My Day: Primo Levi after Auschwitz

Primo Levi, as many know, was an Italian-Jewish chemist and, following his year in Auschwitz, writer.  He was liberated from Auschwitz because, when the Germans abandoned the camp leading the remaining prisoners on what became a death march, Levi and a few others were in the camp hospital (Levi had scarlet fever) and the Germans either forgot about them or purposely abandoned them.

Levi returned to Italy, where he lived until his mysterious death in 1987, when he either committed suicide by jumping into his apartment building stairwell, or he accidentally fell down the stairwell.

Over the last two days, I have read a short book by Levi titled “Moments of Reprieve: A Memoir of Auschwitz”.  This is not his main writing about his time in the concentration camp, but constitutes a series of vignettes – the type you would find in the Metropolitan Diary of the New York Times.  Stories of people he met in Auschwitz who showed a little humanity.  Written 30 or 40 years later. I can’t say that it’s an uplifting book, but it is a humanizing book, and one that avoids the worst of what was happening at the time.  And very well written.



My Day: Chengcheng Yao at Epiphany

Every Tuesday, The Church of the Epiphany in downtown DC hosts a free (or, better, a free will) classical music lunchtime concert. I like to attend whenever I can, but must admit that I have been unable to fit it in my schedule for the past several months.  Finally, yesterday, I was able to come to the concert and see Chinese (Chinese-American) pianist Chengcheng Yao play Czerny (of all people) and Schubert.

The Czerny was a set of variations on a theme by Pierre Rode.  I was totally unfamiliar with it, but it has a very alluring theme, and Yao’s interpretation of it was very enjoyable. The Schubert was the well known Sonata Number 21 in B flat major, a lengthy and repetitive piece with a number of very memorable themes, and a piece that I know fairly well (by my standards).  Yao’s interpretation was well modulated and easy to listen to, intensifying as appropriate.  The standing ovation brought her back for two appreciative bows (but no encores).

I have listened to a few pieces played by Yao on You Tube.  One that I did not listen to is the Schubert sonata that she played.  You may want to try it.

And by the way…….can there be a better name that Chengcheng??

My Day: More on Stacy Keach

I recently came across a copy of actor Stacy Keach’s 2013 memoir, “All in All: An Actor’s Life On and Off the Stage”.  Because I had just seen Keach in his one man Hemingway show, “Pamplona”, at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, I thought the book would be worth reading through.

A few impressions:

First, although I knew that Keach has been acting for a long time, I had no idea how much he has done.  The amount of work, the breadth of that work……mind boggling.

Second, putting aside my amazement as to the scope of his work, I can’t say that I enjoyed reading the book.  Perhaps because Keach has done so much, the book tends to read:  “I did this, and then I did that, and then I did this other thing, and then I reprised this, and then I did a lot of other things”.  Got a bit tedious to read, although my admiration increased page by page.

Third, I was unaware that Keach, who spent some years taking a lot of cocaine, was arrested in 1984 at Heathrow importing cocaine into the UK hidden in a shaving cream tin, convicted, and spent six months in prison, stopping his career for a time.

Fourth, I did not know that Keach has been married four times (and I don’t care), and it seems that he really paid no attention to his first three wives, either when he was married to them or after.  His fourth marriage has been a long one.

Fifth, that Keach has been successful in classical theater, contemporary theater, TV and film.  That he has been in almost 200 films – of every quality, and most genres.  And that he is best known for playing Mike Hammer on CBS (I didn’t even know that he ever played this role, and have no memory of the show).

Sixth, that Keach really does think a lot of himself – even when he discussing the stumbles in his career, and that he thinks he has been underappreciated and that he has not received his share of acting awards.  His book is filled with excerpts of reviews of his work – all laudatory.

While I didn’t think the book was necessarily fun, it is a good reference work, listing so many things that Keach has done during his remarkable career, with some plot and other details of various films and plays, and a lot of his impressions of the many, many well known actors, directors and others with whom he has worked.  On this basis, I do recommend it.

My Day: Benjamin Franklin (the Musical?)

Alexander Hamilton was killed when he was in his late 40s, and his life was full enough to inspire what may be the most beloved Broadway musical of all times.  Benjamin Franklin lived to be 84, had a life immensely more full than Hamilton’s, and (although he was a character in “1776”) has not yet been the subject of a hit musical.  But, because this seems to be the best way to teach American history these days, I certainly hope that the musical will appear and succeed.

But I still try to get my information from books, and I just finished reading “The First American: the Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin” by H.W. Brands, a 716 (but who’s counting?) page biography of Franklin and insight into many of those with whom he came into contact.

Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, began his career in Philadelphia after running away from his brother to whom he was indentured, and several times spent extended periods in London and in Paris.  His career was that of printer (from which he retired from active participation in his early 40s), and a lot of what he printed was his own work, and his own work (both under his own name and under a number of pseudonyms, including of course Poor Richard’s Almanac and a number of political works), made him famous.  But he also, at the same time, was an amateur scientist and inventor – he was a pioneer in the study of the practical uses of electricity, he explained lighting and thunder, he discussed the use of the Gulf Stream for navigational purposes, he invented the “Franklin stove”, a musical instrument – the armonica, and bifocals.  He was a civic leader – he started a volunteer fire department, a library (which became the Philadelphia public library), discussion groups (one of which became the American Philosophical Society) , an institute of higher education (which became the University of Pennsylvania).  And he became a statesman, and one whose stances changed over time – for example, he was one of the first to understand that the various colonies should band together, although until quite late in his life, he felt that the organized colonies would remain under the sovereignty of the British monarch.  For another, after helping organize battles against Indians, he became a supporter of treating the Indians much more civilly.  And for a third, going from an enemy of the French, to a friend.

One of the ongoing questions was the relationship of Parliament to the colonies (“no taxation without representation”, remember?).  Should the colonies vote for members of Parliament and therefore be subject to Parliament?  Or should they have their own independent Parliament, subject only to the monarchy to the same extent as the Parliament in London?  And, for Franklin, this question was even more pressing, as Pennsylvania was a unique colony, subject not only to the British Parliament, but to the Penn family – to what extent should the Penn family have veto power over the Pennsylvania legislature’s actions.  For example – when it came to financing wars (aggressive or defensive) against the French and the Indians, or against the British – should the lands of the Penn family be subject to the taxation authority of the legislature?

As an agent of the Pennsylvania legislature, arguing against the propriety rights of the Penn family, Franklin spent over 15 years living in England, developing ties to Britain seemingly as strong or stronger than he had in Pennsylvania.  He was disillusioned with English attitudes towards the colonies (the English, for their part, didn’t understand how the colonists could possibly feel as they proclaimed they did), however, and by British corruption, when he moved back to America, and joined the forces in Philadelphia writing a constitution for a newly declared Republic.  Ready to retire, he was pressed into more service, this time as American Ambassador to France, where he task was to get French support for the American war effort and for the new country, and where again, he spent several years.  His European years were controversial, to be sure, as there were those who felt he was too close to the English, or too close to the French, and although he was widely respected at home, he did have his political enemies.

While he was such an extraordinary man of the world, his relationship with his family was much less successful.  Although he remained married for over 40 years, he was away from his wife more than with her, and he became estranged from his son, who as British appointed governor of New Jersey remained a loyalist and moved to London after American independence was secured.

What a remarkable man Ben Franklin was.  Can’t wait for the musical.

My Day: “The Road of Innocence” by Somaly Mam

I purchased and read this book today – the heartbreaking story of a young Cambodian orphan, raped at 12 to satisfy a debt to her family and forced into prosecution, Mam describes the unbelievably horrid conditions of prostitution and sex slavery in her native country.  How is she able to do this?  Because a French NGO worker, who frequented the brothel where she was imprisoned, fell in loved with her, took her from the brothel, married her, brought her to France and then back to Cambodia and with her set up a series of safe houses for young sex slavery victims, providing them medical care as well as some vocational training and basic education, largely based on her courage and hard work.  For this work, Mam won all sorts of international awards and raised a lot of hard to find funds.

Well……the only problem is that, while the actions of her foundation may have been praiseworthy, her life story, and many of the stories of others she describes in her book, seem to be false.  Fiction, to make the story more compelling, to help the raising of funds for her organization.

And……she almost succeeded until she didn’t, when Newsweek came out with a major expose, outlining several untruths contained in the book, and her foundation had to hire  a law firm, which conducted an expensive and extensive investigation (never released to the public), which in turn led to her resignation from her foundation, and the subsequent closing of the foundation.

How much of the book is true, or tru-ish, and how much totally made up, I don’t know.  I could not find a summary.  So, I don’t know how to take the book.  I certainly know that sex slavery is a major problem in southeast Asia, including Cambodia, and that horrible stories of young victims exist in great numbers, but with regard to the facts and tone of “The Road of Lost Innocence”, I can’t say.  Mam has admitted the false story line, as I understand it, saying that she did it to help her important fund raising.  Perhaps….and, I guess, perhaps not.  At any rate, it obviously only worked to a point.  And then abruptly stopped.

