Monthly Archives: January, 2015

“Sons of Liberty”: Historical fiction vs. fictional history

Colonial rebels in the Battle of Bunker Hill (photo: DY)

Colonial rebels about to fight the Battle of Bunker Hill (photo: DY)

From the standpoint of pure entertainment, I thoroughly enjoyed “Sons of Liberty,” a three-part mini-series depicting events leading up to the American Revolution, which premiered earlier this week on The History Channel.

The series is centered in Boston between 1765 and 1776. Major events such as the Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, Battles of Lexington and Concord, and Battle of Bunker Hill are all there. Much of the everyday action takes place in the streets, taverns, and homes of old Boston, and that look-and-feel renders a gritty authenticity to the series, despite — as I’ll explain below — its many historical inaccuracies.

Among the various film depictions covering Boston’s Revolutionary history, this one vividly imagines what it must’ve been like to live there and then. So many of these historical sites have been preserved, and now I want to go visit them again.

Hancock (l) and Sam Adams (r) often butt heads. (Photo: DY)

Hancock (l) and Sam Adams (r) often butt heads (Photo: DY)

Most of the iconic historical characters are present, too: The tension between rebellious, rough-edged Samuel Adams and financier/smuggler John Hancock receives a lot of play. Among the colonials, Dr. Joseph Warren, John Adams, Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington also get their share of air time. On the British side, governor Thomas Hutchinson and General Thomas Gage are most prominent, with Gage’s young wife Margaret playing a key role in the story. (You can check out the main cast members here.)

“Sons of Liberty” attempts to give these figures distinct, relatable personalities, with varying success. Sometimes they utter lines that made me think to myself, surely they didn’t talk like that back then, did they?

Depicted here is the old State House, also the site of the Boston Massacre (Photo: DY)

Depicted here is the old State House, also the site of the Boston Massacre (Photo: DY)

The series opens with Sam Adams escaping from British troops in a roof-hopping scene befitting an action show — fans of Jack Bauer in “24” will enjoy it — immediately telling us that “Sons of Liberty” will not be a stiff docudrama. This mini-series is meant to hold our interest, and its narrative flow moves along briskly.

Along the way, it takes a ton of historical, umm, liberties, many of which are explained in an excellent post by historian Thomas Verenna, “Discover the Truth Behind the History Channel’s Sons of Liberty Series” for the Journal of the American Revolution blog. In brief, a lot of the facts are wrong, the personalities of major characters are sometimes at odds with those of their real-life counterparts, and the British officers and soldiers behave much more brutally than the historical record indicates.  Especially after reading critiques of “Sons of Liberty” by historians deeply familiar with the era, I’d suggest that it straddles the line between historical fiction and fictional history.

General Gage's supposed trophy wife turns out to be more than just another lovely face (Photo: DY)

General Gage’s supposed trophy wife turns out to be much more than just another lovely face (Photo: DY)

That said, I really enjoyed this mini-series, and I’m sure I’ll watch it again. My suggestion is to view “Sons of Liberty” first, and then to read Verenna’s article. Its faults notwithstanding, the series breathes life into the major events and figures of the Revolutionary era. Verenna understands this when he diplomatically avoids slamming “Sons of Liberty” for its inaccuracies, even after documenting them:

The takeaway from this is that the Sons of Liberty program is highly entertaining historical fiction. We hope it energizes more people to study the Revolution and discover the truth behind these events. In many cases, the real story is better than fiction.

Winter Storm Juno: The view from Jamaica Plain, Boston

10 p.m., Monday night. Awaiting the brunt of Juno.

10 p.m., Monday night. Awaiting the brunt of Juno.

We’re in the midst of a major blizzard here in New England, and the Greater Boston area is getting plenty of its share right now. I thought I’d share a few views from the area surrounding my home in the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain.

Now we've got a blizzard! 1 a.m. Tuesday, corner of Boylston & Chestnut Ave, Jamaica Plain, Boston

Now we’ve got a blizzard! 1 a.m. Tuesday, corner of Boylston & Chestnut Ave, Jamaica Plain, Boston

The snow and wind started to pick up substantially after midnight. As you can see below, I got into the spirit of things, venturing out to survey the scene and take a picture or two. I also exchanged a hello with a guy driving one of the snowplows. If my neighborhood is any indication, the City of Boston has done a very good job plowing the streets.

Blizzard selfie, with my street and condo building in the background.

Tuesday 1 a.m. blizzard selfie, with my street and condo building in the background.

I woke up this morning to news that the snow and wind will continue through much of the day, as expected. The snow certainly piled up during the time I was asleep.

