Author Archive: David Yamada

A walking tour in Ancient Rome

Inside the Roman Colosseum

During the last week of July, I found myself in the grand city of Rome. This first ever trip was occasioned by the International Congress on Law and Mental Health, a biennial global gathering at which I participated in panel discussions and other activities. (Go here to my professional blog to learn more.) Although I am not the best travel planner, Rome had been on my bucket list for many years, so beforehand I actually talked to people who had visited before and read up on sightseeing options.

More than with any other great city destination, friends and associates urged the importance of good tour guides to maximize the experience of a Rome visit. I picked up a copy of Rick Steves Rome 2019 (Steves has been my European travel guru for decades) and checked his listings for guided walking tours. There I found a company, Context Tours, that promised in-depth, small group tours conducted by guides who were genuine experts (often scholars) on the sites covered. Given my characteristic lack of patience for shopping, I decided to go “all in” with this company and signed up for three of their tours: Introduction to Rome, the Vatican, and Ancient Rome.

All three tours turned out to be excellent, led by guides — thank you Lauren, Jade, and Giulia — who are scholars of the city. It is the Ancient Rome tour that I’d like to spend some time talking about here.

Outside the Colosseum

The Ancient Rome tour covers three tightly-clustered sites, the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum. Giulia, our guide, met up with her five guests (myself plus a four others who were traveling together) at a café across the street from the Colosseum, and we proceeded from there.

Let me just say that had the tour started and ended with the Colosseum, I would’ve considered myself fortunate. This is an imposing historic structure, a marvel of engineering. Moreover, there is a very haunting quality to it. Imagine some 60,000 people packed in there, watching and cheering for various spectacles and sporting competitions. Some were pretty gruesome person vs. animal and person vs. person fight-to-the-death contests, including gladiatorial combat so often depicted in pop culture portrayals of historic Rome.

Once you learn about the Colosseum, you instantly grasp the origins of today’s modern sports stadia, including seating according to status, the ancient equivalent of tailgating parties, and even access to restrooms inside the building.

At the conclusion of our walk around the Colosseum, this small group tour suddenly turned into a private one, as the other guests had to depart because of a schedule conflict. Although I enjoyed their company, this would be such a blessing for me, as my tour with Giulia became a sort of walking conversation, facilitated by a Ph.D. in archeology who has actually led and participated in digs in this very area.

Palatine Hill, minutes from the Colosseum

From the Colosseum, we walked over to adjacent Palatine Hill, the locus of Rome’s origins (according to ancient lore) and site of the Emperor’s Palace. It took all of a few minutes to get there.

As you can see from the photo above, it felt as if we were whisked away from the city and dropped off in a pastoral getaway setting. The contrast was kind of magical. I have felt that effect in other big cities, such as visiting the Cloisters in New York City — the big difference being, of course, that the medieval look & feel of the Cloisters was the 20th century result of the Rockefeller family donating money to create this old-looking structure. (OK, so maybe that’s not much of a difference at all, if you get my drift?!)

The ruins of the Emperor’s Palace

Now we’re getting into the ruins of the palace. Closer looks at these structures would reveal a variety of designs and colors, using raw materials imported from other parts of the world. This was a way of showing off one’s wealth, not to mention an early example of globalization. This reminded me of the concept of “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by Thorstein Veblen, a late 19th and early 20th century American social scientist, to capture how rich people during the Gilded Age would buy things for the primary purpose of displaying the size of their bank accounts.

Indeed, as I learned more about the cultures of ancient and Renaissance Rome during my trip, I was reminded over and again that human motivations have not changed much over the centuries.

Ancient Rome was actually full of color

So here was a major revelation to me: Ancient Rome wasn’t a constant display of white marble! The photo above shows an example of the colorful designs that adorned many buildings and structures. According to Giulia, many of the buildings would look a bit kitschy by modern standards!

At the front of the dining hall

The photo above shows the front of the palace’s long dining hall, marked by an elevated dais for the Emperor and his family. Food and drink would be brought up from a lower level by servants, who also lived below. This prompted us to make comparisons to the upstairs/downstairs dichotomy of old English houses portrayed by the likes of the popular “Downton Abbey” television series!

