One night last week, I got home around 9 p.m., quickly grabbed a bite to eat, and started to feel very sleepy. It was around 10 p.m. when I decided to go to bed, an unusually early time for me. I couldn’t even keep my eyes open to read a book before dozing off. I had a good sleep — REM sleep with dreams and all — before waking up pretty energized.
There was just one glitch: It was only a little after midnight when I woke up! I got out of bed, knowing I wasn’t about to fall asleep again any time soon. I attended to some work before hitting the hay at around 3:30 a.m.
I have been a night owl for as long as I can remember. By this I mean going back into my early childhood. I loved being up late at night when everyone else was asleep. Very early in life, I began thinking, the night is mine!
Throughout my childhood, I associated a later bedtime with independence. Being able to stay up to watch late night TV was especially fun. When a local Chicago station began running Creature Features, a weekly classic horror movie on late Saturday nights, I’d huddle under a blanket in the TV room while the rest of the family slept, hoping that mummies and werewolves would not jump out of the screen.
As adolescence kicked in, my night owl rhythms felt more like insomnia. On school nights, I tried to get to sleep before midnight, but usually I’d fail, and get anxious about it in the process. I’d then listen to the radio, either a music station or overnight talk shows, the latter, I would learn, were the province of other night owls. It made for some tired mornings at school.
In college and law school, my nocturnal schedule actually fit in well with the overall student lifestyle. In fact, during those years I came to understand that I was quite productive during the late night hours. While the proverbial “all nighter” was more an act of desperation (as it is for most students), a steady stream of late night work was well within my productivity zone.
Heh, I’m only somewhat joking when I say that I became a professor so that I could revert back to the schedules of my student days! I am grateful to have such flexibility.
Fortunately, unlike my younger days, I’m able to adapt my schedule much easier than before; when I need to be up earlier, I can do so without much difficulty. But when given a choice, I tend to default back into burning the midnight oil, and then some.
Over the years I’ve read various, conflicting studies over the supposed strengths and weaknesses of “morning people” versus “night people,” but even if they hold some truths, they are aggregates, not determinants of individual traits and behaviors. As I see it, it’s a combination of personal proclivities, wiring, and circumstances, that’s all.
Will I ever flip over and become a “morning person”? I know many people who like to get up early for a head start on their day. I am much more productive during mornings than I used to be, so I can sort of understand. Sort of. Maybe this older dog will learn some new tricks, but for now, it’s likely to be late at night rather than early in the morning.
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. It has been a very busy month, so I have only one selection to review, but in honor of the college commencement season, it’s a classic:
Animal House (1978) (4 stars out of 4)
This wonderfully tasteless comedy about the debauched Delta fraternity at (thankfully fictional) Faber College during the early 60s ranks as one of my favorite movies ever. I watch it roughly every year — including this past weekend — and every time it cracks me up. It is so full of hilarious lines and scenes, I cannot even begin to list them out. (The IMDb site has collected many of the best quotes here.)
Animal House launched John Belushi as a major star, playing deranged Delta frat member John Blutarsky. Other favorite cast members of mine include Tom Hulce (as Larry Kroger), Stephen Furst (Kent Dorfman), James Widdoes (Eric Hoover), Tim Matheson (Eric Stratton), Karen Allen (Katy), Bruce McGill (“D Day”), John Vernon (Dean Wormer), Verna Bloom (Marion Wormer), Kevin Bacon (Chip Diller), and Mark Metcalf (Doug Neidermeyer).
Director John Landis and writers Harold Ramis, Doug Kenney, and Chris Miller did brilliant work here.
The extras included in the “Double Secret Probation” DVD edition are worth checking out as well. They include a reunion video that contains some great stories about the making of the movie. They obviously had a lot of fun on this production. Many of the cast members apparently lived their roles off screen as well, including a lot of partying.
I was in college when the movie was released, and let’s just say that it had a massive influence on campus life at schools across the country, for better or worse (usually the latter). Fraternity life, inspired by the movie, often went haywire, and toga parties became all the rage.