But the whole story isn’t falsified, and gist of the story is true, and the book is compelling.

What a mystery……

My Day: Aaron Sorkin’s “Newsroom”

Where to start?  “Newsroom” was produced over a three year period on HBO.  The years were 2012-2014.  While I am not entirely sure of the behind-the-scenes conversations, it appears that it was Sorkin’s decision not to go beyond the third season, not the network’s.  I did not watch this show when it was being shown on HBO, but have now watched the first three (of, I think, twenty five) episodes, and found them enthralling.  I think I would have enjoyed these episodes in 2012, but in 2018 I can appreciate them even more.  And perhaps everyone should be watching them now.

OK, the premise.  It’s a newsroom at a large corporate-owned network, and their prime time anchor has been having some problems.  The head of the news department hires a new executive producer to work with the anchor to clean up his act.  She does.

Now an aside:  for two years, the anchor and the executive producer were boyfriend-girlfriend, and they broke up several years before at least in part because of the producer’s infidelity.  The break up is probably the cause of a lot of the difficulties the anchor has been happening and, as a result of the breakup, the producer had left the country and acted as a combat journalist in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Putting them together may have been a good idea in the abstract, but – at least from the anchor’s perspective – it was hell on earth.

So we have two things going on in this show.  We have the attempt to make the network’s prime time news show great again, and we have the backstory drama in the newsroom (which involves not only these two characters, but many others, each of whom seems to be involved in doomed, but comic, romantic entanglements).  The backstory is typical of many TV series, I would guess, but raised to an acceptable level by the talent of Aaron Sorkin – his intricate plot turns and his fast and impeccable, often funny, dialogue (so fast, by the way, that I don’t see how you can enjoy this show fully unless you push the closed captain button and read what you could never otherwise process quickly enough).

The restructuring of the delivery of the news is a different story – and this is where “Newsroom” becomes so important.  The anchor, played by Jeff Daniels, is a conservative Republican who is aghast at the capture of the Republican Party by people on the far right and, perhaps even more important, who are pure and simple liars.  The premise of the restructure is that the show will tell people the news through the use of the truth, and will, as appropriate, call out those politicians, journalists, media stars and others who are lying to the American people, and keep them off the air.

The unique way Sorkin decided to tell this story was to use real news events, not fictional events – so the first episode involves the enormous BP oil rig leak in the Gulf of Mexico, and the third episode ends with the shooting of Representative Gaby Giffords. The year 2012 saw the end of the first term of Barack Obama and the last two years of the show presumably will deal with events of Obama’s second term.

During this period of time, there was a lot of fake news being spit out by right wing media, and I think the majority of viewers found it disgusting.  But most of us did not think it would reach the intensity that it did – involving Russian and other foreign participants, helping elect Donald Trump president, and encouraging Trump, his cabinet  and his press corps to lie on a regular basis to the American people (and perhaps to themselves) and apparently forcing news purveyors to take sides.

Aaron Sorkin’s anchor is not going to take sides.  He is going to play it straight.  Are there, in fact, any real life TV journalists who play it straight?  I think there are, although they don’t make a big point of it the way Daniels does on “Newsroom” and no one has the courage to keep the liars off the airwaves. In addition, none (or very few) of these straight journalists seem to be conservative, or supporters of either the Trump administration or the Republican Party, many of whom (and you know who they are) seem simply to promote the lies and the liars.

“Newsroom” was not without controversy.  Many TV journalists complained that it does not accurately reflect the operation of a newsroom (I can’t have an opinion this, although from my perspective, it does not seem important).  Many critics believe the female characters all come across as ditzy (I agree with that one).  Some say that it is only a way for Aaron Sorkin can support his own political positions on the air (I have not seen this yet, although I guess this would seem true to anyone who either supports the agenda of the far right wing, or does not believe that the Republicans generally (and the president’s team, specifically) lie to the American people on a regular basis.

Perhaps (I know, I am too optimistic) some right wingers, if they watched this show now, would understand what it going on .  Perhaps some Americans who haven’t thought that it makes much difference whether truth is told or not would change their minds and recognize the dangers, if they watched the show now.

At any event, those who can get “Newsroom” on HBO On Demand in 2018, should watch it.  Important lessons will be learned.

My Day: Stacy Keach in “Pamplona”

When in Chicago, we saw veteran actor Stacy Keach in a one man show “Pamplona” at the Goodman Theatre.  We bought tickets the afternoon of the show, had a wonderful pre-show supper at Petterino, next door on Dearborn St., and settled into our first row balcony seats.

