From gadget to appendage

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Sometime during the last year, my cell phone morphed from being a oft-annoying gadget to an occasionally annoying virtual appendage. I am not a likely candidate to have made this transition. I have cursed cell phones more than praised them. Multiple days have gone by when I didn’t even bother turning on my own phone.

But now it’s fully accurate to say that my cell phone has largely supplanted my landline and office phone. After some four years of owning an iPhone 4s, I am finally using it like so many other people deploy their smartphones. I use it for calls (the ear buds free up my hands), texting (I finally gave in and started texting), taking pictures (the 4s camera isn’t state of the art, but it does the job), and checking online sites (mostly e-mail and Facebook).

I haven’t come close to exploiting all of its features. When it comes to technology, I’m the opposite of a “first adopter.” But it’s now close to being an indispensable tool. It has become especially valuable while traveling.

Before this transition, I couldn’t understand why people went into a panic if they feared that they lost or misplaced their phone. What’s the big deal? Just get a new one, I’d say to myself. Not anymore.

I still don’t get how some folks basically live in their phones. I shake my head when walking the streets of Boston turns into an exercise in dodging people looking down at their phones. And I think it’s unfortunate when people can’t be in the moment with each other because their face-to-face social interactions are interrupted by ever-present pinging and furtive (or not-so-furtive) glances at their phones.

That all said, the technology contained in the average smartphone is nothing short of remarkable. Our phones shouldn’t be ruling our lives, but they sure can make certain aspects of life more convenient. Call me a qualified but devoted convert.

Driving around in a self-induced nostalgia trip

Reasonable facsimile of my rental car (courtesy of http://clipartix.com/)

Reasonable facsimile of my rental car (courtesy of http://clipartix.com/)

My current visit to northwest Indiana marks the first time I’ve driven a car since, well, my last visit there over a year ago. As a city dweller who hasn’t owned a car since Air Supply’s earliest U.S. hits, let’s just say that driving is not my forte. Night driving is a special adventure, during which I’m reinforcing unflattering stereotypes about Asian drivers.

The last and only car I ever owned was a hand-me-down 1968 Buick LeSabre that got about seven blocks to a gallon of gas in mileage. I gave it to my brother Jeff when I left for law school at NYU in the fall of 1982. I had learned during an earlier trip to New York City that, unlike your typical Indiana campus, universities in the heart of Manhattan did not have parking lots adjoining their residence halls.

Since then, I have been a creature of the subway, first in New York, and now in Boston.

This, of course, brings the adventure back to driving on those rare occasions that I do rent a car.

Oh, and speaking of Air Supply, I’ve once again used the unique experience of driving to listen to an oldies station that plays a lot of stuff from back in the day. As I wrote last year:

Concededly, I am positively masochistic when it comes to self-inflicted nostalgia. During much of this trip, I had my rental car radio tuned to an oldies station that played songs mostly from the late 70s through early 80s. Like many, I associate old Top 40 songs with memories of earlier days, so I basically had a series of mental videos going through my head, prompted by whatever was on the air.

And so it is with this trip, as the pop sounds of Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Olivia Newton-John, Styx, Hall & Oates, Cheap Trick, and others waft through my rental vehicle. I usually don’t immerse myself in this music at home — I’ll take the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, and the like over more recent popular music anyday — but the post-adolescent oldies do bring back memories.

That final exam anxiety dream

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Marlene Cimons writes for the Washington Post about a recurring anxiety dream experienced by many, including yours truly:

For most people, including me, it goes like this: We’ve signed up for a course that we never attend, or we forget we enrolled in it. When final-exam day approaches, we are panic-stricken because we never went to any of the lectures, never took notes and never did the readings or assignments. (In one bizarre twist, some people report that they show up on final exam day naked — perhaps feeling vulnerable?)

For some, the course is one in which we did poorly in real life. Others dream of a subject in which they actually did well but had worried about failing.

She digs pretty deep into the commonality of this dream, interviewing therapists and others about why so many people continue to have it many years after their formal schooling ended.