I was a hardcore independent, more likely to be lobbing criticisms at frat behavior from my perch as a campus newspaper reporter and editor than joining in on the hijinks, so perhaps it is odd that I find this movie to be so uncontrollably funny. Animal House manages to skirt around some of the darker excesses of fraternity life during the era, and it puts a hilarious spin on the rest of it.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I grew up in the northwest Indiana city of Hammond, a small (est. pop. 100,000) working class city. We lived in a neighborhood known as Woodmar, which had something of a suburban look and feel. During the 60s and early 70s, it was a relatively safe and secure place to grow up. Parents didn’t have to worry too much about kids being out on their own, even during the early evening hours.
During grade school, a good bicycle was the primary means of attaining a degree of youthful independence, at least when it came to getting around the neighborhood on your own and meeting up with friends. Among the many brands available, the basic, one speed Schwinn Sting-ray was a popular choice. It was simple, sturdy, and easy to control. A big step beyond a child’s starter bike, it could move pretty fast when powered by an energetic grade schooler.
For me, the Sting-ray was my ticket to exploring the neighborhood beyond our immediate block. I could ride to friends’ homes, the parkway, our grade school, or even the shopping center. The bike had enough giddy up in it that in some areas I could ride (carefully) on the streets, rather than sticking exclusively to the sidewalks.
I’ll stop short of trying to paint this as an idyllic childhood, because I was bored at times and felt lonely on occasion as well. Part of me yearned for something more, even if I didn’t know quite what it might look like back then.
But such feelings are hardly unique among kids (or adults, for that matter). Overall I am fortunate to have happy memories of hopping on my bike to ride around the neighborhood.
In my not-so-humble opinion, what separates a truly iconic city from many other fine places is that the great 20th century lyricists and composers wrote songs and music about them. They are the stuff of the Great American Songbook (and that of London and Paris, too).
Here are some of my favorite songs about New York, San Francisco, Chicago, London, and Paris. Sinatra versions predominate; he knew how to croon tunes about great cities.
Click, listen, watch, and enjoy.
When I decided to go to law school at NYU in New York City in 1982, I did so sight unseen. I didn’t have much money, so I evaluated law schools by studying their catalogs and consulting write-ups about them in published guidebooks. (This was pre-Internet, of course!) I finally saved up enough cash to visit New York for the first time, during the summer before starting law school. I came back knowing that I had made the right decision. Sinatra’s “New York, New York” quickly became my personal anthem, and it still gives me goosebumps to listen to it.
“Take Me Back to Manhattan” is a Cole Porter number often included in productions of Anything Goes. This version was performed by Judy Kaye for a 1980s collection, Songs of New York (pictured above).
True, “Rhapsody in Blue” is a musical composition, not a song. But as this video set to George Gershwin’s masterpiece will attest, it is a perfect ode to New York City. I can listen to it over and again.
The “Lullaby of Broadway” was written in 1935 and is now part of stage versions of 42nd Street. This is a great video of the 1980s Broadway production, starring Jerry Orbach (later of Law & Order) in the lead role, which I saw in 1984.
When I opted for law school in New York, it marked one of my early forks in the road. Before deciding to go east, I had looked very, very hard at schools in California and, especially, in the Bay Area. On occasion, but without regrets, I’ll wonder what if. “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” by Tony Bennett gets me nostalgic for a city I’ve only visited.
I grew up in northwest Indiana, right across the state border near Chicago. I took Chicago for granted back then, but today I appreciate it as a big, brawny, quintessential American city. “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” is my favorite song about the Windy City, and no one does it better than Sinatra.
“My Kind of Town” is Sinatra’s other tribute to Chicago, and it’s a great song too.
“A Foggy Day (in London Town)” is part of the George and Ira Gershwin songbook, and it sounds especially fine with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong doing the honors.
“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” is a wonderfully evocative song about London during the Second World War era, here performed by the incomparable Vera Lynn. It’s one of my favorites, one that I sing often in my weekly voice class and at open mic nights.
“I Love Paris” is another Cole Porter standard from the early 50s, just years after the end of the war. Sinatra captures the city’s beauty in this rendition.
