Tag Archives: pittsburgh speakers series

Back At It

7 Aug

My first day back at work after vacay was nowhere near as disastrous as I anticipated it to be. You see, when I worked at a small firm, vacation was entirely hypothetical. Each attorney was entirely responsible for his/her own cases. There was no “backup” for when you were out of town. Theoretically your secretary and paralegal would hold down the fort (and I was lucky to have great staff), but if your staff weren’t totally all over everything, there was the potential that you could find yourself in a whole heap of a mess.

Fast forward to now, where I work at mid-to-large regional firm. Each case is staffed by at least one partner and one associate. That means that I can take a VACATION and not have to worry that the sky is falling! Sure I work hard before leaving to get everything sorted out and prepared. And I do keep a close eye on my email to make sure everything is ok. But as a general matter for that week I was FREE! And it was marvelous and refreshing, and I got back to the office totally ready to get back at it.

Except once afternoon hits, I could really use a nap. But I can always really use a nap, so I don’t think that matters one way or another.

So I returned to the office yesterday expecting everything to be a disaster. But it was not. Everything was a-ok. And I was even able to get started on that “to do” list I left for myself before I went on vacation.

Baby and Parrot

Totally gratuitous photo of me and my girls.

I have been afraid to look at my bank account since the trips. Of course the “wise” thing to do when you know you’ve given your credit card a run is to go out and spend MORE money, so last night I ordered season tickets for PNC’s Broadway Across America series. I’m super excited about Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Book of Mormon. I also got a set of tickets for Jersey Boys. Mr. Beez thinks I’m crazy for getting Jersey Boys tickets because I’ve seen it already, but you know what, I LOVED IT. So I’m going to see it AGAIN.

I contemplated going totally CRAZY and buying tickets to the Monday Night Lecture Series and the Pittsburgh Speakers Series (PS did you know Neil Gaiman is speaking on November 14?) but after entering all the Broadway dates on my calendar I had a mini meltdown about how I have overbooked myself and I WILL NEVER HAVE FREE TIME AGAIN, so I decided to put those on hold for now.

Thursday I’m going to the Pittsburgh Restaurant Week Kickoff Party (you can find me working the registration desk from 6-7!)

And this weekend will be time for SLEEP SWEET SLEEP. And also probably catching up on some doc review. But I can do that in my PJs, so it’s cool.

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The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls (2005)

14 Jun

I find this to be an incredibly difficult review to write.  Not because the book was tragic (it was), or because it was inspiring (it was), but because it is so incredibly complex that I don’t know where to start.  Glass Castle is Walls’ memoir of her eccentric but impoverished childhood.  Other reviews I’ve read point out that this memoir demonstrates how Walls and her siblings ultimately thrived, other reviews point out how much Walls and her siblings suffered.  All of these things are true.  One review characterized Walls’ feelings towards her parents as “warm,”  which they were sometimes, but she also seemed to have some resentment and sorrow.

Walls’ father was a daydreaming, and at times violent, alcoholic, and her mother an artist.  It’s apparent there were some untreated mental health problems with both parents, but what really struck me were their deep and unapologetic personality flaws.  Both parents were unshakeably selfish.  In one instance, the Walls siblings literally had no food, were digging in trash cans and picking through the woods to find something, anything to eat.  Walls notices that her mother was getting fatter, and sees her mother sitting in bed under a blanket, and seemingly fishing around under the blanket then putting things in her mouth….and the Walls children discovered that as they were starving, their mother was hoarding and gorging herself on chocolate.  In multiple instances the mother, despite being trained and qualified and hired to teach, refuses to get out of bed and go to work, because she wants to stay home and paint instead.  Here and there Walls’ mother would say things like “It’s time to do something for me” and reading that would send me into a blind rage, because it seemed that Walls’ mother only did things for herself anyway.  The most egregious example of Walls’ mother’s selfishness came at the end of the book, and it made me so bitter that I don’t want to divulge it as a spoiler.

Walls’ father was even worse.  He was an unapologetic alcoholic, with grandiose dreams and no sense of anyone but himself.  He’d wrap himself so tightly in his absurd fantasies and conspiracy theories that he was blind to the danger, and at times sorrow,  he put his children through.  He was so far gone that it was easier to brush him off as unloveable and hopeless.  Ugh, I don’t even want to waste time talking about him in this review, even though he’s a driving force.

Despite all these negative things, the book was amazing.  I read the whole thing over 3 nights (despite working each night til nearly 10. I’ve had a tired week).  The bitterness comes purely from me, as the reader, and not from Walls.  She had a number of happy times in her childhood, she had a number of times that were so incredibly bad they were just ridiculous.  She generally did her best to make the best of things, but she comes off as grounded, not Pollyanna-ish.  Her relationship with her siblings is incredible, indeed adversity brought them together, but it is more incredible that she seems to have come to terms with her parents and her childhood.  It’s not even an issue of forgiveness and closure, she approaches it more with a perspective of “This is where I came from, and it’s strange and different, but it was mine.”

I was on the fence about re-upping my Pittsburgh Speakers Series subscription for 2012-13, but since Jeannette Walls will be speaking, I simply have to go.  This woman is amazing.

