It Seemed Like a Good Idea

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It seemed like a good idea when Ellen and I first thought about it.

After all, we had done something similar seven years ago (see The Best Father’s Day Gift Ever) when Ellen arranged for a four hour cooking lesson for two friends and ourselves in the home of one of DC’s top chefs, Roberto Donna.

So when we were planning for activities at a wonderful Costa Brava house we had rented to celebrate our 50th wedding with friends, we scheduled a chef to come to the house to give us a lesson in Catalan cooking.

The first indication that should have been a forewarning was when it took 16 email exchanges between Ellen and Francesc (the Catalan chef) simply to decide the menu, which was finally settled as follows:

Sopa Melo (Melon soup with crusty cured ham and mint)

Escalivada (Smoky grilled vegetables)

Tar-Tar de Tonxina Abib Guacamole (Tuna tartar with guacamole)

Bunyols de Bacalla (Cod fritters)

Calamars a’ la Romana (Romana squids)

Fideua (Seafood noodle paella with lobster and rock fish broth and diced cuttle fish)

Flan (Spanish creme caramel)

We began to get the idea that we might have gotten someone far different from our DC cooking lesson with Chef Donna when the eight of us who were planning to attend received an email from Francesc informing each of us that we had been assigned one of the above recipes. He gave us a stern warning to study the recipes closely prior to our arrival in Costa Brava.

Plus, we knew there were already some ‘hurdles’ ahead: Matt, who had been assigned to the Cod fritters, had not been anywhere close to fried food for at least 40 years. Paul, assigned to the complicated looking Romana squid dish, had only a nodding acquaintance with a kitchen, a place where he only seems comfortable if he’s near the refrigerator or passing through on his way to his carport. Ray, the most senior member of our group and a practicing sommelier, was most likely to be an observer, I suspected, no doubt saving himself and his talents for the wine pouring with the actual dinner. And Fruzsina had made it abundantly clear that she wanted to be reassigned the Tuna tar-tar and guacamole, which was to be my task, and was negotiating my taking over her Rock fish broth and diced cuttle fish preparation in exchange.

Was Francesc flexible enough to deal with these ‘hurdles,’ to say nothing about the various personalities and kitchen incompetents assembled, and’ would he realize at least half of us, mostly the males, were primarily looking forward to eating and drinking more than preparing and cooking?

And then he arrived.

Hah.

Chef and Student

He was one third our age, tattooed, and smoking. He arrived in a huge van with at least 20 boxes and cartons and assorted other paraphernalia (trash cans, various bottles, some with strange contents, 47 different cooking utensils, and even an enormous roll of paper towel that would last most large families a year). It took the four ‘men’ six trips each simply to get all of this into the house. Francesc brought in what looked to me like a medium sized garden of flowers and herbs. Flowers to eat, apparently, not ones for table decoration.

We ‘helped’ Francesc unpack his boxes, put on the aprons and chef hats he provided, and looked skeptically at the spiraled 16 page bound document entitled “Technical Data Sheets” he gave each of us. Included in that document was each of the dishes and its recipe, including information on ingredients, quantity, units (in European measures, of course), cooking utensils, and a preparation and cooking method for each of the seven dishes. Plus, he showed me his four page cooking plan with our names next to our assignments and a list of the 65 total ingredients (averaging nine per dish). Also, under various headings he had on his shopping list was the following: Fresc – 38 items; Altres – 6 items; Sec – 12 items; Material Cuina – 12; and Material Neteja – 9 items. Talk about pre-planning. He made Ellen M. & Fruzsina look like two totally disorganized teenagers by comparison!

Then Francesc looked around the kitchen and asked where the oven was. We didn’t see one. Only a microwave. After 22 minutes of panic while we searched every inch of the kitchen, pantry, laundry room, dining room, living room, and storage room, Francesc, with a good deal of relief, figured out that the microwave could also double as a small oven.

He adjusted the assignments so at least Fruzi was happy that she would learn to make “the perfect” tuna tartar (we are still waiting to be invited to her home to sample what she learned). Matt bravely stayed with the cod fritters, and Paul, skeptically but with good humor, agreed to the cleaning and preparing of the squid. (His wife Ellen H. just rolled her eyes and smiled, clearly delighted that someone else would have to deal with Paul.) Following the chef’s instructions that the most important job in the kitchen was to keep a clean counter and clean utensils AT ALL TIMES, I took on the unskilled and unassigned task of constantly washing every dish, bowl, glass, utensil, cutting board, etc. as soon as it had a speck of food on it. (My job lasted for as long as we did the preparations — about six hours.)

We all got busy cutting and dicing, except for Ray, who took on the role of overseeing ‘quality control’  and Ellen M who took on the role of photographer, ably assisted by Ellen H and Anita. Among many other things, we learned the best way to dice an onion, mince cuttlefish, and clean squid (should either of the latter two endeavors ever be useful to us in the future). We had to make the dessert first — the Flan  — as that involved the longest amount of preparation and the need to chill it in the refrigerator.

Major fail.

After learning not to  “stir the candy” (the sugar for the caramelized top, or was it for the bottom?), the rest of us watched as Anita and Francesc went through the 11 steps outlined to make the Flan, only to be informed 30 minutes later that we had to throw it out and start over. Chef claimed failures were part of learning to cook.

I’ll spare readers a dish by dish description of our trials and tribulations with the other dishes, but fortunately (?) we did drink a good bit of wine and took frequent breaks (Francesc liked to smoke).

There were, however, as might be expected when you have nine people in a kitchen cooking, eight of whom are ‘students’, some unanticipated (and often hilarious) things that happened along the way:

*Blowing out the electricity and having to search for the fuse box and reset it so we could continue cooking;

*Paul’s cleaning of the squid (see picture at the top of this post as four of us watched him with varying degrees of amazement and concern);

Ellen H’s preserving of the squid spines (“For earrings,” she said. We’ve yet to see them.);

*Learning about tossing the short spaghetti-like pasta called ‘fideos’ with olive oil and toasting it before any broth or seafood was added to the fidua;

* Trying to note temperature and ingredient sizes in US measurements on our technical data sheets so we might repeat some of these recipes once we got home;

*Ray’s very careful drying of the thin slices of cured ham (for the melon soup) and his frequent wine pouring to ease the difficulty of our tasks;

*Our collective amazement (and enviousness) at the “tweezer-like” utensil for putting the miniature flowers and wonderful sesame seed caviar atop various dishes;

*Tasting those ‘flower arrangements’ that decorated much of that food.

We ‘worked’ from 3-9 PM, mostly joking, laughing, learning, and tasting (though we did ‘accomplish’ a few of the tasks assigned), before we finally sat down to the seven course Catalan feast.

It was beyond sumptuous.

The melon soup with Ray’s dried ham was a revelation, Ellen H’s smoky grilled vegetables were unlike anything we’d known before, Fruzsina’s tuna tartar with guacamole (topped with sesame caviar) was a big hit, Matt’s cod fritters were better than even he expected (though I cannot attest to whether he actually tasted one or not), and Paul’s squid was also unlike any squid any of us had previously tasted, tender and filled with flavor. The biggest revelation and biggest hit was the fidua (the pasta paella) made with an unbelievably rich lobster and rock fish broth, diced cuttle fish, and red prawns. We had prepared the fish broth though we have to admit that Francesc made the lobster broth before arriving).

Francesc joined us for the Flan (he had begged off joining us for the whole meal, despite our urging him to do so). And what a Flan it was. We chatted with Francesc and told him of our initial concerns about him but how delightful it had been to have him, how much we had learned, and how wonderful the entire afternoon and evening had been (a few of the participants had been skeptical about the whole enterprise).

We were delighted when we returned to the kitchen to see that Francesc had taken care of the mess we had made and had cleaned the entire area, which now looked the best it had the entire week. Additionally, he had packed up what remained for him to take home and left us with a few goodies for the rest of the week.

