Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

You may have seen on the news recently that Kim Jong-un was named the Party Chairman of North Korea's Workers' Party. There were clips of military personnel goose stepping in a celebratory march and citizens proclaiming their undying support for their leader. Kim Jong-un took the occasion to applaud the success of North Korea's fourth underground nuclear test in January. (The United Nations responded to the test with tighter sanctions against the country.) 

Why, you might wonder, am I mentioning this? I'm not a person who talks--or thinks--much about world politics. Historically, while I knew North Korea was on the "bad" list, I had no concept of what life is like for its citizens or how truly frightening a concept it is for North Korea to have nuclear capabilities. That changed when I read Adam Johnson's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Orphan Master's Son," which has a ripped from the headlines quality to it.

 We meet Jun Do, the novel's protagonist, at Long Tomorrows orphanage for boys. His father is the Orphan Master there. The facility is quite full, as parents drop their sons off on their way to the 9-27 (prison/concentration) camps that house political dissidents. (Yodok is the largest of these camps and plays a role in the book.)  Jun Do's mother is long gone; he has seen her only in a single picture treasured by his father. He assumes that she, like all beautiful women from the provinces, was shipped to the capital of Pyongyang to be married off to a favored party official.

As the oldest child at the orphanage, Jun Do "had responsibilities--portioning the food, assigning bunks, renaming the boys from the list of the 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution. Even so, the Orphan Master was serious about showing no favoritism to his son...When the rabbit warren was dirty, it was Jun Do who spent the night locked in it. When boys wet their bunks, it was Jun Do who chipped the frozen piss off the floor...  The surest evidence that the woman in the photo was Jun Do's mother was the unrelenting way the Orphan Master singled him out for punishment. It could only mean that in Jun Do's face, the Orphan Master saw the woman in the picture, a daily reminder of the eternal hurt he felt from losing her. Only a father in that kind of pain could take a boy's shoes in winter. Only a true father, flesh and bone, could burn a son with the smoking end of a coal shovel."  

Adam Johnson catapults the reader into this world in the first three paragraphs of the book. Needless to say, this is a story that's not always easy to read. But it is always compelling and sadly educational. (I found myself doing a lot of googling to find out whether certain aspects were fiction or fact. Take for instance, the North Korean calendar, which as of 1997 is based in Juche rather than Gregorian years. Kim II-sung, Kim Jong-un's grandfather, was born in 1912, which is Juche year 1. The current year is Juche 105, which is sometimes modified with 2016 in parentheses. It's a simple example of the ways in which North Korea's totalitarian regime elevates its leaders and dictates all aspects of its citizens' lives.)

Part I of the book is titled "The Biography of Jun Do." Jun Do has no choice but to do what the government instructs him. He becomes a kidnapper, venturing into Japan to take whomever the state has targeted.  His superior, who has lost count of how many people he's kidnapped, tells him it gets easier. "Catch somebody with your hands, then let them go with your mind. Do the opposite of keeping count."

Jun Do goes to language school. He goes through pain training. He becomes a spy. In a pivotal segment of the book, he goes to Texas with a North Korean contingent. On the trip over, a colleague explains the difference between North Korea and the United States."Where we are from," Dr. Song tells him, "Stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he'd be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change...But in America, people's stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters."

While there, a member of the Texan delegation asks Jun Do if he knows what it feels like to be free. "Are there labor camps here?" he asks. "No." "Mandatory marriages, forced criticism sessions, loudspeakers?" She shook her head. "Then I'm not sure I could ever feel free here," he said...."When you're in my country, everything makes simple, clear sense. It's the most straightforward place on earth."  And yet a seed has been planted that there is another way to live, a world in which individuals make their own choices.

Part II of the book is titled "The Confessions of Commander Ga." The reader is introduced to North Korean interrogation practices. A professor has been accused of "counterrevolutionary teaching, specifically using an illegal radio to play South Korean pop songs to his students." The team members are distracted when they learn that Commander Ga, a North Korean legend who has been declared an enemy of the state, has been captured and will be questioned. The story goes on from there and is told from various points of view. The action doesn't let up until the final page.

"The Orphan Master's Son" is an incredible book that tops my list of best all-time reads. Whenever I write about a book, I look back at passages I flagged to recapture what struck me. While doing so, I found myself drawn once again into Jun Do's world and had to resist putting all else aside and starting the book over. Such is the storytelling skill of Adam Johnson. I couldn't encourage you more strongly to put "The Orphan Master's Son" on your own "must read" list. 

