My annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage to New York included a traditional feast with family and friends and a lot of walking around to absorb the sights and sounds of the city. And while my trusty smartphone is not exactly state of the art, it continued to take decent pictures, a few of which I’m happy to share here.
Besides our Thanksgiving dinner, my favorite part of this visit was going with my cousin Judy, a true connoisseur of the New York theatre, to a performance of “The King and I” at Lincoln Center. Starring Kelli O’Hara (Anna) and Hoon Lee (King of Siam), this revival of a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic was simply breathtaking in every way. As the lead of this superb cast, O’Hara was other-worldly good, with flawlessly beautiful vocals and acting chops that brought a deep emotional intelligence to this show.
Returning to old haunts is usually part of any New York visit for me, and the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger at Broadway & Astor Place in Greenwich Village is a standard bearer. I’ve been going to this diner since my law school days at NYU, and almost every order includes a bowl of their awesome split pea soup.
You may be wondering, where are the people in these photos? As I explained in a post last year, although this particular Thanksgiving gathering has been a part of our lives for well over a decade, for some reason no one has ever started taking pictures! Phone cameras abound within our group, and at least some of us are of Japanese heritage! The statistical odds against this shutter shutdown must be off the charts.
My hotel was in lower Manhattan, so I did quite a bit of walking around there. Above is 120 Broadway, home to the New York Attorney General’s Office, where I spent three years as an Assistant Attorney General in the Labor Bureau before I started teaching. Robert Abrams was the AG then, and he set a high standard for the office. Many of my former colleagues have gone on to distinguished leadership positions in public service, the non-profit sector, and private practice.
Above is a place that exists for me in a kind of historical, imagined New York: Delmonico’s steak house in the Wall Street business district, a legendary dining establishment going back to the early 1800s. I’ve read about Delmonico’s in non-fiction books and novels about New York, and I’ve heard that they make an exceptional steak. But I’ve never eaten there! Someday it will happen. Medium-well for me, please, with a side order of hash browns.
When I lived in New York, a hefty share of my modest paychecks went to the Strand Bookstore. In recent years, the mighty Strand has undergone some interior remodeling to give the place a slightly more upscale feel, but it retains much of the dusty used bookstore feel that made it such a fun book hunting ground years ago. There I made my one Black Friday purchase for myself, a Folio Society edition of T.E. Lawrence’s (Lawrence of Arabia) Seven Pillars of Wisdom. With its slipcase and in excellent condition, I got it at a fraction of its original price.
My gustatory intake also included a couple of truly excellent tacos at La Palapa, a superb (and affordable!) Mexican restaurant on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan’s East Village. Cousin Judy happens to be a manager at La Palapa, but I’d be raving about it even if I didn’t have family working there.
My cousin Al gave me this new history of St. Mark’s Place. St. Mark’s is a culturally famous street, with a history rich in noted writers, musicians, artists and other historically significant folks. Today it has not escaped the sky high cost of Manhattan living, but it’s still a great site of urban Americana. And paging through the book, I imagine incarnations of a New York that I’ve never personally experienced. Such is the pull of this little island.
In November 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took over 60 American as hostages, triggering an event that would stretch on for over 440 days. Here’s how PBS describes what happened:
On November 4, 1979, an angry mob of young Islamic revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 60 Americans hostage. “From the moment the hostages were seized until they were released minutes after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office as president 444 days later,” wrote historian Gaddis Smith, “the crisis absorbed more concentrated effort by American officials and had more extensive coverage on television and in the press than any other event since World War II.”
The Iranian hostage crisis dominated the final year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and played a significant role in his loss to Ronald Reagan in November 1980. Beyond its impact on the election, the hostage crisis is notable for at least two big reasons:
First, it put the Middle East squarely into the heart of American diplomacy and military strategy. Remember, this was still the period of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union was regarded as America’s number one foe. The Iranian hostage crisis, while certainly different than foreign policy challenges in the region today, nevertheless foreshadowed the global conflict shifts to come for the U.S.
