If you’ve been following my blog, you might have noticed that I’m not posting as frequently as in the past, when I was pretty reliable about posting an essay once a week. My new job as editor and publisher of Third Coast Review is taking up more of my time than I thought it would. That’s not a complaint–because it’s fun and it’s gratifying to see our site grow with so many terrific writers contributing. I’m writing theater reviews there, of course, as well as spending time on editing and admin duties. In addition, we have great articles under Music, Food, Lit, Art and Screens. To pick just a few:
We review 826Chi’s new children’s book, The Monster Gasped, OMG!
How chicken wings changed Julia’s life and made her decide to be a chef.
Caravan Palace at the House of Blues: It’s a blend of swing, gypsy jazz and electronic music.
Whether I’m reviewing or not, I’m an inveterate theatergoer. I’ve seen several good shows recently and I wanted to let you know about them so you can catch them too.
Constellations at Steppenwolf Theatre thru July 3
This is a beautifully written and performed play, a love story about an unlikely pair of lovers. Nick Payne’s Constellations is told in bits and pieces, brief scenes that roll out, double back and repeat themselves, sometimes in the same information and the same language, sometimes not. It shows the power of memory and miscommunication in our relationships. It’s a very nonlinear story that gels into a sweet and poignant story. To make it even more interesting, one of the pair is a theoretical physicist and the other a beekeeper. So some of the dialogue detours into discussions of time, atoms and space, and the lives of bees. The play runs 80 minutes. Check out my review.
Spinning by Irish Theatre thru July 3
Deirdre Kinahan’s play Spinning at Irish Theatre Company is the story of how one man grasped for happiness, had it and lost it but finds it difficult to understand how or why his actions were involved. Dan Waller, a fine Chicago actor, plays this role in a compelling fashion, along with three women in his life (four actually, but his child does not appear on stage). My review comments that the struggles of single parenthood and the dread of losing a child are what cause the worlds of Conor (Waller) and Susan (Jodi Kingsley) to spin out of control. The play runs 75 minutes at the Den Theatre.
Both of these productions are the currently fashionable under-90-minute variety and are staged with minimal scenic designs and no props.
Hauptmann at City Lit Theater thru July 10
Bruno Richard Hauptmann tells his own story with a supporting cast of six actors playing multiple parts in Hauptmann at City Lit Theater in Edgewater. It’s the other “trial of the century” (the first one being the Leopold-Loeb trial in Chicago in the 1920s). An excellent production, it’s the 30th anniversary staging of this play by John Logan, which originated in the same location and was directed by the same director. My review says “Although you know the outcome of the play before it starts, director Terry McCabe creates a tense and engrossing version of the story of the man who may have been executed for a crime he did not commit. Hauptmann, a German immigrant, was almost certainly denied a fair trial in 1930s America, between two wars against Germany.” Hauptmann runs thru July 10 and I recommend it.
Tapped, a Treasonous Musical Comedy by Forth Story Productions thru July 3
I rarely see a play that’s really bad and that’s mostly because I screen out the ones I suspect will be amateurish. I often see great theater at our huge array of storefront theaters–often as good or better than what you can see at the big Equity houses. With that as a preface, I’ll have to say that Tapped was bad. Amateurish, yes; clichéd and stereotyped, yes; and way too long, yes! To be fair, there are some funny lines, an occasional clever song and at least one great dancer. But all in all, it’s a play that should never have been staged at Theater Wit. I wanted biting political satire on our surveillance society and I got this. My review.
Haymarket, the Anarchist’s Songbook at Underscore Theatre
This was a terrific production (and I hope it’s remounted) drawn from Chicago history with original music performed by talented actor/musicians. It tells the story leading up to the Haymarket riot when Chicago working men and women rallied to call for an eight-hour workday and better working conditions at Haymarket Square at Desplaines and Randolph streets. I’m sorry to say that the play, staged at the new Edge Theatre in Edgewater, closed last weekend. My review.