Postscript: Johnson made a trip to North Korea while writing "The Orphan Master's Son." The book includes a fascinating interview with him about his journey. BookPage also did a wonderful interview with Johnson that you can read by clicking here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Who & the What at Gulfshore Playhouse

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Disgraced" by Ayad Akhtar. It's an incredibly powerful play with its themes of identity, assimilation and cultural appropriation. And so I jumped at the chance to see Akhtar's "The Who & the What" at Gulfshore Playhouse. While the play didn't strike as deep a chord as "Disgraced" did, it was another thought-provoking afternoon of theater.

Rasha Zamamiri as Zarina and Rajesh Bose as Afzal
The characters in the show are Afzal, his daughters Zarina and Mahwish, and Zarina's suitor Eli (whom her father found for her on The primary plotline revolves around a book Zarina is writing about how Muslim women came to wear hijabs, a practice she feels "erases" them.  She believes the genesis of the tradition can be found in an encounter between Mohamad and Zaynab, his daughter-in-law who later became his wife. According to the story (which is disputed by some Islamic scholars), Mohamad came upon Zaynab in a state of undress and told her how beautiful she was. When Zaynab relayed his comments to her husband, Zayd offered to divorce Zaynab in order to permit his father to marry her. Mohamad accepted his offer, and Zaynab became his seventh wife. At their wedding feast, Allah conveyed to Mohamad a new verse for the Qaran that stated,"When you ask his wives for something, ask them from behind a screen." From then on, Muslim women wore veils (which took the place of screens). To Zarina, it was Mohamad's lust for Zaynad (which her book describes in great detail) rather than the word of Allah that resulted in the offending tradition.

The book and its blasphemous ideas have significant repercussions for the characters. (Although a fatwa was not issued, it called to mind the controversy over Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" that kept Rushdie in hiding for nearly a decade.) Akhtar makes it clear that Zarina understood the potential for the book's explosive impact by her reluctance to tell people about what she was writing. 

The 90-minute play was very involving, and all of the actors were topnotch. I did, however, wonder why Zarina was so obsessed with the hajib since the females in her family (including her mother) did not wear a veil. Even more significantly, why didn't she publish the book under a pseudonym to avoid subjecting her family to the consequences of her actions?  

Professor Mohamad Al-Hakim
The performance was followed by a discussion with FGCU philosophy professor Mohamad Al-Hakim, which would have been worth the price of admission on its own. To Al-Hakim, the play was about the dangers of patriarchy, which of course is not unique to Islam.  He talked about the role of skepticism in religion and politics and, well, life, and its power to actually deepen one's beliefs. He argued against use of the word "tolerance" as it implies both a power differential and a negative moral judgment. (He advocated instead for "recognition" of different views and lifestyles.) And he raised the question of whether absolute truths really matter.  Janice and I were ready to sign up for his class.

I applaud Gulfshore Playhouse for presenting topical plays like "The Who & the What," which runs through this week-end. And I note that the theater will take on Lucas Hnath's "The Christians" next season. I saw the show at last year's Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, and it definitely got under my skin.  It's worth keeping on your theatrical radar screen.    

Saturday, May 7, 2016

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Heartbreaking. Horrifying. Compelling. These are just some of the words I would use to describe Anthony Marra's "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena."

While the novel technically relates to five days in the life of a Chechnyan village, the story spans a ten-year period. It's 2004, and the Second War between Russia and Chechnya is at its mid-point. Events that occurred during the First War (which took place from December 1994-August 1996) play an important role in what's happening in the characters' lives.  The author includes a timeline at the beginning of each chapter to indicate when the action occurs.

Chapter 1 opens, "On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones." We quickly learn that eight year old Havaa is alive only because her father Dokka knew what the rumble of the truck in the middle of the night meant and sent the child--with her suitcase packed just for this occasion--out the back door and into the forest. We also learn that the house was burned in case she was hiding beneath a floorboard or in a cupboard.  Havaa, it seems, is a target of the Feds as well. 

When Havaa wakes up, she's in the home of her neighbor Akhmed. He bundles her up to take her to the city hospital where he's heard of a doctor he hopes will take her in. "He's not coming back, is he?" she asked. "I don't think so," Akhmed replies. "But what if he does?" the girl worries. "If he comes back, I'll tell him where you are. Is that a good idea?"  "My father is a good idea," Havaa says.