The eight of us each made three trips from the kitchen to the van and happily and sadly said good bye to a truly delightful, relaxed, knowledgeable, and talented teacher and chef.

So what initially had seemed like a good idea to Ellen and me, then looked questionable to all eight of us, turned out to be a one of the highlights of our week and certainly a memorable day for all.

The Students:

Thru Ellen’s Lens: Valencia, Costa Brava, & Barcelona

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from Ellen Miller:

Soon Richard and I will formally celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. (Gasp!) But actually we’ve been celebrating it for a month, starting with a two week trip to Spain where we explored Valencia for a few days, stayed at a beautiful restored farmhouse near Fuentespalda (northwest of Barcelona), and rented a home on the Costa Brava between Tamariu and Begur. We ended with three days in Barcelona, a city we love returning to and have done so a number of times. It was a tough trip. Wine, fine food, friends, and (mostly) fine weather, medieval villages to explore, art, architecture, and exquisite, picture perfect views.

So here’s my usual post-trip visual report. Below you’ll find five of my favorite pictures from the trip. And if you follow the link at the end of these five photos, you’ll find another 65 or so.

Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

If you would like to see more photos:

1. Click on this June 2018 Spain slide show link.

2. For the best viewing, click on the tiny, tiny arrow in the very small rectangular box at the top right of the opening page of the link to start the slide show.

3.  See all the photos in the largest size possible format (i.e., use a laptop or desktop computer if you have access to either).

Continuing to Remember Sam Miller

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On this July 4 anniversary of my father’s death, a repost from seven years ago.

from MillersTime, July, 13, 2011…

Sam died, as he requested, peacefully and without pain, in his own bed, in his apartment, surrounded in the last months, weeks, days, and hours by three generations of his family. His daughter, son, son-in law, daughter-in-law, four grand children and their spouses, four great grand children, and of course his wonderful caretaker all were able to spend time with him at the end of his life.

Eulogy

Samuel S. Miller
Jan. 13, 1918 – July 4, 2011
Temple Beth El Cemetery
Chelmsford, MA
7/7/11

When we were last here, it was for Esty. And when it came to talk about her, it was pretty easy.

It was clear what to say about her. She was a caretaker and a builder of family.

Sam, on the other hand, is not so easily categorized. He was a person of contradictions and (seeming) opposites.

He was not religious, yet he tried to volunteer for the Seven Day War.

He played football – a lineman – in high school and college during the day and read and memorized poetry at night while listening to classical music.

He was a gambler, in business, at the dog track, and at jai alai, yet husbanded his money carefully to provide for his family and especially for Esty and himself for their later years.

He could be arrogant, intolerant, stubborn, judgmental, and certainly impatient, but he was caring, compassionate, and involved with his family, and could and did cry like no man I have known.

He was a tough businessman who also played chess, read voluminously, and remained liberal in his political views all his life.

As Esty often said, he was a loner but not lonely.

He was self-centered but fiercely family focused. (I’m sure everyone assembled here could tell stories about Sam’s intimate involvement with each of you.). At Daytona he taught many of us to drive, to play chess and he watched endlessly as many of you yelled, “Watch me Sammy” as you jumped into the pool. And there were many long walks and talks on the beach.

He was not close with his parents growing up, especially not with his dad. Then later, in Bebee and Tom’s later years, he moved them from Boston to Orlando where he and Esty were living, and he saw them everyday.

He smoked two packs of cigarettes a day but quit when his sister-in-law Caryl was dying because he said he wanted to see his grandchildren grow up, at least until their 20’s (they’re now in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s).

He loved to ask questions and sometimes even waited for the answer. He was often thinking of the next question before you answered the first one. But you always felt he wanted to know about you — as one person wrote on his 92 birthday: “When I talk to you, you make me feel that I am the most important person…I can ‘feel’ that you are with me…you take a deep interest in what I am saying…you are present to the moment and you live the moment.”

He was an intellectual who read two or three books a week, went to the dog track frequently, and walked two or three miles every late afternoon well into his 80’s to maintain his good health.

He was a ‘Yankee’ (not the baseball kind, thank God) who loved Florida (much to Esty’s chagrin).

He was basically a ‘homebody’ yet visited his son in West Africa because he said he always visited his kids in camp. He traveled to Central American for business and to Europe with Esty. With various family members, he traveled all over the US, including Alaska, and to the Caribbean, India, China, Russia, Mongolia, Egypt, Lithuania, and Israel. His trip to Lithuania was to see the place from where his mother and her family had emigrated.

Although he was ‘technically challenged’ and could barely screw in a light bulb, he learned to use the computer in his 80’s and emailed well into his 90’s.

He enjoyed good food and liquor, yet took good care of his body and lived longer than any Miller in his extensive and extended family.

He was taken care of by Esty, and then took care of her over the final difficult three years of her life, never leaving her side for more than an hour (and then that was usually only to exercise).

He was very involved with his own kids when they were small, wasn’t around so much when they were growing up as he left for work before dawn and had to spend the evenings on the phone to buy fruit and get picking crews for the next day. Then in his kids’ adult years, he again became involved with them intimately as well as with their spouses, their children, and finally his great grand children, all four of whom he saw within the last few months of his 93 ½ years.

He was a man of seeming contradictions but not of excesses and rarely of unkindnesses. In fact, I believe he mellowed a bit in his later years and became more tolerant, a bit less stubborn, and even patient at times.

So if it can be said that Esty took care of people and family, it must also be said that Sam did too, especially family, in his own way.

And as Esty taught us how to deal with medical and physical difficulties with wonderful grace at the end of her life, so too can it be said that Sam taught us that one can age with grace and softness and love.

Richard Miller

The Books Most Enjoyed by MillersTime Readers Mid-Year 2018

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“A Best Friend Is Someone Who Gives Me a Book I’ve Never Read.” – A. Lincoln

This post, one of my favorites, is only possible because so many of you have taken the time to share with me and others titles and comments about what you are reading and enjoying. What you will see below is truly the result of cooperation between a community of readers and friends, even if many of you do not know each other.

The 2018 mid-year list is comprised of the favorite reads of 63 adults and 2 children. Fiction leads the nonfiction 57% to 43%, similar to last year, and there are titles for readers with wide ranges of interests. Our youngest participant is now 11 month’s old; the oldest is 96+. The rest of you are mostly between the ages of 35- 75. Sixty percent of you are women, 40% are men.

While I don’t expect everyone will read all the way through this list (anyone who does and likes it can claim it as a favorite book for next year), know there is a tremendous amount of information here. I’ve organized it in several ways, hopefully to make it more user friendly:

I. The most frequently cited titles (three or more times) are listed first.

II. Next the contributors are listed alphabetically — to make it easy if you are looking for the favorites of someone you know — with the titles and authors next and then any comments made about those books.

III. Finally, there are also two spread sheet links included as easy, searchable references for you to see the titles, authors, and MillersTime contributors in summary form:

List # 1 – Organized alphabetically by book title, fiction precedes nonfiction 

List #2 – Organized alphabetically by reader/contributor’s name, fiction again precedes nonfiction

Enjoy.

I. Titles that appear on the Favorites’ List three times or more

Fiction (F):

  •      Beartown, Fredrik Backman
  •      Beneath a Scarlet Sky, Mark Sullivan
  •      Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan
  •      Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward
  •      The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah

Nonfiction (NF):

  •      Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders & the Birth of the FBI, David Grann
  •      Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder & One Man’s Fight for Justice, Bill Browder

For me, as always, the strengths and value of this mid-year’s list have more to do with what contributors say about a book than the number of times a book may be listed. Often, a book listed only once or twice is one I most want to read in the next six months or coming year.

A reminder: this list is not meant to be the best books published in 2018, but rather what the title of this posting states — The Books Most Enjoyed by MillersTime Readers Mid-Year 2018.

And, of course, I take responsibility for any inaccuracies or mistakes in the posting of your names, the titles, the authors, and your comments. Please do let me know about errors so I can correct them quickly and easily (especially if I have not listed you and any books/titles you have  sent to me.)