Our new website, thirdcoastreview.com, has been launched by a bunch of refugees from Gapers Block, our dear, archived Chicago website. I wrote about that here a few weeks ago, but we weren’t quite ready for prime time until January 8, our official launch date. I’m editor and publisher of Third Coast Review and lead theater critic. I’m also serving as editor of the Screens page until I find someone else to take that over. We have a cadre of almost 30 writers and editors and I think we’re off to a great start. (Our logo was designed by my friend and former colleague, Linda Pompeii.)
I’ve reviewed four plays in the last week and most of them are recommended, if not must-sees. Here are the mini-reviews with links to the full reviews on 3CR.
The Mutilated at A Red Orchid Theatre
You’ve probably never heard of this Tennessee Williams play, but it’s a bizarre delight and I highly recommend it. My review says it’s a “joyous goofy Christmas” and it is, complete with bleak holiday songs written by the playwright. The acting, directing, design and sound elements are all terrific. This is an excerpt from the song that opens the play, performed by a dozen motley carolers.
I think the strange, the crazed, the queer
Will have their holiday this year
And for a while, a little while,
There will be pity for the wild
A miracle, a miracle!
A sanctuary for the wild.
The Mutilated runs through February 28 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells.
London Wall by Griffin Theatre Company at the Den Theatre
John Van Druten’s London Wall is another rarely performed play that warrants more affection. It’s the story of the steno-typists at a London law firm in the 1930s, the era when marriage was the only escape for a working girl in a low-wage job. Robin Witt’s direction and a fine cast result in excellent performances; the script is witty and the set a beautifully done office setting. My review notes that London Wall creates “a perfect microcosm of the pre-feminist age” and has some messages for the present as well. The Griffin Theatre production continues thru Feb. 14 at the Den Theatre, upstairs at 1333 N. Milwaukee. (And yes, an elevator is in their renovation plans for 2017, as well as a sprinkler system and a new marquee, according to owner Ryan Martin.)
Sunset Baby at Timeline Theatre
Sunset Baby by Dominique Morisseau is a family story, but a tough one, about a young woman (AnJi White as Nina) who doesn’t want to make peace with her father’s Black revolutionary past and its impact on her mother and her own childhood. She and her boyfriend are trying to save money for a new life by dealing drugs and sex. The 110-minute play (no intermission) is infused with music by Nina Simone throughout. The three-member cast is strong with a soulful performance by Edward Van Lear as Kenyatta, the father. My review. Sunset Baby runs thru April 10 at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington.
Bruise Easy at American Theater Company
This is a play with interesting ingredients, including two reunited siblings and a Greek chorus of neighborhood kids. Somehow all the pieces don’t come together in this script by Dan LeFranc. Joanie Schultz’ usually sure direction doesn’t save it, although the play has interesting moments and it’s short–about 80 minutes. Bruise Easy continues thru Feb. 14 at ATC, 1909 W. Byron. Check out my review.
The last year had many exciting and interesting moments for me, but the last month has been challenging. I spent most of it mourning about and planning how to recover from the demise of Gapers Block, the website for which I’ve written for almost three years. The site is now “on hiatus.” Andrew Huff, the editor and publisher of the 12-year-old website, posted a letter to readers explaining the change. And this is how the site looks now.
Many articles, comments and personal memories have come in to praise Gapers Block but no one has stepped in with the offer of the needed money to update the infrastructure and pay a full-time editor/publisher at least a pittance of a salary. So the site will live on as an archive, with all the existing content live, but nothing new. I couldn’t resist adding my own personal thoughts to the site, which I did late on New Year’s Eve, while waiting for the #ChicagoRising star to rise. (I can’t bring myself to call it “Chi-Town.” No real Chicagoan would use that term.)
GB staff members had known about this for several weeks and after we got over our initial distress, some of us began planning a new website to cover the Gapers Block arts and culture content. The result will be our new website, Third Coast Review, which is online now in an unofficial or “beta” way. We expect it to be official in a week or 10 days once we add more content.
What else was new and important in 2015?