Ernest Hemingway is 60 years old, writing the story of a famous matador for a Life Magazine story.  He is in a hotel room in Pamplona (where the bulls run through the streets once a year), by himself (his wife having flown back to the States), with writer’s block.  He instructs the hotel clerk not to let him have any alcohol, even if he insists he wants it, and when the man in the next room complains that he is playing his phonograph too loud, he becomes infuriated and decides to torment his neighbor (who might be the FBI, may J. Edgar Hoover himself, who knows?) even more.

He’s having a rough time.  He never remembers having writer’s block before.  And he thinks back on his life, and he tells you about it.  Growing up, the U.S. army, the Spanish Civil War, his first love, his first two wives, F. Scott Fitzgerald (whom he adored) and Zelda (whom he didn’t).  He talks about his travels.  And he talks about his books – one by one, he tells you what they were about, how he came to write them, and how much was fact, or based on fact, and how much was fiction.  And it maddened him that people (i.e., people who were his friends and the basis of his characters) couldn’t seem to tell the difference.

Not only an enjoyable performance (Keach is so likeable, and though I don’t know that he fully channeled Hemingway,…..who cares?), but a good history/literature lesson.  So glad we did it.

My Day: “Be a Good Little Widow”

We attended the final performance of Bekah Brunstetter’s “Be a Good Little Widow”, performed at the River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, and produced by a company we knew nothing about, appropriately called the Unexpected Stage Company.  We saw that the production had been well reviewed, but went largely because we knew one of the cast members, Ruthie Rado, the daughter of old friends.  I thought the play, and the production, to be first class.

A young woman from Colorado, just out of college, not quite mature, having no idea what to do with her life, marries a young corporate lawyer, and moves with him to his home state of Connecticut, far from her close family.  They buy a small house.  He is always working, often out of town, and she is sort of lost.  His widowed mother, on the other hand, who lives not far away, is not lost at all – she is totally put together, and doesn’t understand why everyone else isn’t.  Her relationship to her new daughter-in-law may be funny to the outsider (the play is very clever), but hurtful to her son’s young wife.  Her husband doesn’t quite understand why they aren’t getting along, and is confident their relationship will improve.

He goes to Chicago on a business trip, and never returns.  His flight home crashes; all are killed.  His wife is dumbstruck.  What now?

The next step is the funeral.  She has never attended a funeral, much less prepared for one. Luckily (no), her mother in law has all the answers – how to dress, who should present the eulogy, which church they should use, what music should be heard, what food should be served.  Every suggestion the daughter-in-law makes is disregarded.

Her parents are in Colorado, hopeful to make it to Connecticut in time for the funeral, but seemingly out of general contact.  The only person she can talk to is her dead husband’s paralegal, also in mourning for his boss, with whom she seems to get along a little too well.

This is a sad and funny one act (90 minute) play that makes you think about a lot of things.  Towards the end, the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law pretty much reconcile, the paralegal is (temporarily?) out of the picture, and life will go on. With a cloud of sadness.

Ruthie and the other three cast members were terrifically believable, Ruthie showing rapidly changing emotions, especially in the few small flashback episodes.  The set and audio, complicated in a small space that probably sat about 40 and was not meant to be used for theatrical productions, were admirable; they made good use of the space, including a long stair case heading to a loft at the side, and the two aisles.

I’m sorry that we saw the last (sold out) performance, so that I can’t encourage you to go see it.  But perhaps the play (and certainly Ruthie) will return to the stage soon.

My Day: Two Weeks on the Road – What I Ate (Mini-restaurant reviews)

The blog has been quiet, because we took a road trip, mainly to see family and friends – Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Ontario, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Illinois (again), Indiana (again), Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, home to DC.  Two weeks – 14 lunches, 14 dinners.  Some get two thumbs up (you should eat there); some one thumb (maybe next time would be better); some no thumbs (eat elsewhere). Here goes:

July 16

Lunch:  Gio’s BBQ, Woodland PA.  I am not positive that Woodland PA actually exists.  Gio’s seemed to appear at a crossroads of a number of highways (including one divided highway), offering food and gas.  Four stars on Yelp and TripAdvisor, four and one half on Facebook and Zomato.  Fairly large, no tablecloths, rustic just put-together feeling, you can buy T-shirts and jars of their BBQ sauce.  I chose a brisket sandwich and french fries. The brisket was cooked perfectly with a very tasty sauce (don’t know if it was the award winning BBQ sauce or not), on a very fresh bun.  French fries were more than acceptable.  With my wife’s grilled cheese and coleslaw (also good), and two drinks, our entire bill was $15.57.  Worth a trip to Woodland (if it exists).  Two thumbs up.