What? No song about Boston, the city in which I’ve lived for over 20 years? Sadly, no. Boston has its attractions, but there’s no classic standard to mark it. I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.
One of the best things about living in Boston is that a lot of authors do book talks here, including many great writers of history. I just got back from one of them, a talk by historian David McCullough about his latest book, The Wright Brothers (2015), a story of brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright, who invented and flew the first successful airplane in 1903.
McCullough spoke in Cambridge as part of the Harvard Book Store speaker series to a packed house at the First Parish church.
McCullough is one of America’s foremost popular historians, and he is one of my personal favorites. His love of history pervades his books and his public appearances. In addition to being a master storyteller in print, his gravelly but gentle voice and a contagious enthusiasm for his subject matter add a magical quality to a talk or documentary.
McCullough confessed that before he started his research, he knew little of the Wright Brothers’ story beyond the basics: Two brothers, owners of a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, would go on to build and fly the first successful airplane, flown at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
However, as he dug into their story, he learned about how Orville and Wilbur were raised in very modest surroundings by a missionary father who believed very strongly in the power of reading, how their sister Katharine strongly influenced and supported their work, and how an intense devotion to teaching themselves the science and mechanics of flight led to their success.
It is clear that McCullough came to admire his subjects, for both their intelligence and their character. The Wright Brothers, he made clear during his talk, had the right stuff. He allowed himself to make broad connections, suggesting that great history is not just about politics and war. He compared the brilliant inventiveness of the Wright Brothers to that of composer George Gershwin.
During his prepared remarks and a lively Q&A, McCullough waxed eloquent about the importance of historical literacy. He said that history can be a “wonderful antidote” to the hubris of our present era. He noted that developments we take for granted today may be regarded as breakthroughs many years from now, adding that prognosticating about the future may be futile. “There’s no such thing as the foreseeable future,” he quipped.
David McCullough is a national treasure, as exemplified by tonight’s audience thanking him with long, warm rounds of applause and a standing ovation. It was just so much fun to be in the presence of this great historian and storyteller.
In a fun piece for the Boston Globe (registration may be necessary), TV critic Ty Burr ranks all of the major characters in AMC’s brilliant drama, Mad Men, which finishes its seven season run this Sunday.
Of course, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) ranks high on this list, as do Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks). Also, for what it’s worth, Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), “the grinning office rat,” ranks at the bottom of Burr’s list.
But finishing at the top is Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka), the daughter of Don and Betty Draper Francis, who grows into a wise, observant young woman while trying to cope with her very messed up parents. When Mad Men premiered in 2007, I doubt that many (if any) viewers imagined that Sally would become such a key character in the show. But thanks to compelling story lines and the emergence of Kiernan Shipka as a gifted young actress, Sally’s scenes are significant. Burr explains why he ranks Sally at the top:
Well, this one’s easy, especially if you’re the right age. Sally is us. . . . [H]er progress through seven seasons of TV and a decade of American cultural drama has coincided with her coming to adulthood.
Sally is us. Yup, during the first season of the show, set in 1960, Sally celebrates her sixth birthday. She’s right at the older end of Generation Jones (born between 1954 and 1965). Although by 1970, the year captured in the final season, she has clearly been influenced by the 1960s counterculture, she’s a tad too young to be a classic Boomer.
Of all the Mad Men characters, it would be most interesting to see where Sally is, circa 2015, and what the past 45 years have been like for her. She’d be in her early 60s now. What kind of life has she forged? Did she manage to overcome the dysfunctional adult, umm, role models that were part of her childhood? I don’t know if Sally at Sixty would make for much of a sequel, but I’d be curious enough to tune in for it.
I just finished a terrific novel, Su Sokol’s Cycling to Asylum (2014), described by the author as “the story of a family that flees a near-future New York City and crosses the border into Québec by bicycle to demand political asylum.” I’m going to be a bit lazy and let Su’s website synopsis do the work of describing its essence:
…[T]he novel is the story of a voyage, both an actual and personal/metaphorical one. This voyage is experienced differently by each protagonist and it is for this reason that it is told in alternating chapters, using the unique voice and perspective of each of the four main characters. These characters include Laek, a history teacher with a mysterious, radical past; Janie, an activist lawyer and musician; Siri, a tomboy with secrets; and Simon, a dreamy child addicted to violent screen games.