Second, in America it changed the way we watched the news, competing with the late night talk shows. ABC’s “Nightline” came on right after the evening local news programs, and the hostage crisis was its largest focus throughout 1980, with updates every night. “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel, with a steady and understated style, would become one of the most familiar and trusted broadcast journalists of the era.
I was in college at Valparaiso University during the period of the hostage crisis, and “Nightline” was popular among those of us clued into politics and public affairs. I can only imagine how a similar situation might be covered by the cable news stations today, especially CNN or Fox News, but back in the day it was Ted Koppel and Co. who framed the international news for us.
The title of the 2007 movie “The Bucket List” introduced a new phrase into our popular culture, referring to the making of wish lists, written down or simply in our heads, of must-do trips and activities before we die (hence, kick the bucket). The film itself starred Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two older men with dire medical diagnoses who decide to leave their hospital beds for a whirlwind road trip around the world.
Especially among folks of a certain age (umm, 40s and older), “bucket list” creeps fairly often into conversations about making the most of our respective futures. It’s also an easy peasy invitation to daydreaming big.
But hold on a minute, maybe there’s more to a good life than checking off items on a bucket list! How about the benefits of offloading certain burdens and of pursuing everyday pleasures?
While some are making their bucket lists, others are working on their “f***it” lists, made up of those life matters worthy of jettisoning. As Huffington Post blogger Kathy Gottberg suggests, “we should be both willing and able to let go of anything that drags us down and holds us back from living a happy and content life.”
Furthermore, by choice or circumstance, most of us aren’t in a position to tackle a bucket list that includes a private jet at our beck and call. Not to worry, reports New York Times personal finance columnist Ron Lieber, citing research indicating that simple, pleasurable everyday experiences — “like a day in the library” — can bring us happiness comparable to taking that big trip.
I think I get it. While I have neither a bucket list nor a f***it list, I understand that adding items to the latter can be incredibly freeing. Some of life’s B.S. just isn’t worth carrying around! Also, while I still enjoy visits to cool places, I’m quite happy with stretches that don’t involve long plane flights and that allow time for leisure reading or some quality binge viewing.
In other words, thank goodness there are good ways to pursue happiness besides vagabonding around the world in a Lear jet. Besides, the jet lag would be horrific.
The terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday tragically reminded us that when students go abroad, they are not provided with a protective bubble. Among the fatally wounded was Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old American design student from California State-Long Beach. She was killed in the drive-by gunfire at the La Belle Equipe bistro. News reports tell us that she was an outstanding student, and that the opportunity to study in Paris was a dream come true.
Here in America, we think of study abroad as a wondrous opportunity to explore and learn in a different country. These sentiments are usually spot on. But someone can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and another may be in harm’s way due to youthful daring or indiscretion.
Nohemi Gonzalez was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was killed while enjoying a Friday evening with friends over food and drink. She did nothing to provoke what happened to her.
Today Boston.com reported that a young man from Sharon, Massachusetts, Ezra Schwartz, “was one of five people killed in a pair of attacks in Tel Aviv and the West Bank Thursday.” A 2015 high school graduate, he was spending a gap year in Israel. Boston.com further reports:
Police said that a Palestinian man drove by a line of cars sitting in traffic and fired multiple bullets before “intentionally” crashing into a group of people.
. . . Schwartz was on his way back from handing out food to soldiers when he was shot, according to a statement from Camp Yavneh, where Schwartz was a former camper and counselor.
Then there’s the story of Amanda Knox, who was spending an academic year in Italy when she was implicated in the murder of a flatmate, Meredith Kercher. Knox was convicted at trial and spent several years in prison. She ultimately secured an acquittal from the Italian Supreme Court in a case that was riddled with biased proceedings against her and a lack of reliable evidence connecting her to the killing.
