Friday, December 11, 2015

Blind Trust - Auburn University

by Dick Mac

Used without permission.
At the beginning of December, 2015, as anti-Muslim hate speech spread like wildfire across the United States, the Auburn Muslim Students Association (MSA), at Auburn University, decided to conduct an experiment of love, reconciliation, and humanity.

For an hour and a half, Basim Ismail, a member of MSA, stood blindfolded in the middle of campus, next to a sign that read, “I am Muslim and I trust you. Do you trust me enough for a hug?”

Given the tone of the day's rhetoric, and given that this campus is in Alabama, anything could have happened.  And it did.

Over the course of 90 minutes, about 100 people stopped to give Basim a hug.  There were no reports of violence or hostility.

Watching the video made me a bit weepy, especially when someone would walk past him, reading the sign as they hurried along, then stopped in their tracks, turned around and hugged.

What this means is that when people pause and think about a situation, instead of reacting in a fit of passion, we almost always do the right thing, we almost always choose love, acceptance, and kindness.

Let's all do the world a favor and pause for a moment, when we feel passionate about taking action against a particular group of people.  When we think about the reality of the situation, we know the right thing to do, and it is never to condemn and paint the entire group with a broad brushstroke.  We always choose acceptance, understanding, and compassion.

Choose love.

See, Blindfolded Muslim asks fellow Auburn students for hugs, here’s what happened next, at Yellow Hammer News.

Monday, December 07, 2015

"Lazarus" In Previews

by Dick Mac

I saw the first preview of "Lazarus" and now that it has opened and has been reviewed in the mainstream media, I offer you this review I wrote of the 18 November performance:

by David Bowie and Enda Walsh
Directed by Ivo van Hove
at New York Theatre Workshop
Opening Preview, November 18, 2015

Previews can be dangerous.  What if I hate it, and they don't change it before the Opening? What if I love it, but it's changed before the Opening?  What if it's more like "hours..." than Scary Monsters?  Maybe I should just wait for the Opening?

Don't be stupid!

The first preview of Lazarus played at the New York Theatre Workshop last night and there wasn't a chance in hell I'd miss it.  Seemingly there were thousands of others who felt the same way.  The entire run sold out in an hour, and it is one of the hottest tickets in town.  While standing in line with friends at TKTS in Times Square hours before the show, I told one of the staff working the line that I was seeing Lazarus tonight.  He and his colleagues were envious beyond belief.

Lazarus is a new play/musical written by David Bowie and Enda Walsh, directed by Ivo van Hove, and starring Michael C. Hall.

Many theatrical pieces based on the music of famous pop stars have been produced over the past three decades.  Some are hugely successful and some are total flops.  A theatrical production of the music of David Bowie doesn't sound right, now, does it?  There must be more to it.

And there is.

The story of Lazarus is based on the 1963 Walter Tevis novel "The Man Who Fell To Earth" and it picks-up the story of Thomas Jerome Newton where it was left off by Nicholas Roeg in his 1976 movie release of the same name, starring David Bowie.  The music for Lazarus is almost exclusively from David Bowie's existing catalog, and adds at least 4 new songs he has written for the production.

Let's start with the familiar:  the music of David Bowie.  

The soundtrack borrows heavily from Bowie's last release "The Next Day," along with massive hits, anthems, and obscure gems. The show opens with a new song (title unknown) that is unmistakably Bowie, and continues with "It's No Game" (Scary Monsters), "This Is Not America" (single), "The Man Who Sold The World" (TMWSTW), another new song, "Love Is Lost" (The Next Day), "Changes" (Hunky Dory), "Where Are We Now" (The Next Day), Absolute Beginners (single), "Dirty Boys" (The Next Day), another new song, "Life On Mars" (Hunky Dory), "All The Young Dudes" (outtake), "Sound + Vision" (Low), "Ashes To Ashes" (Scary Monsters), "Always Crashing In The Same Car" (Low), "Valentine's Day" (The Next Day), another new song, and "Heroes" (Heroes).

The renditions of the songs are mostly new arrangements sung by the cast, and some of the performances are emotional and moving (yes, to tears). The one song that doesn't really work for me, but is enhanced by spectacular video, is "Where Are We Now." I think it was inevitable that, as is true with all art, something was going to feel forced or contrived, and this is the only instance in the soundtrack.  Yes, a wonderful song; but, I didn't feel it in the context of the story.  Literally every other song successfully advanced the plot line or illuminated the scene in which it was performed.