I’m pleased to report that Cycling for Asylum has drama and suspense, compelling characters sharing deep emotions, and a thought provoking political and social context, all sprinkled with clever detail and humor. I read the book slowly, over the course of many Boston subway rides. Its short chapters and compact, memorable story were perfect for that.
Concededly, I’m not an unbiased reader or reviewer. Su is a classmate of mine from NYU Law School, and many years ago she and her husband Glenn lived down the block from me in Brooklyn. During law school and throughout her career, Su has been a strong advocate for the disenfranchised and for social justice, a quality that informs her novel.
Su and I fell out of touch when I moved to Boston, but through Facebook we reconnected. I would learn that Su and Glenn moved their family from New York to Montreal about a decade ago. Earlier this year, Su was making a swing through the Boston area, and we enjoyed a delightful lunch along with her long-time friend (and book cover artist) Lin-Lin Mao. Here’s a photo that Lin-Lin took, with plenty of snow around us:
During lunch, Su told me how important this kind of writing has become to her. That care is evident in Cycling to Asylum, her first published novel. For me, reading it was a fun little revelation. I’d long admired Su’s commitment as a public interest lawyer, a job that often requires the skills of a good story teller to put a client or cause in a favorable light. But a strong knack for advocacy doesn’t make one a novelist, as the world is besieged with wannabe writers holding law degrees! In Su’s case, however, I found myself taken by her ability to create interesting characters and to tell a story.
I’m not a literary critic; I either like a book or I don’t. I really liked this one. While riding on Boston’s Orange Line, it drew me into another world of interesting people and times, a journey for which I am very thankful.
If this headline and photo are to be believed, collegiate munchies have definitely stepped up a notch or two since my student days. Those burgers look pretty darn good, don’t they?
During this month of May, I’ll be reminiscing even more about collegiate and law school experiences, and this particular entry is appropriately about food. After all, especially around finals time, late night eateries near campuses do a landmark business. Back in the day, I contributed mightily to this sales uptick.
At Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana during the late 70s and early 80s, late night chow options were somewhat limited, at least within reasonable walking distance. In fact, this post was triggered by a Facebook conversation the other day posted by a fellow dorm dweller (hat tip to Dr. Mark Kegel here), during which we reminisced about local eateries. A place called Greek’s Pizza deservedly enjoyed semi-legendary status, and the VU student union did a decent job on pizza as well, but beyond that the pickings were uneven.
I recall an independent donut shop that apparently had escaped regular health code inspections; I considered it a destination of desperation. There was a food truck selling pretty good stromboli sandwiches that would drive around campus. I also ate more microwaved sandwiches from the local 7-Eleven than my large intestine cares to remember. Toss in a Dairy Queen and a few other fast food places, and that was basically it.
When I got to law school at NYU a few years later, the midnight munchies situation got much better. This was, of course, Greenwich Village of the early 80s, and affordable eateries abounded. Thanks to my more gastronomically adventurous law school pals, my appetite would diversify considerably, especially when it came to ethnic foods.
Late night food options, however, reverted back to basics, with the 24-hour diners at the top of the heap. The Washington Square Diner on West 4th Street was the site of numerous 2 a.m. bacon cheeseburger runs and breakfast platters, and the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger on Broadway at Astor Place served up many a burger and cups of their awesome split pea soup. Empire Szechuan delivered tasty Chinese food into the wee hours. And after a late night of studying in the library, a pitstop at Ben’s Pizzeria for a serviceable quick slice was sometimes in order. (All of these places are still in business, by the way!)
In both college and law school, these intakes didn’t exactly make for the healthiest of diets. I have a feeling that many of today’s students are doing a little better on that count. Chipotle’s might not count as fast food, but it’s healthier and fresher than a visit to the Golden Arches. Then again, for a pure late night food experience, a good bacon cheeseburger in the wee hours of the morning beats a burrito bowl any day.