If you’re trying to picture what mealtime looked like in this palace, don’t imagine tables and chairs. Instead, try to visualize these folks eating in bed! Yes, that’s right, the rich and powerful dined in the comfort of beds.

Thus, if someone ever treats you to breakfast in bed, then know that you’re dining in a fashion fitting for a Roman Emperor!

Looking out at the site of the Circus Maximus, imagining chariot races

Here we’re still on Palatine Hill, now looking over at the site of the Circus Maximus, in the background. Folks, this is where they held chariot races.

There’s not much left to see except for the outline of the track itself, but it’s still fun to imagine the scene many centuries ago.

Looking down at the Roman Forum

The Forum was the site of government and the courts. If you look closely you can see the bases for lots of pillars. Imagine them supporting a huge rectangular structure.

For someone like me, trained in law and public policy, looking over this historical site was breathtaking.

Tour guide Giulia, Ph.D.

I would be remiss if I did not include a photo of Giulia, whose deep well of knowledge, easy going manner, and sense of humor made the tour feel like a walk with a long-time and very intelligent friend!

Before my trip to Rome, I figured this was a one-and-done visit. I knew that I could squeeze in some quality sightseeing while participating in this conference, and I assumed that would be plenty enough to satisfy my curiosity about the city. But after sampling some of the city’s history and culture, not to mention consuming a good share of gelato, pizza, and pasta, I now understand why Rome attracts so many returning visitors. Perhaps one of them will be me someday.

Music as time machine: 1979

At my go-to karaoke place in Boston, the main stage DJ is fond of playing clips of late 70s pop music in between numbers selected for performance. When things are a bit slow, he’ll even get up and croon a tune himself, and often he chooses songs from the late 70s. For me, naturally, this music sets off immediate bouts of nostalgia — in this case zeroing in on the year 1979.

Why 1979? Maybe it’s simply easy to think in terms of 20/30/40 years ago. But for me it’s more than that. Until recently, I never regarded that year as being a particularly momentous one in my life. Forty summers ago, I was a rising junior at Valparaiso University. Much of that summer was spent working as a retail clerk for a local drugstore chain, unloading trucks and stocking shelves with merchandise. In keeping with my proclaimed career goal of entering politics, I was very active in student government and local political campaigns. My plan was to finish up my B.A. (political science major, of course) and then to go to law school, a tried-and-true path to a political career.

Well, I would graduate with that poli sci major and head off to law school, but another set of significant experiences would come into play as well. In the spring of 1979, I interviewed for and obtained a departmental editor position with The Torch, VU’s student newspaper. Starting in the fall, I would be the paper’s academic affairs editor, responsible for the internal higher education beat at the university. That meant writing my own news and opinion articles, as well as assigning and editing articles for staff reporters.

I’ve actually saved the summer 1979 letter that our editor-in-chief sent to incoming department editors and staffers, in anticipation of our work that fall. A snapshot of it appears below. There’s a reason why I’ve held onto it for so long, and it’s not simply my pack rat mentality. You see, I vividly recall how much I was looking forward to that experience. I had never before worked on a student newspaper, but I had the writing bug. The Torch was a very good undergraduate student newspaper and was taken seriously by the faculty and administration. I was psyched to be a part of it.

Working on The Torch turned out to be a great, immersive experience, intellectually and personally. To the degree that I write clearly and cogently today, I credit the many dozens of articles I wrote and edited as helping to build that foundation. I spent many hours in the newspaper’s offices, and that time helped to forge a cadre of lifelong friendships. In addition, I now realize how covering VU’s higher ed scene helped to plant the seeds for my eventual pursuit of an academic career.

And of course, whether in The Torch offices or driving around in my beat-up 1968 Buick, the a.m. radio played those Top 40 pop songs, over and again. So yes, they do a number on me. In fact, I’m now feeding the nostalgia beast, having assembled a little play list of some of those songs from 1979 for my iPad. They’re like musical time machines.

