City Stories #5 – Venetian Visions

13 years ago this week, my wife Susan and I spent the first three days of our honeymoon in Venice, Italy.  There is no other city like Venice, and even other cities named Venice or theme park recreations lack the accretion of human construction over centuries that makes the entire city a colossal sculpture of water and stone.  Below are snippets of my favorite memories. If you enjoy this City Story, please check out my previous writings about Brooklyn, Derry, London, and Chicago.  


Arriving at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport, we took the Alilaguna water bus into the city. I quickly got acquainted with the lagoon when a wave of briny water splashed through the window and soaked my shirt.

* * *

While Susan napped, I strolled blindly through Venice’s alleys ending up in Campo Santa Maria Formosa. Children were playing soccer in the square and I got involved by kicking back a ball that went astray.

* * *

In the evening we consume cones of limone while listening to the orchestras on Piazza San Marco. We try to dance in the mostly empty square, but that inadvertently prompts every flower seller in eyeshot to approach us and aggressively try to make a sale.

* * *

The next morning, Susan catches a glimpse of everyday Venice from our hotel window, watching a man and his dog pilot a work boat down the canal.

* * *

On our walk through the city, we climb the spiral stair to the top of Scala Contarini del Bovolo . We are greeted by a slim, friendly gatto wearing a jewel-encrusted collar. The view here is more intimate than the Campanile, with views of tiny Venetian backyards and clotheslines.

* * *

We visit  the Scuola Grande di San Rocco — home to a fraternal organization that performed charitable works for plague victims — and is richly decorated with religious art by Tintoretto. We enjoyed interpreting the religious themes in the dozens of giant canvases on the walls and carrying large mirrors to study the murals on the ceiling.

* * *

As the sun begins to set, we walk to get a closer view of  La Salute Church. The approach included walking through a covered alley that felt like a dark tunnel. We emerged from the tunnel and found ourselves amidst twig-thin fashion models in a photoshoot. We are certain the photographer said, “Yes! Gauche Americans are exactly what this picture needs to make the cover of Elle!”

* * *

We ride a gondola at night, and Venice looks just right from the water. In the darkness, we can peep in windows, look at the stars, and listen to the gondolier greet doormen and waiters as we pass. We laugh as the motion-sensor doors on one of the fancier hotels slide open as we glide by.

* * *

The next morning while we’re eating our breakfast at the Hotel Riva, we the same fashion models from the night before posing for another photo shoot. The whole crew come into the hotel for coffee and pastries, but the models stay true to stereotype and refuse to eat anything. More tart succo di frutti and cherry preserve on rolls for us!

* * *

On our final morning, we visit Basilica di San Marco, where the glimmer of  mosaic tiles shine in the darkened interior. After years of settling, the marble flooring rolls like the sea. The walls use many marbles of different colors — pink, green, grey, white — like a Neopolitan ice cream.


Those are some of our memories of Venice. Have you ever been to Venice?  What do you remember most?


30-Day Song Challenge Day #20

Day 20: A song that has many meanings to you

Is it a science fiction story? Is it about God? Is it really a straightforward song about a bird-shaped nightlight?  Is it all these things and more? “Birdhouse in Your Soul” by They Might Be Giants has many, many meanings.

Double Dose of Walking Tours: Boston’s South End and SoWa District

Are you interested in exploring two different parts of Boston’s historic South End neighborhood?  If yes, come out and take two Boston By Foot walking tours I will be leading.

First, tomorrow night, Thursday, September 20, 6 pm-7:30 pm, the South End tour leaves from the plaza opposite the Back Bay MBTA Station on Dartmouth Street.

Next, there are two opportunities to explore SoWa: South of Washington on Sunday, September 23, 2018 (a members preview tour – you can become member online or in person) and Sunday, September 30, 2018. Both tours start at 2 pm from Broadway Station on the Red Line.

Tickets are $15/person ($5 for BBF members) and can be purchased online or in person before the tour begins on Sunday.