Over the course of the book, we learn about the lives of Dokka and his dead wife Esiila and the birth of Havaa. We get to know Akhmed, the self-proclaimed worst doctor in all of Chechnya, and his invalid wife Ula. We meet Sonja, the doctor in whose care Akhmed intends to place Havaa, and her lost sister Natasha. And then there's Ramzan, the village informer, and his father Khassan, a writer who chronicled the history of Chechnya.  The characters' lives are interwoven in complicated and unexpected ways.

Marra during a research trip to Chechnya
The world captured by Marra is a place where people can be taken to the Landfill for the most ridiculous of reasons. The specified reason for the arrest of an iman was that he was "too short." (The Feds were looking for a mastermind who had a beard and was less than two meters tall. Everyone in the village fitting this description was taken away.)  Some who are taken are returned, although their existence will never be the same.  The others become part of the disappeared. 

It's a world where intense periods of bombing lead everyone to seek shelter outside, finding it easier to sleep in the cold than with the fear of falling rubble.  "The homeless, insane and alcoholic reigned in this world...The city pariahs were inundated by professors and lawyers and accountants whose degrees were worth the five seconds of warmth they could fuel."

It's a world where the bombed out hospital treats only war victims and expectant mothers and has a guard with only one arm. Land mine victims are the most common patients. "Leg amputations are normal business here," Sonja tells Akhmed.  The amputated legs are wrapped and saved for burial.

This is the world in which Havaa is growing up. Not surprisingly, she grasps onto the people whose lives touch hers. Her suitcase contains one change of clothing and the souvenirs she's collected from the refugees her parents have sheltered. When Akhmed leaves her at the hospital each night, she worries that she'll never see him again. He has instantly become her new father figure. And while Havaa doesn't view Sonja as a new mother, she is intrigued by her. Sonja is different from the women Havaa has known. "Women weren't supposed to be doctors; they weren't capable of the work, the schooling, the time and commitment, not when they had houses to clean, and children to care for, and dinners to prepare, and husbands to please. But Sonja was more freakish, more wondrously confounding than the one-armed guard; rather than limbs she had, somehow, amputated expectations. She didn't have a husband, or children, or a house to clean and care for.  She was capable of the work, school, time, commitment, and everything else it took to run a hospital. So even if Sonja was curt and short-tempered, Havaa could forgive her these shortcomings, which were shortcomings only in that they were the opposite of what a woman was supposed to be.  The thick, stern shell hid the defiance that was Sonja's life.  Havaa liked that."

"A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" is an incredibly hard read. Marra's impeccable storytelling skills and beautiful use of language make the torture and sorrow all too easy to envision.  But the way he weaves the stories together is nothing less than remarkable. And he somehow leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope for better days.  It's a book that will stay with you long after you've finished the last page.  Read it.   

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Getting Modern at the Corning Museum of Glass

"Fog" by Ann Gardner
When Maggie visited me earlier this year, we visited the Morean Arts Center and its striking Chihuly Collection in St. Petersburg.  She immediately put a trip to the Corning Museum of Glass on our calendar for my visit. My head is still spinning from all the visual stimulation.

While the Museum covers 35 centuries of glass making, it was the work in its new Contemporary Art + Design Wing that really grabbed my attention.  The 100,000 square foot wing features 26,000 square feet of gallery space and a 500-seat theater for glass blowing demonstrations and glass design sessions (which are on my list for next time). 

The first work we came upon was Ann Gardner's "Fog" (which, of course, the photo does not do justice). The sculpture contains more than 100 mosaic-covered pods. While the square four-sided glass tiles (known as tesseree) are quite modern, they are made in the old-style Venetian manner.  Click here to see the pods in more detail.  I could almost feel the mist on my face.

"Endeavor" by Lino Tagliapietra

Our favorite installation might have been Lino Tagliapietra's "Endeavor," a stunning work of 18 colorful blown glass boats reminiscent of gondolas in his native Venice. (The sculptural forms are open to interpretation, though, and could also be seen as a flock of birds or a school of fish.) Tagliapietra began his studies in the glass factories of Murano at the age of 11; when he was 21, he was declared a "maestro" (master).  He didn't begin developing his own work, though, until at the age of 45 when he was invited by Dale Chihuly to teach Venetian glassblowing techniques at Pilchuk Glass School in Washington State. Click here to see a more vibrant image of a larger version of "Endeavor" at the Columbus Museum of Art.

