Later this week, I’ll be hopping on an Amtrak train from Boston to New York City for the welcomed annual ritual of Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends.
What began over a decade ago as an impromptu gathering of cousins and dear friends has become a tradition: The same home in Brooklyn, with a steady cast of about a dozen regulars, a mix of adults and fast-growing kids. A fulsome, traditional Thanksgiving menu (and it’s always amazing). People congregating in the kitchen as the food is prepared. An evening feast — this is New York, after all, we tend to eat later. During dessert, some migrate to another room to play guitars and sing (a lot of 60s and 70s stuff), while others hang out at the dinner table and talk, and the kids go off to do their things.
You know what’s odd? As far as I can recall, we’ve never taken any pictures. That’s why I had to snag a picture of the Amtrak train to illustrate this blog post! Among our group of late Boomers through Millennials, with smartphones abounding, Thanksgiving dinner has never been a photo op. Hey, maybe we don’t need to post photos to our social media pages to remind us about what this gathering means.
Of course, I also enjoy walking around New York City during the holidays. I’m not big on the festivities — during the 12 years I lived there, I never even went to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade(!) — but there is something about New York during this time that activates my nostalgia buttons.
For some reason I have an especially sharp memory of my first Thanksgiving in New York. It was during my first year of law school, and several of us waifs from the Midwest decided that we would make our own Thanksgiving dinner. However, it became clear that no one had actually ever done this before when we learned that you cannot start to defrost a turkey on Thanksgiving morning and expect it to be ready to eat later in the day. So we did what many New Yorkers do and splurged on a nice restaurant for our holiday dinner.
Given that my cooking skills have not dramatically improved over the decades, it remains a good thing that my Thanksgiving role is more about enthusiastic consumption than preparation. Such is my happy place at the table. Here’s wishing a bountiful meal and great company for you, too.
This is a rather pathetic title for a blog post, especially by someone who calls himself an avid reader. But lately my reading has been very task-oriented, both books and articles alike, and almost entirely of the non-fiction variety.
So I credit Stephen King for serving up a novel that I eagerly read from start-to-finish over a week’s time. Mr. Mercedes (2014) is King’s foray into hard-boiled detective fiction, and it’s a good one. The main protagonist is a retired police detective, Bill Hodges, who gets caught up in an unsolved multiple homicide. The perpetrator — identified very early in the story (no spoiler alert necessary) — is a pretty messed up dude with serious mommy issues.
I enjoyed this book, and easily place it in the “didn’t want it to end” category. Thus I’m delighted that King launched it as the first of a planned trilogy featuring Hodges and his sleuthing pals, with the next title expected sometime next year.
Back in January, I sang the praises of the latest incarnation of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, especially for folks who travel often. However, last weekend I decided to take this hardcover edition of Mr. Mercedes with me for a quick out-of-town visit with friends, even though it took up precious backpack space. (Although this is not among King’s longer works, it still clocks in at a hefty 440+ pages.) I’m glad that I did. Reading Mr. Mercedes as a printed book rather than as an e-book was such a pleasure. Hey, it’s not often when you’re wishing the plane ride was just a little bit longer so you can squeeze in another chapter!
I know it has become something of a cliché for those who love the printed page to say they prefer the tactile experience of reading a physical book to the convenience of using an e-reader. Nevertheless, count me among them. Even with my fifty-something eyesight (oy…) and frequent travel schedule, there remains something very cool about reading an old fashioned printed book.
When I was younger and went to loud parties more often, one of my frequent contributions to the festivities would be to croon bad songs from the Seventies. Although I’m not a drinker, I managed to fit in well with those who were en route to inebriation (or already there), and we would
regale torture fellow partiers with our own versions of some of the worst pop tunes imaginable.
Of course, this may explain why I don’t get many party invitations anymore. Whatever.
Anyway, here’s the dilemma: How does one choose from the Bad Seventies Songbook??? It’s sort of the opposite of trying to pick the best of Sinatra or the Beatles. The choices are endless, in the worst ways.
Now, before anyone gets too cross with me, let me acknowledge that a ton of great groups and performers were part of that decade: Bands like Aerosmith and Queen. Singer-songwriters like Carole King and Billy Joel. It’s a long list.
But for some reason, the 70s also bore witness to some of the most horrible pop music in the history of humanity. For what it’s worth, here are some of my obvious choices, in no particular order, though concededly heavy on treacle:
- Anything by the Captain & Tennille
- Paper Lace, “The Night Chicago Died”
- Starlight Vocal Band, “Afternoon Delight”
- Paul Anka, “You’re Having My Baby” (perhaps the sequel to above)
- Anything by the Bay City Rollers
- Bo Donaldson, “Billy Don’t Be A Hero”
- Terry Jacks, “Seasons in the Sun”
- Michael Jackson, “Ben” (I mean c’mon, he’s singing to a rat)
- Morris Albert, “Feelings” (featured above, if you’re in a masochistic mood)
- A lot of stuff by Barry Manilow
- The Carpenters, “Merry Christmas, Darling” (though Karen Carpenter’s voice was a gift)
- Debby Boone, “You Light Up My Life”
For maximum pain infliction, you’ll find renditions of most of this stuff on YouTube.
And if you want more, Google around to find assorted lists attempting to select the worst of the worst, such as this one by Rolling Stone magazine or this one by RateYourMusic.com. I realize there’s room for disagreement here. For example, the RateYourMusic.com list includes some tunes I actually like, such as “Don’t Pull Your Love” by Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds. (Also, I just can’t bring myself to put anything by Her Lusciousness Olivia Newton-John on my list.)
