Playmakers Rep's "Three Sisters"

In their ads read during the local morning NPR news, Playmakers Rep touted its “new take” on Chekhov’s Three Sisters. What on earth does that meaningless phrase mean? This is my third production of Three Sisters and it didn’t look anything like some of the wilder Shakespeare productions I’ve seen. Chekhov plays are so rooted to their time and place that they resist overmuch tampering.

Is it a "new take" because it was a new idiomatic translation? Or color-blind casting (two of the principal actors are African-American)?

The new translation by Libby Appel seemed fine, though with too many Americanized phrases for my ear. Appel translates “I don’t understand you” as “I don’t get it.” Yes, it’s shorter, more colloquial–but it jars my ear. Some phrases also struck me as clichés that would have been stripped from any other play. (Had I gone with the intention of writing a review, I’d have taken notes!)

Vivienne Benesch’s direction orchestrated some fine moments, though I think the size and spread of PRC’s thrust stage, with audiences on three sides, worked against the production and the play.

Chekhov charts the sisters’ descent from their height in Act 1, where they are clearly the center of attention and in charge of the household, until they are slowly squeezed into a small bedroom under the eaves, and then finally ejected by the domineering sister-in-law whose vulgarity they had earlier sneered at.

The creeping claustrophobia of the home is echoed by the smothering provinciality of their small town. The sisters early on deride the town’s small-minded pettiness and lack of culture. “To Moscow, to Moscow” is their prayer, their plaint, their lament.

Yet the stage, though cleverly redressed for the major scene changes, never emphasized their increasingly crowded and shrinking horizons. Olga and Irina’s bedroom should be a tiny thing, and though small enough on the PRC stage, there seems to be a whole other space alongside it where they and their uninvited guests can wander freely, talk, lie down, and scream. The sheer size of the stage undercut the play’s intimacy.

The performances were good, but not uniformly so. Daniel Pearce’s Kulygin always commanded my attention when he walked onstage, and Carey Cox’s Natalya was quite strong.

For me, the standout performances were Allison Altman’s Irina–particularly her sad and shocking breakdown as she realizes she will not escape to Moscow–and Arielle Yoder’s Masha, whose cool demeanor hides a seething anger and yearning. Marinda Anderson’s Olga was firm and supportive–the tone-setter in the opening minutes and the solid emotional anchor in the final minutes–but isn’t given the opportunity to tear into her own longings and desires. One moment of Anderson’s I loved: her shock and uneasiness at Natasha’s barking mad frustration with the old nurse.

In the last scene, as the sisters stand in the back yard of their former home, Olga hears the marching music of the soldiers leaving the town. She hopes that the sisters will soon learn “why we are alive and why we suffer.” As she said this, I think all three sisters turned outward to look at the audience, as if to say–We’re suffering so you can learn and remember. I’m not sure if I’m remembering or interpreting that moment correctly; it simply struck me as odd for the sisters to turn their backs to each other at a moment when they should be reaching toward each other and thereby finding their purpose.

Three Sisters was a fine but not a great production, with moments of exquisitely etched agony and loss, but it did not strike me as a new take.

Mark Forster's Book Challenge

UK time management coach and author Mark Forster has set himself the challenge to read only one book at a time. Although he is great at starting books, his challenge has been finishing them. He's used a variant of his Autofocus task management system in the past as a way to read War and Peace. I wonder if his high distraction rate means he got what he wanted out of those unfinished books, after all; a quick skim may be all that's needed for a sense of completion.

For myself, my book selection and (non-)completion methods have varied over the years. Here's what I do now:

  • John Sutherland, I think, recommends reading page 69 (any random page really) and then deciding based on that whether to read the book at all. I use this method when searching for bedtime books to read to Liz.
  • I give a book 50 pages or so and then decide whether to continue. Oftentimes, particularly for light non-fiction books, I practice Maugham's "art of skimming."
  • On my physical bookshelf, the top shelf is reserved for books of current interest. When I return a book, I place it to the far right. If a new book usurps its place, the new book is placed to the far right. This is just the Noguchi technique applied to books; uninteresting books migrate to the left of the shelf and can probably be safely discarded.
  • I keep a collection on my Kindle titled "Now Reading." I can only read books in that collection. I keep three books only in that collection: a short-story collection, a novel, and a non-fiction book. Yes, I'd get through one book faster if I focused on it rather than dividing my time and attention among three books. But I am eternally fond of Randall Jarrell's famous line: "Read at whim! read at whim!"