My own story of youthful
As for the possibility of a study abroad student taking dumb chances, I can supply a personal story.
During my 1981 semester abroad in England, I spent several days of my spring break in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was a tumultuous time to be there, for the violence associated with “The Troubles” had escalated mightily. Irish political prisoners were staging well-publicized hunger strikes, and an Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader, Bobby Sands, was among them. (He would die in prison that May.)
I had become interested in the conflict over Northern Ireland, so I figured, what better way to learn more about it than to visit Belfast? After all, I had been an editor of my college newspaper, and so why not be a sort of junior foreign correspondent? Amid bullets flying about or an explosion going off, I would be an observer, not a casualty, right?
I took the photo above as I was walking back to the Belfast youth hostel. Ahead of me was the British army vehicle in the picture. I saw a rush of activity, with soldiers moving quickly, rifles in hand. By the time I reached the vehicle, they were leaning against it, with their weapons pointed across the street. When I asked one of them what was going on, he said tersely, “just keep walking.” I did, briskly. I never learned if anything more significant happened after my hasty exit.
I also would accept an offer from a BBC reporter to take me on a short drive through dicier parts of Belfast where he had conducted some recent interviews with IRA leaders. It was a fascinating impromptu tour, and I would’ve never trekked into those areas of town on my own. But thank goodness he was legit, for this brilliant “foreign correspondent” never thought to ask him for identification.
It all makes for a good story after the fact, but in reality I had taken foolish risks for the sake of feeling adventurous. Such is youthful ignorance.
What does this mean for a young student pondering whether to see a bit of the world? In light of recent events, I wouldn’t blame students or their parents for reconsidering a decision to study abroad. But someone who passes on such an experience for safety reasons could easily find herself waiting, say, near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I’m afraid that contemporary life today has this random quality to it.
Appropriate caution and prudence, not absolute isolation and avoidance, should be the governing principles when it comes to study abroad or any other decision that involves stepping outside of our homes. Beyond that, our control over larger events is somewhat limited.
Among the writers whose books merit the appellation “page turner,” Stephen King ranks high on the short list. After all, millions of loyal readers have been enjoying his books for decades now. He remains a master storyteller who continually demonstrates his growth as a writer.
I’m a Stephen King fan, but not necessarily one of his “Constant Readers.” In fact, since discovering his early works during college and law school (starting with Salem’s Lot, which scared the hell out of me), I’ve gone through lengthy stretches of years when I didn’t pick up a King novel. In recent years, however, I’ve read and enjoyed a number of his books, and I anticipate that his work will be a regular presence in my reading rotation.
During my current incarnation as a King reader, I have moved away from devouring one of his books in a short period of time. Rather, especially for his longer novels, I take my time, usually several weeks.
With that practice of slow reading has come a revelation: Stephen King is a brilliant writer because his stories stay with you over a long stretch of reading time. You get emotionally invested in the plot and the characters, to the point where you can pick up the story a week later and be right back in its world.
Those of you who are avid readers may know the opposite experience. You begin a book that seems promising, but then life intrudes and you put it down for a few days or a week. When you try to pick it up again, even the major characters seem foggy to you, or maybe the developing story simply isn’t all that compelling.
By contrast, I just finished a slow read of Pet Sematary (1983), and oh my, is it good. This is one of his scariest and most emotionally wrought stories, a family-based tale that plumbs the depths of death and loss. For some reason Pet Sematary escaped my attention when it first appeared, but I know that I appreciate its richness more today.
A couple of years ago, I read King’s superb novel built around the Kennedy Assassination, 11/22/63 (2012), in the same fashion. (I took over a month to finish it.) Framed by a time travel device, the story spans several years. Reading the book slowly actually helped me to “experience” that passage of time.
