As the air chills and the days grow short, the semester chugs along
As I made tracks to my weekly singing class on Tuesday evening at around 6 p.m., both the chilly air and dusk were part of my brisk walk. I did stop to snap the photo above; I liked the way the lights were playing off the fountain. By the time I got to the adult education center where my singing class is held, it was fairly dark.
At work, the end of October means that the semester is now in full swing. I’ve got a stack of paper drafts and outlines to go through this week, and I’m taking a closer look at my course plans to get a sense of whether I’m on schedule in terms of subject matter coverage.
Many of you took your leave of school calendars some time ago, but those of us still in the business as an educator, administrator, or student know how the rhythms of the semester or quarter define our experience of time. I’ve probably said something along these lines before here, but being an academic is as much a lifestyle as it is a career.
For folks like me, whose lines between work, avocations, and civic involvement easily get blurred, it means that work-life balance is something of an irrelevant concept. A lot of stuff just gets jumbled together. Furthermore, although I work a lot, I am not the most self-disciplined person, which means that something another person might get done during a standard Monday through Friday work week might get pushed into the weekend in my case.
Such is the blessing and curse of a vocation that offers great flexibility in scheduling outside of classes and meetings. I offer this as an observation, not a complaint! I think I am wired to live like an undergraduate, so it’s good that I’ve found a way to earn a living that facilitates this personal quality.
Why there will never be another Great Pumpkin
“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” is one of the most popular television specials ever made, premiering in 1966 and shown every year around Halloween time. Featuring the beloved “Peanuts” characters of Charles Schultz, it centers around young Linus’s yearly obsession with the Great Pumpkin, who supposedly promises to deliver bags of goodies to kids who wait for him in pumpkin patches. Here in the U.S., the program will be broadcast on ABC this Tuesday!
Something tells me that Charles Schultz was not crazy about dealing with legal matters. I watched “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” just the other day (yeah, I bought the DVD a few years ago…), and I noticed how it is sprinkled with references to lawsuits, notarized documents, and other legalities, and not in a happy light!
Of course, it took a law professor’s scrutiny to pick out the legalisms, because the program is simply a lot of fun. For many of us who first watched it as kids, it brings back great memories of trick-or-treating, school Halloween parties, and scary stories of ghosts and goblins.
In any event, we won’t see anything like the Great Pumpkin anytime soon. Why? Take a look at the photo above, showing the ratings pulled in by the premiere broadcast of the program. The “share” means it attracted 49 percent — roughly half of the viewers — of the U.S. television audience during that time slot!
Such a market share would be unheard of with today’s multiplicity of cable stations, streaming services, and DVD rental/purchase options. Back in the day, we had the three networks and a handful of local stations to watch, and that was it! Less choice meant more of a shared experience. We’d watch highly anticipated kids’ specials on TV, and then go to school the next day to talk about them animatedly with our friends.
It’s obviously different nowadays. While I wouldn’t trade in the bounty of viewing choices we have today for a handful of channels and no way to record anything, we have lost a bit of the “popular” in the term “popular culture” as a result. We also have lost the seasonal anticipation of waiting for that once-a-year broadcast of favorite specials and movies. Instant gratification can be, well, instantly gratifying, but it’s not the same as watching the leaves turn and looking forward to the fall presence of the Peanuts gang.
A random observation on Snoopy, perhaps the most iconic Peanut’s character: He really should’ve been a cat! Think about it: He may be everyone’s favorite animated beagle (including mine), but he acts like a cat! He’s cheap with his affections, utterly self-absorbed, will dish out retribution on anyone who crosses him, and yet we love the little fellow.
Photos are screenshots from “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” and an accompanying DVD feature on the making of the television special.
Throwback Thursday: My career as a collegiate journalist
Those who ask me about the potential value of extracurricular activities for college students risk being on the receiving end of a verbal serenade about The Torch. Allow me to explain….
My undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University in Indiana, recently announced the creation of an online archive of past issues of The Torch, the school’s long-running weekly student newspaper. As a former Torch department editor and reporter (1979-81), the notice catapulted me into a nostalgic state. I even dug out the bound volume from my first year on the paper, photos of which you may peruse here.