 

Rather than demanding authenticity, which is inherently paradoxical–trying to be real is embarrassing and fake–Bowie-ism instead asks for playful imagination in the artful construction and performance of persona. You can’t aspire to Bowie’s level of virtuosity in this regard, but it is liberating, especially for a Gen X-er drawn toward the grimly earnest misguided intensity of the authenticity cult, to see life as a playful pageant of role-playing that can be done with more or less art. Bowie is why I tell my writing students that there is no “voice” to find, no voice that belongs to the true you, because there is no true you, only ever versions of yourself you have learned to perform, and the voice of the character you play on the page is up to you. The question is not who you are but what connects, how much courage you have, how much guile, what you can manage to get away with.

Jon Benjamin Tries Jazz

Best known as the lead voice on Bob’s Burgers and Archer, Benjamin has no expertise in jazz music. “It’s a real insult to people who try,” he says of Well, I Should Have … Learned How To Play Piano.

Source: Jon Benjamin Tries Jazz

We’ve loved hearing Benjamin’s voice for years on Dr. Katz and Bob’s Burgers, and the excerpts from the album are a hoot. I loved hearing the other musicians yell to him near the end, “You can do better!”

It is not as sublimely funny as Jonathan and Darlene Edwards’ classic records – such as their classic “Stayin’ Alive” or “Who” – but worthy of sitting next to it in the box at the back of the closet.

Inbox by Google

I switched from Yahoo Mail to Gmail back in 2006 or 2007; it took awhile to come to grips with it, but I loved some of its conveniences and never switched back. I kept the old Yahoo Mail account as a backup just-in-case account, but I only check it every week or so.intro-logo I'm always hesitant when trying new Google products. I didn't try Google's Wave product when it was introduced (and which died a relatively quick death). The company's offhand attitude and abandonment of its Google Reader users really set the warning flag. I don't plan on keeping any notes in Google Keep. And as for Google Play's takeover of my beloved Songza service -- well, I'm not holding out any hopes for that. Songza did exactly what I wanted from it and I'd have cheerfully paid them for the service. I simply don't trust Google to do anything I expect, even if I did pay them.

But I have been trying out Inbox by Google for a month or so and I'm liking it. Based on what I've read, Google really wants to push users to Inbox and I thought, well, let's try it. They may one day turn off Gmail and users will wake up with Inbox. So it makes sense to start coming to grips with it now.

What I Like

  • Inbox's guiding philosophy is to view the email inbox as a to-do list. For any item in the Inbox, you must Do, Delete, or Defer. Viewing emails, newsletters, promotions, Facebook notifications, listserv digests, etc. as tasks has been a standard tenet of productivity literature since David Allen's first book. But while email clients helped me move emails around and write them or reply to them, they didn't really provide a framework to help me process them more quickly. Inbox, as I've been using it, is really helping me process (that is, delete or archive) emails in a more sane manner.
  • Inbox groups emails into pre-defined bins like Promos, Updates, Purchases, and so on. Their groupings are pretty accurate and it's easy to move an email from one group to another. What I like best about the groups is that it's easy to scan them and delete them all in a single stroke; this bulk management of emails saves me a good deal of time.
  • It's also easy to define my own group (in Gmail-speak, a label or tag).
  • I love the feature that lets me create reminders to myself right there in the Inbox and then set them to appear at any date/time or to recur. In the past, I'd have used the FollowUpThen email reminder service (which I pay for) or SaneLater (which I stopped paying for) or Google Calendar or GQueues. (Geez, do I think I need a lot of help in my life or what?) Instead, the Reminders are quick and easy to set, they appear in my iPod's Google app and Notifications, and my inbox is clear of any emails I used to keep there as reminders.
  • It's dead easy to snooze emails so I can deal with them later. Snoozing an email is like setting a reminder. It makes keeping a clean Inbox a breeze. Previously, I'd have forwarded the email to FollowUpThen and archived the original mail. Inbox's Snooze feature is much neater and more convenient.
  • Inbox delivers the grouped email once a day -- 7am. So if I get any new Facebook notices or Promos or Updates, then Inbox holds them back from appearing till the next morning. I have found that rather authoritarian management of my email to be liberating. I'm one of those sad people who likes to check his inbox every 5 minutes. But knowing that these bulk emails are by default not urgent, and that they'll show up in tomorrow morning's email anyway, means my Inbox stays mostly empty. Personal emails from Liz or friends appear instantly and so I don't need to plow through other emails to get to them. So during the day, I'm more likely to receive only emails that will be of  immediate interest to me.
  • (You can, of course, look inside Inbox's Social, Promos, Updates, etc. folders and see the emails that have arrived and that are being held for the next day. I prefer, in most cases, to let Inbox deliver them to me in a batch at 7am.)
  • You can set three default snooze times for a reminder or an email; I use 7am, 2pm, and 7pm. When I open up Inbox in the evening -- BAM -- I'll see all the reminders and snoozed emails that I couldn't deal with earlier in the day. At this point, I deal with them by reading them, taking action, or deleting them. The Inbox becomes my to-do list -- which is the way I've always used it.