Dinner:  Niagara’s Finest Thai Restaurant (yes, that’s its name), Niagara on the Lake, Ontario. There were ten of us and, at someone’s suggestion based on something, we decided to try to eat at this restaurant.  But on the phone, we were told that nothing would be available until about 8:30.  Our innkeeper said “Let me try Open Table”.  He did, and got us reservations immediately (it was about 7 p.m.) and when we got there, we found a table for 10 set for us, and the rest of the place about half empty.  Weird, we thought.  It’s a new and somewhat pretentiously designed restaurant, part of a group of restaurants in Niagara, at least one of which we had eaten at on a previous trip.  The menu was typical of a Thai restaurant, and I ordered a chicken and baby eggplant dish, while my wife asked for vegetable pad thai, without any tofu or soy products.

Well, the pad thai arrived with tofu (small pieces, only detected mid-meal), and we sent it back, but didn’t ask for a replacement (they did not charge for it), and my meal had very little chicken, very many baby eggplants, and much, much, much too much sauce, which was quite salty.  All in all, perhaps not Niagara’s Finest.  4.5 on TripAdvisor and Facebook, but only 3.5 on Yelp.  No thumbs. Go elsewhere.

July 17:

Lunch:  In Niagara for a few days.  After a morning shopping with three others, we stopped into a Greek restaurant called Orzo, mainly because we saw a nice outdoor table for four.  I ordered the P.E.I mussels in garlic sauce off the appetizer menu, suspecting (I was right) that, with bread, this would be enough for a lunch.  The muscles and the garlic sauce (with chunks of garlic) were perfect.  I can’t speak for the others; don’t remember (or didn’t pay attention to) what they ordered. Absolutely two thumbs up on this one.  4 on TripAdvisor and Yelp; 4.5 on Facebook.

Dinner:  This was the big splurge for our group of ten.  We had eaten at Treadwell two years ago – everything was perfect.  This time, everything was confused, although the food tasted good.  For some reason, when one of our companions made the arrangements, they said that for a table of ten, the regular menu could not be used, but we had a special three course menu (appetizer, main, dessert) which could not be changed.  So be it, and most of us had more courses, at a very, very expensive price, than we would have ordered separately.  I had a delicious cauliflower and scallop appetizer, trout served on a mixture of quinoa and peas, and a blueberry tart.  No problem with the food – it was great.  But the lack of choice?  Not so good.  So, I give it two thumbs for the taste, and only 1 for the overall experience.  And, I repeat, it was pricey.  Very pricey. 4.5 on TripAdvisor and Yelp; 4 on Facebook.

July 18:

Lunch:  The Butterfly Cafe at the Botanical Garden on the Niagara Peninsula.  We had a very nice time at the Garden, skipping the butterfly conservancy as not worth the price, and stopped at the very informal cafe (you order at the counter, pick up down the counter, and find a table inside or out) for a quick lunch.  I ordered a chicken burger and an orange juice.  After a wait of about three years, our food was ready.  OK, a bit of an exaggeration.  Two and a half years, perhaps.  The chicken burger (I did not know what to expect) turned out to be a simple, naked chicken breast on a bun.  Pretty tasteless and very boring.  No thumbs here.  East elsewhere (especially if you are in a hurry).  3 on TripAdvisor.

Dinner:  Fornos in Niagara.  Another Greek restaurant, this one chosen in the early evening as we walked by (there were here six of us) on our way to an 8 o’clock theater curtain.  We saw an empty table, and we occupied it.  We knew nothing about the restaurant.  I had the moussaka – very attractively tiered, made with ground beef.  Comfort food, and the first moussaka I have had in a long time.  Paired with a nice glass of shiraz.  Two thumbs here. 4 on TripAdvisor and Zomato.  I’d eat here again. No question.

July 19:

Lunch: This was a very unsuccessful meal at Cork in Niagara.  We couldn’t get an outdoor table, and decided to go inside (I think there were six of us), which was a mistake, because it’s a very unappealing and dark restaurant.  Beyond that, when I tasted the fish and chips (advertised as cod), I was very disappointed.  The fish was (I am sure) frozen, and was not (I would guess) cod.  The “chips” were not worth eating.  No thumbs.  Stay away. TripAdvisor 4, but Yelp and Zomato 3.