I quickly lapse into soggy memories over The Torch because it was the most important extracurricular activity of my college career. The experience of writing and editing articles for publication has paid professional dividends throughout my career, and many of the friendships formed with fellow staffers have endured to this day.
I joined The Torch in my junior year, and I pored myself into working for it. I wrote dozens of articles and columns, mostly on academic affairs topics within the university. I also assigned stories to reporters in my department and edited their work.
It was a heady experience to write pieces for publication with a byline appended. Many members of the VU community read the paper, as our lively letters-to-the-editor section often reflected. (I learned that if you’re going to put your words out there for public consumption, you’d better have or grow a thick skin.)
Some articles demanded special attention to detail, thoroughness, and accuracy. For example, I wrote an investigative piece in which I was able to elicit admissions from campus administrators that a popular political science professor had been denied tenure on grounds beyond the official criteria for tenure evaluation. This meant many hours interviewing university faculty members and deans; our reporting had to be airtight on such an important matter.
I also did a series of articles covering the aftermath of a tragic student-on-student slaying that had racial overtones. Those pieces thrust me well beyond the comfort zone of reporting everyday campus events and activities. For several weeks I was regularly on the phone with sources from police departments, the county prosecutor’s office, and the local hospital, among others.
The Torch quickly became the social and intellectual hub that I didn’t previously have at Valparaiso. A former Torch colleague once wrote that it became our own college of sorts, where we wrote and edited our articles and debated issues related to academic and campus life. We spent a lot of time simply hanging out at The Torch offices, even when we didn’t have to be there. Looking back, I now realize that it was an exceptional extracurricular experience.
Our little newspaper was not free of sophomoric writings (some penned by yours truly), and at times we took ourselves too earnestly (ditto). But we produced some quality reporting and thoughtful commentary about collegiate life and academic institutions, as evidenced by multiple awards we earned from the Indiana Collegiate Press Association during those years.
The university’s Greek system was a regular focus for us, and we often took to task the behavioral excesses emerging from fraternity events. This was the age of Animal House, and along with toga parties inspired by the movie came some pretty egregious conduct. In retrospect, it’s clear that we were fully warranted in addressing these issues, many of which anticipated today’s concerns about student conduct at fraternity events.
However, we largely dismissed the positive social bonds facilitated by fraternities and sororities. Our office conversations were laced with regular putdowns of Greek organizations, to the dismay of Torch staffers who belonged to them. At a school with a largely conservative student body that embraced the Greek system, our newspaper was a liberal-ish, independent enclave, sometimes fueled by healthy doses of self-righteousness.
As a group of (mostly) liberal arts majors, we closely reported campus deliberations relating to the place of the social sciences, humanities, and general education in the university curriculum. These topics were frequently invoked in editorials and opinion columns as well. The more callow among us were guided by the work of three senior editors with strong intellectual orientations. Many of us were unaware that we were participating in an emerging national debate on the value of instruction in the liberal arts, but this troika was already marking academic trends by reading The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Only a handful of Torch staffers would build careers in journalism. One of them, Jim Hale (author of the “Insights gleaned” column pictured above), is currently a reporter for the Gettysburg Times in Pennsylvania. Previously Jim was a writer for the Gettysburg College communications office and a reporter for the Chesterton Tribune in Indiana.
As for me, I did some part-time reporting for a couple of local newspapers in northwest Indiana, and later I served as an editor of the law school newspaper at New York University. Though I did not pursue a journalism career, The Torch served as an ongoing tutorial on the importance of tight, clear, well organized writing. In terms of aspirations, at least, these qualities have manifested themselves in virtually everything I write: Scholarly articles, essays, reports, op-ed pieces, and, yes, blog posts.
In fact, I know that my affinity for the blogging medium traces back to my days at The Torch. Writing this blog is an engaging pastime for me, like being a newspaper columnist, albeit with a much smaller readership! Writing my professional blog, Minding the Workplace, requires more analytical smarts, but it, too, has roots in my collegiate newspaper experience.