My academic anxiety dream usually is situated in my final semester of college. It’s exam period, and — in keeping with the script! — I suddenly realize that I’m facing a final exam in a course I’ve never attended and for which I’ve never cracked open a book. Furthermore, it’s in a subject area in which I have no interest or aptitude.

Oh no, I’m screwed, I dream-speak to myself. I’ll flunk that course and have to take a summer school class in order to graduate. What will my parents say? And what will this do to my law school aspirations?! Maybe I calculated wrong and I really don’t need that class to graduate!

At some point I realize it’s a dream and will myself to wake up, but I’m a tad rattled until I confirm that all is ok.

The roots of my academic anxiety dreams have some basis in fact. I spent my final collegiate semester participating in Valparaiso University’s study abroad program in Cambridge, England. For some of us, including me, close proximity to one of the world’s greatest universities failed to inspire complete devotion to our studies. Although we were graded on essays rather than examinations, it’s fair to say that work on said written products often got left until the last minute.

In fact, one of my two phone calls home during that semester (remember, this is pre-cell phone 1981) came after our grades were reported. I wanted my parents to check my grade report — most notably because of a worrisome Art Appreciation class that I pretty much blew off completely — before I embarked on a post-semester romp through Western Europe. Fortunately my grades were pretty good, except for a barely passing grade in Art Appreciation. Phew…dodged that bullet!

It so happens that I’m writing this from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana. I have a fall semester research sabbatical from my home school (Suffolk University in Boston), and I’m spending part of it at VU as a scholar in residence, working on a book project. I’ll have more to say about this stay in my next blog post.

In the meantime, hopefully no academic anxiety dreams will be triggered by this visit.

From college move-in days to reunions

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Hello dear readers, it has been a while since I’ve posted! I’ve been hip deep in various publication projects related to work, and they’ve drained much of whatever writing energies I’ve had this summer. But with another academic year about to begin, I’d be remiss if I didn’t write something to mark it.

Here in Boston, the arrival of thousands of college students during late August and early September is an annual ritual. Here’s what the Boston Globe had to say about it this morning:

This late-summer ritual, the return of tens of thousands of college students to more than 50 area schools, replenishes Boston and infuses it with youth. The transformation is hard to miss. Boston traffic backs up and horns blare as families double-park to unload; the city’s shops and restaurants bustle with new activity; the Esplanade fills with joggers and bikers.

Boston, the country’s ultimate college town, is back.

The so-called “college experience” — that of going off to school, usually starting with a year (or three or four) of living in a residence hall — became a standard middle class aspiration during the last half of the 20th century. It holds this status today, too, even in the face of rising costs of higher education and a shaky economy.

And so in college towns big and small, the students are returning in droves. For those of us who enjoy seasons, this is a harbinger of fall, which in New England is our best time of the year weather-wise.

And fast forwarding…

Among the pieces of advice I want to share with today’s college students is this: If you work on it and are fortunate, you can start building some lifelong friendships.

Every five years, our Valparaiso University study abroad group holds a reunion to catch up with one another and to exchange increasingly exaggerated and dramatic stories from our semester together in England. Many of us manage to see each other on other occasions as well.

We met in Chicago earlier this summer. Our gathering was a little smaller than usual because of a tangle of family and personal schedule conflicts, but we had a wonderful time nonetheless. A photo of most of this year’s attendees appears below.

Sometimes it’s just the way things work out: A group of 20 or so people are tossed together for a term overseas, and many of the bonds created and strengthened during that time ripen into lasting friendships. True, the “college experience” should be about learning, growing, and preparing for the rest of life. And if it includes the forging of friendships that endure, well then, that’s an awesome thing indeed.

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This fall, I’ll be revisiting Valparaiso University when I return to campus for homecoming (35th year) and an extended stay to do some work on my writing projects. I’m fortunate to have a research sabbatical this semester, and so I arranged to do a “visiting scholar in residence” arrangement at VU, whereby I’ll be camping out in the library with my laptop and research materials for a few weeks.

This also will give me another opportunity to connect with some of my VU classmates. I look forward to writing about this visit later this fall.