On Facebook I have had exchanges with friends on the question of who is our generation’s Charles Dickens, and King’s name comes up quickly and enthusiastically. Dickens’s stories also had a slow read quality to them, in his case by design or necessity, as many of his works were serialized in weekly and monthly magazine installments. His plots and characters had to be sufficiently memorable in order to maintain the interest of readers over the longer haul.
Stephen King’s work is much more than a generational passing fancy. Like that of Dickens, people will be reading his stuff for many decades to come. May I suggest that doing so slowly is a great way to appreciate his great talent?
Based on the strong reviews it’s getting, I expected to like “Spotlight,” the new movie about the Boston Globe‘s investigation of the priest sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. But I didn’t anticipate regarding it as one of the best suspense dramas ever made about crusading reporters chasing a blockbuster story. By the time it ended, I had already concluded that “Spotlight” compares very favorably to “All the President’s Men,” the 1976 movie about the Washington Post‘s role in exposing the Watergate scandal. In fact, I think it’s the better of the two.
The movie’s title refers to the Globe‘s Spotlight investigative team, which spent months pursuing leads and interviewing individuals before going public with its findings in January 2002. Although the Globe was not the only journalistic player in this saga — Kristen Lombardi of the Boston Phoenix alternative weekly actually did a lot of the initial reportage on this matter — it took the dedicated resources of the Spotlight team to blow it wide open.
The individual performances in “Spotlight” are outstanding, and I anticipate that several of the lead actors will be prominent at Oscar time. Michael Keaton (editor “Robby” Robinson), Mark Ruffalo (reporter Mike Rezendes), Rachel McAdams (reporter Sacha Pfeiffer), Liev Schreiber (editor-in-chief Marty Baron), and Stanley Tucci (lawyer Mitch Garabedian) are among those who deliver serious, believable, and understated performances.
The movie doesn’t pull punches about the gruesomeness of what occurred here. Nevertheless, it avoids lapsing into overly prurient detail or Catholic-bashing. It lets the story speak for itself, ranging from the impact of sexual abuse on the victims, to the enabling culture of a city, to the powerful institutional role played by the Church in attempting its cover up.
Of course, I may be biased in my praise. After all, I’ve been living in Boston for some two decades, and I remember well the Globe‘s work in uncovering the priest scandal. That said, this is really, really good Hollywood moviemaking. “Spotlight” mixes superb drama with an authentic look & feel, and it ultimately it drives home a bigger lesson about powerful institutions run amok.
As my friends will readily acknowledge, my spending priorities do not extend to matters of wardrobe, home and office design, and other things domestic. But in the Kingdom of Geekdom that is my world, books, movies, and coffee are more likely to separate cash from wallet. And on occasion, I will indulge in select higher end purchases in each of these three categories.
Let’s start with books. Powered by my ability to rationalize virtually any book purchase (not much willpower there, folks), I have become fond of editions published by the Folio Society, a British entity that specializes in collector-quality volumes of fiction and non-fiction works that have stood the test of time and critical review. Folio Society books are beautifully designed and produced, with print quality that is very easy on these middle-aged eyes.
But Folio Society editions are quite pricey when bought new, often ringing in at between $50 and $100 per volume and sometimes much higher. Consequently, I am judicious with purchases of new Folio books, usually waiting for sales when I will permit myself on occasional splurge, such as a stunning edition of Howard Carter’s The Tomb of Tutankhamun. More frequently, I will scour used bookstores in person and online for copies in quality condition. Perhaps a silver lining of today’s retreat from hard-copy book reading is that fine quality used volumes can be had at bargain prices.
Next, on to movies, where DVDs from the Criterion Collection catch my eye. Criterion editions are first-rate prints of acclaimed films, accompanied by lots of extras on the DVD and a booklet with original essays about the film. Pictured above is one of my favorite movies, “The Naked City” (1948), a classic crime story filmed on site in post-war New York. The Criterion edition is a beautifully restored print, capturing the city’s vistas in sharp, vivid black and white.