Feel free to share this post with others — family, friends, book clubs, etc., and start now with keeping a list for the second half of 2018.

Continue reading »

Want Nats vs Os Tickets? Some for Free.

 

I have some seats available for the Wednesday, June 20, the Nats vs Orioles game in DC:

1. A single ticket in Section 117, Row CC, Seat #1 (behind Visitors’ Dugout). Free.

2. Two tickets in Section 115, Row G, Seats #1 & 2 (on third base line). One free if you take a kid, broadly defined. Other ticket at cost – $80.

3. Three tickets in Section 127, Row Z, Seats #1, 2 & 3 (on first base side, near catcher). One or two free if you take a kid(s). No kids, $57 per ticket. Great seats.

Let me know by email by Sunday evening, 9 PM. If there are multiple requests, I’ll choose by lottery.

 

The Measure of Trump’s Devotion – David Frum

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at Arlington National Cemetery as part of Memorial Day observance, Arlington, Virginia, U.S., May 28, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Thayer – RC139CB8A3A0

The article below is by David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic. He was a speech writer for President George W. Bush in 2001-02.

While I do not agree with Frum’s conclusion (I think our country would pull together in a crisis, whether or not many do not trust Pres. Trump), I do agree with most of what Frum writes in this article posted on The Atlantic website today, May 28, 2018.

The Measure of Trump’s Devotion, by David Frum

Calling for Midyear Favorite Reads – 2018

“A Best Friend Is Someone Who Gives Me a Book I’ve Never Read”- A. Lincoln

Several years ago I decided waiting until December each year was too long a time between posts that share favorite reads among MillersTime readers. So I started asking in May/June for books you’ve read so far in the year that have particularly resonated with you. And since some of our memories are not quite as sharp as they once were, the idea of having a midyear call for your favorites and a midyear post, I hope, will be useful to all and will continue to be a regular feature here.

Unlike in previous years, I plan to only have one midyear post and will do that in the beginning of July. So you have over the next month to get me your favorites so far this year. I will send a couple of reminders, but I don’t want to nag or plead. So even if you just want to give the titles and wait until December for your longer contributions and explanations, at least send me a list before the end of June. That way, others will have some reading options for the second half of 2018.

I ask that you send me a few that have stood out for you so far, and if you have the time, add a sentence or two of what was particularly appealing. Send them to my email (Samesty84@gmail.com).

Thanx in advance.

How We Got Here and How We Might Move Forward

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How Baby Boomers Broke America

By Steven Brill

(This appears in the May 28, 2018 issue of TIME.)

ONE

Lately, most Americans, regardless of their political leanings, have been asking themselves some version of the same question: How did we get here? How did the world’s greatest democracy and economy become a land of crumbling roads, galloping income inequality, bitter polarization and dysfunctional government?

As I tried to find the answer over the past two years, I discovered a recurring irony. About five decades ago, the core values that make America great began to bring America down. The First Amendment became a tool for the wealthy to put a thumb on the scales of democracy. America’s rightly celebrated dedication to due process was used as an instrument to block government from enforcing job-safety rules, holding corporate criminals accountable and otherwise protecting the unprotected. Election reforms meant to enhance democracy wound up undercutting democracy. Ingenious financial and legal engineering turned our economy from an engine of long-term growth and shared prosperity into a casino with only a few big winners.

These distinctly American ideas became the often unintended instruments for splitting the country into two classes: the protected and the unprotected. The protected overmatched, overran and paralyzed the government. The unprotected were left even further behind. And in many cases, the work was done by a generation of smart, hungry strivers who benefited from one of the most American values of all: meritocracy.

This is not to say that all is rotten in the United States. There are more opportunities available today for women, nonwhites and other minorities than ever. There are miracles happening daily in the nation’s laboratories, on the campuses of its world-class colleges and universities, in the offices of companies creating software for robots and medical diagnostics, in concert halls and on Broadway stages, and at joyous ceremonies swearing in proud new citizens.

Yet key measures of the nation’s public engagement, satisfaction and confidence – voter turnout, knowledge of public-policy issues, faith that the next generation will fare better than the current one, and respect for basic institutions, especially the government – are far below what they were 50 years ago, and in many cases have reached near historic lows.

It is difficult to argue that the cynicism is misplaced. From matters small – there are an average of 657 water-main breaks a day, for example – to large, it is clear that the country has gone into a tailspin over the last half-century, when John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier was about seizing the future, not trying to survive the present.

For too many, the present is hard enough. Income inequality has soared: inflation-adjusted middle-class wages have been nearly frozen for the last four decades, while earnings of the top 1% have nearly tripled. The recovery from the crash of 2008 – which saw banks and bankers bailed out while millions lost their homes, savings and jobs – was reserved almost exclusively for the wealthiest. Their incomes in the three years following the crash went up by nearly a third, while the bottom 99% saw an uptick of less than half of 1%. Only a democracy and an economy that has discarded its basic mission of holding the community together, or failed at it, would produce those results.

Meanwhile, the celebrated American economic-mobility engine is sputtering. For adults in their 30s, the chance of earning more than their parents dropped to 50% from 90% just two generations earlier. The American middle class, once an aspirational model for the world, is no longer the world’s richest.

Most Americans with average incomes have been left to fend for themselves, often at jobs where automation, outsourcing, the decline of union protection and the boss’s obsession with squeezing out every penny of short-term profit have eroded any sense of security. In 2017, household debt had grown higher than the peak reached in 2008 before the crash, with student and automobile loans staking growing claims on family paychecks.

Although the U.S. remains the world’s richest country, it has the third-highest poverty rate among the 35 nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), behind only Turkey and Israel. Nearly 1 in 5 American children lives in a household that the government classifies as “food insecure,” meaning they are without “access to enough food for active, healthy living.”

Beyond that, too few basic services seem to work as they should. America’s airports are an embarrassment, and a modern air-traffic control system is more than 25 years behind its original schedule. The power grid, roads and rails are crumbling, pushing the U.S. far down international rankings for infrastructure quality. Despite spending more on health care and K-12 education per capita than most other developed countries, health care outcomes and student achievement also rank in the middle or worse globally. Among the 35 OECD countries, American children rank 30th in math proficiency and 19th in science.

American politicians talk about “American exceptionalism” so habitually that it should have its own key on their speechwriters’ laptops. Is this the exceptionalism they have in mind?

Perhaps they should look at their own performance, which is best described as pathetic. Congress has not passed a comprehensive budget on time without omnibus bills since 1994. There are more than 20 registered lobbyists for every member of Congress. Most are deployed to block anything that would tax, regulate or otherwise threaten a deep-pocketed client.

Indeed, money has come to dominate everything so completely that the people we send to D.C. to represent us have been reduced to begging on the phone for campaign cash up to five hours a day and spending their evenings taking checks at fundraisers organized by those swarming lobbyists. A gerrymandering process has rigged easy wins for most of them, as long as they fend off primary challengers–which ensures that they will gravitate toward the special-interest positions of their donors and their party’s base, while racking up mounting deficits to pay for goods and services that cost more than budgeted, rarely work as promised and are seldom delivered on time.

TWO

The story of how all this came to be is like a movie in which everything seems clear only if it is played back from the start in slow motion. Beginning about 50 years ago, each scene unfolded slowly, usually without any sign of its ultimate impact. The story of America’s tailspin is not about villains, though there are some. It is not about a conspiracy to bring the country down, nor did it spring from one single source.

But there is a theme that threads through and ties together all the strands: many of the most talented, driven Americans used what makes America great–the First Amendment, due process, financial and legal ingenuity, free markets and free trade, meritocracy, even democracy itself–to chase the American Dream. And they won it, for themselves. Then, in a way unprecedented in history, they were able to consolidate their winnings, outsmart and co-opt the forces that might have reined them in, and pull up the ladder so more could not share in their success or challenge their primacy.

