Monthly Archives: November, 2013

The Winds of War: Over and again

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Do you have a book, movie, or mini-series that you’ve read or watched over and again, and will continue to as long as you’re here on terra firma? I have several, and one of them is Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, both the 1971 novel and the 1983 television mini-series adaptation.

The Winds of War starts in 1939, as war clouds are swirling about Europe. It follows the fortunes of the Henry family, headed by U.S. Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry, along with his wife Rhoda, sons Warren and Byron, and daughter Madeline.

Joining them as major figures are famous Jewish author and retired professor Aaron Jastrow and his niece, Natalie, who are living in an Italian villa. Their journeys also become focal points. Also prominent is Pamela Tudsbury, a young British woman who travels the globe helping her father, foreign correspondent “Talky” Tudsbury, as well as foreign service officer Leslie Slote.

With the novel weighing in at some 880 pages, and the mini-series clocking in at seven hefty episodes, The Winds of War qualifies as a sweeping epic. It opens with Europe on the brink of another war, and it continues on through the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Throughout the story, the major characters and others cross paths, move apart, face life-threatening danger, and fall in and out of love, in places as disparate as London, Berlin, Italy, Portugal, Washington D.C., Hawaii, and the Philippines, among many others.

Major historical figures such as Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin all make their appearances. (In story turns that are somehow believable, our trustworthy, no-nonsense Captain Henry meets all of them.)

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My introduction to The Winds of War came via the mini-series. I missed it when it first aired, but during a holiday trip home to see my family many years ago, I discovered it at a local video rental store and dove in.

Robert Mitchum stoically plays Pug Henry, with Polly Bergen as wife Rhoda. Among the Henry siblings, young Byron (Jan Michael-Vincent) is featured most prominently in the mini-series, along with Natalie Jastrow (Ali McGraw) and uncle Aaron (John Houseman), Pamela Tudsbury (scrumptious Victoria Tennant), Leslie Slote (David Dukes), scientist Palmer Kirby (Peter Graves), and German general Armin von Roon (Jeremy Kemp).

Contemporary reviews of the casting decisions were mixed, with Ali McGraw bearing the brunt of the criticism. However, the story lines were compelling and the cinematography won a well-deserved Emmy, among three garnered by the mini-series.

Now Winds is on DVD, and I’ve watched it at least a dozen times over the past ten years. You know how a character in a story just resonates with you? Well, for some reason I feel that way about multiple figures in Winds. I keep imagining myself in their world, living their adventures and challenges.

If you want more evidence of my obsession, here it is: I even tracked down a used copy of a “making of” published diary put together by publicist James Butler. It’s a cheaply produced, spiral-bound paperback featuring profiles of leading cast members and Butler’s reminiscences of filming Winds around the world in 1981. It’s an affectionate remembrance. For example, notwithstanding Ali McGraw’s uneven performance as Natalie Jastrow, we learn that she was a down-to-earth class act in working with the production crew and interacting with the public on location. And a lot of the guys had major crushes on her.

The photo above is a page from Butler’s on-location diary. At bottom left are Robert Mitchum and Victoria Tennant. At top right are director Dan Curtis and actor Howard Lang, who made for a pretty good Churchill.

And yes, I even have the mini-series soundtrack:

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Wouk would complete his panorama of the Second World War in War and Remembrance, notable especially for its brutally authentic depictions of Nazi death camps. It, too, appeared first as a novel (1978), followed by a mini-series (1988-89) that included scenes filmed at Auschwitz. I’ve devoted repeat viewings and readings to Remembrance as well, but The Winds of War has captured my primary affection among Wouk’s two mega-works.

So, at some point during the next year, I’ll pull out the Winds DVDs, and lose myself in a tumultuous world of some 75 years ago.

What now, not what if

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Currently stored on my DVR are a PBS program and a National Geographic docudrama about President Kennedy, both produced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Although I’m a devotee of history, I have a feeling that I won’t be watching them.