***

Two years ago, I wrote a retrospective essay looking back at my college years for The Cresset, Valparaiso University’s journal of the arts, humanities, and public affairs. Titled “Homecoming at Middle Age,” you may freely access it here.

Bronnie Ware: “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” (and what she’s learned since then)

For years, palliative care provider Bronnie Ware helped people who were nearing the end of their life’s journeys. Her work included conversations with them about what regrets they had carried into their later years. These shared epiphanies led Ware to write a blog post that went viral and an eventual book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing(2012). Here are the top five regrets, as drawn from Ware’s conversations:

  1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”;
  2. “I wish I didn’t work so hard”;
  3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings”;
  4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends”; and,
  5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

She explains each of these points in greater detail in this blog post. Her book, which I highly recommend, delves even deeper in this topic.

I wrote about Ware’s work back in 2011. Since then, I’ve traveled from my early 50s to my late 50s, and — my oh my — her words resonate even more strongly with me today.

***

Five years after publishing her book, she shared on her blog “Five Things I Have Learned Since Five Regrets” (link here):

  1. “Courage is the greatest tool for bringing our dreams into reality”;
  2. “Surrender is much more effective than striving or forcing”;
  3. “Our dreams require us to triumph over upper-limits”;
  4. “Self-care is crucial for an authentic life”; and,
  5. “Real life connections are the essence of joy.”

Her full blog piece fleshes out her points and is definitely worth a read.

Great life lessons here. Gifts from those who have preceded us.

 

***

Cross-posted with my “Minding the Workplace” professional blog.

Hooked on karaoke

During the last three months, I have become hooked on karaoke.

It’s not that I am new to karaoke. In fact, I’ve done it lots of times, mostly by joining with friends to rent out small private studios at karaoke clubs. Many of them are fellow students in a weekly singing workshop that I’ve been taking for many years at the Boston Center for Adult Education. (I wrote about the latter experience here.) I’ve also done karaoke with a group of (gasp) fellow law professors and other legally oriented types in places as far away as Vienna, Prague, and Toronto.

But until last November, I hadn’t tried the main stage at Limelight Stage and Studios, located in the heart of Boston’s theatre district. Although my compatriots and I had rented studios there before, we had never done the main stage. But some muse inspired us to give it a try, and we — or at least I — haven’t turned back. Since then, I’ve been back there about a dozen times.

The atmosphere at the Limelight is friendly and lively, a mix of regulars and groups of young (and not-so-young) people stopping by to have a good time. Every once in a while, someone steps up to the stage and simply blows everyone away.

Folks, it is so much fun to get up there and sing, as well as to enjoy the performances of friends and others. I’ve been developing a list of “go-to” songs that, so far, includes:

  • Sinatra, “Summer Wind”
  • Sinatra, “Learnin’ the Blues”
  • Sinatra, “Fly Me to the Moon”
  • Elvis, “Blue Hawaii”
  • Tony Bennett, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”
  • Bobby Darin, “Mack the Knife”
  • Elton John, “Your Song”
  • Frankie Avalon, “Beauty School Dropout”
  • Bee Gees, “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”

Yup, I’m old school, and mainstream. The 70s are about as recent as I get. In fact, I don’t know a lot of the more current stuff that many of the younger folks sing. (“Younger” being an expanding share of the population for me.) If the music catalog were to expand to include more of the Great American Songbook — the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, etc. — I’d be even more old school.

To fuel my habit, I’ve also taken to reading about karaoke. Rob Sheffield’s Turn Around Bright Eyes (2013) is, well, a sort of karaoke memoir, with a dash of karaoke history mixed in for historical perspective. Karaoke, as the name suggests, started in Japan during the 1980s, and soon made it to the U.S. Although karaoke song lists typically offer thousands of selections, a handful of the same numbers are very likely to pop up on any given evening. According to Sheffield:

Let’s get a couple things out of the way right now. One of these things is called “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and the other is “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

These are easily the two most popular karaoke songs. Indeed, as far as many of my fellow revelers are concerned, they seem to be the only two karaoke songs. Once, spending a night at Sing Sing [a karaoke club in Manhattan] with my friend Dave, who works as a wedding videographer, he got all stressed by all the believin’ and livin’ we heard through the walls. “These same two songs all night,” he said, shaking his head. “This is like being at work.”