The old chestnut about understanding your present by comprehending your past certainly applies here. I did not have an academic career in mind when I was a collegian. My intention was to go to law school and eventually to start a career in politics. (I also was active in student government and in political campaigns as a college student.) However, as I flipped through the pages of The Torch, I understood how reporting on the ups and downs of academe planted seeds that keep sprouting in my life today.
Equally important, I remain good friends with everyone whose byline appears in these photographs, as well as others who were part of the mix. Our paths cross regularly through periodic get-togethers, e-mails, phone calls, and social media. Many of these friendships have matured and deepened over the years. This only reinforces my belief that something good was happening at that campus newspaper office some 35 years ago.
Portions of this post were adapted from a previous piece on the importance of extracurricular activities, written for Minding the Workplace.
When the World’s Fair came to Chicago in 1893
Although Christopher Columbus isn’t on my list of favorite historical figures — click here and here for reasons — the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that bore his name was a sight to behold. The “Columbian Exposition,” named to recognize the 400th anniversary of his arrival in the Americas, attracted a global audience to the brawny, growing metropolis of Chicago.
The 1893 Fair was a celebration of the world, its past, present, and future. This awesome little picture book, a gift from my long-time friends the Driscoll Family, presents a collection of photographs that capture some of that fascination. I’m delighted to share a sampling:
The Palace of Fine Arts was a chief showpiece building of the Fair. It is now Chicago’s famous Museum of Science and Industry.
This panoramic shot of the Fair helps to explain why it was called “The White City.”
While striving for an Old World look, the Fair celebrated scientific invention and manufacturing capacity.
Disney’s Epcot Center doesn’t hold a candle to the small scale re-creation of other nations at the 1893 Fair.
The Fair offered looks at exotic parts of the world. Check out the expressions of these ladies.
You could do some simulated exploring as well…maybe this inspired a future Indiana Jones?!
Refreshment stands dotted the Fair. I’m sure they were especially welcomed during hot Chicago summer days.
Guys who were bored with all of the cultural exhibits and displays could line up for this distraction. (This photo contains one of the longest lines of any exhibit in the book!)
America’s emerging role in international affairs and growing military strength were exemplified by the U.S.S. Illinois, a full-scale mock-up of a modern battleship that presaged even larger warships to appear at the turn of the century.
For more foreshadowing of events to come in the next century, the Krupp company, a major German gunmaker, had its own building.
But we shouldn’t finish our photo tour with ominous signs for the future. Rather, let us close with a reminder of the Fair’s beauty, via this wonderful night shot.
Could we ever have another World’s Fair? Probably not. The last genuine Fair was in 1964, in New York City. Subsequent efforts to stage such expositions haven’t generated the same levels of interest and attendance. In an age where the Internet, television, and international travel combine to shrink the globe, it’s hard to foresee anything like the 1893 Fair occurring anytime soon.
But that shouldn’t stop us from imagining the sense of fascination and wonder that drew visitors to the Chicago World’s Fair experienced back then. The Old World was making way for the New one, and these photographs make it clear that the Fair captured that moment in time.
If you want to learn more about the Chicago World’s Fair, check out its Wikipedia entry. Here’s a snippet:
The layout of the Chicago Columbian Exposition was, in large part, designed by Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted. It was the prototype of what Burnham and his colleagues thought a city should be. It was designed to follow Beaux Arts principles of design, namely French neoclassical architecture principles based on symmetry, balance, and splendor. Many prominent architects designed its 14 “great buildings”. Artists and musicians were featured in exhibits and many also made depictions and works of art inspired of the exposition.
The exposition covered more than 600 acres (2.4 km2), featuring nearly 200 new (but purposely temporary) buildings of predominantly neoclassical architecture, canals and lagoons, and people and cultures from 46 countries. . . . More than 27 million people attended the exposition during its six-month run. Its scale and grandeur far exceeded the other world’s fairs, and it became a symbol of the emerging American Exceptionalism, much in the same way that the Great Exhibition became a symbol of the Victorian era United Kingdom.