"Forest Glass" by Katherine Gray

Then there was Katherine Gray's "Forest Glass," a work that--like a pointillist painting--is best viewed first from a distance. The "trees" are composed of plexiglass shelves on which more than 2000 drinking glasses have been set in a careful design. A few of the glasses are decorated with flowers or insects to add to the nature feeling. Although Gray is a glassblower, the glasses in the sculptures were found at thrift stores and on e-Bay.  The Museum's website explains, "Forest Glass is about creation and destruction, ecology, and historical glass. It refers to the history of glassmaking and its attendant environmental issues: trees—in fact, forests of them—were obliterated over the centuries so that their wood could be used as fuel for glass furnaces. In this work, Gray reconstructs some of these lost trees out of the material that destroyed them—in effect, recycling the trees with recycled glass."

 "Orpheus in Foliage"

The Museum's "old" contemporary gallery is also full of wonderful works. I loved their gemmaux, which are glass panels affixed to light boxes. Each panel contains hundreds of colored glass pieces that were cut and arranged by technicians known as gemmists.  Once assembled, the work was dipped in an enamel-type solution and then kiln-fired to fuse the glass. "Orpheus in Foliage" was designed by Jean Cocteau after his painting of the same name and then created by gemmists in the studio of Roger Malhere-Navarre. (Malhere-Navarre worked with painter Jean Crotti to originate the technique.)  Cocteau is credited with naming the genre as a contraction of the words gems and stained glass. (I don't quite get it either.) Crotti was a fan of Picasso and decided to replicate his "Le Coq" as a gemmail. When he showed it to Picasso, Pablo declared, "A new art is born!"  Picasso eventually created 60 gemmaux replicating some of his favorite works. Sadly, none are on public display.

Dominick Labino's "Ionic Structure of Glass" is yet another striking work. The cast glass window measures five feet in diameter and weighs in at 350 pounds. It was commissioned by the Museum in 1979 for the internal entrance of its new building and was intended to be the first work a visitor saw. The Museum's expansion led to the work being out of view for 15 years; it was reinstalled in the gallery in 2014.  In its original placement, the structure was backlit with floodlights and required its own air vent. (Replacing a bulb led to an uncomfortable climb through a mechanical equipment room. I can imagine a serious game of rock/paper/scissors to decide who got that job.) Today LED lights enable the work to shine.

The Museum has an app to view works from the Contemporary Art + Design Wing that can be found at  There's nothing like seeing the glass in person, though. If you're in the Rochester/Buffalo area, make sure to add a stop at the Museum to your schedule. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Frank Lloyd Wright's Buffalo Connection: Graycliff Estate

During my recent trip to Rochester, Maggie and I took time away from the bridge table for a Frank Lloyd Wright two-fer.  We spent the morning touring the 26,000 square foot Darwin D. Martin Complex in Buffalo.  The afternoon was dedicated to Graycliff Estate, the Martins' light-filled summer home on Lake Erie. The home was built at the behest of Isabelle, who was the client of record. The organic style of the 8-1/2 acre estate differs radically from the prairie style of the Buffalo residence, with nary an art glass window. The clear windows allow light to flow in and open wide to permit air to circulate on lazy summer afternoons. Nor do rooms have the dark molding featured extensively in the Martin House.

Isabelle's Graycliff home

Wright's design was inspired by the home's location. The house is punctuated with balconies and porches covered with overhangs that are simultaneously stylistic and functional. (The cantilevered overhangs mimic the shoreline while creating shady areas where Isabelle could seek respite from the sun.) The stucco portion of the home is rust colored to tie in with the coloration of the local tichenor limestone. Wright even included pieces of limestone with embedded fossils in the walls to enhance the organic feel.

Wright's attention to detail was meticulous. The living room has doors that open to the front and back of the building that are offset to create air flow rather than a wind tunnel. The concrete in the tennis courts was dyed a reddish tint to match the terracotta roofs of the nearby buildings. And it came as no surprise that the walls throughout the property are made from the same stone used in the buildings. 

And what would a lake house be without a water feature?  A  man-made pond with a surrounding garden is situated outside of the porte cochere where people in the guest house (originally the chauffeur's quarters) could enjoy it as well. Wright wanted a second water feature between the home and the shore to further the effect of the lake flowing through the house, but Isabelle said enough was enough. The area was used instead for a sunken garden.

Bethlehem Steel built this sturdy staircase to provide access from the grounds to the water. (The bridge connecting the estate to the tower has been dismantled for safety reasons.)  Maggie and I laughed as we imagined servants balancing trays of food and beverages to serve Isabelle and her guests as they lounged by the lake.