Hey, at least my oldies-but-moldies selections don’t come up all the time. (OK, the Sinatra numbers are popular with others as well.)

Seriously, though, I consider singing to be a form of mindfulness, a way of being in, and enjoying, the present moment. It’s therapeutic for me. Compared to “serious” singing, karaoke is often regarded as being rather common and amateurish. (Heh, one of caustic American Idol judge Simon Cowell’s favorite putdowns of a performance was that it “sounded like bad karaoke.”) However, it’s a form that gives anyone, regardless of talent, a stage on which to have fun and enjoy singing their favorite songs. That’s a big part of what singing should be all about, right?

When an author finally “clicks” with you after several tries

One of my 2019 resolutions has been to downsize my overflowing book collection. I’m actually managing to keep to it, with several dozen books already given away or donated, and lots more to follow. In culling through my books for possible offloading, I’m trying to apply the following test:

  1. If it’s a book relevant to my work, am I ever likely to use or need it? With work-related titles, I don’t have to read them cover-to-cover. If I can reasonably expect to consult a book at some point for teaching, research, blogging, etc., I’ll hang onto it. Otherwise, I should find another home for it.
  2. If it’s a book for reading enjoyment, am I ever likely to read or re-read it? For fiction, it means cover-to-cover. For non-fiction, it means at least wanting to dip into a chapter or two.

I’m also using the same screening inquiries for book purchases. Over the past, oh, say, 35 years, I’ve made more impulse book purchases than I’d like to admit. Perhaps I’ve rationalized that this intellectual form of retail therapy is a more virtuous way to lighten my wallet, but it often results in buying a book that sits, unread, on a shelf or in a pile.

Put simply, I’m old enough to be thinking about how many books I can read during the rest of a hopefully decent lifespan. Decisions and choices must be made.

Beware the fickle reading heart

But the reading heart can be a fickle one. Or so it was reinforced to me during the past week or so, when I read with pleasure an espionage novel set in World War II, Alan Furst’s A Hero of France (2016). For some 30 years, Furst has been writing these richly atmospheric novels set in Europe of the 1930s and 1940s. As a result, he has a dedicated following of readers and appreciative reviewers.

When I discovered Furst years ago, I thought that I would be one of those fans. The WWII era has grabbed my interest since childhood, and I enjoy reading espionage novels placed in that time. Reviewers have praised Furst’s ability to create evocative, suspenseful tales of everyday people confronted with the on-the-ground evils of fascism and decisions that must be made as a result. And what enthusiast of the genre can resist picking up books with titles such as The World at Night and Foreign Correspondent?

However, several tries at Furst’s books just didn’t take. I sped through one of them and thought it was OK. I read a few chapters of others but never finished. After obtaining several of his books, I eventually gave them away. Something just wasn’t clicking for me, rave reviews notwithstanding.

But a couple of weeks ago, I discovered A Hero of France in yet another pile of unsorted books. A little voice in me said to give it a try, and I’m glad I did. The book’s protagonist is a member of the French Resistance, and the story covers roughly five months. It is written almost as a series of vignettes, sometimes with days or weeks passing in the story, and the reader is left to imagine what happened in between. Different characters come and go as well; some loose ends aren’t tied up. While A Hero of France earned Furst another round of positive marks from book reviewers, some readers who like to have every subplot resolved found themselves lukewarm towards the way he constructed the book.

In my case, however, this time Furst worked for me. I finally got what readers and reviewers have been saying about his ability to recreate this historical time and place. Because the book is written in an episodic way, it made for easy subway reading. One minute I’m stepping into an Orange Line train to take me home, the next minute I’m in a café in 1941 Paris, wondering what will happen when the Resistance members meet up there. Rather than rushing through the book, which I am too often tempted to do with mysteries and suspense novels, I went along for the ride and savored the surroundings created by the author.