Now slightly less familiar: the story. 

If you read the book or saw the movie "The Man Who Fell To Earth," you are likely familiar with the two characters that make their way into Lazarus: Thomas Jerome Newton (the actual man who fell to Earth) and Mary-Lou (his love interest).  At the end of the story that we know, Newton has resigned himself to a life of alcoholic oblivion enhanced by uncountable riches, and Mary-Lou has abandoned the loveless relationship.

Lazarus opens with Newton (Michael C. Hall) sleeping, then eating, then drinking in his New York apartment.  We meet Elly, his new assistant (Cristin Milioti), and then a very confusing character, Michael (Charlie Pollock) whose part in the story is vague at best, confusing in every aspect, and rather inconsequential.  If it were not for his demise, which informs the demise of others later in the story, he would be completely forgettable. His lines are delivered very well, but are almost pedestrian given the complex story-telling skills of the writers.  Pollock is a good actor, and the character and his part in the story in their current form, are not worthy of such a talent.  The character needs to be developed more effectively, be given better lines, or introduced later in the story.

The completely unfamiliar: the Lazarus narrative.

One of my favorite dynamics of Bowie’s creativity is his discussion of, celebration of, fear of, victories over, and pain caused by mental illness.  There is no other contemporary artist in any discipline that so effectively weaves the thread of mental illness (in many of its forms) through his or her work.  Bowie brings it to new levels, whether it is schizophrenia, addiction, or depression, he addresses it with compassion, humor, and aplomb.  Lazarus is no different.

Newton’s alcoholism, his manias and phobias rooted in the abuse he has suffered at the hands of Earthlings, his total inability to form healthy relationships, his fear of intimacy, and his crippling refusal to move out of the past, all create a complex character that Bowie and Walsh have made even more dynamic than the original story.

His crushing self-hatred connected to Mary-Lou’s abandonment at the end of the last story, is aggravated and challenged by Elly’s infatuation with him.  She enters Newton’s world each day after she leaves the loveless home she shares with her husband, Zach (Bobby Moreno).  As Elly learns more about Mary-Lou, her own struggles with mental illness throw a confused dynamic into her relationship with Newton. They become simultaneously antagonistic and sympathetic.  They form bonds of love and fear, hatred and passion.  She desperately wants to help Newton out of his personal hell, and his refusal to accept her creates magnificent tension and conflict resulting in a schizophrenic break that makes Elly more endearing and more frightening as the story advances.

Then there is Valentine (Michael Esper) who starts small and insignificant and grows in stature and character as the plot advances.  This complex role demands a perseverance and creative drive of which Esper should be very proud.  He is funny and scary, he is elegant and dreadful.  He sings and moves with the strength of two men.  I won’t say that he gives the best performance of all, but I look forward to hearing what others think of him.

Cristin Milioti is amazing as Elly, and she delivers a top-notch performance of this potentially confusing role.  The serious physical demands of the part are not for the faint of heart.  She moves fiercely through the staging as beautifully as she does through the character.  Even when catatonic she commands a presence that is inescapable.  She and Michael C. Hall work as protagonist and antagonist as well as any two actors you will see.

Hall’s performance is superb, and given the challenging nature of the character and the story, this is no small feat.  Each of the actors with whom he shares intimate scenes:  Milioti, Esper, Pollock, and the amazingly talented, young Sophia Anne Caruso, are catapulted to new heights in their roles by his work.

The relationship between Hall’s Thomas Newton and Caruso’s unnamed (but eventually named) Girl, is as beautiful, intimate, and ecstatic as a relationship between an adult and a child can be without feeling totally wrong, creepy, and inappropriate.  They share intimacy and conflict that most of us will never encounter (or understand).  Their journey through Newton’s mental illness, to the conclusion of their relationship excited and frightened me.  Their final duet left me in tears.

Ben (Nicholas Christopher) and Maemi (Lynn Craig) initially seem like incidental characters with a fun, very New York story.  Their wedding becomes part of the story and Christopher delivers a rendition of “All The Young Dudes” that is sexy beyond imagination.  Craig is a strong singer herself, and the physical demands of her role make her stand out on a crowded stage.  She is left to sing the second verse of “All The Young Dudes,” which almost feels like an afterthought on the part of the writers or director.  Her partner delivers the hyper-masculine anthem with sexual energy that left me wanting more from him; and since it is such a “boy” song, switching the sexes of the singers is awkward.  It’s unfair to Craig, and she should be given the opportunity to sing a song that is more appropriate for a female lead.  She delivers, nonetheless, and the awkwardness of the scene is by no means created by her.