Life’s little scratch ticket wins

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The other day I was getting ready for a short trip, and I went online to print out my airline ticket. I was delighted to see the TSA Pre-check designation on it. Pre-check means that you can go through a shorter, faster security line without removing your shoes, belt, computer, and small liquids. It saves some time and hassle and makes a plane trip a little bit more pleasant.

Of course, I could also send Uncle Sam a check and a completed form to fly Pre-check all the time. Maybe I’ll do so, because it does restore a dose of civility to the air travel experience. In the meantime, I greet the printing out of my ticket with hopeful anticipation that I’ll win the Pre-check lotto via whatever process the TSA folks use.

I call Pre-check one of life’s little scratch ticket wins: You know, those lottery tickets or customer cards where you scratch off an opaque covering to see if you’ve won a little something. Maybe it’s a small payout, a free sandwich, or a discount on your next purchase.

Life’s scratch ticket equivalents can pop up anywhere. Maybe you’re running late and you make the next subway train with seconds to spare. Or perhaps you discover that the very thing you want to buy is on sale. Until they went with all-day breakfast, making it to McDonald’s just before the morning menu ended would count, too!

As an educator, I used to think of snow days as being a scratch ticket win. But then came Snowpocalypse 2015 in Boston, with so many class cancellations that we had to have monster make-up classes once we dug out of winter. Suffice it to say, I greet snow days much less enthusiastically than before we got hit with 100+ inches of snow that winter.

Obviously we’d all like to win Mega Millions, but winning scratch tickets can put smiles on our faces as well.

Those random moments when you discover great music

When it comes to discovering my favorite genre of music — old standards by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, and the like — I’m a bit of a late bloomer. Not until moving to New York for law school would I start discovering this wonderful music. In fact, I can pinpoint the evening in front of the TV set when began to realize the brilliance of George and Ira Gershwin.

Late in 1991, I was watching “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, and among Johnny’s guests was a young man who sang and played on the piano a couple of classic Gershwin tunes. His name was Michael Feinstein, and he was performing numbers from his first album, “Pure Gershwin.” (Today, of course, Feinstein is a star in his own right, having built a wonderful career out of preserving and promoting the Great American Songbook.)

Well folks, a lightbulb went off. I had been familiar with the works of the Gershwins and enjoyed them, but upon watching Feinstein on TV, I knew that I wanted to listen to more. The next day, I went to Tower Records in the Village and bought the cassette (yup, cassette) version of “Pure Gershwin.” I played that tape to death on my Sony Walkman and eventually had to replace it.

Fast forward to today, I have stacks of CDs containing different renditions of the Gershwins’ music, including Ella Fitzgerald, Maureen McGovern, Sinatra, and more from Feinstein.

In the weekly voice class I take and the periodic open mic cabaret nights I attend, it’s not unusual for me to sing a Gershwin number.

Recently I went to a Boston Pops concert featuring the music of the Gershwins, and the finale was a brilliant, moving performance of George’s masterpiece, “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Boston Pops concert (photo: Adeline Moya)

Boston Pops concert (photo: Adeline Moya)

Okay, so here’s my what-if, time-travelish, is-life-that-random question: What if I had not caught that episode of “The Tonight Show” back in 1991? Would this body of music mean so much to me today? What would my music collection look like? Would I be singing something else in my voice class? Would I even be taking a voice class at all? Are such discoveries completely random or somehow part of a grander scheme?

Class, discuss.

 

Who you gonna call?

Dan Ackroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Bill Murray visit with Jimmy Kimmel

Dan Ackroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Bill Murray visit with Jimmy Kimmel

It’s hard to believe that “Ghostbusters” is 32 years old as of this summer! And with the remake of the movie (and a new, female cast in the leads) scheduled for its theatrical release in July, several actors from the original are making the rounds of TV talk shows to indulge in some nostalgia and to promote the new arrival.

“Ghostbusters” is a great comedy, as one might expect of a flick featuring Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd in their primes. I also count it among the wonderful New York movies. It made terrific use of the city, and there’s a line by Ernie Hudson at the end — no spoiler necessary — that captures it all: I love this town!!!