Relatively speaking, Criterion editions are not as expensive as Folio Society books, but they are priced at premium rates nonetheless. Here, too, patience and bargain sleuthing yield dividends. Barnes & Noble runs a half-price sale of Criterion Collection films once or twice a year, and poking around online will uncover pre-viewed copies at decent prices as well.
Well kids, if we’re talking books and movies, then coffee can’t be far behind. I save money by usually making coffee at my home or office. Yet I must confess, my tastes are more expensive than Maxwell House or Folger’s. I often opt for a fair trade blend from my beloved City Feed & Supply store across the street, or maybe a good brand on sale at the local CVS.
And here’s the splurge: Recently, I used a gift card from GoCoffeeGo to try the house blend from Henry’s House of Coffee, a popular, long-time San Francisco coffee roaster. I must say that it is one of the best, most aromatic coffees I’ve ever had. This will have to be a periodic treat rather than a regular presence in my coffee rotation, but it’s so good that I’ll continue to make the occasional purchase!
As both a history buff and a wannabe time traveler, I find that historically significant journals and diaries can be a wonderful way of jumping into the past. In the hands of gifted chroniclers, they offer intimate, we-are-there views of momentous times, blending reportage, observation, context, and some instant reflection and analysis.
Two of my favorites are William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-41 (1941) and John Kenneth Galbraith’s Ambassador’s Journal: A Personal Account of the Kennedy Years (1969). Here are some snapshot page views from both books:
William Shirer was both a print journalist and a radio reporter in Berlin during the tumultuous 1930s and the early years of the Second World War. In the photo above, we see Shirer writing about the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, regarded as the official launch of the war. He quickly and accurately dismisses attempts by Hitler and his High Command to spin the invasion as a defensive “counter-attack” in response to supposed Polish aggression.
And here’s one of his 1940 entries, writing about the British evacuation of Dunkirk following the fall of France. Note, at the bottom of the page, his observations about how the German people are now regarding the material deprivations they experienced as Germany prepared for war.
Shirer would go on to write one of the most popular books ever about the war, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
John Kenneth Galbraith was an accomplished Harvard economist, liberal political figure, and author of a bestselling (and still relevant) book, The Affluent Society, when he became an advisor to the Kennedy campaign. Galbraith’s journal mixes insider stories about the Kennedy Administration, his experiences as Kennedy’s ambassador to India, and texts of letters that he wrote to the President.
Some of the most interesting parts of the journal recount the period immediately following Kennedy’s election in 1960. In the passage above, Galbraith shares news of his pending diplomatic assignment and his conversation with the President-elect about potential cabinet appointees.
And here’s an entry with news that First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy will be making a short, informal trip to India, along with some humorous details about how Galbraith has been instructed to keep the visit confidential for now.
When it comes to journals and diaries from historically significant times, I much prefer the prose of observers such as Shirer and Galbraith over tawdry tell-all tales designed to sell books and attract talk show invitations. Shirer was a reporter, while Galbraith was a participant, but both journals share levels of restraint, sans the kind of voyeuristic detail we might expect in similar efforts today.
They are also fascinating to read, drawing us into different times and places. In the absence of time travel machines, books like these are pretty good substitutes.
Time travel: Some favorite destinations (2013) — If I could go back in time, here’s my list!
A bookstore visit triggers memories of meeting an intellectual hero (2014) — My meeting with John Kenneth Galbraith, weeks before he passed away.
When it comes to college football fandom, I’m not naturally rooted. My undergraduate alma mater, Valparaiso University, has a terrific mid-major basketball program, but for decades its football team has mostly struggled. My law school alma mater, New York University, doesn’t even have a football team, though it once was quite prominent in the sport during the 1920s and 1930s.
And so on Saturdays during the fall, I often fall back on my northwest Indiana origins, when I became a Notre Dame football fan. I may have no educational or faith connection to Notre Dame, but I can’t help it, I am drawn to its football team. (I fully understand that hating on the Fighting Irish is a time-honored football tradition in itself. Those who cannot bear to read this rest of this post are hereby given permission to click to something else.)