Dedication ceremonies for the fair were held on October 21, 1892, but the fairgrounds were not actually opened to the public until May 1, 1893. The fair continued until October 30, 1893. In addition to recognizing the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World by Europeans, the fair also served to show the world that Chicago had risen from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire, which had destroyed much of the city in 1871.
Also, the Chicago Historical Society has an excellent online feature about the Fair.
Finally, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003), interweaves the story of the Fair with the gruesome tale of serial killer H.H. Holmes, whose private torture chamber was located a close west of the city’s fairgrounds. It’s a riveting book.
Lost traditions: The Sunday newspaper
Not too long ago, a popular Sunday tradition was spending a good chunk of the day reading through the Sunday editions of the daily newspapers. Millions experienced the tactile delight of opening up a big Sunday paper, wondering what interesting stuff waited to be discovered. Even the advertising flyers were fun to page through, especially around holiday season.
The hefty Sunday newspaper has been a journalistic tradition for well over a century. One of my favorite coffee table books is Nicholson Baker & Margaret Brentano, The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898-1911) (2005), which celebrates Sunday newspapers published during the turn of the last century.
The World on Sunday and the tradition of Sunday newspaper reading represent an aspect of pre-digital culture that may be hard to understand for those weaned on an online world where wishes for news and commentary are instantly gratified. Fortunately, some of the major newspapers still land on doorsteps with a healthy thud on Sundays, containing some of their best in-depth reporting, feature articles, and opinion pieces.
Growing up in Chicagoland
My Sunday newspaper habit goes back to growing up in Northwest Indiana, where local papers and the Chicago dailies were readily available. Among the Sunday editions that regularly got my attention were the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Hammond Times, and Gary Post-Tribune. The Tribune excelled at covering my beloved Chicago sports teams, and the Post-Tribune did a very good job with local news.
These papers deserve credit for turning me into a Sunday paper junkie. The Chicago influence was especially strong. The Windy City was a great, great newspaper town back in the day, fueled by the city’s colorful politicians, sports figures, and crime bosses. Beyond the headliners, however, the reporters and columnists who toiled for Chicago’s daily papers also had a knack for digging out the stories of everyday people. The human interest story had a regular place in the city’s newspapers.
Sundays in New York
When I lived in New York City (1982-1994), the Sunday papers were a special treat. The Sunday New York Times was an especially heavy load, a multi-pound door stopper packed with goodies and advertising circulars. The early edition of the Sunday Times would come out on late Saturday evening (and still does), and many a weekend night out included picking up a copy on the way home.
My personal favorite, however, was New York Newsday, the now gone NYC edition of the venerable Long Island daily. New York Newsday wasn’t as worldly as the Times, but it spoke more closely to the city’s middle class and did a superb job of covering local politics and sports. Its thick Sunday edition was chock full of extended features and commentaries. To this day, New York Newsday remains my favorite-ever newspaper.
And now in Boston
My Sunday paper of choice remains the New York Times. The Times has not abandoned the idea that the Sunday edition of a newspaper should be something special. I especially look forward to its Week in Review and Book Review sections.
The major daily here is the Boston Globe, and I have an online subscription. I have an on again, off again relationship with the Globe, and for now we are on digital terms only. In fact, despite a surfeit of subscriptions to printed periodicals, I increasingly get much of my news and commentary online.
And to be honest, I wouldn’t trade the remarkable world of information and news available online for the days of waiting for the paper to be delivered. I, too, have been spoiled by point and click access to news coverage from around the nation and the world. However, at a time when we can use more civilized, enjoyable, and affordable rituals in our lives, reading the Sunday newspaper remains a pretty good choice.
This is a revised version of a piece I wrote for another blog three years ago.
What are your “comfort books”?
What are your “comfort books”? You know, those books that make you feel all warm and cozy, like a good meatloaf or bowl of soup?
It could be a classic novel, scary story, or atmospheric mystery. Or maybe a compelling tale of history or travel. How about an inspirational or spiritual book? If you’re a sports fan, maybe it’s a story about your favorite team.