I remember the summer when “Ghostbusters” opened. I had finished my second year of law school at NYU, and I was working as a summer associate at one of the big law firms in Chicago. This was something of a test for me: To try out the corporate legal sector and to return to the Midwest. Well, as I’ve reminisced here previously, I felt like a fish out of water. The world of what is now called BigLaw wasn’t for me, and I badly missed New York. The city scenes in “Ghostbusters” made me pine ever more for the streets of Manhattan.

The theme music from “Ghostbusters” would become a hit single. I remember buying the movie soundtrack and playing it often on my cassette Walkman, which would serve as my “stereo system” until I finally cobbled together enough money to buy a nice boom box.

Oh gawd, once again my sense of time gets all distorted here. In the time machine that is my nostalgic brain, that summer remains a vivid memory. And yet there are stretches of my life from, say, 6 or 12 or 20 years past, that seem like epochs ago. Weird.

The new boarding houses: Dorm life for graduates

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Okay, college graduates, if you could continue dormitory-type living even after leaving school, would you opt to do so? If your answer is “yes,” then you may be pleased to see this option developing in certain cities.

WeWork, a company that has pioneered the concept of co-working rental office space for entrepreneurial start-ups, is now branching out with WeLive, “communal housing” rentals aimed at recent graduates and young professionals who may find themselves priced out of the housing market in expensive urban areas. Melody Hahm, writing for Yahoo! Finance, explored the new WeLive space in Manhattan:

I thought my college years were behind me. But I’m seriously reconsidering the dorm life since visiting Manhattan’s first-ever location of communal living startup WeLive.

Of course, the concept of communal housing isn’t novel. . . .

But this isn’t your typical dorm situation: You have your own apartment but get access to a chef’s kitchen, yoga studio, conference room, laundry/arcade room, and neighbors who actually want to talk to you.

In many ways, WeLive looks and sounds like a post-graduate residence hall, at a premium price:

The layouts in WeLive’s 400 units range from small studios to four-bedrooms, and all apartments come fully furnished. Per-tenant pricing begins at $1,375 but if you want a bit more privacy, you’ll have to dole out at least $2,000 per month. The most common setup is the “studio plus,” which comes with two beds (one is a Murphy hidden in the wall); these range from $2,500 to $2,800. A flat monthly utilities payment of $125 covers electric, water, cable, wifi and cleaning costs (yes, housekeeping is included).

Here’s how WeLive describes itself on its website:

WeLive is a new way of living built upon community, flexibility, and a fundamental belief that we are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with. We know life is better when we are part of a community that believes in something larger than itself. From mailrooms and laundry rooms that double as bars and event spaces to communal kitchens, roof decks, and hot tubs, WeLive challenges traditional apartment living through physical spaces that foster meaningful relationships. Whether for a day, a week, a month, or a year, by joining WeLive – you’ll be psyched to be alive.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, then you know that I’m fond of sharing nostalgic moments from my college and law school years. I can even get a little soggy over memories of dorm life. At Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, my undergraduate alma mater, I lived in dormitories, with the exception of a final semester spent in a study abroad program. At New York University in Manhattan, my legal alma mater, I lived in law school residence halls throughout my stay there.

When I graduated from NYU Law, bound and determined to save the world as a Legal Aid lawyer (and with a $20,000 salary to remind me of my lofty idealism), my Manhattan housing options were practically non-existent. Consequently, I followed the trail blazed by other young denizens of the city’s non-profit sector and crossed the bridge into Brooklyn for a relatively cheap apartment share and a long subway ride to work. My first place was a three-bedroom apartment share. I believe the total rent, split three ways, was $1,000.

Those affordable Park Slope apartment shares are no more. The brownstone rentals so popular among my fellow Legal Aid colleagues and others similarly situated are now homes commanding high six and even seven figures in the current real estate market.

And so comes the market opportunity for WeLive. With more bohemian living options no longer available in places like New York, WeLive steps into the void and offers young, hip, and conveniently located housing options aimed at Millennials. Measured against the cost of living standards of almost any other area, WeLive is still pretty expensive. But to find a comparable rental in New York, your daily commute might start to resemble a sojourn.

When I moved to New York in the 1980s, gentrification and higher living costs were very much a part of the civic dialogue. Today, however, the housing costs are mind boggling. New York is not alone in this reality, at least among high demand urban places. This is definitely the case here in Boston.