Lucky 13

Today my lovely bride Susan and I celebrate 13 years of wedded bliss. It’s good to remember that day in 2005 when we had over 100 of our friends and family present, sailed on a boat, played kickball, danced, and ate yummy cake.  It was a beautiful day.  The 4748 days in-between have been pretty good too!

Happy Anniversary, Susan!

Rally for Transgender Equality #YesOn3

Today I’m attending the Rally for Transgender Equality at Copley Square. Hundreds of people are making it known that our transgender friends, family, children, coworkers, and neighbors deserve equal protection against discrimination in public places such as restaurants, hotels, and hospitals.

In reality, we shouldn’t have to be here as transgender people should not be discriminated against and their rights have been protected under Massachusetts law since 2016. But people acting on ignorance and prejudice have put forward a ballot referendum asking Massachusetts voters to repeal the laws that protect our transgender neighbors from discrimination. No ones human rights should ever be put to a vote, but since they’re bringing this fight to us, we’re here to show our love for transgender people and defend their rights and dignity.

Learn more about why you should vote Yes on 3 at the Freedom for All website.

Podcasts of the week ending September 15

The Memory Palace :: Lost Locusts

The sound design of this podcast really sells the panic and hopelessness of plagues of locusts in the 19th century plains, and a good explanation of why they ended.

99% Invisible :: The House That Came in the Mail

The history of kit homes sold by Sears, Roebuck from catalogs. Additionally, the story of how adaptive reuse is transforming the distinctive architecture of former Sears plants in cities throughout America.

30-Day Song Challenge Day #15

Day 15: A song that you like that is a cover by another artist

Sun Ra released “Nuclear War” in 1984, but Yo La Tengo recorded four different covers of the song.  “Nuclear War (Version 2)” is my favorite because a chorus of children singing profanities just slays me in all figurative uses of that word.

TV Review: Luke Cage (2018)

Title: Luke Cage
Release Dates: 2018
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 13

The second season of Marvel’s Luke Cage is a lot like the first season in that it has some remarkable high points that make it compelling television, yet is mired with so many writing, storytelling, and acting flaws.  I find myself rooting for Luke Cage to be the stylish, yet socially conscious drama that examines the problems of contemporary Black American communities through the lens of superhero tropes it wants to be, and constantly disappointed when it fails.

Let’s focus on the good first:

Acting – there are once again some excellent performances that help carry this show.  I’m particularly impressed by Theo Rossi as Hernan “Shades” Alvarez who really came into his own in a bigger role this season, and his troubled friendship with Comanche is especially well acted.  I was kind of hoping that Shades wouldn’t so much turn good by the end of the season, but at least become a “frenemy” who works with Luke, which I suppose is still possible in future episodes.

The new antagonist John “Bushmaster” McIver played by Mustafa Shakir is also a good addition.  Bushmaster’s Ahab-like obsession gets kind of ridiculous, so it’s a credit to Shakir that he does so well with the convoluted writing and characterization.  Bushmaster is a brutal and cruel character and yet I was really able to feel empathy for him, and again was kind of hoping he would be redeemed and ally himself in some way with Luke.

Other good performances include: Reg E. Cathey bringing gravitas to underdeveloped role as Luke’s father, James Lucas. Chaz Lamar Shepherd provides a humorous spark as Raymond “Piranha” Jones.  And Rosario Dawson is good as always as Claire.  Alfre Woodward tends to get melodramatic as Mariah this season, but it’s still Alfre Woodward, who is always worth watching.

Direction – The show has a distinctive style of cinematography and staging that I really enjoy.  The show’s makers do a good job of choreographing fight scenes, and filming even simple conversations from intriguing angles. It’s also really good at just showing Harlem, and making Jamaican Crown Heights look distinctively different.

Music – Live performances at the Harlem Paradise are a highlight of any Luke Cage episode.  This season we get to see Gary Clark, Jr., Esperanza Spalding, Ghostface Killah, Stephen Marley, Faith Evans and Jadakiss, KRS-One, and Rakim, among others.  The music used to score the episodes is also universally well-selected and suited to the scenes and stories.

And I’m surprised to say this, but Danny Rand’s guest appearance actually worked well.  Danny and Luke have good chemistry, and if this was a trial balloon for a Luke Cage/Iron Fist spin-off comedy/action/drama, I’m all for it.