You may also disagree with the choices. Hey, maybe you’ve got Billy Joel on your “worst of” list! Indeed, if you’re a music company repackaging 70s songs into albums, you can use the same numbers for the “best of” and “worst of” collections! In fact, a couple of my NYU law school classmates had something of that idea in mind when they formed the “Seventies Preservation Society,” which they grew into a major label, Razor & Tie. Apparently there’s still money to be made off of these terrible tunes.
Twenty-five years ago, the Berlin Wall fell, marking a symbolic end to the Cold War. This week’s observances of that event have prompted memories of visiting Berlin in May 1981. A few weeks earlier, I had finished my final undergraduate semester at Valparaiso University’s study abroad program in England, and Berlin was among my stops on a whirlwind trip through parts of the European continent.
In 1981 the Cold War very much remained a defining element of international relations, and divided Berlin captured the heart of the era. Although I was but one of millions of tourists to the city during that time, it felt adventurous to be splitting off from my friends for a brief solo trip there.
I’ve included some of my grainy snapshots, temporarily plucked from my study abroad photo album.
It was possible to get a one-day pass to travel from democratic West Berlin into Communist East Berlin. Via the Allied Checkpoint Charlie, you were processed through to the other side, under the watchful eyes of East German guards. You also had to exchange a minimum amount of money, and what you didn’t spend had to be “donated” to the East German government before crossing back to the west side.
Whereas life in the heart of West Berlin seemed loud and decadent, the streets of East Berlin felt lifeless under Communist rule — as drab and dreary as the photo above suggests.
There also wasn’t a lot to spend one’s money on; the (excellent) museums were free and food options were sparse. As my day in East Berlin drew to a close, I still had a fair amount of money left, and I didn’t want to simply hand it over to the East Germans. I thought I had lucked out when I spotted a bookstore, figuring I’d buy a book as a souvenir. However, the only title in English, displayed prominently for folks like me, was a hardcover edition of the complete works of Lenin. So I bought it! I would spend the rest of my European jaunt lugging around that big volume. Though I did bring it home with me, I cannot recall ever reading it before giving it away many years ago!
The specter of the Second World War was also very much present. I did a quick tour of the Reichstag building that housed the German parliament until 1933, when a fire of unknown origin prompted the Nazi government to suspend most of the individual rights contained in the nation’s constitution. I also visited the Olympic Stadium in which African American track and field star Jesse Owens won his gold medals, achievements said to have undermined the myth of Aryan superiority.
I’m very glad that I made Berlin a stop on my European itinerary, but there was something about the city that made me uneasy. I think I felt the energy of so much terrible stuff happening there during the city’s 20th century life. I would return to Berlin in 2011 when I attended a conference at Humboldt University, and I couldn’t shake that disturbing sense even though it had changed dramatically. Some places just have a certain discomforting feel, you know?
I’ve been pretty busy this fall, so I’ve had to ration my TV time carefully. But among the handful of shows I’m following, FOX’s Gotham has become a regular in the rotation.
Gotham is, in a nutshell, a prequel to the Batman stories. (MILD SPOILERS AHEAD.) It starts with the street murder of young Bruce Wayne’s parents before his very eyes, and then quickly shifts to the police work of green detective Jim Gordon and his senior partner Harvey Bullock.
Gotham‘s Gotham City is a dark, corrupt urban society with a 1940s New York City look and skyline. It’s also a time bender with mobile phones and cable-quality TV reception. In the early Gotham episodes, we’re introduced to more of the characters who later will be part of Batman’s world. (I’ll leave it to you to discover them for yourself.)
If you grew up with the Batman television series of the mid-60s, be prepared for a contrast! This is not a zam-wham-pow kids’ show. Gotham is the stuff of comic book noir, a sinister place where nearly everyone has secrets and many are the make. I’m not an avid comics reader or a devotee of the superhero genre, but I think it’s a lot of fun.
I had one of my periodic tornado dreams last night. It was, as these dreams tend to be, vivid, dramatic, but not at all scary.
In this dream, I was at some type of a program, hosted in a multi-level, homey-type building, when I looked out the window and saw funnels lowering toward the ground. Even though one of the tornadoes passed directly over us, there was no real damage and no one was hurt.
I have been fascinated by tornadoes since I was a child growing up in northwest Indiana, and I’ve been having variations of these dreams for as long as I can remember. As I wrote here last spring, in recent years I’ve even gone on storm chase tours to see the real thing. One of the most exciting days of my life was the first day of my first chase tour in 2008, when our group encountered a single supercell in northern Oklahoma that spawned multiple tornadoes throughout the afternoon and early evening.
Anyway, back to the tornado dreams. I know what some people might say: These dreams have a deeper meaning. I did a quick search — “dreams about tornadoes” — and found what I largely expected, such as an entry from DreamDictionaryNow.com asking if I am experiencing “emotional upheaval,” “destructive behavior,” or “sudden change.”
In my case, these dreams haven’t correlated with acute emotional episodes of my life. However, if there is a consistent theme in them, it’s that I’m girded for, but not frightened by, a tornado coming toward me. In fact, I’m utterly captivated. So maybe these dreams are telling me that I’ve got more capacity for change than the comparatively stable life of a professor might suggest.
Of course, my tornado dreams may be more transparent than that. The look and power of these storms have had a hold on me for decades. Maybe that fascination simply follows me into dreamland.