I was way too young to understand the tragedy of the assassination when it occurred. Today, however, I regard those events with a deep sense of loss and a light snuffed out.  Kennedy’s three years in office were marked by large successes and failures, but he appeared to be hitting his stride by the time he met his demise in Dallas. The “what ifs” are both tantalizing and sad to contemplate. It is oh-so-tempting to imagine what might have been had he lived.

Nevertheless, watching television programs devoted to Kennedy and his death seems like wallowing in a past that cannot be changed. That lesson was reinforced to me in Stephen King’s 2011 time travel epic, 11/22/63, which takes us back to the years leading up to the assassination of President Kennedy. The main protagonist — a modern-day school teacher — learns that when we go back in time, our attempts to change the past may have unintended consequences.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be drawing such fundamental lessons from a bestselling novel, but I’ll take the chance. Even hardcore nostalgia addicts like me must recognize that what’s done is done. And to a generation raised with options, the what-ifs — the speculations over the roads not traveled — can consume us if we let them.

Rather, what counts is how we live today, including the measures we undertake to better our lives and those of others. This point applies in the realms of public affairs, our personal lives, everything. We take the world as it is and do our best to move forward. It’s the best choice we have.

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This article is cross-posted with my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.

What are your geeky indulgences?

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I’m not a wild spender, but I do have some geeky vices. One of them is books, and lately I’ve been seeking out volumes published by the Folio Society.

The Folio Society identifies classics of non-fiction and fiction and then produces them in beautiful hardcover editions, replete with slipcase. It also creates its own titles, such as the one pictured above, in the same handsome presentations.

The rub, as you might guess, is the price. The Folio Society offers a book club-style membership package, giving new members a choice among deeply discounted boxed sets, in return for an agreement to buy four more volumes. Unlike, say, the Book of the Month Club, these editions are very expensive, usually ranging between $60 and $100.  Premium volumes and sets can run well into the hundreds of dollars.

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Buying these lovely books at full price is a bit beyond my spending comfort zone. So I do the next best thing: I look for Folio volumes in used bookstores and on Amazon and eBay. There I’ll find Folio editions priced as low as $5, and averaging around $15-$30 — or about as much as I’d pay for a new hardcover book.

Over the past year or so, I’ve picked up about a dozen Folio volumes in this way, at a fraction of their original cost. And they look great on my personal library shelves.

So, do you have any geeky indulgences? Perhaps hobbies or collectibles made more affordable by smart spending and a little searching around? Feel free to share here or on Facebook where I’ll be linking this!

Tapestry: Iconic Gen Jones album and a timeless classic

A classic: Carole King's "Tapestry"

Carole King’s “Tapestry”

“Timeless” may be one of the more overused tags to tout popular songs, books, and movies, but in the case of Carole King’s 1971 album Tapestry, the label fits. Don’t just take my word for it: It’s 36th on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 all-time greatest albums:

On Tapestry, King remade herself as an artist and created the reigning model for the 1970s female singer-songwriter – not to mention a blockbuster pop record of enduring artistic quality.

King was no stranger to the music world when Tapestry was released. She had been a successful song writer for artists like Aretha Franklin and The Shirelles during the 60s. Fortunately she was encouraged to enter the recording studio, and Tapestry was the result.

Here’s the album’s original song list, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Side 1
  1. “I Feel the Earth Move” – 2:58
  2. “So Far Away” – 3:55
  3. “It’s Too Late” (lyrics by Toni Stern) – 3:53
  4. “Home Again” – 2:29
  5. “Beautiful” – 3:08
  6. “Way Over Yonder” – 4:44
Side 2
  1. “You’ve Got a Friend” – 5:09
  2. “Where You Lead” (lyrics by Toni Stern) – 3:20
  3. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” (Gerry Goffin, King) – 4:12
  4. “Smackwater Jack” (Goffin, King) – 3:41
  5. “Tapestry” – 3:13
  6. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (Goffin, King, Jerry Wexler) – 3:49

And here’s one of the livelier numbers, “I Feel the Earth Move,” from YouTube:

The singles from Tapestry were all over the pop charts. And if we stick with the defining Gen Jones age range (born 1954 through 1965), we see that it arrived during the heart of our childhoods and teen years, when we spent a lot of time listening to the radio and playing favorite music. The memories associated with these songs would fill volumes.