On another shorter trip, I spent time in New York and was lucky to get a ticket to see the smash Broadway hiphopera (as one of my fellow theater critics calls it), Hamilton, about our first treasury secretary. I wrote about that here and probably will keep writing about it. I intended to see it again later in the year but by then tickets were really impossible to get without paying a couple of months’ salary. And now Hamilton is coming to Chicago in September and will be here (at the dreadful Shubert Theatre on Monroe Street, renamed after yet another bank), so I will be able to see it a few more times.
In the meantime, I’m finally reading the insightful biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the show about our “ten-dollar founding father.” Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a fascinating, meticulously detailed and readable biography. I just wish it wasn’t 800 pages long.
The Phantom Collective, the pub theater group formed by my friend June Skinner Sawyers, staged several interesting literary events in 2015, including Black Dogs and Melancholy, a reading of Samuel Johnson writings. The most recent pub event was Beowulf & Grendel, which combined Beowulf, the Old English epic poem, with Grendel, one of Beowulf’s antagonists (dramatized in John Gardner’s 1971 novel,Grendel, in which that character tells his side of the story).
Architecture: We love our buildings. The Chicago Architecture Biennial was a series of exhibits and events from October through today. The most comprehensive was the takeover of the Chicago Cultural Center by about 80 exhibits on four floors by firms and designers that asked questions about and predicted the future of architecture. I particularly liked the architectonic window treatments on the Michigan Avenue facade of the building by Norman Kelley. He clad each window in white vinyl cutouts representing Chicago window styles, mullions and dressings. The biennial as a whole was less than impressive but it was an excellent start and a learning experience for the next biennial in 2017.
Getting ready for Springsteen
Yes, I have the hardly-waits already for the January 19 concert at the United Center featuring my favorite rocker, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And for the concert February 21 in Louisville, an excuse to visit with my friends Jeannie and John. There will be more. Springsteen is touring on the re-release of his 1980 album, The River, in the form of a large boxed set titled The Ties That Bind. No, I haven’t bought it yet.
The year in review? Not yet.
I usually begin the new year with a list of my favorite events in pop culture for the previous year. I may still do that. For now, WordPress has created my year in review:
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,700 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.
Did you ever stop to think how the internet and the world-wide web changed our lives without our noticing it? If you’re a Millennial, you didn’t notice it because it was always there. Smartphones, texts, snapchat, all that. For older generations, an earthquake of technology happened in the late 1990s and 2000s. We love it and most of us wouldn’t give it up for anything. And that’s because as consumers, we love everything new and shiny.
But for businesses—of all kinds—the internet/web revolution came as some kind of surprise and upset many business models. Look at what happened to newspapers, book publishing, telecommunications, music, movies, television, retailing, real estate and other industries that weren’t paying attention until their business models imploded.
Newspapers still haven’t recovered from the revolution in their business model. Most of them ignored the web for the first few years, hoping it would be a novelty and go away. It’s really only in this decade that newspapers have figured out that they have to change the way they do business. Some newspapers and magazines are relatively successful, using a pay wall and retaining digital subscribers. Many are floundering, laying off staff, cutting back publishing frequency. Only the older generations read newspapers at all, so newspapers will die eventually.
The news revolution has affected TV and radio too, although not so drastically yet.
News outlets now are being advised on how to make money in other ways, through memberships, events and beating ad blockers.
Book publishing also is still floundering, figuring out how to manage and make money from e-books. Amazon, the giant that started this revolution, eventually will get so big that it will fail too and be replaced by something that a 10-year-old kid in Schenectady is dreaming up now. (I think I owe an HT to someone for that kid-in-Schenectady idea, but I don’t remember who.)
The music industry (and TV and films to a lesser extent) also are suffering from the internet notion that all content should be free and available on our terms. CDs aren’t selling much, even though vinyl is making a retro comeback. We want to listen to music on something we carry around, even if the sound quality is poor. And we want to watch TV and movies on our terms, not when the network or theater happens to schedule them.
Artists, writers and photographers are impacted by this content-should-be-free phenomenon. If no one wants to pay for content, then the publishers of content don’t want to pay for content creation. So, goodbye freelance businesses.