After Isabelle's death in 1945, the Martin children put Graycliff up for sale. In 1951 the property was sold to the Piarist Fathers, a group of Hungarian priests.  The estate became a place for the priests to rest, meditate and study, as well as a home for retired priests. Not surprisingly, the Order made some changes to the buildings to accommodate their needs. The buildings were winterized. A school house was built with dorms attached to house both students and refugees from the Hungarian Revolution. And the front porch was converted into a chapel. (Wright visited the estate in 1958 and was dismayed to find that his carefully crafted design was no longer visible. He offered to design the chapel for the priests--at what cost is unclear--but they politely declined.)  The Order continued to live on the estate until 1997, when it was sold to the Graycliff Conservancy.

The property is about halfway through a $7.5 million renovation, with most of the exterior work finished. The inside definitely needs lots of TLC.  It will be fun to visit again once the renovation has been completed. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Frank Lloyd Wright's Buffalo Connection: Darwin D. Martin Complex

Interior of Larkin Company administration building

I missed an opportunity back in the 1980s to tour Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater home and have always regretted it. So I was thrilled when Maggie squeezed a trip to Buffalo into our schedule to visit Wright's Martin House Complex and Graycliff Estate.

Darwin D. Martin was a self-made man. He began his career selling soap door-to-door with the Larkin company when he was 12. His hard work came to the company's attention almost immediately, and he was moved to Buffalo at the age of 13 to work in the office. Over time, he rose to become the equivalent of the company's chief operating officer.  One of his tasks was to build a new headquarters for the company. Although Martin initially wanted Louis Sullivan to design the structure, his Chicago-based brother told him about Frank Lloyd Wright, an
up-and-coming young architect. The rest is history.

Barton House

Darwin was so taken with Wright's talent that he also retained him to design a complex for his family. The site was just ten doors down from where the Martin family was currently living. Wright's first assignment was a starter home for Darwin's sister and her family. The Barton House is a modest 2,000 square foot home with one art glass window design used throughout. (This was Wright's nod to working on a budget.)  Interestingly, each art glass design became the property of the owner so is unique to the property for which it was created.  Wright's estimate to build the home was $4,000; it came in at $12,000. (And we're talking 1903 dollars.) 

Darwin D. Martin House
Wright then moved on to design Darwin and Isabelle Martin's 15,000 square foot home. The house's long horizontal lines exemplify Wright's prairie school design. The house is constructed of Roman bricks, which are narrower and longer (not to mention more expensive) than regular bricks. The grout between horizontal layers of the bricks is dug out to enhance the streamlined design. Entry areas to rooms have dropped ceilings that make the rooms themselves appear even more spacious.  (This is known as Wright's "compression and release" technique.)   Moldings are used to draw the eye to the 14 unique art glass window designs, the best-known of which is the 750 piece "Tree of Life" design.  (If all the woodwork in the house were laid end to end, it would extend for eight miles.)

Tree of Life window
While Wright gave the Martins a floor plan showing how each room should be furnished, it wasn't until years later that he began "client-proofing" his homes by building the furniture in. (Fallingwater, designed in 1935, has more than 80 built-ins.)  Darwin and Isabelle's bedroom is perhaps the best example of an unusual Wright design, with an interior wall in the middle of the room which the headboard of the bed was set against. (The furniture is not yet in place in the Complex, which is $4 million away from completion of its $50 million renovation. Consequently, we relied on our guide to explain the lay-out of the mysteriously shaped room.)

Darwin's relationship with Wright continued long past the completion of the Martin Complex in 1905, the estimated cost of which is $300,000. Darwin's devotion to Wright led him to act as Wright's private banker of sorts until the Martins lost all of their money in the crash of 1929. When Darwin died in 1935, Wright owed him $70,000. The money was never repaid.  Isabelle abandoned the property with back taxes due and moved to Graycliff Estate, also designed by Wright.

Reconstruction of the Pergola in 2006
The buildings in the 29,000 square foot complex sat unheated and empty for nearly two decades. In the 1950s, the property was privately purchased and subdivided. The Martin House itself was converted into three apartments.  What was (and is now again, thanks to the renovation) the carriage house, conservatory and pergola were bulldozed to make way for apartment buildings. The carriage house is the first Wright building restored from the ground up.

