I launched this little blog four years ago, and during that time I’ve published over 260 entries. I hope you’ve enjoyed the lion’s share of them! I’m now inviting you to follow me to the TinyLetter platform, where I’ll be writing a personal newsletter titled Y Lines starting in September.
Some of you may have noticed that I’ve decreased my posting frequency markedly over the past year. I’ve been very busy, mainly in good ways, but I’ve had to make choices on where to cut back. More substantively, I’ve felt that the format of this blog had run its course for me, and I wanted a platform that was a little more personal and informal.
I recently discovered TinyLetter, a straight-to-inbox social media tool that serves up a blend of personal newsletter, e-mail, and blog style writing. As described by Teddy Wayne for the New York Times, TinyLetter is something of a digital throwback:
We now find ourselves in the era of the personal email newsletter, an almost retro delivery system that blurs borders between the public and the private, and mashes up characteristics of the analog and digital ages.
Thanks to, among other services, TinyLetter, a division of the email marketer MailChimp, people who want to apprise a subscriber base of their thoughts and goings-on have a new, straight-to-inbox outlet.
My TinyLetter will be Y Lines (subscribe here for free), and it will mix pop culture observations, book/TV/movie recommendations, nostalgic remembrances, travel experiences, more serious reflections about life at middle age, thoughts about lifelong learning, occasional history and politics, and personal updates. (I’ll continue to save most work-related topics for my professional blog, Minding the Workplace, which is in its ninth year.) I’ll be sending missives from four to six times a month. I’ll post some of them to my Facebook page, too.
In the meantime, I’ll be keeping this blog available for those who want to look at previous entries and for that steady trickle of folks (still around 200+/month) who find it via a search engine.
I’m very grateful for your readership here. I hope you’ll follow me to Y Lines and the TinyLetter format! It’s free, easy, and you can unsubscribe without hassle.
With many thanks and best wishes,
It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. Life has been very busy, and this personal blog has been rather neglected as a result. I will be writing more in the weeks to come, but for now I wanted to do a quick snapshot array of Boston at night, using my trusty iPhone 4s camera phone. (Yes, it’s time for an upgrade!)
I took the photo above last Wednesday. It got a lot of likes and loves on Facebook, so I thought I’d share it here. This is the Southwest Corridor Park in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, where I live. When I got out of the subway that evening, I saw the fog creeping in and figured it would make for a good picture. I think I was right! It’s definitely atmospheric, and the moisture in the air helped to give sharp angles on the light coming from the streetlamps.
Here’s another side of the same park, only right after a snowfall last year that created a beautiful scenery, at least until it quickly started to melt and turn to mush!
Of course, it wouldn’t be a set of Boston photos without a snow scene. This is from the infamous winter of 2015, when we got over 100 inches of the white stuff! Once again, we’re in my ‘hood of Jamaica Plain. The cross street ahead is my street.
Another wintry scene, here looking at the historic Old South Meeting House, where the rebellious colonials planned the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Old South continues today as a museum and host for public events, such as talks by noted historians.
Here’s the university building where I teach, in the process of being decorated with a banner celebrating the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots earlier this year. Our building was on the parade route.
This old, narrow city street — really, a walkway now — is in the historic Downtown Crossing part of Boston. Cobblestones have been replaced by modern sidewalks, but it still has that very old look and feel, especially at night.
As some of my pals on Facebook will attest, the Central Branch of the Boston Public Library, located in the city’s Back Bay neighborhood, is one of my favorite places to work. Here’s an early spring shot of the library’s Italianate courtyard, with snow still on the ground.
Imagine a bookstore as a sanctuary, a place of refuge to read, think, and reflect.
Reporting for The Guardian newspaper, Kareem Shaheen writes about Pages, a bookstore and cafe in Istanbul, Turkey, which serves that very role for Syrian refugees. The bookstore’s founder, Samir al-Kadri, wants nothing less than to “change the lives of Syrian youth”:
“I’m incredibly happy,” said Samer al-Kadri, 42, founder of the first Arabic bookstore in the city. “I get to meet this generation, between 18 and 25 years old. This generation is surprising me with their understanding, their openness, their dialogue.”