By continuing to get better at what they do, by knocking away the guardrails limiting their winnings, aggressively engineering changes in the political landscape, and by dint of the often unanticipated consequences of their innovations, they created a nation of moats that protected them from accountability and from the damage their triumphs caused in the larger community. Most of the time, our elected and appointed representatives were no match for these overachievers. As a result of their savvy, their drive and their resources (and a certain degree of privilege, as these strivers may have come from humble circumstances but are mostly white men), America all but abandoned its most ambitious and proudest ideal: the never perfect, always debated and perpetually sought after balance between the energizing inequality of achievement in a competitive economy and the community-binding equality promised by democracy. In a battle that began a half-century ago, the achievers won.

The result is a new, divided America. On one side are the protected few – the winners – who don’t need government for much and even have a stake in sabotaging the government’s responsibility to all of its citizens. For them, the new, broken America works fine, at least in the short term. An understaffed IRS is a plus for people most likely to be the target of audits. Underfunded customer service at the Social Security Administration is irrelevant to those not living week to week, waiting for their checks. Except for the most civic-minded among them, corporate executives are not likely to worry that their government doesn’t produce a comprehensive budget. They don’t worry about the straitjacket their government faces in recruiting and rewarding talent or in training or dismissing the untalented because of a broken civil-service system. Civil service is another great American reform that in the last 50 years has become a great American moat, protecting incompetent or corrupt workers, like those who supervised the Veterans Affairs hospitals where patient waiting lists were found to have been falsified.

On the other side are the unprotected many. They may be independent and hardworking, but they look to their government to preserve their way of life and maybe even improve it. The unprotected need the government to provide good public schools so that their children have a chance to advance. They need a level competitive playing field for their small businesses, a fair shake in consumer disputes and a realistic shot at justice in the courts. They need the government to provide a safety net to ensure that their families have access to good health care, that no one goes hungry when shifts in the economy or temporary setbacks take away their jobs and that they get help to rebuild after a hurricane or other disaster. They need the government to ensure a safe workplace and a living minimum wage. They need mass-transit systems that work and call centers at Social Security offices that don’t produce busy signals. They need the government to keep the political system fair and protect it from domination by those who can give politicians the most money. They need the government to provide fair labor laws and to promote an economy and a tax code that tempers the extremes of income inequality and makes economic opportunity more than an empty cliché.

The protected need few of these common goods. They don’t have to worry about underperforming public schools, dilapidated mass-transit systems or jammed Social Security hotlines. They have accountants and lawyers who can negotiate their employment contracts or deal with consumer disputes, assuming they want to bother. They see labor or consumer-protection laws, and fair tax codes, as threats to their winnings–which they have spent the last 50 years consolidating by eroding these common goods and the government that would provide them.

That, rather than a split between Democrats and Republicans, is the real polarization that has broken America since the 1960s. It’s the protected vs. the unprotected, the common good vs. maximizing and protecting the elite winners’ winnings.

THREE

I was one of those elite winners. In 1964, I was a bookworm growing up in Far Rockaway, a working-class section of Queens. One day, I read in a biography of John F. Kennedy that he had gone to something called a prep school. None of my teachers at Junior High School 198 had a clue what that meant, but I soon figured out that prep school was like college. You got to go to classes and live on a campus, only you got to go four years earlier, which seemed like a fine idea. It seemed even better when I discovered that some prep schools offered financial aid. I ended up at Deerfield Academy, in Western Massachusetts, where the headmaster, Frank Boyden, told my worried parents, who ran a perpetually struggling liquor store, that his financial-aid policy was that they should send him a check every year for whatever they could afford.

Three years later, in 1967, I found myself sitting in the headmaster’s office one day in the fall of my senior year with a man named R. Inslee Clark Jr., the dean of admissions at Yale. Clark looked over my record and asked me a bunch of questions, most of which were about where I had grown up and how I had ended up at Deerfield. Then he paused, looked me in the eye and asked if I really wanted to go to Yale – if it was my first choice. When I said yes, Clark’s reply was instant: “Then I can promise you that you are in. I will tell Mr. Boyden that you don’t have to apply anywhere else. Just kind of keep it to yourself.”

What I didn’t know then was that I was part of a revolution being led by Clark, whose nickname was Inky. I was about to become one of what would come to be known as Inky’s boys and, later, girls. We were part of a meritocracy infusion that flourished at Yale and other elite education institutions, law firms and investment banks in the mid-1960s and ’70s. It produced great progress in equalizing opportunity. But it had the unintended consequence of entrenching a new aristocracy of rich knowledge workers who were much smarter and more driven than the old-boy network of heirs born on third base–and much more able to enrich and protect the clients who could afford them.

After college, I went on to Yale Law School and graduated in 1975, at a time when demand for lawyers in the flourishing knowledge-worker economy was exploding. By the mid-1980s, in terms of dollars generated, the legal industry was bigger than steel or textiles, and about the same size as the auto industry. The new lawyers were increasingly concentrated in fast-growing firms that served large corporations and were prepared to pay skyrocketing salaries to attract the best talent. Soon, the gap between pay in the private and public sectors was too large to attract enough talented young lawyers to government or public-interest law–a change described by Stanford law professor Robert Gordon in 1988 as “one of the most antisocial acts of the bar in recent history.”

I played a role in this “antisocial” movement. In 1979, I started a magazine called the American Lawyer, which focused on the business of law firms and the intriguing questions lurking behind their elegant reception areas. Which ones were best managed? Which offered the most opportunity to women or minorities? Which were more likely to promote associates to partnership? Which had the fairest or most generous bonus systems? And, yes, which provided the highest profits for partners?

That last question resulted in the American Lawyer launching a special issue every summer, beginning in 1985, in which we deployed reporters to pierce the secrecy of these private partnerships so that the magazine could rank the revenues and average profits taken home by partners at the largest firms. When the first survey was published, I received a call from a former classmate who practiced at a large Los Angeles firm. He was outraged because he–and his wife–had found out that another classmate who worked at a seemingly fungible L.A. firm made about 25% more than he did. Until then, they had been perfectly happy with his six-figure income.

The fallout from this report and those from similar trade publications was significant and double-edged. The new flow-of-market information about these businesses made those who ran them more accountable to their partners, their employees and their clients, but it also transformed the practice of law by the country’s most talented lawyers in ways that had significant drawbacks. The emphasis was now fully on serving those clients who could pay the most.

FOUR

The Meritocracy’s ascent was about more than personal profit. As my generation of achievers graduated from elite universities and moved into the professional world, their personal successes often had serious societal consequences. They upended corporate America and Wall Street with inventions in law and finance that created an economy built on deals that moved assets around instead of building new ones. They created exotic, and risky, financial instruments, including derivatives and credit default swaps, that produced sugar highs of immediate profits but separated those taking the risk from those who would bear the consequences. They organized hedge funds that turned owning stock into a minute-by-minute bet rather than a long-term investment. They invented proxy fights, leveraged buyouts and stock buybacks that gave lawyers and bankers a bonanza of new fees and maximized short-term profits for increasingly unsentimental shareholders, but deadened incentives for the long-term growth of the rest of the economy.

Regulatory agencies were overwhelmed by battalions of lawyers who brilliantly weaponized the bedrock American value of due process so that, for example, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule protecting workers from a deadly chemical could be challenged and delayed for more than a decade and end up being hundreds of pages long. Lawyers then contested the meaning of every clause while racking up fees of hundreds of dollars per hour from clients who were saving millions of dollars on every clause they could water down.

They deployed litigators to fend off private-sector unions in the South and to defend their firings of union supporters and other blatant violations of law, for which they happily paid fines equivalent to 1% to 2% of what they saved by underpaying their workers.