There are three actresses who play angels, or muses, or devils, or guilty consciences, or charitable volunteers, or all of the above.  Krystyna Alabado, Krista Pioppi, and Brynn Williams, weave their way through the most intense scenes of the play, by directing dialog, movement, or scene development, instructing characters how to behave, or undermining the fragile mental health of the main characters.  As singers, they are collectively wonderful at providing background vocals (both visibly and secluded).  Alabado is the most featured of the three and has a commanding presence.  She is beautiful, dignified, and has an elegant movement through the scenes that makes her even more appealing.

Elly’s husband Zach returns later in the story, after their marriage is all but destroyed by his wife’s relationship with Newton.  Moreno is a handsome actor with a very strong presence. He is the only member of the ensemble with no singing part, which pushes him to the background to a degree; but he offers his role as a controlling, insecure, chauvinistic husband convincingly.  The husband’s demands are typically metrosexual and unbecoming, and Moreno breathes life into a character that we might not want to like very much.  He convinced me to feel sympathy for the character, even when the husband was behaving his worst.

The staging includes the 7-piece band behind glass at the back of the stage.  This makes them and the music, appropriately, an integral part of the story.  This is the music of David Bowie.  Bowie has formed some of the most amazing rock bands in the history of the art form. Having the band seen as part of the ensemble is, in retrospect, genius.

New York Theatre Workshop is a comfortable space that seats about 200 people.  There isn’t a bad seat in the house, and the acoustics are great.

At this time, Lazarus is completely sold-out for its run through mid-January.  There are day-of-show cancellation tickets available, and there is a very clearly marked area for that queue outside the Theatre.  If you don’t have tickets, and have the time to get in line, try it.

I can’t wait to see what the show looks like on Opening Night, December 9th.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015


by Dick Mac

Having grown-up in Boston, I spent the first four decades of my life as a fan of the Boston Red Sox baseball team.  Exercises in futility are rarely more obvious.  I suffered the failures of 1967, 1975, and 1986.  I never enjoyed a World Series championship.  In the early 21st Century, I became disgusted with Major League Baseball and abandoned the sport completely.  Until 2003, baseball was really the mainstay of my sports entertainment consumption.  The ensuing years saw the Red Sox become champions.  Go figure.

Living in London at the turn of the century I was introduced to soccer (football as they called it there).  I had no interest, really, but another ex-pat asked me to attend a match at Highbury, in North London, to watch Arsenal play Manchester City.  I scoffed at the invitation, but he was insistent, and the following Saturday we were on the tube for the trip from the Piccadilly Circus stop to Arsenal stop.

The actual ticket stub!
I kept an open mind, and did my best to understand the difference between a free-kick and a penalty-kick.  I just gave-up understanding the off-sides rule.

I was impressed, however, by a player named Thierry Henry, and the very tall center midfielder, Patrick Viera.  They did things with the ball that I had never seen done and didn't even know mattered.  Arsenal won the match 5-0, and it was later that season I learned about promotion and relegation, when the long-suffering Manchester City fans saw their team relegated from the Premier League to Division 1.

When asked my thoughts about soccer by my English friends and colleagues, I only gushed on and on about Thierry Henry.  I had never seen an athlete do things that he did.  He was remarkable, and he had me hooked.

Over the next couple of seasons, Arsenal would go on a streak of no losses that broke all records and garnered them the moniker "The Invincibles."  I really didn't have much experience supporting such a great team, and over the following few years, soccer began to replace baseball as my true love.

Eventually I found myself back home in New York City, and sports leagues were still in the nascent stages of leveraging the Internet.  My ability to watch English soccer was limited to a single cable broadcast on Saturday, a smattering of pay-per-view events, and Nevada Smith's, a soccer pub in the East Village where I sometimes found myself at the bar at seven in the morning, drinking coffee and soda, eating donuts and chips, and tipping well.

At the office, I started moaning about my access to soccer, and eventually a colleague (probably sick of hearing me go on and on about it) asked why I hadn't just switched to MLS?