More than three million refugees, the vast majority of them Syrian, live in Turkey. With Pages, Kadri hopes to create a space for young Syrians curious about the world, who want to escape the isolation of refugee life, and, for a fleeting moment, pretend they are back in their homeland.
Not surprisingly, the most popular titles at Pages reflect a longing for their home country and a recognition of the terrible situation they left behind:
Among the most popular books at Pages are translations of Elif Şafak’s novel The Forty Rules of Love, which tells the story of the legendary Persian poet Rumi, as well The Shell, a memoir by the Syrian writer Mustafa Khalifa detailing his torture and detention in the notorious prison of Palmyra.
The translated works of George Orwell are also popular, particularly Animal Farm and 1984, the dystopian fictional worlds of which bear a striking resemblance to [Syrian President] Assad’s police state.
Let’s treasure our access to books
As I read this article, I thought about how easy it is for some of us to take for granted access to books.
I’m especially spoiled in this regard. I live in Boston, which, despite the general demise of brick and mortar bookstores, continues to offer abundant choices for buying and borrowing books. But even beyond such overly bookish locales, good books can be readily obtained via bookstores, online booksellers, used book sales, and libraries. Those on limited budgets can put together a very respectable personal library if they have a sharp eye for bargains.
It should humble the more fortunate among us that young refugees go to Pages bookstore in Istanbul in search of a safe and comforting place to read and learn. Let’s think about that the next time we’re tempted to watch a reality TV show or get caught up in a Tweet storm between politicians or celebrities. A bookstore, library, or simple shelf of books at home is a much better option for enriching our minds and souls.
Sometimes I like to scroll through this blog for the fun of it, as if I’m walking down Memory Lane to revisit writings about Memory Lane! In addition to enjoying periodic nostalgic memories, I’m reminded of where my own cultural center of gravity is located. I am, at heart, a middlebrow kind of guy, grounded in the late 20th century. Here are 25 reasons why, many of which are drawn from previous posts:
- My MP3 music lists include the likes of 80s and 70s pop hits, old standards featuring music of the Gershwins and Cole Porter, and soundtracks & cast recordings of classic musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
- I still have much of No. 1 on CDs.
- I like Stouffer’s French Bread pizza.
- I belong to the Book-of-the-Month Club and occasionally hunt down past BOMC premium books on e-Bay.
- I make my coffee using a drip coffee maker and pre-ground beans.
- Despite my dovish leanings, I enjoy watching old World War Two movies.
- I will indulge myself with an occasional Big Mac.
- I own, and sometimes even read into, a pre-owned set of the Harvard Classics.
- Give me the voices of Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter over those of most of today’s female pop singers any day.
- I miss American Heritage magazine.
- I love watching re-runs of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.
- I still regard Baskin-Robbins ice cream as a treat.
- My leisure reading tastes go to mysteries and suspense, sports books (baseball, football, basketball), and popular history, as well as self-help and psychology.
- Walter Cronkite remains for me the iconic example of a television newscaster with utmost integrity.
- Given a choice, I’ll take a casual meal at a favorite diner over a fancy meal with multiple forks.
- I’ve been a steady subscriber to Sports Illustrated for decades.
- My first computer was a Commodore 64, and I got years of use and fun out of it!
- I continue to rely on Rick Steves for travel advice when planning blessed trips to Europe.
- Pumpkin pie is my favorite Thanksgiving dessert.
- Having my own personal library is deeply meaningful to me.
- Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” are simply awesome to me.
- I miss talk radio from the days before it got so politically strident and polarized.
- I regard Stephen King as one of our great contemporary storytellers.
- Growing up, I pursued hobbies such as stamp and coin collecting, science, and playing sports simulation board games — and I still do when time permits!
- There’s something thrilling and adventurous about being in a large old train station.
Over the years I’ve learned quite well that I am a creature of (1) nostalgia; (2) habit; and (3) cities. All of these came together on a Sunday afternoon in Manhattan.