And now the bad:

Gratuitous violence – a crime drama is going to have it’s fair share of violence, but Luke Cage seems to revel in depicting it this season, particularly in a key scene of a massacre in a Jamaican restaurant.  Not only does the camera linger on the most gruesome aspects, but the entire scene is replayed as a flashback in the next episode! In a media environment where Black bodies are often seen as disposable, it’s particularly troublesome to see this done in a show that is supposed to be empowering.

Inconsistent characterization – A lot of the characters seem to have their motivations shift constantly to whatever the plot needs them to do.  This is especially true of Luke Cage is constantly said to struggling with things – his father, Claire, being a hero – and then having those struggles easily resolved or dropped until they’re needed again to create “drama.” The apparent heel turn he takes at the end of the season really feels like it came out of nowhere.

Misty Knight was one of the best characters of the first season, but here her story arc is that she’s a renegade cop reacting against the bureaucracy.  Except for most of the season, everything she does makes her look like a really crappy cop, which makes the character look stupid rather than heroic.

Finally, there’s Gabrielle Dennis as Tilda Johnson, Mariah’s estranged daughter.  She goes from compassionate doctor to dupe to righteously angry to femme fatale on whatever whims the plot needs her for.  Could be she’s a bad actor, could be bad writing, probably both.  Regardless, Tilda’s entire story arc is a wasted opportunity.

Repetition – All throughout the season entire scenes take place that give us the exact same information revealed in earlier episodes.  And the speeches – God help us, the speeches – that are repeated again and again. Luke musing on being a hero, Mariah preaching about family first, and Bushmaster relentless tirades on revenge.  The repetition just makes them look ridiculous rather than thoughtful.

Failure to heed the writing advice of “show don’t tell” – Both the inconsistent characterization and repetition are partly the result of the writers wanting to tell the audience things rather than show them.  For example, we’re constantly told that Luke is going through internal struggles, but are rarely shown this excepting a few good scenes such as his fight with Claire early in the season.

So those are my thoughts on a mostly good show that frustrates because it could be a great show.  The final episode of the show felt really out-of-place with the rest of the season, almost as if it were the opening of the next season rather than the conclusion to this season.  I don’t know where they’re going with Luke becoming a crime boss or if that’s a show I even want to watch, but I guess I’ll find out if and when season 3 is released.


Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

AuthorBenjamin Alire Sáenz 
TitleAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
NarratorLin-Manuel Miranda
Publication Info: New York, NY : Simon & Schuster Audio, p2013.

Sáenz has written a beautiful novel about friendship, family, love, coming of age, and coming to terms with your identity as a teenager. Set in El Paso in the mid-1980s, the book is narrated by 15-year-old Mexican American boy Aristotle – or Ari – who has learned to repress his feelings from his parents. His father won’t speak of the horrors of fighting in the Vietnam War and neither of his parents will talk about Ari’s much older brother who is in prison.  The story begins when Ari meets and befriends Dante, another Mexican American boy his age, at the swimming pool. Dante and his family are more open in their feelings and he draws out Ari over a series of meaningful conversations.  The two boys deal with the typical trials of teenagers as well the specific problems related to understanding their identity as Mexican Americans and masculinity.  They suffer injuries when hit by a car, are separated when Dante’s family goes to Chicago for a year, and explore their sexuality.  Without giving too much of the plot away, this is an absolutely beautiful book and one that I think a lot of young people (and formerly young people) can identify with. As an added bonus, Lin-Manuel’s expressive voice is absolutely perfect for the audiobook narration.

Favorite Passages:

He didn’t say anything. And then I heard him crying. So I just let him cry. There was nothing I could do. Except listen to his pain. I could do that. I could hardly stand it. But I could do that. Just listen to his pain.

Recommended booksGeorge by Alex Gino, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, and Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Rating: ****1/2

30-Day Song Challenge Day #13

Day 13: A Song You Like from the 70s

The 1970s offers some great songs, and some awful, terrible, no good songs.  “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum is one of the good ones.