Deploying the First Amendment right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” thousands of achievers began in the 1970s to turn Washington into a colony of lobbyists. Through the power of the campaign cash increasingly wielded by their clients, much of which they helped raise and distribute, the hordes of lobbyists were able to get riders or exemptions worth billions inserted into legislation governing trade, the tax code, job safety or industry subsidies. Although labor laws were routinely being violated by employers in highly publicized fights, and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House, they were able to block legislation introduced by President Jimmy Carter that would have toughened penalties for violations and helped level what had become a lopsided playing field when it came to organizing unions in the private sector. As private-sector unions continued to dwindle, the achievers made sure that no similar legislation even came up for a vote in the four decades that followed.

A landmark 1976 Supreme Court case brought by lawyers for consumer-rights activist Ralph Nader gave corporations that owned drugstores a First Amendment right to inform consumers by advertising their prices. In the years that followed, lawyers for the protected morphed that consumer-rights victory into a corporate free-speech movement. The result has been court decisions allowing unlimited corporate money to overwhelm democratic elections and other rulings allowing corporations to challenge regulations related to basic consumer-protection issues, like product labeling.

As government was disabled from delivering on vital issues, the protected were able to protect themselves still more. For them, it was all about building their own moats. Their money, their power, their lobbyists, their lawyers, their drive overwhelmed the institutions that were supposed to hold them accountable–government agencies, Congress, the courts.

There may be no more flagrant example of the achievers’ triumph than how they were able to avoid accountability when the banks they ran crashed the economy. The CEOs had been able to get the courts to treat their corporations like people when it came to protecting the corporation’s right to free speech. Yet after the crash, CEOs got prosecutors and judges to treat them like corporations when it came to personal responsibility. The corporate structures they had built were so massive and so complex that, the prosecutors decided, no senior executive could be proved to have known what was going on.

Meanwhile, the lobbyists for the big banks swarmed the often invisible process under which the thousands of pages of regulations were drafted to implement the Dodd-Frank financial-reform act, which was passed in 2010 to address the risks and regulatory gaps that precipitated the crash. As a result, about 30% of the 390 required regulations had not been promulgated as of mid-2016, according to the law firm Davis Polk. Under the Trump Administration and continued Republican control of Congress, efforts intensified to roll back the rules that were already in effect even as the big banks–which had argued that Dodd-Frank would kill their businesses–were enjoying record profits and market share.

It may be understandable for those on the losing side of this triumph of the achievers to condemn the winners as gluttons. That explanation, however, is too simple. Many of the protected class are people who have lived the kind of lives that all Americans celebrate. They worked hard. They innovated. They tried things that others wouldn’t attempt. They believed, often correctly, that they were writing new chapters in the long story of American progress.

When they created ways to package mortgages into securities that could be resold to investors, for example, it was initially celebrated as a way to get more money into the mortgage pool, thereby making more mortgages available to the middle class. But by 2007 it had become far too much of a good thing. As the financial engineers continued to push the envelope with ever-riskier versions of the original invention, they crashed the economy.

Thus, the breakdown came when their intelligence, daring, creativity and resources enabled them to push aside any effort to rein them in. They did what comes naturally – they kept winning. And they did it with the protection of an alluring, defensible narrative that shielded them from pushback, at least initially. They won not with the brazen corruption of the robber barons of old, but by drawing on the core values that have always defined American greatness.

They didn’t do it cynically, at least not at first. They simply got really, really good at taking advantage of what the American system gave them and doing the kinds of things that America treasures in the name of the values that America treasures.

And they have invested their winnings not only to preserve their bounty, but also to root themselves and their offspring in a new meritocracy-aristocracy that is more entrenched than the old-boy network. Forty-eight years after Inky Clark gave me my ticket on the meritocracy express in 1967, a professor at Yale Law School jarred the school’s graduation celebration. Daniel Markovits, who specializes in the intersection of law and behavioral economics, told the class of 2015 that their success getting accepted into, and getting a degree from, the country’s most selective law school actually marked their entry into a newly entrenched aristocracy that had been snuffing out the American Dream for almost everyone else. Elites, he explained, can spend what they need to in order to send their children to the best schools, provide tutors for standardized testing and otherwise ensure that their kids can outcompete their peers to secure the same spots at the top that their parents achieved.

“American meritocracy has thus become precisely what it was invented to combat,” Markovits concluded, “a mechanism for the dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. Meritocracy now constitutes a modern-day aristocracy.”

The frustrated, disillusioned Americans who voted for President Trump committed the ultimate act of rejecting the meritocrats – epitomized by the hardworking, always prepared, Yale Law – educated Hillary Clinton – in favor of an inexperienced, never-prepared, shoot-from-the-hip heir to a real estate fortune whose businesses had declared bankruptcy six times. He would “drain the swamp” in Washington, he promised. He would take the coal industry back to the greatness it had enjoyed 80 years before. He would rebuild the cities, block immigrants with a great wall, provide health care for all and make the country’s infrastructure the envy of the world, while cutting everyone’s taxes. Forty-six percent of those who voted figured that things were so bad, they might as well let him try.

FIVE

It seems like a grim story. Except that the story isn’t over. During the past two years, as I have discovered the people and forces behind the 50-year U.S. tailspin, I have also discovered that in every arena the meritocrats commandeered there are now equally talented, equally driven achievers who have grown so disgusted by what they see that they are pushing back.

From Baruch College in Manhattan to the University of California, Irvine, more colleges are working to break down the barriers of the newly entrenched meritocracy. Elite Eastern institutions such as Amherst, Vassar and Princeton are using aggressive outreach campaigns to attract applicants who might otherwise be unaware of the schools’ generous financial-aid packages.

Entrepreneurs like Jukay Hsu, a Harvard-educated Iraq War veteran who runs a nonprofit called C4Q out of a converted zipper factory in Queens, are making eye-opening progress with training programs aimed at lifting those displaced by automation or trade back into middle-class software-engineering jobs. “Some of the smartest, hardest-working people I’ve ever met were soldiers who didn’t graduate from college,” says Hsu. (Disclosure: I am an uncompensated board member of C4Q.)

Although their work is often frustrating, the worsening status quo seems to energize those who are pushing back. “My kid complained the other day that he still couldn’t play the violin, even though he’d been practicing for two days,” says Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service. “Well, yeah, that’s true, but you have to keep at it. Persistence is an underrated virtue.”

Stier and the others believe that the country will overrun the lobbyists and cross over the moats when enough Americans see that we need leaders who are prepared and intelligent, who can channel our frustration rather than exploit it, and who can unite the middle class and the poor rather than divide them. They are certain that when the country’s breakdown touches enough people directly and causes enough damage, the officeholders who depend on those people for their jobs will be forced to act.

Brill is the author of Tailspin, from which this article is adapted, out this month from Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC

 

Report from the Washington Jewish Film Festival: Five Reviews

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Reviews by Ellen Miller:

The Last Suit:

Ellen ***** Richard *****

If we used a 10 point scale on which to rate films, this one would get 15. It won the audience award at the Miami Film Festival (we missed it there), and it’s easy to see why.

This movie tells the story of an 88-year-old Polish Jewish man who escaped, barely alive, from a Nazi labor camp, and after being nurtured back to life by a childhood Christian friend, immigrates to Argentina where he marries, raises three daughters and lives to old age. As he is losing his health and his daughters are about to move him into a nursing home, he leaves his home — alone — to make his way back to Poland to try – improbable as it sounds – to reunite with the friend that he hasn’t seen in 70 years. The trip in an on-going saga and is full of lovely, caring people (including one estranged daughter) who help him make his way “home.” It’s a beautiful story.

This is a film of extraordinary exploration of character. The main character,
Abraham Bursztein, is exquisitely acted by Miguel Ángel Solá. He is a man of no
compromise, sternness, manners, practicality, and humor. Each of the characters (his daughters, the people he meets on his journey) are very well drawn and well acted. It is filled with flashbacks of both the good times of his youth and the indescribable horrors he experienced under Nazi occupation of Poland. Powered by wonderfully composed klezmer music, the film is moving and comes to a satisfying end.