This internet/web revolution didn’t just happen overnight. Decades of technological development went into this phenomenon, but businesses were caught off guard. Even though most of them had some kind of computer or IT departments, the message of the coming revolution wasn’t acknowledged, or passed on. (Another factor in the revolution was the microchip, which enabled the miniaturization of our devices. It was introduced in 1959 but no one was paying attention to that either.)
The revolution happened while everyone was looking the other way.
- The modem was invented in 1958 at Bell Labs and the router (an Interface Message Processor) in 1967.
- In 1972, a guy named Ray Tomlinson invented email—a way to send messages across a network. It was his idea to use the “@” sign as the email standard address: user@host.
- In 1974, Elizabeth “Jake” Feinler led the team at SRI International’s Network Information Center. Among other things, they created the Host Naming Registry and the primary domain names we use today: .com, .gov, .edu, .org, .net, .mil.
- In 1974, Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn coined the term “internet.”
- Most importantly, In 1977, Lawrence Landweber created the Computer Science Network, a network for US university and industrial computer research groups. By 1984, more than 180 university, industry and government computer science departments were participating in CSNET.
In the middle 1980s, I was working on my first Mac at home but it wasn’t connected to anything. At work, no computer because the Wang word-processing machines were only for secretaries. My son was a graduate student finishing his PhD in economics and talked about getting “email” from his advisers. “Email,” I said. “What’s that?”
Then in 1989, when AOL started its first online service, I got email too. It was that pitifully slow telephone dialup access, but it was still a thrill to hear “You’ve got mail!”
- Finally (and skipping over many key technological advances), in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web and Robert Cailliau developed the first web browser for the Macintosh operating system. This is when business should have started paying attention and figuring out how their companies could take advantage of this new web thing.
- And all this happened years after the US Defense Department invented ARPA in 1958 and ASCii in 1963 so that machines from different makers could talk to each other. ARPAnet, the actual network, was initiated in 1966.
I owe my superficial surf of technology history to the Internet Hall of Fame’s internet timeline. Check it out here. http://www.internethalloffame.org/internet-history/timeline There’s also this http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/03/11/world-wide-web-timeline/ and this http://www.livescience.com/20727-internet-history.html
I decided to write this essay because I felt like venting. How could all these revolutions have happened to industries so important to me (newspapers, books, music, movies) without the industries being aware and preparing for the revolution? Big companies all have prestigious “strategy” officers and departments. What were they thinking about in the 1980s and 1990s? Not much, apparently. Or they were listening to big-name management consultants who probably were talking gobbledygook about customer intelligence, global advantage and supply chain management. I know whereof I speak on that one, because I used to work with those guys.
The theater review I’m working on now is about a fascinating play titled The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence. It’s a time-tripping play full of ideas and technology. At one point, a character says, “we’re at this critical moment in our society when technology is developing more rapidly than our social and political infrastructures can keep up with.”
That is one of the problems.
All the photos above taken by Nancy Bishop in her own home, site of prerevolutionary media and all the other kind too.
This has been a tough week for journalism. Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show. Brian Williams’ whole career is under investigation. CBS correspondent Bob Simon is killed in a Manhattan car crash, after surviving dozens of combat assignments. And now, David Carr has died, for no discernible medical reason, other than his checkered health past. It makes you ask, WTF anyway?
As I was coming home from the theater last night, I realized I hadn’t turned my phone on. A shocking headline popped up on the screen: David Carr, New York Times media columnist, is dead at 58.
What? How could this be? I just read his article on Jon Stewart and Brian Williams today. I started looking for information and there wasn’t much available yet. The Times had a brief obituary, which was expanded over the next couple of hours to become a meaningful overview of Carr’s career.
However, Twitter was on fire with news about Carr’s death and comments about his life and work. I tweeted and retweeted about a dozen times last night alone.
- Someone tweeted a link to the Carr archive on nytimes.com: a total of 1,776 articles.
- I tweeted a link to his last column about Stewart and Williams, both of whom grew up in New Jersey (and are both Springsteen fans):
@nsbishop: Last column by @carr2n. He was a Jersey boy too (but first a Minnesota boy). http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/12/business/media/brian-williamss-and-jon-stewarts-common-ground.html?ref=topics …
- Several people reminded us of his advice for writers:
“Keep typing until it turns into writing.”
