Lately I’ve been watching movies depicting aspects of trench warfare during the First World War, including “Journey’s End” (2018), “King and Country” (1964), and “Westfront 1918” (1930). I highly recommend each of them.
They also have been fitting lead-ins to a stunning new documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old” (trailer here), featuring a masterful restoration of film footage from the war, enhanced by expert colorization. Using this footage and recorded interview excerpts from WWI veterans, the documentary recreates the experience of British soldiers being recruited, trained, and sent to the front, where they are soon confronted by the terrible realities of trench warfare.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” presents the Great War as no succeeding generations have ever seen it. Director Peter Jackson headed up this project, and the visual results are breathtaking. I saw the film at a local movie theatre in Boston as part of a limited national release here in the U.S. It was accompanied by a fascinating short feature on how the restoration was done and how the sound component was developed.
If you want to read reviews and commentary about the documentary, these pieces from the Guardian, Atlantic, and New York Times are worth checking out. Variety reports that the limited release has been a huge success and that a wider release is scheduled for 2019. The Thursday afternoon showing I attended was sold out. If you have any interest in this important chapter of history, then by all means get a ticket to “They Shall Not Grow Old” when it comes around to a theatre near you.
Various friends and family write annual holiday letters, and it’s a neat way to share the year that is about to pass. However, I cannot get my act together even to send out cards, so these meanderings will have to do!
As 2018 comes to an end, it’s impossible for me not to acknowledge the state of public affairs here in the U.S.
I’ve been an amateur student of history and politics for some four decades, and, at times, a political activist. Nothing in my experience or learning approaches the situation we face today. The core fabric of the country is fraying and tearing apart, and it won’t be repaired easily.
The news cycle coming out of the nation’s capital is set to hyper-speed and is shaped by daily tweets and bombasts coming from the White House. Characteristics such as reason, kindness, and understanding are increasingly foreign to the current political culture. It’s all about react, respond, and lash out. It is exhausting and dispiriting simply to be a relative spectator. This is a deeply unsettling time, and it casts a pall over our daily lives.
And what of the year’s end on a personal level? Does hanging a new calendar on the kitchen wall also call for looks back and ahead?
Writer and entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau has used this time to do an annual review. Here’s the lede from his piece about that personal assessment and planning process:
Every year since 2005, I’ve spent the better part of a week in late December planning my life for the next year. Overall, this is probably the best decision I’ve made in terms of working towards multiple goals simultaneously.
The idea is to create a road map for the year ahead—not a rigid daily schedule, but an overall outline of what matters to me and what I hope to achieve in the next year. I complete this process in bits and pieces over several days, partly because of my ADD brain but also because it helps to think about it slowly. Some of you who have the ability to concentrate on one thing for hours at a time may prefer to do it all at once.
In this essay I’ll take you step-by-step through what I do every December to help plan the next year. . . .
Guillebeau’s annual review process is quite the undertaking, and it’s a bit beyond my inclinations or self-discipline. However, inspired by his example, I will engage in some reflective thinking and planning during the days to come. It may not yield any major revelations or changes, but I’d like to head into 2019 with a good and healthy focus.
Indeed, when I wasn’t distracted by the news, I had the proverbial full plate this year, and I feel like I am sort of dragging myself to the end of it. I’d like to use some welcomed down time during the coming week to take stock.
Maybe you’d like to do the same. If so, I hope it is time well spent.
Among the reasons why I revived this blog is to take closer and more serious looks at the role of Generation Jones (b. 1954-65) in shaping American society during the years to come. We are now squarely into our 50s and 60s. I think this is prime time to consider what Chris Guillebeau has called our “legacy work,” i.e., the lasting, signature contributions that we make to the world.
Of course, a lot of folks have already done some wonderful legacy work, even if they haven’t labeled it as such. It may have been a meaningful career accomplishment. Perhaps it was being a parent or caregiver. Maybe it was a form of community service or a creative endeavor shared with the world.
In any event, I’d like to think that many of us who have entered life’s second half still have plenty of gas in the tank to do remarkable things that contribute to our communities and make a positive difference in the lives of others. We can do so with the benefits of hindsight, experience, and wisdom.
It’s something to ponder as we approach the New Year.
Can a sense of place be virtual? Can we create personal space in an online environment? Can we stake a claim to our own little home patch of the internet?