The old adage ”first you laugh, then you cry” is apt. This is one of the most
enjoyable films we have seen in a long time. It’s a must-see.

(Ed. Note 5/17/18: The Last Suit just received the Audience Award for Best Narrative.)

Israel: Stories of Modern Days:

Ellen ***** Richard *****

The first thing I said  at the end of this documentary was “I wish had a transcript.”

This film consists of interviews of 10 prominent contemporary Israel authors,
including two I have read extensively over the years – Amos Oz and David
Grossman. It was produced in celebration of the celebration of Israel’s 70th
Anniversary and is brilliantly edited to discuss many topics, including the authors’
thoughts on contemporary Israeli politics, the power of literature, the connections between the historical and contemporary Hebrew language, and religion.

That makes it sound dull and dry but it was anything but.

I doubt this film will be widely shown, and that’s too bad. I would definitely
recommend finding a way to listen to the incredibly articulate and thoughtful voices of the literary giants interviewed.

Longing:

Ellen *** Richard ***

This film was billed as having been nominated for 13 Israeli Academy Awards,
including Best Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay etc., and it played to nearly a sold out audience in one of the larger venues during the Jewish Film
Festival.

Described as tragicomedy in which a confirmed bachelor — Ariel — learns he long ago, had a son –a 19-year-old who recently had a fatal accident. He tries to connect to the world of this unknown son by visiting his school, meeting some of his friends, and developing a friendship with teacher that the son adored. It had some moments of laughter at the silliness of some of those efforts, and there was a tug at your heartstrings occasionally as he groped his way. But for me it was boring, disjointed, and ridiculous at times. (And besides the subtitles were very difficult to read.)

When I returned from the theater I checked to see if the film indeed had won any of the Oscar Awards for which it had been nominated. Not a one. Needless to say I was not surprised. One reviewer remarked that the multiple nominations was “… simply a case of an established director being rewarded by his cronies.” Sounds right to me.

Skip it.

The Hero:

Ellen **** Richard ****

A beautifully filmed (think of almost every scene as looking like a Vermeer painting — this is a Dutch film) post Holocaust mystery about the lies a father told his family about how he lived through the Holocaust. It’s a complex story, sometimes hard to follow, but in the end, most of the pieces fit together splendidly.

The film begins with the prodigal daughter returning to visit her ageing father and mother in Holland. As soon as she arrives, early memories of her childhood in the home begin to haunt her, followed soon by real attacks on her and her family by a person unknown. The film delves deeply into each character, and all are well-acted. While there are a few pieces of the puzzle that we had trouble figuring out, in the end the detective work is worth it. This is an engaging and thoughtful movie.

The Hero takes the viewer through on a complicated and tightly-woven story that comes together to a explosive ending.

We saw this film with friends, and we discussed whether it fits into the category of the morally ambiguous realm of whether the end was justified. That question makes the entire film even more interesting. I won’t spoil either the end of the story or our opinions about that in this review.

The film was written and directed by an Oscar nominated filmmaker Menno Meyjes who was the co-writer for The Color Purple, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)

Heading Home – The Tale of Team Israel:

Ellen ***** Richard ***** (no claim of objectivity here)

Who knew that Israel had a baseball team…much less one that defied all odds to become one of the great underdog stories of the 2017 World Baseball Classic?

If you’re Jewish, and love baseball, this film is an absolute must-see. (Though I suspect it will be difficult to find in any local theater.)

This is a documentary about the process and the success of putting together of a team for Israel’s participation in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, the impact it had on its players, and the highs and lows of winning, and losing. There’s even a role for the “Mensch on the Bench”, the team mascot.

Since Israel did not have an indigenous team, they were able to select players who had a Jewish background (players whose mother or father or grandparents were Jewish) to play for the team. They discovered a number of former U.S. Major League players and recruited them, including Ike Davis, Ryan Lavanway, Josh Zeidi, and Cory Decker. The entire team was invited to Israel to learn more about their past, drum up support for their efforts with local people, and to practice for the Baseball Classic. As the story unfolds, this film becomes both a sports drama and an exploration of Jewish identity.

We took our nine year old grandson to this documentary, and he loved it too, telling us “That was amazing, I’ve never see anything like this.”

(Ed. Note 5/17/18: Heading Home just received the Audience Award for Best Documentary.)

Telling Esty’s Story

In 2015 we had the good fortune to see Lin Manuel’s Hamilton on Broadway, and one of the enduring memories of that masterpiece for me is the finale song of Act 2  — Who lives, Who dies, Who tells your story?  (…But When you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame, who tells your story?…)

As I have written previously about my mother, Esther Goodman Miller, and “…as it gets further from her life and death, I want to keep her name and flame alive, alive for myself and my sister, alive for the rest of the family who is still living, and alive for the great grandchildren, only one whom she ever met.” And also for all those lives she touched with her selfless care taking and gentle love.

Esty died on Mother’s Day, May 13, 2007, and so I repost the Eulogy I gave at her graveside.

EULOGY – May 15, 2007

Some of us [here] are teachers; some are doctors. Some make news, and some report it. Some build bridges, or bridge tables. Some are lawyers, government workers. Some grow fruit, and some seek to make the country and the world a better place.

Esty was none of these, at least not directly.

She was a caretaker and a builder of families.

When you know a bit about her background, that’s kind of an amazing choice of careers — or maybe not so surprising.  Esty’s mother died when Esty was four months old. For the next seven years she lived with various relatives and family friends as her father, Rob, was trying to earn a living and couldn’t take care of an infant and young child. She sometimes saw him on weekends but had no real family life of her own during her early, formative years.

When Esty was seven, Rob, Pappy to many of us, and a prince of a man, remarried and Esty suddenly had a family of her own.  Along with her stepmother Ray came Arnold, the older brother Esty had always wanted and whom she instantly worshiped and who was so good to her.

From an early age Esty’s role seemed to involve taking care of others – grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins.  Many of you here can attest to that. She baby sat for cousin Arthur, standing here, and claims she changed his diapers.

Esty finished high school not far from here (much to her relief) and started nursing school. Her patients loved her, but probably because she so identified with their cares, worries, and illnesses, she agreed with her father’s urging not to pursue that career.

She went the U of NH, met Sam at the opening night mixer, and thought he was a bit mad when walking her back to the dorm, he told her he was going to marry her (I think she had another boyfriend at the time).

Esty and Sam married just a few years later and had Janet and myself in rapid succession. After living in eye sight of Fenway Park (Pappy was a Red Sox devotee all his life) and in Brookline, they moved to Orlando for Sam’s citrus work. Sam soon left to protect his country (as a librarian in San Diego), and Esty devoted herself to a long and never ending career of mothering, care taking, and building of family. Not only taking care of her own, Esty found a circle of young friends with young families and became treasured for her kindnesses and ability to help and care about others.

When I went a few days ago to tell one of these good friends, a friend of more than 60 years, Ruth Esther, that Esty was nearing her end, Ruth Esther cried and cried, saying how Esty was like a sister to her and her best friend and how helpful Esty had been to her in raising her own family. I’ve heard similar stories repeatedly in the last week, many for the first time. I know everyone assembled here could tell about how Esty looked out for you, took care of you, was special in some way in your life, maybe healed a wound or gave you comfort. She just seemed to have a way of touching people and making them feel special.

I’m sure I’m not totally objective, but I spend much of my life listening to and observing people, and I have never once heard an unkind word said about Esty. I would hope and urge you over the next few days and weeks to tell us or to write us of your stories of Esty’s importance to you. We want to know and to remember these stories. It is part of her legacy.

Esty never put herself first. If there was a weakness, it might well have been that she may not have known or appreciated her own worth. Everyone, absolutely everyone’s needs – her husband’s, her parents’, her nieces’, her nephews’, her children’s, her grandchildren’s, her friends,’ whomever she came in contact with – came before her own self.