Two movies, “Rudy” and “Knute Rockne All American,” capture the mystique and mythology of Notre Dame football, augmented by forms of dramatic license inherent in most sports flicks. The Urban Dictionary defines “schmaltz” as “a work of art that is excessively sentimental, sappy or cheesy.” Both films qualify for in that category. But that’s okay, I enjoy both of them, perhaps because of — not in spite of — their soggy stories.
“Rudy” (1993) is based on the true story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, a scrappy, undersized blue-collar kid who dreamed of playing for Notre Dame, set in the late 60s through mid-70s. The movie portrays his dogged determination in chasing that dream, fueled by numerous references to the storied traditions of the University and its football team. As befits your basic sports story, there are struggles to overcome along the way.
It is often quipped that “Rudy” is one of those sports movies that makes it okay for guys to cry. Personally, it doesn’t unleash the tear ducts for me, but it’s a heartwarming story nonetheless. Sean Astin makes for a likable, convincing Rudy, and the football scenes are decent. One might quarrel with some of the story twists inserted for cheap effect — the Notre Dame head coach at the time, Dan Devine, certainly has reason to be miffed at how he’s portrayed — but let’s remember that this is a Hollywood movie, not an art house film.
The movie also blows a kiss to Notre Dame and its Catholic traditions. A feature accompanying the DVD tells us that this was the first movie filmed on campus since (see below!) “Knute Rockne, All American.”
“Knute Rockne All American” (1940) is a paean to Notre Dame head coach and player Knute Rockne, the most revered figure in Fighting Irish football history. Rockne entered Notre Dame as a student at the age of 22, wanting to play football. As a member of the 1913 Irish squad, he teamed up with quarterback Gus Dorais to form the first potent forward passing combination in the history of the game.
After graduation, Rockne stayed on as a chemistry instructor and assistant football coach, eventually giving up a promising science career to become the school’s head coach. During the late 1910s and through the 1920s, he built America’s most successful college football program, leading the Irish to multiple national championships and becoming a national figure along the way.
If “Rudy” regards its main subject sentimentally, then “Knute Rockne All American” is an all out love letter to its protagonist, the University, and the sport of football. War clouds were hovering over America when the movie was filmed and released, and it appears to be no accident that it ties together football, faith, manhood, and patriotism as a thematic passage.
The movie stars Pat O’Brien as Rockne and a young Ronald Reagan as legendary Notre Dame football player George Gipp.
New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante reports that New York City teens have discovered the popular 1990s sitcom “Friends.” A big reason for its draw is its portrayal of the relatively carefree lives of its main characters, young Manhattanites Monica, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, and Joey. Bellafante writes:
What’s novel about “Friends,” or what must seem so to a certain subset of New York teenagers of whom so much is expected, is the absence among the six central characters of any quality of corrosive ambition. The show refuses to take professional life or creative aspirations too seriously.
. . . The dreamscape dimension of “Friends” lies in the way schedules are freed up for fun and shenanigans and talking and rehashing, always.
Among Bellafante’s interviewees was a 17-year-old high school girl in Brooklyn who sees “Friends” as a welcomed break from the stressors of school and prepping college applications:
It did not escape her attention that the characters are almost never stressed out about their jobs. “All they do is hang out in a coffee shop or a really nice apartment,” she said. “It’s the ideal situation.”
However, the young woman asked that her name not be used, lest she appear to be frivolous in the eyes of college admissions officers!
It’s wholly understandable why these young strivers might welcome “Friends” as a break from the pressure cooker of jockeying for grades and acceptances from top colleges. But it’s sadly telling that they’re seeking such escapism in a sitcom. One senses the anticipation of an early midlife crisis, grounded in the revelation that the game of obsessive hoop jumping often leads to more of the same, while already yearning for some healthy downtime.