Remember writing and receiving real letters?

Somewhere in my basement storage area, I have several file folders stuffed with personal letters from back in the day, the product of an inveterate saver and collector. If memory serves me well, very few of these letters contain news or sentiments of extraordinary significance, especially when weighed against events of a lifetime. Nevertheless, they harken back to when writing and receiving letters via the mail was a welcomed part of our everyday lives.

My most intense phase of letter writing ran from college through law school, covering my late teens through early twenties. It makes sense. We often take our daily lives rather seriously during those years, and the diaspora of friends and family via assorted personal milestones creates the need to keep in touch as we move around.

In the days before e-mail, Facebook, and cheap long-distance calls, letter writing was the way we did it. I recall exchanging veritable tomes at times. And while today I might be a tad embarrassed over some of the missives I wrote and mailed, sending and receiving letters was very meaningful to me.

Today, of course, technology has largely supplanted old fashioned letter writing. I sometimes wonder what records of our everyday exchanges will be available to anthropologists of the future as they search for clues of how we shared ideas, information, thoughts, and feelings from a distance. Will our digital footprints disappear with us? And even if they are available, how will someone sort through the mounds of empty chatter to get to the real stuff?

Though sentiment creeps in when I write about writing letters, I have no illusions that we will see a revival of this form of communication anytime soon. It’s too bad, though. Anticipating a personal letter from a dear friend or family member sure beats turning on the computer, awaiting the pile up in my inbox.

Bye bye, Blockbuster

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This week’s announcement that Blockbuster is shuttering its remaining video stores was greeted with a ho hum by most of the public. Some may have assumed that the company already had disappeared, recalling its 2010 bankruptcy filing. Others may have skipped past the news as they clicked into their Netflix queue.

In my case, of course, news of Blockbuster’s demise triggered a bout of remembrance….

As much as I love movies, I was a latecomer to home video. I didn’t buy my first VCR until the summer of 1992, when I was in my early 30s. But once the VCR was set up in my apartment, I went into video rental overdrive, and the Blockbuster on 6th Avenue near 8th Street in Manhattan got a lot of my business that summer (and thereafter).

It wasn’t the cool, artsy video store in the East Village, nor the cozy neighborhood shop where I lived in Brooklyn. Nevertheless, Blockbuster had movies, and lots of them. Its blend of the latest hits, popular older movies, and some of the classics was just right for me.

I visited Blockbuster 3-4 times a week that summer, always filled with anticipation over what I might discover. I’d start with the new arrivals in the front of the store, then went toward the back to check out the oldies. Rare was the time I walked out empty handed.

Businesses may come and go, and Blockbuster has had its run. But I’m not alone in remembering the fun of picking out a movie there and loading it into my VCR later that night, minutes after the pizza was delivered! Having that kind of easy access to thousands of movies — no more scouring the TV listings in hopes that a favorite would pop up — changed dramatically how we engaged the medium, and made for many enjoyable evenings at home.

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Logo:Wikipedia

What’s your favorite comfort food?

Memo to self: No 2nd career as a food photographer

Confession: The yolks broke (Photo: DY, 2013)

A burger, coffee, and slice of pie. Mac & cheese with some greens on the side. Eggs, hash browns, and pancakes.