As most of you know, Esty had breast cancer 25 years ago, had a botched gall bladder operation that almost killed her eight years ago, and over the past three years was overcome by a cascading series of medical issues and crises. But none of these physical difficulties changed Esty’s basic nature. What most distressed her was that she could no longer care for herself. She hated being dependent on others for her care. Starting at 86 she was forced to rely on others. And though she hated this dependency, she did it her way. She kept her frustrations largely to herself (save an occasional harsh word with Sam, probably well deserved) and continued to worry and care about others. (Her sense of humor did seem to emerge and deepen in these later years; just 10 days ago, upon hearing Victor sing, she told him not to give up his ‘day job.’)

A few days ago Janet was asking her if she was afraid, and Esty nodded, ‘Yes.’ “About yourself?” Esty shook her head, “No.” “About your family?” Esty nodded, “Yes.”  She told one of her wonderful aides that she worried about Sam especially, and also her kids and grand kids. We tried to tell her she needn’t worry (she was a world class worrier all her life, tho near the end she seemed to make some progress with no longer feeling responsible for everyone else). She had taught us how to take care of each other — by her example. Even on the day of her death, Mother’s Day, (a week shy of her 90th birthday, which she thought was entirely too many birthdays), she found a way to help her family – Sam, Janet, Victor, and myself.

And so maybe she was not only a mother, a care taker, a builder of family. She was also her own kind of healer, settler of disputes, teacher, cultivator.

While we have already missed Esty some of the last several years – and fear we will miss her even more in the days and years to come – we are glad she is returning to her Goodman family, to lie next to Arnold, Rob, and Ray. She has missed them so much these past years. She deserves to rest, and she deserves this resting place from where she came. And she has certainly earned over and over her maiden name Goodman.

Nats’ Tickets – May

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Here are some available games, dates, and costs for tickets I have for Nats’ games over the next month or so. Some will cost you. Some are free. Some I could join you. Some not.

Wed., May 16, 7:05 vs Yankees – Two seats in Section 114, Row T, Seats 15 & 16. $88 each.

Fri., May 18, 7:05 vs Dodgers – Two seats in Section 115, Row V, Seats 15 & 16.    $80 each.

Sat., May 19, 7:05 vs Dodgers. One seat to join me and Ellen. Section 127, Row Z. Free.

Mon., May 21, 7:05 vs San Diego. – Two seats in Section 127, Row Z, Seats 2 & 3 to join me. Free, but you might have to buy me something to eat or drink.

Wed., May 23, 4:05 vs San Diego. One seat, Section 127, Row Z, Seat #3. Free.

Wed., June 6, 1:05 vs Rays. One seat, Section 127, Row Z, Seat #3. Free.

Sat., June 9, 12:05 vs Giants. One Seat, Section 127, Row Z, Seat # 3. Free.

Thru Ellen’s Lens: The Five Grand Children

While it may seem to readers of MillersTime that Ellen and I spend most of our time these days traveling, going to movies, reading, spending time with friends, exploring new restaurants, and attending baseball games, that is only partially accurate. We also spend some time with our five grandchildren (and their parental units), especially when we are invited to do so.

And so as Ellen has embarked on her ‘missed career’ (photography), rarely do we see the grandchildren without the accompaniment of Ellen’s camera.

Here then are some of her recent favorites of each of them. (Be sure to scroll to the bottom of this post so the youngest of the five won’t feel left out.)

 

Eli - 9

 

 

 

Abby - 7

 

 

 

Ryan - Almost 5

 

 

 

Samantha - 2

 

 

 

Brooke - 9 Months

 

 

 

Seven More Films to Consider

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from Ellen Miller:

Richard and I find that we are spending less time seeing “mainstream”(i.e., big production films from major studios) and more time focusing on independent films. While we appreciate some of those big films, with big stars and huge production values, there seems to be increasingly fewer of those types of films that we want to see. And besides, the independent film scene just seems to get richer and richer. There is more diversity in stories being told, new directors, young actors, and inventive production.

It is also possible that our increasing focus on independent films has to do with new viewing opportunities: low key film festivals in Philadelphia and Miami, the DC Film Fest, the Jewish Film Festival, and the DC Cinema Club. (This ‘club’ now operates in eight cities around the country – Atlanta, Boca Raton, Boston, Greater New Haven, Milwaukee, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Washington, DC). The curators of the films shown in these venues know more than we will ever know about what makes a movie worth seeing. The twice monthly 10:30 AM (surprise) screenings on Sunday mornings make it novel too.

In the last month or so we’ve seen a number of diverse presentations, at least one of which is now out in the theaters. In no particular order, here are my thoughts on these films.

Borg vs. McEnroe:

Ellen ***** Richard *****

You don’t have to be a sports fan, or a tennis fan, to enjoy this movie (but if you are either, it’s a must-see).

As you probably guessed, this film is about one of the all-time great rivalries in tennis – Bjorn Borg (the Swedish master of concentration and cool) versus John McEnroe (the unruly American).

The time is the summer of 1980 when these two tennis greats faced each other for the Wimbledon championship. And even though you (may) know the outcome of this particular match, this is a taut film, well (re)enacted, and well produced. It also offers in-depth psychological profiles of both players, focusing on what made them the competitors they were. The stories of their lives, their training, their discipline (or lack there of) is legendary.

Perhaps because it is a Swedish film, the emphasis is more on Borg than McEnroe. But you will come away from the film knowing them both, understanding their rivalry, and what drove each of them to the heights they attained. And you’ll probably be cheering the director of the film too.

The Rider:

Ellen **** Richard ****

This film takes place on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (the Oglala Lakota Native American reservation) in South Dakota where a young cowboy is a rising star on the rodeo circuit, until he is seriously injured.

After this accident, he struggles with who he is and how he relates to the world and to his friends without being able to participate in his life’s calling or his opportunity for gainful remuneration. He is despondent as a new reality unfolds around him — the only work he can find to do is to train others’ horses. His father struggles to keep their life together. A younger sister who is disabled becomes his most faithful companion.

Impressively, all of the actors are nonprofessional — Lakota Native Americans — whose own lives are not very different from the people they portray in the film. The setting of the film is their home — beautiful and haunting South Dakota and the reservation on which they live. Based on a true story, this is a touching and tender film, panoramic, slow-paced, and straightforward.

The director of this film is a Chinese filmmaker Chloe Zhao who is currently based in the US. She has received much attention for her earlier films.

Lean On Pete:

Ellen **** Richard ****

This is a bittersweet coming of age story of a boy and his horse (and his father) that offers a glimpse into the kind of lives we rarely see or know.The acting is superb, the production well done, and it tells a story of poverty, perseverance, and persistence.

The film is based on Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel of the same title. Charley, a 15-year old, is being taken care of by his single father, but essentially he is left to fend for himself. He meets a horse trainer who begrudgingly hires him for odd jobs. Charley enjoys the work and “befriends” a quarter horse named Lean on Pete. The horse fast becomes the best friend of this lonely teen.

Things happen (no spoilers here), and the film becomes a saga of a boy and his horse, traveling alone together.

While a bit sentimental for my own taste, it is a fine film, exquisitely acted (the lead is played by the teen actor Charlie Pummer) and most definitely worth seeing.

Bolshoi:

Ellen ***** Richard *****

We saw four films in three days during the recent DC Film Festival. We  were going to skip this venue this year, but one of our film buddies emailed to say that we simply had to see this movie. So we fit it in last week — along with a few others — and were very glad we did.

This is a superb Russian-directed film about what it takes to become a ballerina, made only as the Russians could. It’s a precise, caring, heart-rending story. It has a grand scope and a big story to tell. It centers on two young girls who compete from their earliest pre-teen years in the ballet academy to become the prima ballerina of the world’s most famous ballet – the Bolshoi. Their backgrounds are very different and that’s key to the story.

No real surprises here, except in the impact of this narrative. While it is a coming of age story, there is so much depth to the characters (superbly acted by the two stars), that the film offers real insight, revealing what it takes to make two ballerinas who are the very “stuff’’ of legends.