As I mentioned in my last post, I made a quick weekend trip to New York to attend a workshop. I decided to extend my stay through Sunday afternoon and play tourist in Manhattan. Well, maybe not as a true tourist, as I spent twelve years in New York (1982-94), but certainly as a visitor enjoying the metropolis.
I started my day with an early lunch at the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger, a Greenwich Village diner at Broadway & Astor Place that I’ve been frequenting since my law student days at NYU during the early 80s. Consistent with almost every visit there for some 34 years, I enjoyed a bowl of the Cozy’s incredibly good split pea soup with croutons. Of the hundreds of items on the Cozy’s menu, I’ve probably tried less than a dozen of them: Split pea soup, turkey burger or hamburger, rice pudding (best I’ve ever had), or maybe a sandwich or a breakfast platter for a rare change of pace. That’s it!
Next was a walk up Broadway to 12th Street, home of the mighty Strand Bookstore, one of the largest used bookstores in the nation. When I first visited New York in the summer of 1982 in anticipation of starting law school that fall, the Strand was one of the few things on my must-see list. During law school years and beyond, a weekly visit to the Strand was part of my routine. Back then, it was a crowded, musty, dusty classic old used bookstore, and I loved the place. The Strand has gone slightly upscale since then, but every visit brings back fond memories and yields some new goodies.
I then walked up one block on Broadway to the Regal Union Square Stadium movie theatre, where I saw a revival screening of “Singin’ in the Rain” — my favorite movie of all time — as part of a 65th anniversary celebration of the film’s first release. As I wrote here three years ago, I had never seen this movie until the fall of my first year at NYU, when I was in desperate need of a study break and saw that it was playing at Theatre 80, a famous old revival movie theatre in the East Village. Little did know that within thirty minutes into the screening, I would know it was becoming my favorite movie.
Theatre 80 was small and cramped, but the crowd was loved the movie and applauded after the popular numbers. Regal Union Square had super comfortable seats and a huge screen, but the crowd was more sedate. Given my druthers, I’d prefer the Theatre 80 setting!
When I lived in New York, every week I’d pick up the latest copy of The Village Voice, the legendary alternative weekly. Founded in 1955, the Voice was still very much a part of New York’s cultural, political, and journalistic scene during the 1980s and 1990s. I loved its hard-hitting local political coverage and commentary, taking on the city’s power brokers with gusto. I also looked forward to its event listings, which played to those of us on a budget. Many a weekend was spent at movies, plays, programs, and other events touted in the Voice.
The current issue of the Voice, pictured above, showed how the times have changed. Running across the top was a bow to legendary Voice writer and reviewer Nat Hentoff, an iconoclastic defender of free speech and jazz aficionado, who passed away last week. The cover features were devoted to ways in which we can cope with the ups and downs of 2017, with an emphasis on mindfulness, healthy habits, and decluttering. It’s an interesting collection of articles, but the editors of the Voice circa 1987 would not have gone there.
Of course, anything to do with my experience of New York yesterday and today must include its sprawling subway system. As much as I love New York, its subways — more than any other element of life there — remind me that I now appreciate Boston’s smaller, slower scale in ways that I couldn’t have imagined, say, twenty years ago. The photo above captures just one of two big pages of weekend routing change announcements due to repairs, which are pretty much ongoing. By contrast, Boston’s comparatively compact subway system is much more manageable, notwithstanding its own major needs for upgrades.
And speaking of the creature of habit part, yes, I’ve mentioned most of these places and things on multiple occasions on this blog, usually with the same soggy sentiment. What can I say? They are parts of the story of my life and the sources of many treasured memories. I hope that you, dear reader, are not too weary of reading about them!
During a quick visit to Brooklyn for a workshop related to my work, I didn’t expect that a nostalgia trip would be part of the deal. But it came with no extra charge!
As I wrote in 2015, I lived in Brooklyn for nine years, which back in the day was a housing refuge for fellow Legal Aid lawyers and other non-profit and public sector types pushed out by the sky high rents of Manhattan. I spent chunks of that time traipsing around Brooklyn Heights, a beautiful, historic neighborhood located one subway stop away from Manhattan.