I’ve made a top ten list for every year of my life, so if you want to see more songs I like from the 1970s, check out these pages:

Comics Review: Doctor Who: The Seventh Doctor

AuthorAndrew Cartmel
Illustrators: Christopher Jones, Marco Lesko
Contributor: Ben Aaronovitch
TitleDoctor Who: The Seventh Doctor
Publication Info: Titan (2018)

The three parts of this Titan comics miniseries include two different stories.  “Operation Volcano” takes up most of the pages with “Hill of Beans” filling out each volume.

“Operation Volcano” is set in 1967 when a hydrogen bomb exposes an alien craft in the Australian desert.  RAF Group Captain Gilmore – a character introduced in Aaronovitch’s Remembrance of the Daleks – calls in the Doctor and Ace to investigate. Subsequent issues reveal a horrifying snake-like species that can attach itself to humans and tap into their consciousness.  But all is not what appears and the Doctor knows more about these aliens than he lets on. Can his plan prevent the destruction of Earth by nuclear weapons, and how does Gilmore end up in the future with a snake on his back? There’s a strong UNIT/spy thriller feel and the artistry captures the 60s style (write up to the illustrator lovingly detailing the women’s breasts and short-shorts in the classic style).  This is faithful the Seventh Doctor stories as portrayed by Sylvester McCoy and the Virgin New Adventures and I could see it succeeding as a tv adaptation.

“Hill of Beans” catches up with Mags, the werewolf from The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and the physic circus.  She’s under threat as her planet Vulpana is under fascist rule and rounding up werewolves and other noncomformists. Eerily, the villain looks like Donald Trump and says “fire and fury.” The art style is softer and works to capture an 80s aesthetic.  Being the shorter of the two stories, it is very bareboned, and everything gets resolved rather easily.   Again, though, it could be fleshed out into a tv show or book.

Rating: ***1/2

Album Review: Be the Cowboy by Mitski

AlbumBe the Cowboy
Artist: Mitski
Release Date: 17 August 2018
Favorite Tracks: “A Geyser,” “A Pearl,” “Me and My Husband,” “Nobody,” “Washing Machine Heart,” and “Two Slow Dancers.”
Thoughts: Something of a concept album from the point of view of a married woman expressing her angst and ennui underneath a cheerful veneer. I love Mitski’s dynamic vocals and her guitar-playing style. She’s versatile musically too, transitioning through country, disco, and electro-pop without breaking a sweat. Lyrically she has a power with words to express introspection and vulnerability, even if it’s coming from the point of view of a character.
Rating: ***1/2

City Stories #4 – Let Your Mind Do the Walking

My recent visit to Chicago brings back memories of my first visit to that city back in April 1991, when I was 17 years old.  There were things I did and saw on that weekend that made a huge impression on me.  And yet, there’s a lot of detail I just can’t remember.  I kept no journal at the time and I took no photographs, and I’ve lost contact with anyone else who I encountered. I  can’t remember the names or faces of most of the people I met there.  I’m not even sure if I stayed there for two nights or three nights.  So, forgive me if this story is a bit disjointed.  If you like what you read, check out my City Stories about Brooklyn, Derry, and London.  

The final spring break of my high school career began with the death of my father.  His health had been deteriorating for more than a decade due to Multiple Sclerosis.  So the week began with attending the wake and funeral in Brooklyn, which proved to be a surprisingly cheerful family reunion.  The week ended with me making my first ever solo trip.  I’d been accepted to the University of Chicago and was going to Chicago for the Prospective Student Weekend.  The name is a bit of a misnomer as the weekend was for admitted students who had paid the deposit to enroll in the fall. I was excited about the opportunity to attend University of Chicago, but the fact remained it was the only school I’d been accepted to that I’d never actually visited, so there was still a bit of uncertainty, deposit or no.

My mother drove me to Westchester County Airport, a small regional airport on the border of New York State and Connecticut.  At that point in my life, traveling by air was a rare event for me, at least compared with my jet setting classmates from more prosperous families. I think I’d only been on six roundtrip flights, and the most recent was seven years earlier.  So here I was getting on an airplane all by myself.

