With March on the horizon, we’re now approaching the severe storm season, and I’ll be paying attention to forecasts and reports about tornadoes, building on a fascination that traces back to my early childhood. And thanks to an incredible database, TornadoHistoryProject.com, I can track down the history and path of the very first tornado I ever experienced, albeit down in the basement of my childhood Griffith, Indiana home.
It was July 20, 1962. Mom had taken my brother Jeff (almost 9 months old) and me (almost 3 years old) down to the basement by the time the tornado passed over our house. After it was safe to leave the basement, I went upstairs to see that our swing set had been knocked over. That was the worst of it. Thankfully it was a relatively weak tornado, with no reported injuries. However, as I’ve learned from the Tornado History Project, it had some staying power, traveling nearly 15 miles.
This is one of my earliest and sharpest childhood memories. In fact, I cannot recall anything else from that time making such imprint. My next firm memory comes from over a year later, when I was watching President Kennedy’s funeral.
I guess this helps to explain why I’ve been so captivated by tornadoes. In recent years, I’ve been going on storm chase tours and hanging out on Facebook with storm chasers and other bad weather enthusiasts. I guess some experiences just stick to the ribs, yes?
My first storm chase tour: May 2008 (May 2014)
When Glee (Fox) came onto the scene in 2009, it was all the buzz due to its edgy humor and snappy musical numbers, built around the ongoing fortunes of a high school glee club in small-town Ohio. It quickly gave notice that it would tackle, often in unorthodox fashion, topics such as teenaged angst, sexual orientation, jock culture, bullying, and the dynamics of a dysfunctional American high school.
Glee‘s ensemble cast of emerging stars, including Lea Michele as ingenue Rachel Berry and Broadway veteran Matthew Morrison as glee club director Will Shuester, would be joined regularly by notable guests drawn from stage and screen, some jumping into self-mocking roles.
The show was nominated for a slew of Emmy awards following its first full season. That would prove to be its high water mark, for although Glee would continue to have a core of devoted fans, it would soon lose some of its novelty. It also experienced real-life tragedy when Corey Monteith, a beloved core cast member, lost his battle with drug addiction and died due to an apparent overdose.
When Glee appeared, I found myself comparing it to another TV depiction of high school, the brilliant (and criminally overlooked) Friday Night Lights, a drama about life and football in small town Texas. With a few exceptions, the story lines and dialogue in Friday Night Lights were pitch perfect, even when dealing with sensitive subjects such as race or abortion.
By contrast, Glee has been a hot mess, sometimes nailing its messages, other times eliciting grimaces, but almost always in an entertaining mode. Pushing the envelope via a quirky mix of humor, music, and emotional drama is not an easy thing to do on network TV, but Glee has succeeded more often than not.
I haven’t been a steady Glee viewer. Like others, I was drawn to it at the beginning, and then kind of lost interest. But I’ve decided to tune in for the final season, and it has proven rewarding. On the whole, Glee has been good for television and spoken to a lot of kids (and some adults) who have felt like misfits while navigating the halls of their high schools and life in general.
I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. Here are my three latest:
Casablanca (1942) (4+++ stars out of 4)
Have you ever watched a movie touted as one of the best of all time, only to conclude that it was good, but not great? That’s how I felt the first time I watched Casablanca many, many years ago, and that ho hum assessment caused me to put off watching it again until earlier this week, when PBS televised it.
Well folks, I now understand why this belongs on the short list of the greatest films of all time. I get it, I get it, I get it.
The cast, the acting, the script, the story, the location, the wartime setting, and the music…the music(!!!)…it all clicked for me. I now comprehend why Humphrey Bogart was so great. I now see why young Ingrid Bergman was one of the beauties of the era. And as for Dooley Wilson’s vocals and piano playing, let’s just say this isn’t an all-time great movie without him.
Plus, Casablanca is a historical time capsule. It was made during heart of the Second World War, when the final result was hardly assured. Rick and Ilsa’s Paris was still under Nazi occupation at that time!
October Sky (1999) (3 stars)
This is about as recent as movies in this series of posts will get, but I can say that it’s got a heartwarming, old-fashioned quality to it, with a story grounded in an actual event. Four high school boys in a 1950s West Virginia coal mining town, spurred by news of Russia’s launching of the Sputnik rocket, set out to build a rocket of their own to compete in a science fair. I kept passing on this movie and finally gave it a chance. I’m glad that I did. A young Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, and Laura Dern are fine leads. The bonus features tell more of the feel-good story that inspired the movie.
The Unconquered (1947) (2 stars)
A Cecil B. DeMille production featuring Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard in a tale about mid-18th century American colonists and Indians in what was then the Western frontier (the region around modern day Pittsburgh). Given DeMille’s reputation for producing epic pictures, I thought I’d check out one of his lesser known movies. It embraced white man vs. red man stereotypes so common in movies of the era, but I expected that. I found the story, overall, to be uneven and lacking dramatic pull.
