights law, convinced that the horrendous criminality all around her is really just a figment in the collective imagination of a prejudiced society. In fact, the final sequence where she is struggling to park her car but eventually fits into place is, I believe, the final symbol of that.

Their apparent happiness is just more self-delusion. Tony's criminality, and the need to live with it every day without being destroyed by guilt, has claimed its ultimate victims, the ones he most wanted to save. Whoever came through Holsten's door didn't matter. As Carmella from Season One might have said, they are all going to Hell. The moment of potential salvation is gone. One minute everything is fine, but once the moment for salvation is past, it's all over. Instant black.

Three more things:

First, this marks the end of the mob as an American movie paradigm. How can it not? Even if you're another Scorsese or Coppola, there is no way you top The Sopranos with a two hour film, even if you add in four hours of sequels. The genre is done. Everything that could have been said has been said. (With the exception of the inevitable "courageous" film about two gay wiseguys.)

Second, Gandolfini has pulled off what is almost certainly the greatest extended acting tour de force in history. Not an episode went by where I was not amazed by the pitch perfect emotions and manners and delivery. Even in the episodes when the script was weak, Gandolfini sold me. Just flawless. His performance should be watched closely by every student of acting from now on.

Third, I have never seen such an intelligent and popular debate over a work of art in my lifetime. I have seen intelligent debates, always within niche populations. I have seen popular debates: Who shot J.R.? But I have never seen a debate that was both until now. This is Chase's lasting legacy.

[Update: After writing everything above, I was pointed to a long and extremely detailed analysis of the last episode, which makes an extended case that Tony is dead. It invokes the symbolism of the Last Supper, oranges, and Members Only jackets. It makes a very compelling argument which, if true, would make me think less of the ending. I'll stick with my explanation for now, although it is nice to see that someone was more obsessed than I was.]
What Are You Saying?: As a Sopranos replacement we have John from Cincinnati from David Milch, creator of Deadwood. I yield to no one in my admiration of Milch. He is one of two people working in film and video who actually try to use the English language for artistic and even poetic purposes, rather than utilitarian dialog and narration (the other is David Mamet). But I have to admit it's hard to get a handle on John from Cincinnati.

We have interesting, well fleshed-out characters in a fairly dysfunctional community which is good. We have the dialogue which, while not soaring to the heights of Deadwood, is still characteristically lovely and playful. We have a delightful element of humor. But the premise seems muddled. Milch has stated that John... is about "borders" and how people react to crossing them. One of the borders is between the natural and the supernatural. And there is a strong supernatural element to the show -- one character levitates on occasion, one comes back from the dead, the title character is clearly magical (along with mentally disabled) in some way or another.

Having seen four episodes now I have no inkling whether this is going to mesh into a coherent narrative. It could; it took a few episodes in before I "got" Deadwood and nearly a whole season before it all come together, so I certainly not writing off John..., but the supernatural element scares me. That is such a big booby trap -- it's a deus ex machina waiting to happen; it's an invitation to focus on the mystical weirdness instead of the humanity of the characters.

Obviously, I am passing no judgment yet. I guess we'll just have to wait. Here's hoping Milch works his magic and clarifies things before the season is out. Fact is, even as it stands it's better than 90% of everything else on the tube.
Photo Slop: Just some leftover photos I've snapped over the past few weeks, mostly in and around Dexter and Ann Arbor.

Memorial Day in Dexter (totally Norman Rockwell):
Horsin' around (372K)
Hey Bulldog (318K)
Girl Scouts (286K)
Big red band (377K)

Summer in Ann Arbor:
On the lawn at Top of the Park (352K)
Kids at Top of the Park (340K)
Dancin' at Top of the Park (341K)
Teens at Top of the Park (373K)
Former teens at Top of the Park (260K)
Hanging troll (309K)
Very creative alley graffiti (478K)
Our new best friend (300K)

Rural Scenes (from nearby Chelsea):
Rural scene (369K)
Another rural scene (336K)
Yet another rural scene (429K)
Rural sunset (379K)
Another rural sunset (480K) (I made tis one my computer background at work)

Are you sick of my photography yet?