Tuesday morning view from my condo.

Tuesday morning view from my condo.

Most of the city will be shut down today. The subway is closed. Most of us will be waiting out the rest of this storm, wondering if things will be cleared up enough to have a semblance of a normal day tomorrow. My university closed as of 4 p.m. yesterday, and while “snow days” are fun, we’ll probably have to make up missed classes later in the semester.

Looking down my street.

Looking down my street. It’s coming down heavy.

Among the things I don’t understand: Why is there a run on bread, eggs, and milk when a blizzard beckons? OK, bread I can understand — you can eat it even if the power goes out. But eggs are pretty useless if you can’t cook them, and milk is, well, what makes it so much more important during a blizzard? Anyway, my favorite neighborhood store, the City Feed & Supply, will be open for business soon, and I’ll be there.

I think he deserves overtime even if he hasn't reached 40 hours.

I think he deserves bonus pay.

Not-so-random acts of kindness for the non-saintly among us

Maybe some of the course rubbed off on me.

Maybe some of the course rubbed off on me.

Last November, I was crossing the street near Boston’s Faneuil Hall when I saw a man huddled in a blanket, shuffling past me in the opposite direction. I caught a glimpse of his eyes for only a second, but I could see a lot of sadness in them. When I got to the other side, I turned around and watched him make his way to a public bench, where he sat and seemed to just stare down.

I decided to go back across the street, and then I walked over to the man. I pulled some money from my wallet and offered it to him, saying that it looked like he could use something to eat. He appeared to be in very bad health, but when he saw that I was giving him twenty dollars and we began talking, his face lit up. He was very grateful for the money, and I believe he was appreciative that someone took a few minutes to converse with him.

What some might call a random act of kindness actually wasn’t all that random. Last fall I completed a non-credit, online adult education course, “The Science of Happiness,” led by psychology professors associated with UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. It was a substantial course on emerging scientific discoveries about what makes people happy, with weekly readings, video lectures, and quizzes, as well as mid-term and final exams. Among our optional assignments was to engage in random acts of kindness, drawing on psychological literature indicating that giving promotes happiness in both the giver and the receiver.

Indeed, a little voice from that course was speaking to me when I walked up to that man and gave him money, and I found myself feeling very emotional afterward. Since then, I’ve repeated this act maybe a half dozen times, approaching people who appear to be very down on their luck, saying hello and giving them a twenty dollar bill. Over the weekend it was a man sitting on a subway bench with all of his worldly belongings stuffed into a grocery cart. Earlier this month it was a woman digging through a trash receptacle in search of food, a few feet away from where I was enjoying my lunch.

A couple of times the recipients didn’t say much to me, but on other occasions they expressed surprise and deep gratitude. One man even hugged me. When you see someone’s facial expression go from weariness and despair to a big smile in a matter of seconds, then you know you’ve made someone’s day a little better.

I have hesitated to put this in a blog post because I don’t wish to portray myself as being someone I’m not. I walk by most people I see panhandling on the street, and I’ve never volunteered at a homeless shelter. And let’s be honest: Twenty bucks isn’t exactly a huge sacrifice for a single guy earning a professional salary. But I thought I’d offer this story as just one example of how the non-saintly among us can make a modest difference in the world. No, it’s not “social change” in the grander way that I’d like to see, but if enough of us engage in these acts, then maybe the good stuff starts to add up to something substantial.

Your not-so-random acts of kindness need not be the same as mine. But I can pretty much guarantee that whatever you decide to do, both you and the recipient(s) will feel better because of it.

***

Happiness course

Go here if you’d like to learn more about the free “Science of Happiness” course.

This piece is cross-posted on my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.

Throwback Thursday: Staying in New York (January 1985)

I saved this magazine cover  from Dec. 1984; it's displayed on a wall of my condo.

I saved this magazine cover from Dec. 1984; it’s displayed on a wall of my condo.

Thirty years ago, as I approached my final semester of law school at New York University, I accepted an offer to join the New York Legal Aid Society as a staff attorney after graduation. For me, it brought together two things near and dear to me: First, to work as a public interest lawyer; and second, to stay in New York City.

I had spent the previous summer working at a large commercial law firm in Chicago. Although the firm would extend an offer to return as a full-time associate attorney, I realized that my heart was not in corporate law and kindly declined. I wanted to work in the public interest sector, and so I applied for jobs across the country with legal services organizations, public defender offices, and a variety of other non-profit and public employers. Although NYU was very supportive of students who wanted to do public interest work, these jobs were in heavy demand among young (and not so young) do-gooder types. I knew that I had my work cut out for me.