"What is MLS?" I asked.  He insisted, though wasn't 100% certain, that Major League Soccer had a franchise in New York.

NY/NJ MetroStars Logo
I rushed to the Internet and found something called the MetroStars.  "What the fuck is a metrostar?" I asked myself aloud.  And why is it the NY/NJ MetroStars?  It all sounded stupid, but I was desperate and called the number for ticket sales.

I admitted to the man on the other end of the line that I had no idea what MLS was, what his team was, or if I was even interested.  I bragged about my time in London and my love of Arsenal.

He convinced me to buy tickets for the next home match that would be played at Giants Stadium.  He explained that I could get a shuttle bus out of Port Authority and the same shuttle bus service would get me back to NYC after the match.  I bought tickets from him, they eventually arrived in the mail, and I made my way to Giants Stadium.

Giants Stadium held 80,005 spectators, and was sold out for all Giants games.  It could also hold 15,000 fans with ease, and it was rare that 15,000 fans attended MetroStars matches, but that is a general estimate of the average attendance.  It was sort of depressing to sit in a nearly empty stadium to watch a match.  But I did it.  And I hated it and I fell in love. I mean, this was not, by any stretch of the imagination, like English soccer.

I attended regularly, then became the owner of two season-tickets for the 2003 season.

The MetroStars were a team like my Boston Red Sox.  They didn't win much.  They lost matches they should have won, and my love for them felt perpetually like an exercise in futility. I was home! I could do this!

Since that time, excepting the year after my daughter was born, I have been a season-ticket holder.  It was during that year that The NY MetroStars were purchased by Red Bull GmbH, the company that owns the hard-drink sold in bodegas.  The purchase made me less upset about giving-up my season tickets, but I eventually came to accept that my team had to be owned by someone, and in Reagan's brave new America it was unlikely that any one corporation was going to be any less offensive than another (well, except for Wal-Mart, News Corporation, Monsanto, and Nestle who are the 4 worst corporate citizens).

When I returned the following year, the now quaint and old-fashioned striped MetroStars jerseys were replaced with the Red Bull logo.  I wasn't thrilled by the new look, but I was over-the-moon to be back in Giants Stadium watching my team play in a cavernous edifice.

Seemingly out-of-the-blue, Aston Villa striker and Colombia captain, Juan Pablo Angel, was signed. This was huge.  I loved watching Angel play in the English Premier League and the notion that someone of his calibre and stature was joining Red Bull New York was fantastic - the stuff of dreams.

In 2007, my daughter asked if she could come to matches with me.  Since she was only three, I explained that it was too big a stadium for me to be able to take care of her during a match, so maybe when she was four years old, blah, blah, blah . . .  Knowing full-well that she would completely forget about the soccer matches by her next birthday, I felt confident that I was all set.

At her fourth birthday party, she blew-out her candles, surrounded by friends and extended family, turned to me and said:  "Daddy, now I'm four, so I can come to the soccer matches with you!"

with Tim Ream
At that moment was born one of Red Bull New York's biggest supporters.  It was 2008 and she has never looked back.  Her heart-throbs started immediately:  Johnny Gilkerson, Caleb Patterson, Seth Stammler, Danny Cepero, Danleigh Borman, Andrew Boyens, Juan Pablo Angel, Tim Ream, Connor Lade, and Matt Miazga have shared her undying adoration over the years, often simultaneously.

We attend almost every home match and even travel with other supporters to away matches in New England, Philadelphia, and Washington DC.  We have a great time together and soccer might be the one thing we share during those difficult years when children stop relating to their parents.  I can hope.

Viking Goddess
In 2008, I flew (alone) to Los Angeles to watch RBNY play Columbus, in the MLS Cup final.  I found myself in the tunnel at the same time the team was lining-up for the procession to the field.  No less than three RBNY players asked:  "Where's your daughter?" When I explained she was too small to take on a long flight, they simply walked away from me.  I'm certain they meant no offense and really:  why the hell would they want to talk to an overweight guy who was older than their parents, when they might be able to talk to a 4-year-old who unwaveringly adores them?  I knew at that moment that I had reached that part of parenthood where we are defined not by our names, but as the nameless parents of our child.  I am not Dick Mac, I am her dad.

Now, eight seasons into being a season-ticket holder, she is living sports fandom the same way I did as a child: supporting a team that just can't bring it all home.