This is a film of pure enjoyment. Really a must see.

Playing God:

Ellen ***** Richard ****

Also seen at the DC Film Festival (90 films from 60 d ifferent countries), where it was a perfect choice for the audience, this is a documentary about Kenneth R. Feinberg, the man brought in by the federal government and private companies to handle “disaster” relief funds in the wake of 9/11, the BP oil spill, Agent Orange, the Central States Pension plan battle, and other similar circumstances.

While an homage to the extraordinary work of Feinberg, and largely consisting of a series of interviews with him, it teaches you things you didn’t know about how these enormous funds are handled, who benefits and who loses, and how “justice” is often done only in the eyes of the beholder. It also contains very interesting interviews with a number of the victims of these tragedies that add real life complexity to the film.  These interviews raise questions about the fairness of the process itself (including an examination of current law), and to some extent, it makes you wonder how even handedly Feinberg has been in dispensing funds, particularly in the case of the BP oil spill. (He was hired by the company in that case to adjudicate distribution of the money the company provided to those who were injured.)

Both Feinberg and the film’s director were in the audience the night we saw it and responded to questions from the audience.

I’d highly recommend the film if it comes to a theater, or festival, near you. It both teaches and makes you think..

No Date, No Signature:

Ellen ***** Richard *****

What’s up with Iranian films these days? They are definitely coming of age! {See this NY Times commentary.) This film is a contemporary one — a story of a doctor who sideswipes a motorcycle late at night. He stops to investigate and examines the entire family that was riding on it (mother, father, a small girl, and a boy of eight) to make sure that no one was hurt. He offers them financial restitution to repair the modest damage to the bike. He is a responsible man and believes that he has taken the right steps following the incident.

Days later the eight-year old boy dies in the hospital where the doctor works. The mystery begins: did he die of accident-related trauma or did something else cause his death?  If the latter, who was responsible? If the former, then clearly the doctor was responsible, and the doctor becomes tortured by this possibility. As the mystery and investigation unfolds, this becomes a film about who takes responsibility for what, the moral and ethical choices that are faced every day, who tells the truth and why.

The acting in this film is brilliant, particularly the portrayal of the lead doctor by Navid Mohammadzaden, a multiple award winner.)

Maze:

Ellen **** Richard ***

We ended our DC Flim Festival viewing with this political thriller from Ireland. This is a prison break film, and it takes place entirely within the walls of what has been generally regarded as the world’s most secure prison. The time period is of the “troubles” –the nearly three-decade conflict in Northern Ireland.

Based on a true story, the film charts how one inmate, an IRA compatriot, orchestrated the world’s largest prison break since World War II. The character development of all the major actors was terrific, and the film offers a unique insight into the human character.

Prepare yourself to be challenged by the accents, but that’s less off-putting than it may seem as the films grainy visuals and strong acting counterbalance the spoken words.

According to MillersTime Baseball Fans…

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Finally, and happily for some of us, we’re about 10% into the 2018 baseball season, and there are some early indications of what is ahead of us.

First, however, a look at what MillersTime readers, as gleaned from their entries into the annual contest, have predicted for the season:

1. It will be a Dodgers vs Yankees World Series and a toss up as to which team will win it all.

2. The Astros and the Nats will get close but not go all the way.

3. The American League will again win the All Star game (‘”Duh,” as my daughter writes).

4. Giancarlo Stanton will beat Aaron Judge as the first to hit 30 HRs, and Clayton Kershaw will beat Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer to 12 wins.

5. Nats fans think they’ll win 96 games but most don’t believe they’ll get to or win the WS.

6. Sox fans (ever the pessimists) predict 93 wins but little chance of making it into or winning the WS.

7. Yankee fans think their heroes will win 96 and have a good shot at winning it all.

8. Dodger fans say 98.6 wins and have a 33% chance of winning the WS.

9. Pitching seems to be what most of you believe will be the determining factor in how your team fares.

10. Most of you think there will be at least one 20 game winner but no (starting) pitchers with an ERA under 2.0.

11. Most don’t believe Stanton and Judge will hit as many HRs as last year (111) and certainly not 115.

12. Those who believe there will be at least three teams with 100 wins or more slightly out number the doubters.

13. And almost everyone believes that one of my grand kids will witness in person an MLB grand slam, a triple play, a no hitter, an extra inning game, or Teddy winning the President’s race. If one of little tykes had been with me the other night, they would have seen two of those events.

As to how much we can know from the first 10% of the season, it does look as if the Nats are not the shoe-ins many predicted, and the Dodgers are off to a bad start, tho they seem to be trying to overcome that. The Yankees are struggling a bit, and unless their pitching improves, they may not even make it into post season.

On the other hand, the Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, and Angels are doing better than predicted, as are the Mets and the Phillies (watch out Nats).

And then there are my heroes, the Sox. As a true Boston fan, I swing back and forth between believing/fearing what’s happening (16-2) is not going to last and hoping that everyone stays healthy and they continue to pitch, hit, and field at the rate they are now doing.

Finally, one big concern: the attendance at MLB is down markedly (see this article). It’s not clear if that is weather related (probably not) or some other factors are at play. So, go to a game. Take a kid. Or a friend or two.

Four Recommended Books

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Rather than wait until I do a mid-year round up of readers’ favorite reads for the first half of 2018, I thought I’d mention four books that I’ve recently read and thoroughly enjoyed and might have interest for others.

All four are from suggestions by MillersTime readers, and all four are non-fiction, generally my reading of preference.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (NF) – Recommended by Ellen Hoff & Suzanne Stier.

Ellen H. wrote: “ A pure research scientist who writes well about her own adventures in science, her life, and, fascinating to me, bits of botany. If you are interested in botany, skip her struggle with mental disorders. If you are not interested in botany, some fascinating bits on her curiosity and fascination with pure research and asking new questions, and the struggles facing research scientists in finding funding and developing a lab.”

Suzanne S. wrote: “This book goes at the top of my list. It is a combination of science about trees and plants and a memoir by Hope about her journey as a scientist and her relationship with a man named Bill…who is her soul mate/twin/co-conspirator…The book is serious and funny and well written. A must read for all.”

Me: I listened to Hope Jahren’s narration of her book and that added immeasurably to my enjoyment as I felt she was basically talking directly to me. Certainly the best memoir I have ‘read’ in years. If you read and enjoyed H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, one of my favorites from last year, you’ll certainly enjoy Lab Girl. If you didn’t read Macdonald’s book, you now have two wonderful books in store for you.

Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone by Richard Lloyd Parry (NF) – Recommended by Ellen Miller.

Ellen M.: “This is the story of the Tsunami that on March 11, 2011 hit the northwest coast of Japan, killing more than 18,500 people. It focuses particularly on the personal stories of several families and one community focusing on accountability for deaths in one school. It is heartbreaking.”

Me: I ‘resisted’ reading this exploration of the consequences of the Tsunami, doubting it would be of interest to me. How wrong I was. The author does a brilliant job of not just describing what happened but also of going inside the Japanese culture to give insights and understandings into a world that is often closed to outsiders.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tiva Bailey (NF) – Recommended by Melanie Landau.

Melanie: “Fascinating, meditative. Account of minutely observing a tiny snail while bed ridden and ill.”

Me: Snails? Another account of something I never thought I’d have interest in. Wrong again. A wonderful story/memoir and most enlightening both about the author and about these little creatures.

Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer (NF) – Recommended by Abigail Wiebenson.

Abigail wrote: “A totally fascinating story of saving thousands of ancient manuscripts in Mali which becomes entangled in the jihadi movement all of which the author describes with spell-binding dexterity.”

Me: Despite a totally misleading title, I found myself immersed in a true tale about so much I never knew, not only about manuscripts and the written word but also about the jihadi incursions and exploits outside of the middle east.

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If you are not already keeping track of books you’ve enjoyed/are enjoying, please consider doing so. In June, I will ask for books readers have most enjoyed over the first half of 2018, which I will then post in July.