I have comfort books that fit into most of these categories.
But in a confession of my free fall into complete geekdom, I’ll share one that I’m guessing you haven’t heard of before. It’s an intellectual history book, Men of Learning at the End of the Middle Ages (2000), by French historian Jacques Verger. I spied it at a bookstore over a decade ago, and it looked interesting enough to take a flier on it.
Men of Learning looks at how educated European men of the 14th and 15th centuries — mostly scholars, teachers, lawyers, doctors, clergy, and bureaucrats — contributed to the advancement and dissemination of knowledge.
Verger combed through a lot of libraries and archives to be able to share, for example, the numbers of volumes in the private libraries of well-known and not-so-well-known individuals of the era. The Gutenberg printing press did not come along until the 1440s, which meant that printed books were precious, and that books written out by copyists were still quite popular. A personal library of even a few dozen or so volumes was considered an impressive (and monetarily valuable) intellectual endowment.
Today, libraries of major research universities contains millions of books and countless other print resources, not to mention access to even more via online resources. In the late Middle Ages, however, even the libraries of great medieval universities typically numbered in the hundreds(!) of volumes. I probably shouldn’t get too big headed over the fact that my personal library contains more books than that of the entire Oxford University library during the early 1400s, especially given that volumes such as Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader are a part of mine, but I still think it’s pretty neat.
Oops, I’m already getting carried away! Why does Men of Learning resonate with me as a comfort book? Probably because it connects with a big part of who I am, someone who revels in books and learning.
Your comfort books may be much different than mine — I don’t expect a run on Men of Learning because of this blog post — but that’s fine and dandy with me. Read and enjoy.
Thinking young and thinking old: The best of both worlds
So here’s the question for the day: In looking for books that help us to play the game of life, should we seek insights that encourage us to be young and adventurous or old and wise? Our popular culture worships youth, but there’s much to be said for maturity, too.
How about seeking out both perspectives?!
On that note, here are two books that might be interesting back-to-back reads: Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity (2010) and Charles D. Hayes’s The Rapture of Maturity (2004). They were written with different generational audiences in mind, the former pitched at younger folks, the latter aimed at older folks.
From Hayes’s Autodidactic.com website, here’s a description of The Rapture of Maturity:
The Rapture of Maturity affirms the joys of discovery and insight that accompany thoughtful reflection on our years of lived experience and a pursuit of deeper understanding. It encourages the kind of thinking that can transform human relations on a global scale.
Rapture is the reward of living authentically and acting deliberately to leave the world a better place than we found it. For those who seek such a goal, this book is indispensable.
And here’s an online description of Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity:
If you’ve ever thought, “There must be more to life than this,” The Art of Non-Conformity is for you.
Based on Chris Guillebeau’s popular online manifesto “A Brief Guide to World Domination,” The Art of Non-Conformity defies common assumptions about life and work while arming you with the tools to live differently. You’ll discover how to live on your own terms by exploring creative self-employment, radical goal-setting, contrarian travel, and embracing life as a constant adventure.
Publisher’s Weekly aptly noted that “although directed at readers of all ages, [Guillebeau’s] message is likely to appeal most to those without dependents.” So consider the interesting twist: A book that understandably may be discounted as unrealistic by parents raising kids may suddenly be more relevant to them once they become empty nesters.
And for those who are younger, what better way to get a head start on what’s important in life than to read about lessons learned by Charles Hayes, an insightful, thoughtful, largely self-taught philosopher and writer of more senior vintage?
Each book is full of inspiration, sound advice, and thought provoking observations. Here are parts from each that stand out for me:
In a chapter titled “Graduate School vs. the Blogosphere,” The Art of Non-Conformity explores the question of grad school vs. independent learning. Guillebeau shares his own graduate school experience (a master’s degree program in international affairs) and compares its time, cost, and activities to the benefits of pursuing a largely self-defined course of independent study.