Outgoing and incoming

Now, of course, I find myself reacquiring a few of the Furst titles that I had given away. I’m not loading up on them, figuring that after one or two more, I may want to read something else. But I definitely have come to understand the appeal of this author.

So herein lies the dilemma: Will my current round of book culling lead to giveaways of other titles that I eventually will want to read? Am I prematurely giving up on books that I am capable of enjoying immensely?

After a while this starts to sound like a counseling and existential philosophy session for book lovers. Add in the reality that although I love to read, ironically I am not a voracious reader in terms of volume. Even in an imagined retirement, I don’t see myself simply plowing through books.

As I said, decisions and choices must be made. The good news is that I may select from an embarrassment of riches. The process of selecting books for offloading should also reintroduce me to others worth adding to my short list, rather than creating anxiety.

How long does it take to make a new friend? (And other thoughts on friendships)

A recent Yes! magazine feature on 2018’s top scientific insights about living a meaningful life reports on a study by researcher Jeffery Hall (U. Kansas) examining the process of building friendships. In terms of sheer interaction time, the study indicates that we make friends much quicker when we’re younger than when we’re older:

This year, University of Kansas researcher Jeffrey A. Hall helped demystify the process of friendship-building in a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. It’s the first to explore how many hours it takes for an acquaintance to become a friend.

Hall surveyed 112 college students every three weeks during their first nine weeks at a Midwestern university. He also gave a one-time questionnaire to 355 American adults who had moved to a new city in the past six months. In these surveys, the newcomers picked a friend or two and reported how much time they spent together and how close the friendship became.

With this data, Hall was able to approximate how many hours it took for different levels of friendship to emerge:

  • It took students 43 hours and adults 94 hours to turn acquaintances into casual friends.
  • Students needed 57 hours to transition from casual friends to friends. Adults needed, on average, 164 hours.
  • For students, friends became good or best friends after about 119 hours. Adults needed an added 100 hours to make that happen.

I think I get it

When I briefly moved this blog to the TinyLetter platform in 2017, I wrote about friendships, and I’m going to incorporate some of that commentary here. First off, Dr. Hall’s research study appears to complement a 2012 New York Times piece that I cited, in which author Alex Williams examines the challenges of making friends from age 30 onward:

In your 30s and 40s, plenty of new people enter your life, through work, children’s play dates and, of course, Facebook. But actual close friends — the kind you make in college, the kind you call in a crisis — those are in shorter supply.

…As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.

Of course, as these authors and researchers would no doubt agree, the processes of making and growing friendships are about much more than time and proximity. Shared experiences, values, and personality matches are just as important. Strong connections via the latter can create deep bonds in a relatively short amount of time.

That said, as a baseline matter, the findings that close friendships may be easier to create when we are younger resonates with me. Especially compared to college, law school, and my early years of legal practice as a Legal Aid lawyer, making new, close friendships as I entered into my mid-30s proved to be a challenge. It didn’t help that during that time, I had uprooted myself from New York City (my dearly adopted home of 12 years) to Boston to take a law school teaching job. Now, Boston is a beautiful city with many positive qualities, but in keeping with the town’s long-held reputation for parochialism, the locals weren’t exactly rolling out the Welcome Wagon for newcomers like me. And I just happened to be joining an institution that embodied a lot of that insularity. Those early years in Boston were awfully lonely.

During the past decade or so, however, I have found that making new friends is easier. They live in the Boston area, elsewhere in the U.S., and around the world. It took me until well into my 50s to get to this place. In particular, I have discovered, and in some instances helped to create, multiple communities of good, grounded people — tribes, if you will — that have fostered genuine friendships, while strengthening many friendships of longer vintage. During this time, and fueled by these good people, I have grown as a person.