Yup, comfort food. Good, hearty stuff. Here’s how Wikipedia defines it:

(T)raditionally eaten food (which often provides a nostalgic or sentimental feeling to the person eating it), or simply provides the consumer an easy-to-digest meal, soft in consistency, and rich in calories, nutrients, or both. The nostalgic element most comfort food has, may be specific to either the individual or a specific culture.  Many comfort foods are flavorful; some may also be easily prepared.

As that snippet suggests, comfort food is often associated with lasting memories! Mention “meat loaf,” and I think of my mom’s recipe, which included a thin brush of tomato paste and strips of bacon on top. (Mom knew her comfort food.) I also recall a meal during my collegiate semester in England, when my friend Don got a care package from home that included a packet of powdered meat loaf mix. We bought 2 lbs. of ground beef and a pile of Brussels sprouts, and enjoyed a feast.

What are your favorite comfort foods? If you need a prod, the Wikipedia article on comfort foods collects lists from different countries! (Bangers and mash, anyone?)

Da Bears (1985 ed.)

 
I'm not obsessed, really.

I’m not obsessed, really.

So the Chicago Bears are playing the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football tonight. This inevitably means that I’ll have at least one or two memories about my favorite sports team of all time, the 1985 Chicago Bears. And today, those memories come with an acknowledgement of their cost.

Across the nation, but especially in the Chicagoland area, a large cohort of middle aged men (and some women, too!) carry with them a fierce, nostalgic devotion to a football team that has etched a permanent place in their hearts and minds. That devotion can be activated in a millisecond, whenever names like “Payton,” “McMahon,” “Ditka,” “Singletary,” “Danimal,” “Mongo,” or “The Fridge” are uttered, or when a sports broadcast plays a snippet of a very bad rap video, “The Super Bowl Shuffle.”

The 1985 Chicago Bears are regarded as one of the top two or three teams in National Football League history. They dominated the regular season with a 15-1 record. They then trounced the Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants in the playoffs, before thoroughly, utterly flattening the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. It’s not just their won-loss record that matters; it’s how they won, with a tightly controlled offense and the most dramatic, overpowering, fun-to-watch defense the game has ever seen.

It’s a team that gave back to the Windy City its swagger, years before Michael Jordan would lead the Bulls to six NBA championships. It’s a team full of memorable characters and stories.

A memorable year for me, too

Memories good and bad rarely stand in isolation. I have no doubt that my devotion to this team connects to where I was at that time in my life. I had just graduated from NYU Law School, and I was fulfilling my wish of working as a public interest attorney, practicing at the Legal Aid Society in Manhattan.

I shared an apartment in Brooklyn, earned a little over $20,000 (not much even by 1985 standards, especially in New York), and was absolutely smitten with the wonders of New York City. It was a rougher town during those days, and the decade was marked by a high crime rate and the arrival of crack cocaine. But one could still enjoy city life on a meager budget.

In the meantime, my longstanding affinity for Chicago sports teams — having grown up in Northwest Indiana — had not disappeared. By following the newspapers and Sports Illustrated, and by watching the Bears games that were televised on the East Coast (via a foil-enhanced black & white TV set), I watched that magical season unfold.

In addition to collecting the stuff pictured above, somewhere in a storage trunk I’ve saved the Chicago Tribune edition from the day after the Super Bowl victory. One of the headlines is etched in my mind: “Bears Bring It Home.”

Today

Nowadays, however, I wrestle with my love of that team and the fates of many of the players who were part of the dream season. For example:

  • Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton died at an early age, and it is very likely that the way he punished his body throughout a long career had something to do with it.
  • Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson started to suffer the effects of concussion-related brain degeneration. He committed suicide, with a request that his brain be autopsied to help determine the effects of football-related injuries.
  • Star quarterback Jim McMahon is a lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the NFL concerning concussions and cognitive impairment.

It’s not easy, is it? In return for gridiron glory and an NFL paycheck, these players are paying with their lives. They gave us memories to last a lifetime, but the tradeoff has become increasingly disturbing.

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