Dinner:  Garrison House.  Recommended by our innkeeper, and located a few miles from the center of town (a drive, not a walk), it’s a restaurant we would never have discovered on our own.  It takes no reservations, and when twelve of us got there, we were told that the wait would be very long.  Eight of the twelve opted to go back to town, and four of us stayed.  Lucky us.  A friendly, attractive, efficient and delicious place.  I had roast half chicken, which was perfectly (really) seasoned, served with potatoes and mushrooms.  We shared a toffee pudding for dessert – I know I liked it, if only I could remember what it was. 4.5 on TripAdvisor and Yelp.  Two thumbs from me.  Definitely would return.

July 20.

Lunch:  This morning, we left Niagara on the Lake, heading west to Windsor and then Detroit.  While still in the general Niagara area, we passed through the small town of Grimsby, when it was time for lunch.  There was a parking space in front of an old house, the Casa Toscana, with a large outdoor cafe in front.  It was too warm to sit in the sun, so we went inside and found ourselves in a very unique establishment.  There were only three tables inside, and we learned that the restaurant had only been opened about a month and that a larger seating capacity would follow the completion of the renovation of the adjoining building (work was ongoing).  The owner is an Italian man who came to Canada to work at a vineyard, but soon left to form a business importing food from Italy.  He has had a food shop for about eight years, and decided to expand it into a restaurant when this building became available.  In addition to serving lunch and dinner, there were for sale various cheeses and deli meats from Italy, many types of olive oil (which you get in refillable bottles), pastas homemade with Italian wheat, and so forth.

For lunch, I ordered a seafood salad and my wife a delicious rigatoni with zucchini, all served with the freshest Italian hard crust bread as possible.  One of the best meals ever?  Certainly the most surprisingly good. Two thumbs (at least).  5 stars on Facebook, and 4 on TripAdvisor (only 10 reviews).  Not cheap.

Dinner:  Dinner was in Dearborn Michigan at Ollie’s, which appears to be a neighborhood Mediterranean (i.e., Lebanese) restaurant in a small shopping center.  It was chosen by my Detroit cousin.  Well, you wouldn’t choose this place for the ambience.  It’s large, and it’s plain.  I had cut-up swordfish and vegetables.  I give the meal two different scores – the swordfish was not very good, but the vegetables (in some sort of a spicy sauce) were delicious.  My wife had a mixed appetizer place – good, I think, but typical.  The portions were very large.  I’d give Ollie’s (did he used to be Ali?) one thumb.  If someone wanted me to come back there again, I guess I would, but I wouldn’t search it out again.  It does get a consistent 4 stars, but within that consistency are the most inconsistent reviews I have ever seen, from 5s to 1s.

July 21

Lunch:  Lunch was at one of the small restaurants inside of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn — Lamy’s Diner. I had a tuna salad sandwich and a cream soda.  For what it was, it was just fine.  So….for what it was, I give it 2 thumbs.  If I had been there for a fancy dinner, the thumbs would be different.  TripAdvisor gives it 4 stars, and says it’s the 14th best restaurant in Dearborn (out of 298).  On the other hand, Ollie’s (see July 20) is the third best Lebanese restaurant in Dearborn out of 44.

Dinner:  We had dinner that night in mid-town Detroit at a rather new restaurant in a gentrifying part of the city.  The restaurant was The Block.  A rather odd restaurant with a rather odd menu, it was fine.  I had chicken, potatoes and broccoli.  I guess I’d give it one thumb, although a high one thumb.  Rather go back there, than Ollie’s, I think.  On various social media, it’s a 4.

July 22

Lunch:  This was Sunday and we were back on the road.  Our lunch stop was Meli’s Pancake Cafe in Portage Michigan, and although I thought I was going to get pancakes, instead I ordered a vegetable omelet with cheddar cheese, and grits (grits in Michigan?).  The place was very crowded when we arrived – perhaps an after-church crowd.  Hard to tell.  I thought food was excellent, and give it two thumbs.  Facebook and TripAdvisor rate it 4.5; most others 4.

Dinner was at a friend’s apartment in Chicago.  Carryout Japanese sushi and seaweed salad.  Fancy sushi (I don’t generally care for fancy sushi) from a place called, I think, Kamehacki.  It gets a 4 from most services.  I’d give it one thumb, based on the carryout experience.