Not too long ago, Barnes & Noble was a big bad bully of the bookselling industry, pushing indie bookshops out of business across the country and swallowing up competitors like B.Dalton. For a while it jousted for top dog status with Borders, its main competitor in the superstore category.
But then along came Amazon, the biggest, baddest book selling behemoth of them all, armed with easy online click & ship ordering, the Kindle e-reader, and marketing savvy. Borders would go into a slow death spiral, finally crashing a few years ago. Barnes & Noble is now trying to survive as the only significant, national brick & mortar bookstore chain.
The top dog has morphed into the underdog.
Still and all, I very much hope that B&N makes it. I have always enjoyed walking into their stores, wondering what new discoveries await me, and exploring their huge selections. In addition to the shopping experience, B&N’s stores host author talks, meetings of writers’ circles and book clubs, and informal meet-ups. They are good for a community.
In addition to shopping at indie bookstores and, yes, Amazon at times, I’ve been making a conscious effort to buy more of my books, DVDs, and periodicals at B&N’s main store here in Boston. If it disappears, Boston will be without a major, high volume bookstore in the heart of the city, and that would be a genuine civic shame.
Me and B&N: The beginning
Barnes & Noble and I go way back. I first discovered it well before its superstore era, when the company was a plucky retailer, with stores in Manhattan and a fledgling mail-order business. As an undergraduate living in Indiana (1977-81), I sent away for their thick catalogs, and I would spend hours poring over the remainder listings in search of good bargains.
When I moved to New York for law school in 1982, my periodic walks from NYU’s Greenwich Village campus up to B&N’s twin retail stores on opposite sides of 5th Avenue at 18th Street became regular rituals. The east side location housed its flagship academic bookstore, offering mostly new non-fiction titles and textbooks at full sticker price. As a budget-conscious student, this made it better for browsing than for buying.
The west side storefront, however, was the site of B&N’s huge Sale Annex. It quickly became a personal treasure trove, with several floors of low-priced remainder books, discounted new books, and a generous used book section. At the risk of betraying more of my geekdom, I confess that my heart would start beating faster upon entering the store, in anticipation of the affordable goodies I might find there. I cannot guess how many hours I spent in that store during my 12 years in New York.
Right next to the Sale Annex was a large B&N music store. Here, too, I was overwhelmed by the choices. This was still the golden age for cassette tapes, and the music store seemed to have them all. At the time, my “stereo system” was the portable cassette player I had brought with me from Indiana, and I would wear out the batteries over and again playing my purchases there.
Enter the superstores
In the early 1990s, B&N made its big move, launching the superstores with their huge book selections, many shelves of periodicals, music and video offerings, and cafés selling beverages and food. They started in New York and soon expanded the concept nationally.
At that point, B&N became the bad guy, the Manhattan bully that was pushing small independent bookshops out of business. There was truth in the charges. With its thousands of titles and discounted best sellers, B&N simply offered much more than did its smaller competitors, and at lower prices for popular books. Borders would soon join the fray, and the two went head-to-head for a decade or so, while the indies took even more of a beating.
Among book lovers, the superstore vs. indie issue became political. Looking back, I recall being in a distinct minority among my liberalish social cohort in saying that I preferred the big superstores to the mom & pop bookshops.
These debates even helped to inspire a main storyline in the 1998 romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail, starring Meg Ryan as the owner of a small Manhattan bookstore and Tom Hanks as a senior executive for the superstore opening in the indie shop’s neighborhood. (It also features AOL as the e-mail platform. How things have changed!)
My gosh, the superstore vs. indie discussion is largely passé, yes?! When it comes to bookselling today, it’s Amazon vs. Everyone Else. In fact, until recently it appeared that Barnes & Noble would go the way of Borders and disappear from the scene. In particular, B&N’s Nook e-reader has flopped as a competitor to Amazon’s Kindle, and losses from its e-book division have been a drag on B&N’s balance sheet. In addition, Amazon’s ubiquitous online presence has hastened the closure of many B&N stores across the country.
Among the departed are the main and annex stores on 5th Avenue at 18th Street. That breaks my nostalgic heart a little.
However, B&N has been making something of a comeback. It appears that a growing number of book buyers have recognized the importance of having brick & mortar bookstores around, and B&N has joined indie booksellers in enjoying a minor resurgence. In pure business terms, even its stock value has staged a recovery.
Until a year or so ago, I was buying most of my books from Amazon and keeping a Prime membership to guarantee fast delivery. However, ethical concerns over Amazon’s treatment of its warehouse workers have caused me to reduce my ordering from Amazon and to cancel my Prime account. (See this piece posted to my professional blog for a longer explanation.)
In the meantime, I’ve rekindled my enjoyment of visiting brick & mortar bookstores of all types, including small indies, used bookstores, and B&N’s superstores. Yup, click & ship is awfully handy, and online booksellers (including B&N and Amazon) are now networked with used bookstores across the country, making the hunt for elusive out-of-print titles much easier. Nevertheless, physical bookstores, where you can browse and discover and buy, are a joy for the mind and spirit and are part of an intelligent, healthy society.