All the lonely people

It’s worth our time and effort to pay attention to friendships, because we are also in the midst of what many observers and researchers are calling an epidemic of loneliness, especially among those later in life. (Just search “loneliness epidemic” and you’ll see what I mean.) The presence or absence of good friendships in our lives is not the only major factor in determining loneliness, but it’s a big part of the equation.

And if we add to the mix the challenges of forging new friendships as we get older, then the findings about loneliness and aging present yet another dimension: One of the obvious antidotes to loneliness — creating new, genuine friendships — does not come as easily as we age.

So, while it’s hardly a quick fix, we benefit individually and collectively by valuing friendships and the care and feeding of friendships. Individual tastes and preferences may vary, and I’ll toss in the introvert vs. extrovert factor as well when it comes to the role that friendships play in our lives. But suffice it to say that having good friends in our lives is part of living well and healthy.

Observations

I won’t claim to be an expert on the making and nurturing of friendships, but I’m pretty confident in offering this cluster of observations, drawing upon what I wrote in 2017:

1. To make and keep a good friend, you have to be a good friend. People may differ on what being a good friend means, but a good friendship goes both ways under any definition.

2. Especially when one friend is in great need, a supreme test of that friendship is how the other responds. A great friendship survives, perhaps even grows out of, this adversity.

3. Older friendships may ripen and mature. Shared memories from back in the day can be great (those old stories are the best, aren’t they?), but those friendships may deepen beyond the snapshots of days gone by — and ideally they will do so.

4. Shared, immersed interests and experiences are a great source of new friendships in adulthood. They can create positive, supportive, and lasting emotional connections.

5. Friendships can come from anywhere, including online interactions. For example, I find that Facebook at middle age has proven to be a source of genuine connections with folks from many different walks of life. Online communications are also a great way of maintaining and growing existing friendships separated by distance.

6. A diversity of friends makes our lives richer. I don’t mean diversity in so-called politically correct terms, but rather friends drawn naturally from different walks of life. For me, shared core values are important, but this still leaves abundant room for differences in lifestyles, ages/generations, political and social beliefs, and overall backgrounds.

7. Family members can become friends, and friends can become extended family members. It’s the quality of the relationship that matters, not necessarily bloodlines.

8. Love in many different manifestations can be a by-product of friendship. This includes familial, romantic, or simply a bond that deepens.

9. Friendships can form out of positive experiences, shared challenges, or adversity. What counts is the character of the relationships.

10. Friendships, like any other relationship, are not necessarily forever. People change, stuff happens. Search “ending a friendship” and you’ll see that a lot of people have thought about this.

11. That said, some friendships are forever. We should treasure them. Getting older is a mixed bag, but one of the best things about it is calling people your lifelong friends and knowing that it’s true.

12. I’m going a tad off-topic here, but a treasured animal can be a friend, too. If you doubt me, then I can refer you to dozens of folks who will attest that their dogs, cats, and other dear critters breathe life into the term “animal companion.”

13. In terms of our closer friendships, it’s mostly about quality, not quantity. If we’re fortunate, that circle can be a source of mutual fellowship and support over the long haul.

14. Shared values can matter to a lot of us in maintaining friendships. I don’t mean that we all need to agree on everything. Rather, I’m referring to core values about life and how we should treat one another.

 

Pats win! (And other notes about sports fandom in Boston)

Banner up — my school is on Boston’s championship parade route (photo: DY)

Although I’ve been living in Boston since 1994, this city is not my first love when it comes to pro sports devotion. I grew up in northwest Indiana, a short drive away from Chicago. The Chicago Bears (football), Cubs (baseball), and Bulls (basketball) have been and always will remain my favorite teams.

Nevertheless, the past two decades have been a remarkable period for Boston’s professional sports teams. The once-cursed Red Sox have won four World Series baseball titles, most recently last fall. The Celtics (basketball) and Bruins (hockey) have each won their league titles during this stretch. And the most successful franchise of all has been the New England Patriots of the National Football League, who on Sunday won their sixth Super Bowl championship during the current century.