July 23

Lunch:  In Chicago, before meetings cousins at the Art Institute, we stumbled upon a restaurant that has been around since 1898, Berghoff, a old style German restaurant.  Had it been dinner, I probably would have tried one of the many German dishes, but it was only lunch, so I had a cajan chicken salad – not too spicy and served on very good greens.  My wife had salmon nicoise.  Two thumbs on this one.  Nice atmosphere – probably looked pretty similar back in 1898.  Only 3.5 on Yelp; 4 on TripAdvisor.

Dinner:  Across from the Art Institute, at 7 Lions, right on Michigan Avenue.  Very big, not very crowded, looked like it should be better than I think it was.  I ordered the cavatelli with pesto, and salmon.  In the first place, ordering the salmon (which was good, but not great) was a mistake, because it added $8 to the dinner and I didn’t need it – only ate a few bites.  The cavatelli was cooked well and the pesto was tasty, but there was so much pesto sauce, and it was so creamy, that the cavatelli was drowned.  If they had put half as much sauce on the pasta, and it I hadn’t ordered the salmon, I would probably have given it two thumbs, but as it is, it has to be satisfied with 1.  Social media give it 4.

July 24

Breakfast:  OK, I am talking about breakfast for the first time, because this is the first breakfast of note (most were freebies at our motels).  With friends we went to Maison Marcel on Broadway, a French coffee shop.  All I had was an almond croissant and coffee, but it was very good, and I looked at some of the larger breakfast plates and they looked very elegant.  Two thumbs here.  Ratings go from 3.5 to 5.

Lunch:  Carryout from Si Pizza (Si-Pie?) on Broadway.  Just brought back a mushroom pizza to the apartment from a small, carry-out establishment.  It was fine.  I’d give it one thumb.  Maybe even one and a half.  It gets 4 stars from all.

Dinner:  Another one we stumbled on – Petterino’s, next to the Goodman Theatre on Dearborn Street.  I had the whitefish; my wife the trout.  Excellent, and very efficient. It’s a fancy restaurant, like 7 Lions, but better. Two thumbs.  Rankings: 4 to 4.5 stars.

July 25

Lunch:  We drove north from Chicago, and didn’t know where to stop.  We wound up in Huntley, Illinois (this is a real place?) and stopped at Culver’s, which we did not realize at the time was a large chain.  Not bad – a larger menu than most, and they do bring the food to your table.  I had a Reuben sandwich (real corned beef) and coleslaw.  My wife – fried fish sandwich and a salad.  Pretty good for what it was.  I’d stop again.  But only 1 thumb.

Dinner:  In LaCrosse WI with relatives, we ate at The Mint, a small restaurant in a primarily residential area.  My expectations should have been higher, because it was excellent.  I had salmon baked with sesame seeds and peppercorns that was perfect.  The sides (Israeli couscous and squash) were not things that I normally eat, and I pretty much let them sit there.  But those who ate them said they were excellent.  And I will assume they were. Definitely 2 thumbs and a place to return to.  And what does social media say:  5 stars (with one 4.5).  Hmmm.  This is the highest ranking of all.

July 26

Lunch:  Outside of LaCrosse, we were in Viroqua, WI, an interesting little town, with antique stores and the like, and a small cafe called the Driftless Cafe.  A place where everyone in this hippie-like town seems to gather for lunch.  I went outside my usual world, and ordered the home made bratwurst and sauerkraut, and it was quite tasty.  The coffee (Kickapoo coffee – from another cafe in town) was excellent.  2 thumbs here. And guess what? Another 4.5 to 5 on social media.  Wisconsin seems to have the best food of the trip.  Or the most generous raters.

Dinner:  Pizza on the roof of the Hotel Charmont in LaCrosse, sort of overlooking the Mississippi.  A trendy outdoor spot with people 40 to 50 years younger than we are.  We had a pizza with mushrooms and teleggio cheese (a semi-soft cheese) it turns out.  The cheese made the pizza very cheesy, but the taste was good.  I’ll give it two thumbs, in part for the location.,  (I should also say that we tried fried cheese curds from the hotel’s downstairs bar and…..I can do without them, thank you.)  Social media on the roof?  4 to 4.5.

July 27

Lunch:  On the road, heading south through Wisconsin, in the nondescript town of Fennimore (or so it seemed to me), had lunch at Timothy’s (the home of the bottomless glass of milk, believe it or not).  I had scrambled mess (hold the ham), with scrambled eggs, potatoes, green peppers, cheddar, onions and mushrooms).  If I had ordered anything else, my vote might be different, but I give it 2 thumbs.  But three social media sites give it 5 stars, and the other two which I looked at give it 4, so maybe almost everything is as good as the scrambled mess.