My job search stretched across the country, but New York was my top destination by a huge margin. I had moved there from northwest Indiana to attend law school, and I fell fast and hard for the city. New York of the early-to-mid 80s was a city in transition, emerging from a previous decade steeped in crime, urban blight, and corruption. It was an awesome, gritty, sometimes overwhelming place to me.

In many ways, going to law school in New York was like a study abroad experience, in that I kept discovering its endless nooks and crannies on a shoestring budget. It was still possible to explore and enjoy many aspects of the city on the cheap, with an occasional splurge or two for a show or a nice dinner.

Anyway, good fortune would smile upon me, and I spent my final semester of law school knowing that my immediate future was set. I graduated in the spring, took the bar exam over the summer, and started at Legal Aid in the fall. Between being ousted from the NYU law dorm and my $20,000 starting salary, I was propelled into the apartment share hinterlands of Brooklyn. It would be many years before my paychecks yielded more disposable income, but at least I was in a city that captured so much of the world. Armed with subway tokens, travel guidebooks, and a credit card that I tried to use judiciously, I took a lot of New York “staycations.”

Yup, this takes me back some 30 years, and that realization does a number on me. Though concededly I was quite clueless about so many things back then, this was a very good chapter of my life. Sometimes, even memories filtered through rose-colored lenses of personal nostalgia can be pretty spot on.

Classic movie report: January 2015

photo-18

A few weeks ago I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies. As compared to resolutions about training for a marathon run or learning a foreign language, this one didn’t exactly rank high on the difficulty or willpower meter. Nevertheless, I’m here to report that I’m doing pretty well on keeping it, aided by a winter cold that kept me more housebound than usual.

In fact, I’ve been on overdrive, with a big dose of historical and war movies:

Mister Roberts (1955) (4 of 4 stars)

Henry Fonda stars as Doug Roberts, a frustrated lieutenant serving on a rusty Navy cargo ship in the final year of the WWII’s Pacific Theatre. Roberts badly wants transfer to a combat ship, but his ambitions are blocked by a tyrannical captain (played by James Cagney) who refuses to approve his repeated requests. William Powell as the ship’s doc and Jack Lemmon as hapless Ensign Pulver round out a great cast of major supporting characters.

This is a superb, touching, and funny movie, evocative of its era but much, much more than a period piece. It’s easy to see why it was first such a hit on the Broadway stage, premiering in 1948 and running for years with Fonda in the lead role. It’s equally easy to watch the movie and imagine how it was staged as a play.

John Paul Jones (1959) (2.5 stars)

Robert Stack plays the America’s first Revolutionary War naval hero, Capt. John Paul Jones. I found it a bit of a disappointment. Though not without its interesting segments, the movie lacks dramatic pull.

Shenandoah (1965) (3 stars)

James Stewart stars in this Civil War story of Virginia farmer Charlie Anderson, who stubbornly tries to keep himself and his family out of the war until circumstances make it impossible to do so. This is an old fashioned Hollywood depiction of the Civil War, and Stewart makes it worth watching. I’ve watched this movie several times over the years, and I’m sure I’ll be doing so again.

The Flying Fleet (1929) (3 stars)

This is a historical nugget, a silent movie about the early years of naval aviation, featuring fascinating film footage of old Navy biplanes and the U.S.S. Langley, the very first American aircraft carrier. Co-stars Ramon Novarro and Ralph Graves are young pilots who compete for plum missions and for the attentions of Anita Page, a hottie of the silent film era.

The Flying Fleet was co-authored by Frank “Spig” Wead, a naval aviation pioneer whose colorful career would later be the subject of The Wings of Eagles (1957), starring John Wayne. It was intended to glamorize and promote naval aviation, which was fighting for legitimacy among traditional, hidebound Navy leaders and the general public. Here’s a trailer:

 

 

My travel-related bucket list

The term “bucket list,” if you missed its pop culture origins, is drawn from the 2007 motion picture The Bucket List. The movie features Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as two men who, after receiving dire assessments from their doctors, ditch their hospital beds for a whirlwind road trip to places they’ve never visited and to do things they’ve never done.

Very quickly, the term became popularized by comparatively healthier middle-aged adults (among others) to describe their wish lists of to-dos and must-sees, many of which are associated with travel.

Now that I’m well into my fifties, I find a curious twist occurring: My own bucket list, at least when it comes to travel, is narrowing rather than expanding.

What’s on my list? As far as new places outside of the U.S. go, I’d like to see Athens and bear witness to the sites of ancient Greek history. Maybe I could squeeze in a visit to Italy as well. I’d also like to tour some of the famous historical and religious sites in France, ranging from First World War battlefields to ancient cathedrals.