Last night Carr had just moderated a panel discussion about the film Citizenfour with its principal subject, Edward J. Snowden; the film’s director, Laura Poitras; and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Just before 9pmET, he collapsed in his office and was taken to the hospital, where he died. That headline about him flashed on my phone at 9:30pmCT.
When I decided to write my own appreciation of Carr today, I started making notes and realized how much I had bonded with his writing over the years. First, I want to summarize David Carr’s odyssey. (He would hate seeing that word applied to his life.)
Midwesterner to Jersey boy
Carr grew up in a Minneapolis suburb, graduated from the University of Minnesota and worked as editor of the Twin Cities Reader, an alternative paper. During this time, he became an alcoholic, began using cocaine and became a crack addict. He and his girlfriend had twin girls and Carr raised them alone on welfare. A single dad crack addict. He kicked the crack habit and later suffered from cancer (Hodgkin’s lymphoma), which required a lot of radiation to his mouth and throat. He said in a radio interview: “I’ve had a very medicalized life. I have no spleen. I have one kidney. I have no gallbladder. I have half a pancreas.” He said his notably raspy voice was the result of many factors, including smoking tobacco and crack, radiation, and working on the pile covering firemen at the 9/11 site. It was during that time, he said, that he noticed his voice changing.
He left Minnesota for DC to become editor of the Washington City Paper, later moving to New York, where he wrote as a freelancer for publications including The Atlantic Monthly and New York magazine. He joined the Times in 2002 as a business reporter covering magazine publishing. He expanded that beat to include new media, and generally, the web and all media. He remarried and he and his wife have three children and a home in New Jersey.
Carr wrote a memoir of his life as a crack addict, Night of the Gun, published in 2008. He didn’t just write it as others write memoirs—from memory. He decided he had forgotten too much and attacked the project like a reporter, gathering documents and interviewing about 60 people.
“Me and My Girls,” a long excerpt from that memoir, was published in July 2008 in the NY Times Magazine. You can read it here.
My favorite quote of Carr’s, from the conclusion of his memoir, has been cited often today.
“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth
feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope
the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”
Carr was my favorite journalist. He was voracious in his interests, which ranged all over the media and pop culture spectrum from ownership and management to the way new media affect the artists and their livelihoods. He was interested in music, pop and otherwise, movies, books, magazines and web culture. He wrote long features on artists such as Neil Young and Woody Harrelson, on South Park, and on Murdoch vs. Bloomberg.
The one time I saw Carr live was during the 2011 Chicago Humanities Festival, when he and Clara Jeffrey, coeditor of Mother Jones magazine, discussed “New Frontiers in Journalism.” It was Wednesday, November 9, 2011, on the stage at Francis Parker School. I was excited to be able to see him and listen to him talk in an informal format. I didn’t take notes that evening, for some reason. However, there’s this video ….
Page One documentary
Carr also is the star of an excellent documentary about modern journalism: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times. In the 2011 film, Carr is shown working on one of his best stories, his takedown of Sam Zell’s Chicago Tribune and its frat house culture.
The Sweet Spot
Carr and A.O. Scott, the Times’ film critic, had a web series for a while titled “The Sweet Spot.” The two writers would sit in what looks like the Times employee cafeteria in their shirtsleeves talking about some cultural phenomenon that interests them. These 5-6 minutes videos are always fun. You can see a bunch of them here on the Times video channel. The series ended in 2013.
Every Monday, Carr had a Media Equation column in the Times business section. Every Monday morning, I would first read Paul Krugman on the economy and then Carr, filling myself full of juicy news concepts.
Mondays are not going to be the same.
But in the meantime, I’ll keep typing until it turns into writing.
Postscript on 02/15/15: The medical examiner’s autopsy showed Carr died of metastatic lung cancer, with heart disease a contributing factor.
I spent Thanksgiving weekend in North Carolina and loved being able to relax and visit with friends and relatives. My older son has lived there for 25 years so I’ve visited dozens of times. We got to meet the new baby cousin in the family; he slept through all the excitement. And I spent time with my two darling and precocious grandsons.