Dinner:  Now we are in Champaign, Illinois, and we decided to try Maize, a well rated Mexican restaurant.  Maize has two locations.  We went to the first, which turned out to be carryout and counter only, and then the second, in an old building next to the Amtrak station.  It’s fairly large, and primarily seems to operate on a Mexican tapas basis.  We each had a weak margarita, and I had two tacos (one chicken, one beef) and rice and beans.  Nothing to write home about, I am afraid, but it gets a sold 4.5 on the various rating websites, so I must have ordered wrong.  My wife got squash blossom enchiladas, a better choice, it appears.  I will give it one thumb, albeit a little reluctantly.

July 27

Lunch:  Lunch was brunch in Indianapolis with more relatives at First Walk, in a shopping center on 86th street, on the north side of town.  Very busy place on a Saturday morning, and my salmon and vegetable omelet and potatoes was as good as they get.  Definitely 2 thumbs.  Social media?  A solid 4.

Dinner:  Now we were in Wheeling WV, on our way home, and had to settle for a Texas Roadhouse near our hotel.  Well, we thought we were just settling but in fact, it was quite good.  I had fried chicken, my wife had salmon Caesar salad, our margaritas had more alcohol than in Champaign and we left happy, having watched three people get a Yee-Haw from the crowd because it was their birthday.  OK – 2 thumbs for the Roadhouse.  And TripAdvisor gives it a 5.  And, yes, it is big, and was very crowded.

July 28

Lunch:  Our last meal and our worst.  We got off Highway 68 in Clear Spring Maryland (who knew it existed?  pretty neat little town), and went to the Windy Hill restaurant.  I couldn’t eat the tuna salad (or couldn’t eat more than half of it), and my whole wheat toast wasn’t whole wheat, and what else?  Nothing to be said.  No thumbs here.

My Day: Peter Selgin’s “The Inventors”

Sometimes you read a book for no good reason.  You pick it off the shelf and open it up.Sometimes you read a book that seems to have little connection to you, that does not deal with any subject that you are interested in.  You just like the way the book looks, or feels.  And sometimes you are helped by a blurb on the cover (yes, of course, I know that blurbs often highlight fake news).  Here the blurb was by Oliver Sacks, who praised the writing ability of the author.  You pay no attention to the fact that you have never heard of the writer or, for that matter, of the publisher, Hawthorne Books and Literary Arts, of Portland Oregon.

The book is a beautifully written memoir, that just carried me along, even though nothing extraordinary happens.  The author, who now teaches at a university in Georgia, grew up in Connecticut.  His mother was his father’s third wife – she was a beautiful Italian woman who never quite learned English and probably would have done better if she had never met her much older husband.  The author was a twin, a rather rare twin who didn’t (and still doesn’t seem to) get along with his twin brother.  His father was a fascinating, if somewhat irascible guy, an inventor, who formerly worked for the Bureau of Standards but was born in Italy and spoke a bevy of European languages fluently, and wrote books (mainly unpublished) on a variety of subjects.  But it turned out that there was something about this Roman Catholic atheist father that Selgin only found out about at his father’s funeral – he was born Jewish, and was a descendant of two prominent Italian Jewish families.  Who knew?

Selgin seems to have been a fairly ordinary kid (that’s good), who had a series of epiphanies in the eighth grade, when he met a new teacher, probably no more than 10 or 12 years his senior, and became the proverbial teacher’s pet.  Well, maybe not proverbial, because this was not a case of a teacher simply favoring one particular student, but of a teacher who seemed to want to spend all of his time with this student, almost every day, after school at his rented house, where they would discuss all sorts of intellectual things, and drink tea. (And, I think, did nothing else.)  But it turns out that the teacher, who disappeared after a year or so and went traveling, was also not what he pretended to be.  He was not a Rhodes Scholar, as he said he was, but a community college graduate.  But his influence on Selgin’s life was a profound as a Rhodes Scholar’s would have been.

So both of these men, his biggest influences, had lied about their pasts and reinvented themselves.  And Selgin needed to reinvent himself, too.  His brother had a straight academic experience, but Selgin needed to figure out who he was, including hitchhiking to Oregon to find his former teacher and to learn that you cannot recapture the past.  And he became a commercial artist, and a writer, and a teacher, and he married and divorced, and he had a daughter whom he doesn’t see often enough.  Most of this is pretty ordinary, or at least not earth shattering, but Selgin’s way of expressing himself is not ordinary at all, and it is this talent that makes all the difference.