Pittsburgh Speakers Series: Tom Brokaw

27 Apr

Last night was the final Pittsburgh Speakers Series talk for the 2011-12 season.  Tom Brokaw was the honored guest.  As the median age for this event is around 62, the lobby was buzzing with excitement when I arrived.  Heinz Hall was packed full of eager, giddy olds.

Brokaw was my least favorite speaker of the season.  His entire speech dripped of nostalgia for the Greatest Generation.  He was less scornful of younger generations than I expected, but a hint of disdain was unmistakeable.

Brokaw and I just don’t see eye to eye.  I am distrustful of nostalgia.  Brokaw’s glasses are heavily rose tinted, and for what? Praising the past leaves you stagnant, it does not help anyone to progress toward a better future.

Brokaw got a standing ovation.  I did not wish to stand, but I also didn’t want to be the only jerk sitting, so I stood.  However, I didn’t find much that was insightful in his speech.

After going through the entire season, I do now understand and agree with the “Subscription Only” sales philosophy for the series.  They do not sell individual tickets–the only sell subscriptions to the entire series.  The motivating philosophy is that attendees should be exposed to speakers they might not otherwise consider, and may learn something new and insightful.  This was truly my experience.  My favorite speaker of the season was Michelle Rhee, whom I had never heard of before buying my tickets.  My second favorites were Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe Wilson, and tying for third were Ron Chernow and Michael Pollan. (Brokaw lagged far behind in fourth place, and I unfortunately was not able to attend Azar Nafisi or Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s talks). The only person whom I really knew about before attending was Michael Pollan, and attending talks by speakers whom I would have never otherwise been interested in opened my mind to new and interesting topics.

Renewals for next year’s series are on sale now, and I have to decide whether I am going to attend.  Next years speakers include Bill Clinton, Vincente Fox, and the author of The Glass Castle whose name I can’t remember right now (her talk looks the most interesting to me).  This series certainly works hard to put a good set of speakers together, and should be commended for a season well done.

Pittsburgh Speakers Series: Michael Pollan

19 Jan

Michael Pollan is an excellent resource for anyone who is a beginner in the food politics/obesity/food issues discussion, and is equally entertaining and engaging for those who have more knowledge about the topic.  I haven’t read any of his books, but it is clear that he is well educated on his topics.  He is also keenly aware of the limitations of his knowledge, and doesn’t try to draw conclusions where he doesn’t have the factual foundation.  He’ll refer to scientific studies and surveys, but also acknowledges the high rate of error in such things in the field of nutrition.

Pollan’s books are concerned with the culture of food, the American food landscape, and political and industry issues surrounding food.    Pollan strives to make these topics navigable to the general public, and tries to equip his audience with basic tools to make good nutritional decisions.  Pollan’s mantra is: Eat Food.  Not too much.  Mostly plaints.  Pollan tries to distill the incredibly complicated topic of nutrition into simple and straightforward principles, and is surprisingly successful at it.

Pollan was a great speaker, and this is no criticism of him, but I’m burnt out on the “Food Wars” topic.  Obesity and food issues were my “hot button” topics in law school, I did a significant amount of reading and a fair amount of writing on these topics at the time.  I dashed to the theater as soon as Super Size Me came out, Food Politics was my bible, and I was outraged.

My outrage has given way to defeat.  I feel like these issues (and they’re not one issue, they are many and intertwined) are so much bigger than I am, and when I’m putting all my energy into getting through life with a busy job, a busy family, and a busy social life, I can’t tackle the problem of our nation’s simultaneous growing waistlines and nutritional deficit.

Pollan made an incredible point tonight– the availability of processed convenience foods blossomed when households transitioned from mothers staying at home to households of two working parents, or single parent households.  During the time where families faced the question of “who is responsible for the cooking, when both parents are at work?”  the food industry stepped in and said “we’ll take care of it, don’t worry!”  And then it gave us frozen ravioli, and instant mashed potatoes, and Chef Boyardee, and frozen pizza.

Pollan emphasized tonight that one of the easiest ways to take control of your diet is to cook as much as possible.  When I was in law school (and on my food kick) this was simple– I baked bread, I made massive casseroles and stews and froze them, it was easy to do all the things that lead to better nutrition. Now, I’m in the grown up world.  My time is often not my own, or at least not easily within my control.  Throwing things in the slow cooker might only take 10 minutes, but the number of “just 10 minutes” tasks that pile up daily is overwhelming.   Adding a new 10 minute task chips away at another. I only have so many 10 minute increments.   I do the best I can.  That’s all I can do right now.

Pittsburgh Speakers Series: Valerie Plame Wilson and Ambassador Joe Wilson

22 Nov

Valerie Plame Wilson and Ambassador Joe Wilson’s speeches at the Pittsburgh Speakers Series last night were phenomenal.  A good chunk of the talk was laying out Plamegate from their perspective.  This was interesting and helpful, because I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t know much about them beyond that she worked for the CIA, her identity was leaked as political retribution, and that there’s a movie about her with Naomi Watts.