What I Wish Were Better

  • Google's material design of Inbox looks nice in the browser, but the performance is not as snappy as in Gmail. Even on my Chromebook, Inbox is a visually stuttering application. However, using Inbox on my iPod is a treat and cements the idea for me that Inbox is optimized for mobile rather than the browser.
  • Still haven't figured out how to filter an email so Inbox can automatically send it to the Trash. I still have to create those filters in Gmail. I also had saved searches in Gmail; the search facility in Inbox never seems to work as I expect.
  • Some operations are simply easier in Gmail for me. I am taking part in an online course, so I'm receiving a ton of notifications throughout the day on new posts to the course's Facebook group. Processing 20 of these messages in Inbox just takes too many clicks. It's far quicker for me to zip into Gmail and process the emails rapid-fire.

I went all-in on Inbox over the Christmas break, avoided Gmail, and it was the best way to learn Inbox quickly. I also recommend reading Computerworld's JR Raphael's post on adopting Inbox. The second half of his post, where he talks about workflow, convinced me to give Inbox a try.

Today, I still access Gmail when I need to process a big batch of emails quickly. But Inbox rules the roost for the moment. Until Google says otherwise.


Update, January 11, 2017

I've gone back to using Gmail plain. Inbox's best feature was the scheduling function, but I have already duplicated that with FollowupThen. Inbox was just too slow, even when using it in Chrome on my iMac, even when using it on my flipping Chromebook. I often had to click on a mail two or three times for it to display as the clicks never seemed to register; Google's Material Design took so much time to load I got impatient. The only time Inbox performed at an acceptable speed was when I started using Kiwi for Gmail Lite; even so, I found myself flipping over to Gmail to process mails more quickly. Inbox by Google will have to offer much faster performance before I'm willing to switch again.

Green Eggs and Ham
by Dr. Seuss

Tom has finally made his peace with this book, but it took a while.  He used to enjoy having it read to him right up to the point where our hero is finally forced, by ‘Sam I Am’, to try the titular dish.  Then Tom would grab the book and throw it across the room.  He had heard what happened after that, and didn’t like the message the book was trying to impart.  So, for Tom, this was for a while the tale of a proud individualist who even having been forced into a train wreck by a pseudonymous terrorist, possibly working for Big Ham, then lost at sea, would still not give in and submit to the ham agenda.  

As someone who finds that part of ‘Cars’ where Lightning McQueen is forced to stay in a small town and learn about values to be a paranoid nightmare in the tradition of 'The Prisoner’, I must say I rather supported Tom’s stance.  However, it’s probably for the best that he’s now started to let us read the book to the end.  Like Winston Smith in '1984’, he now loves 'Green Eggs and Ham’.

What their return to health will look like: As the INTJ returns to health, they will shift their focus away from petty details and regain their big-picture mindset. They will develop an increased concentration on goals and long-term projects, which will bring them steadily closer to what they want out of the future. A healthy INTJ is an INTJ who can synthesize and carry out long-term projects – in as efficient a manner as possible.

No, in common with my father, my friends and people I know professionally, the desperate desire to find something to say and not sound like an idiot just makes you do jokes all the time. Jokes are a nervous reflex. Sometimes you can end up being irritating or seeming facetious or like you’re showing off, and all you’re trying to do is justify the fact that you spoke at all. I’ve come to understand that charm isn’t being funny. Charm is finding other people funny.

There’s this book club phenomenon — my mother-in-law is in a book club and now my wife is in a book club — and so I’ve heard any number of people say they get the “gist” of books. They haven’t read the book. They say, “I read enough to get the gist.” Just, no. Don’t. I can’t engage in that conversation. You don’t get the gist of Jane Austen. You either read Jane Austen or you don’t.