This workshop was hosted by the First Unitarian Congregational Society in the Heights, located in a beautiful Gothic Revival building erected in 1844. As I approached the church on my walk from the subway, I encountered a familiar building that I hadn’t seen in decades: The Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, Second Department. Oh my! I was admitted to the New York Bar in a ceremony there, and as a Legal Aid lawyer I would argue cases before the appeals court in its majestic courtroom.
I’m the kinda guy who doesn’t like to be late for things. Especially when I’m relying on public transportation to get me to and fro (which is, basically, almost all the time), I plan to get to my main destination a little early. The subway zipped me over from Manhattan to Brooklyn in minutes, so with time to kill and some rumbling in my stomach, I found Fascati Pizza, a classic New York slice joint, and ordered a slice of thin-crust cheese pizza. It hit the spot on a cold, wintry day — hot, flavorful, and crispy underneath.
Of course, my main purpose for this brief Brooklyn sojourn was not to wallow in memories, but rather to attend a workshop on bystander intervention training for harassment and related situations. The topic is pertinent to the work I’ve been doing on workplace bullying and abuse for many years. You can read a write-up on this excellent training session that I posted to my Minding the Workplace blog.
And so I found myself interspersing good memories with the work I’m doing today. The two are fairly distinct. My focus on issues of workers’ rights, workplace bullying and abuse, and human dignity was not on my radar screen when I was a young lawyer. I was drawn to law school generally by an interest in politics and a desire to engage in good works, but I was pretty clueless on so many things. Fast forward to today, I’m feeling the march of time, but I know what I’m supposed to be doing with my life.
Right now, however, I wish I could go back to that pizza place for another slice. My mouth is watering just looking at that photo.
Sometimes we can go home again, and if we’re lucky, the experience can be even sweeter than the first time around.
In a year of ups and downs, one of my most memorable, positive experiences was returning to Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, my undergraduate alma mater, to receive an Alumni Achievement Award during fall Homecoming festivities. The awards presentation ceremony was part of a Sunday Homecoming service in VU’s Chapel of the Resurrection, followed by a luncheon in the new student union.
From the vantage point of my 1981 graduation from Valpo (the school’s informal monicker), this was an unlikely return to campus. As an undergraduate, I was a department editor and writer for The Torch, VU’s student newspaper. At the time, The Torch editorial board was something of a campus rebel cell, post-Sixties edition. Though too young to have experienced the student movement, we were given to questioning things and mildly anti-authoritarian by nature. Whether it was creeping vocationalism that threatened the liberal arts, behavioral excesses in fraternity behavior (“Animal House,” a wildly popular movie during that time, was influential), or challenges with various diversities on campus, we believed that our editorial mission was to take on the university for its supposed shortcomings.
Some of our critiques were insightful, the products of bright young minds applying the lessons of a liberal education to the institution that provided them. Others were more sophomoric, using the print medium to launch a few post-adolescent salvos. Mine mixed the two categories in a sort of hit-or-miss fashion. In any event, by the time Commencement rolled around, I had internalized those grievances and smugly assumed that I had outgrown the place.
Accordingly, when I first informed long-time friends that VU’s Alumni Association would be recognizing me at Homecoming, several humorously noted the irony of the sharply critical student returning to campus decades later as a grateful middle-aged award recipient. (Several senior VU administrators back in the day wouldn’t have predicted this development, either, though with less bemusement.)
However, my relationship with VU had been in a state of positive change for some time, marked by a steadily growing appreciation for the excellent education I received there and for friendships forged via experiences such as The Torch, a life-changing semester abroad, and everyday dorm life.
In fact, I was extremely blessed to have a group of friends, mostly fellow alums from our close-knit Cambridge, England study abroad cohort and several of their spouses, joining me for the Homecoming award ceremonies. (I know that “blessed” is an overused term, but that’s how I felt.) During my extended visit, which included time as a visiting scholar at VU’s law school, I also enjoyed welcomed opportunities to reconnect with other friends from my VU days.