The Pats faced a lot of challenges this season, and even fervent fans wondered if they could mount a serious threat in the playoffs. But they pulled it together at just the right time and prevailed over three playoff opponents, including Sunday night’s prey, the Los Angeles Rams.

Celebrating

Watching the local post-game television coverage of the Pats win was an interesting experience. It was festive, like dropping in on a bunch of parties celebrating the win — whether it was the players and coaches talking about the game and how it felt to win, or the sports analysts breaking down the individual and team performances, or the fans sharing their total exuberance over this latest, very hard-won championship.

Today, the city will host a championship parade for the Pats, and so the celebration will continue. The “rolling rally,” as it is called, will pass by the building in which I work and teach(see photo above). The expected crowd size is such that university administrators canceled classes that overlap with the parade and its aftermath, figuring (correctly, I believe) that it may be nearly impossible for students, faculty, and staff to get to classes and meetings amid thousands of fans lined up on the sidewalks that connect our downtown campus buildings.

Impact on the city

All of this sporting success has had a salutary effect on the city’s self-image. Boston has long been a town with a chip on its shoulder and an inferiority complex. Mounting numbers of bad seasons mixed with some heartbreaking near misses for its beloved pro sports teams contributed to that dynamic — especially when they involved losses to teams from hated New York City. During the 21st century, however, the numbers alone establish Boston as the nation’s most winning sports town.

We can and should debate whether so much civic pride should be invested in professional sports franchises. In the case of Boston, sports should not alone define the culture of a city that also can be rightly proud of its importance in American history and its many contributions to the arts, education, high technology, medicine, and the sciences. And frankly, some of that diehard fandom here can get loud and obnoxious — especially when stoked by too many beers.

That said, given a choice between bad teams and losing seasons vs. winning teams and championships, I’ll take the latter, thank you. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the wins will continue, but for now it’s great fun to be a sports fan here.

A tour of historic Massachusetts General Hospital

The tour concluded in the Ether Dome

Like many folks, I generally don’t like being at hospitals. It has nothing to do with the dedicated health care professionals who work in them, but rather because I associate hospital stays with serious disease or injury. Nevertheless, last week I joined a guided tour through historic parts of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and it was very interesting.

The tour was sponsored by Old South Meeting House, the non-profit organization based in the historic Boston building of the same name. Old South (the building) dates back to colonial days. A public meeting hall, it was the site where rebellious patriots planned the Boston Tea Party (1773) in protest of taxes levied by the British crown. Old South (the organization) maintains the historic site and hosts programs and talks devoted to Boston history.

I learned that MGH was founded in 1811 and is the third oldest general hospital in the U.S. The “general” hospital distinction is important, because it means that (1) its services are open to all; and (2) it treats a full range of health conditions.

The highlight of the tour is a visit to the “Ether Dome,” the name given to the operating theatre that hosted the first public demonstration of anesthesia in 1846. The space is still used for meetings today, and it has been maintained to look as it did during the 19th century.

This 2000 painting depicts the historic event, which you can read about at the Wikipedia page about MGH:

And here’s my snapshot of the location shown in the painting:

Yup, we were right there. It gives you chills.

For reasons stated above, I probably won’t be signing up for many more walking tours of hospitals, if at all. But MGH is a historic site in Boston history and a significant institution in the history and ongoing delivery of health care in America.

The tour was also a reminder to me of how much fascinating history is present in Boston. Even as a history buff, it’s easy to take for granted how much evidence of early American history is all around me. I’ve decided to spend more time exploring that history, and toward that end I recently renewed my membership with Old South Meeting House. It’s neat to play tourist in my own hometown, and I want to do more of that.

When a legendary restaurant closes, a lot of good memories go with it

This weekend marks the closing of Durgin-Park, a Boston restaurant featuring classic Yankee-style cooking that has been around for over 190 years. In explaining their decision to close, owners cited the rising cost of doing business and competition from newer, trendier restaurants.