Let’s hope that B&N and other bookstores are around for a long time. I look forward to giving them more of my business.
Dear readers, you’re about to be treated to another entry about the weather here in Boston. We’ve got our fourth consecutive weekly Big Snowstorm, two of them blizzards. Winter Storm Neptune (snowstorm 4/blizzard 2 if you’re counting) has been unfolding before our very eyes this weekend.
I wish I could claim that I’ve turned the snowbound days into productive work activity, but it’s only partially true. The weather geek in me keeps an eye on the TV weather coverage, even if it’s becoming repetitive. Snow here, snow there, snow everywhere — and plenty of wind gusts, too. This is, after all, a weather pattern of historic proportions, and we’ll be talking about it for years. Hey, this ain’t nothin’ compared to the big ones back in ’15……
The local transit authority announced that the subway, buses, and commuter rail will be operating on, to put it gently, adjusted schedules on Monday, after being shut down completely today. My university decided to hold classes, which means that a lot of students, faculty, and staff will be having somewhat adventurous sojourns into downtown Boston. I’ll be among them!
I’ll also have a little soreness in this middle aged body tomorrow, thanks to my largely futile efforts at snow shoveling today. Fortunately, I was able to hire a couple of guys who were earning extra cash with a snowblower and a snowplow truck. They did in a few minutes what would’ve taken me…never mind…I wouldn’t have finished. That said, even the snowblower had trouble pushing through mounds of snow where the sidewalk was supposed to be.
I did manage to watch some TV, including the latest episode of The Americans, one of the best one hour dramas around right now. I also watched an ESPN streamed college basketball game featuring my undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University, overcoming a half-time deficit to beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the latest win in a surprisingly strong season. VU’s basketball team wasn’t much to speak of while I was a student. But its fortunes have improved considerably since then, to the point where VU now ranks among the better mid-major Division I hoops programs.
As I finish off this blog post, I’m missing a 40th anniversary special for Saturday Night Live. It realize that it’s an iconic Generation Jones television show, premiering in 1975. SNL has had its moments — for me “Da Bears” skits and Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonations are brilliant — but overall I find its humor misses as often as it hits. Maybe I’ll catch it another time, perhaps during a future snowstorm.
Even my dearest friends who read this blog are probably tiring of this, but I must write again of the weather! Here in Boston, we’re getting pounded with another 20 inches or so of snow, our third major storm over the past 15 or so days. The city is once again in shutdown mode, and the white stuff keeps piling up.
This is the third Monday in a row that my classes have been cancelled, and for me the novelty of snow days may be forever gone, er, at least for a while. Anyway, I decided that this would be a good day to go to my office and get some work done. Encouraged by online postings that my subway line was experiencing only “moderate delays,” I bundled up and trudged over to the subway, a/k/a the “T” (shorthand for Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority).
You see the electronic sign in the photo above? I’ve noticed something about it, in any kind of weather. When it ticks down to 3 minutes, time according to the T stops in its, uh, tracks. It may stay at 3 minutes for a couple of minutes, maybe 5 minutes, maybe a bit longer. This time, however, it stayed at 3 minutes for over 20 minutes, with no public address announcement informing us of extended delays. I got the message and decided that riding the T today was not a prudent option.
I’ve spent most of my life in parts of the country where snowfall is par for the course, but I cannot recall being hit in three successive weeks with storms that, standing alone, would be regarded as the signature event of a more normal winter. This has been a remarkable stretch of weather, and I’m sure we’ll be sharing stories of the winter of 2015 for many years to come.
Well folks, we’ve set a local record for the most snowfall in a week, with over 35 inches here in Boston. Last week’s blizzard was topped off by another very heavy snowstorm that tapered off on Monday night. The mega-mound pictured above is a typical sight right now all over the city. Everyone has run out of places to put the stuff, so building up is the only viable alternative.
I don’t own a car, but I’m told that the roads are a mess, despite valiant efforts to keep them plowed. My travel lifeline, the subway, is in a constant state of delay, with the area transit system’s dysfunction and aging rolling stock conspiring against us. This means long waits on the subway platforms, some of which are open air, only to find trains packed with passengers when they do arrive.
Though like most any teacher or student, I enjoy the occasional snow day, this is getting out of hand. At my university, our “spring” term started on January 20, but one of my classes has met only once because of numerous class cancellations. I’ll have to schedule a couple of marathon make-up sessions, which is not ideal but the only realistic alternative when you’ve got a mix of full-time and part-time students with myriad work schedules and other obligations.
In any event, it appears that people are dealing with the weather as well as can be expected, and sometimes with good cheer. The New England Patriots’ remarkable Super Bowl victory on Sunday has helped to lift spirits above the snowdrifts. (Full disclosure: I’m a diehard Chicago Bears fan, but I enjoy rooting for the Pats as well.) And as someone who grew up in Northwest Indiana, this has been an occasion to wax nostalgic with friends from the Midwest over blizzards and snowstorms of the past.
We’re looking at a bit more snow later this week, so it appears that these mounds are going to be with us for a while.