Returning to campus was both nostalgic and slightly disorienting. For many years after our graduation, Valpo’s physical landscape had remained basically the same. However, during the past decade or so, new buildings have sprouted up seemingly everywhere, and even some streets and pathways on campus have been rerouted. On Homecoming weekend, our shared memories mixed with exclamations over how building so-and-so had disappeared. The downtown area of the small city of Valparaiso also had changed markedly, with a much greater variety of restaurants and public spaces. It was fun to make these discoveries with my friends, as if we were once again undergraduates exploring England and the European continent — even if this time we actually were in America’s heartland.
Valparaiso’s longstanding affiliation with the Lutherans and the importance of faith traditions in general are core parts of its institutional mission. During the early decades of the last century, Valpo was a secular, independent university well known for its vocational training. Hard times would visit the school, however, and its survival was in question until the Lutheran University Association stepped in to buy it in 1925. Among the continuing manifestations of this association are daily Chapel services, open to those of any denomination.
In my case, it would be an understatement to say that I was not a frequenter of Chapel services as a collegian. However, at Homecoming I now found myself unexpectedly moved by the fact that the University would devote a Sunday worship service to recognizing its graduates. As a denizen of higher education, I know well the differences between giving obligatory nods to alumni/ae honorees and showing genuine appreciation. This was a very touching example of the latter.
The memories stoked by this weekend went well beyond student life and into the realm of world events that transpired around us as undergraduates. Among other things, little did we know at the time that we were bearing witness to the emergence of at least two major mega-trends — the primacy of the Middle East as an American foreign policy hot spot and the conservative resurgence in American politics — that would help to define our civic lives well into middle age.
In November 1979, young Islamic revolutionaries took some 60 American hostages during a seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Iranian hostage crisis, as it soon would be tagged, would endure for nearly fifteen months until the hostages were freed in January 1981. During that time, ABC journalist Ted Koppel became a national media figure with his daily hostage crisis updates on “Nightline,” a program that followed the late night local news. At Valpo, many of us tuned in each night in our dorm rooms, watching on our rabbit-eared portable television sets.
The fall of my senior year also marked my first opportunity to cast a general election ballot for President. Jimmy Carter was the Democratic incumbent, having successfully run on an anti-Washington platform in 1976. However, change was brewing in the form of a conservative movement that would sweep Ronald Reagan and a group of new Republican Senators and Representatives into office.
I was deeply into politics at the time. In fact, I was majoring in political science and planning to go to law school as preparation for an eventual political career. My own political views were in a state of flux, moving from right to left. In terms of presidential candidates in 1980, I had become enamored of an Illinois Congressman named John Anderson, a one-time conservative whose own views had become more liberal over the years. Anderson ran as a liberal Republican in the spring presidential primaries and then decided to leave the GOP to pursue an independent candidacy in the fall. I would serve as the Northwest Indiana coordinator for his independent campaign, a volunteer assignment that said less about my political organizing skills and more about the green talent the campaign had to rely upon in certain parts of the country.
Looking back, I now understand that Anderson’s departure from the Republican Party represented a harbinger of things to come. The 1980 election marked the beginning of the GOP’s rightward turn and a coming out party for a conservative movement that has dominated much of American politics since then.
My collegiate years at Valpo felt heavy, as if I was carrying the weight of my future on my shoulders, fueled by a growing desire to explore life outside of my native Indiana and anxieties over where I would be and how I would fare. In 1982 I would decamp to Manhattan for law school at New York University, thinking that Indiana would be viewed mainly from a rear-view mirror.
Fast-forward to 2016: During a moment in the alumni hospitality tent at the Homecoming football game, I remarked to VU President Mark Heckler that it felt very light to be back on campus — a stark contrast to my emotional center of gravity as an undergraduate.
Indeed, this return to VU was accompanied by gifts of appreciation and maturity and was made especially meaningful by the company of dear friends who now richly deserve the label “lifelong.” A homecoming can’t get much better than that.
Here along America’s east coast, dropping temperatures are reminding us that winter is just around the corner. Boston has been downright chilly, and a quick trip to New York City for a conference had me bundling up tightly. Other parts of the country are getting snowstorms.
When the weather outside is frightful, watching quality TV shows at home — binge viewing, if blocs of time allow — becomes especially delightful. If you’re looking for a sharp, informed, and opinionated guide to the best of the small screen, TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time (2016) by Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, is a good starting place.