Otherwise, I’d like to revisit a cluster of old haunts. Even traveling, I’m a creature of habit, and once I discover something I like, I’m drawn to go back. London, for example, has long been one of my very favorite cities, so much that I feel very comfortable there without losing that feeling of wondrous discovery. (Someday soon I’ll write about my visits there.)

For a someone with only a modest travel bug, I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of interesting, fascinating places, and I’ve experienced first-hand how travel can expand our minds and worlds. So especially to those whose bucket list dreams have yet to be fulfilled, I wish for you many opportunities to make them a reality.

***

As for The Bucket List, I give it maybe 3 or 2.5 stars out of 4. I’ve long been a fan of Morgan Freeman, but Jack Nicholson — in just about every role he plays — reminds me of too many of the egos I’ve encountered in the legal profession and in academe! Nevertheless, it’s a good movie, and it leaves us with some points worth thinking about.

Audition weeks: My favorite part of “American Idol”

Judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick, Jr.

Judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick, Jr. Hey, J Lo’s lookin’ right at me through the screen! (Photo: DY, 2015)

I’ve watched American Idol for about half of the show’s 14-year run, with an increasingly predictable if odd viewing pattern: I enjoy the early audition weeks, and then I steadily lose interest as the contestant group keeps getting winnowed down toward the winner.

Once the judges must give way to the audience vote, my interest wanes considerably. The audience voting patterns are downright bonkers at times, and it appears that the biggest voting bloc is made up of young women and girls who madly stuff the ballot box for their top Idol crushes.

However, the audition weeks, during which the judges go around the country to pick the most promising contestants based on short performances, are easily my favorite part of the show.

Yes, I know that the producers shamelessly create rags-to-riches stories or tales of overcoming huge odds to describe contestants’ paths to Idol, but I fall for them just the same. I enjoy rooting for those folks to get their ticket to the next step — Hollywood Week — and thus move toward becoming potential finalists.

In recent years, Idol has cut down on its practice of making fun of offbeat or untalented auditioners, and I’m glad about that. The real pleasure is in hearing what comes out of the mouths of unknown performers, and sometimes being blown away. And for successful contestants, getting that ticket to Hollywood makes for moments of pure joy.

So here’s to the new season of American Idol, or least the first few weeks of it!

 

 

Throwback Thursday: Math 14 and my pursuit of mathematical genius

Brilliantly anticipating the Digital Age: My final project for Math 14

Brilliantly anticipating the Digital Age: My final project for Math 14 (Photo: DY)

As a political science major, my bachelor’s degree program at Valparaiso University included a set of distribution requirements covering basic liberal arts subjects. Among other things, I had to choose three mathematics and science courses, with at least one math offering among them. Heading into my senior year in the Fall of 1980, I had already managed to take a pair of science courses to cover two of the three, but the dreaded math course still loomed in front of me.

You see, I hadn’t taken any math courses since my junior year of high school, and I was happy to be done with them back then. Although I’ve tended to be a pretty good logical thinker, that aptitude or affinity has never quite extended to the field of mathematics. Indeed, I was a living exception to the stereotype about Asians and math.

And so I reviewed the math course listings in search of something palatable, or at least passable. At VU, they were numbered in the 100s, 200s, 300s, and so forth, to signify their relative level of complexity. But mixed in with the three-digit numbered courses was one offering, Math 14, a/k/a “Mathematical Ideas,” with a description free of scary terms like “proofs” or “calculus.”

With a sigh of relief, I enrolled in Math 14. In the class, I saw a few students I knew previously, including a fellow political science major or two. However, by far the most notable cohort was comprised of members of the VU football team. VU was refreshingly short on “rocks for jocks”-type courses, but this was an apparent exception.

Math 14 was taught by a friendly senior professor who actually cared about stoking some enthusiasm for the subject matter among we math-phobes. He also adopted a textbook equal to our skill sets; I can’t recall the exact title, but it was something like Mathematics for Everyday Life or close to it. And yup, inside the book were a lot of story problems.

Hey, I’m not meaning to brag here, but I kicked butt in that course. Our final project was to assemble a set of 3×5 index cards using hole punchers to simulate a simple digital computing function. (Keep in mind that the personal computer era was a few years away.) Boom, I pulled off that baby without a hitch! And thanks to my penchant for not throwing anything away, I can now proudly share a photo of that project above. (Go on, tell me this isn’t like gazing at the collegiate notebooks of a young Stephen Hawking.)