Birthdays and storytelling
The 2-year-old loves to read stories, to which he adds his own interpretations as I’m reading to him. One of our outings was to a birthday party for one of his friends from “school” (day-care). Mom and the two boys and I went to The Little Gym where kid birthday parties are staged. An hour of jumping, bouncing and games, supervised by Mr. DJ and Miss Bethany, then time for cake and birthday treats. If you haven’t been involved with small ones lately, you would be amazed at the birthday party industry that has built up. I’ve been to several play-party venues like this for kid birthday parties, including those for the two grandsons. Birthday parties aren’t held at home any more.
The almost-7-year-old likes to build with Legos and write stories. He has a future as an entrepreneur, I believe. He frequently writes stories, by hand and with colored illustrations. He begged me to “publish” his stories and wanted me to take a photo of a magazine cover so he could put it on his book. I explained copyright infringement. We discussed the nature of e-books and the dilemma of print vs. online. I told him he needs a website, after he asked me how he would get people to buy his book. I can’t wait to see what we’ll discuss next time I see him.
Snow Queen at Triad Stage
The grownups went to the theater one night to see Snow Queen, based on the Hans Christian Anderson story, at Triad Stage in Greensboro. The play, developed for that theater in 2013, was well done with an original folk music score and script. Costuming of the Snow Queen and other fairy tale characters was beautiful and the staging, with large animal puppets, was very creative. This is a professional theater company and most of the actors are Equity. The show featured live musicians on acoustic string instruments. The play is set in Appalachia, which explains the accents of the actors.
Here’s a sneak peek at the play with comments from writer/director Preston Lane. If you’re in the Triad region (Greensboro/Winston Salem/High Point) before December 22, you have a chance to see this production.
Also in performance . . . .
My other treat was watching my son teach a university economics class in time-series analysis—used in statistics and forecasting. (It was the day of my departure and I tagged along with him.) There were six graduate students in the class, so I sat in the last row of the small classroom and tried to be inconspicuous. Of course, my son wasn’t going to let that happen. He introduced me to the class and occasionally asked my opinion.
The class was discussing things like ACF (autocorrelation function) and the ARIMA methodology (autoregressive integrated moving average) and my son’s white board formulas included characters that aren’t on my keyboard. This is an image of a time series showing random data points. It’s cool-looking and I like the colors.
With the help of Wikipedia, I followed along superficially and I did perk up when he got to the chi-squared test. I remembered that from my brush with communications research as a grad student. The chi-squared (X²) test is used to determine whether there’s a significant difference between the expected and observed frequencies in categories.
The class also had two interesting stats. Of the six students, three were left handed. And of the eight people in the room, four were left handed, including me, of course. Statistically unlikely since ~10 percent of the population is left handed. And all six students were male, also defying the stats, since 50 percent of the population is female. That may be a comment on the fact that fewer women are involved in STEM courses.
It’s a sad fact that this results in a “yawning imbalance . . . even though they make up 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce, women hold only 24 percent of STEM jobs, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce study.” Those STEM jobs typically offer higher salaries and better career prospects.
I realize the irony of this comment coming from me. I took only the required STEM courses in college and I spent my career in decidedly non-STEM jobs. I’ve had a successful and happy life and I wouldn’t have changed it. But I would advise young women to consider all their career options and not let themselves be pushed into non-STEM courses and careers.
Anyway, it was fun to watch my son teach and then we had a late lunch. Then to the airport and home.
PTI (the Piedmont-Triad International Airport) has free wifi, as do many other airports. Why don’t O’Hare and Midway have free wifi? OK, they do have those rotating toilet seat covers that make you think you’re sitting on a clean surface. But no free wifi? It’s a tossup as to which is more important.
I was thinking the other day how much I enjoy the various meetups and discussion groups I belong to. Most weeks I have one or two get-togethers with friends and acquaintances who share some of my diverse interests. It’s a real joy of city life.
The news media confirm that more and more of us are getting tangled up in our technology. We’re not having as much human interaction as we used to—or as much as we should have for our mental and emotional health.