London has long been one of my favorite places, a huge yet walkable city steeped in history, tradition, culture, and entertainment. Not too long ago, a week-long trip to London was easier and cheaper than making similar visits to many locations in the U.S., at least from the East Coast. My fascination with the city and the relative affordability of traveling there made for some great visits during my younger days.
Jonesing for a return to London
During a formative semester abroad in England (1981), I visited London several times and was awestruck by it. It was just this fascinating, intimidating colossus. After that semester, I often daydreamed of returning. However, as a law student and then as a Legal Aid lawyer in New York City, spare cash was in extremely short supply.
Throughout the 1980s, London had this weird hold on my imagination from afar. I even was drawn to “Ticket to London, ” a role-playing game for my Commodore 64 computer, featuring the city’s major landmarks and geography. The simple graphics allowed me to “interact” with the city, which felt like the closest I would ever get to going back there.
But in 1990, an opportunity to return presented itself. I was enrolled part-time in a master’s degree program in labor studies at Empire State College in New York, which was co-sponsoring a two-week, interactive study tour in British public policy, hosted by the University of Bristol. Given a chance to earn degree credits, see something of the U.K., and spend a few extra days in London, I signed up! (While still cash crunched, I had learned to juggle credit cards by then.)
It was a great trip. The formal program was excellent. I learned a lot about British public policy and labor relations, and I enjoyed the company of my American and British colleagues. Equally important, I was able to spend a few blessed days in London. The way I spent my time there — seeing a play with friends from my Bristol group, visiting museums, taking a walking tour, and searching out bookstores — would set the pace for future trips.
Spring Break trips to London
That return visit to England whetted my appetite, and fortunately air fares and travel costs were very agreeable. During the early to mid 1990s, I could get a round-trip ticket from either New York or Boston to London for around $300, book a safe, clean, modest B&B room for less than $50/night, and enjoy the city fairly inexpensively.
I did these London trips during spring breaks, usually on my own, occasionally meeting up with friends along the way. The total cost was a meaningful dent in a young professor’s budget, but it was a very good deal for a week’s visit to such a grand city.
I’ve always been a creature of habit, and my visits to London mixed routines with a little variety. Here are the recurring themes:
A quality walking tour is a great way to explore a city. A variety of commercial tour operators provided fun and affordable opportunities to see and learn about London. My preferred walking tour company was London Walks, which I’m pleased to see is still around. With London Walks, I went on ghost walks, crime walks, “hidden London” walks, and, of course, Jack the Ripper walks.
Of the various tours offered, the Ripper walk was my favorite. The city’s East End — site of the Ripper murders — was still rather gritty in the early 90s, which added to the walk’s authenticity. During my London visits, I went on several Ripper walking tours, some of which were led by were serious researchers tackling the still-unanswered question of the killer’s identity. (Sidenote: On any given Ripper walk, I would be one of dozens of fellow Americans, causing me wonder why we hadn’t had our fill of serial killers on our own side of the pond.)
One Ripper tour (not London Walks) turned out to be an unintentionally comic relief version. The guide showed up somewhat inebriated, a condition exacerbated by the ritual pub stop that is part of a typical London walking tour. Let’s just say that his commentary caused some to walk away in exasperation, while the rest of us stayed out of pure amusement and tried not to laugh too loudly.
The 1990s overlapped with the 50th anniversary observations of Britain’s involvement in the Second World War (1939-45), and as a history buff this was tailor made for me. I made return trips to the Imperial War Museum, which houses a fascinating collection of artifacts and displays about both world wars. Skillfully and tastefully curated, these exhibits made for one of the best historical museums I’ve ever visited. Also on the WWII theme, I went to Winston Churchill’s underground war rooms, where Britain’s leaders plotted military strategy while the city above faced attacks by Germany’s Luftwaffe and long-range rockets.