Despite this rousing success, I did not attempt to switch my major to math at that late juncture, tempted as I was to continue on this newfound path of excellence. Instead, I stuck with the political science major and would go on to law school, as I had planned. But at least my index card computer remains operational; some exhibitions of raw brilliance must endure.

Returning to the scene of the crime

photo-13

On Monday I was in Washington, D.C., to participate in a panel discussion on employment law at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), the primary organization for legal academicians. The panel went very well; it was a genuinely engaging and interactive discussion with fellow presenters and colleagues who attended. My paper was on workplace bullying and the law, a topic I have studied and written about intensively for some 15 years. (For more on that, see this entry posted to my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.)

The conference was held at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel, adjoining the city’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. It’s a huge hotel, with multiple towers of rooms. Even with the guidance of the hotel’s helpful employees, you can easily feel lost and bewildered attempting to navigate it, especially if you’re at a professional event and have to get from one location to another in a matter of minutes.

And herein lies the nostalgic connection: Way back in the fall of 1993, I spent two nerve-wracking days at the same hotel, taking part in initial screening interviews for law teaching positions at the annual “meat market” hiring fair hosted by the AALS. I was in my third year of teaching as a junior instructor at NYU Law School (my legal alma mater), and now I was going on the market for a tenure-track appointment.

Here’s how it works: A successful screening interview may lead to an invitation for an extended, follow-up “callback” at a school’s campus, consisting of more interviews and a formal presentation. The process is a grueling one that can span several months, with no guarantee of success. I was fortunate that it worked out for me, including the offer I accepted from my current employer.

Thus, going to the Marriott Wardman Park was a bit of a trip down memory lane, a return to the scene of the crime. For so many who have experienced the AALS hiring fair at this hotel, the sprawling layout of the place contributed to the already Code Red anxiety levels we felt in our guts. This was especially the case if you happened to have interviews scheduled closely together on opposite ends of the hotel!

In that weird way that may be inherent with middle aged memories, in some ways it seems like yesterday, in other ways it feels like an epoch ago.

Some two decades later, I can breathe a small sigh of relief and be enormously thankful that I jumped through that big hoop in 1993. Participating in a panel discussion at that same hotel, this time purely for the purposes of sharing my work and learning from others, was a blessed thing indeed.

New Year’s resolution: Taking on Moby-Dick

More intimidating than Capt. Ahab

More intimidating than Capt. Ahab?

If the most common end of New Year’s resolutions is that they are broken, then perhaps I’ve set myself up for an easy fail: I’m giving Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) a genuine try.

Notice that I didn’t say “old college try,” a term usually associated with failure. We could fill a big state with students who gave Moby-Dick the old college try before throwing in the towel. I would be one of them.

But something about the book tells me that it’s now worth the effort. I’m familiar enough with the story to understand why it speaks more to adults who have been around the block than to young students who have it assigned to them in a course.

My interest has been piqued by Nathaniel Philbrick‘s Why Read Moby-Dick (2011). Philbrick, a terrific popular historian, calls Moby-Dick the “American Bible.” As he points out, Melville was writing in the years preceding America’s Civil War (1861-65), when the nation was forging its identity and grappling with conflicts that would soon escalate. A lot of that place and time is built into Moby-Dick.

Pre-reading

Whetting my appetite

Also, I’m in search of more books that will stick with me beyond the time I spent reading them.

Now, I’m far from being a reading snob — quite the opposite. In fact, I think there are many popular fiction writers today who deliver entertaining books with staying power. Stephen King’s great stories are a prime example. One of the telltale signs of their depth is how I can start reading or re-reading one of King’s books, find myself unable to get back to it for a week or so, and then pretty much pick up where I left off. There’s an emotional resonance to the characters and storyline.

However, I also could assemble a long list of mystery, thriller, and espionage books that were enjoyable in the moment, but didn’t leave a lasting impression in terms of plot, personages, or atmospherics. I simply galloped my way through them.

I finished the opening chapter of Moby-Dick and already know that it won’t be a cover-to-cover read. Others have written about carrying the book around for months before they finally completed it. I’m giving it six.

But that first chapter already yielded some remarkable images, including those of 19th century Manhattanites crowding along the waterfront, gazing out toward the sea with fascination. I couldn’t help but think of Bartleby, the unhappy law firm clerk featured in another noteworthy (and much shorter) Melville story (Bartleby, the Scrivener, 1853), wondering if he is among them, drinking in the view before heading back to his soul sapping job.

Hmm…if I’m already mixing and matching characters from Melville’s stories, then maybe it’s a sign that I should stick with it.

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