It’s why ventures like WeLive are getting attention. In reality they are expensive versions of what 50 or 75 years ago would’ve been called boarding houses, with a dose of social selectiveness built into the marketing: WeLive is a new way of living built upon community, flexibility, and a fundamental belief that we are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with.

Personally, I’d rather have affordable apartment shares in Brooklyn, but I realize that time has passed.

A door stopper of a look at Stephen King’s body of work

I stumbled upon George Beahm’s The Stephen King Companion (2015) at one of the local bookstores earlier this week. After checking out the table of contents and skimming a few chapters, I knew I was going to buy it. This is an exhaustive (just under 600 pp.) examination of King’s body of work and life, and a much needed update of Beahm’s original 1989 edition. You don’t have to be a fanatic devotee of King’s books to appreciate this volume; earnest fandom will do.

If you want to gauge the influence of, and regard for, a contemporary writer, check out whether others are writing books and articles about the author that go beyond reviews of their latest work. If the answer is yes, it means that their work — however “popular” or grounded in a certain genre — has achieved a certain literary quality. There are plenty of writers who continually churn out bestsellers. Few of them, however, inspire others to write books and articles about their books. J.K. Rowling has achieved this status with Harry Potter and Co. The late Stieg Larsson has managed to do so with only three books, his Millennium trilogy crime novels published posthumously.

And then, of course, there’s Stephen King. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote about King’s work last November:

On Facebook I have had exchanges with friends on the question of who is our generation’s Charles Dickens, and King’s name comes up quickly and enthusiastically. . . . King’s work is much more than a generational passing fancy. Like that of Dickens, people will be reading his stuff for many decades to come.

What distinguishes these authors from other writers of best sellers is that their work has a level of intellectual depth — perhaps with a psychological, social, historical, or philosophical angle — that invites commentary, speculation, and discussion.

So . . . let’s say you’re an avid reader who, like me, has trouble sticking with the classics or the “Great Books.” But you also may not want to spend your time on books that are here today, gone tomorrow. If Shakespeare, the ancient Greek philosophers, Jane Austen, or even Dickens aren’t commanding your attention span, then you could do much worse than spending quality time with modern authors whose work has invited commentary, speculation, and discussion.

Origins of book geekdom

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This Facebook meme from Buzzfeed caught my attention over the weekend, leading with the tagline “Your dream was to have a gigantic library in your home when you grew up.”

Now, I have to admit that I was not a classic child bookworm. In fact, my reading tastes as a kid were far from being “literary,” and once I got beyond the storybooks our parents would read with us, I resisted just about any type of fiction. In grade school, I preferred books about history, trains, planes, tornadoes, and science. As I went into high school and then college, books about sports and politics appeared on my radar screen. In college I would discover horror, mystery, and suspense novels.

It wasn’t until well until my adult years, in any case, when I started referring to my book collection as a personal library. This was due in part to the fact that the (then cheap) Brooklyn apartment shares I lived in didn’t lend themselves to the use of such lofty labels. But as the dozens of books grew into the hundreds of books, a library they were becoming.

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These memories were tapped the other day when I received the latest catalog from bookseller Edward R. Hamilton, a company that has been in business for many decades, specializing in sales of remaindered books. When I was in college, I would pore over their book catalogs in search of bargains that would stretch the dollars I saved up from working at a local drugstore chain. Several times a year, I would make my selections ever-so-carefully, write them down on the order form, and mail it away. I then eagerly waited for my books to be delivered.

Growing up in northwest Indiana, there wasn’t much in the way of bookstores. A major shopping mall had these tiny, hole-in-the-wall B.Dalton and Waldenbooks stores, but their selections were limited. Mail order booksellers like Edward R. Hamilton and Barnes & Noble (then exclusively based in New York City) were a revelation. I would actually feel my pulse race when their hefty catalogs arrived.

Of course, today it’s all different, with book buying options galore. And now that I live in Boston — a city tailor made for book lovers — the local choices are plentiful, even in this era of decline for brick-and-mortar bookstores.

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