Durgin-Park is located in Faneuil Hall, a popular tourist location with shops, restaurants, and pubs. During Boston’s early history, this was a commercial seaport, market, and meeting place, and Durgin-Park served up many meals to those who toiled hard to make a living. Between Faneuil Hall’s period of commerce and its 1970s reincarnation as a tourist site, Durgin-Park continued on as a favorite local eatery.

The closing of Durgin-Park has been big news here in Boston, with much of the coverage sharing nostalgic reminiscing over meals, family gatherings, and visits to the city. Here’s the lede from a piece by Shannon Dooling of WBUR public radio:

Durgin-Park, the Faneuil Hall restaurant that dates back to the early 19th century, is slated to close its doors Saturday. Known for its traditional New England fare, and at times surly wait staff, patrons have been coming out in droves to show support, share memories and enjoy a final meal at the Boston institution.

Durgin-Park is part of my Boston history as well. In the spring of 1994, when I traveled from New York to Boston to search for an apartment in anticipation of my move later that summer, my long-time friends Don and Sharon Driscoll drove out from their home (then in Connecticut) to add a bit of sightseeing to the trip. Sharon was familiar with Durgin-Park from a childhood visit to Boston, and so we made it my first bonafide New England restaurant meal as a soon-to-be Bostonian.

Since then, I’ve taken many guests there, including friends and families visiting Boston on a vacation, as well as groups from academic conferences. The food was always hearty, plentiful, and delicious.

Some of the news reports about Durgin-Park’s closing allude to the possibility of a buyer stepping in to save the restaurant. I have no idea if this is simply wishful thinking. I do know that great cities make room for the new without jettisoning the best of the old. Durgin-Park certainly qualifies as the latter. If it is to serve its last meal this weekend, then it will be missed for years to come.

Yes, I would ask for a doggie bag.

The Manhattan diner: 24/7/168

Tara Isabella Burton, in a feature for The Economist’s 1843 magazine last year, serves up a human interest story on an iconic Manhattan institution, the 24-hour diner:

Londoners have their pubs. Parisians have their cafés. New Yorkers have diners – altars to cheap coffee and mayo-spackled pastrami, where you can order a mug at dawn and stay until dusk, where you can hurl invective at the waiters and where they’ll hurl them right back. New Yorkers may be brusque, but at the diner counter, they’ll tell you every one of their secrets before the second cup of coffee.

. . . The diner, after all, is at once the result of New York’s loneliness and its solution. It’s a place where social rules among strangers – no eye contact, no smiling, especially no conversation – are suspended. The greatest diners, like Chelsea Square, are the 24-hour ones that cater to morning workers and midnight drunks, and to the people who find themselves in those sunrise spaces in between.

Yeah, it’s something of a clichéd piece, characterizing the NYC diner as a refuge for loners and eccentrics in a sort of romanticized, 1940s kind of way. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it, because it pushes my nostalgia buttons: The 24-hour diner ranks high among the institutions I miss most about living in New York City, where I lived from 1982 to 1994.

During that time, two such places were regular stops for me, the Washington Square Diner on West 4th Street and 6th Avenue, and the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger on Broadway and Astor Place. It’s no accident that both are in the heart of Greenwich Village, near the buildings of New York University, where I went to law school. The Washington Square Diner was a short walk from Hayden Hall, then the primary dorm for first-year law students. The Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger was close to the Mercer Street residence hall, where most second and third year law students lived.

When I visit New York, a meal at the Cozy is a required pilgrimage. I usually order the same thing: A cup of their incredible split pea soup with croutons and a delicious turkey burger. Some of the same guys who worked behind the counter in the 1980s are still there. I also make occasional visits to the Washington Square Diner, where their challah bread french toast remains one of my favorites.

For most of my life I have been a night owl type. Coming from northwest Indiana, the 24-hour city diner was a revelation to me. Good, basic comfort food at decent prices, available around the clock. Awesome!

I’ve been in Boston for some 24 years. While NYC is the city that never sleeps, Boston tends to go to bed early. Although there are many things I like about Boston, how wonderful it would be to see a bunch of 24-hour diners pop up. After all, sometimes a burger or plate of eggs at 2 a.m. just hits the spot.

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