I know it’s just a bunch of digital images, technologically speaking, but the internet is a very real place to me. One of the main reasons why I revived this personal blog was because I missed having this virtual patch. While I post to my professional blog more often and to a wider readership, this blog gives me a platform for writing about more eclectic and personal matters.
Brad Enslen, a long-time friend and college classmate, is a fan of blogging as a social networking tool. Here’s what he wrote in a post earlier this month:
You can have multiple blogs. You may have a dormant specialized blog that you want to revive, plus start a generalist, personal, everything blog. I would find having one single topic blog too limiting.
If you are new to this I strongly recommend starting with a generalist blog and write about whatever is on your mind.
Me? I have 3 blogs:
- Micro blog on Micro.blog. I use this for short posts to both the Micro.blog and Twitter social networks because it’s so slick and fast.
- My Web Presence (you are here) on self hosted WordPress.
- A specialized self hosted WP blog.
Remember, networks and networking, are human creations for humans. If you engage your readers and more importantly engage yourself, that is all that matters. I think blogging is a less toxic environment to do that from.
I embrace blogging as way of sharing more organized thoughts, information, and ideas in an essay or news column type of format. Although blogging originally became popular as a way for political commentators to beat the print media to publication, it has grown into a platform for many uses. Among these is the philosophy and practice of “slow blogging,” which uses the platform for reflective (rather than reactionary) writing. This is one of my preferred uses of the blogging medium, especially for this site.
As soon as I stepped out of my home today and felt the near-wintry chill against my face, I knew that I’d be paying a visit to the venerable Brattle Book Shop in downtown Boston. You see, for some reason, I associate cold weather with books and bookstores, especially used bookstores. It’s like a Pavlovian response.
The Brattle just happens to be one of America’s truly historic bookshops, tracing its origins back to 1825. It is a treasure trove for those of all budgets. You can watch a short video about it here:
For this visit, I made two purchases: A hardcover edition of Iain Pears, The Dream of Scipio (2002), and a beautiful Folio Society edition of Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (2008). Total tab? $20 plus tax. Darn good.
I also chatted briefly with Brattle’s proprietor, Kenneth Gloss. Along with local radio personality Jordan Rich, he does a regular podcast titled the “Brattlecast,” which can be accessed here. It’s a geek’s delight, full of Gloss’s stories about books, bookselling, and book collecting.
As to cold weather and bookstores: Maybe I simply regard winter as a perfect time to hunker down with some good books. Or perhaps in a past life I lived in London and frequented its quaint little bookshops, following in the footsteps of Dickens & Co. Boston is a fine match for all that. It remains a city where books, reading, and learning still count for a lot. It is steeped in history. And we have real seasons here, including some brutal winters.
In any event, bookstores continue to serve as places of discovery, enlightenment, and sanctuary to me. When the temperature starts dropping, I am drawn to them even more.
Even though I’ve been teaching for some 27 years, I don’t get overly enthused about semester breaks. They usually involve a fair amount of grading exams and papers, followed by catching up on other work tasks and getting ready for the next term’s classes. They’re all good, but they’re more of a respite from teaching than a break.
Nevertheless, as the weather gets colder here in Boston and classes come to an end, I do get especially nostalgic about two semester breaks that date back to my own student days.
The first was during my senior year (1980-81) at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana. Had I planned to spend my final semester of college on campus, I would’ve been at serious risk for developing a bad case of “senioritis” — i.e., playing out the home stretch of my undergraduate career without a lot of enthusiasm. However, I was about to spend my last collegiate semester at VU’s Cambridge, England study center. As I’ve written on this blog, it turned out to be a deeply formative experience.
Of course, I didn’t anticipate how life-changing that semester abroad would be as I completed my fall semester papers and final exams and then left my Brandt Hall dorm room for home. The nostalgia trip for me today is recalling how totally, utterly, completely clueless I was about the experience that awaited me.
In keeping with my procrastinating nature back then (less so today), my preparations for the trip were last minute and minimal. Honestly, I wasn’t even all that curious about England and Europe. I had signed up for the Cambridge semester largely because friends with whom I worked on the VU student newspaper were going. I also welcomed a change of scenery from our small town Indiana campus. (Of course, today I also get nostalgic about those days in Valparaiso. Click here for an essay I wrote, “Homecoming at Middle Age,” published in The Cresset, VU’s journal of the arts, literature, and public affairs.)