Further drawn by the city’s earthy history, I enjoyed the Museum of London, the Old Operating Theatre near London Bridge, and the Clink Prison Museum. Let’s just say that all these sites helped to illustrate how life for so many denizens of Jolly Olde England wasn’t all that jolly. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes‘s characterization of life being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” comes to mind.
Its lack of aesthetic appeal notwithstanding, I loved spending time in the concrete jungle of the city’s South Bank arts complex, running along the Thames. I would arrive in the late morning to buy a cheap day ticket to a play or show at the National Theatre later that night. I would then spend the rest of my day poring over the open air used book stalls next to the theatre and hanging out at the nearby Festival Hall area, where I could buy a sandwich, catch a free lunchtime concert, or read a book.
Although I lived in New York for 12 years, my appreciation for the theatre was stoked in London, and the National Theatre had a lot to do with it. Starting with my collegiate semester in England, and proceeding into those 1990s visits, I was fortunate to see a lot of first-rate stuff there, including The Elephant Man, Murmuring Judges (a devastating portrayal of the British criminal justice system), and revivals of Oklahoma! and Carousel.
London is a book lover’s delight, or at least it was prior to the emergence of the same online competition faced by America’s brick and mortar booksellers.
Whether we’re talking huge bookstores selling new titles, musty old used bookshops, specialty sellers, or even museum gift shops, London’s offerings were the biggest threat to my budget. My purchases also made it hard to pack for the trip home. I recall two occasions when I had to buy an extra bag in order to bring my new acquisitions to the States.
Looking back, I realize how my 1990s visits to London transformed this giant metropolis into a comfortable place that balanced familiarity with discovery. This process was eased by the city’s subway system — the Tube — which could connect me to just about anywhere I wanted to go.
Since those trips during the 90s, I’ve been back to London on several occasions in connection with conferences and continuing education programs in the U.K. I look forward to returning again someday, though no longer with the haunting sense of yearning that drew me back there some 25 years ago. London is now a part of who I am, regardless of how many times I go back there.
I’d been working on this post for some time, but the inspiration to finish it up was this neat Yestervid.com video (about 11 minutes) containing some of the oldest known film footage of London, going back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. If you enjoy London, then this is a treat:
Baltimore has been reeling in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, an African American man who died from a severed spinal cord sometime during his apprehension and custody by the city’s police department. Gray’s death follows other well publicized, suspicious fatalities of black men involving police in other parts of America. In Baltimore, protests, unrest, and rioting have ensued.
This is a fast developing story, but as reported today by the Baltimore Sun, the State’s Attorney’s Office, citing evidence including the medical examiner’s report, has called Gray’s death a homicide and stated that the police acted illegally by arresting him in the first place. The State’s Attorney’s Office has warrants to arrest the six allegedly responsible police officers.
The Wire and Baltimore
How many of us, while watching this terrible situation unfold in Baltimore, have thought about David Simon’s classic HBO series The Wire (2002-2008)? Especially for those unfamiliar with the city, The Wire became our lens on its gritty underside, featuring gripping stories about Baltimore police, drug kingpins, politicians, newspaper reporters, teachers and school kids, and waterfront stevedores.
The Wire has been justly hailed as one of the best television dramas ever, so layered and authentic that many consider it an iconic depiction of the harsh realities of modern urban America, and a testament to the futility of well-intentioned efforts to reduce crime, improve schools, and clean up government.
When life meets art so tragically
Amidst the avalanche of news coverage about the situation in Baltimore, the Sun has observed how frequently references to The Wire are appearing in social media. Actor Wendell Pierce, who played Baltimore detective “Bunk” Moreland in the series, accused CNN of stirring up violence to fuel ratings. Actor Andre Royo, who played addict and informant “Bubbles” Cousins, took to Twitter to urge peace and calm. David Simon penned brief statement urging the same. (It prompted over 900 comments posted to his webpage alone.)
Sometimes life meets art in the worst of ways. It is heartbreaking that Baltimore has erupted like this, and that some of its poorest neighborhoods will be paying the price for many years. It is a 21st century phenomenon that our impressions of these events have been shaped by a cable television show lauded for its authenticity.