He includes a suggested outline for a “One Year, Self-Directed, Alternative Graduate School Experience,” basically a low-cost, do-it-yourself program of reading, multi-media learning, travel, and online publishing. For lifelong learning junkies, this is catnip and gets the wheels turning. It’s a wonderful reminder of how much good stuff is out there for independent learners.
For me, the most memorable passage of The Rapture of Maturity is a story of regret that Hayes shares from his younger days when he lived for a short time in a boarding house:
In the room next to mine was an old man in his eighties who often asked me to have dinner with him. Most of the time I was in too much of a hurry and declined. When I did accept his invitation, I ate quickly and never stayed very long. The recurring memory I have today sees through that old man’s screen door to the table always set with an extra plate in case he might have company for dinner. Today I understand that he was lonely. Back then I didn’t have the time or the patience to notice.
Hayes goes on to explore the role of regret in helping us to shape better lives. “Reflecting on this kind of unfinished business,” he writes, “prepares us for similar decisions in the future.”
Freedom and responsibility
For me, at least, the broader takeaways from these books, considered together, is that life is a balance of freedom and responsibility. It’s about the freedom to do things and make decisions about one’s life, along with a self-defined responsibility to live in a meaningful, authentic, and difference-making way.
Within those very broad parameters, there may be plenty of room to navigate between family, friends, work, faith and spirituality, and various activities.
Not everyone has these choices. Life’s opportunities are not equally distributed, and for some they may be very constricted. But for those who are blessed with, at the very least, some capacity to create these options, these two books may be valuable.
New England autumn, that Halloween feeling, and scary stories
Friday was a raw, wet, overcast October day here in Boston. For me, it meant that fall has truly arrived in New England. As my wholly repetitive earlier posts about fall attest (here and here), this is my favorite and most nostalgic season.
The change of seasons from summer to fall is rooted in the equinox, an astronomical term. As explained by Wikipedia:
An equinox is an astronomical event in which the plane of Earth’s equator passes the center of the Sun. . . . The Astronomical Almanac defines it, on the other hand, as the instants when the Sun’s apparent longitude is 0° or 180°. . . . The two definitions are almost, but not exactly equivalent. Equinoxes occur twice a year, around 21 March and 23 September.
The month will culminate with Halloween, that most candy-coated of holidays. It will include a viewing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, a childhood favorite that still manages to get me in the Halloween spirit.
But Halloween is about much more than empty calories and chocolate fixes. Its origins are grounded in religion and death. Again, from Wikipedia:
Halloween . . . is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It initiates the three-day religious observance of Allhallowtide, . . . the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers. . . . Within Allhallowtide, the traditional focus of All Hallows’ Eve revolves around the theme of using “humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.” . . .
According to many scholars, All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, . . . with possible pagan roots, particularly the Gaelic Samhain. . . . Other scholars maintain that it originated independently of Samhain and has solely Christian roots.
Perhaps it was inevitable that ghosts, goblins, and haunted houses would eventually enter the picture!
I’m in the right part of the country for religion and the supernatural to mix. It’s a combination that goes waaay back. Rosalyn Schanzer opens Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem (2011), a short, lively, fact-filled narrative of the Salem, Massachusetts witch hunts of the 17th century, with a description of the Puritan mindset of the day:
Yet with all their fine intentions, the voyagers had brought along a stowaway from their former home — a terrifying, ancient idea fated to wreak havoc in their new land. For the Puritans believed in the existence of two entirely different worlds.
The first of these was the Natural World of human beings and everything else we can see or touch or feel. But rooted deep within the Puritans’ souls like some strange invasive weed lurked their belief in a second world, an Invisible World swarming with shadowy apparitions and unearthly phantoms in the air.
It shouldn’t surprise us that this New England milieu has produced legendary writers of scary stories such as Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft.
After polling friends on Facebook and elsewhere for their Stephen King recommendations, I bought a small bagful of his books (Pet Sematary, It, and Needful Things), all with Maine settings. This one is first up on my reading list:
In his new introduction to Pet Sematary, King calls it his scariest book, so much so that he believed it would never be published.
In other words, it’s a great choice for an October reading.