Serious highway accidents are caused by texting while driving, pedestrian tumbles are caused by texting while walking. Actually, while I’m a major tech geek, I don’t understand either of those phenomena. When I’m sedentary or at least stationary, I’ll use whatever device I have in hand for most any purpose. Reading, listening, talking, texting, getting directions, taking photos, finding a coffee shop. When I’m walking (or driving), I want to know that I’m not going to crash or tumble. In motion, I’m paying attention to where I’m going. (This is only partly because, with age, you’re more likely to fall, and some of your senses are in decline. Or so I’m told.)
Casual chat. I read a New York Times article recently in which social scientists studied the value of casual conversations. A chat with the coffee barista, the store cashier, the pharmacist, the doorman, the person sitting next to you on the bus. These interactions make us more cheerful, the social scientists found, and may ease the anomie of living in a modern metropolis.
I enjoy those interactions. And I especially enjoy long conversations on interesting and sometimes provocative topics—with friends, relatives, members of my discussion groups. Right now, I belong to four discussion groups. I really value them as ways to expand my circle of friends and acquaintances, and to keep my brain in constant activity, mulling over new ideas and churning out concepts for discussion and writing.
Two of my groups are fairly traditional discussion groups—one political, one focused on books. They were formed by friends inviting friends inviting friends. Each meeting is at someone’s home and focuses on one topic.
We discuss one book, either fiction or nonfiction, at each meeting, agreed on by members in advance. It’s very rare that a member doesn’t finish a book. Everyone really takes the reading seriously. (There was one occasion when the book choice—Henry James’ The Ambassadors—brought about a near-unanimous revolt. We changed books midstream.) Sometimes we have a professional moderator but usually one of our members leads the discussion. And if we spend a little time chatting about family, work and travel, that tends to knit the group more firmly together.
The political/policy group discusses one topic, usually chosen from articles in The Nation, a political magazine we all value. Yes, we too often agree on everything but we really do try to bring in topics and members that will generate disagreement.
Meetups are a newer kind of group. They bridge the technological and the personal relationship world by bringing together total strangers who have common interests for in-person meetings.
I belong to an excellent film meetup. It has hundreds of members, but the meetups at a local tea shop, bar or cinema are rarely more than 12 or 15 people. The cast shifts for each meetup, but there’s a core group of about 30. Very diverse group. All ages, races, genders, film interests, areas of expertise. I have never had such good discussions at which I also learned so much about a topic. This group has an excellent and creative organizer, which is the basis for its success.
Our regular film discussions are planned to discuss one or two (related) films that we all see in advance. Other events are held to view a film together and then discuss it afterwards. In the last week, I hosted two such meetups at the Gene Siskel Film Center. We saw Orson Welles’ Othello and a few nights later, a different group joined me for the new Sam Mendes/Kevin Spacey documentary about their Richard III production—NOW in the Wings on a World Stage. After both films, we stayed at the Siskel Center or found a cafe nearby to talk about the films. Both discussions lasted more than an hour.
I also belong to a couple of WordPress meetups, which focus on WordPress usage questions and practices. (WordPress is the tech platform on which this blog is built; it’s a user-friendly and widely used platform.) I always meet new people and get answers to my questions and new ideas at these meetups. You can probably find a meetup for virtually any techy project you’re working on.
A sidebar on Meetups
Meetups run on a social networking portal that facilitates offline, in-person local meetings. Meetup was founded after the 2001 attack showed the founders how the internet could help connect people in a crisis. Today, Meetup says it has almost 16 million members in 196 countries. Meetup organizers pay a small fee each month to meeetup.com and members are usually asked to chip in.
If you want to try out Meetup, go to meetup.com and put in your zip code. Check the topics you’re interested in and you’ll be offered a menu of meetups in your categories. You create an account to join and then you’ll receive email announcements about coming meetups on your topics.
Yes, some meetups are lame and never do much while others are vibrant and active. If you find one of the former, just try out another. You’ll meet new people and learn new things. And most important, you’ll find you are creating new human interactions (i.e., friendships) in this complex and tendentious technological age.
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