I tried stuffing my suitcase under the seat in front of me, and though it was supposed to be carry-on size, the hard sides made it get stuck halfway out. The flight attendant saw my struggle and told me “That won’t do.”  She took the bag out and stuffed it under my own seat.  She didn’t have better luck getting it to fit all the way under, but there was no one sitting behind me so I guess it was okay for it to stick out back there.  I can’t imagine any of these things happening on a flight in this day and age.

I sat back and listened to music through headphones that were just hollow tubes.  One of the radio stations played a “modern rock” mix so I ended up hearing Depeche Mode’s “World in My Eyes” repeatedly while trying to Tess of the D’Ubvervilles for English class.  I took in the view of Chicago from the window, amazed less by the skyscrapers, and more by the fact that the earth appeared to be perfectly flat.  Even Lake Michigan looked flat

Arriving at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport was a culture shock after departing from the tiny Westchester Airport.  It was like a city of its own full of wonders.  A concourse lit with neon lights connected the two United Airlines terminals while a recording of “Rhapsody in Blue” blared over the speakers.  In the restroom, the toilets had a little red sensor and would flush on their own.  These became commonplace in the ensuing years, but I’d never seen an automated sensor activated toilet before so I gawked in awe and wonder like a rube from 19th century.

I took a shuttle bus for prospective students to the University of Chicago.  My first impression of the campus was walking along the expansive grassy area of the Midway Plaisance.  The Midway is a large, open park now but originated as the entertainment district of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and lends it name to the many “midways” in amusement parks and carnivals.