As a collegian, although I managed to maintain a certain confident front, in reality I was a jumble of ambition, insecurity, immaturity, and uncertainty over the future. I wouldn’t trade my current level of wisdom (umm, still a work in progress!) for said jumble of that stage of my life. However, it’s kind of neat to look back at that time with the gift of hindsight. As I pondered what to stuff into a suitcase and a backpack, I had no idea that the next five months would shape my personal culture, worldview, way of living, and base of friendships for a lifetime.
The second memorable semester break was during my third and final year of law school (1984-85) at New York University. I was in the job hunt, and my hope was to secure a public interest legal position in New York City for after graduation. During my short time in NYC, I had fallen in love with the city. New York of the 80s was a much grittier and affordable place than it is today. It was possible to enjoy the city on a tight budget. I badly wished to stay.
In addition, I was committed to working in the public interest field. During the previous summer, I was a summer associate at a large commercial law firm in Chicago. The money was great, and the firm treated its lawyers and staff with respect. But my heart wasn’t into corporate legal work, and so I would end up turning down the firm’s offer of a full-time associate attorney position for after graduation. Instead, I returned to the reasons that attracted me to law school in the first place, doing some type of public interest work in the non-profit or public sector.
I interviewed with a wide variety of public interest employers during the fall, and things started to develop during the semester break. During the break I received and accepted an offer for an attorney position from the New York City Legal Aid Society in downtown Manhattan. I was going to be a public interest lawyer in New York City, and I couldn’t have been happier about it! (The realities of paying rent and repaying student loans on a $20,000 salary would come later.) I recall spending a chunk of that break diving into my growing little collection of books about New York City, delighted that I would be staying in my adopted hometown.
Major junctures and events in our lives often don’t appear significant until we can look back at them via the rear-view mirror. Then they become part of our personal narratives. As mythologist Joseph Campbell observed, “when you look back on your life, it looks as though it were a plot, but when you are into it, it’s a mess: just one surprise after another” (Diana K. Osbon, ed., A Joseph Campbell Companion, 1991). That’s how these two semester breaks fit into my story.
Both of these remembrances embrace a post-Second World War, American middle class ideal that has valued higher education as a stepping stone to a better life. I was not fully appreciative of these gifts back then, but I certainly am grateful for them today.
For middle class and working class folks in the U.S., the path to upward mobility that I enjoyed is narrowing sharply. The “college experience” of going away to school, while cobbling together enough money from financial aid, summer and part-time jobs, and parental assistance to make it relatively affordable, has too often given way to sky-high tuition and costs subsidized by significant student loan debt. Many students and their families are pursuing less pricey alternatives as a result, such as two-year colleges and distance learning programs.
Indeed, it may be that Generation Jones (born 1954 through 1965) was the last major cohort to have higher education opportunities that didn’t come with enormous price tags. That reality should inform our potential choices for charitable giving and at the ballot box. Those of us who work in higher education should also be advocates for reducing student debt. We need to ease the financial burdens of higher learning, so that more may have such life-changing experiences.
This really cool eight-minute 1950 United Airlines travelogue of a Boeing Stratocruiser flight from California to Hawaii pushes nostalgia buttons for an age that preceded my earthly arrival. It harkens back to an era of commercial air travel before the jet airliners arrived. The post-WWII years featured powerful propeller-driven aircraft capable of making the long Pacific flights. And as the video shows, it was a pretty special experience.
For many, this was a once-in-a-lifetime journey. It called for dressing up, even if seated in the main cabin (i.e., coach). The flight alone was an event. Watch the video and feel your mouth water at the plated meals and pre-landing buffet! (It’s easy to forget that even domestic flights within the continental U.S. often included a hot meal for everyone.)
The contrasts to the present are pretty obvious. There is nothing romantic or adventurous about standard-brand air travel today. Oh, it’s still the case that a trip to an exotic locale or to see cherished family and friends can bring excitement and anticipation. But otherwise, hopping onto a plane for a flight is a more practical experience designed to get us from point A to point B.
Of course, modern air travel is also less expensive than it was back in that day. With luck and timing, a plane ticket can take us a long way and back at relatively affordable prices. Vacations and reunions still await us upon landing. For the flight itself, just expect cramped seating and swap out that in-flight entrée for a bag of chips.