Sepinwall and Seitz review and rank what they believe to be the 100 best American television dramas and comedies, devoting several pages to each. There are no news or reality shows here; it’s all about scripted TV.
Many of my favorites appear, including no brainers such as “The Wire” and “Mad Men,” and underrated standouts like “Friday Night Lights.” Some of my childhood favorites are here, too, including “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” (Sorry, fellow Gen Jonesers, but “Green Acres,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” and “F Troop” don’t make the list.)
Fans of British dramas and comedies will have to wait for a different book. “Prime Suspect,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Monty Python” would appear on many lists of frequent PBS viewers, but not here.
What truly distinguishes TV (The Book) from other “best of” books and magazine features is the quality of writing. These guys know what makes for quality, groundbreaking television, and they’re good at explaining why a show belongs on the list. It’s not all praise, either, as they engage in very fair criticisms of very good shows. It makes for fun reading and good winter TV planning.
Sometime during the last year, my cell phone morphed from being a oft-annoying gadget to an occasionally annoying virtual appendage. I am not a likely candidate to have made this transition. I have cursed cell phones more than praised them. Multiple days have gone by when I didn’t even bother turning on my own phone.
But now it’s fully accurate to say that my cell phone has largely supplanted my landline and office phone. After some four years of owning an iPhone 4s, I am finally using it like so many other people deploy their smartphones. I use it for calls (the ear buds free up my hands), texting (I finally gave in and started texting), taking pictures (the 4s camera isn’t state of the art, but it does the job), and checking online sites (mostly e-mail and Facebook).
I haven’t come close to exploiting all of its features. When it comes to technology, I’m the opposite of a “first adopter.” But it’s now close to being an indispensable tool. It has become especially valuable while traveling.
Before this transition, I couldn’t understand why people went into a panic if they feared that they lost or misplaced their phone. What’s the big deal? Just get a new one, I’d say to myself. Not anymore.
I still don’t get how some folks basically live in their phones. I shake my head when walking the streets of Boston turns into an exercise in dodging people looking down at their phones. And I think it’s unfortunate when people can’t be in the moment with each other because their face-to-face social interactions are interrupted by ever-present pinging and furtive (or not-so-furtive) glances at their phones.
That all said, the technology contained in the average smartphone is nothing short of remarkable. Our phones shouldn’t be ruling our lives, but they sure can make certain aspects of life more convenient. Call me a qualified but devoted convert.
My current visit to northwest Indiana marks the first time I’ve driven a car since, well, my last visit there over a year ago. As a city dweller who hasn’t owned a car since Air Supply’s earliest U.S. hits, let’s just say that driving is not my forte. Night driving is a special adventure, during which I’m reinforcing unflattering stereotypes about Asian drivers.
The last and only car I ever owned was a hand-me-down 1968 Buick LeSabre that got about seven blocks to a gallon of gas in mileage. I gave it to my brother Jeff when I left for law school at NYU in the fall of 1982. I had learned during an earlier trip to New York City that, unlike your typical Indiana campus, universities in the heart of Manhattan did not have parking lots adjoining their residence halls.
Since then, I have been a creature of the subway, first in New York, and now in Boston.
This, of course, brings the adventure back to driving on those rare occasions that I do rent a car.
Oh, and speaking of Air Supply, I’ve once again used the unique experience of driving to listen to an oldies station that plays a lot of stuff from back in the day. As I wrote last year:
Concededly, I am positively masochistic when it comes to self-inflicted nostalgia. During much of this trip, I had my rental car radio tuned to an oldies station that played songs mostly from the late 70s through early 80s. Like many, I associate old Top 40 songs with memories of earlier days, so I basically had a series of mental videos going through my head, prompted by whatever was on the air.
And so it is with this trip, as the pop sounds of Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Olivia Newton-John, Styx, Hall & Oates, Cheap Trick, and others waft through my rental vehicle. I usually don’t immerse myself in this music at home — I’ll take the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, and the like over more recent popular music anyday — but the post-adolescent oldies do bring back memories.