In 2013, our team won the Supporters Shield, which in every other country on Earth means you are the Champions.  In the USA, however, the television networks insist that championships be decided not by having the best record, but by playing an additional post-season with half the teams, including teams with losing records, vying to win a cup that denotes that they are the champions.  Just like the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, a soccer team can lose most of their matches during the season, come on strong, win the last few matches of the season, qualify for a playoff spot and bring their now-winning momentum to fruition by winning a match that gives them a cup that makes them champions.  It is a uniquely American concept that, in my not-so-humble view, makes no sense whatsoever.

Be that as it may, we were the best team in 2013, won the Shield, and lost in the early rounds of the playoffs, so we were not actually the best team of 2013, some team with fewer victories than us was crowned the champions.

with Thierry Henry
This season, we were the Cinderella team.  In a rebuilding year, having lost many of our veteran players and stars, and starting the season with a new front-office and coaching staff, we managed to kick ass and win the Supporters Shield again!  Back to the playoffs!

Sunday night, in freezing cold conditions, we lost the Eastern Conference championship to Columbus Crew SC.  Again, we were the best team in the league, but we are not the champions.  Either Portland or Columbus will be the champions.

In 2008 and 2013, we wept when we lost.  Last night there were no tears and I realized we were used to losing the big matches. That's just who we are:  like the Boston Red Sox of my youth it is always "close, but no cigar"!  My daughter is enjoying the same agony of being a sports fan with which I am familiar.

It's already been announced, less than 24-hours after the loss, that two veteran players (one who has been on loan most of the season, and one who has been injured for months) will not be returning next year.  More of these announcements are forthcoming.  These announcements are a bit of a relief, because we can focus on the shortcomings and failures of those players instead of thinking about our team losing again.

The team lowered the protective wall
behind our seats, so people stand above us
spilling food and drink, talking loudly,
or pressing machine guns against the fabric.
The team was exciting and enjoyed a great season. We had a terrible season supporting our team.  Our match day experience has been ruined by a corporate decision that impacted a small number of fans.  Sadly, we are fans who suffered this decision.  The wall behind our seats was re-engineered, allowing people to spill drinks and food on us, cops to lean against the wall with their machine guns pressing against the fabric, and stadium staff carrying on loud conversations right above us.

The team never consulted us, they never came to us when the changes were implemented without our knowledge. They eventually begged forgiveness and feigned powerlessness in response to my anger; but they never made any gesture to give even a nominal appearance of actual contrition.  It's perfectly clear that they don't care that we've lost the seats we love.  They made no efforts to compensate us for changing our agreement halfway through a contract that is heavily weighted in the team's favor, for ruining our match day experience for every remaining match of the season. Never did they say:  hey, here's a discount for next year, or hey enjoy a match in the Club on us, or here's a new doll/scarf/jacket/anything for your daughter.  They just sent a powerless staff member to apologize, and have left us to fend for ourselves. Our friend sitting in the seat next to us has left, never to return.

We lost a lot this year:  we lost the Eastern Conference championship, we lost a chance to host the MLS Cup final, we lost our seats, and we've lost a great deal of love for our team.

I was prepared to sever my ties completely; but my daughter insisted that we get new seats for next year.  We hate them, but they are our seats.  We've lost our seats, and to a large degree the team is losing us.  Sure, they have our money for 2016, but we no longer enjoy unwavering love and commitment to them.

A new team joined the league this past season: NYCFC.  We have season tickets for that team, too.  My daughter hates them, and I am no big fan, but they treat us a whole lot better than the Red Bulls treat us.  It's easy to get to their stadium, it's a well-run facility, they have amazing concession stands (including gluten-free offerings, which we need), we have great seats, they call or write me all the time asking if everything is OK.  I don't really want to switch allegiances, so I haven't yet, but I no longer feel welcome at Red Bull Arena.  I no longer feel a part of something special there.

We have no right to expect special treatment when doing business with a corporation, but before getting the shaft this year we really felt as though we were part of something special.  I thought that we mattered to the team (not just to our fan services reps), because of our long-time commitment and unwavering love. In reality, like everyone else, we are just another credit card number.

So, the season ended just as so many Red Sox seasons ended between 1965 and 2003 (the years I followed that team): close but no cigar, thanks for your money, please clear the stands, and see you next season.

Have a nice day.