All in all, my first visit to a Frank Lloyd Wright home was worth the wait.  But our day wasn't over, with our next stop being Isabelle's Graycliff Estate on Lake Erie.  Stay tuned for my post about our visit. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Five More Things I Learned in Nashville

Nashville schooled me on the ins and outs of country music and more. Here are five more things I learned during my recent visit.

Livingston Taylor
1) Quiet environments with singer-songwriters are more my "thing" than a loud bar on Broadway. (I know this is a real shocker.) And so I loved our visit to the Bluebird Cafe, made universally known by the TV show "Nashville." The concert featured Livingston Taylor (James' brother), Pat Alger, Don Henry and Jon Vezner in the round.

Bluebird Cafe logo
There was definitely a mutual admiration society going on among these guys, with lots of songs written by Alger sung over the course of the evening.  (Alger might be best known for co-writing songs like "Unanswered Prayers" and "The Thunder Rolls" with Garth Brooks before Brooks was a household name.)  There were lots of sweet songs with lyrics about how "ever since the beginning, to keep the world spinning, it takes all kinds of kinds" and "love made a fool of me."  But I like a country music song that makes me laugh, and Alger's rendition of "BFD" by Don Henry and Craig Carothers did just that.  Here's one of the verses:

It ain't no B.F.D he's got his C.M.T
No S E X but that's okay
At least he ain't no S.O.B like that Ph.D
That took his EX and ran off to L.A.

Biscuit Love's bonuts
2) It's hard to find a healthy meal in Nashville. I have to admit, though, that I specifically sought out the most caloric dining experience we had during our visit -- breakfast at Biscuit Love.  What started as a food truck in 2012 has segued into a local hot spot complete with a 45 minute wait (in a light drizzle, I might add).  After a guy in a condo across the way came out with a sign proclaiming "the bonuts are worth the wait," it was a given that we would start off our meal with an order.  In case you're wondering, bonuts are essentially fried doughnut holes made from biscuits and topped with marscapone cheese and blueberry compote. Deadly and delicious. My next course was the East Nasty, which was Bon Appetit's 2015 sandwich of the year.  The sandwich begins with a biscuit and then a fried boneless chicken thigh and sausage gravy are layered on.  In my defense, I didn't have lunch that day.  

3)  The Grand Ol' Opry got its name in an unexpected way. Radio station 650 AM WSM was established in 1925 by an insurance company. ("WSM" stood for "We shield millions.")  A country music show followed an opera program.  The lead in of "You've been listening to that grand old opera" eventually led to the show being called the "Grand Ol' Opry." 

Jackie Lee on the Opry stage
The live radio show lives on today, and Andrea and I took in the Friday night performance.  Being an aging star is not a problem at the Opry, and the host of each half hour segment seemed older than the last.  (Host Bill Anderson, for instance, was inducted into the Opry in 1961. He was adorable.)  Each performer sang two songs and got his or her time in the "circle."  The Opry was originally broadcast from Ryman Auditorium (also known as the "Mother Church of Country Music").  In the 1970s, the concerts were moved to the Opry's current venue for better sound and air conditioning.  A circle of wood from the Ryman stage found a home on the Opry stage, leading to lots of "may the circle be unbroken" comments.

Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner
4)  Dolly Parton has more going on than a pretty face and big hair. (Admit it -- that's not the "big" that you thought of.)  Parton made a name for herself on The Porter Wagoner show, which she co-hosted from 1967-1974.  Their break-up provided the inspiration for her song "I Will Always Love You" (made most famous by Whitney Houston).  Elvis wanted to record the song but would only do so if she gave him half of the rights.  She trusted her business sense and bravely said thanks, but no thanks to the offer.  The song went on to make her over $39 million in performance rights.

5)  While catching a ride with Uber is not unique to Nashville, our trip did introduce me to this way of getting around. My observation is that Uber drivers are much chattier than your typical NYC taxi driver (my point of reference). I think it's because they know your name and therefore feel like you're acquaintances. The driver who dropped us off at Biscuit Love told me that he wanted to "punch me in the face" for going there. I thought it was because he was jealous of our upcoming dining experience.  But no, it was because he thinks Biscuit Love is overhyped and that the biscuits at Burger King are just as good and much cheaper. Coincidentally, he was also our driver to the airport later that day, so I had the opportunity to tell him that we had enjoyed our feast.

As Andrea and I parted at the airport, our consensus was that "we didn't hate" Nashville.  I know, high praise indeed.  Even though it wasn't our favorite destination of all time, it was a wonderful get-away.  We're open to suggestions for next year's adventure.