The Prospective Student Weekend began with a gathering where deans and faculty and students offered the usual pleasantries of welcome and inspiration.  There was also a performance by a student improve group about a potential romance between a student and “prospi” set to the music of Grease.  It final tune was a duet on “Prospi Nights” in which the male student made his move and the female prospi used a blue emergency phone to call the cops on him.  Yes, female admits were being warned to watch out for sexual harassment, but everyone had a good laugh.
For the remainder of the day (or was it that day and the next day), the prospies were able to get tickets to attend classes and other activities across the campus.  I remember sitting in on a History of the Vietnam War course which was very interesting, especially since it was taught by an Asian-American professor.  Nevertheless, since I’d awoke before dawn in another time zone, I started dozing off.  I jerked myself awake several times growing increasingly fearful that being seen as the “guy who fell asleep in class” would reflect poorly on the start of my college career. I also went to an English course, but the professor for that course was not having it. Apparently no one notified her of the Prospi Weekend and she was in a full rage at all these youngsters entering her classroom and occupying the seats.  Eventually she barred entry to any more prospective students, tickets or not, but I was one of the “lucky” ones who got to observe her angry discussion of Shakespeare.
“Wow, she was a bit nuts!” said a fellow prospi, a young man with crew cut hair and big eyes who introduced himself as Shannon after we left the class room.  We walked to the cafeteria, picking up another prospi along the way, a short bearded guy whose name may have been Randy.  Outside the cafeteria, a man with a wild beard and glasses was hawking t-shirts featuring a cartoon image of a man with a wild beard and glasses, basically himself.  As we ate we talked about the usual things – where we were from, what other colleges w applied to, what majors we were considering.  The real significance was that for my introverted self this was the longest conversation I had with fellow prospective students the entire weekend, which will gain added significance at the end of the story.
I also found time to wander the Oriental Museum and explore University of Chicago’s collection of ancient artifacts from the Near East.  And I ambled through the library, discovering the map library.  I love maps so I excitedly step past the counter to peruse the maps.  And I was just as suddenly rebuked by a map librarian for stepping across an invisible barrier that I wasn’t supposed to cross.  It was my first lesson that academic libraries and public libraries are very different things. Now that I work at an academic library I try to remember to admonish people more kindly when they stray.
The absolute highlight of the weekend was spending time with the current students.  Each prospi was adopted by a pair of roommates and got to stay in their dorm room for the weekend.  My hosts lived in a residence hall called Shoreland which was actually quite a distance off campus in a former hotel overlooking Lake Michigan.  They walked me around from room to room introducing me to other students and their prospis and our group grew as we gathered in different dorm rooms to shoot the shit.  They were the coolest people I’d ever met in my young life.
Since it was once a hotel, the rooms were carved up into different sizes and unusual shapes and the students creatively decorated them.  A pair of woman roommates had pooled together their music collections and put them on display, with over 800 cassettes and 200 CDs hanging on the wall.  I vowed to myself that one day I would also put my tapes and CDs on the wall like this if I had the chance.  By the time I actually got around to doing it though, cassettes were passe and even CDs were on their way out.
The students insisted that they needed to take the prospis to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show.   So we caravaned to an ancient movie theater somewhere on the North Side.  I had seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show on television and listened to the audience participation tape  but this was the first time I experienced the actual show.  The showing was sparsely attended but the shadow cast enthusiastically performed along with a trailer for Pink Floyd’s The Wall and a Simpsons short in addition to the actual movie.  They also made us Rocky Horror virgins march around the theater in a conga line as they sprayed us with water pistols.
On the way out of the theater I overheard one of the students rather spacily suggest “Let’s go on LSD!”  Nervous about the potential drug use, I repeated “LSD?”
“Yeah,” he said in is normal voice. “Lake Shore Drive.”  We did indeed drive back to Shoreland via Lake Shore Drive and enjoyed a spectacular view of the city’s illuminated skyline.
Well after midnight (or was it a second night?), someone suggested we go to a burrito place.  I wasn’t sure if I was up for burritos, but I was assured that they were the best burritos. I have no idea where we went that night, I just remember a long drive zigzagging through Chicago’s street grid – west, then south, then west, then south – until we finally arrived at the small Mexican cafe.  It was worth it though because they did have best burritos, and they seemed as big as your head, too.
“I wonder if someone could eat two of these?” one of the prospis asked.
“I could, if I didn’t eat anything for a couple of days,” I said.
“Your stomach would actually shrink if you didn’t eat for that long,” a student informed me.
“Oh,” I said, disappointed.  I still think I could do it.
Back at the dormitory, we sat up talking and I rested my back against the sleeping bag, pillow and sheets my hosts had set out for me.  Eventually, I just conked out in that position sitting on the floor.  I remember one of the students suggesting I could actually lay the sleeping bag, sheets, and pillows out on the floor as intended, but I was too tired to move.  I’d been awake for a full day at that point – 25 hours if you count the time zone change, so I just wanted to sleep.
The prospective student weekend ended on Saturday but my mother found the airfare more affordable if I returned on Sunday.  So I needed a place to stay Saturday night.  This came up at my father’s wake and one of my father’s old friends from New York had a son who had a best friend attending University of Chicago.  So I spent the remainder of my trip with Billy, and his roommate, and his girlfriend at their off campus apartment. I felt a bit like a fifth wheel but they were friendly, nonetheless.
I traveled home on Sunday fully expecting that I would return to Chicago begin college in August.  In fact, I would not return there again until 2004. A few weeks later, the College of William and Mary accepted me off the wait list leaving me with a tough decision.  For one thing, my family was in the process of moving Virginia, so at William & Mary I’d be close to “home” while Chicago would be even farther away.  For another thing, the tuition for one year at University of Chicago was equal to three years of out-of-state tuition at William & Mary (and in 12 months I would eligible for in-state tuition). Chicago’s financial aid package was rather stingy and not wanting to spend the money I’d recently inherited from my father all at once, I decided to go to William & Mary.  I often wonder what my life would be like if I had gone to the University of Chicago, but since I wouldn’t have met Susan and there wouldn’t be a Peter and a Kay, I don’t think of it much anymore.
In August 1991, I registered for classes at William & Mary Hall, and a few hours apart, I met up with Shannon, and then Randy.  Remember, these were the guys who were also prospective students that I had lunch with at the University of Chicago.  All these years later, the coincidence still blows my mind that the only two prospies I really talked with also a) applied to and were accepted to both University of Chicago and William & Mary, b) paid the deposit and became and admitted student at Chicago, and c) also changed their minds and ended up at William & Mary.