Both Plame Wilson and Ambassador Wilson are engaging and articulate.  Despite the hard years they faced at the hands of the Administration, their speeches were not laden with bitterness.  Yes, they still have anger over the ordeal, but they are not letting themselves be weighed down.

The overriding theme of the night was civic engagement.  They both had careers in public service that they loved, and their careers were completely destroyed by unchecked abuse of political power.  They both encouraged the audience that the only way to enforce governmental accountability is for citizens to be engaged and take part in the political process, whether on the local level, or on a grander scale.  By the time I left, I was all riled up to GO MAKE SOME CHANGE!

I steer clear of autobiographies (they are too often self-indulgent and poorly written), but I am now interested to read Plame Wilson’s Fair Game, and see the movie as well.  Perhaps it is because I so recently listened to Outliers, that I would have really liked to learn more about how the dots in her life connected, and how she had opportunities and access to the things that made her life so unique.  Plame Wilson came from a military family, went to college at Penn State, and said that she was “asked to join” the CIA.  I’m pretty sure that the CIA didn’t spot her at The Crowbar and think “Oh she looks like she’d be a good covert agent! Let’s send her an e-vite!” I assume that her military parents were probably big important people military parents, and there was some connection there…but even my connection-less self would have been interested to hear how she went from State College to a life of mystery and intrigue.

Pittsburgh Speakers Series: Michelle Rhee

3 Nov

I was disheartened by the first Pittsburgh Speakers Series Event (Biographer Ron Chernow), because it was overwhelmingly attended by the 60+ crowd, and I felt it to be a poor showing of the younger folks that we did not show up for an evening of intellectual discourse.  I was much more encouraged by last night’s showing, where there was a large and diverse-in-age crowd present to see education reformer Michelle Rhee speak.

Rhee is a powerful and engaging speaker.  I’m ashamed that I haven’t been more involved in the debates over education reform.  Her views, and her aggressive approach, is polarizing.  I’m convinced, though, that she is a true believer in her cause.

Her speech inspired outbursts of clapping throughout the evening.  Even those in the crowd who disagreed with her support of private school vouchers (with certain stringent limitations) and her belief in imposing requirements for personal accountability upon teachers likely came away from the evening energized to advocate or do something  to advance the quality of public education, because from every viewpoint, the American public schools are seriously and systemically flawed.

Rhee did make one point in the evening that seemingly garnered universal support– that the arts, music, and physical education cannot be treated like extra-curriculars, to be cut when the money gets tight.  These are part of our curriculum, and every child, from every zip code, from every race and background, and from every type of family deserves access to education in these areas.

Rhee’s speech, of course, built up anxiety within me.  Baby Beez still has plenty of time to go before school, but the decision of where to send her, and what kind of education she’ll get gives me stress to no end.  I went to public school from K-12, but I also lived in an area where there wasn’t a significant difference in quality between public and private schools.  I’m extremely supportive of the theory of public schools, and that every child should have equal access to quality education.  However, theory and reality do not always align.  We live in the city, and although we’re zoned for “good” city schools, there is also the consideration that private education may be more rigorous and offer Baby Beez more opportunities.  Even though we’ve got years and years to go, I go back and forth between these issues, and I do not look forward to the day when we have to make the real decision.

Rhee runs a nonprofit called StudentsFirst, the aim of which is to improve the quality of public education for all children.  If you have an opportunity to attend one of her speaking engagements, I highly recommend you attend.  Even if you completely disagree with her viewpoints, she’s an engaging speaker and will inspire you to think critically about our public education system.

Pittsburgh Speakers Series: Ron Chernow

13 Oct

When I first went to buy a ticket to a Pittsburgh Speakers Series speech, I was very frustrated to find that they only sell them as a full subscription.  You can’t just buy a ticket to one speech.  The purpose of this is to expose attendees to more ideas and opinions, even if sometimes controversial.  For a moment I considered not buying a subscription, because there were only two speakers I really wanted to see.  Since I put the Pittsburgh Speakers Series on my 30 before 30 list, I decided to just go for it.

This week I saw Ron Chernow speak.  Chernow is a famous biographer.  The subjects of his acclaimed and bestselling works have included George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan.

Before Chernow’s introduction at the speech I literally had no idea who he is.  If we were given the option of buying tickets to individual speeches, and even if I had bothered to read a blurb about him ahead of time, I would not have picked his speech to attend.  I am interested in history and biographies, but am bored to tears by Washington, Hamilton, etc.

After attending, though, I do understand the Speakers Series approach.  Chernow was engaging, and managed to get even me interested in his subjects.  I am not running out to buy his books right away, but I have mentally filed them away under “wouldn’t be so bad to read.” Chernow mostly spoke about Washington, but spent a few minutes talking about Hamilton as well.  He debunked the biggest Washington myths (cherry tree, wooden teeth, etc.), and painted a picture for us of a complicated, human Washington.   Chernow sometimes teetered on rosy with his descriptions, but when you’re telling the story of a famous historical figure, you’re bound to come off as either rosy or jaded.

If you’re an American history enthusiast, it sounds like you’d enjoy Chernow’s works.  He’s a good storyteller, and takes great care to illustrate his subjects as the full, multi-layered individuals they were.